When Ramesses I became pharaoh on Horemheb’s death, his grandson and namesake – the future Ramesses II – was suddenly thrust on to the political stage as a royal scion. The princeling, then in late childhood or earliest adolescence, was the eldest son of Ramesses I’s eldest son and heir Sety, who would sit on the Horus Throne as Sety I less than two years after his father ascended it.
A few years previously, this Ramesside line had much to recommend itself to the childless King Horemheb, the last ruler of the waning Eighteenth Dynasty. Ramesses I, then called Paramessu, and his son Sety had both reached the highest echelons of Egypt’s military and civilian power structure. Among their numerous offices and accolades, each attained the rank of ‘great general of the army’ and vizier. Just as importantly, Paramessu’s line already had three generations, including his grandson, destined to become Ramesses II.
But scarcely two years after he took power, Ramesses I was dead. While Sety benefited from a lifelong career as an administrator and high-ranking military officer, his heir Ramesses (then about ten years old) was a blank slate. Moreover, the new Nineteenth Dynasty’s future was uncertain until Crown Prince Ramesses begat an heir of his own to continue the family line. Sety took steps to remedy both issues. Over the course of his decade-long reign, when his heir was a teenager, Sety I carefully prepared Ramesses to succeed him some day by elevating his status before the royal court and giving him practical experience in all the duties of a pharaoh.
A harem for a prince
Once Prince Ramesses reached puberty, perhaps at 14, Sety I decided it was high time for the lad to marry and father children of his own. According to a dedication inscription recalling his time as Crown Prince (which Ramesses II later inscribed on the walls of his father’s temple at Abydos), Sety chose multiple wives for his eldest son. These young women were probably the daughters of a cross-section of the courtiers and provincial elite. Through these marriages, Sety and his successor forged close bonds of loyalty with Egypt’s ruling class.
The Abydos dedication inscription also reports how Prince Ramesses’ new wives soon presented him with a cohort of newborns. Indeed, his brides engaged in a ‘baby race’, each vying to give him his first son and heir. The winner was Nefertari, who became his pre-eminent royal consort when her son Amunhirkhopeshef was born before all other sons. Isetnofret was the mother of the second-born son, named Ramesses after his father, and would also be a prominent royal wife. All of Crown Prince Ramesses’ other early wives, who delivered the majority of his roughly 100 other children, remain completely anonymous to us because no inscriptions or tombs belonging to any of them have ever been discovered.
To magnify his heir’s status and prestige, Sety I bestowed a slew of lofty titles and honorific epithets on Ramesses, the most important being ‘heir apparent’ (iry-paat) and ‘king’s eldest son’ (sa nesu semsu). One text entitles him ‘great general of the army for all the monuments’. In another inscription, Ramesses later recalled that Sety had made him an army commander at the age of ten.
Images of Crown Prince Ramesses on temple walls and a few private monuments show him wearing a kind of ‘uniform’ that became standard for his own many sons and later Ramesside princes. The most distinctive marker of his status was the side-lock of youth. Normally worn by Egyptian children of both genders before being discarded at puberty, royal offspring continued to wear an artificial side-lock of youth hairpiece into adulthood. The side-lock came in several shapes and styles, worn with a shaved head or over an official’s wig. Along with a variety of different kilts and costumes, a prince might carry various regalia. Two of the most common were a long strip of red cloth and a flabellum with a single ostrich feather. This flabellum marked the prince’s honorific status of ‘fanbearer on the king’s right side’, an exalted title otherwise awarded to only the highest and most favoured officials, such as the vizier and viceroy of Kush.
Fancy titles and flashy regalia were easy to grant and receive, but imparting the knowledge and expertise necessary to make them meaningful took more effort. Pharaoh had three main duties: administering his realm, leading his army to defend Egypt on the battlefield, and acting as humanity’s intermediary with the gods by building temples and conducting rituals and festivals within them. Throughout his reign, Sety I gave Ramesses on-the-job training in all three roles, leading by his own vigorous example. Given his father’s pre-royal career as an officer and administrator, the crown prince could have no better royal tutor.
