Ancient History & Civilisation

I MMORTALIZED BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY’S POEM “OZYMANDIAS,” the fallen colossus of Ramesses II in his mortuary temple at western Thebes has come to symbolize the transience of power. Perhaps no other monument better evokes the rise and fall of a great civilization. At once awesome and pathetic, the fallen statue encapsulates the might and majesty of pharaonic Egypt but also its impotence in the face of long-term historic forces. The broader Ramesside Period (the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties) likewise holds a mirror to Egyptian civilization, reflecting both its boldness and its inherent weaknesses.

One institution dominates the story of Ramesside Egypt: the army. For a period of two centuries, the influence of the generals was felt, for good and ill, in every aspect of domestic and foreign policy. Military efficiency may have provided an effective short-term solution in times of dynastic turmoil, but over the course of several generations the militarization of politics merely entrenched the power of the army and weakened civil society, with damaging unforeseen consequences. The country’s permanent state of readiness for war with the Near East encouraged the development of a new capital in the delta, and this emphasis on Lower Egypt gave the region a political importance that it was to retain for the rest of pharaonic history. At the same time, the progressive alienation of Upper Egypt from the heart of decision-making stoked up fires of resentment that posed a long-term threat to the very cohesion of the state. Above all, war was costly. Ramesside Egypt’s interminable battles exhausted both the economy and the government machine. Like the victors in later world wars, Egypt ended up paying a high price.

At the outset of the Ramesside Period, the country was brimming with confidence and imperial ambitions. By its close, the land of the pharaohs had entered a slow but inexorable decline. Part IV charts this crucial turning point in the history of ancient Egypt. In the aftermath of Akhenaten’s failed revolution, it took an army officer, Horemheb, to restore order and self-confidence to a shattered realm. His adoption of a fellow general as his heir maintained the influence of the army, and the early Ramessides did not disappoint, showing an inexhaustible determination to regain Egypt’s empire. The confrontation between Egypt and its archrival, the Hittite Kingdom, culminated in the famous Battle of Kadesh, an epic if indecisive encounter that eventually paved the way for the first comprehensive peace treaty in world history. Yet Egypt’s security was soon threatened by new invaders. Ramesses III, often dubbed “the last great pharaoh,” sealed his reputation as victor against the Libyans and the Sea Peoples, but subsequently fell victim to a palace conspiracy. It was the harbinger of things to come.

In the end, internal rather than external factors undermined the pharaonic state. A loss of royal prestige, spiraling food prices, strikes, uncontrolled immigration, widespread corruption, a breakdown in law and order—by the time the eleventh Ramesses came to the throne, Egypt was on its knees. Beleaguered and isolated in his delta residence, the pharaoh did what every Ramesside had done at such times, and appealed to the army for assistance. The result was brutally effective, but not in the way Ramesses XI had hoped. The impotent king was sidelined as an irrelevance, and order was restored by separate military juntas in the north and south of the country. The long-cherished ideal of a unified state ruled by a single divine king was rudely cast aside in the name of control. The rescue of Ramesside Egypt was also its death knell.



EGYPT’S BURGEONING INVOLVEMENT IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS, FROM THE expulsion and pursuit of the Hyksos under Ahmose to the creation of an empire under Thutmose III, had a profound effect on the country at large and the way it was governed. Greater exposure to alien peoples and cultures led to the adoption of exotic ideas and customs in many areas of life, from art and architecture to state and private religion. In keeping with the martial spirit of the age, the iconography of monarchy became strongly militarized, the king appearing on temple reliefs as a great and mighty war leader, and this was reflected in the militarization of society as a whole. The New Kingdom was the age of the soldier, and from humble beginnings the Egyptian army swiftly established itself as one of the most influential groups in society.

For the campaigns of the Old and Middle kingdoms, Egypt’s rulers had depended upon conscript armies, raised from the general population on an ad hoc basis and bolstered by mercenaries, often recruited from Nubia. While such a system was adequate for launching sporadic raids to defend Egyptian interests or open up trade routes, it was entirely ill-suited to the demands of an empire. The conquest and annexation of large tracts of foreign territory required permanent garrisons to enforce Egyptian control, backed up by the threat of overwhelming force in case of insurrection. Only a permanent standing army could deliver such a policy. Hence, at the beginning of the New Kingdom, military organization was put on a professional basis, and a full-time army was created for the first time in Egyptian history. By the reign of Akhenaten (1353–1336), the influence of the army was felt throughout the corridors of power. Many of the king’s closest followers combined military and civilian office, and these links no doubt served to keep a powerful bloc loyal to the sovereign.

