Menmaatre Seti I (or Sethos I in Greek) was the second pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt during the New Kingdom period, ruling from c.1294 or 1290 BC to 1279 BC. He was the son of Ramesses I and Sitre and the father of Ramesses II.
The name ‘Seti’ means “of Set”, which indicates that he was consecrated to the god Set (also termed “Sutekh” or “Seth”). As with most pharaohs, Seti had several names. Upon his ascension, he took the prenomen “mn-m3’t-r’ “, usually vocalized in Egyptian as Menmaatre (Established is the Justice of Re). His better-known nomen, or birth name, is transliterated as “sty mry-n-ptḥ” or Sety Merenptah, meaning “Man of Set, beloved of Ptah”. Manetho incorrectly considered him to be the founder of the 19th Dynasty and gave him a reign length of 55 years, though no evidence has ever been found for so long a reign.
Reign of Seti I
After the enormous social upheavals generated by Akhenaten‘s religious reform, Horemheb, Ramesses I and Seti I’s main priority was to re-establish the kingdom’s order and reaffirm Egypt’s sovereignty over Canaan and Syria, which had been compromised by the increasing external pressures from the Hittite state. With energy and determination, Seti confronted the Hittites several times in a battle. Without succeeding in destroying the Hittites as a potential danger to Egypt, he reconquered most of the disputed territories for Egypt and generally concluded his military campaigns with victories. The memory of Seti I’s military successes were recorded in some large scenes placed on the front of the temple of Amun, situated in Karnak. A funerary temple for Seti was constructed in what is now known as Qurna (Mortuary Temple of Seti I) on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes.
In contrast, a magnificent temple made of white limestone at Abydos featuring exquisite relief scenes was started by Seti and later completed by his son. His capital was Memphis. His peers considered him a great king, but his fame has been overshadowed since ancient times by his son, Ramesses II.
Duration of reign
Seti I reign length was either 11 or 15 whole years. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has estimated that it was 15 years, but there are no dates recorded for king Seti I after his Year 11 Gebel Barkal stela. As he is otherwise quite well documented in historical records, other scholars suggest a continuous break in the record for his last four years is unlikely. However, it is technically possible that no records have been yet discovered.
Temple of Seti I at Abydos
Peter J. Brand noted that the king personally opened new rock quarries at Aswan to build obelisks and colossal statues in his Year 9. This event is commemorated on two rock stelas in Aswan. However, most of Seti’s obelisks and figures, such as the Flaminian and Luxor obelisks, were only partly finished or decorated by the time of his death since they were completed early under his son’s reign based on epigraphic evidence (they bore the early form of Ramesses II’s royal prenomen “Usermaatre”). Ramesses II used the prenomen Usermaatre to refer to himself in his first year. He did not adopt the final form of his royal title, “Usermaatre Setepenre”, until late into his second year.
Brand aptly notes that this evidence calls into question the idea of a 15 Year reign for Seti I and suggests that “Seti died after a ten to eleven-year reign” because only two years would have passed between the opening of the Rock Quarries and the partial completion and decoration of these monuments. This explanation conforms better with the evidence of the unfinished state of Seti I’s monuments and the fact that Ramesses II had to complete the decorations on “many of his father’s unfinished monuments, including the southern half of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and portions of his father’s temples at Gurnah and Abydos” during the very first year of his reign. Critically, Brand notes that the larger of the two Aswan rock stelas states that king Seti I “has ordered the commissioning of multitudinous works to make very great obelisks and great and wondrous statues (i.e. colossi) in the name of His Majesty, LPH. He made great barges for transporting them and ships crews to match them for ferrying them from the quarry.” (KRI 74:12-14) However, despite this promise, Brand stresses that
there are few obelisks and no colossi inscribed for Seti. Ramesses II, however, was able to complete the two obelisks and four seated colossi from Luxor within the first years of his reign, the two obelisks, in particular, being partly inscribed before he adopted the final form of his prenomen sometime in [his] Year two. This state of affairs strongly implies that Seti died after ten to eleven years. Had he ruled on until his fourteenth or fifteenth year, then surely more of the obelisks and colossi he commissioned in [his] Year nine would have been completed, particularly those from Luxor. If he died after little more than a decade on the throne, however, then at most two years would have elapsed since the Aswan quarries were opened in Year nine. Only a fraction of the great monoliths would have been complete and inscribed at his death, with others just emerging from the quarries so Ramesses could decorate them shortly after his accession. … It now seems clear that a long, fourteen-to fifteen-year reign for Seti I can be rejected for lack of evidence. Instead, a tenure of ten or more likely probably eleven years appears the most likely scenario.
The German Egyptologist Jürgen von Beckerath also accepts that king Seti I’s reign lasted only 11 Years. Seti’s highest known date is Year 11, IV Shemu day 12 or 13 on a sandstone stela from Gebel Barkal, but he would have briefly survived for 2 to 3 days into his Year 12 before dying based on the date of Ramesses II‘s rise to power. Seti Wolfgang Helck has determined I’s accession date to be III Shemu day 24, which is very close to Ramesses II’s known accession date of III Shemu day 27.
