I used to wonder, when I listened to the tales of my acquaintances who had been fortunate enough to travel in Egypt, at the animosity they displayed toward Ramses II. I knew nothing particularly favorable about the gentleman then, but I was unaware of any deed of his which might have prompted the snarl of contempt with which his name was mentioned. Now that I have visited Egypt myself I can understand the reaction; I too snarl. One gets so tired of Ramses; his face, his figure, and/or his name are plastered over half the wall surfaces still standing in Egypt—at least it seems that way. Egyptian sculpture during his reign was beginning to decline from the high standards of his father, and the statues of Ramses which so weary the eye are often stubby and unattractive. But worst of all is the sheer number of them, which is surpassed only by the number of his cartouches. You can’t miss them; they are cut inches deep into walls and columns. One is entitled to suspect that Ramses, who had replaced the names of some of his predecessors with his own, was making sure nobody was going to scratch his off.

He was the son of Seti I and he was the pharaoh who made the name of Ramses practically a synonym for Egyptian kingship. He had some help in this from a later Ramses, the third in number, but the chief responsibility rests with him. Next to that of Tutankhamon, his name is better known to the public than that of any other Egyptian king, and Ramses II’s fame was created by the liberal use of a well-known principle of modern advertising—repetition. How well he deserved the reputation he built for himself may be seen by one striking incident of his career, and the expert use he made of it in order to build the desired image.

His father, Seti, had begun the reconquest of Egypt’s Asiatic empire. Just how far the older man got we aren’t certain, but he had evidently regained control of Palestine and parts of southern Syria. Ramses burned to surpass his father; he wanted to be a warrior. His first campaign was a tentative push into Palestine, in his fourth year. In the following year he was ready for a more ambitious project.

His goal was a famous city indeed. Thutmose III had captured it twice, though not without difficulty. It had been the home of Thutmose’s most trying adversary, and it was still an important city; its name was Kadesh. Part of the city’s strategic strength lay in its position, near the mouth of the valley between the Lebanons, through which a northbound army would normally pass. Kadesh was a mighty fortress, and it was defended by a mighty army, for Ramses’ opponents were none other than the Hittites. Shubilulliuma, who had outfoxed himself only once in the matter of Tutankhamon’s widow, was long dead, but his grandson, Muwatallis, still felt that the Hittites had a claim on the city-states of north Syria. Conflict with the Hittites was inevitable to any Egyptian army bent on expansion during these years, just as a collision with Mitanni had been inevitable for Thutmose III. Hatti had replaced Mitanni as the most important power of the area; of the two, the Hittites were probably far more formidable.

At this period the Egyptian army was an impressive institution, professional in character, well trained, and well equipped. In one important particular it had altered since the heyday of Thutmose III: more and more of the troops were non-Egyptians, mercenaries or conquered enemies forced to serve under the banners of Egypt. Ramses’ army was divided into four sections, each named after one of the great gods of Egypt—Amon and Re, Ptah of Memphis, and Sutekh, who was a Semitic deity related to—of all people—Set.

A month after the army left Egypt, Ramses found himself standing on a hill about fifteen miles from Kadesh. No doubt he stood dramatically on the top and shaded his eyes with his hand, straining to see the dim towers and formidable walls in the distance. The strength of the army at his back, and his own stunning self-confidence, left him in no doubt of the eventual outcome. He set out for Kadesh early the next morning, hoping to get the business settled before dark.

Ramses commanded the division of Amon, which he led down the steep slopes to the ford of the Orontes—the first spot at which an army might cross that river. As he was preparing for the crossing, a pair of wandering Bedouins was scooped up by Egyptian scouts and brought to the king. They proclaimed themselves Hittite deserters who were anxious to fight on the right side—the Egyptian side—and they volunteered the welcome news that the Hittites were not at Kadesh at all. They were in Aleppo, far to the north. Ramses’ reception of this cheering information was no doubt conditioned by the fact that it was just what he wanted to hear. He pushed on toward the city, leaving the three divisions of Ptah, Sutekh, and Re far behind and, in his zeal, even outstripping the division of Amon. When he set up his camp on the west of the city he was accompanied only by his bodyguard.

