Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh: His Family (Specifically, his Women)

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh His Family

(Specifically, his Women)

by Jimmy Dunn

Before Ramesses II was a great king, he had a family and throughout his reign, his growing family would serve to strengthen his rule of Egypt. In fact, of all the rulers in Egypt, Ramesses II may have had one of the largest of all families, consisting of many wives, and as many as fifty

sons and fifty daughters of his principal consorts.

A Statue of Ramesses II

However, it is likely that his extended family was even much larger than this. He may have certainly sired children who he never even became aware of, by legitimate consorts. The Reign of Ramesses II was during a period of heightened status for royal women. After the rule of Queen Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III who was more or less usurped by his stepmother, seems to have reduced the importance of women for obvious reasons during the early part of the 18th Dynasty. But by the end of that period, and particularly during the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, the royal women were once again evident to the public eye, though perhaps not as politically ambitious as some of their predecessors.

The first woman Ramesses was involved with was, of course, his mother. Like all good Egyptians, both ancient and modern, he appears to have loved her and treated her with respect. She had really been a commoner at birth, the daughter of the Lieutenant of Chariotry, Raia. Her name was Tuya, or Mut-Tuya, and as so often happens in ancient Egypt, she outlived Ramesses II's real father, Seti I, by many years.

Luckily, in Egypt there was a place for both a new queen, as well as the king's mother. Upon the death of Seti I, Nefertari, Ramesses II's chief wife, took on the duties of the queen, while Tuya immediately shed those responsibilities for the influential role of King's Mother During this period, the function of King's Mother seems to have been accorded a political role, functioning as her son's advisor. In fact, it may have even fallen on her shoulders to protect the king's interest at home while he was away on foreign campaigns.

The head of a statue of Ramesses II's mother, Tuya

In fact, our best recordings of Tuya's life were provided from the period after her husband's death. We know that she was important enough politically to have corresponded with the Hittite court. We find her image in important monuments, such as the facade of her Abu Simbel temple where she appears on the same scale as the other royal women and sons., standing beside the second and fourth colossi. She was also featured in the Ramesseum where she sat in colossal form beside her much larger son in the first courtyard, and along with Nefertari, she shakes her sistrum on the walls of the hypostyle hall.

Her promotion by Ramesses II probably went beyond love, however. A king could gain status from that of his mother, and in fact he set out to rewrite the story of his own miraculous birth so as to provide himself with a divine father. Ramesses had actually been born to his common mother prior to his father ascending the throne. However, Ramesses, always a self promoter, which was not an unusual trait in Egyptian pharaohs, had inscribed a new tale of his birth where he was not only the son of Seti I, but of Amun, the high god himself. To many of those who study ancient Egyptian history, this is of course nothing new, but indeed, he was only the third New Kingdom pharaoh to make such a claim.

However, though mothers often outlived their sons in ancient Egypt, because of Ramesses II's extremely long life, Tuya did not. She appears to have died soon after his 22nd year as ruler of Egypt, and was interred in an impressive tomb in the Valley of the Queens (QV80).

Queens, Consorts and More than Enough of All

Nefertari, Ramesses II's first Chief King's Wife

Even today, it is rare for a ruler, or president of any country to be unmarried. Likewise, in ancient Egypt it would have probably been blasphemous, violating Ma'at, the ancient Egyptian concept of balance and order. Practically, the pharaoh needed an heir from a legitimate queen, and in almost all cases, she fulfilled many other responsibilities to the people of Egypt.

In reality, the king of Egyptproduced families on a number of different levels, according to the placement of his wives. The royal harem, an institution in ancient Egypt which appears to have had no counterpart in the private sector of those times, was not only the home of those most favored wives of the king, but also provided a patronage for the loose and unattached women of the court, including unmarried and widowed sisters, daughters and other family members of the king, foreign brides, high born Egyptian women, and numerous concubines of relatively humble birth who might also include the servants and attendants of the higher ranking ladies. It is likely that many of these ladies of Ramesses II's harem never even meet their king, let alone bore his child, but from year to year their would of course be a nursery resounding with the gurgles, yelps and whimpers of each year's crop of bouncing royal babies. Only those children of the king's primary wives, and of a few of his favored secondary consorts, would ever have the opportunity to become king, or for that matter, the opportunity for us to know of them.

The wife of an Egyptian pharaoh is often referred to by Egyptologists as a consort. This is probably due to the fact that in some people's minds, the Egyptian queen was not a wife because of the lack of a specific religious celebration of marriage. There appears to have been marriage contracts, but little in the way of our modern concept of a marriage ceremony. Also, to many of us today, the concept of having perhaps hundreds of "wives" negates the institution of holy matrimony. However, some astute queens probably welcomed this "sexual variety" for their husbands, for it may have relieved them from the frequent pregnancies that so often led to death in females of these times. Nevertheless, and regardless of our views, the "Chief King's Wife" was the closest counterpart of our modern concept of a wife.

The principal wives of Kings were almost always of royal blood and were often either the full or half sister of the king. These incestuous marriages, which we find few if any examples of in the general population, had several practical benefits to the crown ruler. They kept outsiders at arms length from the royal family, and produced at least a limited number of royal children eligible to inherit the thrown. Furthermore, they also ensured that a suitably trained princess would be placed in the most important role available to an Egyptian woman: that of queen. In fact, while the king could marry a commoner, or for that matter, whoever he wished, royal females could not marry below their royal status, and therefore the field of potential bridegrooms beyond their brother (or sometimes father) was extremely limited. Egyptian princesses were even denied marriage to foreign royalty, who might later claim some justification to the thrown of Egypt.

Nefertari from her tomb

We are not sure of the parentage of Ramesses II's first principal wife (Chief King's Wife), Nefertari, though she had to have probably been of royal blood (though almost certainly not of the immediate royal family). It has been suggested that she may have been a daughter or at least related to King Ay (granddaughter, niece or great-niece), one of the last rulers of the 18th Dynasty. Ramesses II was the first ruler of the 19th Dynasty who, at the time he chose his principal queen, was already destined to rule Egypt. Other major wives included Istnofret (Iset-Nofret), Bent'anta (Bintanath), Merit-Amun (Meritamen), Nebttaui, Hentmire, Maathomeferure and perhaps, others. Several of these queens, such as Merit-Amun, were also his daughters.

These queens would have been the top tier in his harem, and some would have remained by his side much of the time (though during different periods of his rule). While the king would have maintained harems all along the Nile Valley in regional locations, with many women who he hardly knew, or knew not at all, these queens would have probably resided near their husband in the main palace harem.

Undoubtedly, Nefertari held some power over Ramesses II. It was probably love, but we cannot say for certain. Certainly, Miss Emelia Edwards though, upon visiting her temple at Abu Simbel, that Ramesses II loved her. She states:

"On every pillar, in every act of worship pictured on the walls, even in the sanctuary, we find the names of Ramesses and Nefertari 'coupled and inseparable'...We see, at all events, that Ramesses and Nefertari desired to leave behind them an imperishable record of the affection which united them on earth, and which they hoped would unit them in Amenti. What more do we need to know? We see the Queen was fair, that the King was in his prime. We divine the rest; and the poetry of the place at all events is ours. Even in these barren solitude's there is wafted to us a breath from the shores of old romance. We feel that love once passed this way, and that the ground is still hallowed where he trod."

There could be only one "Chief King's Wife" at any one time, and Nefertari held that designation from the beginning. What we do know is that Ramesses II lavished upon her at least several important monuments, including the small temple at Abu Simbel and her wonderful tomb in the Valley of the Queens.

Nefertari at the large temple at Abu Simbel

Yet the many monuments that Ramesses II lavished upon Nefertari cannot simply be attributed to love. There is no question that a revered, respected and occasionally worshipped wife brought nothing but glory to her husband and so these monuments were also meant to honor their builder as well. In fact, within Nefertari's temple at Abu Simbel, it is not she, but rather the image of Ramesses II himself that adorns the inner walls of the sanctuary.

From the very beginning of her husband's reign, Nefertari appears as a dutiful wife, supporting Ramesses on all appropriate ceremonial occasions. She received the two titles, Mistress of the South and North, and Lady of the Two Lands, which parallel Ramesses II's titles. However, her duties extended considerably beyond that of simply supporting her husband from the rear ranks. She may have frequently filled in for her husband in certain ceremonies, often taking the male role and accompanied by one of her daughters as a "feminine side", so that Ma'at would be balanced.

Regrettably, while we may find any number of monuments, statues and decorations depicting Nefertari, we know precious little about her actual life. We do know that she was not the only one of his queens to be honored in an age when Egyptian kings did not always give outward recognition to their women. We find Nefertari missing from the jubilee celebrations of Ramesses II's 30th year in office, which may tentatively suggest that she died prior to this. She was buried in her wonderful tomb in the Valley of the Queens, but almost immediately, a new Chief King's Wife would have been selected.

Painting of Iset-Nofret, one of Ramesses II's main queens.

However, Ramesses II's later wives are as mysterious to us as Nefertari, though he continued to build some monuments to them. It may have been Iset-Nofret who assumed the role of Chief King's Wife upon the death of Nefertari. However, she was completely contemporary to Nefertari, having probably married Ramesses II at the same time, and there is little evidence that can prove that she outlived Nefertari. Most of the artifacts and monuments depicting her seem to have actually been created by her famous priest son, Khaemwaset. One such monument was a stelae erected at the temple of Horemheb at Gebel Silsila sometimes between year 33 and 34 of Ramesses II's rule. Here, Iset-Nofret holds an ankh sign, the symbol of life, while her daughter Bintanath holds a papyrus. While this evidence is certainly limited, it would seem that by this time she had probably died. Of course, her most notable act was to give birth before her death to Ramesses II's thirteenth son, Merenptah, would would be the oldest of his children to outlive him, and thus take control of Egypt.

