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Egypt: History - Dynasty XIX (Nineteenth Dynasty)


Nineteenth Dynasty

After the recovery from the religious revolution, Egypt was a changed world. It is not easy to define the exact nature of the changes, since there are many exceptions. Yet, it is impossible not to notice the marked deterioration of the art, the literature, and indeed the general culture of the people. The language which they wrote approximates more closely to the vernacular and incorporates many foreign words. The copies of ancient texts are incredibly careless, as if the scribes utterly failed to understand their meaning. At Thebes the tombs no longer display the bright and happy scenes of everyday life which characterized Dyn. XVIII, but concentrate rather upon the perils to be faced in the hereafter. The judgment of the heart before Osiris is a favorite theme, and the Book of Gates illustrates the obstacles to be encountered during the nightly journey through the Netherworld. The less frequent remains from Memphis show reliefs of only slightly greater elegance. The temples elsewhere depict upon their walls many vivid representations of warfare, but the workmanship is relatively coarse and the explanatory legends are often more adulatory that informative. In spite of all, Egypt still presents an aspect of wonderful grandeur, which the greater abundance of this period's monuments makes better known to the present-day tourist than the far finer products of earlier times.


Two statues found at Karnak in 1913, taken in conjunction with the famous stela of the year 400 discovered at Tanis fifty years earlier, prove the founder of the NINETEENTH DYNASTY to have been a man from the north-eastern corner of the Delta whom Haremhab raised to the end exalted rank of vizier. Pra'messe, as he was called until he dropped the definite article at the beginning of his name to become the king known to us as Ramesses I, was of relatively humble origin, his father Set I having been a simple 'captain of troops'. We can well imagine Haremhab as having wished to choose his main colleague from within his own military caste. The statues, practically duplicates of one another, portray Pra'messe as a royal scribe squatting upon his haunches in the approved manner of his kind. The half-opened papyrus on his lap enumerates the various high offices to which his lord had raised him. Besides the vizierate these include the positions of superintendent of horses, fortress-commander, superintendent of the river-mouths, commander of the army of the Lord of the Two Lands, not to mention several priestly titles. Most significant of all is his claim to have been 'deputy of the King in Upper and Lower Egypt', as Haremhab had been before him. Pra'messe was an old man when he ascended the throne. He was not destined to enjoy the royal power for long. Manetho, as quoted by Josephus, allows him only one year and four months of reign, a span not necessarily contradicted by the dating in year 2 on the sole dated monument which we possess, a stela from Wady Halfa now in the Louvre. Even this appears to have been erected by his son and successor Seti (Sethos I), who set up in the same place a stela almost identical in tenor and dated in year 1 of his own reign. These two documents record the establishment at Buhen (Wady Halfa) of a temple and new offerings to Min-Amun, for whose cult prophets, lector-priests, and ordinary priests were appointed, together with male and female slaves form 'the captures made by His Majesty'. These last words need not be taken too seriously in view of the shortness of the reign, and indeed peace may at this time have been firmly established in Nubia, where Pesiur, the King's Son of Cush of Haremhab's reign, was possibly still in office. Ramesses I's monuments in other parts are very scanty. A few reliefs bearing his name on and near the Second Pylon at Karnak suggest that he either initiated or acquiesced in the stupendous change there from Haremhab's open court with a central double line of giant columns like that at Luxor to the great Hypostyle Hall which is among the chief surviving wonders of Pharaonic Egypt. His own tomb in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings was planned to rival in size that of his predecessor, and only stopped short, doubtless owing to his death, at the chamber below the second flight of stairs, where his sarcophagus may still be seen. His coffin and mummy suffered a fate not unlike that which befell the mummies of other kings. From his own tomb they were transported first to that of Sethos I, and from there to the great cache at Der el-Bahri.

