The Life of Khaemweset: Ancient Archaeologist And The First Egyptologist
The golden eras of ancient Egyptian history are marked by powerful kings and pharaohs, whose rule continuously expanded Egyptian influence and propelled it to great heights. As history often teaches us, only the eldest son, the first born, usually succeeded to the throne, and followed in the footsteps of their father. But what of all the younger sons and daughters of these powerful pharaohs? What of the generals, officials, and highly powerful priests? They too have an important place in the history of Ancient Egypt, but even so they are often overlooked. Today we are going to learn more about Khaemweset, the fourth son of the famed Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great. Even though Khaemweset was not destined to rule, this prominent prince was a highly important figure in the Egyptian royal court and contributed a lot to the continuation of its oldest history. In many regards, he is considered the very first Egyptologist and this is his story!
Sandstone statue of Khaemweset, son of Ramesses II and high priest of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis, from the 13th century BC. (British Museum / Public domain )
The Son Of A Pharaoh: Khaemweset and his Early Youth
Ramesses II is one of the most famous and most important of all the rulers of Ancient Egypt. Ruling from 1279 to 1213 BC, he was the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt and brought his people into a truly golden era, expanding his influence and might. He was also known to have fathered many sons and daughters.
He had several legal wives, and sired close to 50 sons, and between 40 to 53 daughters. Naturally, succession was to be an issue in such a case, where it was the usual practice for the firstborn son to inherit the throne. However, Ramesses II long rule challenged this tradition: his firstborn son, Amunherkhepeshef, died before his own father. Eventually, the pharaoh was succeeded by his 13th son, Merneptah (who was around 70 years old at the time).
But this didn’t mean that all his sons that were least likely to ascend to the throne were not in powerful positions. During this period, Egypt’s crown princes held important positions: some became high priests, others served as commanders, and some served as high court officials.
Photo of a bust fragment of Prince Khaemweset. (Keith Schengili-Roberts / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Khaemweset was the fourth son of Ramesses the Great. His name is also transliterated as Khamwese or Setne Khamwas and is translated as “He Who Appeared in Thebes.” As the fourth son, he was born during the time of Pharaoh Menmaatre Seti I , his grandfather. At the side of his father, Ramesses II, and his older brothers, he experienced early on the most important aspects of royal life and the duties of a future crown prince.
Pieces of his early childhood can be seen and puzzled together from several temple reliefs. The most important of these reliefs are from the three Ancient Egyptian temples erected in Nubia, in order to solidify the Egypt’s control in the region. In the temple at Beit El-Wali, which was erected by Ramesses II in honor of Anuket, Khnum, Re-Horakhti, and Amun-Re, young Khaemweset can be seen leading a procession of Nubian prisoners of war. The events depicted are most likely one of the several military campaigns undertaken in Nubia, in which the young Ramesses II quelled a revolt that arose in this region. He took his two young sons with him on this campaign, and it’s possible that Khaemweset was only 4 years old at the time. In the same temple, another relief shows him charging his enemies in a chariot. It is probable that these scenes were made as a form of glorification, rather than a representation of a real event.
Aswan rock stela showing (top) Ramesses II, Isetnofret, and Khaemweset standing before Khnum, and below Princes Ramesses, Merneptah and Princess Queen Bint-Anath. (Lepsius / Public domain )
Khaemweset: Destined for Priesthood In The Memphis’ Temples
Khaemweset’s youth was marked by a turbulent period in Ancient Egypt’s history when his grandfather and father waged war against the Hittite Empire in an effort to restore and expand their borders.
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In the famous Battle of Kadesh , which was fought between Ramesses II and the Hittite King Muwatalli II, Khaemweset could have been present as well. This was a part of Ramesses’ Syrian Campaign, and Khaemweset seems to have served a crucial aide at his side. He is represented in several scenes and inscriptions: he was present in the Battle of Dapur; in the Siege of Qode, where he is shown as his father’s aide; and in the Battle of Kadesh, where he is shown leading the prisoners of war (the sons of the major chiefs of the Hittites).
This shows us that Ramesses II did not hesitate to put his sons at the front of his armies in battle, where they could best learn the responsibilities of being a prince. Moreover, it shows us that he also did not differentiate between his sons: he equally engaged all his offspring, no matter their position in the line of succession.
However by 1263 BC, when he was roughly 18 years old, Khaemweset is documented as serving as the sem priest of the Temple of Ptah in Memphis. A sem priest was a highly respect position in the temple hierarchy: they were responsible for embalming and mummification, and the recital of important funerary incantations. The exact transition from his initial military trainings alongside his father to religious studies in Memphis is somewhat hazy, but it is certain that he first had to serve as an apprentice under a high priest, in order to reach the position of a sem priest.
Stele dedicated to Apis from 643 BC showing the bull god above the pharaoh below and to the right. (musée du Louvre / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )
Once Khaemweset reached this spiritual position he became an active and influential religious figure. As a sem priest he was involved in many important rituals, including the mummification and burial of several Apis bulls. Apis was a sacred bull worshiped in Memphis and viewed as a son of the goddess Hathor. When one such bull died, it was buried as a mummy with great significance.
A High Priest Devoted to the Past
When next we hear of Khaemweset, around 1249 BC, he had become the high priest of the Temple of Ptah , roughly when he was 32. This was a lofty and powerful position. It is likely that he succeeded the previous high priest, Huy, whose apprentice he had been earlier.
