Egypt: History - Dynasty XIX (Nineteenth Dynasty) - C

Nineteenth Dynasty

That for Egypt herself the reign of Ramesses II was a period of great prosperity cannot be doubted. Monuments of the period, dated and undated, are very numerous, but are mostly memorials of individual persons throwing little or no light upon the state of the country as a whole. The value of recent attempts to construct a coherent picture out of the titles born by such individuals need not be denied, but the results thus obtained are too speculative to receive more that a passing glance in the present book. To mention here only the highest functionaries of the administrative and the priestly orders respectively, it may be noted that the vizierate was usually in the hands of a single dignitary, though as the ousts there was one vizier for Upper Egypt and another for Lower Egypt. The High-priest of Amen-Re' at Thebes certainly retained his pre-eminence in his own sphere, but his office was not yet hereditary, and we have no means of knowing to what extent the wealth of the god's estate had increased or diminished since the religious revolution. Two of these pontiffs are interested only to tell us by what steps and at what ages they climbed to the top of the priestly ladder. An exception to such tedious information is found on the walls of a tomb at Saqqara belonging to a no more exalted personage than a scribe of the treasury in the Memphite temple of Ptah. Here are set forth at length the proceedings in a trial in which matter at stake was the ownership of a tract of land in the neighborhood of Memphis. This estate, the plaintiff Mose maintained, had been given by King Amosis as a reward to his ancestor Neshi, a ship's captain. Much litigation arose in subsequent generations. In the time of Haremhab, the Great Court sitting the Heliopolis and presided over by the Vizier sent a commissioner the locality where the property was, whereupon a lady named Wernero was appointed to cultivate the land as trustee for her brothers and her sisters. Objection to this arrangement having been raised by a sister named Takharu, a new division was made whereby the estate, hitherto indivisible, was parceled out between the six heirs. Against this decision Mose's father Huy appealed together with his mother Wernero, but Huy died at this juncture, and when his widow Nubnofre set about cultivating her husband's inheritance she was forcibly ejected by a man named Kha'y. As a consequence Nubnofre brought an action, dated to year of 18 of Ramesses II, went against hr, and it was only later that Mose, by this time presumably grown to manhood, appealed for the verdict to be reversed. His deposition was immediately followed by that of the defendant Kha'y, and it is from their combined statements that we learn what had happened. When the Vizier came to examine the title-deeds he could not fail to perceive that there had been forgery on one side or the other. Nubnofre then proposed that a commissioner should be sent with Kha'y to consult the official records of Pharaoh's treasury and granary at the northern capital of Pi-Ra'messe. To her dismay her husband's name was not found in the registers which the two, acting in collusion, brought back with them, and accordingly the Vizier, after further inquiry, gave judgment in favor of Kha'y, who received in consequence 13 arouras of land. To Mose, determined to recover his rights, no alternative was now open but to establish with the help of sworn witnesses the facts of his descent from Neshi and of his father's having cultivated the estate year by year and having paid the taxes on it. The testimony afforded by the men and women cited by him, taken together with the written evidence previously used, no longer left any uncertainty as to the rightness of his cause, and though the end of the hieroglyphic inscription is lost we cannot doubt that the Great Court together with the lesser one at Memphis delivered a final verdict re-established Mose in his inheritance. The colorful and vivid story here told, though dealing with only a small estate and relatively unimportant litigants, is so illuminating that it cannot be studied with too great care. One point of importance that emerges is the equality of men and women as regards both proprietorship and competence in the law-courts.

