Sety I have briefly served as co-regent with his father, Rameses I, and then ruled Egypt alone for fourteen years. He actively campaigned in Asia early in his reign and depicted his battles in some of the most important military reliefs known from the New Kingdom; these are the reliefs on the outer face of the northeast wall of the hypostyle hall at Karnak. The scenes show, in exquisite detail, Egypt’s battles with the Shashu Bedouin, the capture of Gaza and Rafah, and the great battle at Qadesh. The texts include highly important lists of western Asiatic place-names that have allowed scholars to reconstruct much of the geography of what are now Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
Sety I called himself “Repeater of Births,” meaning that he considered himself the leader of a renaissance. Certainly, this was true not only militarily but in terms of Egypt’s art and architecture as well. For example, he devoted considerable time and energy to the Temple of Amen at Karnak. He began the great hypostyle hall, one of the largest religious structures ever built. The hall covers 5,406 square meters (1.3 acres) and contains 134 columns, the largest of them twenty-three meters (seventy-five feet) high. Sety I also built extensively at Abydos, where he built both the Osireion, a cenotaph dedicated to Osiris, and an elegantly proportioned temple in which a “King List” was carved. That list gives the names of seventy-six rulers from the beginning of Dynasty 1 to Sety I himself.
Sety I’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV 17, is one of the largest ever dug and by far the most extensively decorated. An enigmatic passageway leading steeply downward beyond the burial chamber may have been intended to join the king’s burial with groundwater, a connection perhaps also deliberately made in the Osireion. An alabaster sarcophagus found in the tomb’s burial chamber is now in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. It was acquired from Giovanni Belzoni. Sety I’s mummy, found in the Dayr al Bahri cache in 1881, is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Sety I and his principal wife Tuya lost their firstborn son. It was their second son, Rameses II, who succeeded his father as pharaoh.