Hero or vil­lain?

What is the last­ing legacy of Ram­ses the Great?

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Amy Best

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

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