Then it happened that two more Asiatics were captured by the Egyptians; and the story they told did not exactly jibe with the first report of the two Bedouins. The Hittites, as a matter of fact, were not in Aleppo. They were on the other side of the city of Kadesh, and they had not been idle while Ramses was trying to outrun his own army.

Even Ramses the Complacent must have lost his breath for a few minutes when he heard that news. His reaction was typical; he called his commanders in and told them what fools they were. He then did something practical, but a little too late, sending messengers speeding south to summon the division of Ptah. The division of Amon had caught up with its complacent leader, and Ramses knew that the division of Re was not far behind. This latter division was actually closer than he knew.

Back at the Hittite camp, matters had been progessing well—from the Hittite point of view. Muwatallis, the Hittite king, was a strategist so superior to Ramses that his talents are obvious even in the Egyptian version of the story, which was not designed to glorify the enemy. Or maybe the strategist was one of his generals. The king would get the credit in any case.

He had, to begin with, completely fooled Ramses with his carefully planted “deserters” and their implausible story. (The nameless Bedouins were patriots of a high caliber; they were risking their necks, in case the Egyptians did not believe their story, and I personally hope they slipped away from their guards in the confusion that was to come.) Then, as Ramses proceeded blithely along the plain on the west side of Kadesh, Muwatallis led his army south on the east side of the city, unseen by the Egyptians; crossed the ford; and smashed into the division of Re before its commanders so much as dreamed that there was a Hittite within fifty miles of the place.

Ramses, stamping and swearing, was not aware of this latest disaster until the fugitives from the broken and demoralized division of Re burst into his camp and on through it, carry ing with them the bewildered division of Amon. The pursuing Hittites were not far behind. They surrounded the camp; and there was Ramses, all alone except for the Hittites.

He says he was all alone, and even allowing for poetic license the statement is probably not too inaccurate. A few officers—the remains of the house hold troops—were not much against 2,500 chariots filled with ferocious Hittite soldiers. According to Ramses, however, he had no support at all. “There was no captain with me, no charioteer, no soldier of the army, no shield-bearer; my infantry and chariotry melted away before them, not one of them stood firm to fight.”

So the king addressed himself to Amon:

Have I done anything without thee, do I not walk and halt at thy biddings? What careth thy heart, O Amon, for these Asiatics, so vile and so ignorant of maat?

After working himself up to the proper pitch of religious fervor, Ramses hurled himself upon the enemy. He routed them single-handedly, driving them into the river. It seems that we must credit Ramses II with one virtue: he did not lack courage. He was also a magnificent liar, but then that was expected of him; even if the king had ordered his scribes to write down a tale of stupidity and defeat, his horrified courtiers would have carried him quietly away and then made sure the conventional eulogy was carved on the walls of his temple. We know that Ramses survived the battle, got back to Egypt, and ruled for many more years. What saved him was the arrival of unexpected aid.

The divisions of Re and Amon were in headlong flight to the north; the division of Sutekh was far in the rear, near the ford, and in fact, it never saw fighting at all. The division of Ptah was his best hope, but with the scanty resources at his command in the camp he could not expect to hold out until that division came up. But there were other troops, not part of the regular army, on the way. We do not know exactly where they came from, for they are called only “the Nearen from the land of Amurru.” These troops fell upon the Hittites from the rear, and with their help the king managed to hold the field until the rays of the declining sun caught the tips of the golden standards of the division of Ptah, toiling along the dusty road toward the succor of its king.

Nightfall ended the fighting but brought no decision as to victory. The enemy withdrew to the city, leaving Ramses in possession of the bloody field; the straggling soldiers of the divisions of Amon and Re crept shamefacedly back to the king they had deserted. Ramses says the Hittites then sued for peace, which he magnanimously granted.

