Ramses II (an alternative spelling is Ramesses) ruled Egypt for 66 years in the 13th century BC, making him the longest-reigning of all Egypt’s pharaohs.
Ramses was not royal by birth (which was probably in 1303 BC). His father was a general who became Pharaoh Seti I when the incumbent pharaoh died without leaving an heir. Ramses inherited the throne on his father’s death in 1279 BC.
Ramses is noted for his military campaigns, primarily against the Hittites, and for his building programme. As a general, his feats may have been exaggerated by the scribes of his time, but he certainly appears to have reversed earlier territorial losses and to have extended the Egyptian Empire into Canaan. His capture of Canaanite princes, who were then taken as prisoners to Egypt, may have been the origin of the story told in the Book of Exodus of the slavery of the Israelites and their escape led by Moses.
It is as a builder of cities and monuments that Ramses is most renowned. He built a new capital city named Pi Ramesse Aa-nakhta, which translates as “House of Ramses Great of Victories”, although little can be seen of this city today.
The same cannot be said of the large number of statues of himself that were constructed across Egypt. These include the four massive statues at Abu Simbel and his memorial temple at Luxor, the Ramesseum.
It was normal for Egyptian pharaohs to have several names, and one of those held by Ramses II was Usermaatre, which was later corrupted to Ozymandias. This is the title of a famous poem (a sonnet) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), in which a broken statue of Ozymandias is found in the desert and the poet mocks the fact that time and the forces of nature have put the power of the subject of the statue into context. The inscription “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” is absurdly inappropriate.
However, maybe Shelley was more than a little unfair to Ramses, given the beliefs that were held in ancient Egypt. Ramses may indeed have been guilty of self-glorification, but the main reason for having images of oneself created was to ensure one’s future in the afterlife. A human soul could only go to the “Kingdom of Osiris” if the body survived, and that could be achieved both by mummification and by having images preserved in the form of statues. The more of the latter there were, the better one’s chances.
When Ramses II died at an advanced age in 1213 BC the mummification of his body took 70 days. It would appear that the embalmers did a particularly good job, because in June 1886 a French archaeologist opened the bandages on Ramses’ mummy and revealed the well-preserved face of an old man with red hair. Ramses II is now an exhibit in the Cairo Museum, more than 3,000 years after his death. Whether or not his soul is enjoying the delights of the Kingdom of Osiris is a matter for speculation!