A reorganization of the armed forces in the late Eighteenth Dynasty divided them into two distinct corps, infantry and chariotry. Egypt also had a strong naval tradition (used to great effect in the battles against the Hyksos), but the interdependence of land-based and river-borne fighting was reflected in the interchangeability of military personnel, with men and officers alike alternating between army and navy postings. A major naval base was located at the port of the capital city, Memphis. Another, at the site of the former Hyksos capital, Hutwaret, went under the suitably appropriate name of Perunefer (“bon voyage”). Military garrisons were probably stationed in provincial centers throughout the country for rapid deployment in emergency situations, while a large garrison of reservists just outside Memphis was no doubt a powerful deterrent against would-be insurgents within the Egyptian population.

The principal tactical unit of the infantry was a platoon of fifty men, under a platoon commander, the lowest rank of officer. Each platoon was subdivided into five squads of ten men, each with its own designated squad leader. This arrangement fostered teamwork and a strong esprit de corps, essential to the success of any army. Four or five platoons made up a company, which had its own quartermaster and adjutant and was commanded by a standard-bearer. For operational purposes, several companies could be combined to form a battalion, its precise strength depending on requirements. Major military campaigns saw the consolidation of battalions into regiments or divisions, each under the command of a general and named after one of Egypt’s state gods. The chariotry likewise was organized into groups of fifty, and was dominated by officers (like the cavalry in the armies of late-nineteenth-century imperial Europe).

Life as an infantryman in the pharaoh’s army might have provided opportunities for adventure and advancement, but it was not a bed of roses. Even for those who joined up voluntarily—as opposed to being conscripted—the training was harsh, and was characterized by indiscriminate beatings. Although there was a specialist cadre of “military scribes” (desk officers) responsible for keeping records and allocating provisions, rations in the field were meager in the extreme, and soldiers were expected to supplement their bread and water by foraging and stealing—little wonder that at the Battle of Megiddo the Egyptian forces were more concerned with pillaging the enemy’s possessions than with capturing the town. Many of the soldiers may not have had a square meal in weeks. Nor could an infantryman opt to leave such a life of privation, other than through death in service or promotion. A deserter knew that his relatives were liable for imprisonment until he rejoined his unit. If the treatment meted out to Egyptian recruits was bad, the lot of foreign prisoners of war forcibly conscripted into the army was even worse. They could expect to be branded and registered, and even circumcised to “Egyptianize” them. Only if they survived a lifetime of active service could they look forward to an honorable retirement, cultivating a plot of land allocated to them by the state.

When an Egyptian army marched to war—at a pace of about fifteen miles a day—the basic kit of a soldier comprised a pack, clothing, sandals, and a staff or cudgel for personal protection. More sophisticated weaponry was issued only when the army was ready to engage the enemy. (This was still the era of set-piece battles.) As the weapons were brought on, the shoes came off. Egyptian soldiers fought barefoot. Likewise, body armor was virtually nonexistent, as it impeded movement on the battlefield. Apart from a shield and perhaps a quilted leather jerkin, the infantryman had to rely on his own wits and strength to protect himself. For firepower over long distances, bows and arrows were the weapon of choice. Simple bows came in different sizes, small ones for short-range attack and longbows for use by massed stationary units of archers. Composite bows, a technological innovation of the early New Kingdom, provided even greater penetrating power, and were favored by the officers. Different types of arrows were chosen according to the type of injury the archer wished to inflict: pointed or barbed arrowheads for deep flesh wounds, flat-tipped versions for stunning the enemy. Other long-distance weapons included slings, spears, and javelins. For hand-to-hand combat, clubs and fighting rods were both cheap to produce and brutally effective, delivering crushing blows sufficient to fell even an armored opponent. Battle-axes were good for hacking down enemy forces, scimitars for slashing and slicing. As a weapon of last resort, the short-bladed dagger was invaluable, but also served a more grisly purpose. After each engagement, an Egyptian army counted the enemy dead by severing a hand (or, for an uncircumcised enemy, the penis) from each slain opponent. In a scene from the late Eighteenth Dynasty, a group of victorious Egyptian soldiers is shown leaving the battlefield, three enemy hands skewered on each of their spears.

