Smendes, the First King of the 21st Dynasty: And the Third Intermediate Period

Smendes, the First King of the 21st Dynasty and the Third Intermediate Period

by Jimmy Dunn

The Royal Cartouches of Smendes

The founders of Egyptian Dynasties frequently worked to establish their legitimacy to the throne, and yet, in later years were just as frequently honored by their successors as great men. Fables came to surround these men, but at the same time, it is not uncommon for us to know little of their background, because they often rose from non-royal or at least obscure circumstances.

An outline drawing of the  only known depiction of Smendes, from the Tuthmosis I gateway in the  Precinct of Montu at Karnak

Smendes (Smedes), who we believe founded the 21st Dynasty, ending the New Kingdom at the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period, is a very difficult individual with almost intractable origins and affiliations. His reign, which Manetho assigns 26 years, produced only a tiny handful of monuments and we have never discovered either his tomb or his mummy (though many believe his tomb to be NRT-I at Tanis, this structure offers up no clues concerning Smendes).

Smendes is a Greek rendering of this king's name. His birth name and epithet were Nes-ba-neb-djed (mery-amun), meaning "He of the Ram, Lord of Mendes, Beloved of Amun". His throne name was Hedj-kheper-re Setep-en-re, meaning "Bright is the Manifestation of Re, Chosen of Re".

In fact, most of what we know of Smendes predates his rise to the throne. From the Report of Wenamun, dating to Year 5 of the "Renaissance Era" during the last decade of the reign of Ramesses XI, we learn much of what we know of this future king. While on the way to Lebanon to obtain wood for the renewal of the divine barque of Amun-Re, Wenamun stopped at Tanis, which he describes as "the place where Smendes and Tentamun are". Smendes is specifically described as being the one to whom Wenamun gave his letters of credence from Herihor, the High-Priest of Amun and a powerful general in the south. Wenamun was then sent in a ship by Smendes to Syria. Smendes, along with Herihor and others, was cited as having contributed money to this expedition.

Smendes, together with Tentamun, are therefore shown to be of great importance in Egypt's Delta, equals at least of the High-Priest of Amun in the south. Consider the fact that Ramesses XI at this time presumably lived at Piramesses, only about 20 kilometers to the southwest of Tanis, and yet Wenamun came to Smendes for assistance rather than to the king. In fact, Herihor assumed some royal titles even while Ramesses XI was still alive, and the implication would seem to be that Smendes had a similar standing in the north.

Herihor and Nodjmet from a joint Book of the Dead

Nevertheless, we can only guess at Smendes' origins. It has been suggested that he was a brother of Nodjmet, the wife of Herihor, but it has also been suggested that Nodjmet could have been a sister of Ramesses XI. However, Tentamun, who was presumably Smendes' wife, may have been a member of the royal family. She could have been a daughter of another woman named Tentamun, who may have been the wife of Ramesses XI (or possibly another Ramesside king). The older Tentamun was certainly the mother of Henttawy, who later became the wife of the High-Priest of Amun, Pinedjem I, who also acquired kingly status in the south. As a royal son-in-law, Smendes' status is more easily understood, though perhaps not his total eclipse of the king.

Obviously there is a great deal of confusion concerning the origin of Smendes. Nevertheless, it is very probable that the families of Smendes and Herihor, or at least their descendants, were linked.

The ruins of Tanis

Whatever his original status, after the death of Ramesses XI, Smendes became a king of Egypt, and is recorded as such in most reference material. However, only two sources specifically name him as pharaoh, consisting of a stela in a quarry at Dibabia near Gebelein (Jebelein), and a small depiction in the temple of Montu at Karnak. Interestingly, while there are no known unambiguously dated documents from his reign, the contemporary High-Priests of Amun used year numbers without a king's name, and it is generally believed that, at least through year 25, these refer to Smendes' reign.

In fact, Smendes probably never ruled over a united Egypt as such, a condition which probably also existed at the end of the reign of Ramesses XI. During much of what we refer to as the 21st Dynasty, there was also a dynasty of High-Priests of Amun at Thebes who effectively ruled Upper Egypt, while the kings at Tanis ruled the north. However, there appears to have been a rather delicate balance of powers, and perhaps even a formal arrangement for this division of Egypt. The Priests at Thebes seem to have held sway over a region which stretched from the north of el-Hiba (south of the entrance to the Fayoum) to the southern frontier of Egypt, and their aspirations became apparent around year 16 of Smendes' reign, when Pinedjem I apparently began to take on full pharaonic titles, yet at all times he continued to defer to Smendes as at least a senior king.

One of the canopic jars of  Smendes, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, new York

Hence, to the outside world, Egypt appears to have been a united entity during this period, and in a certain respect, it was. While Egypt was effectively divided between the north and south by powerful men, the government of Egypt became a theocracy, with the supreme political authority being vested in the god Amun himself. In a hymn to Amun on a papyrus from Deir el-Bahri, which has been dubbed the "credo of the theocracy", the god's name is written in a cartouche and he is addressed as the superior of all the gods, the fountainhead of creation, and the true king of Egypt. In fact, Wenamun also says in his tale that Smendes and Tentamun are "the pillars which Amun has set up for the north of his land.

Apparently, Tanis was developed as a northern counterpart to Thebes, and therefore a principal cult center for Amun in Lower Egypt. However, there is also evidence that Memphis functioned as a residence for the northern kings, for a decree of Smendes is recorded as having been issued there. The city may have once more served as a major administrate base at this time.

During this period, the High-Priesthood of Amun at Thebes was passed on from father to son, more or less, so that Pinudjem's heirs inherited both the position of High-Priest and control of southern Egypt. Intriguingly, however, it was also one of Herihor probable sons, Amenemnisu, who succeeded Smendes on the throne for a brief period.






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt)

Clayton, Peter A.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Monarchs of the Nile

Dodson, Aidan


Rubicon Press

ISBN 0-948695-20-x

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, The

Manley, Bill (Editor)


Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05123-2