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Egypt: History - Dynasty XIX (Nineteenth Dynasty) - B


Nineteenth Dynasty

A fine stela, of year 3 found in the fortress of Kuban in Lower Nubia, records the successful digging of a well in the land of Ikita where gold was to be found in large quantities. The King's Son of Cush confirmed the report that when gold-workers were sent there, only half of them ever arrived; the rest perished of thirst on the way. He added that the well commissioned by Sethos I had proved a failure, unlike that in the Wady Abbad mentioned above. Doubtless the supplies of the precious metal from farther north were growing exhausted, whence it became increasingly important to utilize the desert road of the Wady 'Allaki which opened out eastwards from near Kuban. For our purpose, however, this inscription is mainly of interest as corroborating Ramesses' early appointment as crown-prince and his participation in all royal enterprises from his very childhood. We are told that he served as 'captain of the army when he was a boy in his tenth year', not an impossibility in the Orient when understood with the necessary qualification.


At the very beginning of the reign we have the first Egyptian mention of the Sherden, pirates who later undoubtedly gave their name to Sardinia, though at this time they may have been dwelling in a quite different part of the Mediterranean. A stela from Tanis speaks of their having come 'in their war-ships from the midst of the sea, and none were able to stand before them'. There must have been a naval battle somewhere near the river-mouths, for shortly afterwards many captives of their race are seen in the Pharaoh's body-guard, where they are conspicuous by their helmets with horns, their round shields and the great swords with which they are depicted dispatching the Hittite enemies. Little more than a century later, many Sherden are found cultivating plots of their own; these doubtless rewards given to them for their military services. But they were not the only foreigners whom Ramesses II was apt to use in this way. A literary papyrus, reflecting the conditions of his reign, describes an expeditionary force of 5,000 out of which, besides 520 Sherden, there were thrice that number of Libyans belonging to the tribes of the Kehek and Meshwesh, together with 880 Nubians. Most of these were, doubtless, prisoners of war or the children of sun, for there is no evidence that mercenaries were employed at this time, as is often erroneously stated.

A great trial of strength between Egypt and the Hitites could not be delayed. Ramose was ambitious to repeat his father's successes in northern Syria, and Muwatallis, the grandson of Suppiluliumas, was determined to uphold the many treaties that had been made with the petty princes of that reign. The first 'Campaign of Victory', as large-scale Asiatic expeditions were termed in the Egyptian records, took place in year 4, when Ramesses led his troops along the coast of Palestine as far north as the Nahr el-Kelb ('Dog-river')a few miles beyond Beyrut, where he caused a stela, now illegible except for the date, to be carved facing the sea. To the following year belongs the mighty struggle in which Ramesses performed a personal feat of arms that he never tired of proclaiming to his subjects on the temple-walls built by him. The story is told in two separate narratives which usefully supplement one another and are illustrated by sculptured reliefs accompanied by verbal explanations. What was at first known to Egyptologists as the Poem of Pentaur is a long and flowery inscription now described simply as the 'Poem', though it is no more of a poem than many another historical record from other reigns. The attribution to Pentaur was dropped when it was recognized that he was merely the scribe responsible for a particular copy preserve in a papyrus shared by the Louvre and the British Museum. The text, often defective in the individual hieroglyphic examples, has been reconstructed from eight duplicates in the temples of Karnak, Luxor, Abydos, and the 'Ramesseum, while the shorter version known as the 'Report' or the 'Bulletin' has been similarly edited from the same temples, except that it is not found at Karnak but exists in the great sanctuary of Abu Simbel.