If the infantry formed the backbone of the Egyptian army, the charioteers were the shock troops. The introduction of the horse and chariot from western Asia at the beginning of the New Kingdom revolutionized warfare in the ancient world, and gave Egypt a highly effective force for use against massed infantry. Each chariot had a two-man crew, comprising a warrior armed with a bow and arrow and a driver-cum-shield-bearer. The chariot’s lightweight construction and rear-mounted wheels gave maximum speed and maneuverability, perfect for “softening up” the enemy before a frontal assault, and for harrying defeated forces, to turn a retreat into a rout. The last word in modern weaponry, the chariot was also the ultimate status symbol for the Egyptian elite—even if, like so many other innovations, it had been brought to the Nile Valley by foreigners. Yet the Egyptians of the Eighteenth Dynasty turned this technological triumph against its own inventors, using chariot forces to conquer and overwhelm province after province throughout the Near East. Without the chariot, it is doubtful that Egypt would ever have succeeded in forging an empire.

Chariots, like soft beds on campaign, were the preserve of the officer class. For an ordinary soldier to aspire to such luxuries, he first had to serve his time at the bottom of the hierarchy and work his way up through the ranks. The army certainly offered a passport to prestige and power for determined and ambitious men. Nobody illustrates this better than Horemheb. From a provincial background in Middle Egypt, his glittering military career took him not just to the top of the army but to the very pinnacle of the Egyptian state. Born in the reign of Amenhotep III, Horemheb’s early career under Akhenaten is shrouded in mystery—he had no wish in later life to be associated with the royal revolutionary—but there are tantalizing clues that his aptitude and skill had already been recognized with promotion to high office. In the hills of Akhetaten, an unfinished tomb was inscribed for a king’s scribe and general named Paatenemheb. Since many ambitious individuals changed their names under Akhenaten’s regime to eliminate references to the old gods, it is quite possible that Paatenemheb (“the Aten [is] in festival”) and Horemheb (“Horus [is] in festival”) are one and the same man. Horemheb may have become “Paatenemheb” during Akhenaten’s reign and then reverted to “Horemheb” after Akhenaten’s death. Certainly, by the time Tutankhamun succeeded to the throne in 1332, Horemheb had come to prominence as commander in chief of the young king’s army, a “general of generals.”

A Nubian prisoner with a rope around his neck   WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Horemheb’s magnificent private tomb at Saqqara is decorated with lavish scenes showing his activities as great overseer of the army. Vignettes of life in a military encampment show messenger boys running at the double as they carry instructions from tent to tent. Elsewhere, Horemheb receives the supplications of emissaries from hungry foreign lands as they plead for clemency and prostrate themselves “seven times on the belly and seven times on the back.” More unsettling still are the scenes of prisoners of war from Horemheb’s campaigns in the Near East and Nubia, row upon row of captives lined up before the commander in chief to await their fate. With wooden manacles on their wrists and ropes around their necks, Asiatic prisoners are paraded, pushed, and cajoled by Egyptian soldiers. As a standard part of military policy, entire families of men, women, and children were transported to Egypt as hostages, to ensure the good conduct of their countrymen back home. Even more humiliating treatment was reserved for the Nubian citizens of “vile Kush,” ancient Egypt’s favorite whipping boy. The Kushite chief was forced to prostrate himself before Horemheb while armed Egyptian soldiers harrassed and assaulted his men, beating them with sticks and punching them on the jaw in acts of deliberate humiliation. All the while, with customary military efficiency, army scribes recorded every detail.

This ruthlessness found favor beyond the ranks of the army. In pharaonic Egypt, such qualities also provided the perfect springboard for a career in the civil service. Like many senior officers, Horemheb was able to combine both military and civilian roles. At the same time as commanding Tutankhamun’s armed forces, he also acted as lord protector to the young king. As “king’s deputy in the entire land,” “who repeats the king’s words to his entourage,” Horemheb exercised huge influence over the direction of government policy, and from his office at Memphis he must have been one of the chief architects of the return to orthodoxy. Indeed, the inscriptions in his private tomb conspicuously omit references to Tutankhamun by name, a not-so-coded acknowledgment that the general, not the boy king, called the shots. As the power behind the throne, the commander in chief was already steering Egypt toward military rule as a way of restoring order. As his titles proclaimed, Horemheb was indeed “the two eyes of the king in leading the Two Lands and establishing the laws of the Two Banks.” He would not have to wait long to make the ultimate transformation from king’s deputy to the top job itself.