At this point we are faced with a major problem in historiography. In other words, how much of this can we reasonably swallow? We have seen how varied and how remarkable are the sources from which a student of history may derive the information he uses to make up a consistent story of what happened in the past. When written records are few the historian uses other materials, which require complicated analyses. But even when an event is well documented, even when we have a written, pseudohistorical account, we must still evaluate the reliability of the source. Many questions must be asked. Is the tale written by an eyewitness or does the author rely on secondhand information? If the former, was he a good observer? If the latter, has he examined his witnesses and tried to test their eyesight and credibility? What is the bias of the author either for or against the people he is writing about? Even if he professes to be moved solely by a desire to record the “truth,” is he sufficiently detached from the scene and the players of the drama to write about them dispassionately? Does he have a conscious or unconscious purpose—vilification or glorification of a man or a belief, self-aggrandizement, propaganda? In some cases we must pry into the entire life history of a chronicler or writer of history in order to discover his prejudices and the bearing they may have on his interpretation of the events of the time.

Our task of evaluating the written records of ancient Egypt is relatively easy, since we can start with the assumption that every scribe had an ax or two to grind. The annals of the various kings are not a factual record of events; they are intended to glorify the kings, on earth and in the Hereafter. Hence we can and must take every statement made in such annals with a good-size chunk of salt. We cannot even be sure that Thutmose III was all that good. We think he—and when I say “he” I mean, of course, the scribe who composed the inscriptions under the king’s watchful eye—we think Thutmose III was fairly accurate. We can check some of his accounts through other sources, and his story has a certain indefinable, but significant, air of verisimilitude. Ramses II’s version of the Battle of Kadesh is transparently, naively eulogistic, and what actually happened was so bad that even the Egyptian scribe could not conceal all the disasters nor all his king’s stupidity.

Since we know that the purpose of the narrative was the glorification of the king, we can assume with some confidence that any anti-Ramses or anti-Egyptian remarks are probably correct. Thus, when interpreting the battle inscription, we state that Ramses outstripped the rest of his army; he credulously accepted the story of the two patriotic Bedouins; the division of Re was caught unaware and was annihilated; the majority of the forces encamped with the king were swept away in the rout. We can also state that Ramses survived the battle and got home. Egyptologists generally concede Ramses’ personal valor, while condemning him as a poor strategist and a poorer general, but we cannot even be sure about that. Ramses might have spent the battle hours hiding under a baggage cart while some unnamed (and short-lived) hero of Egypt rallied the meager forces in the camp and held them until help arrived. Let no one believe that I am misled by personal animus against a man who has been a mummy for several thousand years. I am perfectly willing to concede that Ramses may have been an Achilles in battle. Achilles was none too bright either. All I am saying is that we will never know for certain.

We do know that the Battle of Kadesh did not have the result which the Egyptians claimed—results that would be hard to believe in any case, just on the basis of the situation that prevailed at the end of the first day of battle. The Egyptian army had been badly demoralized, one-quarter of its strength annihilated at the very beginning of hostilities. The Hittites had certainly suffered severely during the afternoon, but they withdrew to the city in good order and their leader was not killed (the Egyptians would have gloated over his demise if it had occurred, and given Ramses the credit). It is inconceivable that they would have tamely surrendered after such an inconclusive “defeat” as the Egyptian records claim was inflicted.

Fortunately we do not have to rely on logic to prove that the Egyptians lost that fight. By one of those almost miraculous coincidences that do occur, we have at our disposal the Hittite version of the same battle, from the royal archives of the capital of Boghazkoi. According to it, Ramses was defeated and had to retreat, losing much of the territory his father had held.

Of course the same criteria apply to the Hittite records as to the Egyptian; the kings of Hatti were no more averse to flattery than were their royal counterparts to the south. But the Hittites continued to hold Kadesh and certain other cities formerly controlled by Egypt. The final conclusion to the rivalry of Hittites and Egyptians was not a resounding defeat for either side. In year twenty-one of Ramses II a treaty of peace was concluded between the two powers—the first international treaty of which we have record. And to make the wonder more complete, we have both versions, Hittite and Egyptian. The Egyptian copy of the treaty survives from the walls of Karnak and the Ramesseum, and the Hittite copy on two clay tablets from Boghazkoi. The latter was probably an archival version of the original, which was supposed to have been inscribed on plates of silver.