Ramesses and his army crossed the Egyptian frontier at Sile in the spring of his fifth year, and just a month's marching brought him to a commanding height overlooking the stronghold of Kadesh from a distance of about 15 miles. Kadesh, now Tell Neby Mend, lies in the angle formed by the northward flowing Orontes and a small tributary entering from the west, and as already stated, its great strategic importance was due to its position near the exit from the high-level valley between the Lebanons called the Bika'. Along this valley every north-bound army had necessarily to pass if it was to avoid the narrow route, intersected by rivermouths, along the Phoenician coast. Kadesh had, as we have seen, been captured by Sethos I, but had since fallen into Hittite hands. This was Ramesses's obvious objective and the place which gave its name to the great battle about to be fought. The Egyptian army was divided into four divisions of which those bearing the names of Amun , Pre', and Sutekh have been encountered on the stela of Sethos from Beisan, while the fourth, named after Ptah of Memphis, appears here for the first time. Ramesses having passed the night on the afore-mentioned hilltop south of Kadesh made an early start next morning, doubtless hoping to have captured the fortress-town before dusk. At the head of the division of Amun he descended some 600 feet to the ford of the Orontes just south of Shabtuna, this evidently the modern Ribla. Either before or immediately after crossing the river, two Bedouins were brought to him who, on being questioned, declared that they had been with the Hittite king, but that they wished to desert to the Pharaoh. They also stated that the Hittites were still far away in the land of Khaleb (Aleppo) to the north of Tunip. Misled by this information Ramesses and his body-guard pushed ahead of the rest of the army, and began to set up camp to the north-west of the fortress-city some 6 or 7 miles from the ford. Obviously the wise course would have been to wait until the rest of his army had reached the left bank, so that all could have been to wait until the rest of his army had reached the left bank, so that all could have advance together. Instead of this Ramesses placed a distance of some miles between himself and the division of Pre', while the division of Ptah was even farther back. The division of Sutekh was so far away, that it could play no part in the battle and is not heard of again. It was not until the king was seated upon his golden throne, in his final camping-place, that the unwelcome truth dawned upon him. They had passed round to the south of the town, forded the river, and cut their way through the division of Pre'. Immediately Ramesses dispatched his vizier to hasten the arrival of the division of Ptah, which as yet had barely disengaged itself from the forest of Robawi. A message was sent to the royal children to flee behind the palisade of shields surrounding the still unfinished camp and to keep clear of the fight. At this point in the two narratives Ramesses's desire for self-glorification takes the upper-hand, and his personal prowess is dwelt upon at great length. He describes himself as deserted by his whole army and surrounded by the vast host of the Hittites, whose king had collected for his crowning enterprise auxiliaries form so far west as the Ionian coast and from his principal neighbors in Asia Minor.

There is much more in this strain before it is told how His Majesty routed the foe single-handed, hurling them into the Orontes. What actually happened? It cannot be doubted that the Egyptian king did display valor on this momentous occasion, but both the 'Report' and the sculptured scenes suggest that what saved Ramesses was the arrival, in the nick of time, of the youthful troops that had been mentioned earlier as stationed in the land of Amor. Perhaps we should think of them as coming up from the neighborhood of Tripoli along the road crossed by the Eleutheros river. At all events, they attacked the Hittites in the rear and completed their conquest. The Egyptian sources mention by name a number of prominent Hittites who were either drowned in the river or trodden underfoot by Ramesses's horses. Among them a brother of the Hittite king, who himself is described as taking no part in the fight, but cowering somewhere in the background. Finally, the 'Poem' reports the arrival of a letter in which the Hittite ruler praises the Pharaoh's valor in the most exaggerated terms and ends with the words 'Better is Peace than War; give the breath (of life)'. Unhappily the Boghazkoy tablets tell a very different tale. On one of these Khattusilis, Muwatallis's brother and successor, recalling the events of earlier years, relates how Ramesses was conquered and retreated to the land of Aba near Damascus, only to be replaced there by himself as regent. From another tablet we learn that Amor, which had perhaps been subject to the Egyptian power since the time of Sethos, now fell to Muwatallis, who replaced its king by one of his own choice. However, if the Egyptian reliefs are to be trusted, after the Kadesh episode, Ramesses enjoyed a number of military successes. In year 8 he reduced a whole series of Palestinian fortresses including Dapur in the land of Amor, though he had also been obliged to storm Ashkelon not far from the Egyptian border. There is also talk of an occasion when in fighting against a Hittite town in the territory of Tunip, he had not even troubled to don his corset. Whatever the exact truth of all these warlike proceedings, everything pointed to the necessity of ending a conflict profitable to neither side, and we shall see that this necessity was fully realized a few years later.

It was found politic to cement the friendship between the two great powers of the time in other ways as well, and a lively correspondence sprang up between the two Courts. The Boghazkoy fragments include congratulations on the conclusion of the peace treaty addressed to Khattusilis by Ramesses's chief wife, Nofretari, by his mother Tuia, and by his son Sethikhopshef. At least eighteen letters from Ramesses himself have survived, though mostly in a poor state of preservation, and a very curious and interesting fact has revealed itself: almost identically worded tablets were sent not only to Khattusilis, but also Pudukhipa his queen. Evidently the Hittite queen played a much more important political role that the Queen of Egypt, influential and prominent though the latter was in all other respects. Much of the letter-writing between the two monarchs turns upon a marriage arranged between Ramesses and a daughter of Khattusilis. This union actually took place in year 34, when the princess was brought to Egypt and there given the name Mahornefrure' or Manefrure'. The story is told in a great inscription of which copies were exposed to the public view at Karnak, Elephantine, Abu Simbel, and Amarna, and doubtless in other temples as well. It is difficult to imagine a less complimentary way in which relations with a friendly foreign sovereign could be presented. More than half of the hieroglyphic text is devoted to fulsome eulogies of the Pharaoh. When at last the submissive author embarks upon a narrative of facts, the account which he gives runs roughly as follows: the Syrian princes had been in the habit of sending yearly tribute to the Egyptian king, not even withholding their own children. Only Khatti held aloof, so that Ramesses found himself compelled to exact compliance by force of arms. Years of poverty ensued for Khatti, until its king decided to make overtures to his victorious enemy.