The great ruler who occupied the throne for the next fifteen or more years was colored with true affection and loyalty towards his father. But obedient devotion has its limits, and in the important funerary sanctuary which Sethos I built for himself at Kurna, the northern-most of the line of temples fringing the western desert at Thebes, he could spare only a few rooms to Ramesses I. At Abydos, however, he appended to his own great temple a small chapel with beautifully painted reliefs and a fine stela in which he extolled the virtues of his progenitor. Yet for all the recognition which Sethos was prepared to pay his father , he was not averse to regarding himself as the inaugurator of a new period. This he showed by means of the phrase 'Repetition of Births' appended to dating of his first and second regnal years, and by inserting the corresponding epithet in his Two-Ladies name and sometimes in his Horus-name, as had been done by Ammenemes I at the beginning of Dyn. XII. But there may have been an additional reason for this. If the calculations of the astronomical chronologies are sound, a new Sothic period began about 1317 BC, a very short time before Sethos I came to the throne. Now the Alexandrian mathematician Theon, referring to the Sothic period, speaks of it as the era 'from Menophres', and this royal name has been interrupted by Struve, followed by Sethe, to be a slightly corrupted form of the epithet Mry-n-Pth 'Beloved of Ptah' which normally stands at the beginning of Sethos's second cartouche. This clever conjecture may or may not be right.

As a stranger from the extreme north and with no royal lineage behind him, Sethos ran a serious risk of being viewed as an upstart. The gods of the land had by no means completely recovered from the injuries inflicted upon them by the partisans of Akhenaten. Here Sethos found an opportunity of winning popularity; doubtless it was with this in view that he set about restoring the mutilated inscriptions of his predecessors. But his cleverest move consisted in founding a temple whose magnificence should vie with that of the very greatest fans of the capital cities. Abydos, the reputed home of Osiris, had always been a favorite site for the building activities of the Pharaohs, but to none of Sethos's predecessors had it occurred to honor the place on such a scale as he devised. His temple, together with the mysterious memorial at the back of it, remains to this day a place of pilgrimage which no enterprising sightseer would willingly miss. The reliefs of the walls, in many cases still retaining the brilliance of their original colors, display a delicacy and a perfection of craftsmanship surprising on the threshold of a period of undisputed decadence. The inherited name of SetI 'the Sethian' attests a devotion to the very god who had been the murderer of the venerated numen loci. All the more necessary was it for him to placate Osiris, or rather his powerful priesthood. Despite Sethos I's lavish expenditure on his great monument the architects whom he employed did not care to give Seth a place among its divine occupants, and even in their writing of the monarch's name the figure of Osiris was prudently used in place of the grotesque animalic image of his mortal enemy. By way of compensation, however, Osiris was not permitted to be exclusively worshipped here at Seth's expense. The temple was conceived of as a national shrine. Beside Osiris, chapels were set apart for his wife Isis and for his son Horus, these three constituting the age-old triad of Abydos. But neighboring their chapels are others of equal size and importance dedicated to the three chief gods of the capital cities, to Amun of Thebes, to Ptah of Memphis, and to Re'-Harakhti of Heliopolis. Nor was Sethos I the man to dissociate himself from this noble company. It was to his own cult that he caused to be consecrated the seventh and southernmost chapel. To modern minds this action might well seem intolerably presumptuous, but not so to an Egyptian Pharaoh. Was he not from time immemorial a great god, if not the greatest of all? How should he not possess a memorial in the holiest place of the Two Lands? And lastly, we must never forget that early religion universally took for granted the principle do ut des. All the gods would have languished, and rightly, had not the Pharaoh's self-interest demanded the steadfast maintenance of their cults.

The foundation or even the re-dedication of a temple was by no means complete when the actual building was ended. Priests of different grades had to be appointed, menial servants found, to discharge the ordinary duties of maintenance and commissariat and large tracts of land set apart to supply the revenues required for the upkeep. In return for this, a royal charter was usually issued to define the rights of the sacred establishment and its employees. Passing reference has been made to the decrees from the end of the Old Kingdom which protected the temple of Min at Coptos form outside interference. Good fortune has preserved for us the charter or part of the charter granted by Sethos to his great new sanctuary at Abydos. This, strange to say, is inscribed on a high rock at Nauri a short distance to the north of the Third Cataract.

