Who was Ramses II?

Pharaoh during Egypt's golden age, King Ramses II built more monuments and sired more children than any other Egyptian king.

Photograph courtesy Egyptian National Museum, Cairo, Egypt/Bridgeman Images
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A limestone relief depicts Ramses II smiting his enemies.
Photograph courtesy Egyptian National Museum, Cairo, Egypt/Bridgeman Images

Who was Ramses II?

Pharaoh during Egypt's golden age, King Ramses II built more monuments and sired more children than any other Egyptian king.

What makes a king mighty? Ramses II (ca 1303–ca 1213 B.C.) recognized that diplomacy and an exhaustive public relations campaign could mitigate any military shortcomings. His celebrated building accomplishments, including the marvels at Karnak and Abu Simbel, reflected his vision of a great nation and of himself as the “ruler of rulers.” He erected more monuments and statues—and sired more children—than any other pharaoh. As a result, he has long been regarded by Egyptians as Ramses the Great and his 66-year reign is considered to be the height of Egypt’s power and glory.

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A stone carving of Ramses II in a temple at Garf Husein.

It was Ramses II’s grandfather—Ramses I—who had elevated their commoner family to the ranks of royalty through his military prowess. Ramses II’s father, Seti I, secured the nation’s wealth by opening mines and quarries. He also fortified the northern frontier against the Hittites, a tribe out of modern-day Turkey. When 14-year-old Ramses II ascended the throne, the Hittites saw an opportunity to test the young king and his empire’s northern border. They invaded and took over the important trading town of Kadesh in modern-day Syria.

Ramses II led his forces to recapture Kadesh, but he was duped by spies into thinking the Hittites were far from the Egyptian camp. Instead, they were lying in wait nearby and attacked. The Egyptians were on the brink of defeat when reinforcements arrived just in the nick of time. Ramses II won that battle but he did not win the war. (Was Ramses II the Pharoah who challenged Moses?)

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His battered troops withdrew from Kadesh, but Ramses wasn’t about to let a little truth tarnish his perceived triumph. On temple walls across Egypt, he ordered the creation of murals depicting him single-handedly defeating the aggressors. In reality, after years of negotiation, Ramses II eventually signed a peace treaty with the Hittites. It was the earliest peace accord whose text has survived. Among its articles, both sides agreed to extradite refugees and not exact retribution after their return. Further, they agreed to aid one another if attacked by foreign or domestic enemies. One copy of the treaty, in hieroglyphics, was carved on a stela in the temple of Karnak. A second copy, written in Akkadian on a clay tablet, was discovered in Turkey in 1906. The significance of this peace treaty is reflected in the fact that a replica of the tablet is on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

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Museum tourists admire an enormous carving of Pharaoh Ramses II.

LIVING UP TO HIS GREATNESS

As a sign of diplomatic good faith, Ramses II married the eldest daughter of the Hittite king. She joined him, Nefertari (his chief queen), and his enormous family—he sired more than a hundred children—at his new capital, Per Ramessu, aptly, though audaciously, named after himself. (See inside the wedding of Ramses II and the Hittite princess.)

The wealth of Ramses II’s reign is evident in his opulent building campaign, the largest undertaken by any pharaoh. The temples at Karnak and Abu Simbel are among Egypt’s greatest wonders. His funerary temple, the Ramesseum, contained a massive library of some 10,000 papyrus scrolls. He honored both his father and himself by completing temples at Abydos.

For all of Ramses II’s efforts to ensure his legacy would live on, there was one testament to his power he could not have foreseen. After his death, nine subsequent pharaohs took his name upon ascending the throne, solidifying his stature as “the great” among Egypt’s rulers. (Read why the mummy of Ramses II was issued a modern passport.)

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.