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I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

                     — Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s famed poem Ozymandias is supposed to be a cautionary tale, a warning that time wipes all away – no matter how great one’s achievements in life were. It is certainly a poetic masterpiece, but Shelley could scarcely have chosen a worse subject for his piece had he tried. Far from being a mere literary invention, Ozymandias (better known today as Ramses II – Ozymandias is a Greek translation) was a real figure, who ruled over the Egypt of the 13th Century B.C. As Pharaoh, Ramses was obsessed with outshining his predecessors and, quite literally, wanted to carve his name into stone along the banks of the Nile. He was so successful that – despite the best efforts of the passage of time – his works still inspire awe in those who look upon them, three millennia after his death. 

Ramses’ family were relative newcomers to the Egyptian throne. Their predecessors, the Eighteenth Dynasty, had presided over a golden age in which Egypt grew wealthier, more powerful and in all ways more successful than ever before. Yet the Pharaoh Akhenaten had successfully ruined what ought to have been impossible to ruin. Breaking with all precedent, Akhenaten had replaced the traditional Egyptian gods with a single omnipotent being, the Aten. In doing so, he had alienated the traditional priests, weakened the army and bankrupted the treasury with the spending he lavished on the deity his subjects grew to despise. Egypt swiftly broke with Atenism after Akhenaten’s death, but was then wracked by a series of succession crises. Akhenaten was temporarily followed by shadowy figures so mysterious that even their genders are unknown, before his prepubescent son Tutankhamun took the throne. After he died childless, his advisor Ay staged a palace coup and became Pharaoh, and when a few years later Ay himself died (again, childless), the general Horemheb seized the double crown of Egypt.

Incredibly, Horemheb also had no children, but he did possess the foresight that his recent predecessors had so clearly lacked. He adopted one of his generals, Ramses – less because the commander was uniquely capable than because Ramses had both a son and a grandson. Through this single adoption, Horemheb guaranteed for Egypt three peaceful transitions of power. Horemheb died not long after and, after an utterly unremarkable year as Pharaoh, Ramses I joined him. The reign of Ramses I’s son, Seti, however, at last marked a return to the glories that Egypt had seen before Akhenaten. In Seti’s eleven years on the throne, domestic tranquility was restored, massive monuments were erected and Egypt’s foreign enemies were driven back. The new dynasty’s origins lay with the military, and so it is no surprise Seti spent much of his time on campaign against the Hittite Empire – a kingdom centred in Eastern Anatolia which had taken advantage of Akhenaten’s reign and the ensuing instability to subdue many of Egypt’s Syrian vassals. 

On these campaigns, Seti was accompanied by his son, Ramses, who would have spent these years being trained to lead men into battle. When Seti died in 1279 B.C., the twenty-four-year-old prince was crowned Ramses II. Once news reached them that their old enemy no longer stood at the helm of the Egyptian state, the Hittites immediately attempted to reassert their position in the Near East; they swept through the northern Levant as far south as the city of Kadesh, which promptly defected from the Egyptians and swore allegiance to the Hittite King, Muwatalli II.

For the new Pharaoh, this was intolerable. Ramses swiftly mustered an army some 20,000 strong to march against Kadesh. The forces of the Late Bronze Age predominantly consisted of infantry – armed with swords and spears – and lightly armed bowmen. The elite units, however, were the charioteers. Egyptian chariots were designed to fit two men (an archer and a rider) and were extremely light, fast and stable. In battle, they could dance around enemy infantrymen, which were too slow to keep pace, and shower them with arrows. Hittite chariots were radically different beasts; they were larger, able to host three men – two of whom were usually armed with spears. Accordingly, they were slower and far less manoeuvrable than their Egyptian counterparts, but could crash through unprepared lines of infantry like a Bronze Age tank. 

Ramses split his army into four equal divisions, each of which was named after an Egyptian deity. He personally led the Amun division, while the Re, Ptah and Seth corps all marched north independently of one another. Upon nearing Kadesh, two Hittite deserters were brought before Ramses and informed him that Muwatalli had fled the city in terror upon hearing of the Pharaoh’s advance. Ramses, eager to press his advantage, drove the Amun division far ahead of the rest of the army towards Kadesh, and encamped just outside the city. Then, disaster struck. Ramses’ men discovered two local nomads, who confessed that the supposed Hittite deserters were actually spies, that Muwatalli was actually hiding nearby with around 40,000 men and that the Pharaoh had just strolled into his ambush. The Egyptians were hopelessly outnumbered – the Amun division was just 5,000 strong, and possessed only 500 chariots with which to face Muwatalli’s 3,000.

