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Ramesses II, "the Great", ruled 1279-1213 BC

Ramesses II became the third king of the 19th Dynasty at the age of twenty-five. In his sixty-seven year reign he probably built more temples and sired more children than any other Egyptian king. Today, he is often called Ramesses 'the great'.

He founded a new capital, Pi-Ramesse in the eastern Delta, which remained the royal residence throughout the Ramesside period. He also built a vast number of temples throughout Egypt and Nubia. The most famous of these are the rock cut temple at Abu Simbel, and his mortuary temple at Thebes, the Ramesseum. The tomb of his principal wife, Nefertari, at Thebes is one of the best-preserved royal tombs. The tomb of many of his sons has also recently been found in the Valley of the Kings (KV5). Ramesses II was buried in the Valley of the Kings and his body was found in the Deir el-Bahari cache.

For Ramesses II, the most momentous event in his reign was the battle of Kadesh, fought against the Hittites. On his monuments, the battle was commemorated as a great victory. However, the Hittite account, found at their capital, Hattusas, suggests that the battle was closer fought.

Pre-nomen is usermaatre setepenre, translation: The Justice of Re is Powerful, Chosen of Re, transliteration: wsr-mAat-ra stp.n-ra
Nomen is ramesisu meriamon, translation: Born of Re, beloved of Re, transliteration: ra-msi-sw mri-imn

Bust of a granite statue of Ramesses II
From Aswan, Elephantine Island, 19th Dynasty, around 1250 BC
From the Temple of Khnum

Many of the main attributes of Egyptian royalty are visible on this statue of King Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC). He is shown wearing the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, symbolizing the king's control over the country; in his hands are the crook and the flail, which represent his power over his subject; and on his brow is the Uraeus, the cobra snake ready to attack any who dare to oppose him.

The beard he wears would have been false (though perhaps made of real hair) and is shown attached to his crown using straps which probably fastened round the ear. The beard is of a type only worn by the king; the beards of gods tend to curl at the ends, while those of ordinary people are shown as much shorter. The king's names are cut on his shoulders, he wears a collar, and there is an elaborate bracelet on his right wrist.


Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'
From the Ramesseum, Thebes, 19th Dynasty, about 1250 BC
One of the largest pieces of Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum

Ramesses II succeeded his father Sety I in around 1279 BC and ruled for 67 years.

Weighing 7.25 tons, this fragment of his statue was cut from a single block of two-coloured granite. He is shown wearing the Nemes head-dress surmounted by a cobra diadem. The sculptor has used a slight variation of normal conventions to relate his work to the viewer, angling the eyes down slightly, so that the statue relates more to those looking at it. It was retrieved from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes (the 'Ramesseum') by Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. Belzoni wrote a fascinating account of his struggle to remove it, both literally, given its colossal size, and politically. The hole on the right of the torso is said to have been made by members of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century, in an unsuccessful attempt to remove the statue. The imminent arrival of the head in England in 1818 inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias.

After its arrival in The British Museum the 'Younger Memnon' was perhaps the first piece of Egyptian sculpture to be recognized as a work of art by connoisseurs, who traditionally judged things by the standards of ancient Greek art.


William Alexander, Installing the Bust of Ramesses II in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery
The British Museum, London, England, May 1834

The colossal stone bust of the Egyptian king Ramesses II weighs 16 tons and dates from about 1270 BC. It was sent to England in 1816 by Henry Salt, the British Consul-General in Egypt. At the start of its journey it was tied to wooden rollers, on which it was pulled by ropes to the banks of the River Nile by hundreds of workmen. It was then floated down the river and taken to England by ship.

The Trustees of the British Museum purchased the sculpture from Henry Salt in 1822. For several years it was displayed in the old Townley Galleries (now demolished). By 1834 the present Egyptian Sculpture Gallery had been built. Because of the enormous weight of some of these sculptures, the Museum had to call on the help of the Army to move them into the new gallery.

Alexander made this sketch while he was watching the head being lifted into place. It shows soldiers of the Royal Engineers using heavy ropes and lifting equipment under the command of Major Charles Cornwallis Dansey (the figure sitting towards the front of the scene). Dansey had fought at the Battle of Waterloo nearly twenty years earlier, and had received a wound which had left him lame. For this reason he was allowed to sit while directing his men.


Ozymandias,     Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792 - 1822)
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."

