Biography of Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt's Golden Age

Conqueror and Builder

A limestone statue of Ramses II, lying on display
The colossus of Rameses II lies in the open-air museum of Memphis.

Lansbricae / Getty Images

Ramses II (ca 1303 BC – 1213 BC) was one of the most powerful and influential Egyptian pharaohs in history. He led expeditions and focused on building up the New Kingdom, and most likely reigned longer than any other pharaoh.

Fast Facts: Ramses II

  • Full Name: Ramses II (alternative spelling Ramesses II)
  • Also Known As: Usermaatre Setepenre
  • Occupation: Pharaoh of ancient Egypt
  • Born: circa 1303 BC
  • Died: 1213 BC
  • Known For: The longest-reigning pharaoh in history, Ramses II's reign defined the New Kingdom era of Egypt as one of conquest, expansion, building, and culture.
  • Prominent Spouses: Nefertari (died circa 1255 BC), Isetnofret
  • Children: Amun-her-khepsef, Ramses, Meritamen, Bintanath, Pareherwenemef, Merneptah (future Pharaoh), and others

Early Life and Reign

Little is known about Ramses’ early life. His exact year of birth is not confirmed but is widely believed to be 1303 BC. His father was Seti I, the second pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, founded by Ramses I, the grandfather of Ramses II. Most likely, Ramses II came to the throne in 1279 BC, when he was approximately 24 years old. At some point prior to this, he married his future queen consort, Nefertari. Over the course of their marriage, they had at least four sons and two daughters, and possibly more, although historians have uncertain evidence of children beyond the six who are clearly mentioned in documents and on carvings.

Stone statue of Ramses II in the courtyard of ruins
A statue of Ramses II stands in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. David Callan / Getty Images

In the first few years of his reign, Ramses foreshadowed his later power with battles against sea pirates and the beginning of major building projects. His earliest known major victory came in the second year of his reign, probably 1277 BC, when he defeated the Sherden pirates. The Sherden, who most likely originated from Ionia or Sardinia, were a fleet of pirates who kept attacking cargo ships en route to Egypt, damaging or outright crippling Egyptian sea trade.

Ramses also began his major building projects within the first three years of his reign. On his orders, the ancient temples in Thebes were completely renovated, specifically to honor Ramses and his power, revered as nearly divine. The stone carving methods used by past pharaohs resulted in shallow carvings which could easily be remade by their successors. In place of this, Ramses ordered much deeper carvings that would be harder to undo or alter in the future.

Military Campaigns

By the fourth year of his reign, approximately 1275 BC, Ramses was making major military moves to regain and expand Egypt’s territory. He began with war against the nearby Canaan, the region to the northeast of Egypt where the countries of the Middle East such as Israel now are located. One story from this era involves Ramses personally fighting a wounded Canaanite prince and, upon victory, taking the Canaanite prince to Egypt as prisoners. His military campaigns extended into areas previously held by the Hittites and, eventually, Syria.

Wall carvings of the Egyptian battles against the Hittites
Wall carvings of Ramses's army defeating the Hittites.  skaman306 / Getty Images

The Syrian campaign was one of the key points of Ramses’ early reign. Around 1274 BC, Ramses fought in Syria against the Hittites with two goals in mind: expanding Egypt’s borders, and replicating his father’s triumph at Kadesh about ten years earlier. Although Egyptian forces were outnumbered, he was able to counterattack and force the Hittites back into the city. However, Ramses realized his army wasn’t able to sustain the kind of siege required to take down the city, so he returned to Egypt, where he was building a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses. A few years later, however, Ramses was able to return to Hittite-held Syria and eventually pushed further north than any pharaoh in over a century. Unfortunately, his northern victories did not last long, and a small bit of land kept going back and forth between Egyptian and Hittite control.

In addition to his campaigns in Syria against the Hittites, Ramses led military attempts in other regions. He spent some time, alongside his sons, on military action in Nubia, which had been conquered and colonized by Egypt a few centuries prior but continued to be a thorn in its side. In a surprising turn of events, Egypt actually became a place of refuge for a deposed Hittite king, Mursili III. When his uncle, the new king Ḫattušili III demanded Mursili’s extradition, Ramses denied all knowledge of Mursili’s presence in Egypt. As a result, the two countries remained on the brink of war for several years. In 1258 BC, however, they chose to formally end the conflict, resulting in one of the earliest known peace treaties in human history (and the oldest with surviving documentation). In addition, Nefertari kept up a correspondence with Queen Puduhepa, Ḫattušili’s wife.

Buildings and Monuments

Even more than his military expeditions, the reign of Ramses was defined by his obsession with building. His new capital city, Pi-Ramesses, featured multiple huge temples and a sprawling palatial complex. Over the course of his reign, he did more building than any of his predecessors.

Aside from the new capital city, Ramses’ most enduring legacy was an enormous temple complex, dubbed the Ramesseum by the Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion in 1829. It included large courtyards, enormous statues of Ramses, and scenes representing his army’s greatest victories and Ramses himself in the company of several deities. Today, 39 of the 48 original columns are still standing, but much of the rest of the temple and its statues have long since disappeared.

Statues of pharaohs at the ruins of an Egyptian temple complex
The Great Temple at Abu Simbel is generally considered the greatest of the temples built during the reign of Ramses II. Tom Schwabel / Getty Images

When Nefertari died, approximately 24 years into Ramses’ reign, she was buried in a tomb fit for a queen. The wall paintings inside the structure, depicting the heavens, the deities, and Nefertari’s presentation to the gods, are considered some of the most exquisite achievements in art in ancient Egypt. Nefertari was not Ramses’ only wife, but she was honored as the most important. Her son, the crown prince Amun-her-khepeshef, died a year later.

Later Reign and Popular Legacy

After reigning for 30 years, Ramses II celebrated the traditional jubilee held for the longest-ruling pharaohs, called a Sed festival. By this point in his reign, Ramses had already achieved most of the accomplishments he would be known for: expanding and maintaining the kingdom’s territory, improving the infrastructure, and building new monuments. Sed festivals were held every three (or, sometimes, two) years after the first one; Ramses ended up celebrating 13 or 14 of them, more than any other pharaoh before him.

After reigning for 66 years, Ramses’ health deteriorated, as he suffered from arthritis and problems with his arteries and teeth. He died at the age of 90 and was succeeded by his son (the oldest son to outlive Ramses), Merneptah. He was first buried in the Valley of the Kings, but his body was moved to deter looters. In the 20th century, his mummy was taken to France for examination (which revealed that the pharaoh was most likely a fair-skinned redhead) and preservation. Today, it resides at the Museum of Cairo.

Statue of Ramses II sitting between stone colums
One of the statues of Ramses II at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. inigoarza / Getty Images

Ramses II was called the “Great Ancestor” by his own civilization, and several subsequent pharaohs took the regnal name Ramses in his honor. He’s often depicted in popular culture, and is one of the candidates for the pharaoh described in the Book of Exodus, although historians have never been able to determine conclusively who that pharaoh was. Ramses remains one of the best-known pharaohs and one who exemplifies what we know of the ancient Egyptian rulers.

Sources

  • Clayton, Peter. Chronology of the Pharaohs. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt. London: Aris & Phillips, 1983.
  • Rattini, Kristin Baird. “Who Was Ramses II?” National Geographic, 13 May 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/people/reference/ramses-ii/.