Ramesses II

Rameses II


This is the famous bust of Ramesses II in the British Museum. It is carved from a single piece of granite weighing 20 tons that came from the granite quarries at Aswan, 200 miles to the north, and was brought down by river in a boat. It was brought to England by the Italian strongman Belzoni. It took several years to arrive and caused great excitement leading Shelley to write his famous sonnet on Ozymandias, the garbled Greek name for Rameses.

Rameses II was one of Egypt’s greatest rulers.  This may be partly because he had a very long rule of some 66 years (1279 – 1213 BC ), a length only exceeded by the very dubious 94 years of Pepi II,  a millennium earlier.  He had two principal wives, at least six great royal wives and numerous lesser wives, producing  between  48 and 50 sons, and 40 to 53 daughters (it is difficult to keep track when you have so many daughters).  He was a great builder, the last of the great builders, completing the works of his predecessors, and often carving his cartouche – his name – on earlier monuments.  He was also a great warrior extending Egypt’s power right up into Syria, but he was also the emperor who gave Egypt peace and prosperity: the last time that Egypt would enjoy such a long period of prosperity as an independent country. He was the grandson of the founder of the dynasty, Rameses I, evidence that the hereditary principle often works well – for the first three generations.

His greatest building is his mortuary temple on the west bank at Thebes known as the Ramesseum.  This is a fine example of an Egyptian temple in its pomp, combing not only the traditional temple as the home of the gods, but surrounded by a vast area of well preserved store rooms, reminding us that this was one of the major functions of a temple. It also included a small palace, for in this late period the emperor when he visited needed to have somewhere to live and somewhere for his office to function.

The four huge statues in front of the Ramesseum.

The temple was built on a huge scale.  The huge statues in front inspired Shelley to write one of his most famous poems – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert’.  In the second inner court is another pair of statues the upper part of one of which is also trunkless because the head and chest were carted off to the British Museum by Belzoni, the Italian strong man, where it forms the prime exhibit in the Egyptian gallery.  It is said that the statue cannot be moved because it is so heavy that it stands on a special plinth with its own solid foundation: there are store rooms under the rest of the gallery and if the statue were to be moved the floor would collapse.


Barry Kemp’s plan of the Ramesseum. At the core is a traditional temple plan, but at the bottom left is a new innovation, a miniature palace where the pharaoh could stay when he visited. At the front is a ‘Window of Appearance’ , where the pharaoh could distribute gifts to his followers. Note the huge extent of the granaries surrounding the temple at the top and sides.

Inside the temple, to the left of the courtyard, was something of an innovation – a palace for the pharaoh: pharaohs were always travelling, so in the later New Kingdom it was deemed convenient to have a palace in the major temples. There was a prominent Window of Appearance facing onto the temple forecourt, where the pharaoh could appear and present gifts as tokens of his wealth and generosity to his people.


Some of the huge granaries where the pharaoh’s wealth was stored. How far are these typical of all temples in Egypt? Did they in fact exist attached to most temples, but ignored by most excavators? Or is the Ramesseum rather exceptional in the extent of its storehouses?

And behind it all – behind the temple and the palace, were huge and extensive storerooms. Most of them appear to have been for grain, and had a hole in the roof through which sacks of corn could be poured. Barry Kemp has calculated that to fill all the granaries would have taken 226,328 sacks of grain, which would have been enough to feed 3,400 families for a year, and assuming an average sized family, this would mean 17,000 to 20,000 people.


My wife Wendy alongside one of the hands from the fallen statue, showing how much bigger the statue’s hands were compared to her hand. The statue had already collapsed when the bust was rescued and taken to the British Museum.

How far are these typical of all temples in Egypt? Did they in fact exist, attached to most temples, but ignored by most excavators? Or is the Ramesseum rather exceptional in the extent of its storehouses?  “The major temples”, says Barry Kemp, “were like reserve banks. Grain was wealth and great stores of it were there for shipping around the country and even abroad for the realisation of grandiose royal schemes … The larger temples possessed their own merchant ships equipped with traders. Traders seemed to have been a regular component of temple staffs and bore the responsibility of exchanging grain for linen, or sesame oil, or papyrus rolls.” Gold was also acquired, for gold was used to acquire gods from abroad, and for building purposes.

