The great Ramses II was the ruler of Egypt for half of the 19th dynasty of the lavish New Kingdom. But why is he considered the greatest of all the pharaohs? And why is he still a star?

A sovereign builder

Ramses II wanted to bring Egypt back to its former glory when he rose to the throne in 1279 BC. He did this by erecting structures and statues across the nation. He was only the third pharaoh of a newly established dynasty, thus he made an effort to establish ties with the illustrious past of the former 18th dynasty, which included Amenhotep, Thutmose, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun. The temple of Abu Simbel, with its colossi of more than 20m high, as well as the colossi of Memphis and also the famed Ramesseum funerary temple located in the Theban necropolis in front of Luxor, attest to this.  He usurped his forefathers’ monuments by having his name etched on temples he did not build…

An opulent reign

The immense scale of Ramses II’s building campaign, the most important undertaken by a pharaoh, demonstrates the affluence of his reign. The temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel are among Egypt’s wonders. His funerary structure, the Ramesseum, housed a massive library of 10,000 papyrus scrolls. Ramses II’s reign as Pharaoh of the Golden Age marked the pinnacle and the last great period of wealth in ancient Egypt.

A tumultuous personal life

In addition to Nefertari and Isis-nefet, he is known to have had eleven official wives. There were four “diplomatic” weddings, with a daughter of the king of Babylon, a daughter of a Syrian prince, and two daughters of the Hittite monarch Hattousili III. However, it is important to note the large number of secondary wives and concubines, about 200 in total, producing at least 126 offspring. Given his extraordinary longevity, practically all of his main offspring (20 in total), those he had with his formal wives, died before their father. Merenptah, who ascended to the throne at a somewhat advanced age (55 to 60 years) and whose name is etched on the Sphinx of the Louvre, was the only one who succeeded him.

The renowned Nefertari was Ramses II’s favorite wife and companion. He married her when he was 15 or 16 years old, and she was only 13 or 14 years old. He will not become Pharaoh until he is 25 years old. She died quite early, presumably between the 21st and 34th years of Ramses’ reign, at the age of 40. Her husband was devastated and dedicated the Abu Simbel Temple to her memory.

An unusual hair color

Originally from a noble family in the western Delta, he had a sparkling head of hair that was partly red. “Ramses was partly redheaded because he had Semitic blood” explains the Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, in a France Culture podcast. However, having red hair was frowned upon at that time, because red was the color of the redheaded Seth, the murderer of Osiris, the Egyptian Satan … Embalmers colored the king’s mummy’s white hair with henna after he died as a nonagenarian.

The king of propaganda

His legendary battle of Qadesh against the Hittites, the first conflict described by ancient texts, is said to have resulted in Ramses II’s army winning in roughly 1274 BC. During Ramses’ reign, the triumph was abundantly documented, with phrases and images etched on the walls of his monuments. Historians now believe it was a tie or maybe an Egyptian defeat camouflaged as a personal win by Ramses II’s propaganda. The lack of Hittite sources raises serious doubts regarding the true conclusion of this conflict, which resulted in Egyptian territory losses.

The pharaoh of the Exodus?

Ramses II’s name is still remembered today in part as a result of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), which will go down in history as the seventh-biggest box office hit ever. Yul Brynner portrays Ramses II, the Pharaoh of the biblical Exodus, as the antagonist to Moses. This interpretation has been made by several Bible translators, as well as numerous historians who came after them, making Ramses II the oppressor of the Hebrew slaves, not just by Cecil B. DeMille.

This theory is very difficult to prove. For instance, no location recorded in the Bible is comparable to a city in Egypt. And during the crossing of the Red Sea, the Exodus pharaoh and his army are said to have been swept away by the waves. However, Ramses II’s mummy has been discovered.

Ramses, the return!

The exhibition “Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs” will be shown in Paris’ Grande Halle de la Villette from April 7 to September 6, 2023. The exhibition will feature 180 original pieces, some of which have never been seen outside of Egypt. Although the exhibition is traveling the world, the “Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs” show in Paris will be the only one to benefit from Egypt’s unique loan of Ramses II’s sarcophagus. The sarcophagus will exceptionally leave Egypt, because of its links with French archaeology, and to thank France for having saved the mummy of Ramses II.

The mummy was indeed “treated” in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The curators of the Cairo Museum were alerted by a sickening odor that fungi had formed in contact with modern air. Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt advocated for his rescue through the use of a laboratory built for the mummy during its exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. On September 26, 1976, the remains of Ramses the Great were welcomed at Paris’ Orly airport with the pomp and circumstance customary for heads of state: red carpet, Republican Guard, and a vast entourage of ministers and ambassadors!

The Compagnie des Guides offers private and group tours of the exhibition “Ramses and the Gold of the Pharaohs”.