Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Rise of the Ramessides I

Image of Seti I from his temple in Abydos.

Ancient Libyans & Nubians. Scene from the tomb of Seti I, Dynasty XIX.

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.

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?”

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.”
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.

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