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Amelia Edwards on Ramesses the Great


Amelia Edwards on Ramesses the Great

A Thousand Miles up the Nile
Chapter Fifteen

The central figure of Egyptian history has always been, probably always will be, Ramses the Second. He holds this place partly by right, partly by accident, He was born to greatness; he achieved greatness; and he had borrowed greatness thrust upon him. It was his singular destiny not only to be made a posthumous usurper of glory, but to be forgotten by his own name and remembered in a variety of aliases. As Sesoosis, as Osymandias, as Sesostris, he became credited in the course of time with all the deeds of all the heroes of the new Empire, beginning with Thothmes III, who preceded him by 300 years, and ending with Sheshonk, who lived four centuries after him. The interest that one takes in Ramses II begins at Memphis, and goes on increasing all the way up the river.


Ramses the Second was the son of Seti I, the second Pharaoh of the XIXth Dynasty, and of a certain Princess Tuaa, described on the monuments as 'royal wife, royal mother, and heiress and sharer of the throne'. The great dedicatory inscription of the Temple of Osiris at Abydos, relates how his father took the royal child in his arms, when he was little more than an infant, showed him to the people as their king, and caused him to be invested by the great officers of the palace with the double crown of the two lands. At twelve years of age he was formally associated with his father upon the throne, and by gradual retirement of Seti I from the cares of active government, the co-royalty of Ramses became, in the course of the next ten or fifteen years, an individual responsibility. He was probably about thirty when his father died; and it is from this time that the years of his reign are dated. In the second, fourth and fifth years of his monarchy, he personally conducted campaigns in Syria, more than one of the victories then achieved being commemorated on the rock-cut tablets of Nahr-el-Kelb near Beyrut; and that he was by this time recognised as a mighty warrior is shown by the stela of Dakkeh, which dates from the 'third year'. The events of the campaign of his 'fifth year' ( undertaken in order to reduce to obedience the revolted tribes of Syria and Mesopotamia) are immortalised in the poem of Pentaur. It was on this occasion that he fought his famous single-handed fight, against overwhelming odds, in the sight of both armies under the walls of Kadesh. Three years later, he carried fire and sword into the land of Canaan, and in his eleventh year, according to inscriptions yet extant upon the ruined pylons of the Ramesseum at Thebes, he took, among other strong places on sea and shore, the fortress of Ascalon and Jerusalem.

The next important record transports us to the twenty first year of his reign. Ten years have now gone by since the fall of Jerusalem, during which time a fluctuating frontier warfare has probably been carried on, to the exhaustion of both armies. Khetasira, Prince of Kheta sues for peace. An elaborate treaty is therupon framed, whereby the said Prince and 'Ramses, Chief of Rulers, who fixes his frontiers where he pleases', pledge themselves to a strict offensive and defensive alliance, and to the maintenance of good will and brotherhood for ever.

The peace now concluded would seem to have remained unbroken throughout the rest of the long reign of Ramses the Second. We hear, at all events, of no more wars; and we find the king married presently to a Khetan princess, who in deference to the gods of her adopted country takes the official name of Ma-at-iri-neferu-Ra, or ' Contemplating the Beauties of Ra ' The names of two other queens - Nefer-t-ari and Ast-nefert are also found among the monuments.

These three were probably the only legitimate wives of Ramses II, though he must also have been the lord of an extensive hareem. His family, at all events, as recorded upon the walls of the Temple at Wady Sabooah, amounted to no less than 170 children, of whom 111 were princes. For forty six years after the making of the Khetan treaty, Ramses the great lived at peace with his neighbours and tributaries. The evening of his life was long and splendid. It became his passionand his pride to found new cities, to raise dykes, to dig canals, to build fortresses, to multiply statutes, obelisks, and inscriptions, and to erect the most gorgeous and costly temples in which man ever worshipped. To the monuments founded by his predecessors he made additions so magnificent that they dwarfed the designs they were intended to complete. He caused artesian wells to be pierced in the stony bed of the desert. He carried on the canal begun by his father, and opened a water-way between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. No enterprise was too difficult, no project too vast, for his ambition.

