One of the common threads that runs throughout history is the fact that people hate other people. The
reasons are varied and feature varying degrees of legitimacy and sometimes there are no reasons at all. Whether it's at the
banal level of individuals hating other individuals for real or perceived slights or the more significant inter-culture
hatred, it exists, has existed, and will most likely always exist. Ancient Egypt was a place full of hatred. The harsh
desert sands constantly whipping across your face, the unbearable heat, the flooding of the Nile River that could destroy
agriculture, the wars and invasions, all of it provided a fairly inhospitable environment that hardened its people to much of
the rest of the world.
The Egyptians had this thing about foreigners; they didn't like them in anything other than subservient
positions. Various reliefs show victorious Pharaohs crushing caricatured Blacks, Asiatics, and
Semites. The Hyksos, a possibly Semitic people from the East, ruled at least part of Egypt and exacted tribute from the
other part before they were violently driven out of the country in the 1500s BC. Amenhotep III balked at the notion of
offering one of his daughters in marriage to a foreign king, saying that "from time immemorial," such a thing was completely
out of the question (although foreign women were readily and often accepted as wives and concubines). Even the king of the
Hittites, when asked to send one of his sons to marry a widowed queen of Egypt, confirms this by writing "this has never
happened in my whole life."
It would seem strange, then, that a foreigner would ascend to one of the highest offices in the empire, but
that's exactly what happened in the late 14th/early 13th century BC when a low-born Syrian called Bay managed to ingratiate
himself with the royal family and become the second most powerful man in Egypt. Based on a statue of him found there, his
career seems to have began as a priest in the city of Heliopolis. A later papyrus records that this was an era of great
impiety, indicated by its assertion that offerings were not being regularly made to the gods. This would make sense, as it
was an era of general unrest. There were civil wars and struggles for the throne and a Lybian invasion with which to
contend. Egypt's priests were always powerful, but if indeed this claim is true, then it would stand to reason that in a time
of uncertainty, the priests would take any help they could get, even if came in the form of a Syrian nobody.
In the year 1203 BC, the pharaoh Merneptah died at an advanced age. Merneptah was one of the many sons of Ramesses II,
whose prodigious breeding made succession in this timeframe difficult, to say the least. Merneptah was succeeded by his sons
Seti II and Amenmesse -- which was not at all intentional. Seti regarded himself as the legitimate ruler, having been his
father's named successor while Amenmesse apparently seized power for himself while his half-brother was out of the country.
The land was divided, with Seti establishing himself in the north and Amenmesse in the south. Needless to say, this
Bay became a member of the royal entourage early in Seti's reign. Heliopolis was in northern Egypt, the primary area in
which Seti held material influence. How exactly this came about is unknown, but with Thebes -- the main religious center of
Egypt -- out of Seti's control, it would make sense that Heliopolis would be Seti's first place to find priestly allies. Bay
first became a scribe in the royal household and later Seti's personal butler. While this seems a bit denigrating to us
now, this was actually a huge honor at the time. Being Seti's butler meant that he was effectively the chief of staff for
the palace, a job that he apparently did quite well.
In 1200 BC, Amenmesse either died or was removed from power. Because he was subjected to a damnatio memoriae, his
eventual fate is unknown. What is known, however, is that Seti executed or banished Amenmesse's advisors and followers. This
left the newly reunited Egypt with something of a power vacuum; Seti took this opportunity to reward those most loyal to him,
including Bay, whom he made chancellor of Egypt. Clearly, Bay was a competent, capable administrator but above all a good
When Seti began working on his tomb, he built three of them: one for him, one for his wife Twosret, and the final one
for Bay. Bay's star rose even higher at this point, as he was being granted an honor unprecedented (and indeed unrepeated) in
the history of Egypt: a foreign commoner was going to receive a burial as grand as that of a native king. Then, unfortunately
for him, his major benefactor died before completing the burial complex. Lacking the fecundity of his grandfather, Seti seems
to have left no sons. In fact, the only child believed to be his was a hypothetical daughter with Twosret who died very
With Egypt in a tense situation, Bay came up with a solution for an heir: Seti's nephew, Siptah. While there is nothing
necessarily unusual about a nephew succeeding his uncle in a monarchy, Seti had designated no heir, so the legitimacy of
Siptah was in doubt. The other awkward fact was that Siptah was the son of Seti's hated half-brother Amenmesse. To reconcile
the opposing factions and to prevent a succession crisis, it was agreed that Siptah -- then a child of about 10 -- would have
a shared regency by Bay and Twosret. Chancellor Bay was so amazed by his ingenuity in this regard that he proudly proclaimed
to have been responsible for raising Siptah to "his father's throne." With few exceptions, Pharaohs are referred to as their
predecessors' sons, regardless of whether or not they really were. It could also be a nod to Amenmesse's oppositional reign.
Bay also began to be portrayed in a rather, shall we say, interesting fashion in reliefs and sculptures. In almost every
other instance, the Pharaoh and the gods are shown to be physically larger than everybody else. Bay had himself depicted as
being on equal footing with Siptah in official carvings, showing himself standing behind the throne upon which the Pharaoh
sat -- something previously unheard of. Diplomatic correspondence from this time period also refer to Bay as being not only
the chancellor, but also the leader of the Pharaoh's personal bodyguards. Bay was at the apex of his power.
Then something strange happened: Chancellor Bay disappeared from the historical record during Siptah's fourth year in
power. The next reference to him comes in the following year where it is announced "the Pharaoh has killed the great enemy
Bay." While there is no clear indication of what triggered this, there are a couple of options. The first is that there was
some incident between the king and his servant. The next is that Bay was simply too ambitious and had plans for the throne.
The final reasonable theory is that Twosret intrigued to precipitate the fall of her one-time ally. In any case, the result
was the same: Bay died a traitor's death and was never referenced by name again. In documents after his death, he is
exclusively referred to as "Iarsu," an ancient Egyptian word meaning "the self-made one." References to his being a foreigner
and a commoner abound, bringing ancient Egyptian xenophobia to the fore. The same document mentioned earlier indicating the
lack of piety in Egypt is a retrospective of this timeframe and Bay is accused of financial mismanagement and all manner of
Certainly the main beneficiary was Twosret. Siptah was sickly at this time and died the next year at the age of about 16
from complications of polio. Of course, he had no heirs, so Twosret simply assumed the role of Pharaoh in a manner not
unlike that of Hatshepsut. It seems that Bay could have either made a play for the throne upon Siptah's death or at least
installed his preferred candidate. Siptah's mother was herself a Canaanite, so perhaps there was pressure to remove
Easterners from power. We'll never know for sure, but we do know that Twosret's reign was not a happy one: she was dethroned
and executed less than a year after taking power, bringing the Nineteenth Dynasty to a close.
As an aside, it seems as if Bay had a number of fans among Asiatics living in Egypt, who began rebelling during the chaos
after Twosret's death. Her successor, Setnakhte, had to put down the revolt and in doing so rewrote history by removing
references to Bay, Twosret, Siptah, and Amenmesse from official documents and monuments. There is some conjecture that
Joseph, he of the coat of many colors, was actually Bay (or at the very least the story of Joseph was based on Bay).
Although the story of a common foreigner assuming a station of power in a great empire merits attention, it seems pretty
unlikely since the timeframe of the Joseph story is supposedly a few hundred years earlier. Whatever the case, chancellor Bay
was subjected to a damnatio memoriae not so much because he was a bad person (as there would certainly be more references to
his wicked ways than there really are) but because he was someone who stepped far above his station in a land not
particularly tolerant of people who chose to do so.