Few individuals in Egypt’s history have aroused as much curiosity, and as much skepticism, as Ramses II, third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty, whom history dubbed Ramses the Great. Today Ramses II is probably best known for leaving behind a monumental set of works—palaces, temples, statues, stelae—each one extolling his pharaonic achievements. Every battle was a mighty triumph, every building spectacular, every statue and public work magnificent, every act a near superhuman achievement.
Ramses’ family came to power as outsiders. They were northerners hailing from the Nile Delta and rose through military service, rather than southerners rising from elite circles in Thebes. To rally support, Ramses II used these massive monuments to appeal to the people as part of a campaign to proclaim his greatness for all to see. Ramses lived around 90 years and ruled for almost 70. Thanks to his building campaigns, Egyptologists know much about his public accomplishments, but questions about his wives and children still remain.
O. LOUIS MAZZATENTA/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC IMAGE COLLECTION
One of the most striking aspects of Ramses II’s story is the women who surrounded him: great royal wives and concubines, secondary wives and daughters, whom he sometimes “married,” for political show or perhaps for real. He produced an extraordinary number of sons and daughters: Some records say as many as a hundred. Because of his long reign, many of his children predeceased him.
Out of all of his wives, only two were known to have had prominent roles: Nefertari and Isetnofret, the first two named great royal wives. While the former figures prominently in Egyptian sources and countless representations of her exist, little is known of the latter, almost as if Ramses wanted her hidden. It is only natural to wonder about the reasons for such unequal treatment.
(Egypt’s first pharaohs loved catfish—and worshipped them.)
When he became co-regent with his father, Seti I, Ramses II received a palace in Memphis, just south of the Nile Delta, and a large harem, including the first two great royal wives. The origins of Nefertari and Isetnofret are unknown, but that has not prevented the wildest of speculation about them. Everything suggests that Nefertari was Ramses II’s favorite wife. Her beauty is attested to in the statues and paintings in her tomb in the Valley of the Queens.
However, it is uncertain what she actually looked like, since some images raise doubts about who is depicted. For example, in Karnak, a small statue of Nefetari stands at the foot of a colossus representing Ramses II, her husband. The colossus was later usurped by Pharaoh Pinedjem I, who had his name inscribed on it, and the features of both figures may have been modified. Was only the name changed? Is that beautiful face still Nefertari’s? Egyptologists believe so.
Nefertari took part in official events alongside Ramses. She is shown celebrating his coronation, in festivities of the god Min, and in Nebunenef’s enthronement as High Priest of Amun. Her diplomacy culminated in a peace treaty between Ramses and the Hittites several years after the Battle of Kadesh (1274 B.C.) had resulted in a stalemate between the two powers.
Ramses II showed a clear predilection for Nefertari, devotion worthy of a great love story. When he built the great temple of Abu Simbel, he made sure that Nefertari, then deceased, was on the facade, next to Tuya, his mother.
In this temple, Nefertari is transformed into Sopdet, the star Sirius, whose appearance presaged the Nile’s annual flooding. Farther north, another smaller temple dug into rock is dedicated to Nefertari herself. There she is identified with the goddess Hathor. Carved into its facade is a tribute, “Nefertari, she for whom the sun shines.”
Was Isetnofret the forgotten one? So it seems. Until Nefertari died, around year 26 of Ramses II’s reign, Isetnofret’s likeness did not appear in the many temples the king built in Nubia, nor in those in Karnak and Luxor, where Nefertari is often portrayed. Isetnofret was finally represented in some temples for her connection with her children. Nefertari’s image may be seen in more places, but it was Isetnofret who bore her husband the two children closest to his heart.
Ramses II had a hundred or so sons and daughters with the wives in his harem. Of his recognized children, some would play important roles, but only those born to Nefertari and Isetnofret appear on his monuments. In the Nubian temple of Beit el Wali, a young Ramses, then co-regent with his father, Seti I, is shown suppressing a Nubian uprising. The pharaoh’s royal chariot is flanked by two figures identified as Amenherkhepshef, his eldest child with Nefertari, and Khaemwaset, Isetnofret’s son.