In their essential provisions the two texts are strikingly similar, which indicates that they really were parallel versions of the same agreement. They begin with a reference to former treaties, none of which is definitely known. Then the two monarchs mutually renounce any attempts at future invasion and swear perpetual peace. The treaty establishes a defensive alliance, which holds both in case of external invasion or internal rebellion. It also provides for the mutual extradition of refugees. The Egyptian version reads as follows:

If a man flee from the land of Egypt—or two, or three—and they come to the Great Prince of Hatti, the Great Prince of Hatti shall lay hold of them, and he shall cause that they be brought back to Ramses the great ruler of Egypt. But, as for the man who should be brought to the great ruler of Egypt, do not cause that his crime be raised against him; do not cause that his house or his wives or his children be destroyed; do not cause that he be slain, do not cause that injury be done to his eyes, to his ears, to his mouth, or to his legs.

The same provisions hold in the case of fugitives from Hatti who escape to Egypt. The striking aspect of this section is not the notion of extradition, nor the unmistakable ring of the lawyers’ phraseology, but the humanitarianism enjoined upon the two kings. It seems quite inexplicable unless we assume some mutually accepted moral or legal code of—not so much justice as mercy, for the malefactor’s crime is to be forgiven him.

The two treaties are almost exact parallels, but not quite exact. The Egyptians felt it incumbent upon them to add a prologue explaining that the treaty was granted by merciful Ramses after the Hittite king came crawling and begging for peace. No comment.

Some years later, the alliance was cemented by a royal marriage, and Ramses’ version of this diplomatic stroke is equally—I almost said characteristically—egomaniacal. The Hittites are described as “coming with fearful steps, bearing all their possessions as tribute to the fame of His Majesty. His eldest daughter comes before, in order to satisfy the heart of the Lord of the Two Lands.”

Ramses evidently could not recognize an inconsistency if it walked up and bit him. He implies that the poor Hittite princess was thrust into the ravening jaws of the dragon Ramses by her trembling father; but elsewhere he exchanges the role of dragon for that of a chivalrous prince, who rushes out at the head of a well-equipped escort to meet his promised bride with all honor. The tale concludes in the second, fairy-tale strain: “She was beautiful in the eyes of His Majesty, and he loved her more than anything!”

It is a shame to dim the glow of this pretty story, which would make a standard diplomatic marriage into a case of love at first sight; but, of course, the version we have is another of the standard court fictions. The Hittite princess—poor girl—was raised to the rank of chief royal wife, but her throne was uncomfortably crowded. The women’s quarters were a standard architectural element of all Egyptian palaces; but it is probable that few kings of Egypt had harem quarters covering as many acres as did Ramses. We do not know exactly how many wives he had. Most of them were not wives, strictly speaking, but occupied a position analogous to that of legal concubine. A higher rank in the harem was held by the king’s wives, who were not so numerous as the concubines. We usually translate “king’s wife” as “queen,” but the woman who really held the place of royal consort was the “king’s great wife.” Sometimes this lady was a lowly commoner; sometimes she was the king’s half-sister or his full sister. Brother-sister marriages were common in the royal house of Egypt, although the practice was rare among humbler folk. The king was a law unto himself, in marriage as in other matters, and we have a few cases of father-daughter marriages; at least the evidence is hard to interpret in any other way.

Ramses II was one of the kings who apparently married some of his own children. It is possible that he had forgotten momentarily that he was related to them; the total sum of his offspring exceeded 150, and no man can be expected to keep that many little faces clearly in mind. Because of paternal pride—or some other reason—Ramses liked to show off his children, and if you visit the temple of Luxor at Thebes you can see a long line of them carved on the wall, all in a row like so many upright sardines.

The Luxor temple, begun by Amenhotep III, was only one of the many monuments dedicated by Ramses to the greater glory of Ramses. He added a forecourt, a huge pylon, and massive statues to the front of the temple. In order to achieve this noble end, he spared none of the works of his ancestors, razing the temples and pyramids of past ages in order to obtain handy precut building blocks. At this time the royal capital was in the Delta region, which has not been so methodically excavated as has Upper Egypt; hence Ramses’ most famous temples are in the southern part of Egypt, and they include some of the standard tourist attractions. He was responsible for finishing the great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak, the most spectacular section of that crowded and complex temple. The vast trunklike columns are staggering in their size and number, and no traveler comes away from Egypt without a photograph of a row of them, with a handy guide posed against one to give some idea of relative dimensions. Ramses’ mortuary temple, across the river from Karnak, is called the Ramesseum, and it too is on the list of Things to See while in Luxor. The best known of all his monuments is the rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia, with its four colossal statues of the king. A second, smaller temple at the same site was dedicated to Nefertari, one of Ramses’ principal and most favored queens.