Ramses immediately ordered that the Ptah, Seth and Re divisions rush to reinforce him. The closest of these was the Re division, but Muwatalli was not about to allow the Pharaoh to escape so easily. He sent forward two thousand chariots, which ambushed the unsuspecting Re division and drove it into a rout. The shattered remnants fled towards Ramses’ troops, with the Hittite chariots in hot pursuit. On realising an attack was imminent, the encamped Amun division began to fortify its eastern flank, while Ramses called an emergency war conference to harangue his generals. He was still apportioning blame when the Hittites crashed into the undefended western side of the camp. The Egyptians were thrown into a panic, with the infantrymen running to reposition themselves while the nobles cowered in their tents. Seeing the chaos, Ramses acted. He mounted his chariot, prayed to the great god Amun and then charged into the fray alongside his pet lion, the affectionately named ‘Slayer of his Foes’. 

It was at this moment that the Hittites’ fortunes began to reverse. Ramses’ semi-suicidal assault stabilised the collapsing Egyptian line and rallied his charioteers. These swiftly encircled their Hittite counterparts, who were now trapped in a hopeless situation. The camp’s tents, the packs of Egyptian infantry and the frenzy of battle meant it was enormously difficult for the Hittite chariots, unwieldy in the best of times, to manoeuvre. Fixed in place, many went down in a hail of arrows. As soon as they saw an opening, the Hittites fled, but Ramses led his chariots in pursuit, and they hacked down their retreating opponents. Seeing these developments, Muwatalli sent 20,000 infantry and another thousand chariots to strike against the Egyptian camp. Without chariots of their own, the Egyptians were again pushed back, and it appeared that the Hittites might yet salvage a victory from the wreckage of defeat. But it was at that very moment that the Ptah division, having hurried to Ramses’ aid, entered the battle and outflanked the Hittites. The encirclement was completed when Ramses and his chariots returned, and still more of Muwatalli’s men were butchered.

Yet despite surviving the ambush, crushing the Hittites and returning from the battle laden with treasure, the Egyptians were unable to conquer the city of Kadesh itself. Ramses’ army was simply too small for the task at hand, and so the Pharaoh withdrew. He had won the battle but lost the war. Yet Ramses was never one for reversals. On his return, he wrote up an account celebrating his victory, and then he proceeded to plaster it onto the walls of all the greatest temples of Egypt – it is because of these inscriptions that Kadesh is the earliest battle in human history for which any detailed account survives.

After a few years, Muwatalli II died. In theory, his young son ought to have succeeded him, but the boy’s ambitious uncle had other plans. Fearing for his life, Urhi-Tehsub fled to Egypt and sought refuge with Ramses, his father’s old foe. At the same time, the Hittite Empire suffered a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the ever-expanding Assyrian Empire, which was then bursting out of its Mesopotamian heartland. When Ramses learned of these setbacks, he again assembled his army and moved swiftly to shore up the support of Egypt’s wayward Levantine allies south of Kadesh. Ramses now had an extremely strong hand when it came to his dealings with the Hittites; he possessed a claimant to the throne, supportive vassals and a possible ally in the form of Assyria.

It was in large part good fortune that Ramses enjoyed all these advantages. His genius, however, was that he found a novel way to capitalise on them. Previous Bronze Age conflicts had ended with ceasefires or armistices, but Ramses sought a more long-lasting settlement and began haggling with the new Hittite King. The result was history’s first recorded peace agreement, a deal which had all the hallmarks of a modern treaty. The two powers split the Levant into spheres of influence, with the Hittites taking Kadesh and everything to its north, while Egypt claimed all that lay south of that city. Ramses and the Hittite King also agreed to an extradition treaty and a defensive pact, promising to aid each other against hostile third parties. History’s first peace agreement was also amongst its most successful; the terms of the settlement were adhered to for over a century, and an end to the constant quarrelling between the two powers led to a new era of Egyptian prosperity.

Having secured peace in the Middle East, Ramses was able to devote his attention and resources elsewhere. For most of Egyptian history, the desert west of the Nile had been an uncrossable ocean of sand from which no hostile power could strike. Yet during Seti’s reign, a Libyan civilisation had emerged and begun harassing Egypt’s western flank. Ramses resolved to obliterate this threat; he led a series of punitive expeditions to pacify the Libyan menace and then proceeded to build a massive series of fortifications along the entire western bank of the Nile Delta. These defences stretched for three hundred miles, with impenetrable citadels constructed at a single day’s ride from each other. The Libyans never posed a problem for Ramses again.

