A quartz stela unearthed in the Avenue of Ram-headed Sphinxes in Luxor has changed what we know of the 20th dynasty, writes Nevine El-Aref
For more than three centuries, since historians and Egyptologists began to write the first history in modern times of the 20th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, compiled from hieroglyphic texts drawn on papyri or engraved on tombs and temple walls, the history of the dynasty has remained virtually unchanged. However, this is archaeology, and in archaeology nothing can be said to be fixed. A newly-unearthed stela in the avenue lined with ram-headed sphinxes that once connected the temples of Luxor and Karnak, along which official and religious processions passed for centuries, has thrown further light on this ancient era.
The new information not only illustrates the growing power of the priesthood during the New Kingdom, but also changes some concepts of the 20th dynasty, especially the facts and figures relating to its founder, the Pharaoh Setnakhte.
The stela is a quartzite religious relief engraved in two parts; the upper one featuring Setnakhte wearing the blue crown and kneeling before the god Amun- Re, who holds the key of life in his right hand and the waset symbol in his left hand. The pharaoh is offering the god the feather of justice, while the goddess Mut, standing in the background, raises her left hand as a symbol of protection and holds the key of life in her right. The lower part bears 17 lines of hieroglyphic text followed by a scene showing Bakenkhunsu, the High Priest of Amun-Re, wearing his religious robes and praying.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), described the discovery as one of the most important finds of 2006. "It adjusts the history of the 20th dynasty and reveals more about the life of Bakenkhunsu," Hawass says.
Ever since the discovery several years ago of his four limestone statues, now exhibited at the Egyptian Museum, nothing was known about Bakenkhunsu except for his title as the High Priest of Amun-Re. Now, Hawass says, after deciphering the hieroglyphic text, the priest's family members and relatives have been identified. The priest's construction achievements at Karnak Temple's Great Hall can also be recognised. The text mentions that Bakenkhunsu carried out and oversaw several construction projects at the Great Hall.
Luxor monuments director Mansour Borayek told Al-Ahram Weekly that early studies on the stela revealed that it was a very well-preserved Ancient Egyptian object carved for Bakenkhunsu during the fourth year of Setnakhte's reign. It was made to be installed in the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. This date contradicts with the accepted record, which says Setnakhte ruled Egypt for only three years. According to the new information provided by the stela, Setnakhte's reign certainly lasted for four years, and may have continued for longer. Hence, early constructions at the Temple of Amun-Re in Karnak could be attributed to Setnakhte and completed by his son and successor Ramesses III, who also built a mortuary temple at Medinet Habu on Luxor's west bank.
Ramesses III was arguably the last of the great pharaohs to sit on the throne of Egypt. His reign was a time of considerable turmoil throughout the Mediterranean that also saw the Trojan wars, the fall of Mycenae and a great movement of displaced people from all over the region that was to wreak havoc; even toppling empires.
The stela is now being subjected to comprehensive studies in an attempt to reveal more of the 20th dynasty's secrets and, according to what may be discovered, to rewrite its history.
The stela was found accidentally by an Egyptian excavation team working on a project to reconstruct the ram-headed sphinx avenue in Luxor.
Although the 20th dynasty was founded by Setnakhte, its most important member was Ramesses III, who modelled his career after the great pharaoh of the previous dynasty, Ramesses II. The 20th is considered to be the last dynasty of the New Kingdom of Egypt, and was followed by the Third Intermediate Period.
The era of these rulers is notable for the beginning of the systematic robbing of royal tombs. Many surviving administrative documents from this period are records of investigations and punishment for these crimes, especially in the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI.
Unfortunately the bickering between the royal heirs that had been a feature the 19th dynasty continued in the 20th, with the winner being the strongest. This group of heirs was described by Diodorus Siculus as "confirmed sluggards devoted only to indulgence and luxury," without "any deed worthy of historical note". However, at this time Egypt was increasingly beset by a series of droughts, below- normal flood levels of the Nile, famine, civil unrest and official corruption -- all of which would limit the managerial abilities of any king. The power of the last pharaoh, Ramesses XI, grew so weak that in the south the High Priests of Amun at Thebes became the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt, while Smendes controlled Lower Egypt even before Ramesses XI's death. Smendes went on to found the 21st dynasty at Tanis.