AT THE MOMENT OF TUTANKHAMUN’S UNTIMELY DEATH IN 1322, Horemheb was in the field in distant Syria, leading Egyptian troops in an unsuccessful campaign to recapture the rebellious city of Kadesh and pry it free from Hittite control. The nature of his involvement in the murky events that ensued—Ankhesenamun’s plea to the Hittite king to send her a husband, the murder of Prince Zannanza en route to Egypt, and the accession of the old retainer Ay as pharaoh—remains shrouded in obscurity. Perhaps that was Horemheb’s intention. Even if his hopes of election were temporarily thwarted by Ay’s intervention, he knew that the new king was an old man with little time left. After a career spent building his power base and biding his time, Horemheb could certainly wait another few years before claiming his prize.

His eventual accession as lord of the Two Lands, after Ay’s brief reign of four years (1322–1319), might have seemed inevitable. After all, Horemheb had been designated as Tutankhamun’s heir and was merely fulfilling his destiny. That, no doubt, was the spin the royal propagandists put on the general’s elevation. In reality, the appropriation of the throne by a commoner with no royal connections represented a complete break with tradition and threatened to undermine the very foundations of a hereditary monarchy. For all intents and purposes, Horemheb’s accession was a military coup. He was a skilled enough tactician to realize the dangers, and clearly understood that he would need both to legitimize his own kingship and to put the institution as a whole on a new footing in order to secure his throne. Even with the army behind him, a new program for Egypt would require all his strategic skills.

The first step—as always—was to obtain divine sanction for his regime. This Horemheb achieved by the brilliant but simple expedient of timing his coronation to coincide with the annual Opet Festival at Thebes. As he emerged from the sanctuary of Luxor Temple, both newly crowned and infused with godlike powers through his communion with Amun-Ra, how could anyone doubt or challenge his right to rule? Once securely established on the throne of Horus, the king set his theologians to work to devise a plausible background story that would explain the rise of an army general to the kingship. The result was as ingenious a piece of sophistry as ever flowed from the pen of an ancient Egyptian scribe. The tale told how Horemheb had been marked out from childhood by his local god, Horus of Herakleopolis, who acted as father to him, protecting him until the time came:

A generation and another came and went [and still his father kept him safe], for he knew the day when he would retire to hand him his kingship.1

According to this explanation, Horemheb’s long career in the military and civilian services was all part of the divine plan. Eventually, when the moment was right (in fact, when the opportunity arose), Horus promoted his chosen candidate and handed him over to the safekeeping of Amun-Ra. A boy from the provinces thus became the lord of the Two Lands.

If both the occasion and the setting for Horemheb’s coronation harked back to the glorious reign of Amenhotep III, that was entirely deliberate. Part of Horemheb’s program of legitimation involved airbrushing the intervening reigns from history, so that he could present himself as the first rightful pharaoh since Egypt’s “dazzling orb.” To this end, Akhenaten’s temples at Gempaaten were systematically dismantled, their blocks used as fill for Horemheb’s own constructions. On his orders, teams of workmen descended upon Akhetaten to expunge all traces of the heretic king. Statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti were torn down, smashed, and tossed into a heap outside the Great Aten Temple. Also in line for official persecution were Tutankhamun and Ay. The boy king’s inscriptions and monuments were recarved with Horemheb’s names and titles, so that he could take sole credit for the return to orthodoxy (for which he had, in any case, been largely responsible). As for Ay, the old retainer who had kept Horemheb from the throne, his memory was treated even more harshly. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings and his public monuments were desecrated to extinguish all hopes of immortality. At the end of a lifelong rivalry, Horemheb had the last laugh.

