A day of September 1976, in the middle of an unusual movement, a militar plane landed in France. On board, and receiving State Honors was no less than a mummy. That flight had given a tour over some historic monuments before leavin Egypt, as a tribute to a very distinguished personality. The purpose on that trip was to treat the mummified body, to save it from a slow but continuous damage, due to microorganisms.
Those were the mummified remains of a remarkable person indeed: the pharaoh Ramesses II. It is sure that he would have felt quite satisfied, knowing that he would still receive high honors three thousand years after his death. But, how was the life of such a noteworthy character?
By the year 1340 BC. Egypt was immersed in chaos. The religious reforms of the pharaoh Akhenaten had started the rebellion of the priests, and soon there were riots all over the country. His fanatiscm made him abandon his responsabilities as king and as military commander too. After some time, the crown ended into Horemheb's hands... he was a general without any relation with the royal family. As the new ruler, he tried to restore the internal order, and so at the frontiers. But he left unsolved the Hittites problem, a very important issue to Egypt.
When Horemheb died, the throne throne went to his vizier, another general: Ramesses I. He was an old man, but had male descendants, something very important then. Although he came from a high prestige military family, not a single drop of royal blood was running through his veins. As expected, this king had a short reign, a little more than a year. In 1303 BC. Egypt had a new pharaoh, Sethi I.
By that time, the future Ramesses II was a ten years old boy. He was born in Avaris, on the eastern side of the Nile delta. Later he would move the capital of the country to this city, naming it as Pi-Ramesses. The prince grew up between his brothers and although he was not the first born, at the end was the heir to the throne. The boy received a high quality education, but to avoid succession intrigues,he was named as Regent Prince, still as a child.
Being only fifteen years old, Ramesses began to have military responsabilities. He served beside his father in campaings at Lybia and Syria. The first time he commanded troops was at Kush (Nubia) when he was twenty one. Also was in charge as mines and construction supervisor everywhere around the country. It seems that his liking for monumental building began on those days.
He got married still very young, at seventeen years old, with Nefretiri... whom he seemed to love deeply. Despite that, nothing stopped him from having a numerous harem. Among them, he even came to have sisters and daughters! Outrageous as it may be, we should not forget that it was their way to keep the purity of the royal blood.
Ramesses II would have a quite large number of descendants, a hundred and fifty sons. It should has not been difficult to find a heir to the throne. But he reigned for so long, that he outlasted many of those sons. We might guess that more than one of them was aspiring to the crown, but had to remain waiting for his moment. Anyway, most of them got important positions, with high responsabilities as rulers. Finally, the heir was Ramesses' thirteenth son: called Merenptah.
As the new pharaoh, he wore the Two Reigns Crown in 1290 BC. after the funerals of his father, Sethi I. Soon he found himself in front of some military threats... was necessary to deal with the so called Sea Peoples. It was the name the Egyptians gave to any invader coming from the Mediterranean Sea. In that case, were Sards invaders. Ramesses II showed a high capacity, winning a naval battle (Egypt was not strong at the sea), and was clever enough to draw many of the enemies to his army.
Facing the progress of the rebellion on the Retjenu lands (Canaan and Lebanon), he decided to subdue them. The king acomplished it, but still had a huge obstacle in Syria, with their old enemies, the Hittites. They had become strong, and the clash was unavoidable. In many ways it was a remarkable battle: it was the first well documented confrontation of that magnitude in History... also was the last battle clearly associated to the Bronze Era technology.
They finally met at Kadesh or Qadesh. Another interesting issue results obvious: both sides claimed the victory. Everything seems to suggest that the four corps of the Egyptian army, which never gathered, were caught by surprise. The Hittites attacked earlier than expected, surrounding Ramesses II... then he was in danger! A second corp was coming to support him, but the enemy destroyed it. So the pharaoh had to fight for his life, side by side with his men, showing a great courage and determination. At this point, some mistakes of the Hittites, permitted the Egyptians and allies to regroup.
How impressive the scene! Under a burning sun, the plain at the foot of the city, near to the Orontes river. The Hittite army with their massive war chariots, against the light and nimble Egyptian carts, opening gaps for the infantry corps. Flying darts: a true shower of arrows, into a huge cloud of dust. It was a tragic dance of shapeless bodies... to the rythm of a dreadful symphony of hittings and terrible screams. Were tens of thousands men fiercely struggling. Everything indicates that it lasted more than one day and finally the Egyptians took control of the situation.
Ramesses II made of this battle a continuous self-praise theme. On several monuments he made to engrave the story of how by his own hand, he almost crushed and beat the Hittites. Of course, the latter had a different version, so leading to a controversy about who really won at Kadesh. We always prefer in such cases of doubt, to take an average option... like there were no winners or losers. If any of them won, was paying a high price. The truth was that the king of Hatti and the pharaoh at the end had a peace agreement. There they talked as equals, and by the way: it is the first well documented accord between nations in History! Even more, Ramesses II married an Hittite princess, few years later, showing that they became allies. But the vanity excess of the pharaoh could be excusable for a man who fought like a lion. His efforts leading his men contributed to change the course of an almost lost battle. Sadly, with the pass of time, both civilizations resulted weakened due to their long wars.
The rest of his prolonged reign, Ramesses II enjoyed of many peaceful periods. It allowed him to focus on his favorite activity: the monumental construction. Also, he was able to control the ethernal intrigues of the clergy, when he named a faithful person called Nebumenef, as the High Priest.
It seems possible that the captivity of the people of Israel had happened under Ramesses II goverment. The intense constructive activity of those times needed of all the workforce "available". Although no Egyptian inscription registers this, it is mentioned on the Bible (Exodus, 1:11). Maybe someday we get to know the truth of all theses happenings.
The most likely is that Ramesses II in his egomania, did not hesitate to take for him some monuments made by former pharaohs. He even erased earlier inscriptions, to write his own... but sure he was not the first to do it. Anyway, during his more than sixty years reign, he had time enough to build as he liked in all Egypt. Some scholars have thought that with his long lasting goverment and the high public expenses, began the empire decadence.
The magnificence of his architecture and sculptures have amazed many people... Those splendid ruins of Thebes, which make our imagination travel to the past. Karnak and its religious complexes, object of sumptuous works. The Abu Simbel temples, saved from its sinking under the waters of a dam, fifty years ago. The Ramesseum, destined to be his tomb, with his colossal statues, its abundant inscriptions and low reliefs. Those and many others, constitute a "gigantic architecture" not always praised by the experts.
In the year 1223 BC. this personage died, at ninety years. Ramesses II was a man with a strong personality, who knew well how to be tough and cruel. He kept himself distant from his people, but could maintain the common good and peace... even by the treaties and agreements; it all shows his political skills!
He always has been depicted as a plentiful man: The Sun King, Ramesses the Great.
It is striking that precisely himself, has been who travelled from a remote past to bring us a message. With his mummified body, he is talking about the brevity and fragility of life... and how absurd are human arrogance and vanity. But, why could someone like him be destined to bring us such a message?
Sure we will come back to the Ancient Egypt, maybe we get to find answers, or perhaps more questions...