Ramesses III, Egypt's Last, Great Pharaoh

Ramesses III, Egypt's Last, Great Pharaoh

by Jimmy Dunn

The Royal Cartouche of Ramesses III

Over the some three thousand years of Egyptian history during the Pharaonic Period only a handful of the several hundred who ruled Egypt (or part of Egypt) can be considered truly great kings. Of these, Ramesses III, who was the second ruler of Egypt's 20th Dynasty, was the last of great pharaohs on the throne. His reign was a time of considerable turmoil throughout the Mediterranean that saw the Trojan War, the fall of Mycenae and a great surge of displaced people from all over the region that was to reek havoc; even toppling some empires.

Ramesses was this king's birth name, as it was for most of the 20th Dynasty rulers who appear to have wished to emulate the great Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty. Ramesses means, "Re has fashioned him" A second (epithet) part of his birth name was heqaiunu, which means "Ruler of Heliopolis" There are any number of ways that Egyptologists spell his birth name, such as "Ramses". His throne name was Usermaatre Meryamun, which means "Powerful is the Justice of Re, Beloved of Amun.

The Family of Ramesses III

Ramesses III's father was his immediate predecessor, a relatively unknown king named Setnakhte. However, though the originator of what Egyptologists refer to as the 20th Dynasty, he may actually have been a grandson of the famous Ramesses II. Ramesses III probably served a short co-regency with him, we believe, because of a rock-chapel near Deir el-Medina that was dedicated to both his father and Ramesses III.

Medinet Habu, the  mortuary temple of Ramesses III

Ramesses III's mother was Queen Tiy-merenese. He had a number of wives, including Isis, Titi and Tiy, as well as a number of sons including the next three rulers of Egypt, Ramesses IV, V and VI. We only know of one possible daughter named Titi. However, despite his apparently long reign lasting some 31 years and 41 days according to the Great Harris Papyrus, little is known about the royal family.

We know that the mother of his wife, Isis, named, Habadjilat, was probably a foreigner, most likely of Asiatic extraction. She was buried in tomb QV51 in the Valley of the Queens, though here name was omitted from the cartouches in the Medinet Habu temple where the queen's name would normally have appeared. However, one of her sons would eventually rule Egypt as Ramesses VI

Another possible queen of Ramesses III was Queen Titi, who was buried in QV52 in the Valley of the Queens. Though this tomb is large, it lacks any proper indication of her exact royal status. However, her titles suggest that she was possibly a daughter, and later a wife of Ramesses III who probably outlived him. Her title as "Mistress of the Two Lands" appears some 43 times within this tomb, and she is listed as "Chief Royal Wife" 33 times. Other titles include "King's Daughter, "King's Beloved Daughter of his Body", "His Beloved Daughter" and "King's Sister". She is also called "King's Mother" eight times and her son might have been Ramesses IV.

Ramesses III had as many if not more than ten sons, many of whom predeceased him. A number of them were buried in the Valley of the Queens. These include the tombs of Amenhirkhopshef (QV55), Khaemwaset (QV44), Parahirenemef (QV42) and Sethirkhopshef (QV43). Each of these sons held high positions, as might be expected, prior to their deaths. Apparently devoted to Ramesses II, Ramesses III gave his sons names that followed those of the earlier king's sons. An especially noteworthy example was his son, Khaemwaset C, named for Ramesses II's famous child. Like the earlier Khaemwaset, he took the same office as sem-priest of Ptah at Memphis. However, Khaemwasret C. never achieved the glory of Ramesses II's son, who rose to the position of High Priest. We also know that Amenhirkhopshef, named for Ramesses II's oldest son, and Sethirkhopshef held the office of Master of Horse.

A number of other tombs in the Valley of the Queens, which appear to date from the reign of Ramesses III, appear to belong to unnamed princes and princesses, though we have virtually no information on these individuals.