Restoring the temples, reinstating their offerings, and restaffing them “with lay priests and lector priests from the pick of the infantry”2 were all essential tasks for setting the country back on a traditional path. But Horemheb’s counterrevolutionary agenda went far beyond the religious domain. Like other kings since the dawn of history, he had announced his program in the Horus name he adopted at his accession, “mighty bull, whose counsels are penetrating.” The emphasis on law as well as order was intentional. Building on his experience of “establishing the laws of the Two Banks” under Tutankhamun, Horemheb now promulgated a series of major legislative reforms, published in the form of an edict. One of the most extensive surviving examples of pharaonic law-making, it was designed both to counteract abuses of power by agents of the state and to reinforce the security of Horemheb’s own regime. While the preamble is couched in the usual lofty phraseology—“His Majesty determined … to drive out chaos and destroy falsehood”3—the detailed measures that follow are wholly pragmatic. They paint a picture of a ruler steeped in military discipline and determined to run Egypt along similar lines. Four of the ten clauses set down new penalties for misuse of authority by agents of the palace. Anyone found guilty of requisitioning boats or workers designated for state projects could expect to receive the harshest of punishments: exile to the desolate border fortress of Tjaru, and facial mutilation. Government employees caught with their noses in the trough could expect to lose them. Also subject to the full force of the law were corrupt palace employees. Fraudulently assessing taxes, collecting too much fodder (thus impoverishing the population at large), or extracting punitive amounts of provisions from local mayors during royal progresses would no longer be tolerated. Nor were members of the armed forces exempt from the same rules. Any soldier found guilty of stealing a hide—even to supplement his basic kit—would be punished severely with one hundred blows and five open wounds, in addition to the confiscation of the stolen items.

Having dealt with official corruption, Horemheb next turned his legislative attention to the law courts. Purging the judiciary has always been a favorite tactic of despots (especially those with a military background), and Horemheb was no exception. He appointed a raft of new judges, men who would be “attentive to the words of the court and the laws of the judgment hall.”4 He further decreed that local officials found guilty of perverting the course of justice would be sentenced to death, adding, “My Majesty has done this to advance the laws of Egypt.”5 And, of course, the king’s word was the law. The final group of measures in Horemheb’s edict are perhaps the most telling, dealing as they do with his own personal security. One clause laid down new restrictions on the activities and movements of employees of the royal harem, always a locus for dissent and possible sedition. The tenth and final clause was even more blatant, decreeing enhanced rewards for members of the king’s bodyguard:

It will be like a holiday for them—every man seated with a share of every good thing … applauded for all [his] good deeds … [rewards] thrown to them from the window and summoning every man by his [own] name.6

Royal bodyguards would henceforth receive additional rewards from the king’s personal property even while they continued to draw regular rations from the state treasury. The quid pro quo was a new protocol for the innermost chambers of the palace, to ensure that everyone knew and kept his place. Horemheb was not going to take any chances with his own safety. As one who had lived by the sword, he had no intention of dying by it. As the edict made crystal clear, he was “a brave and vigilant ruler.”7


BY SUCH MEASURES, HOREMHEB SUCCEEDED IN ESTABLISHING THE authority and legitimacy of his reign, and bringing military discipline to bear on a country weakened by three decades of political upheaval and uncertainty. There was only one fly in the ointment: his lack of an heir. Without children of his own, Horemheb could not risk a disputed succession undoing his hard-won reforms. His solution mirrored his own rise to power. Looking among his closest followers, he identified an ideal successor from the ranks of the army. Paramessu was an army man through and through. The son of a battalion commander, he had started his career as a simple soldier, and had then won an officer’s commission and subsequent promotions to fortress commander, aide-de-camp to the king, and finally general. He was a man in the same mold as Horemheb, someone who shared the same background and the same fundamental outlook. Even better, he already had a son, and a grandson was on the way—the perfect ingredients for a new military dynasty. Horemheb proceeded to give Paramessu a series of high civilian offices to prepare him for the eventual succession, appointing him king’s deputy and vizier. At the same time, Paramessu had to relinquish his military titles while Horemheb remained in charge of the army. It would have been unwise to hand over such a powerful institution to a subordinate, however trusted. Yet by conferring the titles “king’s son” and “hereditary prince” on Paramessu, the pharaoh was clearly signaling his resolve to hand over the kingship itself, in due course. As Horemheb’s reign neared its close, his chosen heir changed his name to “Ramessu beloved of Amun” and began to write his name in a royal cartouche. The stage was set for the rise of the Ramessides.

While Horemheb may have promoted the new dynasty, its first member had no doubts that he, not his patron, was the real founder. To signal this new beginning, Ramessu—better known as Ramesses I (1292–1290)—deliberately chose his throne name to echo that of Ahmose, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Where Ahmose had been Nebpehtyra, “Ra is lord of strength,” Ramesses styled himself Menpehtyra, “Ra is enduring in strength.” Yet Ramesses was not to endure in strength for very long. Already an old man at his accession, he entrusted much of the day-to-day running of the country to his son Seti. It was a wise decision. Within eighteen months of coming to the throne, Ramesses was dead. The new king, Seti I (1290–1279), was a vigorous and energetic man, tall and athletic with a distinguished countenance—high cheekbones and the characteristic aquiline nose of the Ramesside males. Horemheb’s law code had successfully bolstered royal authority and rooted out corruption, so Seti could now set about restoring Egypt’s fortunes, at home and abroad.


