Ramesses: Egypt’s Greatest Pharaoh
by Joyce Tyldesley
I read this book as supplementary research for an archeology class. I looked at several biographies of Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great. One of the most highly recommended books about him is Pharaoh Triumphant by K. A. Kitchen, but it is nearly thirty years old and didn’t cover several of the archeological discoveries discussed in my class. Ramses II, by T. G. H. James, has many color photos of Ramesses’ temples and monuments and the biography is praised on Amazon. Tyldesley’s biography was ranked slightly higher by Librarything’s users, who tend to be more objective than the reviewers on Amazon, and more importantly, it was available on Paperbackswap so I could get it quickly and cheaply. I’d like to go back and read the James biography, though; the lack of large color photos in Ramesses* was disappointing since it made it harder to see the details on the art from his reign.
No Egyptian pharaoh looms larger in pop culture than Ramesses II. He reigned over his country for sixty-six years at a time when the average lifespan was between thirty and forty years. This long, prosperous reign allowed him to build massive stone monuments throughout his empire, many of which remain to this day. He is a popular candidate for the Pharaoh presiding over Egypt at the time of the Exodus, appearing in both The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Authors as diverse as Christian Jacq, Michelle Moran, Anne Rice and Percy Bysshe Shelley have been inspired by him.
Joyce Tyldesley frames her biography by briefly introducing the kings who preceded Ramesses on the throne, and how their reigns shaped the Egypt he inherited. She closes the book with a chapter about his legacy and influence on the pharaohs that followed him. I really appreciated this, since my memory of Egyptian history is often scrambled. The rest of the chapters focus on a different aspect of Ramesses: Ramesses the Warrior, Ramesses the Husband, Ramesses the Father – and so on. Every once in a while I’d lose track of the chronology because of the topical arrangement, but overall it’s a very effective way to approach the pharaoh. As she covers each topic, she does her best to dispel the myths that have popped up over the years, like the claim that he fathered four hundred children.
Originally published in 2000, Ramesses has held up well over the past decade. Some of the archeological material in the book was quite fresh when Tyldesley was researching the king, like the re-discovery and excavation of KV-5 by Kent Weeks in the 1990s. (Weeks had continued to excavate the tomb, believed to be constructed by Ramesses for the mummies of his sons, until very recently, but I don’t know how the recent turmoil in Egypt has affected the project.) As biographies go, this one is on the shorter side at only a few pages over two hundred. It’s also written in a very accessible style, so even those with a casual interest in Egypt can understand it.
* Sixteen pages of black-and-white plates are included, as well as numerous line drawings throughout the text.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Abu Simbel, Ramesses’ most famous temple