Egypt's Golden Empire
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Ramesses II
Ramesses II depicted in Nefertari's tomb
Despite a very shaky start, Ramesses II (reigned c1279 - 1212 BC) used diplomacy, a massive building program and endless propaganda to become the greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ancient Egypt's Golden Age.

Born a commoner, his family's military skills brought Ramesses to the throne at the age of just 15. He immediately faced serious challenges. The Egyptian empire was under threat from the Hittites, who lived in what is now Turkey. They were far more advanced than the Egyptians and were already pushing against the northern border of Egypt's empire.

Testing the new king

An inexperienced, young king presented them with the perfect opportunity to extend their own empire. Within a few years, they had invaded and captured the strategically important trading town of Kadesh.

Ramesses raised an army and sped off to fight the Hittites. He was a young man, highly confident, but also impulsive. This would cause him some serious problems.

Battle of Kadesh
Falling into a trap

The Egyptian advance party camped outside Kadesh and waited for the others to catch up. He was not expecting battle any time soon and the capture of two spies confirmed that the Hittites were still some distance from the Egyptian camp. Ramesses believed them and didn't bother sending out any scouts of his own.

This was a massive mistake: the spies were Hittite agents sent to lull the Egyptians into a trap. The Hittites were actually camped just across the river, ready to attack. At the very last minute, Ramesses discovered their plan and immediately sent for reinforcements.

Saved by the cavalry

But it was too late. The Hittites attacked. The Egyptians soon crumbled and the battle looked all but lost. Luckily, the reinforcements which Ramesses had ordered arrived just in time. They surprised the Hittites and left the Egyptians holding the battlefield.

Ramesses had been fortunate, but had not achieved the decisive victory he wanted. He knew the Hittites would return to attack towns like Kadesh.

Bring on the spin

Despite this, Ramesses began a huge campaign that claimed that he had won the battle single-handed. Across Egypt, temple walls were carved with this official version of the battle. It was spin-doctoring on a grand scale.

Although his people thought him a hero, Ramesses knew perfectly well that he couldn't defeat the Hittites. He had to cut a deal. Long negotiations led to a peace treaty with the Hittites, which was cemented when Ramesses married a Hittite princess and brought her home to his new capital, Per Ramesses.

Ramesses II tomb at Abu Simpel
Getting the builders in

Now at peace, Ramesses could concentrate on his two great loves - his chief queen, Nefertari, and himself. He constructed the Ramesseum, a temple, purpose-built to manufacture tales of his greatness. At its heart was the House of Life, a massive library dedicated to glorifying the pharaoh. It contained some 10,000 papyrus scrolls that created an official image of Ramesses that was larger than life.

He also began a building program far greater than anything ever seen before. An entire village, Deir el Medineh, housed craftsmen whose sole purpose was to build two magnificent tombs. These were carved out of mountains in southern Egypt and were constructed for Ramesses and Nefertari.

But the building did not end there. Almost every temple in Egypt was redecorated or rebuilt. At Karnak, the most holy of temples, a field of 134 columns were carved, each 69 feet tall and shaped like papyrus trees.

Ramesses II mummy
Father of the nation?

Ramesses also knew that he needed heirs and over his long life, he boasted that he had fathered 80 sons and around 60 daughters. But his long life meant that many of his children died before him and he had to train 12 sons to be crown prince.

When Ramesses finally did die, he was 93 years old, an incredible age in a land where most died before they were 40. Egypt was paralyzed with grief. Nearly all of his subjects had been born in his reign and thought the world would end without him. In a way they were right.

Ramesses II did become the legendary figure he so desperately wanted to be, but this was not enough. New enemies were attacking the empire and it could not last. Less than 150 years after Ramesses died, his empire fell, his descendants lost their power and the New Kingdom came to an end.

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Egyptian society - Workers
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Egypt's Golden Empire