As Queen Elizabeth II marks an historic 70 years on the British throne, it seems timely to reflect on what is known about Pharaonic attitudes to such regnal milestones. Although the term ‘heb-sed’ (or ‘sed-festival’) is often translated as ‘jubilee’ in English, it seems to have had a particular set of ritual and religious associations that do not imply simply the numerical commemoration of the accession of a ruler. The rituals were often – although not exclusively – tied to a king’s 30th regnal year. While after that point a heb-sed seems to have been celebrated intermittently every few years, several kings seem to have celebrated heb-seds before that point. As so often, the Egyptological quest for a neat pattern often has to reckon with the rather more complex realities of human behaviour.
Elements of the episodes associated with the heb-sed – such as ritual running and the king seated under a baldachin – are attested from as early as the First Dynasty, with fuller scenes from the sun temple of the Dynasty 5 king Niuserre at Abu Ghurab. From the earliest Pharaonic times, the king is shown in both 2- and 3-dimensional representations as wearing a so-called sed-festival ‘cloak’ – although the appearance of this garment seems broader than contexts narrowly defined as relating to the heb-sed, and it ought to be remembered that – as Christina Riggs has demonstrated – cloth imparts an elevated status and sanctity, so the act of shrouding affirms the divine status of the wearer generally. Egyptology has adopted the misleading term ‘mummiform’ for such three-dimensional images in architectural contexts, although this formulation is likely the wrong way around: mummified bodies, swathed in linen, emulate the amorphous forms of gods – not the other way around.
Such ritual actions were about rejuvenating the king, proclaiming or promoting his divinity, and marking the occasion in monumental records. These had the aim of impressing the gods, and while they might have included large numbers of participants these tended to be elite people, temple or palace staff and would have been inaccessible to most of the population. The so-called ‘Festival Hall’ of Osorkon II at Bubastis is decorated with scenes showing human participants as well as gods. Such divine presence was ensured during the reign of Amenhotep III but creating statues of a series of deities – notably some 1000 sculptures depicting Sekhmet – several of whom carry the epithet ‘lord/lady of the heb-sed’. Inscribed pottery vessels from Amenhotep III’s palace at Malqata imply high officials donated lots of food and wine to the festivities – ‘bring your own bottle’ for a right royal knees-up.
A key organiser of the celebration of Ramesses II’s sed-festivals was his fourth son, Prince Khaemwaset. Khaemwaset was High Priest of the god Ptah at Memphis, and seems to have wished to place himself at the front and centre of marking his father’s heb-sed, which appears to coincide with a great emphasis on the king’s divinity.
Manchester Museum holds several ‘foundation deposits’, often-inscribed objects made of alabaster, granite and faience – essentially model blocks which carry the names of both Ramesses II and Khaemwaset. The faience example places the king’s titulary above a sign for ‘heb’ or ‘festival’ and the blocks are likely included in the foundations of an extension to the temple of Ptah at Memphis known as the ‘West Hall’, associated with Ramesses II’s first heb-sed. While these objects are tied to a particular (series of) event(s), they are not the ancient Egyptian equivalent of so many sets of commemorative china. They actively effect the perpetually divine status of the king, having been transformed (or at least enhanced) by heb-sed rituals.