Who was Ramses II?

As a sign of good diplomatic faith, Ramesses II married the eldest daughter of the Hittite king. She joined him, his chief queen, Nefertari, and her impressive family – he fathered more than a hundred children – in his new capital, Per Ramessu, who, with some relevance but also a lot of audacity, bears her name. (See the wedding of Ramesses II and the Hittite princess inside.)

The wealth of Ramesses II’s reign is evident in the opulence of his building campaign, the largest undertaken by a pharaoh. The temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel are among the greatest wonders of Egypt. His mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, contained an enormous library of some 10,000 rolls of papyrus. He honored his father – and himself – by building temples at Abydos.

Despite Ramesses II’s best efforts to ensure the continuity of his legacy, there is evidence of his power that he did not foresee. After his death, the next nine pharaohs took his name when they ascended the throne, thus reinforcing his stature as “great” among the rulers of Egypt.


Elevated view of the Temple of Ramses and the banks of the Nile.

Ramesses II wanted there to be absolutely no doubt about the pharaoh who built the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. At its entrance, four seated statues almost 20 meters high serve as sentinels. Dedicated to the gods of the sun, the temple extends over almost 60 meters in its cliff, by a series of three imposing rooms. Scenes depict Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh as well as the pharaoh and his chief wife, Nefertari, making offerings to the sun gods. Ramses ordered the construction nearby of a second smaller temple, for Nefertary.

Due to its isolated location, Abu Simbel was not discovered until 1813. In 1959, when construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to flood the site, UNESCO embarked on an unprecedented rescue operation, which lasted 20 years and allowed the two temples of Abu Simbel to be moved – stone by stone – to higher ground, some 60 meters higher on the cliff.


Among the hundred or so descendants of Ramses II, Prince Khaemwaset occupies a special place. He exercised the prestigious function of high priest of Ptah, the patron god of Memphis. Bas-reliefs depict him in his important role as guardian of the tomb of the sacred Apis bulls of Ptah, in the subterranean complex known as the Serapeum.

Khaemwaset’s most important legacy is his groundbreaking role as one of the earliest known archaeologists. He was fascinated by the thousand-year-old Old Kingdom monuments that surrounded him in Memphis. He inspected and restored several temples and pyramids. At each restoration, he recorded the names and titles of the original “owners” of the building as well as his own and that of his father. A millennium after his death, he is revered as a scholar and is the subject of a series of reports on his achievements.