Menpehtyre Ramesses I (or Ramses) was the founding pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s 19th Dynasty. The dates for his short reign are not entirely known, but the timeline of late 1292–1290 BC is frequently cited as well as 1295–1294 BC. While Ramesses I was the founder of the 19th Dynasty, his brief reign mainly served to mark the transition between the power of Horemheb, who had stabilized Egypt in the late 18th Dynasty, and the rule of the mighty pharaohs of his own Dynasty, in particular, his son Seti I, and grandson Ramesses II.
Originally called Pa-ra-mes-su, Ramesses I was of non-royal birth, being born into a noble military family from the Nile Delta region, perhaps near the former Hyksos capital of Avaris. He was a son of a troop commander called Seti. His uncle Khaemwaset, an army officer, married Tamwadjesy, the matron of Tutankhamun‘s Harem of Amun, a relative of Huy, the viceroy of Kush, a vital state post. This shows the high status of Ramesses’ family. Ramesses I found favour with Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the tumultuous Eighteenth Dynasty, who appointed the former as his vizier. Ramesses also served as the High Priest of Set. He would have played an essential role in restoring the old religion following the Amarna heresy of a generation earlier, under Akhenaten.
Horemheb had been a nobleman from outside the immediate royal family who rose through the Egyptian army to serve as the royal advisor to Tutankhamun and Ay and, ultimately, pharaoh. Since Horemheb had no surviving children, he eventually chose Ramesses to be his heir in the final years of his reign, presumably because Ramesses I was both an able administrator and had a son (Seti I) and a grandson (the future Ramesses II) to succeed him and thus avoid any succession difficulties.
Upon his accession, Ramesses assumed a prenomen or royal name. When transliterated, the name is mn-pḥty-rʿ, which is usually interpreted as Menpehtyre, meaning “Established by the strength of Ra”. However, he is better known by his nomen or personal name. This is transliterated as rʿ-ms-sw and is usually realized as Ramessu or Ramesses, meaning ‘Ra bore him’. Already an older man when he was crowned, Ramesses appointed his son, the later pharaoh Seti I, to serve as the Crown Prince and chosen successor. Seti was charged with undertaking several military operations during this time–notably, an attempt to recoup some of Egypt’s lost possessions in Syria. Ramesses appears to have taken charge of domestic matters: most memorably, he completed the second pylon at Karnak Temple, which began under Horemheb.
Ramesses I enjoyed a very brief reign, as evidenced by the general paucity of contemporary monuments mentioning him: the king had little time to build any significant buildings in his power. He was hurriedly buried in a small and hastily finished tomb. The Egyptian priest Manetho assigned him a reign of 16 months. Still, this pharaoh indeed ruled Egypt for a minimum of 17 months based on his highest known date, which is a Year 2 II Peret day 20 (Louvre C57) stela which ordered the provision of new endowments of food and priests for the temple of Ptah within the Egyptian fortress of Buhen. Jürgen von Beckerath observes that Ramesses I died five months later—in June 1290 BC—since his son Seti I succeeded to power on III Shemu day 24. Ramesses I’s only-known action was to order the provision of endowments for the aforementioned Nubian temple at Buhen and “the construction of a chapel and a temple (which was to be finished by his son) at Abydos.” The aged Ramesses were buried in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb, discovered by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817 and designated KV16, is small and gives the impression of having been completed with haste. Joyce Tyldesley states that king Ramesses I’s tomb consisted of a single corridor and one unfinished room whose walls, after a hurried coat of plaster, were painted to show the king with his gods, with Osiris allowed a prominent position. The red granite sarcophagus, too, was painted rather than carved with inscriptions which, due to their hasty preparation, included several unfortunate errors.
Seti I, his son and successor, later built a small chapel with fine reliefs in memory of his deceased father Ramesses I at Abydos. In 1911, John Pierpont Morgan donated several exquisite reliefs from this chapel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Rediscovery and repatriation
A mummy currently believed to be that of Ramesses I was stolen from Egypt and displayed in a private Canadian museum for many years before repatriating. The mummy’s identity cannot be conclusively determined but is most likely to be that of Ramesses I based on CT scans, X-rays, skull measurements and radio-carbon dating tests by researchers at Emory University, as well as aesthetic interpretations of family resemblance. Moreover, the mummy’s arms were crossed high across his chest, a position reserved solely for Egyptian royalty until 600 BC.
The mummy had been stolen from the Royal Cache in Deir el-Bahari by the Abu-Rassul family of grave robbers and sold by Turkish vice-consular agent Mustapha Aga Ayat at Luxor to Dr James Douglas. He brought it to North America around 1860. Douglas used to purchase Egyptian antiquities for his friend Sydney Barnett who then placed them in the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. The mummy remained there, its identity unknown, next to other curiosities and so-called freaks of nature for more than 130 years. When the museum owner decided to sell his property, Canadian businessman William Jamieson purchased the museum’s contents and, with the help of Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, identified their tremendous value. In 1999, Jamieson sold the Egyptian artefacts in the collection, including the various mummies, to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, for the US $2 million. The mummy was returned to Egypt on October 24, 2003, with full official honours and is on display at the Luxor Museum.
In popular culture
The 1956 motion picture The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, depicts Ramesses I (portrayed by Ian Keith) as the pharaoh who orders the elimination of the first-born of every Hebrew slave family in Egypt, leading to the scenario of the future prophet Moses being sheltered by Bithiah, who in the film is said to be the daughter of Ramesses I and sister of Seti I. However, this is artistic license, for, in Exodus 1:15-22, the pharaoh’s name is not given.