SETNAKHTE, THE FIRST KING OF EGYPT'S 20TH DYNASTY
by Jimmy Dunn --
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
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 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.
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
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.
Userkhaure-setepenre Setnakhte (or Setnakht) was the first Pharaoh (1190 BC–1186 BC) of the Twentieth Dynasty of
the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt and the father of Ramesses III.
Setnakhte was not the son, brother or a direct descendant of the previous Pharaoh, Merneptah Siptah, nor of his
predecessor Seti II, whom Setnakht formally considered the last legitimate ruler. It is possible that he was an
usurper who seized the throne during a time of crisis and political unrest, or he could have been a member of a
minor line of the Ramesside royal family who emerged as Pharaoh. He married Queen Tiy-merenese, perhaps a daughter
of Merenptah. A connection between Setnakhte's successors and the preceding 19th dynasty is suggested by the fact
that one of Ramesses II's children also bore this name and that similar names are shared by Setnakhte's descendants
such as Ramesses, Amun-her-khepshef, Seth-her-khepshef and Monthu-her-khepshef.
Setnakhte was originally believed to have enjoyed a reign of only 2 Years based upon his Year 2 Elephantine stela
but his third regnal year is now attested in Inscription No.271 on Mount Sinai If his theoretical accession date
is assumed to be II Shemu 10 based on the date of his Elephantine stela, Setnakhte would have ruled Egypt for at
least 2 Years and 11 Months before he died, or nearly 3 Full Years. This date is only 3 months removed from
Twosret's Highest known date of Year 8, III Peret 5 and is based upon a calculation of Ramesses III's known
accession date of I Shemu 26. Peter Clayton also assigned Setnakhte a reign of 3 years in his 1994 book on the
In a mid-January 2007 issue of the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, however, Egyptian antiquity officials announced that a
recently discovered and well preserved quartz stela belonging to the High Priest of Amun Bakenkhunsu was explicitly
dated to Year 4 of Setnakhte's reign. The Al-Ahram article notes that this data:
"contradicts...the official record, which says Setnakhte ruled Egypt for only three years. According to the new
information provided by the stela, Setnakhte's reign certainly lasted for four years, and may have continued for [a
Consequently, Setnakhte likely ruled Egypt for around 4 years. Zahi Hawass, the current Secretary general of
Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities declared the discovery to be one of the most important finds of 2006 because
"it adjusts the history of the 20th dynasty and reveals more about the life of Bakenkhunsu." As Setnakhte's
reign was short, he may have come to the throne fairly late in life.
Reliefs of Horus and Geb from tomb KV14
While Setnakhte's reign was still comparatively brief, it was just long enough for him to stabilize the political
situation in Egypt and establish his son, Rameses III, as his successor to the throne of Egypt. The Bakenkhunsu
stela reveals that it was Setnakhte who began the construction of a Temple of Amun-Re in Karnak which was
eventually completed by his son, Ramesses III. Setnakhte also started work on a tomb, KV11, in the Valley of the
Kings, but stopped it when the tombcarvers accidentally broke into the tomb of the Nineteenth Dynasty Pharaoh
Amenmesse. Setnakhte then appropriated the tomb of Queen Twosret (KV14), his predecessor, for his own use.
Setnakhte's origins are unknown, and he may have been a commoner, although many Egyptologists believe he was
related to the previous dynasty, the Nineteenth, through his mother and may thus have been a grandson of Ramesses
II. Setnakhte's son and successor, Ramesses III, is regarded as the last great king of the New Kingdom.
The beginning of the Great Harris Papyrus or Papyrus Harris I, which documents the reign of Ramesses III, provides
some details about Setnakhte's rise to power. An excerpt of James Henry Breasted's 1906 translation of this
document is provided below:
"The land of Egypt was overthrown from without, and every man was thrown out of his right; they had no "chief
mouth" 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 neighbour, great and small. Other times having come after it, with empty years, Irsu ('a self-
made man'), a certain Syrian (Kharu) was with them as chief (wr). He set plundering their (i.e.: the people's)
possessions. They made gods like men, and no offerings were presented in the temples.
"But when the gods inclined themselves to peace, to set the land in its rights according to its accustomed manner,
they established their son, who came forth from their limbs, to be ruler, LPH, of every land, upon their great
throne, Userkhaure-setepenre-meryamun, LPH, the son of Re, Setnakht-merire-meryamun, LPH. He was Khepri-Set, when
he is enraged; he set in order the entire land which had been rebellious; he slew the rebels who were in the land
of Egypt; he cleansed the great throne of Egypt; he was ruler of the Two Lands, on the throne of Atum. He gave
ready faces to those who had been turned away. Every man knew his brother who had been walled in. He established
the temples in possession of divine offerings, to offer to the gods according to their customary stipulations."
Until 2000, Chancellor Bay was considered the only plausible candidate for this Irsu. However, an IFAO Ostracon no.
1864 found at Deir el-Medina dated to Year 5 records that 'Pharaoh (Siptah) LPH has killed the great enemy,
Bay'. Because Chancellor Bay died at least 3 years before this 'Irsu', he can no longer be considered a
plausible candidate for this historical figure.
Setnakhte's stela from Elephantine touches on this chaotic period and refers explicitly to the expulsion of certain
Asiatics, who fled, abandoning the gold which they looted from Egyptian temples behind. It is uncertain the degree
to which this inscription referred to contemporary events or rather repeated anti-Asiatic sentiment from the reign
of Pharaoh Ahmose I. Setnakhte identified with the God Atum or Temu, and built a temple to this God at Per-Atum.
Setnakhte may have been the first Pharaoh mentioned in Greek mythology. Marianne Luban quotes Diodorus Siculus:
"A man of obscure origin was chosen king, whom the Egyptians call 'Ketes', but who among the Greeks is thought to
be that Proteus who lived at the time of the war about Ilium." Ketes, from Egyptian Khenti, means the same as
Proteios, meaning "first". King Setnakht may have been a commoner or a prince of royal blood who was somehow
connected to the 19th Dynasty.
After his death, Setnakhte was buried in KV14 which was originally designed to be Twosret's royal tomb.