Prosperity and security had always been demonstrated through state construction projects, and for the next decade the country echoed to the sound of masons’ chisels and the shouts of builders, as Seti commissioned an astonishing series of new monuments at important sites throughout Egypt. Not since the days of Amenhotep III had government architects and artists been kept so busy. Seti’s grandest project was a fabulous new temple at Abdju, ancient cradle of kingship and cult center of Osiris. The temple was designed to a bold new plan, and was equally radical in its dedication. At the back of a columned hall fronted by two great courts, there lay not one sanctuary but seven. Each of Egypt’s chief deities had a place in this national pantheon: the holy family of Horus, Isis, and Osiris; the solar gods Amun-Ra and Ra-Horakhty; Ptah, the god of Memphis and of craftsmen; and, finally, predictably, Seti himself. A further suite of side rooms provided space for the cults of the Memphite funerary gods Nefertem and Ptah-Sokar, so they wouldn’t feel excluded. This bringing together of the greatest deities in the land under one roof, to honor Seti with their presence, was part of a conscious effort to establish the theological credentials of the new Ramesside Dynasty.

The theme of dynastic legitimacy was reinforced in a long corridor that led southward from the columned hall. Its exquisite relief decoration showed Seti’s eldest son, Prince Ramesses, reading a papyrus inscribed with the names of sixty-seven royal predecessors, stretching all the way back to Menes, legendary founder of the Egyptian state. The Abdju king list drew upon ancient temple archives, but its primary purpose was religious rather than historical. Designed to stress the unbroken succession of rightful monarchs from the beginning of the First Dynasty down to Seti I and his son, it included the ephemeral kings of the First Intermediate Period but conspicuously omitted the hated Hyksos, the dubious Hatshepsut, the heretic Akhenaten, and his three tainted successors. In the context of a royal ancestor cult, such controversial forebears were best forgotten.

Abdju was the theological center of Seti’s regime, and he went to extraordinary lengths to guarantee its proper functioning in perpetuity. First, he endowed it with substantial land and resources, many of them located in the farthest parts of conquered Nubia (where nobody could object). Next, Seti took a leaf out of Horemheb’s book and promulgated a wide-ranging decree to protect the assets from improper appropriation by other institutions. Carved into the side of a sandstone hill near the third Nile cataract, in the vicinity of a fortified garrison, the Nauri Decree spelled out the penalty for requisitioning or interfering with the annual shipment of produce sent from Kush to Abdju:

As for any overseer of the fortress, scribe of the fortress, or agent of the fortress who boards a boat belonging to the temple and takes … anything of Kush that is being delivered as revenue to the temple, the law is to be enforced against him in the form of one hundred blows, and he is to be fined … at a rate of eighty to one.8

Having thus secured regular shipments of produce to fill the coffers of his temple, Seti set about guaranteeing an eternal supply of gold, the commodity above all others that betokened wealth. He ordered new gold mines to be opened up in Egypt’s remote Eastern Desert, and took a close interest in the production and transport of the mines’ precious ore to the Nile Valley. An inscription at a remote temple in the Wadi Barramiya recounts the king’s personal involvement:

His Majesty surveyed the hill country as far as the mountains, for his heart wished to see the mines from which the fine gold is brought. After His Majesty had walked uphill for many miles, he halted by the wayside to mull things over. He declared, “How irksome is a track without water! What is an expedition to do to relieve their parched throats?”9

His answer was to order the stonecutters to leave their mining posts and instead “dig a well in the mountains, so that it might lift up the weary and refresh the spirit of him who burns in summer.”10

The king’s penchant for innovation was also put to great effect in the preparation of his final resting place, a great royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Not only is it the longest and deepest of all the royal tombs at Thebes, but it was also the first to be decorated throughout: every wall and ceiling of every passage and chamber is covered with the finest paintings and reliefs. This tomb established the decorative program that would be followed by all subsequent tombs in the valley, until the very end of the New Kingdom. Amid such splendor, one masterwork is justly famed—the magnificent vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber, painted with astronomical scenes so as to resemble the very vault of heaven. The Ramesside Dynasty might have been less than a decade old, but Seti I had no doubts about his immortal destiny.


