Cartouche of Ramses II


There is no apparent reason why Egypt should not have arisen refulgent from the minor brushfires set by the Amarna heresy, as it had been re-born out of the greater conflagrations of the first two Intermediate Periods. To the men and women who lived out their lives under the first kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty, this resurgence was probably taken for granted. Yet to some, the greatness of Egypt is gone.

Greatness is a hard word to define. But whether Egyptian achievements are defined in terms of the rampantly successful imperialism of Thutmose III or the defiant spiritual challenges of the First Intermediate Period, the fable-making iconoclasm of Akhenaton or the more than oriental splendor of his father’s court, in almost every sense, Egyptian culture had passed its high point. Except for short periods of domestic calm under a strong pharaoh, the internal picture is one of slow but unmistakable decay. Abroad, the attempts of the Nineteenth Dynasty kings to regain the lost empire of Egypt fell short of Thutmose III’s achievements, and their descendants were unable to hold even what they had gained. There is a brief efflorescence of art, incorporating the best of the Amarna techniques, which produced some beautiful statues and reliefs, but it did not last. It is a melancholy task to view the decline of a culture so bright and attractive as that of Egypt, but it would be futile to try to paint the dying organism in the colors of life. So let us take up the story where we left it after the tragedy of Amarna was ended.

Ay, the old councilor who took Tutankhamon’s crown and perhaps his widow as well, did not live to enjoy his dubiously acquired gains for long. After his death there was no man in Egypt who could put forth even a faintly legitimate claim to the throne of the Two Lands. Contemporary inscriptions tell us that the internal affairs of Egypt were not flourishing. Egypt needed a strong hand to put down domestic disorder and civil strife, and a strong hand was just what she got. Ay’s successor was a military man named Harmhab, who had served under Tutankhamon. It is rather pitiful to see how few genuine converts the creed of Aton could claim. It was in truth the personal faith of the king and his family; many of Akhenaton’s leading adherents turned their coats with shameful haste after he died. Or perhaps they had only pretended to believe.

Tutankhamon had claimed the honor of reestablishing orthodoxy and repairing the temples ravaged by Akhenaton’s decrees, and Ay had been an eager servant of Amon, but neither of them was as zealous as Harmhab. He added greatly to the Amon temple at Karnak, using theblocks of Akhenaton’s dismantled Aton temple to hold up his pylons. As a high-ranking official of Tutankhamon he had already had built for himself a very elegant tomb at Sakkara, near the capital of Memphis, but after his accession to the throne he excavated another in the Valley of the Kings. He also took over a number of the monuments that had been erected by Tutankhamon, replacing that rulers’s name with his own. This wasn’t an uncommon practice, but Harmhab’s motive was, in part at least, political. The Amarna kings were to be eliminated from history. In the great king list of Seti I, Harmhab’s second successor, Akhenaton, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamon, and Ay do not appear. Harmhab added their years of reign to his own.

By what right Harmhab claimed the throne of Horus we may never know. Amon, of course, hailed him as his son, and some scholars think he established his legitimacy by marrying a sister of Nefertiti’s who had survived the anti-Amarna reaction. It is difficult to see what good this could have done the general. Nefertiti was only a member of the royal house by marriage, and her sister could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a royal heiress, even if such a concept existed. One wonders what had happened to Akhenaton’s daughters. The three oldest may have been dead by the time Harmhab claimed the throne, but what about the younger girls? Were they disregarded, as members of a tainted family, or did they too die before their time, possibly during a plague? It could be that Ay and Harmhab struck a deal in order to avoid a possible, damaging struggle for power; the older man got first crack at the throne, naming Harmhab as his successor.

Though he had led military campaigns in Syria and Nubia under Tutankhamon, Harmhab had little opportunity for warfare after he assumed the throne. The confusion within Egypt occupied him throughout much of his reign, and he seems to have dealt with it ably. A stela at Karnak mentions a number of abuses he had to correct: illegal taxation, extortion, theft, and fraud. He had no surviving son, so when he died he passed the kingdom on to an old buddy, another general named Ramses. With this king the Nineteenth Dynasty properly begins.

Ramses I was an old man when he came to the throne, and he only held it for a year or two. However, his son, Seti I, was a man in the prime of life, with a son of his own; and he proved to be a vigorous, energetic ruler. He must be given credit for a number of more or less laudable deeds: he built largely and with taste, he kept internal affairs under control, and he made the first serious attempt to reconquer the lost Asiatic empire of Egypt. His campaigns were successful but limited; he seems to have realized that it would take more than Egypt had then to offer to regain all the territory Thutmose III had held. He commemorated his victories by a series of very handsome, delicately carved reliefs on the walls of the great temple of Karnak. As they stand today, the outlines of the reliefs set off by brilliant sunlight and sharp shadows, they are among the most beautiful of all Egyptian relief carving. However, to many of us, Seti is chiefly memorable for a somewhat dubious attribute: he possesses (or should one say possessed?) the handsomest mummy ever to come out of an Egyptian tomb.

Egyptian mummies in general are not precisely beautiful, so to call Seti’s the best may seem a doubtful compliment. But it is more than the best of a bad lot; it is a positively good-looking mummy, the features being those of a man of truly kingly appearance and noble looks, with the relaxed aspect of a man asleep.

Seti’s elegant mummy was not found in his tomb; like so many other royal mummies it had to undergo repeated transfers for the sake of safety. But the tomb was worthy of its occupant. Its total length is about three hundred feet—not including a mysterious tunnel leading down from the floor of the burial chamber. It has not yet been completely explored. The walls of corridors and chambers are adorned with attractive painted reliefs of the king and the gods, many of which still retain their original color. These traces of paint have always given me a queer sense of the insubstantiality of time. Three thousand years have passed since the hands of the artist completed the laying on of orange and white, blue and gold; yet still the colors remain, frail shells of actuality.

Seti was responsible for another tourist attraction, this one at Abydos, which is well worth a visit (if you can get there; Abydos is in Middle Egypt, and security is very tight). The Abydos temple is a beauty, with reliefs of very fine quality. Being in Abydos, it could only be dedicated to Osiris, which suggests a pleasing irony: the sanctuary to the murdered god built and dedicated by the namesake of his murderer! Seti was named after Set the Enemy, and he paid his tutelary deity cautious honor. Whether he remembered the postulated Set movement of the remote Second Dynasty, or had any desire to imitate it is highly doubtful; it was as much ancient history for him as it is for us. But if he did know about the event, it would have warned him against any attempt to give Set more than his due. At Abydos where, of all places on earth, Set’s name would be de trop, the king substituted the hieroglyphic image of Osiris for the figure of Set that formed part of his own name. This was a solution which only a theologian or an Egyptian could regard as sensible.

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