Many Egyptian pharaohs had built grand monuments, but only a few of them can match the majesty of the Ramesseum. A mortuary temple of Ramses II, the Ramesseum was built in Upper Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile across from the modern city of Luxor that stands on the sight of the ancient Thebes, Egypt’s capital during the New Kingdom.
It was one of the first building projects Ramses II commissioned during his long reign considered by most Egyptologists as one of the most successful in Egyptian history. Join us on a tour of one of Egypt’s greatest monuments that are still to reveal many secrets.
The Life and Early Reign of Ramses II
Egypt had experienced a period of upheaval towards the end of the 18th dynasty, largely as a result of Akhenaten’s religious reform, the aim of which was to replace Egypt’s many deities with one, the sun god Aten. Akhenaten’s heirs restored the worship of traditional gods, but political and religious turmoil had weakened Egypt militarily at a time when the Anatolian Hittite Empire was becoming more powerful.
The 18th dynasty had ended with the death of Horemheb, who chose as his heir Piramesse, a general who was not of royal origin. The brief reign of Ramses I, as he became known, was followed by that of his son, Seti I. Acknowledged as a great king, Seti successfully campaigned against the Hittites in Syria but is thought to have died suddenly in the 11th or 15th year of his reign.
Ramses II Becomes Pharaoh and Begins a Promising Reign
Seti I’s son, Ramses II, was trained to be both an able administrator and a general. He presumably followed his father on his campaigns as a crown prince and was an experienced general by the time of his accession.
Ramses II led numerous campaigns against Egypt’s enemies, which included Lybians of the Western Desert, Nubians, and Hittites, as well as the mysterious invaders called the Sherden sea pirates. Having successfully dealt with the invaders, the Pharaoh began a series of ambitious building projects that would cement his place in Egyptian history.
What Is the Ramesseum?
The practice of building mortuary temples as places where the deceased king could be worshipped for centuries after his death had already been established in the Old Kingdom. Mortuary temples of the 4th dynasty kings were constructed near their pyramids, whereas the Middle and New Kingdom rulers had built more modest tombs for themselves.
18th dynasty pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings on the western bank of the Nile directly across the capital city of Thebes. Queen’s Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri is an example of a new type of mortuary temple built in the architectural style of the New Kingdom, albeit inspired by an early Middle Kingdom mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II (c. 2040 – 2009 BCE).
– Ramses II Commissions a Mortuary Temple Within the Theban Necropolis
The Ramesseum was begun shortly after Ramses II’s accession, probably before year 2 of his reign. As the vigorous young King was expected to rule for many years, the decoration of the monument was undertaken much later and is thought to have been finished by Ramses’ 21st regnal year. The Egyptians referred to the temple as ‘the Mansion of Millions of Years’.
– The Layout of the Temple
The Mortuary Temple of Ramses II is comprised of two stone pylons, each about 200 ft wide. There are two courtyards and a large hypostyle hall at the heart of the complex featuring 48 massive columns.
The gigantic statue of Ramses II looms at the back of the first court where the archeologists uncovered a colossal statue of the enthroned Pharaoh which is believed to have been 62 ft high and weighed more than 1000 tons making it the largest extant colossal statue in the world.
The pylons and outer walls were inscribed with images depicting Ramses II’s military campaigns. Scenes commemorating the victory in the Battle of Kadesh are of particular importance to historians and Egyptologists since they provide a record of the battle and the war against the Hittites.
The second, or the inner court, is bordered by an Osiride portico. Beyond the second court stand the well-preserved remains of the great hypostyle hall which include a part of a ceiling decorated with gold stars on a blue background. Remains of two smaller temples within the complex were unearthed by archeologists. These belonged to Ramses’ mother, Tuya, and his great royal wife, Queen Nefertari.
Discovery and Excavation by European Archeologists
There is some evidence of the temple being a tourist attraction during the Ptolemaic and Roman times. Diodorus of Sicily provided a description of the ‘tomb of Osymandias’ a corruption of the name of Ramses, leading some historians to believe that the Ramesseum must have been in function at the time (mid I century BCE).
Ramesseum would only be rediscovered in the XVIII century by European adventurers and archeologists. Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in the closing years of the century laid the foundations of Egyptology as a science. Twenty years after Napoleon, an Italian adventurer, and engineer Giovanni Belzoni removed the head from one of the colossal granite statues in the second courtyard and had it shipped to England where it’s on display today.