An aerial photo by Steve Cameron in Wikipedia not only shows the size of the temple itself but also the huge extent of the buildings that surrounded it.

Here then the secret of success.  The temple was essentially the front end of a huge system of storehouses and granaries, and within the temple was a palace where the pharaoh could make his appearance and display his lavish generosity. “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair” wrote Shelley. But the real works that one should look at, are not the temple but the storehouses, for it is the storehouses that would make any commoner despair of ever being able to challenge or even approach the huge wealth and power of his beloved pharaoh.


The temple to the south

The temple at Abu Simbel as reconstructed by UNESCO high above Lake Nasser. To the right is the grand temple of Ramesses himself. To the left is the slightly smaller temple dedicated by his wife.

He also built six temples to the south, in Nubia, the biggest and the best known of which are the two at Abu Simbel. These are rock cut temples, cut in the cliff, fronted by four huge statues. When the High Dam was built at Aswan, this was going to be flooded. It lies some 180 miles south of the high dam, some two thirds of the way down Lake Nasser. However, a huge rescue undertaking was coordinated by UNESCO and two of the temples were reconstructed in a new position above the waters of the lake. It was the first great UNESCO heritage campaign and led to the decision to invent world heritage monuments. Abu Simbel was the first World Heritage Monument  – long live Ramesses II.


The huge statues of Ramses II as reconstructed in its new position above the level of the lake. The doorway in the middle leads into a long corridor with a hypostyle hall and many side chambers

Khaemwaset, one of the sons of Rameses. He was a great scholar and led the study of the past. He was designated as his father’s successor but died before his father.

Ramesses aspired to be an even greater builder than he was, because he carved his cartouche, his name, on many older buildings. This was part of an outburst of antiquarianism at this time. One of his sons, Khaemwaset, was greatly renowned as a scholar and archaeologist and led a movement to restore Egypt’s greatness by emphasizing the greatness of its past. Pyramids of the Old Kingdom were renovated, but in particular the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom was seen as being the epitome of Egyptian greatness and its literature was revived and celebrated as forming the great classics of the Egyptian language.


He also shifted his capital. The centre of power was moving to the north: it is perhaps rather surprising that hitherto the Nile delta had played little part in the history of Egypt — many of the buildings lie buried deep under the silt that forms the delta. It is the most fertile part of Egypt, yet power had been shared between Memphis in the north (but well south of the delta) and Thebes in the south.

Map of Lower Egypt to show the position of Avaris (equals Pi-Ramesse) in the delta.

Palm-leaf column from Pi-Ramesse now in the British Museum.

During the reign of Ramesses II a new centre was established at Pi-ramesse, the exact position of which has long been uncertain, but it appears that it was along the eastern most branch of the Nile delta. adjacent to Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos kings in the Second Intermediate period. Little remains of it today because it was extensively robbed for stone in the later periods, but by all accounts it was a very impressive city.

Rameses the Warrior

But Rameses II was not only a great builder, he was also a great warrior.  Egypt was always tempted to extend its empire along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean into Palestine and up into Syria.  It was partly a matter of defence for the inhabitants were always threatening to invade Egypt, but partly too it was a venture in imperialism, to extend their empire into the fertile areas of Palestine and Lebanon, whose famed cedars were always needed to build Egyptian ships and temples.  However as they expanded they met a powerful new force – the Hittites.

Map to show the extent of the Hittite Empire in brown with the Egyptian Empire in green and Kadesh on the border between them.

The Hittites are a comparatively newcomer to the story of the Ancient Near East as they were only recognised in the late nineteenth century. They are mentioned briefly in the Bible, but they were quite unknown to the classical authors. But in the late nineteenth century a strange and distinctive culture began to be recognised in central Turkey, and in particular a huge central city at Bogazkoi, or Hattusa with defences two kilometres in circumference. The breakthrough came in 1906 when a huge horde of clay tablets were discovered written in a cuneiform script, but an unknown language which turned out to be an Indo-European language. The language was deciphered, and it was soon clear that the Hittites had been growing in power throughout the second half of the second millennium. Between 1500 and 1200 BC they were at their height and were challenging the Assyrians to be the dominant power in the Near East. And for Egypt,  they were now the most formidable enemy.



