Sethy I King of Egypt: His Life and Afterlife
Aidan Dodson
American University in Cairo Press, 2019
187pp, 130 colour illustrations
Hardback, £29.95

Aidan Dodson is one of the most prolific authors of useful and readable Egyptological books, all extensively illustrated and referenced. In recent publications, he has examined in detail the hiatus created by the pharaohs of the Amarna Period. Moving on from there, he has now addressed the aftermath of the religious upset when Egypt returned to its old gods under Tutankhamun and Horemheb, last king of the 18th Dynasty. With no linear successor, Horemheb appointed his close companion, vizier and general, Paramessu, to become the founder of the 19th Dynasty as Ramesses I in 1278 BC. Ramesses provided the military genes that were to mark the next three generations of pharaoh. He associated his son, Sethy I, with him in his short eight-year reign, and was the grandfather of the mighty Ramesses II ('Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!', as the poet Shelley wrote), who was to return Egypt to its former greatness. Sethy, with his military family background, went on to successfully campaign outside Egypt's borders, marking the events and leaving large commemorative stele.

Sethy (1276–1265 BC) set about restoring the old monuments that had suffered during the Amarna 'heresy' and thus laid a foundation to perpetuate the old regime. His reign is characterised by a new approach to art. Older monuments were often extended and new ones and temples founded. Principal amongst the latter were the great temples to Amun at Karnak and Abydos, the former the greatest religious area in Egypt, and Abydos, with its magnificently coloured reliefs, the most beautiful temple. Adding his name to standing obelisks, the symbol of the sun god, he also erected new ones at Heliopolis, the centre of the sun cult; one removed from there in Roman times now stands in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.

Ramesses II (1265-2000 BC), Sethy's son, completed many of his father's projects whilst invariably highjacking them for himself, completing the huge Hypostyle Hall in the temple at Karnak so that his name is pre-eminent. However, the outer north wall carries Sethy's huge series of magnificent battle reliefs showing who the real founding father of Egypt's return to greatness was. Dodson deals with these in detail and then turns to Sethy's memorial temple at Qurna, a little visited monument overshadowed by the many remarkable sites on the West Bank at Luxor.

In the Valley of the Kings, Sethy's tomb is the longest, deepest and most finely decorated tomb with its highly coloured reliefs from The Book of the Amduat ('What is in the Underworld') and The Book of Gates – Sethy is represented standing in the company of various deities. Texts from The Book of Gates in tiny carved hieroglyphs also cover Sethy's remarkable calcite sarcophagus, now in Sir John Soane's Museum in London.

The story of the discovery of the tomb by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817 (who also found the tomb of Ramesses I nearby) is a major part of the book in the chapters 'Limbo' and 'Resurrection'. Sethy's mummy, the finest of the royal mummies, was found with that of his son Ramesses II in the Great Royal Cache in 1881, and they now lie beside each other in the Cairo Museum.

It has taken some 2,750 years since Sethy died for this superb biography to detail his life and monuments, taking him out from under the heavy shadow of his much written about vain-glorious son Ramesses II, and showing who really was the precursor of Egypt's greatness. Eminently readable, splendidly illustrated and well referenced, this book cannot be too highly recommended.

Peter A Clayton

 

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