As soon as our speaker, Gerry Palmer, stood up it was obvious that he was impressed by Horemheb – a virtually unknown Pharaoh from Egypt’s New Kingdom who started his rule just four years after Tutankhamun died. By the end of the evening pretty much everyone else was impressed as well!
Horemheb ruled for between 14 and 27 years around 1300 BC, when the Pyramids were already some 1200 years old. He was the last ruler of Egypt’s 18th dynasty – which is considered by many to be the highpoint of their civilization.
To understand how impressive Horemheb was you need to understand how low the earlier Pharaoh, Akhenaten – the so called “Heretic Pharaoh,” had brought the country. Obsessed by the sun god Aten (Ra) he had dismantled the religious structures of an empire that had lasted for well over a thousand years – and for Egyptians, religion ruled and moulded every aspect of life. He had disbanded the Amun priesthood and, like Henry VIII’s monastic dissolution, he had taken their entire staggering wealth as his own.
He built a new capital at Armana and declared that the only person who was able to talk to the god Aten was him, and perhaps his wife Nefertiti – everyone else had to pray to Akhenaten who, as a semi-divine living god, could pass their requests on. He employed teams of masons to visit temples across the country and remove the name of the old chief god, Amun. He overthrew over a thousand years of artistic convention and changed the style used in temples and palaces and he pretty much let everything else go to pot.
The rule of law broke down across the country. Corruption became endemic; Enemies invaded, beating the Egyptians in major battles and plagues broke out across the country.
In those days the Pharaoh personally had four main tasks to perform: to ensure the Nile flooded every year (but not by too much!), to win battles, to keep the country free from plague and to make the sun rise each morning. Well, at least the sun continued to rise!
Egypt had come to a disastrously low ebb and the Pharaohs that ruled for the next fourteen or so years made little impact. The best was Tutankhamun, but he was very young and much of the power for the first half of his reign lay with his regent and deputy Pharaoh – and that was Horemheb!
Horemheb was also the general in charge of the Army and may have held this post since the reign of Akhenaten.
As the de-facto ruler of the country under Tutankhamun, Horemheb was a main player in moving the capital back to Thebes (modern Luxor) and restoring the old Amun religion. He was probably also responsible for changing the young king’s name to Tutankhamun from Tutankhamun. He was certainly responsible for turning the balance back against Egypt’s enemies – the Hittites in the North and the Nubians in the south.
Horemheb was the son of a minor noble; he became a scribe, then a military scribe, then a general, then commander of the Army and chief scribe of the country. He campaigned successfully in both the north (Egypt’s power extended nearly as far north as Turkey) and in south. But perhaps his greatest military achievement was planning and building a row of major forts along the north of Sinai which protected Egypt and even acted as a secure base for later expansion plans.
As Pharaoh he introduced his “Great Edict,” which effectively restored the rule of law. He imposed draconian punishments on corrupt officials and army officers – especially those that stole his tax money! In doing so he largely wiped out official corruption.
He also put a law court and a (paid) judge in every town throughout the land. His laws were even fair on peasants, who, if they had their tax money stolen, did not have to pay again, as they had been forced to in the past.
Horemheb restored the religion of Amun, along with the priesthood and temples throughout the land – he even gave them back their wealth, power and prestige. Being quite canny, he appointed most of the senior priests from positions in the military to ensure they were loyal to him!
He pulled down Akhenaten’s great Temple to the Aten at Karnak, using the stones as filling for three giant Pylons (50 metre high entrance gateways) as well as half completing the best-known feature of Karnak – the great Hypostyle hall (which is usually and erroneously credited to Seti and Ramesses as they finished it and added their cartouches!)
He also spent a considerable time eradicating traces of the name Aten and the years of the Armana “criminals” so that, effectively, they “officially” never happened and Maat (continuity, order and balance) was restored.
Unusually Horemheb built two tombs, one, near the pyramids at Saqqara, before becoming Pharaoh. He used it as the grave for his two wives (the second was Nefertiti’s sister).
His second tomb in the Valley of the Kings is very large and introduced architectural styles and texts which were copied for a centuries after he died. Some of the decoration in these tombs is amongst the very finest from all of ancient Egypt. His coffin (which was later reused by Ramesses the Great) and one of the statues in the British Museum have only been identified recently and are, again, amongst the finest anywhere.
But what of his Dynasty after his death? Having re-built international links, achieved a peace with the Hittites and a long lasting security for Egypt; having restored religion, law and economy, he still failed in one, all-important aspect. He had no son to rule after him.
Being the man he was, he nominated one of his generals, not just because he had ability but because had a son and a grandson. It was a very good choice as the son became Seti I, one of the greatest Pharaohs, and the grandson became Ramesses the Great who eclipsed even his father.
So is Horemheb known today? Well, it’s true that few have heard of him, but the millions who visit Karnak (the largest temple ever built) will see his great works. For those not lucky enough to visit, his amazing Hypostyle hall appears in Death on the Nile, The Mummy Returns, The Spy Who Loved Me, Lara Croft –The Last Revelation and it even saw Megan Fox in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
And that’s not bad for a man who has been forgotten for over three thousand years!
By Gerry Palmer