Ramesses II was about twenty years of age when he succeeded his father, Sety I, a leading general, to the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt. His royal wife, Nefertari (not to be confused with Nefertiti), remained his primary wife and his great love until she died at an early age. Nefertari whose name means ‘the most beautiful’ was laid to rest in an exquisitely decorated rock-cut tomb in the Valley of the Queens.
Ramesses the Great, as he was known, ruled Egypt for sixty-seven years, coming to power, Egyptologists believe, on 31 May 1279 BCE. During his reign the Egyptian Empire was greatly expanded through both military conquests and treaties. The two great foes of the Egyptians during this period were the Hittites, who emerged from southern Turkey as a fearless and ruthless power bent on expansion, and the Nubians to the south in modern-day Sudan, whose desire always had been to campaign northwards to overthrow Egypt and acquire the fertile Nile valley for their own nation.
Ramesses and Nefertari
Ramesses the Great mounted military excursions and repelled Nubia on several occasions. He ordered a temple to be built on the banks of the Nile at Egypt’s southern border (at Abu Simbel) where four colossal statues of Pharaoh Ramesses glowered menacingly at anyone who might dare to challenge his might. On the same site he erected a beautiful temple for Nefertari, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Nefertari is shown in statues at the front of the temple standing next to Ramesses the Great. Her statues are the same size as those of Ramesses, an almost unheard of tribute to his royal wife. The inscription reads, Nefertari, for whom the sun does shine.
With Egypt expanding northwards through Asia Minor, and the Hittites engaged in a war of conquest southwards through the same area, conflict was inevitable. Ramesses the Great marched his military forces northwards and fought the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. The history, as written by Egyptian scribes and illustrated by Egyptian artists, portrays Ramesses the Great as the victor. But the battle was neither won nor lost, as each side withdrew to count the cost. Finally, a peace treaty was drawn up between the warring nations, and a Hittite bride was given to Ramesses.
The Death of Ramses the Great
Ramesses had several wives and is reputed to have sired a hundred sons and an equal number of daughters, four of whom he married. On his death, his mummy was entombed, a process that took some 70 days, in a rock-cut tomb, but subsequently it was moved and hidden by the priests to keep it from being damaged by tomb robbers. Ramesses the Great lived until he was ninety or ninety-one years of age, dying in 1213 BCE. His royal cache was discovered in June 1881, and on removing Ramesses’ bandages, the French archaeologists found that the head was still intact, its face still recognizable and boasting ahead of red hair. He was 5 foot, 7 inches, above average height for the time, and in later life suffered from arthritis in his joints, tooth cavities and poor circulation. The well-preserved mummified body of the most powerful and longest-ruling of the Egyptian pharaohs, Ramesses the Great, now lies in state in the Cairo Museum.
The Place de la Concorde in Paris has one of Ramesses’ obelisks which Napoleon transferred to France from its original location in Luxor.
With the death of Ramesses the Great, the golden years of the Egyptian Empire began to wane and his reign was followed by a long slide to mediocrity. His thirteenth son, Merenptah, and the pharaohs that followed (nine of them taking the name of Ramesses) took Egypt into the twilight of its empire.