Sety I was among Egypt’s greatest warrior pharaohs. He waged several campaigns in Canaan, Libya, Nubia, and Syria. From the panoramic sequence of war scenes carved on the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, and reliefs in Ramesses II’s own small temple at Beit el-Wali in northern Nubia, we know that Sety brought Ramesses II along with him on at least some – if not all – of these expeditions. Back in Egypt, Ramesses was undoubtedly trained in the martial arts, as was traditional for other New Kingdom royal sons, including his own. He became proficient in horsemanship and chariotry, along with archery and wielding other weaponry.
The pharaohs put their armies to other uses besides fighting, especially for expeditions to remote desert regions to collect resources, or for quarrying stone. In his ninth regnal year, Sety I led an expedition to the granite quarries of Aswan near the island town of Elephantine, seeking granite for the numerous colossal statues and obelisks he desired for embellishing temples he was building across Egypt. While the troops carried out the heavy labour of moving the giant monoliths, Sety’s quarry inscription reports that his eldest son ‘acted usefully’ for his father. Although he is not named, this must be Ramesses.
Another inscription, found a few miles away on a tiny island near Elephantine, confirms that Crown Prince Ramesses was involved in his father’s quarry expedition. The prince appears along with his royal father. Among the other titles Ramesses bears is ‘great general for all the monuments’, confirming the reports in his father’s inscription.
To fulfil his religious duties as a future Pharaoh, Sety I inducted Prince Ramesses into the arcane world of temple cult rituals. A handful of wall scenes from a corridor known today as the ‘Gallery of the Kings’, in Sety’s exquisite Abydos Temple, portray Prince Ramesses performing the rituals alongside his regal father. The artist depicts the prince as an idealised adolescent, and we see him wearing a couple of variations of the ‘side-lock of youth’ hairpiece. Texts identify him as ‘king’s eldest son and heir apparent’.
In the most famous scene (the one that gives the Gallery of Kings its modern name), Sety I and Crown Prince Ramesses make offerings to a grand list of the names of many of Egypt’s past kings (see p.16). Acting as lector, Prince Ramesses unrolls a papyrus scroll and recites the offering litany on behalf of his worthy royal forebears. The list begins with the legendary first king Menes, down to Sety I himself. Sety conspicuously omitted pharaohs he considered illegitimate, including Hatshepsut, and the Hyksos and Amarna pharaohs. Some others are absent simply due to lack of wall space.
One theory widely held among Egyptologists is the notion that Ramesses II became pharaoh during the later years of Sety I’s reign, so that the two pharaohs ruled jointly for a period of time, in an arrangement scholars call a ‘co-regency’. One scene from the Gallery of the Kings is taken to support this idea. It shows Ramesses with all the hallmarks of a prince. Shorter than his father, he wears a side-lock, but lacks a crown. Nor does a royal cobra perch on his forehead. Above him are inscribed his princely titles, not the royal cartouches, but there are two small cartouches decorating the end of a sash hanging from his waist. How can we explain this? It is likely that this scene was left unfinished when Sety I died. Much of the wall space just to the right of it was never decorated, while some of it has inscriptions dating to Ramesses II’s time as pharaoh after Sety’s death.