It must suffice here to mention a few of the ways in which the privileges of the temple staff might be infringed. These men might be seized personally, moved from district to district, commandeered for ploughing or reaping, prevented from fishing or fowling, have their cattle stolen, and so forth. Also any official who did not exact justice from the offenders was himself to be severely punished. Paragraph after paragraph deals with such matters, but it has to be confessed that the entire decree is very carelessly drafted, and leaves the impression rather of artificial legalistic from that of precise legal enactment.

Among the dependents of the Abydos temple mentioned in the Nauri text are the gold-washers who were employed at the mines in the neighborhood of the Red Sea. Their task was to effect the extraction of the precious metal by washing away the lighter substances in the pulverized stone. The hard lot of the actual miners is described in a passage quoted by Diodorus Siculus from the geographer Agatharchides. It was important that these poor wretches should reach the scene of their labors without perishing on the way. In a long inscription of year 9 engraved on the wall of a small temple in the Wady Abbad some 35 miles east of Edfu, Sethos describes the measures he has taken to remedy their situation. A brief extract will illustrate the style an substance of the narration:

He stopped on the way to take counsel with his heart, and said: How miserable is a road without water! how shall travelers fare? Surely their throats will be parched. What will slake their thirst? The homeland is far away, the desert wide. Woe to him, a man thirsty in the wilderness! Come now, I will take thought for their welfare and make for them the means of preserving them alive, so that they may bless my name in years to come, and that future generations may boast of me for my energy, inasmuch as I am one compassionate and regardful of travelers.

Sethos then recounts the digging of a well and the founding of a settlement in this locality. Another inscription in the speos warns later rulers and their subjects not to steal the gold which was to be delivered to the Abydos temple, and ends with a curse:

As to whosoever shall ignore this decree, Osiris will pursue him, and Isis his wife, and Horus his children; and the Great ones, the lords of the Sacred Land, will make their reckoning with him.

Among her northerly neighbors Egypt's prestige had fallen to a very low level, a situation which Sethos at once set to work to repair. The warlike scenes depicted upon the exterior north wall of the great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak combine with conventional illustrations of the king's personal prowess much information of a genuine historical character. These reliefs are no great works of art, despite the prancing steeds of Pharaoh's chariot and the agonized contortions of his victims. But surely unique must be the picture of Sethos on foot, with two Syrian prisoners tucked under each arm. There are two series of scenes, both converging towards a central doorway near which Amun stands to welcome the returning conqueror and to witness the doubtless merely symbolic battering to death of the vanquished chieftains. The lesser captives who follow in long lines were destined to become slaves in the workshops of the temple of Karnak. On the eastern side the lowest register shows the military road along which Sethos's army had to pass before he could reach his main objectives in northern Syria. The starting-point, as with Tuthmosis III and others, was the fortress of Tjel, the Latin Sile or Selle, close to the modern El-Kantara so well known to our own soldiers in the two world wars. From there the way led across the waterless desert of the Sinai peninsula beyond a small canal now replaced by that of Suez. The reliefs display in correct order the many small fortified stations built to protect the indispensable wells, and these together with a town with lost name which is evidently Raphia, 110 miles form Tjel, constitute the earliest equivalent of a map that the ancient world has to show. Twenty miles further on, described as 'town of Canaan', is the Philistine Gaza a short distance within the Palestine border. Before arriving there Sethos had been compelled to inflict a great slaughter on the rebellious nomads of the Shosu who barred the way. It is difficult to say how far the campaign of year 1 extended since the top register on the east half of the wall is lost. But it certainly reached as far as the Lebanon, where the native princes are seen felling the cedars or pines needed for the sacred bark and flagstaffs of the Theban Amun. What the accompanying hieroglyphic legend describes as 'ascent which Pharaoh made to destroy the land of Kadesh and the land of the Amor' probably belongs to a later year. The Kadesh here mentioned is naturally the all-important city on the Orontes, while the land of Amor is the adjacent north Syrian region extending to the Mediterranean coast. Of the two remaining registers in the western half-wall that in the middle records a battle against the Libyans, of whom but little has been heard since the beginning of Dyn. XII. The lowest register shows Sethos at grips with the Hittites, the strength of whose empire had been steadily growing in the hands of Suppiluliumas's son Mursilis II. Naturally the reliefs display Sethos as the victor. Stele from Kadesh itself and from Tell esh-Shihab in the Hauran bear Sethos's name, but are of far less importance than the two inscriptions of his reign found at Beisan, the Beth-shean of the Old Testament, some 15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee and only 4 to the west of the Jordan. Here since the time of Tuthmosis III a fortress of considerable size had housed the Egyptian garrison, and within its chapel had stood the stele which told of Sethos's exploits in the neighborhood. One of them which is nearly illegible, but has been skillfully deciphered by Grdseloff, deals with the 'Apiru-people discussed above. The other, which is well preserved, narrates as follows:

Year 1, third month of Summer, day 2...on this day they came to tell His Majesty that the vile enemy who was in the town of Hamath had gathered unto himself many people and had captured the town of Bethshael, and had joined with the inhabitants of Pehel and did not allow the prince of Rehob to go forth. Thereupon, His Majesty sent the first army of Amun 'Powerful of Bows' to the town of Hamath, the first army of Pre' 'Manifold of Bravery' to the town of Bethshael, and the first army of Sutekh 'Victorious of Bows' to the town of Yeno'am. Then there happened the space of one day and they were fallen through the might of His Majesty, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menma're', the Son of Re', SetI-merenptah, given life.

All the places here named have been identified with some probability, none of them at any great distance from Beisan; the capture of Yeno'am had been depicted in the Karnak reliefs. No more in the way of commentary is needed than to draw attention to the three army corps named after the gods of Thebes, Heliopolis, and the later Pi-Ra'messe respectively. These we shall find reappearing in the Kadesh campaign of Ramesses II, and they seem to imply the presence of really strong forces in the Palestinian area. Perhaps in the quarter of a century from the beginning of Dyn. XIX, Egypt possessed as much of an Asiatic empire as at any other period in her history. Nevertheless, the main administration probably lay in the hands of the local princes, and apart from the commanders of garrison the Egyptian officials claimed no more authoritative title than that of 'king's envoy to every foreign country'. In Nubia, on the other hand, real governors were the King's Son of Cush and his two lieutenants, though here too Sethos had to take military action against a remote tribe in the fourth and eighth years of his reign.

Apart from the temples of Kurna and Abydos already mentioned and the work on the great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Sethos I's buildings are relatively unimportant. On the other hand, the sepulcher which he caused to be excavated for himself in the Biban el-Moluk is the most imposing of the entire necropolis. It is over 300 feet long and decorated from the very entrance with admirably executed and brilliantly colored reliefs equaling in quality those found in the great monument at Abydos. The fine alabaster sarcophagus is now the treasured possession of the Soane Museum in London. It had early been robbed of its occupant, whose mummy ultimately found its way to the cache at Der el-Bahri. Sethos was a man of only moderate height, but the well-preserved head, with heavy jaw and a wide and strong chin, is cast in a markedly different mound from that of the Dyn. XVIII kings.

If the greatness of an Egyptian Pharaoh be measured by the size and number of the monuments remaining to perpetuate his memory, Sethos's son and successor Ramesses II would have to be pronounced equal, or even the superior, of the proudest pyramid-builders. The great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak is his main achievement, and on the west bank at Thebes his funerary temple known as the Ramesseum still retains a large part of its original grandeur. At Abydos his temple stands, as a not unworthy second, side by side with that of his father, which he finished. The edifices at Memphis have been largely demolished later by thieves greedy for suitable building stone, but portions of great statues of Ramesses II attest the former presence of a vast temple of his. Moreover, this is referred to in a well-known stela preserved in the Nubian temple of Abu Simbel, where Ramesses acknowledges the blessings conferred upon him by the Memphite god Ptah. The remains at Tanis will be spoke of later. It is in Nubia, however, that his craze for self-advertisement is most conspicuous. Omitting the names of four important sanctuaries which under any other king could not be passed over in silence, we cannot refrain from voicing our wonder at the amazing temple at Abu Simbel with its four colossal seated statues of Ramesses fronting the river. Yet in spite of all this monumental ardor, Ramesses II's stature has undeniably suffered reduction as the result of the last half-century's philological research. Previously the nickname Sese, given him in some later literary texts, had persuaded Maspero that he was none other than the conqueror Sesostris so widely celebrated in the classical authors. We now know that this half-mythical personage had arisen from the combination of two separate kings of Dyn. XII. The less enviable claim to have been the Pharaoh of the Oppression survives in the works of the ablest conservative scholars only in a greatly modified form, while a by no means negligible minority of historians are profoundly skeptical of the entire Exodus story. Lastly Ramesses II's glamour as a triumphant conqueror has been much dimmed by evidence from the Boghazkoy records. None the less the events of his sixty-seven years of reign are better known and present more of interest than those of any other equal span of Egyptian history.

