Hero or villain?
What is the lasting legacy of Ramses the Great?
During its long history, Ancient Egypt boasted many pharaohs. Many of them tried to make a name for themselves by engraving tales of their achievements on the limestone slabs of temples, so their legacy would be solidified forever. No Egyptian ruler came close to Ramses II in their quest for respect, glory and remembrance. But was Ramses the Great, really quite so, well, great?
Born around 1303 BCE to Seti I and Queen
Tuya, Ramses, like many young princes of Egypt, would learn much at his father’s side to prepare him for his accession to the throne. Since the time of the warrior Pharoah Thutmose III, Egypt had lost land to the Hittites and Nubians, with whom the Egyptian people had long-standing tensions. Seti began to conduct many military campaigns to claim back land they believed to rightfully be theirs and to show his son that it was the Pharaoh’s responsibility to protect Egypt’s lands and people from any possible threats. Ramses embraced this right of passage and observed, learnt and remembered the practices passed on by his father and would even take his own sons, Khaemweset and Amunhirwenemef, on campaigns to depart the same knowledge onto them later in his life.
At the tender age of ten, Ramses received the honour and title of captain of the Egyptian army and at 14 was appointed Prince Regent, during which time he oversaw and implemented his father’s building projects, exercising the budding leader within him in the field and in the quarries. Though his exact age is still disputed, it is suggested that between his late teens and early
20s, Ramses ascended to the throne of Egypt after his father’s death and then became the third Pharaoh of the 19th dynasty.
Ramses II would go on to live out an astonishing reign as Pharaoh from 1279-1213, celebrating an unprecedented total of 14 Sed Festivals, living into his early 90s, out living most of his estimated 100odd children and becoming the second longest reigning Pharaoh in all of Egypt’s history after
Pepi II Neferkare. Many of his people, subjects and advisors had been born, lived their full lives and died knowing Ramses as Pharaoh. There was even panic among citizens that if he were to die, their world as they knew it would most certainly end. To many, he was a hero.
Many Egyptians who resided in the Delta-region were familiar with the Sherden sea pirates, thought to be allies of the Hittites. The pirates frequently plagued the sea routes to Egypt and attacked the cargo-laden vessels, which moved through them. When Ramses was only in the second year of his reign, he devised a strategy which posted a powerful naval contingent along the coasts. The pirates were lured in by their intended targets and then met with the full force of Ramses’s ships and troops. Their ships were sunk and many of the pirates were captured and brought aboard the Egyptian vessels to serve the Pharaoh.
This was Ramses’s first significant opportunity to underscore the relationship between the Egyptians and Hittites; Egypt under Ramses’s rule was not to be underestimated.
“Ramses would go on to live out an astonishing reign as Pharaoh... outliving most of his estimated 100-odd children”
In his fifth regnal year, Ramses would use another military conquest to enhance his now established reputation as a great military leader. Tensions between the Egyptian kingdom and the Hittites rose once again, with the Hittites recapturing land and trying to push their army lines further down the country under the instruction of Muwatalli II.
This campaign would span years and eventually come to a climax in the city of Kadesh in 1274.
Fooled by two spies and choosing to act upon faulty intelligence, Ramses and his men were lured into an ambush. Staring both death and defeat in the face, Ramses made the decisive move to personally lead a counterattack against his enemies that hopelessly outnumbered his force. Unexpectedly, this decision would force Muwatalli and his men to retreat to Kadesh’s city walls, unable to defeat the formidable Ramses.
After many years of success on the battlefield, capturing the cities of Dapur and Tunip by the end of his reign’s first decade, Ramses was able to surpass Thutmose III by carrying out the most military campaigns by any Pharaoh.
However, as tensions flared once again in the Northern territories, Ramses and Hattusili III, the then ruler of the Hittites, established what would become the first recorded example of an international peace treaty in history, in order to bring prosperity and to end the loss of life to their peoples. Despite his achievements in battle, Ramses was more than just an instinctive military commander. As a very religious man, his first act as Pharaoh was to travel to the city of Thebes to celebrate the religious festival of Opet, so that he could supposedly meet the god Amon of Karnak at the Temple of Luxor.
Upon his return from the festival, the Pharaoh made a detour in his journey to Abydos where he went to continue work on a temple that had begun construction under his father.
