It's famous as the royal mortuary temple of King Ramesses II, dedicated to proclaiming his eternal glory and sustaining his deified soul.
Except that it isn't a mortuary temple at all. And neither are those of his father, Seti I or his namesake, Ramesses III. We've been labelling these temples wrongly for years.
"Of all the Theban ruins," wrote the nineteenth century Englishwoman Amelia Edwards, "the Ramesseum is the most cheerful. Drenched in sunshine, the warm limestone of which it is built seems to have mellowed and turned golden with time.
“No walls enclose it. No towering pylons overshadow it. It stands high, and the air circulates freely... There are not many Egyptian ruins in which one can talk and be merry...”
One wonders if that was the impression Ramesses II intended people to have when experiencing his great temple.
Ramesses II was just a teenager when he ascended to the throne, king of the greatest empire on Earth, his beautiful wife, Nefertari, at his side. He was certainly up to the job. Ramesses launched building projects as large as his ego.
As tradition demanded, his tomb, his 'house of life', dug into the Valley of the Kings, was one of the priority works. Next came the Ramesseum, his grand royal worship temple.
Its full name was the 'House of Millions of Years of Usermaatre Setepenre (Ramesses II's Throne Name), that Unites with Thebes-the-city in the Domain of Amun'. The name 'Ramesseum' was given to it in 1829 by Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.
The royal worship temples on the West bank at Luxor are most often called mortuary or memorial temples. The thought was that they swung into service on the passing of the king as a focus of prayers and offerings for sustenance of the king’s soul, and a place of worship where his memory and glory was kept alive.
However the kings didn't wait for their passing to be adored; their temples were central to their worship during their lifetimes, so it would be more accurate to call them royal worship temples.
The Ramesseum was where Ramesses II wished to be worshipped as a god on earth. It also celebrated the king's glory by showcasing his stewardship of his people and his deliverance of Maat, or cosmic order. All the great actions of Ramesses II's life were materialized on its walls. Pride of place was the king's great Battle of Kadesh, in which only Ramesses II's personal valour saved the Egyptian army from humiliating defeat at the hands of the Hittites. The battle saga adorns the first second temple pylons of the Ramesseum, as well as featuring at Abydos, the Temples of Karnak and Luxor and Abu Simbel. Ramesses wasn't taking any chances that his battle prowess might be lost to history or overlooked by the gods.
Pictured is the second courtyard of the Ramesseum. The portico is lined with Osiride statues of the great king, connecting him to the great god of the unerworld. To the right, the temple's hypostyle hall.