We really do not know for certain who became the Chief King's Wife after Nefertari, but it may well have been one of his daughters. The most suitable wife for a king of Egypt was the daughter of a king of Egypt, and Ramesses II was a stickler for tradition.He ended up marrying no less than four of his daughters (that we know of). They were Bintanath, Meritamen, Nebettawi and the relatively unknown Hentmire. In defence of these incestuous relationships of Ramesses II to our modern eyes, this was an ancient pharaonic custom among kings well established long before Ramesses II's lifetime.

Meritamen, one of Ramesses II's favorite daughters, and later his wife

Daughters of the King of Egypt had few possibilities of marriage. They were not allowed to marry below their position, or even to non-Egyptian royalty. Their only opportunities for marriage seems to have been either princes or the King himself, and in fact many princesses lived out their lives without a mate. Hence, since father-daughter incest is taboo in our modern, western societies, we would like to think of such a marriage as being purely symbolic, but this was clearly not the case. We know, for example, that Bintanath, the first daughter he married, bore him at least one child, and we have examples of other kings producing children by their daughters.

Bintanath, the first of Ramesses II's daughters that he married, and the only one to have given him a child

The dynamics these incestuous relationships are largely unknown. In some situations, the father, in this case Ramesses II, married a daughter it would seem as a replacement after the death of her mother. However, at other times the mother and daughter were married to the king at the same time. However, there is no simple indication that when the daughter married the king, she superceded her mother. In many cases, the mothers and daughters appear to act together. In fact, the daughters at times seem to act as deputy consorts, filling in for their older mothers whenever required. Some Egyptologists believe that the daughters provided a well earned for their mothers at an age when the older queen was past the child bearing age. However, it may have been that the mother could then fulfill the valuable and stately role of King's Mother. However, this was certainly not always the case.

Regardless, the daughters could assume significant status as queens. In the stela of Hekanakht at Abu Simbel, we find depicted a still living Nefertari sitting by as her daughter and much beloved offspring of Ramesses II, takes over her role as queen. While we have no positive evidence as confirmation, it may have been she who assumed the role of Great King's Wife after the death of her mother, though it is equally likely that Iset-Nofret took up that position.However, Iset Nofret would have soon died, and there seems to have been few choice for Great King's Wife afterwards, and for some years.

Ramesses II and his new foreign born queen, Maathorneferure

But by Year 35 of Ramesses II's reign, having been twice widow and with three of his daughters serving as queen, he could not resist the daughter of the Hittite king who was offered to him, along with a larger dowry. The arrangements for this marriage seem to have been considerably complex, taking some time in the making. However, eventually the Hittite princess was received at Pi-Ramesses, Ramesses II's new capital, and accordingly was "beautiful in the heart of his majesty, and he loved her more than anything". Her Egyptian name was Maathorneferure, meaning the "One who sees Horus, the Visible Splendor of Re", and she was immediately promoted to the role of "principal wife", which was an unusual honor for a foreign born queen.

However, by this time in Ramesses II's life, the position of :"Chief King's Wife" seems to have deteriorated to some extent. Certainly Maathorneferure soon started to appear on royal monuments as the Egyptian queen, but this seems to have been somewhat of an illusion. Perhaps she, being a foreign born princess, would have been completely ignorant of Egypt's ceremonial and ritual celebrations, for it was Bintanath and her half-sisters, first Meritamen and then Nebettawi, who continued to function as principal wives.

We know that Maathorneferure lived for some time at Pi-Ramesse, and we even know that she bore at least one child, a daughter, by Ramesses II. However, she soon disappeared from the royal records. Perhaps the most logical explanation is simply that she died young. This seems to have created no ill will between the Hittite and Egyptian royal courts for some ten years later, Hattusilis, the Hittite king, apparently agreed to supply Ramesses II with a second princes. The Egyptians recorded this event, saying:

The Great Ruler of Hatti, sent the rich and massive spoils of Hatti...to the King of South and North Egypt, Usermaatre Setepenre (Ramesses II), Son of Re Ramesses II, and likewise many droves of horses, many herds of cattle, many flocks of goats, and many droves of game, before his other daughter whom he sent to the King of South and North Egypt on what was the second such occasion."

The second bride is unknown to us, as well as her fate, but she would have probably been the last of Ramesses II's inner circle of consorts and ladies.

Major Sections on Ramesses II

Main Ramesses II Page

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - An Introduction

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - His Family (Specifically, his Children)

Ramesses II: Anatomy of a Pharaoh - The Military Leader

See also:

Amun-her-shepeshef, First Son of Ramesses II

The Bentrech Stele

Leading up to the Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh, Part I

The Actual Battle of Kadesh: The Battle of Kadesh Part II

Egyptian Account of the Battle of Kadesh

Nefertari, Tomb of - Valley of the Queens

Qantir, Ancient Pi-Ramesse

The Queens of Ramesses II

The First Peace Treaty in History

The Peace Treaty Document

The Sons (and Daughters) of Ramesses II






Reference Number

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