Wikipedia’s reconstruction of the Battle of Qadesh (Kadesh). At the top the Egyptian advance force pushes to the north where it is attacked and nearly destroyed by the Hittite main army. In the middle, the Egyptians are nearly destroyed outside their camp but in map 3 the Egyptian reserves arrive and force the Hittites back to their camp. The battle ends in a draw.


Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. Kadesh was a chariot battle, but it seems very clever to be able to fire a bow while standing up in a one man chariot with no charioteer to drive it. (Wikipedia)

The big clash came at the Battle of Qadesh on the river Orontes in north Syria, in 1274 BC. This is one of the best known battles of antiquity as Ramesses II left behind no less than 13 accounts in three different literary styles, mostly carved on various temples, but a couple on papyrus. The battle was fought in chariots: it is claimed that 5,000 chariots took part, in making it the biggest chariot battle in history – for chariots soon went out of fashion. But it seems that Rameses rushed forward with a leading division of his army, not realising that the Hittite king Muwutalli II had already arrived with his complete army. The Egyptians were about to be destroyed when Rameses prayed to the god Amun who answered his prayer by bringing up the rest of the Egyptian army. The result was a draw, and Rameses could return home claiming to have taken Qadesh and bringing home a huge haul of booty. But Qadesh was soon lost again and remained mostly in Hittite hands.


The world’s first peace treaty as celebrated by the United Nations between the Egyptians and the Hittites. This is the Hittite version now in the museum at Istanbul.

Desultory fighting continued until the two sides decided to make peace. In the 21st year of his reign (1258), an official treat peace treaty was agreed, records of which have survived in both the Egyptian and Hittite accounts, which is celebrated as the first recorded peace treaty between nations. This proved to be a great success for the Egyptians, for the trade routes could be opened up with the wealth of Mesopotamia.


The tomb that Ramesses prepared for his children (KV5) nearly half of whom died before him. At the centre was a columned hall off which corridors lead with rooms attached to them, each of which was a tomb for one of his children.

He also built the largest tomb yet found in the Valley of the Kings, known as KV5. This was built not for himself, but for his sons, as described in CWA 12.  The entrance to the tomb had long been known, but had been ignored as being uninteresting, but Kent Weeks, the director of the Theban Mapping Project rediscovered it during a rescue excavation and revealed its full extent, with corridors leading off from a central hall from which at least 130 rooms opened off. It may have been designed by Khaemwese, Rameses’ fourth son and the brainy one,  who also designed the Ramesseum  and also the Serapeum, the vast necropolis in which sacred bulls were buried, which has a very similar design.


One should perhaps mention here that Ramesses II is often considered to be the ‘Pharaoh of the Exodus’. Biblical scholars have extensive arguments as to who was the pharaoh of the exodus. The only clue given in the Bible was that the exodus took place 480 years before the foundation of  the Temple , but that is not very helpful. In any case there may have been several pharaohs involved in the Israelites sojourn in Egypt. But for popular belief, the question was solved by the film The Ten Commandments, which came down firmly in the belief that the pharaoh was Rameses II as portrayed by Yul Brunner.

This young lady is Merytaten who was the fourth daughter of Rameses II, and later became the Great Royal Wife ro hisa successor.From our modern perspective it is interesting to note that she wears an elaborate crown, a full wig and a wide necklace, but that her breasts are exposed and the nipple displayed as a flower. In our modern ethos is reversed and providing a lady keeps her breasts suitably covered she may expose her face, her hair, her neck. But not her breasts.

Rameses II achieved his main objective which was to Make Egypt Great Again. In the outside world, storm clouds were gathering and the Sea Peoples were threatening the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. But under Rameses, Egypt still remained a glittering, successful and powerful kingdom.

Underlying the greatness of Egypt was the success of the Egyptian economy, by now far more complex and sophisticated than it had been in the days of the Old Kingdom. Details of the economy are particularly well known from the workman’s village where the workmen built the tombs in which the Pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, at Thebes.


Egypt’s economy: How the economy worked


10 June 2019