Who was Rameses II?

To Sethos succeeded in due course his son Rameses II., called Rameses the Great, the "Sesostris" of the Greeks. He is the most celebrated of all the Pharaohs, though modern research leads us somewhat to think of him as a braggart, a thief who eased his craving for renown by stealing the fame of earlier Pharaohs. In many places throughout Egypt he had the names of preceding kings obliterated from their buildings and statues, and his own substituted. Thus everywhere that later generations turned they saw the name of Rameses. The priests told the Greek historian Herodotus with awe that this king had been the greatest builder in the world.

Rameses also managed to make much out of rather little in his warlike fame. When summoned to the throne by his father's death, he had been in the far south of Egypt, chastising Ethiopian marauders, wandering negro tribes from the heart of Africa. He at once made a triumphal military progress from end to end of his empire as a conqueror, and was crowned at Thebes, his capital, amid the plaudits of his soldiers. In the fifth year of his reign he led his forces into Palestine, and endeavored, as Sethos had done, to overcome the Hittites. The most exploited battle amid all the Egyptian monuments and inscriptions is the victory which Rameses won over the Hittites at Kadesh.

Every detail of the struggle at Kadesh was pictured on monument after monument by the king's command. Hence we can picture this battle more fully than any other in ancient history. It gives us a clear idea of Asiatic warfare. The enemy, some twenty thousand strong, concealed themselves behind the city of Kadesh. The army of Rameses came close upon the foe, but his spies failed to discover them, and some pretended deserters told the Egyptians that the Hittites were assembled at a place forty miles away. Rameses set his army in hurried march toward the spot. Fortunately two Hittite spies were captured and, on being beaten, they revealed the truth of the nearness of the Hittites. Rameses hastily ordered the recall of such of his troops as had marched on, while with the men left at hand he met a sudden attack from the Hittites.

The chief force of the Asiatics consisted of twenty-five hundred chariots, each containing three men. These charged against the Egyptian camp with its rough embankments. They broke through the defense, and Rameses met them within the camp, charging in his own chariot at the head of his household troops. Eight times, he tells us, he dashed against the Hittite chariots and broke their ranks. Once he was alone in their midst; but by the valor of his single arm, or so he assures the world, he put the whole twenty-five hundred to flight. Finally the Egyptian troops, who had marched away, got back; and the enemy, after a whole day's battling, were driven from the camp.

The next morning the Hittites attacked again. This time they were definitely overthrown. Their chariots fled and attempted to escape across the river Orontes, which flowed near. They were so closely pursued that many were drowned in the stream. The survivors were rescued by the people of a near-by town who opened their gates and by making a sudden sortie against the Egyptians, gave the fugitives time to enter the town in safety. Rameses even gives us a list of the chief Hittites who were slain, among whom, as the scribe of the present day notes with interest, was mentioned as of great importance "Khalupsaru, the writer of books," an official historian perhaps or a royal poet, the oldest of whom we have even that empty knowledge, his name.

This victory of Kadesh was celebrated by an unknown Egyptian poet, from whose account, in connection with Rameses' picture record, we gather the details. Their substantial accuracy can scarcely be doubted; but the victory brought no permanent results. The Egyptians returned home without advancing further into Hittite territory. The spoils of war must, however, have proved attractive, for the next year Rameses returned to the attack. Fifteen times in all, he invaded Palestine; yet at the end of all this fighting he was still making treaties with the Hittites upon equal terms. The frontiers of each party remained substantially as they had been at the beginning.

What Egypt really lost in human life and happiness through all these years of warfare, what she lost in the actual exhaustion of her strength, the wasting of her resources and the stir of discontent, we can partly guess. A quaint old document of the times has come down to us in which a philosopher warns his pupil against the miseries of military life. A soldier, he says, "is beaten like a roll of papyrus." The sicknesses and sufferings of barrack life are described and then those of the campaign: "His bread and his water are on his shoulder like an ass's burden... The joints of his spine are broken. He drinks putrid water.... He trembles like a goose without valor.... If he be ill, what relief has he? He is carted away on an ass; his clothes are stolen.... He lies on the ground and receives a hundred blows." It was to this view of "glory" that the Egyptian common folk had come.

Rameses the Great has another and peculiar interest to us as "the Pharaoh of the oppression," the monarch who reduced the Hebrews to slavery, forcing them to toil at the building of his "treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses," or Pelusium and Rameses. We know now that Rameses II. did actually build these cities. He set them as fortresses on the border of Egypt nearest to Asia. Despite his so-called victories he found himself in need of protection against the Hittites. The Egyptian poets of the time sing also of this achievement of their monarch, the building of the metropolis named for him. "It is filled with food and stored goods. The sun rises and sets in it, so that men leave their villages to dwell there." "The people of the coast pay it tribute of fish. Every day the inhabitants put on their festal garments... On the day when the king enters, joy spreads, nothing can stop it!" It was probably under the successor of Rameses, his grandson Merenptah, that Moses led the unhappy Israelites back into the desert.

Rameses lived to be nearly a hundred years old. In his later years he confirmed a lasting peace with the Hittites by marrying one of their princesses; and the most prominent of their many "city kings" visited Egypt as a friend and ally. Thus there followed after Rameses a period of peace; but the decay of the country had already set in, and other causes carried it downward.

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