If you are under the impression, as I was, that Tutankhamen was the greatest pharaoh of ancient Egypt, you are very mistaken. The boy king ‘Tut’ barely lived long enough to leave his mark. The fanfare around the discovery of his tomb and all its treasures remains his sole claim to fame.
The title of the ‘Greatest Pharaoh’ in the history of Egypt goes to his descendant Ramesses II. Brave soldier & empire builder. Son of Seti I and playmate of Moses (also subsequent enemy) and father of nearly a hundred sons.
He is omnipresent in Southern Egypt. Some of the country’s most splendid surviving monuments were built during his 66 year reign (1279 – 1213 BC) mainly to pander to his enormous vanity.
His statues tower over entrances to temples – his own and those he usurped – and are carved into hillsides. And his cartouches (an oval shape enclosing his name in hieroglyphics) are inscribed into anything worth looking at. His mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, was reputedly the most spectacular of his temples, though much of it is in ruin. Of the colossal statue that once stood guard here and supposedly inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias“, (Ozymandias is the Greek corruption of his throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re or “Chosen of Ra”), only the feet and a badly damaged head remain. Excavations near Cairo hint at the discovery of his famed capital city: Pi-Ramesses.
Although his achievements were considerable, he appears to have been the true precursor of present day politicians. Expertly bolstering his faltering image with the help of huge painted reliefs and inscriptions all glossing over his defeats and glorifying his contribution to battles he had actually been humiliated in.
The march of the Egyptian empire was halted by the Hittites – under his watch – at the battle of Kadesh and Ramesses was forced to accept the humiliating restrictions of a peace treaty. The treaty of Kadesh (1274 BC), believed to be the first ever such treaty, survives to this day and can be viewed at the archaeological museum in Istanbul. Not surprisingly. it narrates a very different perspective. As do records maintained by the high priests of Egypt.
Shelley’s “Ozymandias“, on the transience of power, is a metaphor that possibly refers to that one broken statue. For contrary to his claim a lot remains.
The art and the written words remain, of this vain and powerful man who embellished his achievements and usurped those of his ancestors to stamp his name and his monumental presence indelibly on the face of Egypt.
Rameses remains, despite his dissembling, Rameses the Great.