These temples were the most conspicuous of the Egyptian antiquities threatened by the building of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s. The old dam had left the island of Philae under water for part of the year. The new one would cover it entirely and inundate a huge area of lower Nubia, with its temples, ancient sites, and villages. The Egyptian government called on the international community for help, and the response was immediate. For almost twenty years expeditions worked in the area, in a frantic attempt to excavate and record as many sites as possible before the deluge. Some of the smaller temples were moved to safer locations. The biggest problem was what to do with Abu Simbel. It was not a freestanding temple, like the others; its chambers and halls were cut into the solid rock of the cliff.

The problem was certainly one of the most fantastically difficult ever faced by a team of archaeologists and engineers, and some of the solutions proposed were even more fantastic. The simplest suggestion was to build a dam around the temples and install a pumping station to take care of seepage and overflow. But if the pumps had failed, for any reason, the temples would have been flooded in no time. So this scheme had to be abandoned.

The most intriguing suggestion was one proposed by Italian engineers—to cut both temples free of the cliff into which they had been carved, and lift them up above the water level by means of hydraulic jacks. Concrete blocks would be inserted underneath as the temples slowly rose. Impossible as this plan sounds, it was approved by an international committee of experienced engineers, but it too had to be given up because of the prohibitive cost. The estimate was $85 million. It doesn’t sound like much compared to the cost of modern wars, but it was a lot of money back then.

The plan that was eventually carried out was to carve the temples up into thirty-ton blocks and move them. They stand today atop the cliffs, two hundred feet above their original location, where they attract as many tourists as they always did. The blocks were stuck back together with one of the new synthetic glues.

Undoubtedly this was a monumental achievement and a magnificent testimonial to international cooperation, but there were a few cynics who wondered whether it was worth the effort. I have already made a number of rude, possibly unfair, remarks about Ramses II, so I will refrain from criticizing his temples, and I would be the first to admit that seeing Abu Simbel, especially at night, is a memorable experience.

Ramses does have one spectacular artistic achievement to his credit—the exquisitely painted tomb of his queen Nefertari. In its present state it is a tribute not only to Ramses but also to the efforts of a modern team of restorers, who spent years repairing the badly damaged walls. In her white pleated robe, her face exquisitely made up, the queen pays homage to various gods who will guide her through the perils of the Afterlife. One can only hope that the astronomical entrance fee and the detetermination of the Egyptian government to limit access will prevent future deterioration.

Ramses’ own tomb, in the Valley of the Kings, is in poor condition, and most of the decoration is missing. However, a few years ago an American archaeologist, Kent Weeks, made a discovery that electrified not only the world of Egyptology but the world media. The tomb of the sons of Ramses II is the largest ever found in Egypt—well over a hundred rooms so far, and still counting. It’s even more of a mess than that of Ramses himself, and the work of excavation has been unbelievably difficult.

Ramses probably gave up the ghost with the satisfying feeling that he had done the best he could. Lots of statues, lots of temples. In other matters he was no less diligent. There would be no dangerous uncertainty about a male heir to the throne; Ramses had supplied Egypt almost as abundantly with sons as with statues. He reigned for sixty-seven years and was over ninety when he died—a ripe old age indeed, considering the state of ancient medical knowledge, but then Egypt has a notoriously healthy climate, and clean living tells in the end. A goodly number of crown princes abandoned hope and died while Ramses flourished; it’s easy to understand why he was driven to burying them in a group grave. He was succeeded by his thirteenth son, Merneptah, who was himself well past middle age when he gained the long-awaited crown. The poor man deserved a peaceful reign after waiting so long for it, but it was his unhappy fate to meet the greatest challenge Egypt had had to face since the days of the Hyksos.

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