Egypt was at the height of its powers in the days of Ramesses the Great, a young king who confidently predicted his House would last for a Thousand Years. Sixty years later, he was still on the throne. One by one, his heirs had died and the survivors had become old men. When Ramesses at last died, he left a stagnant kingdom and his throne to an old man–Merenptah. What followed laid the groundwork for a nation ripped apart by civil war.
The House of Ramesses is in the hands of an old man. King Merenptah wants to leave the kingdom to his younger son, Seti, but northern tribes in Egypt rebel and join forces with the Sea Peoples, invading from the north. In the south, the king’s eldest son Messuwy is angered at being passed over in favour of the younger son…and plots to rid himself of his father and brother.
GENRE: Historical: Ancient Egypt ISBN: 978-1-921636-23-3 ASIN: B00RADM7P6 Word Count: 133, 478
4.0 out of 5 stars
Tausret, Messuwy, Seti, Merenptah, and a neutral narrator tell us . . .
. . . this story, alternating their perspectives on events during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt. It’s always the question of the succession, right? And here Merenptah succeeds to the through as an old man already, following the death of his 90-year-old father, Usermaatre. Then eldest surviving son Messuwy expects to be named heir, but isn’t. A promise Merenptah made years before to his father makes 10-year-old Seti most likely to succeed. But King Merenptah makes no announcement, even after son Seti grows up. And following all these developments is the young woman prodigy Tausret, half-sister to Seti. Tausret is level-headed, aspiring, and worthy, saving Egypt (Kemet) from an invasion and a plot to kill both King and favored son. Overton’s books are always interesting, full of colorful characters, intrigues, wonderful heroines, realistic settings, and captivating plots. No exception here, and I think I’ll stop here and go download the next two books in the series, centering in turn on Seti and then Tausret.
Year 5 of Usermaatre Ramesses
Heat rippled the air and acrid dust bit at the throat of the young man standing in the chariot on the low swell of land overlooking the river. The two horses in the traces of the chariot stamped and blew, their muscles shivering and the sweat of their exertion drying on their flanks. Leaning his bow against the front of the chariot, the young man used both hands to remove the blue leather war crown from his sweating head and pass it to the shield-bearer standing beside him. The shield-bearer said nothing, but looked meaningfully toward the river and the scenes of devastation along its western banks.
“We have them, Menna,” murmured the young man. “See how they flee before the might of my victorious army.”
Menna knew the mistakes the king had made and how close they had come to defeat but said nothing, not wanting to bring the anger of the king down upon his head. His position as shield-bearer brought him much honour and wealth back in Per-Ramesses, but it would count as nothing in the face of the king’s displeasure. What had been given could as easily be taken away.
“My son acquitted himself well today, did he not?”
Menna felt himself on safer ground here and nodded his agreement. “Indeed, Great One. Only fourteen years old but already Prince Amunherkhepeshef has proved himself a valiant leader.” The shield-bearer hesitated, and ventured a little further. “His legion arrived at just the right moment, turning the tide of the battle in our favour.”
The king frowned. “Are you saying the battle was lost before the prince arrived?”
Menna paled, suddenly realising what his words might imply. “N…no, Usermaatre. I…I only meant that…”
“I did not need the prince’s legion to defeat the Hatti. A moment more and Muwatalli would have fled. I had destroyed his chariots and routed his army.” King Usermaatre flung out his hand toward where the Hittites were struggling across the Orontes River. “This is a great victory, this is my victory. I have defeated the enemy and brought this land under the control of Kemet for all time.”
“Of course, Great One. I misspoke, being…being in awe of your…your strength and wisdom.” Movement on the river plain rescued Menna and he pointed. “See Usermaatre, one of our chariots approaches.”
The king shaded his eyes and stared. “It is my eldest son.” He donned his blue war crown once more and picked up his bow, casting aside his weariness to greet his son and heir.
Crown Prince Amunherkhepeshef handled the horses of his chariot with ease, circling the royal chariot and drawing alongside. He tied off the reins and turned to greet his father with a great smile on his face.
“Greetings Usermaatre Setepenre Ramesses, Lord of the Two Lands. You have dealt a mighty blow to the enemy today. The craven Hatti flees before your army.”
Usermaatre smiled but a shadow crossed his eyes. “You are hurt?” He pointed at the dried blood that streaked his son’s left arm and chest.