Shelly's couplet is similar to Diodorus's writing (the only classical author to mention Ozymandias) - Shelly, Banks etc were classical student.  Diodorus wrote "I am Ozymandias, king of Kings.  If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie let him surpass any of my works".  He also wrote that the statue of Ozymandias was "... the biggest of all those amongst the Egyptians".  It is accepted that the name Ozymandias is derived from Usermare (Ramesses II pre-nomen meaning Justice of Re is Powerful, Chosen of Re).

Related articles

Fragment of the Kings List of Ramesses and Sety I's temples at Abydos - British Museum
Glazed stealite plaque, Ashmolean Museum
Fragment of panel commemorating the Coronation - Bristol Museum
Figure of a falcon inscribed , 19th Dynasty from Tell el-Maskhuta - British Museum
Wooden coffin lid - Cairo Museum
One of a pair of armlets in gold with inlays - Cairo Museum
Dark granite statue of a 12th or 13th Dynasty king, usurped by Ramesses II - Cairo Museum
Relief showing Ramesses about to smite prisoners - Cairo Museum Head of Ramesses carved from Red Granite, reused in the Temple of Bast, Bubastis - Liverpool Museum
Base for a Statue, traditional enemies of Egypt and vassals carved on the block - Liverpool Museum
Statue of Mut, carved in Calcite - Luxor Museum
Alabaster 'Pilgrim bottle' with Gold mountings and blue cartouches of Ramesses and Queen Nefertari - Petrie Museum
Prince Khaemwaset offering to the god Ptah in the form of the Apis Bull, son of Ramesses - Rosicrucian Museum
Statue of Ramesses II (the Great) - Museo Egizio di Turino
Stela of Ramose and Mutemula - Museo Egizio di Turino
Turin Royal Canon - Museo Egizio di Turinoa
Relief showing Setau, a viceroy of Ramesses II making an offering to Renenutet - British Museum
Sandstone relief showing Setau, a viceroy of Ramesses II making an offering to Renenutet - British Museum
Black granite statue from Nebesheh (in the Nile Delta) - Boston Museum Limestone statue - Fitzwilliam Museum
Earthenware Funerary Cone - Fitzwilliam Museum
Quartzite statue of Nefer-Tari, wife of Ramesses II - Fitzwilliam Museum
Clay plaque mould for a Cartouche - Fitzwilliam Museum

Did Ramesses II deserve the epithet "The Great"..?
Ramesses couldn’t have guessed how long his reign would stretch; except that he probably had a young person’s feeling of immortality. Life expectancy, even for the privileged, was more likely to be 45 years and a reign of over 66 was beyond the wildest dreams of any Egyptian. When Ramesses assumed the kingship from his father Sety I (who ruled for at least 11 years) he had an unknown period of time to extend his father’s successes in providing domestic stability and building effective foreign relations. Ramesses seemed to have been ‘driven’ while craving his father’s approval and also that of the gods to justify his rule. One of the ways he achieved this, simultaneously achieving his own immortality, was through architecture.

Ramesses’ rule started with a flourish of temple building, and these were populated with a mass of statues. Egyptian temples were institutions that dominated the people’s very existence – their development reached its zenith during the New Kingdom. The exception was the Amarna interlude where god and the people became distant – Ramesses like his predecessors seemed obliged to continue to distance them selves from monotheism and bond the people, gods, and their own divinity into the nation’s consciousness. The exterior, visible to the uninitiated, focused on bombastic accounts demonstrating the Kings right-to-rule and his supportive-association with the Gods – an excellent example is Ramesses’ account of the battle of Kadesh which is full of the usual self-praise and lacking in many of the key elements such as it being a draw.

During his first 21 regnal years (when the treaty between the Hittites and Egypt was ‘signed’) Ramesses made many of the most significant additions to Egypt; such as Pi-Ramesses, Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall, Luxor Temple’s Forecourt, the Ramesseum, tombs within the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and Abu Simbel. During his life-time he initiated more buildings and monuments than any other king. After his 21st regnal year he continued to build temples and commission and usurp up-and-down the length of Egypt and in the territories influenced and controlled by Egypt. During his fathers rule Ramesses was an able prince-regent, taking the leadership in the field and also managing many building projects. He certainly completed his father’s temple at Abydos and maybe it was here that he learned that utilizing en-creux (inset) inscriptions rather than bas-relief (raised) would produce a significant quicker inscription – even if there was a compromise in quality over quantity.

