Akhenaten was a big shock to the system. To us, it is rather an exciting period when there is a new art to admire, a new religion to pick apart, and a fascinating abandoned city to explore. But to the Egyptians at the time, it was rather less exciting. It was a period of a major disruption; people were uprooted, traditions were changed, temples were closed – and we should remember that in the ancient world, temples were politics. It is as if our current preoccupation with Left versus Right, socialism versus conservativism is suddenly thrown away and we are all forced to support entirely new beliefs. The new adventure of Akhenaten – and perhaps it could have led to a glorious new development if it had succeeded – did not have time to develop and so a return to the past was widely welcomed ; at least this is what was probably feeling of the ruling class, and one suspects of the mass of the population too. It took 50 years to recover from the disruption until eventually we come to the reign of Rameses II, who ruled for 67 years and was the last of the great Pharaohs. Unfortunately for us the story is blown off course by Tutankhamen whose burial takes us right off track. The story should really be that of the young and insignificant king, whose regents began the recovery from the great disruption.
Tutankhamun died young. He ruled for some ten years, though as he had come to the throne aged eight or nine, he would only have been at the most twenty when he died and he left no successor. This was not for lack of trying: recent DNA analysis of the two foetuses found in his tomb shows that they were in fact his children. But as he married his half-sister, this should not have been entirely unexpected.
On his death, power was there to be seized, and the two chief candidates were the two elder statesmen who had been acting as his regents. There was Ay, the elder statesman who came to prominence way back under Akhenaten; and there was the General Horemheb, – tough, realistic and powerful. There was also a third powerful minister Maya who was the chief of the treasury. His tomb was excavated in the 19th century by Lepsius and then back filled, and then re-excavated with great success in the 1980s by Geoffrey Martin. It would appear that Horemheb was the official crown prince, but in fact it was Ay who became pharaoh for four years from 1323-1327. Was General Horemheb absent, fighting Egypt’s enemies so that his rival was able to seize power? However he only ruled for four years and then Horemheb succeeded him for a reign of fourteen years.
Horemheb is perhaps an under rated pharaoh. He saw clearly what he thought needed to be done. Egypt had been led astray badly by Akhenaten and although his reforms had been undone by Tutankhamun and Ay, a more thorough purge was needed. Akhenaten’s name was removed from wherever it appeared on inscriptions, and his buildings were demolished, and the building stones were taken upstream from Amarna to Thebes and reused. And it was not just Akhenaten’s name that he removed. Although the reversal of Akhenaten’s deeds had been begun by Tutankhamen and Ah, they had not gone far enough, so their names too were erased from their monuments.
Nevertheless, Horemheb was a great builder, though the buildings he began were often finished by Rameses II. He built three new pylons in the temple of Karnak, the second, the ninth and the tenth, containing many reused blocks from Amarna, thereby unwittingly preserving them for the archaeologists who have been able to resurrect Akhenaten from these reused stones.
On the tenth pylon he carved a Great Edict correcting individual abuses, regularising tax collection and reorganising the administration generally, dividing Egypt between Upper and Lower Egypt and appointing a vizier for each half. Akhenaten had sacked all the priests and replaced them by officials answering directly to himself, but Horemheb largely reinstated the priesthood, establishing their finances with gifts of cattle and land, and installing priests from the pick of the army – there was now a regular army, and old soldiers needed to be pensioned off, so why not make them priests?
The effect of the changes in religion wrought by Akhenaten in fact went deeper than might appear: previously the prime god for most Egyptians was a local god, and if you wanted to communicate with the god, in effect to take part in politics, you contacted your local priest, in effect your MP who passed your views up the scale. Akhenaten swept all these local gods away and with them the priests and their temples. Even the role of the supreme god was changed: whereas before the pharaoh was the god more-or-less, now the pharaoh was only the representative of the god who was the sun and whose rays stretched out and touched the pharaoh. The effect was to minimise the role of the king and to do away with the role of the priest. This eventually had its effect in the growth of personal piety and the growth of oracles. Indeed a later king, Seti I, fighting in the Battle of Qadish against the Hittites was in danger of losing when he prayed to Amun for help, and Amun helped by bringing up the reserves. In the days of old he would not have prayed to Amun like this because he was Amun; now he was simply his representative.
Horemheb realised that this change was happening and was determined to go back to the good old days, thus gaining the allegiance of all the priests and of the army too, for by now there was a professional army. Up to the time of the New Kingdom, when fighting needed to be done, it was done by militias raised for a specific campaign. Now there was a permanent body of soldiers complete with generals to command them.
But Horemheb had one great failing – he was childless, but that gave him the opportunity to choose his successor and he chose wisely: someone who had a son and even more important, a grandson on the horizon. His choice was a local ruler from the delta area of Egypt to the north, an area which though fertile and wealthy had not hitherto been a source of political power, except for the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate period. His name was Rameses and he had a young and virile son who became Seti I, who in his turn had a son who became one of the most successful and long lived of all the pharaohs: his name was Rameses II. A new dynasty begins: the 19th dynasty which was the last great dynasty in Egypt and is known as the Rameside period.
Rameses I, the founder of the dynasty only ruled for a year from 1295 – 1294. It was his son, Sety I, who really took over, though he reigned only for eleven years, but these were eleven action packed years. He began as a great warrior who campaigned in the north in Syria where the rising power of the Hittites posed a formidable challenge. He was also a great builder.
He is best known monument is at Abydos. The story of Abydos goes back to the very beginning of Egyptian history where it was the burial place of the pharaohs of the First and Second Dynasties around 3,000 BC. It retained its mystique, and was the seat of Osiris, the god of the dead whose temple was built and rebuilt over the centuries.
But Osiris was one of Akhenaten’s principal enemies, so his cult suffered, so Sety decided that a grand new temple should be built to re-instate his importance, half a mile away from the old temple. This has become one of the greatest and most spectacular temples of Ancient Egypt — Abydos lies 100 miles north of Luxor and can be visited in a day’s excursion. On the walls of the temple a king-list is carved which gives valuable information about the history of Egypt, even if the whole of the Akhenaten, and indeed the Hatshepsut episodes are omitted.
He also completed – and largely built – the great Hypostyle hall at Karnak. This is the most impressive part of the Karnak temple today – a great hall filled with 136 columns. The Egyptians were not able to build great halls because they had not invented the arch and were thus limited to the length a single tree trunks, so their great halls were filled with columns. These columns were of great size and decorated with accounts of battles. It had been building for over 100 years, but Sety finally completed it.
Sety I is also notable for his tomb in the Valley of the Kings – KV 17 – which is deeply buried with the longest tunnel of all — 136 metres, or 446 feet long. It was discovered and excavated by the Italian strongman Belzoni in 1817 and is the first tomb to be fully decorated with numerous wall paintings, including the famous astronomical paintings, showing that the Egyptians already recognised the stars in the constellation we still use today.
Then in 1882 his actual mummy was discovered complete with his head, which is displayed in the Cairo Museum. Medical examinations show that he was in his forties when he died.
He was succeeded by his son, Ramesses II, who ruled for 67 years, and was one of the greatest of all pharaohs.