Amunherkhepeshef looked down and he flicked a crust of blood from his chest. “This? This is from my charioteer. A lance struck him down in the midst of battle.”
“And your shield-bearer?”
“Dead also.” The Prince shrugged. “I am unharmed.”
“Then truly the gods of Kemet have smiled upon us this day, my son.”
The Crown Prince nodded. “Yet even the gods need the strong right hand of a valiant warrior to overcome an earthly enemy. See how the enemy flees before your victorious majesty.”
“How many enemy dead?”
“And of our own?”
Amunherkhepeshef shrugged. “Who knows? Not as many.” He fidgeted, the light leather and wicker framework of his chariot creaking beneath him. “The battle is not yet over, father. We have yet to capture the town of Kadesh.”
The king frowned and stared at his son, feeling the implied criticism in the remark. “The town is unimportant. The Hatti are on the run.”
“We must capture the town. Without it in our hands, Muwatalli still holds the field…”
“Enough,” Usermaatre snapped. “The Hatti are defeated. Kadesh is unimportant.”
Amunherkhepeshef noted the bloom of anger in his father’s cheeks and bowed his head. “Of course, Divine Father. I am but a stripling without understanding. Your wisdom guides us all.”
The king relented and smiled at his eldest son. “We shall return to the army and gather them together. Will you act as my charioteer, Amunherkhepeshef?”
“I would be honoured, Divine One.”
The Crown Prince stepped across to the king’s chariot, taking over the reins from Menna, who took charge of the prince’s chariot. The Prince shook the reins, calling to the stallions to move forward, down the hill. Conscious of the king, his father, beside him, he yelled in triumph.
“Long may the House of Ramesses reign over Kemet.”
“A thousand years, my son,” murmured Usermaatre. “My House will last a thousand years.”
Legend has it that the ancestress of Per-aa, the royal family of Kemet, was a warrior queen named for the little beetle that rolls its ball of dung across the sand in imitation of the Greater Khepre rolling the disk of the sun across the heavens.
Maia was my nurse’s name, and when I was old enough to be taking an interest in things around me, she was already an old woman, no longer capable of giving suck to the children in her care. There were others to feed the royal babies though, and she spent much of her time telling us stories like the one concerning Queen Scarab.
This Scarab (she said) was a queen who fought alongside the armies of three brothers against the enemies of Kemet, which included their wicked uncle. The brothers and their uncle all died in a series of battles, but Scarab survived and married a young officer from one of the armies of the three brothers. She bore him a son, and called him Seti. He in turn had a son called Ramesses, the Great One who rules all Kemet today, and he in turn had a son called Sethi, and I am a daughter born to this prince of the Great King.
My name is Tausret Setepenmut, royal daughter of Sethi, ninth son of Usermaatre Setepenre Ramesses. Everyone knows the truth of my family’s rise to power, and while it is true that the first Ramesses was a soldier, Paramessu son of another Seti, the facts that are taught to us are different from the legend. Paramessu took as his wife a woman of good birth named Sitre, who bore him a son called Seti.
It would be nice to have a warrior queen as my ancestress, but nobody will admit to any connection between my family and that of the Heretic King. All his line died out (they say) as a punishment from the gods for the blasphemy he tried to impose on Kemet. Even the scribes who are fond of telling stories smile and fall silent when I ask about Scarab. Perhaps it is this very reticence that kept her in my mind, for as I grew older I found myself desiring to know more of war.
Royal children, even girls whose fate is often nothing more than to serve as consorts for the king or his successors, are educated to some degree. I can read and write the common hieratic script with a fair hand, and even decipher some of the formal writing inscribed on the walls of temples and stelae. I can count, I can give the orders that will rule a household, though I will always have servants to do that for me, and I can converse on a wide range of subjects should it please my husband.
It may surprise you to learn that I can read and write and count without using my fingers and toes, for daughters even of royalty are not always given much education beyond what will help them to be better wives and mothers. As a royal princess, and later as consort or queen, I would have little to do beyond ruling my household and commanding others, and if it had been left to the Scribes of the Household, that is all I would be able to do. I remember Mene, the Head Scribe, gently but firmly turning me away from the colonnade beside the gardens when I tried to join my brothers and cousins at their lessons.
I must have been no more than four or five years old. I ran crying to my room that day, but I thought about it and decided that no servant would prevent me learning. I went to my uncle Merenptah who, since the death of my father Sethi had accepted oversight of his brother’s daughter. I found him in his chambers dallying with one of the palace women. A palace child learns at an early age what passes between men and women, and I paid no attention to his hand upon her breast or his state of excitement but burst in upon them full of my own troubles.