RESTORING SACRED SITES TO MAGNIFICENCE AND ENDOWING THEM with dazzling new monuments was a tried and trusted way of rebuilding Egypt’s domestic standing, but there was still the question of the country’s international reputation. From his background as an army officer, Seti knew that influence on the world stage came from military strength. Yet not since the glory days of Amenhotep II had Egypt won a decisive victory in the Near East. Under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, attempts to extend or even defend imperial possessions in Syria had been wholly ineffective. Horemheb had tried to reassert Egyptian hegemony, but with mixed results. Egypt’s reputation as a great power was seriously compromised, its overseas territories vulnerable to secession or seizure by the Hittites, and its mastery of trade routes threatened. Action was urgently needed if the Ramessides’ inheritance was not to disappear before their very eyes. Seti had lost no time, launching his first campaign while still crown prince. He had fought his way along the Phoenician coast to reassert Egypt’s traditional sphere of influence and to secure Egypt’s continued access to the Mediterranean harbors, with their garrisons and trading wharfs.

At the start of his sole reign in 1290, he led further campaigns with similar strategic objectives. The first people to feel Egypt’s wrath were the bedouin of northern Sinai. Struggles between their fractious tribes were not a hazard to Egyptian security per se, but they did threaten the country’s main supply lines to its imperial possessions in Syria-Palestine. Seti knew that control of the northern Sinai coastal route was a necessary prerequisite for more ambitious military maneuvers. Having reimposed Egyptian authority in his own backyard, he moved onward into Canaan, regaining control of the key fortified towns of Beth-Shan and Yenoam. He then set the seal on Egypt’s victory by forcing the chiefs of Lebanon to hew wood in his presence—a public act of submission to the pharaoh that also emphasized Egypt’s claim over the region’s abundant natural resources. In earlier times, small-scale local actions of this sort would not have required the personal presence of the king at the head of the army. But Seti recognized the need to project a renewed image of royal power abroad, and was fortunate in possessing the appetite for battle. Sustaining such a policy, however, would lead Egypt ever deeper into the quagmire of international politics, with momentous consequences.

The political map of the Near East in Seti’s time was radically and irrevocably changed from the confident days of the late Eighteenth Dynasty. Under Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, Egypt had achieved a lasting peace with the major power of northern Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Mittani, and had secured the new relationship through a series of diplomatic marriages. The two powers had respected each other’s spheres of influence and had managed to coexist amicably for half a century. Then, early in the reign of Akhenaten, the accession of a belligerent and ambitious ruler of the Hittites had dealt a body blow to the carefully negotiated balance of power. In a series of swift and devastating campaigns, the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma had succeeded in breaking out of his Anatolian heartland to conquer significant swaths of Mittanian-controlled territory, even raiding the Mittanian capital. Egypt had stuck by its friendship with Mittani, but the Mesopotamian kingdom was by that time all but a spent force. A new superpower had arrived on the scene, and Egypt had been totally unprepared.

Under Akhenaten, the pharaonic government’s initial reaction had been not to get involved. This passivity had been a fatal error. The combination of Mittanian weakness and Egyptian hesitancy had then led a number of former vassal states to exploit the power vacuum and push for greater autonomy. Chief among them had been Amurru, a sizeable region of central Syria between the river Orontes and the Mediterranean Sea. As we have seen, the ruler of Amurru, Abdi-Ashirta, had been a shameless wheeler-dealer, quick to take advantage of political rivalries and social instability to advance his own cause. His missives to the Egyptian court form a significant portion of the Amarna Letters archive. Either the Egyptians had not known quite what to make of him or they’d decided a policy of nonintervention was the most sensible course. Yet this disinterest had merely encouraged Abdi-Ashirta in his ambitions, and Amurru had remained outside Egyptian control.

Pharaonic power, once feared and respected throughout the Near East, had had no more success with the wayward state of Kadesh. Its rulers had been a thorn in Egypt’s side ever since the reign of Thutmose III, and they had stayed true to character during Akhenaten’s reign by going over to the enemy side as soon as the Hittite army had come knocking at their gates. An abortive mission to recapture Kadesh had merely underlined Egypt’s weakness. A second attempt on the town during the reign of Tutankhamun had met with similar failure, encouraging the gloating Hittites to consolidate their hold over northern Syria. Aziru of Amurru (Abdi-Ashirta’s son), seeing which way the wind had been blowing, had joined Kadesh in pledging allegiance to the region’s new Hittite overlords. The attempt by Tutankhamun’s widow to engineer a diplomatic marriage to a Hittite prince, to save her from Ay’s clutches, could have brought about a lasting peace between the two rival powers. Instead, Prince Zannanza’s mysterious death had merely provided yet another excuse for Hittite expansion; the prince’s father had vented his wrath on the treacherous Egyptians by attacking Egyptian-held territory in southern Syria.