Stress is laid on the difficulties of the journey and of the many mountains and narrow defiles through which the travelers had to pass. When the Pharaoh, for his part, realized the necessity of sending troops to welcome the princess and her assemblage, he feared the rain and snow usual in Palestine and Syria in time of winter. For this reason he made a great feast for his father the god Sutekh praying him to endow mild weather, a miracle which actually occurred. The arrival in Egypt was the occasion for great rejoicing, the representation of both nations eating and drinking together and 'being of one heart like brothers, and there being no rancor of one towards the other'. Happily the Hittite maiden's beauty found favor in Ramesses's sight, and she was quickly raised to the position of King's Great Wife; if the wonderful statue of her royal husband is the Turin Museum tells the truth they must have been a handsome pair. By a strange chance, we have evidence that this alien spouse was sometimes taken to the harem kept by the sovereign at Miwer, a town at the entrance to the Fayyum. A scrap of papyrus found by Petrie lists garments and linen belonging to her wardrobe.

Though this foreign alliance was by no means, as we have seen, unique in Egyptian history and may indeed even have been repeated later in the same reign, yet it was long remembered, doubtless on account of the outstanding importance of the contracting parties. A fine stela in the Louvre, which was formerly held to narrate a kind of sequel, is now recognized as a later fiction intended to enhance the prestige of the Theban god Chons. It tells how the younger sister of Ramesses II's Hittite queen--here, however, described as the daughter of the king of a remote country called Bakhtan--was possessed by an evil spirit, and how a messenger was dispatched to Egypt to seek medical help. After the skilled physician, Dhutemhab, failed to effect a cure, an image of Chons himself was sent and quickly exorcised the evil spirit. Whether this unhistoric narrative was the product of Ptolemaic times or earlier, its substance is truly Egyptian in character, and recalls the sending of the Ishtar of Nineveh to heal Amenophis III.

So proud was Ramesses II of his extensive progeny that it would be wrong to omit all reference to the long enumerations of his sons and daughters to be read on the walls of his temples. At Wady es-Sebua in Lower Nubia over a hundred princes and princesses were named, but the many lacunae make it impossible to compute the exact figure. From several temples it is clear that the eldest son was Amenhiwenamef, but his mother is unknown and he evidently died early. It will be recalled that Sethos I provided his youthful co-regent with a large number of concubines, and these will have been responsible for the vast majority of children about whom nothing more is heard. The most highly honored were naturally those born to Ramesses II by his successive King's Great Wives. Queen Isinofre was the mother of four who were depicted together with her and her husband. Foremost among them is Ramesse, at a given moment the crown prince, but it was his younger brother Merenptah, the thirteenth in the Ramesseum list, who survived to succeed his father. Another son who perhaps never had pretensions to the throne was Kha'emwise, the high-priest (setem) of Ptah at Memphis. He gained great celebrity as a learned man and magician, and was remembered right down to Graeco-Roman times. It was doubtless in that capacity that he was charged with the organization of his father's earliest Sed-festivals from the first I year 30 down to the fifth in year 42. Ramesses II lived to celebrate twelve or even thirteen in all. A daughter of Isinofre, who bore the Syrian name of Bint-anat, is of interest for a special reason: she received the title King's Great Wife during her father's lifetime. We cannot overlook the likelihood that she served at least temporarily as his companion. Even more frequent are the references to Queen Nofretari-mery-en-Mut, the Naptera of an already mentioned Baghazkoy letter. She is familiar to Egyptologists as the owner of the magnificently painted tomb in the Valley of the Queens on the west of Thebes. This henceforth, the burial-place of many females of the Ramesside royal family. Ramesses II himself had a tomb at Biban el-Moluk no doubt once as large and fine as that of Sethos I, but now closed owing to its dangerous condition. The great king's mummy suffered a fate similar to that of so many of his predecessors, finally finding its way to the cache at Der el-Bahri. Until moved to the mausoleum at Cairo, his corpse could still be seen as that of a shrivelled-up old man with a long narrow face, massive jaw, and prominent nose, conspicuous also for his admirably well-preserved teeth.

Continuation of 19th Dynasty

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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