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Sethos Ilocked

  • C. A. Keller

(reg c. 1290–c. 1279 bc). Egyptian ruler and patron, second ruler of the 19th Dynasty. The inclusion in his own titulary of the expression wehem–meswt (Egyp.: ‘renaissance’) explicitly stated the rationale for his vigorous political and architectural activity: in his aggressive military policy he sought to emulate the achievements of Tuthmosis III (reg c. 1479–c. 1426 bc) by re-establishing Egyptian power in Nubia and north Syria, and in his extensive building programme he attempted to restore monuments defaced during the Amarna period by iconoclastic followers of the sun god Aten. His repairs were frequently accompanied by a text, such as ‘a renewal of this monument that Sethos I made’.

His own monuments were fashioned on a large scale, possibly in imitation of the massive projects of Amenophis III (reg c. 1390–c. 1353 bc), and were decorated with characteristically fine reliefs. At Thebes, his most significant accomplishment was the completion of the ‘Great Hypostyle Hall’ at Karnak Temple, where he also undertook the decoration of the northern wall: the interior was embellished with low reliefs depicting the King engaged in religious rituals, and the exterior was covered with sunk-relief scenes of his campaigns in Syria and Libya. These are among the earliest extant examples of large-scale narrative art in Egypt (see Narrative art §I 2.). His mortuary temple at Qurna (see Thebes, §VIII) established the pattern for subsequent temples of this type, and his rock-hewn tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 17; see Egypt, ancient, §VIII, 2, (ii), (d) and Thebes, §IX) is notable both for its scale of execution and for the fine quality of its carved and painted decoration.

Sethos I undertook further construction projects throughout Egypt and Nubia: his additions to the temples of Re in Heliopolis and Ptah in Memphis and his foundation of a new royal residence at Piramesse in the Nile Delta were of particular importance. (For his obelisk at Heliopolis) The site most closely associated with him, however, is Abydos, where he erected an impressive cenotaph complex in the area sacred to the god Osiris. The complex consisted of a large L-shaped temple featuring shrines dedicated to seven deities (including the deified King); a subterranean cenotaph, the Osireion, modelled on Old Kingdom prototypes; and a small chapel for the cult of his father, Ramesses I (reg c. 1292–c. 1290 bc). Portions of these structures remained unfinished at his death and were completed by his son and successor Ramesses II. The work of his own craftsmen is distinguished by a cool elegance of form and perfection of execution equalling that of any work produced during the pharaonic period, in contrast with the work of his son, which already shows a decline in quality.

Although relatively few inscribed examples of royal sculpture in the round have been preserved from the reign of Sethos I, enough has survived to illustrate the complicated interplay of ideological and artistic forces taking place at this juncture between the post-Amarna and Ramessid periods. The heritage of the Amarna style is well exemplified by the remains of a colossal alabaster statue (Cairo, Egyp. Mus., CG 42.139) discovered in the Karnak cachette at Thebes: it has voluptuously swelling contours and consists of several individually sculpted parts. Indeed, so strong are its stylistic connections with Amarna that some scholars have thought it to be a usurped piece of that period, a view supported by the inconsistently rough carving of the inscriptions. Quite different influences are seen in a badly battered diorite kneeling statue of Sethos I from Abydos (New York, Met., 22.2.21) in which the torso has a much tauter appearance and the King’s face reflects a distinctively Tuthmosid aspect: both features that created desirable visual connections with an esteemed line of royal ancestors.


  • H. E. Winlock: Bas-reliefs from the Temple of Ramesses I at Abydos (New York, 1921)
  • A. M. Calverley and others: The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos (London, 1933–)
  • H. E. Winlock: The Temple of Ramesses I at Abydos (New York, 1937)
  • J. Vandier: Les Grandes Epoques: La Statuaire (1958), iii of Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne (Paris, 1952–78), pp. 390–92
  • K. A. Kitchen: Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II (Warminster, 1982), pp. 20–41
  • Reliefs and Inscriptions at Karnak, 4, The Epigraphic Survey, Oriental Institute, U. Chicago (Chicago, 1985)
  • M. Saleh and H. Sourouzian: Official Catalogue: The Egyptian Museum, Cairo (Mainz, 1987), no. 201
  • J. Osing: Der Tempel Sethos I: Reliefs und Inschriften (Mainz, 1988)
  • R. Stadelmann: Der Tempel Sethos I: Architektur und Grabungsfund (Mainz, 1988)
W. Helck, E. Otto and W. Westendorff, eds: Lexikon der Ägyptologie (Wiesbaden, 1975–)