Yet Ramses’ construction projects were not merely in the military arena. For over a thousand years, Pharaohs had sought both to honour the gods and to celebrate themselves by raising colossal monuments, but Ramses’ reign witnessed the most ambitious building programme since the Pyramids. Ramses’ father, Seti I, had died before he could complete construction of his mortuary temple, and so Ramses’ first act was to order that the tomb be finished. However, the son made some significant changes to the father’s design; gaps between the columns adorning the building’s front were bricked up, and workmen carved onto the new surfaces inscriptions praising Ramses for his filial piety. 

Egyptian Pharaohs always aimed to outdo one another, and were not above using underhanded tactics to do so; it was common practice for a reigning monarch to erase the names of previous rulers from the monuments they had constructed, replace it with their own name and thus claim the work as their own. Ramses was more than willing to usurp the works of his predecessors, but was concerned that future Pharaohs might do the same to him. His plan to prevent this was simple – he ordered his workers to etch his royal name so deep into the stone that it could not be removed without the stone itself cracking. 

For the last ninety years, Luxor Temple had been the greatest of Egypt’s sacred sites. The complex had been built by Amunhotep III, the father of Akhenaten and one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. Unwilling to tolerate a rival, Ramses was unable to resist outdoing Amunhotep; he extended Luxor by adding another (even larger) columned court to the complex, then tore down the building’s front entrance and replaced it with one of his own creation. Luxor’s façade was now adorned with a pair of obelisks and two giant statues of the seated Ramses. Finally, Ramses tilted the entire temple on its axis, ensuring that it it was perfectly aligned with his own nearby mortuary tomb.

Not content merely to raise his own temple complexes, Ramses decided to construct a new capital city. The old state centres, Thebes and Memphis, were located about halfway down the Egyptian Nile and had been chosen for a time before the Pharaohs had acquired a Levantine empire. Ramses resolved that Egypt’s beating heart ought to be located further north, on the banks of the Delta between the main body of the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea. From this region, it would be infinitely easier to organise overseas trade, to muster armies for invasions of the Near East and to monitor the Libyan coastline. Construction began at once.

Hittite blacksmiths were imported, and vast furnacing factories were built to produce the bronze that fuelled the Pharaoh’s war machine. At the same time, massive stables and chariot workshops were also added to the city, meaning that the Pharaoh possessed all which he needed to raise and equip new armies in one place. Yet Ramses’ new capital was far from a mere military barracks; the lavish royal palace covered four square miles, and massive temples, each the size of a football field, were built in the city’s corners. The fact that the city lay so close to the shores of the Mediterranean meant it quickly became one of the most cosmopolitan metropolises of the era, and became the home of myriad merchants, travellers and other such foreigners, who Ramses permitted to raise temples to the Semitic gods of the Near Eastern world.

Similarly, its location on the Nile Delta meant that the capital was surrounded by extremely fertile soil, which provided so much food that the city’s population soon soared to 300,000. For the Bronze Age, the city was a megapolis – for perspective, it took London until the mid-17th Century A.D. to reach a comparable population. The abundance of water also allowed Ramses to build his new capital in a way never witnessed before; the city was not ordered around a network of roads, but a complex canal system, while the residential quarter of the Egyptian elite was filled with artificial lakes and elaborate water gardens. The Pharaoh had constructed a Bronze Age Venice. Only one name would suffice for this new city – Piramses, the house of Ramses.

From Piramses, the Pharaoh ruled a land which stretched along the Nile as far as the Aswan cataracts, south of which lay the constantly quarrelsome Nubian kingdoms. Previous Pharaohs had unsuccessfully attempted to simply steamroller the Nubians into obedience, but Ramses had another plan. He scoured the lands around the cataract, and he soon found a mountain south of the Egyptian border. Ramses then ordered his army of workers to chisel a flat surface onto that mountain’s face, hollow it out and construct a temple inside. 

This temple, known today as Abu-Simbel, was constructed with such engineering precision that on Ramses’ birthday, the sun rose in a way that meant its rays would bounce to the very back of the scared site. In doing so, the sunrise illuminated the inner sanctum’s statues of Re, Amun and Ramses himself, while leaving a statue of Ptah – a primordial god of creation – in total darkness. To adorn this marvel, Ramses constructed four sixty-seven foot statues of himself and placed them outside the mountain that was now a monument of self glorification. The message to any Nubians considering crossing into Egypt was unmistakable.

