Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 June 2004
Issue No. 694
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Creatness eclipsed by magnitude

The media used only a few brief lines to report the re-opening after restoration of the mortuary temple of Seti I at Qurna. This Pharaoh deserves more attention, says Jill Kamil

Click to view caption
Seti I shows his son Ramses II the list of royal ancestors

He was one of the most stately figures ever to sit upon the throne of Egypt. The son of an army officer, Seti I achieved more for his country politically and culturally than did his much more famous son Ramses II -- who even falls under suspicion of stealing one of Luxor's most famous monuments from him. According to K A Kitchen in Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life of Ramses II, when Seti took over leadership after the brief rule his father Ramses I, founder of the XIXth Dynasty, he indulged a twin ambition, "to be the new Tuthmosis III (greatest conqueror) and a new Amenophis (Amenhotep) III (finest builder) all in one".

To this end Seti I (1294-1279 BC) wasted no time. First he rallied his army to fight the Libyans, Syrians and Hittites in an effort to win back the empire of Tuthmosis III. He succeeded in re-conquering extensive territory, effectively securing Egypt's sphere of influence in North Africa and the Near East; compare this with Ramses II's single battle of Kadesh against the Hittites which he claims to have won single-handed.

Seti I then initiated an art and architectural revival. He wished to return to the traditional canons of Egyptian art before the so-called Amarna period of the late 18th Dynasty, and the delicate, classical reliefs in his two temples at Qurna and Abydos, as well as the reliefs in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, rank with the finest ever executed. Seti's is a classical tomb that far surpasses all others in the royal valley, both in size and in the artistic execution of the sculptured walls. Every inch of space of its entire 100-metre length is covered with representations, and these were carried out by the finest of craftsmen.

Equal effort went into Seti's choice of a site on the Theban necropolis for his mortuary temple -- a monument that would ensure his cult "forever and ever", as the ancients referred to eternity. He went so far as to take up residence nearby to watch over the work. This, however, was not so unusual. Pharaohs often spent time near a building site to watch the progress of their monuments, staying in small palaces comprising a complex of state chambers, living quarters and storerooms. Ruins have been found in the vicinity of Seti's temple of such buildings from where he could watch his chosen artisans, all part of a team that included masons, draughtsmen, carvers and painters, working diligently and anonymously.

In ancient times the Theban necropolis was not so barren as it is today. There were dwellings for priests and stables for sacrificial animals. There were guardhouses and granaries, each with its superintendent, and surrounding or in front of each temple were lakes, groves of trees and beautifully laid out gardens. Perhaps his consort Queen Tuya, a mature woman who did not take an active part in affairs of state but was a devoted wife and mother, joined her husband on these occasions.

Seti's mortuary temple was unfinished when he died after a 21-year rule, and it was left to his son and heir Ramses II to complete what his father began. The younger Pharaoh took less care. It is not difficult to identify the fine low relief that characterises the work of Seti's craftsmen from the much cruder, sunken reliefs of his son Ramses, who made such a point of claiming credit for his piety in completing the work of his father.

The son has not entirely escaped suspicion of having usurped a larger monument begun by his father for himself. Is it possible that the mortuary temple now known as the Ramasseum was the one begun by Seti I for his own cult, and that he simultaneously built a smaller temple in which to honour his father Ramses I, whose short reign did not allow him to build a temple of his own? Such filial devotion would be entirely in accordance with tradition. What was not within the bounds of tradition was that Ramses II demonstrated filial piety by finishing his father's mortuary temple, but instead of dedicating it to the deceased Pharaoh, he dedicated it to Seti I and his grandfather Ramses I -- whose only achievement in his two-year rule was to transfer the capital from Memphis to the Delta. There is an anomaly here.

Could the vast mortuary temple now known as the Ramasseum have been, in fact, designed by and for Seti I? Did Ramses II, wanting the greatest of the monuments for himself, relegate his father to the smaller temple in a partnership with Ramses I, so that he might fulfil his ambitious design? Is it possible that Seti I was discredited by an egocentric son who today holds pride of place as one of the greatest Pharaohs who ever lived? If so, then Ramses II, that most famous of all Egyptian rulers, the one who built monuments to his glory all over the country and who sometimes claimed credit for the work done by his ancestors, was the most thankless of sons.

Ramses II grew up in a loving household and was the product of rigorous training by his father. He was just a youth in his mid-teens when Seti I set about his instruction in royal duties. He took the young Ramses on tours of inspection throughout Egypt. He allowed him to accompany campaigns abroad, and ensured that the boy knew all there was to know of the workings of administration and the importance of temple construction. Seti I encouraged the future Ramses II to go with him on royal missions, and he prepared his people in due time to accept the youth as his worthy successor. The greatness of Ramses II was due, in no small part, to the training and example of his father. In a relief in the temple of Seti I at Abydos, Seti's concern with historical continuity is evident: it shows the young boy Ramses, depicted with the side lock of youth, reading a papyrus inscribed with the names of 67 celebrated predecessors stretching back to the semi- mythical Menes.

Seti's mortuary temple was largely swept away by a flood in ancient times. Of its original length of some 158 metres only about 47 metres remain, mostly the area containing the sanctuary, its halls and antechambers. However, there is little doubt from the quality of the surviving reliefs that they are as fine as those in both his tomb and temple at Abydos. In two chambers flanking the remaining hyopostyle hall the reliefs are beautifully carved. They show the offering of incense or performance of ceremonies in the presence of the deities. The finely textured limestone was worked with flair and precision.

Craftsmanship had reached a remarkable stage of maturity in Seti I's reign. They were aware of foreshortening and knew how to cope with it. Yet they interpreted their figures as did the artists in the Old Kingdom, never violating the pattern of established art but merely concentrating on precise and refined detail. When Ramses II completed the temple of his father he did not use the same craftsmen. It is easy to identity his crude reliefs, especially in the right-hand division of the temple of Seti I at Qurna, where the reliefs in a long hall are clearly far inferior work. Strange that Ramses II, who laid claims to such piety, should have taken so little care with such an important undertaking.

Ramses II took upon himself what can only be described as an extraordinary building activity in his 67-year reign. His monuments, mostly massive, spread from Memphis and Heliopolis to Abydos, Thebes and Nubia. However, he is known to have usurped earlier monuments and inscribed them in his name. In reliefs of his famous battle of Kadesh, which are depicted on the walls of many of his temples, he is shown larger than life, while the enemy, mostly dead and wounded, lie in heaps on the ground. The relief of this battle in the Ramasseum has been considered by some as a pretentious interpretation, and while there is no doubt that the complexity of the composition shows development and sophistication, the individual figures indicate a marked deterioration from the expressive detail of the reliefs of Seti I's monuments. We know who the most famous Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty was. But who was the greater?

History grants Seti I a minor place compared with Ramses II, whose image is perpetuated in gigantic detail in the rocks of the Near East and the temples of Nubia. There is hardly a pylon, hall or chamber in the temples of Egypt that does not bear his name. He was a celebrated propagandist and his name is more indelibly projected into the modern age than any other Pharaoh.

Let us take a moment, however, to recall his worthy father, Seti I, and his laudable achievements. Let us not overlook his mortuary temple at Qurna in favour of the more impressive Ramasseum built by his son. There are many unsung heroes of Ancient Egypt.

The mummy of Seti I was among the group that survived the tomb-robberies in about 1000 BC which led to their re- burial by loyal priests in a hiding-place in Deir Al-Bahri. The cache, which had already been discovered by local thieves, was recovered by the then Director of Antiquities Gaston Maspero in the 19th century.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 694 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Special | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoon | People | Listings | EGYPT 2010 BID | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map