The second half of Ramesses II's reign seems to have been free from major wars. Khattusilis's son and successor Tudhaliyas IV was too much absorbed with his western frontier and with his religious duties to give control to any aggressive intentions, and indeed the once so powerful Hittite Empire was already moving towards it decline. However, in keeping the peace with Khatti Egypt, was merely exchanging one adversary for another still more formidable? It was no longer a question of Egypt's upholding her sovereignty in a distant province, now her own borders were seriously threatened. It is unnecessary to suppose that Sethos I's conflict with the Tjehnu depicted as at Karnak was a very big affair, but it foreshadowed the trouble which was to come from that quarter before long. There is written evidence that the north-west corner of the Delta was protected from Libyan invasion by a chain of fortresses extending along the Mediterranean coast. Many stele of the time of Ramesses II have come to light near El-'Alamein and others even still farther to the west. At Es-Sebua' in Lower Nubia, an inscription of year 44 tells of Tjemhu captives employed in the building of the temple there. It was in the fifth year of Mereptah that the danger came to a head, the ringleader being Maraye, son of Did, the king of that tribe of Libu (Libyans) which here makes its first appearance. Among the allies of his won race were the already mentioned Kehek and Meshwesh, but he had also summoned to his aid five 'peoples of the sea'; forerunners of the great migratory movement about to descend on Egypt and Palestine from north and west. The names of these confederates are of the utmost interest since, like the Dardanians and Luka (Lycians) who supported the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh, they introduce us, or seem to introduce us, to racial groups familiar from the early Hellenic world. The Akawasha mentioned here but never again hereafter are as a rule confidently equated with the Achaeans of Mycenaean Greece, but the writing does not quite square with that of the much disputed Ahhiyawa of the Hittite tablets, who at all events have an equal claim. The Luka appear to have played only a minor part, and occur in the Egyptian records only once again in the name of a slave. To identify the Tursha with the Tyrsenoi, often asserted to be the ancestors of the Etruscans, is too tempting to be dismissed out of hand, like the Shekresh or Sheklesh who so irresistibly recall the name of the Sikeloi or Sicilians. The presumption that some of the Tursha and the Sheklesh fought on the side of the Egyptians is certainly due to a mistranslation. Unhappily there are no reliefs to illustrate the appearance of these enemies of Mereptah. The only clue to their identity, beyond their names, is the indication that the Libu were uncircumcised; therefore, they were made to suffer the dishonor of having the genitals of their slain piled up for presentation to the king. The Sherden, Sheklesh, Akawasha and Tursha, being circumcised as the Egyptians themselves had been from time immemorial, received only the lesser disgrace of their hands being cut off and presented instead. However, this indication complicates the problem rather than the reverse. We may perhaps sum up the probabilities regarding these 'peoples of the sea' by saying that since all their names so readily find affinities in the Hellenic world, some at least of the proposed identifications are likely to be correct. However, there is no guarantee that the tribes in question were already located in the places where they ultimately settled down.

The details of Merenptah's great victory over the invaders were recounted in a long inscription carved on a wall of the temple of Karnak. The topmost blocks of the vertical columns of hieroglyphs having disappeared, not enough remains to slake our curiosity; nor is the situation remedied by some equally defective narratives from elsewhere. What we do glean, however, is highly interesting. It was no mere excursion in quest of plunder that had been attempted, but permanent settlement in a new home. Maraye and his allies had brought their women and children with them, as well as cattle and a wealth of weapons and utensils which were subsequently captured. Yet, it was want that had prompted them to this venture.

Such was the nature of the Libyans as it appeared to Merenptah on hearing of the graver attack that now confronted him. The attack must have come from pretty far west, from Cyrenaica or even beyond, since Maraye's first move was to descend upon and occupy the land of Tjehnu. It was not long before they had plundered the frontier fortresses, and some of them had even penetrated to the oasis of Farafra. The Great River or Canopic branch of the Nile marked, however, the limit of their advance, and the decisive battle, when it came, seems to have been at an unidentified locality named Pi-yer, doubtless well within the Delta. It is plain that Merenptah himself took no part in the struggle. He must have been already an old man when he came to the throne. Still the victory was naturally credited him, after he had seen in a dream a great image of the god Ptah who handed him a scimitar saying 'Take hold here and put off the faint heart from thee'. Six hours of fighting sufficed to rout the enemy, the wretched Maraye escaping capture by fleeing homeward at dead of night. The total of Libyans killed exceeded 6,000, not counting many hundreds of the allies, and of prisoners taken there seem to have been more than 9,000. These at least are the figures which emerge form the two damaged sources at our disposal, but of course we must make allowance for the usual exaggeration.