In 2011, Jacobus van Dijk questioned the “Year 11” stated on the Gebel Barkal stela. This monument is quite severely preserved but still depicts Seti I in an erect posture, the only case occurring since his Year 4 when he started to be shown in a stooping posture on his stelae. Furthermore, the glyphs “I ∩” representing the 11 are damaged in the upper part and may just as well be “I I I” instead. Subsequently, Van Dijk proposed that the Gebel Barkal stela is dated to Year 3 of Seti I and that Seti’s highest date, more likely, is Year 9, as suggested by the wine jars found in his tomb. In a 2012 paper, David Aston analyzed the wine jars and came to the same conclusion since no wine labels higher than his 8th regnal year were found in his tomb.
Seti I fought a series of wars in western Asia, Libya and Nubia in the first decade of his reign. The primary source for Seti’s military activities is his battle scenes on the north exterior wall of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall, along with several royal stelas with inscriptions mentioning battles in Canaan and Nubia.
In his first regnal year, he led his armies along the “Horus Military road,” the coastal road that led from the Egyptian city of Tjaru (Zarw/Sile) in the northeast corner of the Egyptian Nile Delta along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula ending in the town of “Canaan” in the modern Gaza strip. The Ways of Horus consisted of a series of military forts, each with a well, depicted in detail in the king’s war scenes on the north wall of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall. While crossing the Sinai, the king’s army fought local Bedouins called the Shasu. In Canaan, he received the tribute of some of the city-states he visited. Others, including Beth-Shan and Yenoam, had to be captured but were quickly defeated. A stele in Beth-Shan testifies to that reconquest; according to Grdsseloff, Rowe, Albrecht et Albright, Seti defeated Asian nomads in the war against the Apirus (Hebrews). Dussaud commented on Albright’s article: “The interest of Professor Albright’s note is mainly because he no longer objects to the identification of “Apiru” with “Ibri” (i.e. the Hebrews) provided that we grant him that the vocal change has been driven by a popular etymology that brought the term “eber” (formerly ‘ibr), that is to say, the man from beyond the river.” It seems that Egypt extends beyond the river. The attack on Yenoam is illustrated in his war scenes, while other battles, such as the defeat of Beth-Shan, were not shown because the king himself did not participate, sending a division of his army instead. The year one campaign continued into Lebanon, where the king received the submission of its chiefs, who were compelled to cut down valuable cedar wood as tribute.
At some unknown point in his reign, Seti I defeated Libyan tribe members who had invaded Egypt’s western border. Although defeated, the Libyans would pose an ever-increasing threat to Egypt during the reigns of Merenptah and Ramesses III. The Egyptian army also put down a minor “rebellion” in Nubia in the 8th year of Seti I. Seti himself did not participate in it. However, his crown prince, the future Ramesses II, may have.
Capture of Kadesh
The most outstanding achievement of Seti I’s foreign policy was capturing the Syrian town of Kadesh and the neighbouring territory of Amurru from the Hittite Empire. Egypt had not held Kadesh since the time of Akhenaten. Seti I successfully defeated a Hittite army that tried to defend the town. He entered the city triumphantly with his son Ramesses II and erected a victorious stela at the site, which archaeologists have found. Kadesh, however, soon reverted to Hittite control because the Egyptians did not or could not maintain a permanent military occupation of Kadesh and Amurru so close to the Hittite homelands. It is unlikely that Seti I made a peace treaty with the Hittites or voluntarily returned Kadesh and Amurru. Still, he may have reached an informal understanding with the Hittite king Muwatalli on the precise boundaries of their empires. Five years after Seti I’s death, however, his son Ramesses II resumed hostilities and made a failed attempt to recapture Kadesh. Kadesh was effectively held by the Hittites even though Ramesses temporarily occupied the city in his 8th year.
The traditional view of Seti I’s wars was that he restored the Egyptian empire after it had been lost in the time of Akhenaten. This was based on the chaotic picture of Egyptian-controlled Syria and Palestine seen in the Amarna letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence from the time of Akhenaten found at Akhenaten’s capital at el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. Recent scholarship indicates that the empire was not lost at this time, except for its northern border provinces of Kadesh and Amurru in Syria and Lebanon. While evidence for the military activities of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Horemheb is fragmentary or ambiguous, Seti I has left us an impressive war monument that glorifies his achievements, along with several texts, all of which tend to magnify his prowess on the battlefield.
Burial of Seti I
Seti’s well-preserved tomb (KV17) was found in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in the Valley of the Kings; it was the longest at 446 feet (136 meters) and the most profound of all the New Kingdom royal tombs. It was also the first tomb to feature decorations (including the Book of the Heavenly Cow) on every passageway and chamber with highly refined bas-reliefs and colourful paintings – fragments of which, including a large column depicting Seti I with the goddess Hathor, can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum, Florence. This decorative style followed a precedent in whole or part in the tombs of later New Kingdom kings. Seti’s mummy was discovered by Émil Brugsch on June 6, 1881, in the mummy cache (tomb DB320) at Deir el-Bahri, and has since been kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
His huge sarcophagus, carved in one piece and intricately decorated on every surface (including the goddess Nut on the interior base), is in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane bought it for exhibition in his open collection in 1824, when the British Museum refused to pay the £2,000 demanded. On its arrival at the museum, the alabaster was pure white and inlaid with blue copper sulphate. Years of the London climate and pollution have darkened the alabaster to a buff colour, and absorbed moisture has caused the hygroscopic inlay material to fall out and disappear completely. A small watercolour nearby records the appearance as it was.
The tomb also had an entrance to a secret tunnel hidden behind the sarcophagus, which Belzoni’s team estimated to be 100 meters (328 feet) long. However, the tunnel was not excavated until 1961, when a team led by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul began digging in hopes of discovering a secret burial chamber containing hidden treasures. The team failed to follow the original passage in their excavations and had to call a halt due to instabilities in the tunnel; further issues with permits and finances eventually ended Sheikh Ali’s dreams of treasure, though they were at least able to establish that the passage was over 30 meters (98 feet) longer than the original estimate. In June 2010, a team from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities led by Dr Zahi Hawass completed the excavation of the tunnel, which had begun again after the discovery in 2007 of a downward-sloping passage beginning approximately 136 meters (446 feet) into the previously excavated tunnel. After uncovering two separate staircases, they found that the tunnel ran for 174 meters (571 feet); unfortunately, the last step seemed to have been abandoned before completion, and no secret burial chamber was found.
From an examination of Seti’s remarkably well-preserved mummy, Seti I appears to have been less than forty years old when he died unexpectedly. This starkly contrasts with the situation of Horemheb, Ramesses I and Ramesses II, who all lived to an advanced age. The reasons for his relatively early death are uncertain, but there is no evidence of violence on his mummy. His mummy was found decapitated, but this was likely caused after his death by tomb robbers. The Amun priest carefully reattached his head to his body using linen cloths. It has been suggested that he died from a disease which had affected him for years, possibly related to his heart. The latter was found placed in the right part of the body, while the usual practice of the day was to put it in the left position during the mummification process. Opinions vary on whether this was a mistake or an attempt to have Seti’s heart work better in his afterlife. Seti I’s mummy is about 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in) tall.
In 1980, James Harris and Edward F. Wente conducted a series of X-ray examinations on Pharaohs of New Kingdom crania and skeletal remains, which included the mummified remains of Seti I. The analysis generally found strong similarities between the New Kingdom rulers of the 19th Dynasty and 20th Dynasty with Mesolithic Nubian samples. The authors also noted affinities with modern Mediterranean populations of Levantine origin. Harris and Wente suggested this represented admixture as the Rammessides were of northern origin.
In April 2021, his mummy was moved from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization along with those of 17 other kings and four queens in an event termed the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade.
Alleged coregency with Ramesses II
Around Year 9 of his reign, Seti appointed his son Ramesses II as the crown prince and his chosen successor. Still, the evidence for a coregency between the two kings is likely imaginary. Peter J. Brand stresses in his thesis that relief decorations at various temple sites at Karnak, Qurna and Abydos, which associate Ramesses II with Seti I, were actually carved after Seti’s death by Ramesses II himself and, hence, cannot be used as source material to support a coregency between the two monarchs. In addition, the late William Murnane, who first endorsed the theory of a coregency between Seti I and Ramesses II, later revised his view of the proposed coregency and rejected the idea that Ramesses II had begun to count his regnal years while king Seti I was still alive. Finally, Kenneth Kitchen rejects the term coregency to describe the relationship between Seti I and Ramesses II; he describes the earliest phase of Ramesses II’s career as a “prince regency” where the young Ramesses enjoyed all the trappings of royalty, including the use of a royal titulary and harem but did not count his regnal years until after his father’s death. This is because the evidence for a coregency between the two kings is vague and highly ambiguous. Two important inscriptions from the first decade of Ramesses’ reign, namely the Abydos Dedicatory Inscription and the Kuban Stela of Ramesses II, consistently give the latter titles associated with those of a crown prince only, namely the “king’s eldest son and hereditary prince” or “child-heir” to the throne “along with some military titles.”
Hence, no clear evidence supports the hypothesis that Ramesses II was a co-regent under his father. Brand stresses that:
Ramesses’ claim that he was crowned king by Seti, even as a child in his arms [in the Dedicatory Inscription], is highly self-serving and open to question, although his description of his role as the crown prince is more accurate…The most reliable and concrete portion of this statement is the enumeration of Ramesses’ titles as eldest king’s son and heir apparent, well attested in sources contemporary with Seti’s reign.”