The importance of building works to Ramesses can be noted from the many (at least 7 bulletins and 8 poems) inscriptions of the battle of Kadesh in his 5th regnal year. Within the inscriptions he demands Amun’s help when in dire need by saying:

Have I not made for you many great monuments, filled your temple with my booty, built for you my mansion of Millions-of-Year, given you all my wealth as endowment..?

I brought you all lands to supply your altars; I sacrificed to you ten thousands of cattle, and all kinds of sweet-scented herbs. I did not abstain from any good deed, so as not to perform it in your court.

I built great pylons for you, myself I erected their flag-staffs; I brought you obelisks from Yebu, It was I who fetched their stones.

It is evident that he is justifying Amun’s support of his right-to-rule through his numerous building-works in the praise of Amun (although we should note that Ramesses also supported many other gods as well as his own divinity, possibly to address the imbalance of influence held by the priesthood of Amun). Interestingly it seems that of the many statues that he re-inscribed with his own cartouches there was a strong preference for those of Amenhotep III (the Warrior King) or those dating to the 12th Dynasty – maybe he was trying to share earlier successes through association.

By the end of his life he was beyond elderly and plagued with arthritis, rotting teeth, and arteriosclerosis. For me, the problem with Ramesses was that he lived too long and gave his elderly son little time to build on their dynasty. This is something in common with other periods where after such a long period of stability a period of change is almost inevitable. We can identify his reign as the pivot between a long and glorious past (with a few ‘bumps in the road’) and the slow period of decline which brought the civilization to an effective close.

Merenptah's contribution to his father's dynasty
Certainly 10 years reign for some kings would be a sufficient period to make a contribution and to build on the dynasty. However, I can’t see Merenptah as King of this class, bit player in Egypt’s history (maybe with the exception of the word ‘Israel’). Merenptah was co-regent for many years and was most likely 50+ when he became king. During his 9 years reign he had to send armies into Nubia and the Levant and also fend off the Libyans and the ‘Sea Peoples’. He did build a fine tomb in the Valley of the King and made some contributions to other existing temples; however his Mortuary temple was a shadow of his fathers (Ramesses II finished his during his first 21 regnal years) and most of the blocks were taken from Amenhotep III’s temple. For me this all points to a rush to get things done for his after-life (at 50+ he would have a firm understanding of his own mortality).

Also the succession of Sety II, Merenptah’s heir, upset the Ma’at of Egypt. Sety II was probably his eldest son but Amenmessu usurped kingship in Upper Egypt (maybe even deposing Sety) for some years either at the beginning of Sety’s reign or a few years into it. This was something that every king would have wished and strived to avoid at all costs. From this time onwards inheritance seemed to be difficult and the slow decline (with the exception of Ramesses III) begins.

Merenptah had 10 years ‘practice’ during his time as co-regent and he must have been very aware of how to manage the country – Ramesses would have been a very frail person in the last decade of his life. I had always viewed his reign as less than effective, with the distractions of preparing for his eternity, the military campaigns that demanded his attention, the possible complication over his successor – even the Israeli Stela (in the best style of his father) was usurped from Amenhotep III.

The Sinuhe hieroglyphs exercise records that when the king died that the all activity stopped and the nation was immobile with mourning. The lost of the god-king would have meant that Ma’at was at risk and so was the blessing that had brought stability, affluence, and all things good to the last – and also the land under Egypt’s control. A period of shock and worry must have followed. For those kings under Egypt’s control it must have been an opportunity to test the new King’s resolve and see what opportunity could be made from the situation – which may explain why Merenptah had to send armies West, East and South.

If Ramesses’ intention was to keep his name living for eternity then we must agree that he has succeeded most effectively. His enduring monuments, his statues, that other monarchs took his name, and the written word (ancient and modern) have all given us good reason to call his reign Great.


1. Baines, J (1997) ‘Temples as symbols, guarantors, and participants in Egyptian Civilization’ in Quirke, Stephen (Ed) in The temple in Ancient Egypt : New discoveries and recent research
2. Badawy, A (1968) in A History of Egyptian Architecture; The Empire (the New Kingdom)
3. David, R (2002) in Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt
4. Faulkner, R (1975) ‘Egypt: from the inception of the nineteenth Dynasty to the Death of Ramesses III’ in Edwards, Gadd, Hammond & Solberger(Ed) in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume II, Part 2
5. Kitchen, K (2001) ‘Ramesses II’ in Redford, Donald (Ed) in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt, Volume 3
6. Lichtheim, M (1976) in Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom
7. Van Dirk, J (2002) ‘The Amarna Period and the Late New Kingdom’ in Shaw (Ed) in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt

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