Ramses II

Seated Statue of Ramesses II
Seated Statue of Ramesses II carved from black granite, in the Museo Egizio
the Egyptian Museum of Turin.

Also known as Ramses the Great, Ramses (Rameses, Ramesses) II was the most significant Egyptian pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, the son of Seti I and grandson of dynastic founder Ramses I. Ramses II is believed to have reigned for 66 years and two months, assuming the throne on May 31, 1279 b.c.e.

He is thought to have died in the summer of 1213 b.c.e.; giving him a probable birthdate of 1303 b.c.e. It is likely that Ramses II was born during or before his grandfather’s reign as pharaoh. Although many Egyptologists have proposed co-regency between Ramses II and his father, the evidence is scant at best.

The importance of Ramses II’s reign to the Nineteenth Dynasty cannot be understated: He ruled as pharaoh longer than the seven other Nineteenth-Dynasty pharaohs combined and his reign was marked by the dynasty’s most important military campaigns.

His lengthy reign made him a formidable figure, as he saw foreign monarchs come and go. He engaged commanders in battle who had grown up hearing of his exploits. This was a factor in his dealings with the Hittites—his opponents in the second Battle of Kadesh, fought at the Orontes River in modern Syria.

Egypt had been gradually pushed away from this region during the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Dynasties and particularly during the Amarna period when Akhenaten was more concerned with internal and religious matters than the expansion or restoration of Egyptian occupation. Ramses’s father and grandfather had both resumed the campaign to regain the lands around Kadesh, with Ramses II accompanying his father to at least one such battle.

Ramses II in his chariot war
Ramses II in his chariot war

In 1274 b.c.e., the fourth year of Ramses’s reign, he engaged King Muwatalli’s Hittite forces in the second Battle of Kadesh. The largest chariot battle in history, the battle involved some 5,000 chariots and nearly twice as many foot soldiers.

The battle ended in a stalemate, as neither force was able to overpower the other. Ramses was almost captured but was rescued by the sudden arrival of troops from Amurru, the land of the Amorites, former Hittite subjects who had defected to Egypt.

Rather than acknowledge the stalemate, each side declared they had been victorious, as they had avoided defeat. Various Egyptian-Hittite conflicts continued over the next two decades, mostly over contested territory. Murshili III, who fled to Egypt when his uncle ousted him from power and assumed the throne as Hattushili II, succeeded Muwatalli.

Hattushili demanded the extradition of Murshili, who remained in Egypt planning a coup; Ramses, though caring little over Hittite internal affairs, refused. But rather than allow the situation to escalate into full-blown war—and remembering the stalemate of Kadesh—the two parties settled their disagreements with a treaty in 1258 b.c.e.

Though Murshili has disappeared from history, the treaty established rules of extradition and borders that both ruler acknowledged, gave Amurru and Kadesh to the Hittites along with access to Egypt’s Phoenician harbors, and allowed the Egyptians northern passage as far as Ugarit, a privilege lost for more than 100 years.

This was not only the first extradition agreement between nations but also the earliest known international peace treaty. Both Hittite and Egyptian copies survive; an enlargement of the Hittite version hangs in the United Nations.

Like many pharaohs, Ramses was fond of self-aggrandizment. He claimed to be the son both of Seti I and the god Amun, the sort of claim common in the Old Kingdom but rare for New Kingdom pharaohs. Thanks in part to the length of his reign, no pharaoh built more temples or erected more obelisks. No pharaoh had so many statues sculpted of him, both before and after his death.

No other pharaoh except Amenhotep III had a wife who was worshipped during her lifetime: Nefertari had temples erected to her and was an important member of the pharaoh’s retinue. Legend claims that Ramses had dozens of wives and 100 children, but it is likely that his family was more reasonably numbered.

Ramses the Great presided over an expanding Egypt that prospered without radical changes. Modern scientific examination has shown that the pharaoh was physically unusual as well: He was a redhead, an uncommon trait among Egyptians, and though his hair grayed in old age, the hair on his mummy remains red, dyed either before death or by the priests who prepared him for the afterlife.

Merneptah, his 14th son, succeeded him: His older sons had predeceased him, and even Merneptah was 60 years old when he took the throne. Unlike many pharaohs whose names were forgotten until the advent of Egyptology, Ramses was remembered as Ozymandias (a corrupted Hellenization of Usermaatre, his praenomen), a figure who fascinated scholars for centuries.

Ramses II statue in Abu Simbel, Egypt