Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
J.B. Snelson is a librarian, bibliographer, and (antiquarian) bookstore
owner in Wolfville.
Usi-ma-re Setepenre Ramesses II was not the greatest monarch of the Egyptian new kingdom, let alone of the whole of Egypt’s history. Yet, with a genius for publicity that would make Madison Avenue jealous, Ramesses II was able to make himself the archetypal Pharaoh. This genius combined with two other factors to make his reign one of the best understood periods of antiquity. Ramesses had the luck to rule for 67 years. The very length of his reign allowed the time to build a lasting reputation and to stamp his name on an era. The fact that he was the last great Pharaoh, with the possible exception of Ramesses III, means that his monuments were not overbuilt by later rulers seeking to make their own claim to greatness, and they therefore remain to record the reign of and times of Ramesses.
K.A. Kitchen’s Pharaoh Triumphant is not, however, simply a record of the reign of Ramesses. Although there is much of a biographical record, it is hard to see Ramesses the man in it. Unlike his great contemporary Hattusil III, who left one of the world’s first spiritual documents giving us a picture of the man, Ramesses portrayed himself always as Pharaoh, a being at least half divine, rather than as a man. Rarely can Kitchen find the man behind the title. But what Kitchen can do, and does very well, is to portray the times of Ramesses.
The documents not just of Ramesses and the government, but the multitude of documents dealing with the lives of Egyptians, from the important civil servants of the day to the workers in the Valley of Kings, are used to give a very lively picture of the life and times. Where possible Kitchen does not give us portraits of the nameless Egyptians on the street but follows the careers of individuals. We are given whatever vital statistics exist for the individual, their rise in their profession, their economic and social worries and problems. In short, Kitchen manages to make the Egyptian of the age of Ramesses live as a human being despite the three millenia separating him from us. Yet, Ramesses the Pharaoh is the center and gives the study its structure — from his early wars culminating in the battle of Qadesh, whose stalemate prevented either Egypt or the Hittites from totally dominating the ancient world, through his correspondence with his Hittite counterpart Hattusil III, to the building of the great monuments at Karnak and Abu Simbel.
Pharaoh Triumphant should be read by all who have an interest in the ancient world. The picture of life in the ancient world is drawn with a genius for detail that allows Kitchen to portray a civilization as complex as that of Egypt over a period of better than half a century with an economy which prevents the flagging of interest.
There is only one criticism. Kitchen does not merely give the reign years of Ramesses and the events of that year, but translates these into years B.C. A conference held at the University of Glasgow in 1978 concluded that the dates used by Kitchen and others is wrong for the reign of Ramesses by 500 years. Immanuel Velikovsky has suggested an even more radical redating of Ramesses. The issue is unsettled at this time. It does seem that it would have been better to say the battle of Qadesh occurred in year 5 of the reign of Ramesses and nothing more. Perhaps if Kitchen had said that this would be approximately 1274 B.C. but that the translated date was not certain, one could not fault him; but the impression he gives is that the question of dates is settled.
But this does not detract from the fact that Pharaoh Triumphant is one of the best and most readable introductions to the social life and customs of New Kingdom Egypt available. It should be read by anyone with an interest in what it was like to live in the ancient world. Pharaoh Triumphant is a triumph.