To provide the stone needed for this frenzy of construction, workmen were ordered to use the buildings of previous Pharaohs as conveniently positioned quarries. Yet the reign of Ramses had a peculiar paradox at its heart – on the one hand, Ramses was often perfectly content to tear down his predecessors’ monuments for the sake of his own works, but at other times he showed a great reverence for Egypt’s ancient rulers. Interest in ancient poetry was revived, the teachings of the oldest sages found new adherents and artwork began emulating the idealised iconography of the Pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty (who ruled Egypt between 2000 B.C. and 1800 B.C.).

This Ramesside Renaissance was facilitated by the Pharaoh’s fourth son, Khaemwaset. From a young age, the prince was determined that the most ancient of Egypt’s monuments (many of which were by then more than a millennium old) be returned to their former glory; he spent most of his days touring Egypt, breaking into antique tombs and then restoring them. Khaemwaset became an expert on sacred texts, rebuilt crumbling statues and personally led efforts to preserve the Pyramids. For his efforts, Khaemwaset is today hailed as the earliest Egyptologist.

Ramses’ final claim to eternal fame is that he is often seen as the Pharaoh that battled Moses. How much truth ought to be assigned to this theory is heavily debated, since no Exodus-style event appears anywhere in the otherwise meticulously thorough Egyptian records. According to the chronology of events provided by the Bible, Moses would actually have lived during the reign of another Pharaoh, Thutmoses III, and preceded Ramses by several generations – though there are several flaws with this theory also. If, as some believe, Ramses was indeed the Pharaoh who ruled during the Exodus, it would have been far less dramatic and occurred on a far smaller scale than the Biblical account would have us believe; there is certainly no evidence of Ramses losing his entire army in the Red Sea or of the Nile turning blood-red while he was Pharaoh.

Ramses continued to rule until death came for him when he was ninety years old – an age that astonished contemporary Egyptians, who lived in a society with an extremely low life expectancy. Ramses’ six decades on the throne marked an unprecedented period of external security and internal tranquility. In those years, Ramses built on a grander scale than Egypt had seen in a millennium, and today there is hardly an Egyptian archaeological site between Lebanon and Sudan that is not adorned with the name of Ramses. By the time the Pharaoh died, few of his subjects could conceive of a world without him. In his honour, nine of the next fifteen Pharaohs were named Ramses, and every future Egyptian monarch attempted to emulate him.

None could. Considering how a lack of heirs had caused such chaos before Ramses I’s reign, it is perhaps ironic how an abundance of successors would eventually bring similar problems. Ramses II had been as ambitious in his private life as he had been in his public career; he had fathered more than fifty sons, and almost certainly a similar number of daughters. Ramses’ first twelve heirs had all died before their father, and so his thirteenth son became the next Pharaoh. Yet he was already seventy, and only reigned for a decade. By then, the royal family had become too large and lacked a clear patriarch or matriarch – different branches were permanently squabbling, and there were too many motivated men with royal blood for the peace to hold.

The next few Pharaohs had short reigns, and palace intrigue reached new peaks. By the time the situation was stabilised, Egypt was in the throes of the Bronze Age Collapse – an extremely mysterious period in which every Near Eastern civilisation either imploded or was politically, militarily and economically crippled. Egypt survived for another five hundred years before falling to the advancing Persian Empire, but by then it was fragmented, weakened and a shadow of its former self. Ramses II had been the last of the truly great Pharaohs.

Attempting to psychoanalyse individuals from even the relatively recent past is a famously flawed endeavour. For the vast majority of the most ancient of figures, it is all but impossible to gleam from the historical record anything but the roughest of chronologies – like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they have been worn away by time. What is fascinating about Ramses is that he is history’s great exception; his achievements were on such a scale they have not only survived, but reveal much about the man himself. He was clearly arrogant, devious (he may well be considered history’s first spin doctor) and was self-centred to the point of being egomaniacal. Yet he was also courageous, extremely intelligent and breathtakingly ambitious. It is a tribute to his drive and to his capabilities that he was able to become the greatest leader of a civilisation that lasted for more than two and half millennia, dominated the known world for much of that period and produced wonders like the Pyramids. In doing so, he left a legacy so great that not even time itself could topple it.

Shaw, I., 2000. The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press

Wilkinson, T., 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Bloomsbury