The architectural landscape of Egypt saw great development under Ramses.
Numerous grand monuments were erected and restoration projects undertaken including the grand monuments to himself and his Queen Nefertari at Abu Simbel in Nubia, the mortuary temple, Ramesseum, in Luxor, the Hall at Karnak, the New Palace at Avaris, the completed complex at Abydos and hundreds of other buildings and statues of himself across the kingdom. Arguably one of the most significant developments of his time was the decision to move the capital from Thebes in the Nile Valley to a new site in the Eastern Delta, which he named Pi-ramesses (which literally translated as ‘the House of Ramses’).
Laden with lush gardens, smooth limestone terraces and towering temples, this location would go on to rival the magnificence of Thebes and become one the most flourishing cities in Egypt, even up to a century after Ramses’s death. The need for skilled labourers and volunteers expanded industry and the improvements to the cities meant that the places where Egyptian citizens went about their everyday lives were now full of opportunity to carry out their civic duties.
Despite the arguably unquestionable triumphs of Ramses in war, architecture and society, no person’s path to the top is ever untarnished.
It was not unlike new leaders to tear down monuments presenting the success of Pharaohs that came before them, but Ramses arguably did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessors out of spite, as many of them had, but out of a need to inflate his ego. Monuments, temples and statues erected by previous Pharaohs, including Chefren’s pyramid at Giza, were stripped of their materials in order to make way for all of the structures erected by Ramses. As for the buildings, walls and pillars
“The architectural landscape of Egypt saw great development under Ramses”
that he did not order to be stripped, Ramses made sure that his cartouche and military achievements were inscribed deeply into the material so that they would be difficult to remove if any future ruler attempted to wash the Egyptian landscape of his accomplishments.
Although Ramses took note to ensure that his name could be found across his kingdom, certain huge events failed to be documented well or even at all. Some historical accounts have detailed a great departure of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt due to their poverty and ill treatment at the hands of the Egyptians.
It was also detailed that Egypt faced many plagues, which saw its people having to bring themselves back from the brink of utter devastation. However, both of these would-be significant and poignant events cannot be found in Egyptian texts or artefacts.
Did they simply not happen?
Or is it more possible that Ramses became obsessed with preserving a perfect – albeit false – legacy? This trait of embellishing the truth would also extend to his military victories.
The Battle of Kadesh was the most significant of Ramses’s military career and we know now that there was no decisive victory, but in fact it was a draw of some sort.
Despite what Ramses had carved into the walls of his monuments and the story portrayed in the Poem Of Pentaur and The Bulletin, the battle allegedly did not end in the complete destruction of Ramses’s forces because of last minute reinforcements from the Lebanese coast.
It was also claimed that Ramses’s attempted to cover up his mistake in believing two Hatti spies, which led to himself and his men being ambush. Instead he allegedly claimed that his men abandoned him, leaving him to win the battle alone, for which, he later punished them for.
Many of the other criticisms of Ramses come from the book of Exodus, in which he is portrayed to be a cruel and stubborn ruler.
In its texts, it is claimed that Ramses built Pi-ramesses with the use of slave labour and not with skilled Egyptian labourers.
The book of Exodus further describes Ramses to be the villain of his own story, however, there is no actual evidence to support the claims made in the texts that the Ramses mentioned is in fact the son of Seti and Queen Tuya.
It could be said that no other Pharaoh contributed more to the Egyptian landscape than Ramses and that this was his intention. Archaeologists and scholars described his reign as the pinnacle of art and culture in Ancient Egypt. As for his military conquests, Ramses certainly proved himself to be a natural commander and formidable opponent.
However, it is very possible that with his extensive reach, Ramses was able to write the pages of history himself, embroidering the truth and leaving out misdemeanours in order to produce an image of him as the ultimate ruler. Despite what fiction he may have crafted, his legacy speaks for itself.
He was so influential to his kingdom that nine more Pharaohs after him took the name Ramses in his honour and he is still today regarded as one of the most celebrated and powerful Pharaohs of the entire Ancient Egyptian empire.
The temple at Abu Simbel is regarded as one of the most spectacular of Ramses’s commissions
Antique illustration of Ramses II at the Battle of Karnak
The god Horus and Seti I depicted in the mortuary temple dedicated to Ramses’ father