“Uncle,” I cried. “That beast Mene turned me away when I tried to join the others at writing. I want you to have him beaten.”
Merenptah’s mouth twitched and he sighed as his hand slipped from the young woman’s ripe body. “What were you doing there, Tausret?” he asked. “You do not need to learn such things as reading and writing. You should learn womanly skills.”
“I want to read and write and…and other things.” My uncle sat and stared at me in silence, so I stamped my foot in frustration. “How can I know what there is to learn if nobody will teach me? Tell Mene to let me in. But beat him first,” I added.
“The Head Scribe is responsible for the sons of the King’s Body, and his grandsons. He was in his rights to turn you away. Was he rude or did he lay hands on you?”
I scowled, knowing I must be truthful. “No.”
“Then I will not have him beaten for doing his duty.”
I hung my head.
“Why do you want to learn these things, Tausret? Will reading and writing make you a better wife? Will counting make you a better mother?”
“I s’pose not, but I want…I want to do things. My brothers will grow up to be ‘portant people and…and maybe even soldiers and…and kings, but all I’ll ever get to do is look after a household and have babies.”
“Don’t you want to get married and have babies?”
I shrugged. “I s’pose, but I want to do exciting things too, like…like…” Only one name sprung to mind. “…Queen Scarab.”
My uncle’s smile broadened, and he chuckled. The woman beside him had the manners to hide her grin behind her hands, at least. “Ah, child, your nurse has been filling your head with stories again.”
“That’s what I want to do,” I said stubbornly. “Go to war, be ‘portant, rather than just be a wife or mother. It’s not fair that I should be only a girl.”
“Life is not always fair, Tausret.” Merenptah sat and considered my words for a short time, and then said. “Leave me now and I will think about it.” He looked at the woman beside him and stroked her arm gently. “Tia here will be thinking I do not love her. I must pay her more attention.”
I bowed and left them to their play, but my uncle Merenptah, for reasons which he never told me, gave me a freer rein than was normal for a girl, and put me under the tutelage of one of the junior scribes. I learned much that was useful and still more that was not, but more of that later.
My grandfather Usermaatre reigned for a long time and lived even longer, stamping his footprint over Kemet and the lands bordering on ours. Men were born, lived their lives and died, knowing only Usermaatre Setepenre Ramesses as king of the Two Lands. Even very old men have difficulty remembering a time when my grandfather was not on the throne. Having a king live that long is good as the whole country settles into a period of stability, and Ma’at rules all. On the other hand, when the king dies after such a long reign, people are lost, and the foundations of the kingdoms are rocked. Unless a strong king replaces the previous one, there is trouble on all levels of society. But again, more of that later. For now, King Usermaatre reigned and the Two Kingdoms were at peace.
When he was young, Usermaatre Ramesses was a handsome, strong and virile man, holding our land of Kemet in his right hand, smiting our enemies, and bringing a period of prosperity to Kemet greater than anyone could remember. He was also mighty in a manly way, having numerous wives and concubines and begetting a hundred sons and daughters. The palace swarms with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and more distant relations, so many that it is impossible to keep track of them all.
I was born late in my grandfather’s reign, and by the time I was fully aware of the things that happened around me, he was an old man, nearing the time when the gods would call him to join them. I saw him more as a harmless old dodderer than as a great king, a small, hunchbacked figure with a fringe of white hair who shuffled through the corridors of the palace, muttering to himself or moaning from the pains in his teeth and in his joints. He was always attended by a servant or two, ready to support him if he faltered, or to wipe away his spittle if he dribbled from the side of his mouth. If he happened upon one of the smaller children, like me or any of a hundred other brothers, sisters, or cousins, he would stop and peer, stroking a shaved head and tug its side lock, mutter a few words and then totter onward. He had been imposing in his young manhood, but by the time I remember him, the business of the Kingdoms was managed by his son and heir, and his duties as priest within the temples taken over by his other sons. He had had several heirs over the long years, but his old age brought him sorrow, for he outlived many of his wives and sons.
