Setnakhte, The First King of Egypt's 20th Dynasty

Setnakhte, The First King of Egypt's 20th Dynasty

by Jimmy Dunn

The cartouch of Setnakhte

Setnakhte was the first king of Egypt's 20th Dynasty, the last dynasty of the New Kingdom. This is the king's birth name that, together with his epithet, mereramunre, means "Victorious is Set, Beloved of Amun Re". He is sometimes also known as Setnakht and Sethnakht. His throne name was Userkhaure Setepenre, meaning "Powerful are the Manifestations of Re, Chosen by Re".

The cloud that surrounds the end of the 19th Dynasty swirls about a character known as Bay. He was a chancellor who has been referred to as the "kingmaker", for he made the claim that it was he who "established the king on the throne of his father", referring to Siptah. Indeed, he probably assisted Tausert as she ruled Egypt in the name of her stepson, Siptah. In fact, as Tausert eventually took on the full regalia of rulership after Siptah's death, it is certainly possible that Bay may have effectively ruled Egypt. Originally a scribe to Seti II, we believe that he could have been of foreign blood, perhaps Syrian.

After the death of Tausert, Chancellor Bay may have even ruled Egypt for a brief period, for many Egyptologists believe that it was he who is referred to in the Papyrus Harris I as Iarsu (Irsu):

"The land of Egypt was overthrown from without and every man was thrown out of his right; they had no chief for many years formerly until other times. The land of Egypt was in the hands of chiefs and of rulers of towns; one slew his neighbor great and small. Other times having come after it, with empty years, Iarsu, a certain Syrian was with them as chief. He set the whole land tributary before him together; he united his companions and plundered their possessions. They made the gods like men and no offerings were presented in the temples."

Statue of Setnakhte from  his tomb

Actually, the name Iarsu has the meaning, "self-made man", which would have been a derogatory way of referring to him as an usurper of the throne, and irregardless of whether Chancellor bay is one and the same as Iarsu, he had an evil reputation. However, it is interesting that he was apparently allowed a burial in the Valley of the Kings, (KV13). One way or the other though, is is very clear that Egypt suffered some amount of turmoil at the end of the 19th Dynasty.

It was Setnakhte, who ended the confusion and reestablished ma'at in the Two Lands, though we know very little about him. Almost all of our information about the king is either from the Papyrus Harris I, which was written some 65 years after his death, or from a stela he had erected on the island of Elephantine dated to the second year of his reign (though it may have been the first year he was in complete control of Egypt after having settled the earlier confusion).

In fact, we really have no information about how Setnakhte came to the throne, though it has been suggested that he may have been a grandson of the great king, Ramesses II. That may have been reason enough, considering that every other king of the 20th Dynasty took Ramesses as part of their names, wishing to emulate the success of their notable predecessor. However, whether he was Ramesses II's grandson or not, judging by his birth name (Setnakhte), which makes reference to Seth who was revered by the 19th Dynasty kings, there must surely have been some family connection with that earlier period.

The body found in the boat in the tomb of Amenhotep II

The last four pages of the Papyrus Harris I tell us that Senakhte rose to power and put down the rebellions fermented by Asiatics, telling us that it was he would relieved the besieged cities of Egypt, bought back those who had gone into hiding and reopened the temples and restored their revenue. His stela at Elephantine also relates that he expelled rebels who, on their flight, left behind the gold, silver and copper they had stolen from Egypt, and with which they had intended to hire reinforcements among the Asiatics.

In reality, the dynastic change between the 19th and 20th Dynasties may not have been as much of a problem as the Papyrus Harris makes out. Setnakhte seems to have kept Hori son of Kama in office as Viceroy of Kush (a kingdom in Nubia), who was originally appointed to that position during the reign of Siptah. Another Hori, who was a vizier, was also apparently allowed to remain in office.

Setnakhte's reign was short, perhaps only two or three years and he may have come to the throne fairly late in life. He was the father of Egypt's last great Egyptian King, Ramesses III by his wife, Tiymerenese. Ramesses III may have held a short co-regency with his father.

An image of Setnakhte wearing the Red Crown from his tomb

Upon his death, Setnakhte was buried with full royal honors. According to the Papyrus Harris I, "he was rowed in his king's barge upon the river (crossed the Nile to the west bank), and rested in his eternal house west of Thebes". Though we are not sure of the actual reason, he was buried in the tomb that was originally excavated for Queen Twosret (KV14) on the West bank at Thebes (modern Luxor) in the Valley of the Kings. He may have usurped this tomb himself because the tomb that he had originally begun to construct for himself, KV11, had been abandoned after workers excavating it broke through into the adjacent tomb of Ameenmesses (KV10). Another possibility is that his son, Ramesses III, usurped KV14 for his father, with the intention of realigning and finishing KV11, where he was buried, for himself.

Alas, Setnakhte's body was not discovered in KV14, but his coffin was found during 1898 in the royal cache in the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35). It is possible that his body was that of an unwrapped and unidentified man discovered on a wooden boat in that tomb.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Valley of the Kings Weeks, Kent R. 2001 Friedman/Fairfax ISBN 1-5866-3295-7