But the Hittites had not had it all their own way. In a bitter twist of fate, the prisoners of war that had been brought back to the Hittite capital from these punitive raids had carried with them the plague. It had swept through the royal citadel at Hattusa, killing not only the king but his crown prince as well. It was still ravaging the Hittite homeland twenty years later. To the Hittites, it must have seemed that the gods had changed sides. To the Egyptians, these bizarre events far from home seemed to have rekindled the possibility of victory. An uneasy peace had settled over Syria, with Egypt and the Hittites at a stalemate.

So things had stood when Seti I came to the throne. With a soldier’s blood in his veins, he was resolute in his determination to restore Egypt’s tarnished national pride. After a half century of inglorious retreat, it was time for Amun-Ra to be on the march once again. Having reasserted Egyptian control over Phoenicia and Canaan, Seti set his sights on Amurru and Kadesh. Winning them back would strike a symbolically powerful blow to Hittite aspirations and would go a long way to reviving Egypt’s regional reputation. Just a year after recapturing Beth-Shan and Yenoam, Seti’s army struck deep into central Syria. Kadesh was taken, and a triumphant Seti ordered a magnificent victory inscription to be erected in the city. His elation was to be short-lived. As soon as the Egyptian troops had disappeared over the horizon, the perfidious inhabitants of Kadesh returned at once to the Hittite fold. The pharaoh’s forces had rather more success with the province of Amurru—once retaken, it remained loyal to its new Egyptian master. At the end of the campaign, a large part of central Syria had changed sides. Seti had erased the humiliations of previous generations and had set Egypt back on the path of imperial greatness. Or so he hoped. In fact, the Hittites were merely regrouping. They had no intention of taking these setbacks lying down. Marshaling their considerable forces high on the Anatolian plateau, they prepared for all-out war. As the skies darkened over the Near East, the looming showdown between the two superpowers would not be long in coming.

Behind the apparent pluck and resolve of Seti I’s foreign policy there lurks a conundrum. If Egypt and the Hittites had indeed agreed on some sort of accommodation during the reign of Horemheb, as later sources suggest, then Seti’s bold campaigns drove a coach and horses through it. Moreover, his actions set in train a series of increasingly bloody clashes that led not to the restoration of Egyptian supremacy but to long-term losses. In retrospect, Seti’s Asiatic wars look rash and foolish. One possible explanation is that his policy was dictated more by political expediency than by a careful calculation of Egypt’s strategic interests. Rulers throughout history have resorted to stoking a foreign conflict to deflect attention from problems closer to home. And, indeed, there are tantalizing clues from early in Seti’s reign that may suggest an insecurity at the heart of his regime. In the king’s battle reliefs at Ipetsut, an enigmatic figure labeled only as “the group marshaler and fan bearer Mehy” is depicted with unusual prominence, as if playing a key role in the battles and in Seti’s wider offensive strategy.

To have been given such high status on a royal monument, Mehy (the name is an abbreviation for an unknown longer name) must have been one of the most influential figures at court—perhaps occupying a position akin to that of Horemheb during the reign of Tutankhamun or of Paramessu during the reign of Horemheb. It has even been suggested that the mysterious Mehy was Seti’s designated heir, and that the martial king had decided to follow recent precedent by leaving his throne to a fellow army officer.

If so, Seti’s son, the adolescent Prince Ramesses, had other ideas. Within a few years of Mehy’s figure being carved, every instance was systematically erased from the Ipetsut reliefs, to be replaced by Ramesses’s own image. The next generation of the Ramesside Dynasty had no intention of allowing a mere commoner to exercise such influence over the kingdom’s affairs. Ramesses, and he alone, would be recognized by posterity as his father’s true heir and most steadfast supporter. Ramesses, and he alone, would continue Seti’s aggressive foreign policy and fulfill Egypt’s destiny as a great imperial power. Ramesses, and he alone, would confront the Hittites directly in a final struggle for international supremacy.

The pharaoh’s army readied itself as the country marched onward to war.

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