The mention of Israel in Egyptian writing is unique, and could not fail to be disturbing to scholars who at the time of the discovery in 1896 mostly believed Merenptah to have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The explanations now given are numerous. Actually, the name does not occur again in non-Biblical sources until after the middle of the ninth century BC, when Mesha King of Moab is said to have fought with Israel. That Merenptah actually did put forth some military activity in Palestine is confirmed by the epithet 'reducer of Gezer' which he receives in an inscription at Amada. Otherwise, conditions on the north-eastern front appear to have remained peaceful and normal. Extracts from the journal of a border official, dated in Merenptah's year 3, enumerate the successive sendings of dispatches to different garrison-commanders and other persons, among them the prince of Tyre. A literary papyrus, probably written in Merenptah's reign, contains a composition which is as instructive as it is amusing. This professes to be the reply by a scribe, Hori, to a letter just received from his friend the scribe Amenemope. After the elaborate greetings and compliments, Hori expresses his disappointment and then launches out on a long ironic demonstration of Amenemope's incompetence. The helpers, whom he has called to his aid, have not improved matters. Various situations are cited in proof of the criticisms: Amenemope has failed in his tasks of supplying the troops with rations, of building a ramp, of erecting a colossal statue, and so forth. But it is his ignorance of northern Syria which comes in for the severest condemnation. Many well-known places are named which this pretender to the rank of maher has never visited or where some trouble or other has befallen him. He has never reached Beisan or crossed the Jordan. He knows nothing about Byblos or Tyre. His horse has run away and his chariot has been smashed. Even towns as near at hand as Raphia and Gaza are unknown to him. Needless to say, one of the chief reasons for writing this strange work has been to give the author the chance of airing his own knowledge. Historically the text is enlightened inasmuch as there must have been a class of able scribes who had an intimate acquaintance with Palestine and Syria and were accustomed to travel there without mishap.

It is under Ramesses II, at latest, that an entirely different source of cultural and historical information begins to assume outstanding importance. Whether or not the Pharaoh now lived at and governed from one or other of the Delta capitals, he always aspired to burial in the ancestral necropolis of skilled workmen was continuously engaged upon the excavation and decoration of his tomb in the Biban el-Moluk. These men and their families formed a special community dwelling in the village of Der el-Medina high up in the desert above the great funerary temple of Amenophis III and every aspect of their lives and interests is revealed in the writings found either here or in the actual place of their daily work. Papyrus being comparatively rare, expensive and perishable, most of what has survived is inscribed on the scraps of limestone and the pot-shreds which lay on the ground only asking to be used and which Egyptologists known under the somewhat inappropriate name of 'ostraca'. Thousands have been published and thousands more await publication in our museums or in private hands. Besides literary, religious, and magical fragments there are records of barter, payment of wages in corn or copper, hire of donkeys for agricultural purposes, lawsuits, attendance at and absences from work, visits of high officials, model and actual letters, in fact memoranda of every kind. No synthesis can be here attempted, but it was necessary to mention a mass of material through which a restricted, but not significant, picture of Ramesside life can be brought before the eyes of the modern reader.

Merenptah was an old man when he died, bald and obese. His end may have been thought to be approaching as early as his eighth year, when the preparations for his funeral were being actively pursued. Nevertheless, he lingered on for two years more. No doubt he was buried in the granite sarcophagus of which the beautiful lid is still to be seen in this tomb in the Biban el-Moluk, but at some later period his mummy was moved to the tomb of Amenophis II, where Loret discovered it in 1898. With his death, we enter upon a series of rather short reigns, the sequence of which has been much debated. The problem is of the kind at once the joy and the torment of Egyptologists. Prominent here again is the question of superimposed cartouches, another royal name being substituted for one that has been chiseled out. Arguments based upon this procedure are, as has been already said, highly uncertain. Apart from the difficulty of deciding which name lies uppermost, there always remains the possibility that this belonged to the earlier of the two kings, having been restored as the result of some loyalty or animosity which cannot now be understood. Here the reader must rest content with a bare statement of what seems the most probable course of events. There is little doubt but that Merenptah was followed by his son SetI-merenptah, mostly known as Sethos II. Memoranda on ostraca mention both the date of his accession and that of his death, this latter occurring in his sixth year. In the meantime, a certain Neferhotep, one of the two chief workmen of the necropolis, had been replaced by another named Pneb, against whom many crimes were alleged by Neferhotep's brother Amennakhte in a violently worded indictment preserved in a papyrus in the British Museum. If Amennakhte can be trusted, Pneb had stolen stone for the embellishment of his own tomb from that of Sethos II still in course of completion, besides purloining or damaging other property belonging to that monarch. Also he had tried to kill Neferhotep in spite of having been educated by him, and after the chief workman had been killed by 'the enemy' had bribed the vizier Pra'emhab in order to usurp his place. Whatever the truth of these accusations, it is clear that Thebes was going through very troubled times. There are references elsewhere to a 'war' that had occurred during these years, but it is obscure to what this word alludes, perhaps to no more than internal disturbances and discontent. Neferhotep had complained of the attacks upon himself to the vizier Amenmose, presumably a predecessor of Pra'emhab, whereupon Amenmose had punished Pneb. This trouble-maker had then brought a complaint before 'Mose', who had deposed the vizier from his office. Evidently this 'Mose' must have been a personage of the most exalted station, and it seems inevitable to identify him with an ephemeral king Amenmesse whose brief reign may have fallen either before or within that of Sethos II. A tomb belonging to Amenmesse exists in the Biban el-Moluk, but it is a relatively poor affair in which most of the decorations have been erased, though enough of the inscriptions remains to furnish us with the name of his mother Takha'e, possibly a daughter of Ramesses II. The monument of Sethos II are scanty, the most imposing being a small temple in the forecourt at Karnak, and nothing more is known about the events of his reign. In his well-decorated tomb his cartouches have been erased and later replaced, the erasure being perhaps the handiwork of Amenmesse. Elliot Smith, describing his mummy found in the tomb of Amenophis II, speaks of him as a young or middle-aged man.