Amunherkhepeshef was the king’s eldest son and had accompanied him to war, making a name for himself second only to that of Usermaatre. He was made Crown Prince and should have ruled afterward, but he died many years before I was born. Then Prince Ramesses took his place at his father’s side as Crown Prince. A fever claimed him and Khaemwaset, fourth son, became heir. His elder brother Pareherwenemef should have been Crown Prince, but he had died of a small cut that had turned first red and then rotted, just the year before. My uncle Khaemwaset only enjoyed the fruits of his inheritance for five years before he too died. By now, many people said (under their breath, of course) that Usermaatre would outlive all his sons, and foresaw disaster for the kingdoms, but of course there were many grandsons who could inherit were that to happen. Many royal sons died during the long years of his reign, struck down by war and accident and sickness, but eventually my uncle Merenptah became heir, though he was the thirteenth son to spring from the loins of his father.
My own father Sethi, ninth son, died in Year 53 of Usermaatre. I was only five years old, scarcely old enough to have memories, yet I remember him with a fierce clarity. He was a strong man, with the first grey hairs showing in the fringe of short red hair round his head. His face was lined and careworn, with a gaze that looked beyond the physical to a place where the great love of his life, my mother Henuttaneb had gone. Yet whenever he looked upon me, his eyes would focus and soften, his mouth would form a smile and he would murmur my name.
‘Tausret,’ he would say. ‘You are well named, for you must be a mighty lady if you are to survive. Your mother is no longer here to love you and protect you.’
My mother died in childbirth, and I have no memories of her, save for those planted in my mind by my father. She had dark hair like most Kemetu, whereas my father had hair like the king’s. I have seen a likeness of her painted on a temple wall, for she was a daughter of Usermaatre, just as my father was a son. She was beautiful in my eyes at least, though it is hard to detect individuality in the stylised portraits on walls. Her upper body faces me, one breast viewed side on, her head in profile and one foot is placed slightly in front of the other. Arms are held stiffly out as she pours wine for the god, and her face is expressionless. It signifies nothing, for all temple and tomb pictures are thus. Pictures are not meant to be an accurate representation of the person but to act for the person in the presence of the gods or the king. It is enough that I know it is her.
Red hair is found in the peoples to the north of Kemet and many wives and concubines have come from those nations, adding their blood to ours. It is reasonable to suppose the redness comes from these women of the nations. The king has red hair, or had before it all turned white, my father had red hair, and I have it too, though of course, as a child, it was shaved off save for the customary side lock.
As I have said, there were times when I was growing up that I wished the gods had not made me a girl. If I had been a male child, I would have been educated properly and taken my place within society, performing some useful function, or becoming a soldier and winning battles for the king against all of Kemet’s enemies. That was never going to happen though, solely because I am a girl.
That is not to say that being a girl was a punishment, for women are held in high regard in Kemet. We can own property, engage in business, run a household or estate, take a man to court, have lovers, and even divorce a husband, retaining a share of the common chattels. Name me another nation where a woman has such freedom. Yet I railed against my lot and sought the things my brothers and male cousins enjoyed. All that I had to look forward to was marriage, no doubt to one of my brothers or cousins, and babies, one after another, until I died in childbirth or became worn out and bitter. That fate held little appeal and I was determined to fight against it. The obvious first step was to gain an education, and I have related how my uncle Merenptah fostered this.
The junior scribe who became my tutor was named Amenhotep, and he was the son of one of the more senior scribes, himself a distant relation of mine. He was not pleased to be given this assignment, but he made the best of it because Merenptah asked it of him. I daresay he thought it would be a short-lived assignment as a girl would soon lose interest. How wrong he was.
I should say something about names. I do not know how men and women are named among the nations, but in Kemet a name has meaning. For instance, my own is Tausret Setepenmut, and this means ‘Mighty Lady, Chosen of Mut’, and I think that my father gave me that name to protect me as I lost my mother so early in life. Mighty, so that I would be strong, and under the protection of the great mother goddess Mut.
Names are very important because knowledge of a name gives one power over it. One of our greatest fears is to be nameless, or to have one’s name forgotten after our death. Should a person’s name disappear, then that person would die again in the Afterlife, a dreadful prospect. Kings, and important or rich men made sure that their names were carved into the walls of temples, inscribed on stelae and on statues, and painted on tomb walls, all so their names would never be forgotten.
Some names are common, others less so. Naturally, a name of strength attracts good fortune, so many are called Ramesses or Seti. A beautiful woman like Queen Isetnofret has girl babies named after her, and I suppose it can be quite confusing unless you are brought up in the royal palace where everyone is known.
I am the only Tausret though.