That Ramses II was the Pharaoh of the captivity, and that Meneptah his son and successor, was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, are now among the accepted presumptions of Egyptological science.The Bible and the monuments confirm each other upon these points, while both are again corroborated by the results of recent geographical and philological research. The 'treasure-cities Pithom and Raamses' which the Israelites built for Pharaoh with bricks of their own making, are the Pa-Tum and Pa-Rameses of the inscriptions, and both have recently been identified by M Naville, in the course of his excavations conducted in 1883 and 1886 for the Egypt Exploration Fund. It was from Pa-Ramses that Ramses II set out with his army to attack the confederate princes of Asia Minor then lying in ambush near Kadesh; and it was hither that he returned in triumph after the great victory. Ramses was the author of temples and the founder of cities. These cities, which would probably be better described as provincial towns, have disappeared; and but for the mention of them in various inscriptions we should not even know that they had existed. Who shall say how many more have vanished, leaving neither trace nor record? A dozen cities of Ramses may yet lie buried under some of those nameless mounds which follow each other in such quick succession along the banks of the Nile in Middle and Lower Egypt. Only yesterday, as it were, the remains of what would seem to have been a magnificent structure decorated in a style absolutely unique, were accidentally discovered under the mounds of Tel-el-Yahoodeh, about twelve miles to the N.E. of Cairo. There are probably fifty such mounds, none of which have been opened, in the Delta alone; and it is no exaggeration to say that there must be some hundreds between the Mediterranean and the First Cataract.

The inscription on the stela at Dakkeh, as we have already seen, makes reference to the victorious campaign in the South. Ramses is addressed as 'the bull powerful against Ethiopia', and that the events hereby alluded to must have taken place during the first three years of his sole reign is proved by the date of the tablet. The great dedicatory inscription of Abydos shows, in fact, that Ramses II was prosecuting a campaign in Ethiopia at the time when he received intelligence of the death of his father, and that he came down the Nile, northwards, in order, probably to be crowned at Thebes.

Now the famous sculptures of the commemorative chapel at Bayt-el-Welly relate expressly to the events of this expedition; and as they are executed in that refined and delicate style which especially characterises the bas-relief work of Gournah, of Abydos, of all those buildings which were either erected by Seti the First, or begun by Seti and finished during the early years of Ramses II, I venture to think we may regard them as contemporary, or very nearly, with the scenes they represent. In any case, it is reasonable to conclude that the artists employed on the work would know something about the events and persons delineated, and that they would be guilty of no glaring inaccuracies.

All doubt as to whether the dates refer to the associated reigns of Seti and Rameses, or to the sole reign of the latter, vanish, however, when in these same sculptures we find the conqueror accompanied by his son, Prince Amenherkhopeshef, who is of an age not only to bear his part in the field, but afterwards to conduct an important ceremony of state on the occasion of the submission and tribute-offering of the Ethiopian commander. Such is the unmistakable evidence of the bas-reliefs at Bayt-el Welly, as those who cannot go there may see and judge for themselves by means of the admirable casts of these great tableaux which line the walls of the Second Egyptian Room at the British Museum. To explain away Prince Amenherkhopeshef would be difficult. We are accustomed to a certain amount of courtly exaggeration on the part of those who record the great deeds of the Pharaohs. We expect to see the King always young, always beautiful, always victorious. It seems only right and natural that he should never be less than twenty, and sometimes more than sixty feet high. But that any flatterer should go so far as to credit a lad of thirteen with a son at least as old as himself is surely incredible.

An inscription found of late years at Abydos shows that Ramses II reigned over his great kingdom for the space of sixty-seven years. 'It is thou' says Ramses IV, addressing himself to Osiris, 'it is thou who wilt rejoice me with such length of reign as Ramses II, the great God, in his sixty-seven years. It is thou who wilt give me the long duration of this great reign'. If only we knew at what age Ramses II succeeded to the throne, we should, by help of this inscription, know also the age at which he died. No such record has, however transpired, but a careful comparison of the length of time occupied by the various events of his reign, and above all the evidence of age afforded by the mummy of this great Pharaoh, discovered in 1886, show that he must have been very nearly, if not quite, a centenarian.

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