Go down the list of legendary pharaohs, and one name stands out, symbolizing the grandeur of ancient Egypt's monuments: Ramses the Great. Assuming the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt in 1279 B.C., the "king of kings," Ramses II, reigned for more than 60 years. He sired at least 90 children, brought his empire prosperity and peace, built more colossal structures and had his name carved on more stone surfaces than any other pharaoh. Also he is linked with the exodus of the Hebrews.
Painstaking research and new archaeological interpretations are helping to see beyond the once cruel and romantic views of Ramses.
"As this scholarship enriches our knowledge of ancient Egypt, it is rounding out a more human portrait of this towering figure," Rick Gore writes in National Geographic.
Evading destruction for 3,000 years, Ramses' mummy lies inside an unmarked case in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.
James Harris of the University of Michigan led a team that X-rayed and examined the mummy before it was removed from view and put in an airtight case to protect it. He described the physical Ramses to Gore:
"He was about 5 feet 8 inches in height _ one of the taller pharaohs. He had a strong jaw; a beaked nose, a long thin face. That was not typical of earlier pharaohs."
Ramses II was about 8 when his father, Seti, became pharaoh. "Seti must have filled his son with romantic tales of war," Gore writes.
Seti infused his son with his own two great dreams: to reclaim the lands lost to the Hittites, Egypt's archenemies to the northeast, and to build colossal monuments to his own godliness in the style of the great kings of earlier dynasties.
Seti also wanted Ramses to create life. He selected a harem for him. The message was clear: start procreating.
Ramses wasted no time. His principal wife, the lovely Nefertari, quickly produced a son. His second-favorite wife, Istnofret, soon delivered another. Within 10 years, each wife had borne at least five sons and several daughters. His other wives may have accounted for another five to 10 sons and as many daughters.
When Seti died at about age 50, Ramses, still in his 20s, became king. The new pharaoh immediately began a building boom.
He completed his own temple at Abydos. He built a great city in the Nile Delta at his old family home, calling it Pi-Ramses, House of Ramses. He finished the columned hall at Karnak, commissioned the mighty rock temples at Abu Simbel and raised other temples in nearly every important Egyptian city. He also took credit for many structures built by his predecessors, chiseling out their names and substituting his.
In the fifth year of his reign, Ramses decided to retake the strategic city of Kadesh. He marched into Syria with an army of 20,000 men, provoking a superpower showdown with Muwatallis, the Hittite king.
"If Ramses had lost the Battle of Kadesh, you would never have heard of him," says Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool. "He would have been an obscure king who ruled four and a half years."
And lose it he almost did. Muwatallis countered with an army of 40,000 men. Poor reconnaissance let Hittite chariots catch Ramses' main force off guard, and Egyptian troops scattered in panic.
Finding himself abandoned, Ramses supposedly leaped into his chariot and charged six times back into the fray, until Egyptian reinforcements finally arrived.
"The next day brought reality to both sides. Neither army was likely to displace the other, so Ramses declared a great victory and went home," Gore writes.
Ramses also may have had to deal with a troublesome people at home _ the Hebrews.
Most likely they had migrated centuries earlier into the Nile Delta, the biblical land of Goshen, to escape famine. When Ramses began to build Pi-Ramses, they were forced into labor. The Old Testament relates that Moses persuaded the pharaoh to let his people go.
By the time Ramses reached his mid-40s, he had given up his annual campaigns against the Hittites, but not his mania for building. Shortly after returning from Kadesh, he began planning his greatest monument, Abu Simbel, and a monument to honor his wife Nefertari.
Little is known of Ramses' other wife, but Kitchen speculates: "Nefertari had the looks. He was obviously proud of her, showing her off all the time. But I think Istnofret had the brains. It's her offspring that wielded the most power as Ramses aged."
A younger son of Istnofret, Merneptah, inherited the throne.