(Who was Egypt’s first pharaoh?)
Of all Ramses II’s sons, Khaemwaset is believed to have been his favorite. Instead of taking up arms against his elder brother (also named Ramses), Khaemwaset became Grand Master of the Artisans of Ptah, a title in Memphite doctrine equivalent to High Priest of Amun in Thebes. He also restored a number of pyramids in his father’s name. His work is still evident on the pyramid of Unas, from the 5th dynasty.
Khaemwaset also planned and directed the work of the “minor galleries,” the Serapeum at Saqqara, the collective tomb of the Apis, sacred oxen of Memphis. Auguste Mariette’s 1850 excavation of the Serapeum revealed the mummy of a man named Khaemwaset, wearing a golden mask with several ushabtis. It proved uncertain that it was the mummy of Ramses II’s son, and the location of Khaemwaset’s tomb remains unconfirmed. Much evidence suggests that it is in the necropolis of Saqqara.
The daughters of Ramses II’s great royal wives also held key positions in his court. In fact, many became great royal wives themselves after marrying their own father. It had become customary for 18th-dynasty pharaohs to marry their daughters. While his great royal wife Tiye was alive, Amenhotep III married their daughter Sitamun. Later, Akhenaten married at least two of the daughters he had with Queen Nefertiti. No one knows if these marriages were consummated or purely ceremonial.
Ramses II appointed several daughters great royal wives after the deaths of Nefertari and Isetnofret. Bintanah (Isetnofret’s firstborn) was followed by Merytamon and Nebettawy (daughters of Nefertari) and Henutmire. In addition to these daughters, other princesses outside the family also bore the title of Great Royal Wife, such as Maathorneferure, daughter of the Hittite king, and another Hittite princess whose name is unknown.
(The Hittites’ fast war chariots threatened mighty Egypt.)
If Khaemwaset was Ramses II’s favorite son, everything points to Bintanath having been his preferred daughter. She was given the titles of not only Great Royal Wife but also Lady of the Two Lands and Sovereign of Upper and Lower Egypt. Bintanath occupies a privileged place on the facade of the temple of Abu Simbel. She and her sister Nebettawy appear on either side of the colossus. Some historians believe Nebettawy’s mother was Isetnofret, but others consider her Nefertari’s daughter.
Ramses had no problems siring heirs with his many wives during his long life, but these sons would be forced to be patient; their father held tightly to his throne for almost 70 years. Ramses had placed his children liberally throughout Egypt’s bureaucracies, corporations, priesthood, and military to foster loyalty he did not naturally inspire. He was an outsider, a northerner hailing from the Nile Delta, disconnected from the wealthy elites in southern Thebes. Ramses’ source of strength rested on ties to not the moneyed or religious classes, but the military. Placing his sons in powerful positions across Egypt helped strengthen Ramses’ hold in these areas.
(Epic engineering rescued colossal ancient Egyptian temples from floodwaters.)
By the time Ramses II died in 1213 B.C., he was around 90 years old and had outlived many of these sons. Amenherkhepshef, Ramses’ oldest son and crown prince, died when he was 25 years old. Khaemwaset also did not outlive his great father and died in his mid-50s around 1215 B.C. It would be a child of Isetnofret, her son Merneptah, who was 13th in line, who succeeded Ramses. Merneptah was around 60 years old, well past middle age, when he became pharaoh and donned Egypt’s double crown.
After decades of waiting in the wings to take power, Merneptah might have expected a stable reign, like his father’s, but his hopes were in vain. During his 10-year reign, his troops were able to defend Egypt successfully from a series of attacks from enemies in the east and west. But the seeds sown by Ramses II would lead to chaos after Merneptah’s death; rivals for the throne, some of whom may have been sons of Ramses II, pushed Egypt into a period of decline and civil war. By around 1189 B.C. the 19th dynasty would come to an end.