As a high priest, Khaemweset would undoubtedly have enjoyed a great deal of prestige and religious power, but he also had a variety of duties which the position entailed. Some of these duties were the overseeing of daily rituals within Memphis, mostly in honor of the God Ptah; the duties of upkeep of the temples and monuments; care of the temples; supervision of all the additions by the pharaoh to the temple; presiding over the important Heb-Sed Festival ; and perhaps most importantly, the duty to officiate state funerals and the ritual funerals of the Apis bull.
Khaemweset undertook an important redesign of the Serapeum of Saqqara, the temple where the Apis bulls were entombed. Under his guidance, a vast and long underground tunnel was dug beneath the serapeum. The sides of the tunnel were lined with many burial chambers, a sort of gallery, where Apis bulls would be buried in a lavish and rich manner. The Serapeum of Saqqara was thoroughly excavated by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette around 1850 AD. However, most of the chambers built on the orders of Khaemweset were empty, and most likely looted in ancient times.
But without a doubt, Khaemweset left a much more important and nobler mark on ancient Egyptian history: one that was not valued just during his time, but which is also valued today. He was known as the great restorer of ancient monuments and burials during his life.
As Egypt's history spanned many, many centuries, it was only natural that the old monuments and the burials of early pharaohs and officials became lost, dilapidated and forgotten. Khaemweset was devoted to identifying them and restoring these monuments and structures to their former glory, as a way to revive their history and keep their memory alive. Miriam Lichtheim, the famed translator of ancient Egyptian texts, wrote of Khaemweset and his importance:
“Here I should like to stress that Prince Setne Khamwas, the hero of the two tales named for him, was a passionate antiquarian. The historical prince Khamwas, was the fourth son of King Ramses II, had been high priest of Ptah at Memphis and administrator of all the Memphite sanctuaries. In that capacity he had examined decayed tombs, restored the names of their owners, and renewed their funerary cults. Posterity had transmitted his renown, and the Demotic tales that were spun around his memory depicted him and his fictional adversary Prince Naneferkaptah as very learned scribes and magicians devoted to the study of ancient monuments and writings.”
In his time Khaemweset restored the famed pyramid of Djoser. (Charles James Sharp / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Preserving Egypt’s Past For The Nation’s Future
With these deeds, Khaemweset earned great respect and popularity amongst the people, and his name lived on in posterity. In his time, he worked on the restoration of tombs that were ancient even in his own time. These included the tomb of Pharaoh Shepseskaf who ruled around 2510 BC; the pyramid of Pharaoh Unas, who ruled around 2345–2315 BC; the pyramid of Pharaoh Sahure from the early 25th century BC; the pyramid of Userkaf; and the famed pyramid of Djoser.
These deeds were inscribed in his time both in “restoration texts” and on the walls of the pyramids he restored. In some, Khaemweset is depicted bearing gifts and offerings to both the gods and the deceased pharaohs. This shows his understanding of the importance of the funerary cult in Ancient Egypt. He undertook these restorations both while serving as a sem priest, and as the high priest of the Temple of Ptah.
How well he understood the importance of bygone times and the need for the preservation of the memory of his forebears is clearly shown on an inscription on the statue of Prince Kawab, which Khaemweset also restored. It says:
"It is the Chief Directing of Artisans and Sem-Priest, the King's Son, Khaemweset, who was glad over this statue of the King's Son Kawab, and who took it from what was cast (away) for debris...so greatly did he (Khaemweset) love antiquity and the noble folk who were aforetime, along with the excellence (of) all that they had made, so well, and repeatedly.”
Pectoral plaque bearing the name of Ramesses II. From the burial once thought to be the tomb of Prince Khaemweset, pharaoh Ramesses II's son, at the serapeum in Memphis. (Louvre Museum / CC BY 2.0 )
The Unknown Location Of Khaemweset’s Final Resting Place
It is not known exactly when Khaemweset died and how. It is most likely that he died well before his father, around the year 1225 BC, when he was roughly 55 years old. His burial is also somewhat enigmatic.
During excavations at the Serapeum of Saqqara, which was redesigned by Khaemweset, the French scholar and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette discovered the collapsed portion of a tunnel. After blowing the debris off with gunpowder, he discovered a lavish coffin, within which was a mummy with a golden mask seemingly representing the deceased man. The rich jewelry that accompanied it all bore the name of Prince Khaemweset , son of Ramesses II. However, the mummy was not that of a human.
The remains in the coffin were not human remains, but rather a mass of fragrant resin and several disordered bones, most likely those of a bull. It is thus speculated that the mummy is actually that of a sacrificial Apis bull, which was made to resemble the human body and Prince Khaemweset. This led scholars to believe that this is not the exact burial place of the prince.
After his death, Khaemweset and his deeds lived on in the memory of Ancient Egypt for centuries. He was remembered as a wise man and a hero, and he became the central figure of several heroic stories in the later centuries of Egypt, mostly during the Hellenistic period. In these stories he is named Setne Khamwas. He is the main protagonist of two popular tales from this era: “Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah,” and “Tale of Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire.”
This tells us that during his lifetime, and even in the generations and centuries that followed, his deeds and wisdom were greatly appreciated by the people of Egypt. In many ways, he can be regarded as one of the first archeologists in history. In his time, he restored pyramids and temples that were well over a thousand years old. And for these reasons, his contribution to the preservation of the ancient Egyptian history is undeniable and cannot be overlooked.
Top image: Spectacular golden funerary mask of Khaemweset. Source: Louvre Museum / CC BY 2.0
By Aleksa Vučković
Barbotin, C. and David, E. Mortuary Mask of Khaemweset. Louvre. [Online] Available at: https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mortuary-mask-khaemwaset
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Richardson, D. 2003. The Rough Guide to Egypt. Rough Guides.