Who Was Rameses I?
by Peter Tyson
What's in a name? Well, in the case of Rameses I, no less than immortality—and this for a man of humble roots. For "Rameses," which he began calling himself after becoming pharaoh in 1307 B.C.*, has come down to us today as one of the most recognizable names from ancient Egypt. For many it conjures up vast empires along the Nile, colossal monuments in stone, pharaohs somehow loftier than kings ruling over a civilization that rivals in singular magnificence any the world has produced.
And Rameses I gave us more than just a name. He gave us a Dynasty, the 19th, one of the most illustrious ancient Egypt ever knew. And he gave us living legends: his son Seti I ushered in a period of art and culture unrivaled in later Egyptian civilization, and his grandson Rameses II earned the suffix "the Great" by building more temples and erecting more obelisks and statues (and siring more children) than any other pharaoh. No fewer than 10 subsequent pharaohs proudly adopted the name Rameses, Rameses XI passing on—and ending the so-called Ramesside period—237 years after his namesake took the throne.
Yet Rameses I was not of royal blood. He became pharaoh when he was already old by ancient standards (probably in his 50s). And he reigned for less than two years. All of which makes his immortality all the more remarkable.
Growing up in strange times
Rameses I was born in the mid-14th century B.C. His home lay near Avaris, a town in northern Egypt situated on the far side of the great fan-like Nile Delta from where Alexandria sits today (see map). He came from a long line of soldiers; his father Seti, after whom the future Rameses I would name his son, was a troop commander and judge. The name that judge Seti and his wife gave the future pharaoh was Paramessu.
Paramessu grew up in one of the most unusual periods in Egyptian history. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, who assumed the throne about the time that Paramessu was born, shook the foundation of Egyptian society. With the revolutionary zeal of a Lenin or Mao, Akhenaten swept away the old religion, replacing it with a monotheistic cult worship of the sun-disc Aten. He built a new capital city, Akhetaten ("the Horizon of the Aten"), and moved the seat of government there from Thebes, which had been the pharaohs' capital for most of the 18th Dynasty. And he ushered in an entirely new style of art, with figures—including his own famously misshapen form—drawn with more realism than was common in the erstwhile, more formal style.
Rameses I left a significant mark on Egyptian civilization—not least his evocative name.
When Akhenaten died in 1333 B.C., his son Tutankhaten took his place on the throne, even though he was only about nine years old at the time. In the second year of his reign—no doubt at the instigation of the two highest-ranking officials from his father's court, Ay and Horemheb, who effectively ran the boy's court—Tutankhaten dropped the "-aten" suffix from his name in favor of "-amun." This signaled the start of the dismantling of everything Akhenaten had done and the reinstitution of the old ways, including belief in Amun, the King of Gods. When Tutankhamun—aka King Tut—died heirless when he was about 17 years old, Ay and later Horemheb continued the restoration as the last two pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty.
An abbreviated reign
Through all this, the soon-to-be Rameses I was rising rapidly in the ranks of the military. He surpassed his father's position as troop commander and eventually gained the favor of Horemheb, who himself had been head of the army under Akhenaten. Indeed, during Horemheb's reign (1319-1307 B.C.), Paramessu went on to become vizier—roughly equivalent to today's prime minister—and held a string of important titles: Master of Horse, Commander of the Fortress, Controller of the Nile Mouth, Charioteer of His Majesty, King's Envoy to Every Foreign Land, Royal Scribe, Colonel, and General of the Lord of the Two Lands. Not bad for a soldier's son without a drop of royal blood in his veins.
Paramessu's rise did not stop there, of course. Having become Horemheb's friend and confidant, he ultimately became both coregent with the pharaoh and, since Horemheb apparently had no heirs, his hand-picked successor. Upon Horemheb's death in 1307, Paramessu assumed the throne as Rameses ("Ra [the sun god] Has Fashioned Him"). Pharaohs of the day took five different names, and one of Rameses's others, his so-called Golden Horus name, was "He Who Confirms Ma'at Throughout the Two Lands." Ma'at was a daughter of the sun god Ra, and the name as a whole signified Rameses' desire to continue the work of his predecessors to undo the heretical handiwork of Akhenaten.
Like most pharaohs, Rameses I immediately set about doing things for which he would be remembered. These pursuits took him to the far ends of his kingdom, and even beyond. At Buhen in southern Egypt, he made additions to the Nubian garrison. At Karnak Temple in Thebes—where his son and grandson would later erect the Great Hypostyle Hall, one of the greatest monuments of the ancient world—Rameses I had reliefs carved on the massive gateway known as the Second Pylon. Farther north at Abydos, the burial place of the first kings of a unified Egypt, he began construction of a chapel and temple (Seti I would complete it). Still farther north, Rameses I reopened Egyptian turquoise mines in the Sinai, and he led at least one military expedition into western Asia.
A name for the ages
Despite the promising start, Rameses I's reign ended so quickly that his tomb was only partially complete when he died. In contrast to the cavernous crypts of his successors, Seti I and Rameses II, his is but antechamber in size. As in life, in death Rameses I did not leave much behind, at least after ancient robbers had finished with his tomb. When the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni discovered the sepulcher in 1817, all that remained in the way of grave goods was Rameses' damaged granite sarcophagus, a pair of six-foot wooden guardian statues once covered in gold foil, and some statuettes of underworld deities. His mummy was missing, too. The most important surviving artifacts were well-executed paintings from the Book of Gates, one of the Egyptian treatises on the underworld, lining the walls of his burial chamber.
Yet for so brief a reign, and for having had just one child with his wife Sitra, Rameses I left a significant mark on Egyptian civilization—not least his evocative name.
*Note: Scholars still debate exact dates of ancient Egyptian reigns and dynasties. The dates in this article come from the chronology developed by John Baines and Jaromir Málek and used in their book Atlas of Ancient Egypt.
Many experts see a physical resemblance between the mummified head of what is now thought to be Rameses I (top) and the heads of his son Seti I (middle) and grandson Rameses II.