His immediate successor was a son who was at first given the name Ra'messe-Siptah, but who for some mysterious reason changed it to Merenptah-Siptah before the third year of his reign. He is closely associated in most of his few inscriptions with an important functionary named bay, who boasts of having been 'the great chancellor of the entire land'. There is good reason for thinking that Bay was a Syrian by birth, possibly one of those court officials who in this age frequently rose to power by the royal favor. In two graffitis, he receives the highly significant epithet 'who established the king upon the seat of his father' and it is almost certain that he was in fact the actual 'king-maker'. The epithet in question implies that Siptah was a son of Sethos II, but it is unknown of his accession since he was still young when he died after a reign of perhaps not more than six years. There now comes upon the scene a remarkable woman of the name of Twosre. Jewelry discovered by Theodore Davis in a nameless cache of the Biban el-Moluk shows her to have been Sethos II's principal wife. A silver bracelet depicts her standing before her husband and pouring wine into his outstretched goblet. It is a strange and unprecedented thing that three contemporaries should all have possessed tombs in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. The tomb of Bay is small and unadorned, but still its location testifies to the power which he must have exercised. Siptah's tomb, in which his mummy doubtless lay until shifted to that of Amenophis II, is much more imposing, but the cartouches on its walls have been cut out and later replaced, like those in the tomb of Sethos II. Twosre's tomb is even more intriguing. Here she bears the title King's Great Wife by virtue of her marriage to Sethos II, but an isolated scene shows her standing behind Siptah who is offering to the earth-god. Siptah's name has been destroyed and that of Sethos II substituted for it. Since there are excellent reasons for thinking that Sethos was the earlier of the two kings, this replacement must have been due to Twosre's later preference to be depicted with the king who had been her actual husband. Subsequently Sethnakhte, the founder of Dyn. XX, took possession and possibly destroyed Twosre's mummy, after someone had removed, to a place of safety, the jewelry above mentioned. The sole hypothesis, which seems to account for these complicated facts, supposes that when Bay forced the youthful Siptah onto the throne, Twosre was compelled to accept the situation. She still retained sufficient power to insist on having her own tomb in the Valley, an honor previously accorded to only one other royalty of female sex, namely Hashepsowe, Tuthmosis III's aunt. Like Hashepsowe, Twosre ultimately assumed the titles of a Pharaoh and possibly reigned alone for a few years. Siptah had caused a small funerary temple to be built for himself to the north of the Ramesseum at Thebes, and here the name of Bay figures with his own on the foundation deposits, a startling fact that goes far towards demonstrating the interpretation here given. Of Twosre only one stray intrusive scarab was found there. Twosre's separate funerary sanctuary to the south of the Ramesseum may have been begun at the same time or else may be somewhat later. Here she assumed a second cartouche which is also found combined with the first on a plaque said to come from Kantir in the Delta, and there are a few more traces of her reign in the north, and even at the turquoise mines of Sinai. Manetho ends Dyn. XIX with a king Thuoris said to have reigned seven years, and there can be but little doubt that the distorted name and erroneous sex recall the existence of the third woman in Egyptian history who had possessed ability enough to wrest to herself the Double Crown, but whose power had been insufficient to secure the perpetuation of her dynastic line.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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