The Temple That Inspired Poets and Scientists
Even in its ruined state, the gigantic Ramesseum temple teased the imagination of XIX century explorers, poets, and scientists. It continued to be referred to as the Tomb of Ozymandias or the Palace of Memnon until a visit to the temple by Jean-Francois Champollion who spotted the inscription ‘Ramesses’ on the temple walls and rechristened the temple as ‘Rhamesseion’.
The first serious excavations were undertaken in the mid to late XIX century. Restoration works at the site have been ongoing since the early 1990s, resulting in several discoveries, which include the unearthing of kitchens, bakeries, and a school where future scribes received their education.
The Ramesseum as the Model Temple
At the height of its glory, Ramses II temple was probably the richest temple holding in all Egypt. The ever-growing power of the priesthood of Amun, to whom the Ramesseum had been dedicated, was based on the wealth of temple holdings managed by the priests. A great number of people worked for the clergy of Amun, who became spectacularly wealthy as a result.
– Supplies That Reach the Sky and Overflowing Treasure Store
Today, we have an idea of the great wealth of Ramses’ mortuary temple thanks to an account written in the year 24 of Ramses II’s reign by the royal scribe and head of the treasury, Panehsy. More than 48,000 people worked in the temple, the figure that only took into account grain farmers, goatherds, fowl, and donkey keepers.
The following inscription attributed to Ramses II was found in the great hypostyle hall: “Build up supplies in the food stores until they reach the sky, let the treasure store be filled with electrum, royal line, gold, and all sorts of precious stones.”
– A Feast Befitting of a Great Pharaoh
Public and religious festivals were always accompanied by feasts. The feast of Opet during the reign of Ramses II lasted for three weeks, during which 11400 bread loaves and 385 measures of beer were served, in addition to rich offerings of meat, wine, fruit, and incense.
Battle of Kadesh: An Egyptian Victory or an Elaborate Propaganda Stunt?
Ramses II’s reign is famous for the Battle of Kadesh, a military confrontation between the Egyptians and the Hittites that took place near an eponymous town in Syria in 1274 BCE. The battle is famously depicted on the first pylon of the temple. Representations of other military campaigns in the Near East can be found under the eastern portico of the second courtyard and the eastern wall of the hypostyle hall.
How Ramses Represented a Stalemate as a Great Victory
Contrary to what we can infer from the depictions on the walls of the Ramesseum, the Battle of Kadesh ended in a stalemate. Exhausted by war, neither side was able to claim victory by force of arms. The ensuring status quo promoted the Egyptians to the Hittites to sign the world’s first recorded peace treaty in year 21 of Ramses’ reign. This treaty was engraved on the western wall of the first courtyard.
It did not prevent Ramses from representing it as a great victory for himself and Egypt. All Egyptian pharaohs exaggerated their achievements but Ramses took royal propaganda to a new level. Records of his victories can be seen on monuments throughout Egypt, serving as an early example of a successful propaganda campaign.
The King Who Outlived Most of His Children
During his long life, Ramses fathered more than 100 children, 40 to 53 daughters, and 48 to 50 sons. Only a few of them had outlived their father, who was more than 90 years old when he died. Among them are his eldest daughter Bintanath, and son Merneptah, who succeeded Ramses on the throne of Egypt. The state of Ramses’ mummy revealed he suffered from arthritis, dental problems, and the hardening of the arteries which troubled him toward the end of his life. Ramses II ruled Egypt for 67 years. He came to be known as the ‘Great Ancestor’.
The Ramesseum stands as a monument to the power and wealth of ancient Egypt’s most powerful ruler. A prolific builder, warrior, propagandist, and family patriarch, Ramses the Great had left an indelible mark on Egypt. Many of Ramses II buildings are today Egypt’s most iconic landmarks visited by millions of tourists from around the world. Ramesseum continues to fascinate people today for many reasons:
- Built during the peak of ancient Egypt’s power and wealth, the temple is an artistic treasure trove
- The temple walls depict the scenes from the Pharaoh’s many campaigns, including the famous Battle of Kadesh
- A large number of colossal statues were discovered in the temple courtyards
- It served as an inspiration for popular games and anime series such as Ramesseum tentyris
- The Ramesseum has defied time and made its builder truly immortal. Ramses II would have expected nothing less.