When Ramesses II instructed his artists to complete this scene, which they had started working on when he was still a prince, the newly crowned king had these tiny cartouches inserted to show how he had transitioned from prince to pharaoh. Further evidence that the scenes in the Gallery of the Kings date to the end of Sety’s reign comes from an adjoining passageway, called the ‘Corridor of the Bull’ after its famous bull-lassoing scene. This, and other scenes in the corridor, were carved a year or more after Sety I’s death, and show Ramesses II and his eldest son Prince Amunhirkhopeshef conducting rituals before the gods, and sometimes before the deified Sety I. These scenes were drafted in paint under Sety I, but remained uncarved until the first decade of Ramesses II. Images once meant to depict him as Crown Prince were now carved in honour of his own eldest son. Proof of this state of affairs comes in one scene showing Ramesses II and Prince Amunhirkhopeshef offering wild ducks they have caught to the gods (see p.18). The scene is carved in sunk-relief, which was current in Ramesses II’s reign, whereas Sety I had preferred raised relief. Close examination of the cartouches reveals faint traces of Sety’s erased cartouches. These, along with a few other elements of the scene – such as the king’s crown and head – had been completed in bas-relief before Sety died, although work in the rest of the corridor never progressed beyond the painted outlines the sculptors used as guidelines for their work. All in all, however, this indicates that Ramesses remained as Crown Prince until Sety I’s death.
Advocates of the co-regency theory offer other evidence in support, and the notion that two pharaohs could rule side-by-side in a co-regency has been popular among some Egyptologists for more than a century. Yet this violates everything we know about the Egyptian ideology of kingship. Each pharaoh was Horus in life, and became Osiris in death, when his son and heir arose as the new Horus. The idea that two Horuses might rule jointly – or that Osiris could rule alive and on Earth beside Horus – would have been preposterous. Only in a few unorthodox and desperate circumstances did this ever happen, one being Hatshepsut’s joint rule with Thutmose III – a situation Sety I would not wish to emulate. Yet inscriptions and temple scenes from Ramesses II’s reign have been put forward as proof of his alleged co-regency with Sety I. The Abydos dedication inscription from Sety I’s temple recalls Ramesses’ time as crown prince. One vivid passage tells how Sety instructed the courtiers to place the crown on his son’s head ‘so that I might see his perfection while I am still alive’. Sety even sheds tears at this spectacle. It is very touching, but is pure political fiction, much like Hatshepsut’s claim that her father, Thutmose I, had crowned her as co-ruler during his lifetime (when in reality her brother-husband Thutmose II had succeeded their father). Such statements were not ‘lies’, but a form of ‘political mythology’ common among the pharaohs, designed to legitimise their rule.
In the first years of his reign, Ramesses II completed the wall decoration in several temples across Egypt that Sety left unfinished at his death, including the Karnak Hypostyle Hall, and Sety’s cult temples at Abydos and at Qurna on the West Bank of Thebes. Some of these wall scenes show Ramesses II worshipping his deified father. Others show Sety I performing rituals for the gods as if he were still alive, and appear alongside scenes in which Ramesses II worships the gods. But we never see both Sety I and Ramesses II jointly worshipping the gods, as Sety I and Prince Ramesses do in the Gallery of the Kings at Abydos. While some Egyptologists take these temple reliefs as proof of a co-regency, it is more likely that they display Ramesses II’s pious devotion to his deceased father’s memory in the earliest years of his own reign. Indeed, he did the same at the Qurna temple for his grandfather Ramesses I.
Prepared for kingship
After a decade of on-the-job training under Sety I’s watchful eye and guiding hand, Ramesses II was eminently well prepared to fulfil all his duties as Egypt’s new monarch when he assumed the mantle of kingship in his early 20s. But the pharaohs were not mere technocrats: their office was sacred. It was politically and ideologically expedient for the young monarch to pay homage to his deceased father and grandfather in a grandiose fashion. Whether he appreciated it or not, due to Sety’s tutelage, Ramesses II was especially fortunate among Egypt’s kings in being perhaps the most well-prepared prince ever to ascend the throne of Horus over the course of three millennia.
Peter J Brand is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Memphis, USA. He is also Director of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall Project, and specialises in the history and culture of ancient Egypt during its imperial age (c.1550-1100 BC). His latest book, Ramesses II, Egypt’s Ultimate Pharaoh, was reviewed in AE 137, and you can read his article on Ramesses as Divine King in AE 136.
All images: The author unless otherwise attributed.