For the beginning of the reign, the main source is an inscription of great length known to Egyptologists by the name Inscription dedicatoire given to it by G. Maspero, its first translator. This occupies an entire wall in the temple of Sethos I at Abydos and is the main boastful account of Ramesses's virtue in completing his father's splendid sanctuary. The space devoted to factual narrative is small, but an important passage describes Ramesses's promotion in early youth to the position of crown prince and subsequently his association with Sethos upon the throne:

The Universal Lord himself magnified me whilst I was a child until I became ruler. He gave me the land whilst I was in the egg, the great ones smelling the earth before my face. Then I was inducted as eldest son to be Hereditary Prince upon the throne of Geb (the earth-god) and I reported the state of the Two Lands as captain of the infantry and the chariotry. Then when my father appeared in glory before the people, I being a babe in his lap, he said concerning me: 'Crown him as king that I may see his beauty whilst I am alive.' And he called to the chamberlains to fasten the crowns upon my forehead. 'Give him the Great One (the uraeus-serpent) upon his head' said he concerning me whilst he was on earth.

The accuracy of this statement has been challenged, but wrongly, since scenes at Karnak and at Kurna confirm Ramesses's co-regency with his father. Probably, however, he was less young when the co-regency began than this passage suggests, because there is evidence that he accompanied Sethos on his military campaigns while he was still only the heir-apparent, and further because the passage just translated goes on to say that Sethos equipped him with a female household and a king's harem 'like to the beautiful ones of the palace'. He must have been at least fifteen years old at the time, and in guessing at the length of the co-regency, we must remember the Ramesses had still a reign of little less than seventy years ahead of him, for he undoubtedly counted his first year from his accession after Sethos's death. The Abydos inscription also gives us some information concerning his first actions after the accession. Like Haremhab, he had come to Thebes to take part in Amun's great feast of Ope, when the god was carried in state in his ceremonial boat from Karnak to Luxor. The festivities over, he set forth by river to his new Delta capital, stopping at Abydos on the way to do reverence to Osiris Onnophris and to give orders for the continuation of the work on Sethos's temple. This visit gave him the opportunity to appoint as new high-priest of Onuris at Thinis, of Hathor at Dendera, and also at some places farther south. This preferment is proudly recounted by Nebunenef, the priest in question, in his tomb at Thebes. Proceeding on his way northwards Ramesses arrived at 'the strong place Pi-Ra'messe, Great-of-Victories', thenceforth to be, with Memphis as an alternative, the main royal residence in the north throughout Dyns. XIX and XX. It is agreed that this town, the Biblical Ramesses, was situated on the same site as the great Hyksos stronghold of Avaris and that its principal god was Sutekh, as the name of Seth was by this time mostly pronounced. P. Montet and the present writer have strongly maintained that this was none other than the great city which was later called Dja'ne, Greek Tanis, the Zoan of the Bible. No one who has visited the site or read about its monuments in books can have failed to be impressed by the multitude of the remains dating from the reign of Ramesses II. On the other hand , some 11 miles to the south, at Khat'ana-Kantir, portions of a fine palace of Ramesses II, adorned with splendid faience tiles, have staked out a rival claim to be the true Pi-Ra'messe 'the House of Ra'messe', and among other scholars Labib Habachi has been particularly active and successful in finding stele and other evidence from the same neighborhood which might swing the pendulum in that direction. According to this theory, the monuments of Ramesses II at Tanis were transported there by the kings of Dyn. XXI, who are known to have chosen that city as their capital. The debate continues, and cannot be regarded as finally settled either the one way or the other.

Continuation of 19th Dynasty

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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