A Word from Pharaoh Ramesses II, 1279-1212 BCE
by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
I am Ramesses II, mightiest of the pharaohs. My father Seti I raised Me to be both warrior and statesman—not to say lover; I had eight wives, if you please—and I believe I made him proud. From My youngest days I rode to war in My princely chariot, alongside my omnipotent Father. This prepared Me well when I became Myself pharaoh.
When the cowardly and treacherous Hittites challenged My glorious rule in the Battle of Kadesh, Year Five of My reign, I defied them with My personal army division, “Sun-god-Re-rising-in-his-Majesty and Crushing all Opponents.” It was a glorious victory for My troops, but mainly for Myself, since I alone donned My coat of mail and rallied My forces, charging alone into the Hittite host, “smiting and slaying among them…and hurling them headlong into the Orontes River” (Breasted, n.d.).
The Hittites may tell the tale differently, but what do they, poor bearded Baal-worshipers and barbarians know? I have even heard tell that it was not a battle, but rather a skirmish, and—(lowering his voice) that I bungled the entire operation. To that I say, Bah! I am the Conqueror. I was not only soldier but diplomat, enacting a peace treaty with My defeated enemy, and afterward taking to wife two Hittite princesses, the first Maathorneferure, and the second—um—can’t remember the wench’s name. To marry so many royal princesses was a sign of both strength and wisdom—and, three of them were My sisters, to boot. Was there ever such a parfit royal knight-monarch as I?
I proved Myself a loyal son, as well, by traveling to Abydos, the sacred shrine of Osiris, to inspect the temple which My royal father had built, may he dwell peacefully in the Afterlife! When I saw that it was unfinished, and, worse, that the cemetery buildings of My exalted ancestor pharaohs lay in ruins, I determined to repair and expand the structures. Only, where was I to find cheap labor? War is expensive; repairing infrastructure, even divine buildings, more so.
Luckily, My wise father Seti I had already enslaved the Hapiru, who called themselves Hebrews or Israelites—what did I care about their lowly ancestry?—although they had dwelt peacefully around the Nile Delta for about 400 years. I determined that these wretched Semites should bear the brunt of My ambitious building campaign, including My ancestors’ temples, and My own massive new city of Pi-Ramesses. All went well; the slaves moaned and groaned, but I set My Kadesh army veterans to be their taskmasters. A few blows of the cat o’ nine tails worked wonders in stilling any recalcitrant Hapiru complaints. And so life in My Imperial Egypt went on. My secret police threatened or paid off spies among the populace, and all was going peacefully and securely….
I suppose I ought to have paid more attention when My princess—that is, one of My princesses—turned up at the breakfast table one morning with a scruffy-looking handmaiden standing behind her, nursing a baby—noisy little creature! They informed Myself that it was colic, but I could hardly enjoy My sherbet, and the ice to cool it had come from the far-off, snow-capped mountains. Still, one must show royal forbearance, and I asked her:
“Where did you get that cunning little babe, My Dear?”
She smiled at Me—I always had a soft spot for My children, boys and girls alike, even when I could not remember their names—and replied, “You would not understand his origins, My Liege, and so forgive your humble daughter when she refrains from informing you.”
This was a puzzlement, but what was I to do? It would not do for the mighty pharaoh to show anger, or to protest that a mere girl-child was contradicting her royal father. I smiled, therefore, and kept My peace. It was only later that I recalled—or perhaps the royal cup-bearer reminded Me—of My decree to cast all Hebrew boy-babies into the Nile. By then, although I saw My daughter the princess in and about the palace—she was, as I said, one of several princesses--I never again saw her child.
I ought to have paid more attention then, but, alas! It doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters, I fear….
I was surprised, therefore, years later, when two dusty, bearded Bedouin shepherds approached My royal person at the Nile, and began inveighing against Me for “enslaving their people.” I was polite, at first, telling them (through a servant, of course) that if they had any issues with how things were run, they ought to approach the Royal Gatekeeper, who stands with the Marine Guard at the palace gate, list their complaints, and wait for an imperial magistrate to hear their case. It might take two, three weeks, or, perhaps, never….
But no: just the next day, in a total upending of court protocol, these rabble came crashing into My personal throne room—can you imagine?—cast down a shepherd’s flail, and began carrying on about snakes and their enslaved brothers and their invisible God. What nonsense was this?
I promptly had them expelled from My Royal Presence, and warned them not to appear again. But then, the catastrophes began….
Breasted, J.H. (n.d.) Ancient records of Egypt: Historical documents, Part III. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Clayton, P.A. (1994). Chronicle of the pharaohs: The reign-by-reign record of the rulers and dynasties of ancient Egypt. New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson.