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A Dialogue with my Maker

dialogThe dry heat of Giza is unlike anything else I felt in my 69 years of life. In this month of July, day temperatures never fall below the 95 degree ferenheit, and in the night time it does not get any better.  While our location is only about 20 kilometers away from Cairo, our research team decided to camp near our main excavation and exploration site so as to work most nights and speed up our project completion date. Funding from the university and the various foundations has dangerously shrunk in the most recent fundraising rounds given the state of the economy. While we are forced to compete with other projects for increasingly scarce dollars, we have also no choice but to reduce our cost to bear minimum. These past weeks, we had to terminate funding for doctoral students who came with us as part of our budget allocation, and have been looking for students who can afford paying their way instead. As much as I hate the thought of it, this means wealthy students now have the priority even if they have less skills, mediocre knowledge and lower work ethics than the other students. Money rules these days… well, that’s always been the case.

At night, the temperature in our camp site averages 75 degrees. To me this is torture.  Although I always loved my work, its environment is generally more forgiving for my aging lungs when lecturing in Boston or Chicago despite the cold winters there. But it’s almost always been miserable when on sites in Egypt, although there are the occasional moments of respite. Cold never scared me. I always liked the feeling of the crisp and cold wind against my face in the Northeast or in the Midwest, even in the dead of the cold season. Most of my friends migrated south as they entered their retirement life, and settled in opposite environments like Southwest Florida. I don’t blame them, I like Florida, it’s a fun place to be. But it is a place where people play more than they work. Well, at least my friends do. The nature of the Floridian landscape is more condusive to entertainment and consumption than to more productive pursutes. People sometimes wonder why places like Seattle and Boston are highly productive places. I think I figured it out. You spend winter shufling from your house, to your car, and your workplace since the weather won’t allow you to do anything else but work. Can this theory be refuted by another example? Yes since Silicon Valley is a highly productive place and the weather is just one of the best. Go figure!

The heat in Giza nights in July is simply oppressive. We share tents and the fans that run off a generator make things worse. The disconfort from the heat itself is further compounded by the noise coming from the old fans and the generator a few yards away. Poorly assembled, the fan in my tent makes a clicking sound anytime it closes the loop on its full rotation. The click sounds like a metal piece hitting a plastic surface and all my attempts to fix it failed. With our big budget woes, trying to get a new one is impossible, almost like ordering Perrier water to bath with. For those of us who already have a huge problem with heat, sleeping in such oppressive environment is just torture. Given this environment, why am I against retirement, I wonder?  At this stage, I have enough money to buy a small boat in the Florida Keys and enjoy fishing. Even without my savings, school pension and investments, I’ve earned enough credit to qualify for nearly $3,000 per month in Social Security retirement payment. Instead I am here in North Africa wondering when my lungs would collapse.

The food here is good but challenging for an old-fashion American used to morning omelletes, sandwiches at noon, and meatload and potato at supper time.  Because we try to finish our excavation work in half time than orginally allocated, we hired a local cook to work on site. Adnan El-Misri was selected because of his resume. He apparently worked for some good local restaurants and did not ask for too much money. Before he joined us I was told that he was more into American food than anything else. But Adnan can only handle Egyptian cuisine. Nothing goes without the usual local bread called Aish baladi. I am not a big fan of bread since it messes up my stomach. But since Aish baladi is made of wheat, I can handle a bit of it. I find it sometime even tasty. Lamb is also everywhere and its Kofta version, though delicious, is too spicy for my untrained old belly. The drama is that I always liked moderate amounts of spicy food. But I happen to have had a bad history of ulcere and cholesterol. The food is prepared in a separate tent, but with excessive heat, our kitchen refrigirators cannot keep the food cold enough. So our evening meals are very suspicious to me. They are prepared in the morning, and like many people in Egypt, our evening suppers occur at 8:30 or 9:00 PM. By then the food has gotten enough exposure to the element that I have the sneaky feeling it is unhealthy.  Well, bread and lamb are not the only foods we eat around here. We get Ful Midames, which is more like spice in a bean paste mixed with onions and tomatoes. We also get  tahini,  koushari, and other foods.  For drinks, we consume a lot of water and mint tea, and manage to get the occasional cold beer, which, by the way, is not in short supply in Egypt. We don’t drink it often to avoid offending some of our local friends and employees, many of whom are practicing religious.

After our evening supper, typically Doctor Bob Labrousse, from the Harvard Semitic Museum and the University of Chicago, and I stay up for another hour to share ideas and discuss about everything that comes to mind. That includes doing an inventory of our work and findings during the day. Bob and I go back at least 30 years when we first met in a conference for young Egyptologists in New Orleans. We had the same interests and that is trying to understand the human condition as far back as we can. Bob is a jovial man, a bon vivant as the French Cajuns would say. Although a true Cajun himself, Bob was born and partly raised in Kentucky before he moved to Louisiana. His Kentucky heritage got him hooked to Bourboon. He always keeps two bottles of fine Bourbon in his tent and he makes sure to enjoy some of it every night.  Typically Bob would mix a small amount of water and two ounces of bourbon into a cocktail glass and would stir it with his thick finger and sip it, then stir and sip some more, and so on for a good hour. In this nitghly ritual, Bob would always start analyzing the first sip. He would generally mention the flavors he feels the most that night. One night it is about oak, the next it is about smoke, fruit and the grain. He says he still dreams of writing a Guide about Southern Bourbon. He reminds me of the wine connaisseurs we see on TV or when touring wineries in Northern California, except his thing is Whiskey. What strikes me as strange is that I never saw Bob intoxicated or drunk. Bourbon is in his blood, I guess, and he consumes it moderatly more for the purpose of tasting.

But more importantly, Bob is a true expert in all-that-is ancient Egypt. He is also generous with his knowledge, sharing with me whatever he learned. His students too are truly fond of him as he gets excited talking about the world’s past. While Bob loves history and science, he is also  quiet a doubter on agreed up concept, and often challenges the traditional wisdoms. He calls himself a contrarian. He thinks that when it comes to old Egyptian history, we have not even scratched the surface yet. His writings often focus on some of the many holes Egyptian theories bring to us. Over the past centuries, archeologists, egyptologists, historians and many others speculated about who the Egyptians were and what made them so extraordinary. We know a great deal of the science they used to build the architectural wonders that are the pyramids or treat their deads corpses to protect them from decay, but how did they manage to create such a civilization based is something we still struggle to understand.

It has been six weeks since we began working here and progress is slow. Today, I am focusing on

….{a demain}————————————————————–

Menmaatre Seti I (or Sethos I as in Greek) was a pharaoh of the New Kingdom Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, the son of Ramesses I and Queen Sitre, and the father of Ramesses II. As with all dates in Ancient Egypt, the actual dates of his reign are unclear, and various historians claim different dates, with 1294 BC to 1279 BC[4] and 1290 BC to 1279 BC[5] being the most commonly used by scholars today.

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 as Menmaatre, in Egyptian, which means “Established is the Justice of Re.”[1] 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.

Hieroglyphs from the tomb 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 order in the kingdom and to reaffirm Egypt’s sovereignty over Canaan and Syria, which had been compromised by the increasing external pressures from the Hittite state. Seti, with energy and determination, confronted the Hittites several times in 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 was 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 while 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 at Memphis. He was considered a great king by his peers, but his fame has been overshadowed since ancient times by that of his son, Ramesses II.

Duration of reign
Seti I’s reign length was either 11 or 15 full years. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has estimated that it was 15 years, but there are no dates recorded for Seti I after his Year 11 Gebel Barkal stela. As he is otherwise quite well documented in historical records, other scholars suggest that a continuous break in the record for his last four years is unlikely.

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.[6] This event is commemorated on two rock stelas in Aswan. However, most of Seti’s obelisks and statues — 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 and did not adopt the final form of his royal title–‘Usermaatre Setepenre’–until late into his second year.[7]

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.[8] 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 Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and portions of his father’s temples at Gurnah and Abydos” during the very first Year of his own reign.[9] Critically, Brand notes that the larger of the two Aswan rock stelas states that Seti I “has ordered the commissioning of multitudinous works for the making of very great obelisks and great and wondrous statues (i.e. colossi) in the name of His Majesty, L.P.H. He made great barges for transporting them, and ships crews to match them for ferrying them from the quarry.” (KRI 74:12-14)[10] However, despite this promise, Brand stresses that

“ …there are few obelisks and apparently 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, in particular those from Luxor. If he in fact 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, and only a fraction of the great monoliths would have been complete and inscribed at his death, with others just emerging from the quarries so that Ramesses would be able to 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. Rather, a tenure of ten or more likely probably eleven, years appears the most likely scenario.[11] ”

Astronomical ceiling of Seti I tomb showing the personified representations of stars and constellations
The German Egyptologist Jürgen von Beckerath also accepts that Seti I’s reign lasted only 11 Years.[12] Seti’s highest known date is Year 11, IV Shemu day 12 or 13 on a sandstone stela from Gebel Barkal[11] 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 I’s accession date has been determined by Wolfgang Helck to be III Shemu day 24, which is very close to Ramesses II’s known accession date of III Shemu day 27.[13]

In 2011, Jacobus van Dijk questioned the “Year 11” stated on the Gebel Barkal stela. This monument is quite badly preserved but still depicts Seti I in erect posture, which is the only case occurred since his Year 4 when he started to being depicted 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 a Year 9 as suggested by the wine jars found in his tomb;[14] In a 2012 paper, David Aston analyzed the wine jars and came to the same conclusion.[15]

Seti’s military campaigns
Seti I fought a series of wars in western Asia, Libya and Nubia in the first decade of his reign. The main source for Seti’s military activities are 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, that are 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 easily defeated. 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 themselves as tribute.

At some unknown point in his reign, Seti I defeated Libyan tribesmen 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 although his crown prince, the future Ramesses II, may have.

Capture of Kadesh
The greatest achievement of Seti I’s foreign policy was the capture of the Syrian town of Kadesh and neighboring territory of Amurru from the Hittite Empire. Egypt had not held Kadesh since the time of Akhenaten. Tutankhamun and Horemheb had failed to recapture the city from the Hittites. Seti I was successful in defeating a Hittite army that tried to defend the town. He entered the city in triumph together with his son Ramesses II and erected a victory stela at the site. Kadesh, however, soon reverted to Hittite control because the Egyptians did not or could not maintain a permanent military occupation of Kadesh and Amurru which were close to the Hittite homelands. It is unlikely that Seti I made a peace treaty with the Hittites or voluntarily returned Kadesh and Amurru to them but he may have reached an informal understanding with the Hittite king Muwatalli on the precise boundaries of the Egyptian and Hittite 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 henceforth 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, however, 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 achievement, along with a number of texts, all of which tend to magnify his personal achievements on the battlefield.


Head of the mummy of Seti I
Seti’s well preserved tomb (KV17) was found in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, in the Valley of the Kings; it proved to be the longest at 136 meters[16] and deepest of all the New Kingdom royal tombs. It was also the first tomb to feature decorations (including The Legend of the destruction of mankind [17] ) on every passageway and chamber with highly refined bas-reliefs and colorful paintings – fragments of which, including a large column depicting Seti I with the goddess Hathor, can be seen in the Museo Archeologico, Florence. This decorative style set a precedent which was followed in full or in part in the tombs of later New Kingdom kings. Seti’s mummy itself was not discovered until 1881, in the mummy cache (tomb DB320) at Deir el-Bahri, and has since been kept at the Cairo Museum.

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,[18] in London, England; 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.

From an examination of Seti’s extremely well-preserved mummy, Seti I appears to have been less than forty years old when he died unexpectedly. This is in stark contrast to the situation with 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 with the use of 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 place it in the left part during the mummification process. Opinions vary 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.[19]

The alleged coregency of Seti IEdit

Around Year 9 of his reign, Seti appointed his son Ramesses II as the crown prince and his chosen successor, but the evidence for a coregency between the two kings is likely illusory. Peter J. Brand who has published an extensive biography on this pharaoh and his numerous works, stresses in his thesis[20] 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 co-regency between the two monarchs. In addition, the late William Murnane, who first endorsed the theory of a co-regency between Seti I and Ramesses II,[21] later revised his view of the proposed co-regency and rejected the idea that Ramesses II had begun to count his own regnal years while Seti I was still alive.[22] Finally, Kenneth Kitchen rejects the term co-regency 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.[23] This is due to the fact that the evidence for a co-regency 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.”[24]

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 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.”[25] ”


The 570-foot-long tunnel for Seti I was left unfinished and may have been designed to house a secret tomb.

– It took archaeologists three years to excavate the 570-foot tunnel.

– The tunnel was decorated with preliminary sketches and had instructions inscribed for workers.

After a 23-year effort, archaeologists have uncovered a secret tunnel in the tomb of Seti I, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, the culture minister said on Wednesday.

The Egyptian team, headed by antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, had been “searching for this tunnel for over twenty years in the West Bank necropolis” of Luxor, south Egypt, Faruq Hosni said in a statement.

Hawass said it then took three years to excavate the 174 meter-long (570-foot) tunnel, in which archaeologists found shards of pottery and fragments of statuettes.

The tunnel was painted with preliminary sketches for decorations and instructions from the architect to workmen carving out the tunnel, Hawass said.

“Move the door jamb up and make the passage wider,” read the inscription on a false door, Hawass said.

“It appears that Seti I was trying to construct a secret tomb inside a tomb,” Hawass said. Hawass speculated that the tunnel and the secret tomb were not finished because of the pharaoh’s death, but may have inspired a similar construction in Ramses II’s tomb.

Seti I was one of ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers and a formidable military commander from the 19th dynasty. His tomb in the Valley of the Kings is the largest ever discovered, but archeologists have yet to tap all its mysteries.

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