The Conspiracy

Another of Ramesses III's queens was Tiy, but in a several noteworthy papyrus from his reign, particularly one known today as the Harem Conspiracy Papyrus, we learn of an assassination attempt upon the king in which she was at least a part of the plot. Her name is provided in the text, but the other conspirators are called by names that indicate the great evil of their crime, such as Mesedsure, meaning "Re hates him". Tiy apparently wished for her son, called in this papyrus, Pentewere, to ascend to the throne of Egypt.

At some point during the latter part of Ramesses III's reign, there were economic problems that became most visible when the Deir el-Medina workmen failed to be paid, leading to a general strike, the first in recorded history, in the 29th year of the king's reign. Against this background was hatched a plot against the king's life.

This was no simple conspiracy, considering that at least 40 people were implicated and tried as a group. Amongst their numbers were harem officials many of whom were close to the king. Not only had they intended to kill the king, but also to incite a revolt outside of the palace in order to facilitate their coup. The plot was seemingly hatched in Piramesses where one of the conspirators had a house.

The plan called for the murder of the king during the annual Opet Festival at Thebes. Preparations for this included magical spells and wax figurines which were smuggled into the harem.

This conspiracy is thought to have failed, and the guilty were charged and brought before a court consisting of a panel of fourteen officials including seven royal butlers (a respectably high office), two treasury overseers, two army standard bearers, two scribes and a herald. Ramesses III himself most likely commissioned the prosecution, but according to the language of the papyrus, probably died during the trial, though not necessarily from the effects of the plot. Curiously, this court was given authority to deliver and carry out whatever penalty they deemed fair, including the death penalty, which normally only the king could inflict. It should be noted, however, that scholars are in disagreement over the events of this conspiracy. Some maintain that Ramesses III was in fact killed by the conspirators, and that his son, Ramesses IV, set up the tribunal, but others maintain that the mummy of the king shows no acts of violence.

A detail from the Great Harris Papyrus showing Ramesses III in full court dress

All of those involved in the plot were apparently condemned to death, as was certainly the fate of Queen Tiy herself. Though the record of the actual trial is lost, there were apparently three different prosecutions. The first consisted of twenty eight people, who included the major ringleaders, who were found guilty and (almost certainly) put to death. In the next prosecution six people were condemned and forced to commit suicide within the court itself. In the final trial, four additional individuals, including the son of Queen Tiy, were likewise condemned to suicide, though they were presumably allowed to carry out the act in their prison.

Interestingly, there was also a fourth trial, but this one did not involve the actual conspirators, but instead three of the judges and two officers. It would seem that the curious affair resulted from accusations that, after their appointment to the conspiracy commission, they knowingly entertained several of the women involved in the plot, as well as consorted with a general referred to as Peyes. Though one of the judges was found innocent, the remainder of the group was condemned to have their ears and noses amputated. One of the judges called Pebes committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out.

The Military Affairs

Bowmen of Ramesses III's infantry fire arrows at the Libyan enemies

Ramesses III's reign began quietly enough as he attempted to consolidate his empire begun by his father after problems arose in the late 19th Dynasty. Nubia seems at this time to have been nothing more than a subdued colony to the south. However, in his fifth year as ruler, Egypt was attacked by Libyans for apparently the first time since Merenptah had to deal with them in the 19th Dynasty. The Libyan invasion forces included two other groups of people known as the Mshwesh and the Seped. Ramesses III easily dealt with this threat, annihilating many, and making slaves of the rest. Though the Libyan population of the western Delta continued to increase by peaceful infiltration (as they had actually done before the invasion), and would later form the basis for a line of kings that would ultimately rule Egypt, for a time at least, this firm action kept other enemies at bay.

By his eighth year as ruler, Ramesses III had to contend with a force of such great magnitude, that it destroyed at least the Hittite empire, and devastated the entire region, though we really do not know of its source. We read that:

"The foreign countries conspired in their islands, and the lands were dislodged and scattered in battle together; no land could stand before their arms: the land of the Hittites, Qode, Carchemesh, Arzawa and Cyprus were wasted, and they set up a camp in southern Syria. They desolated its people and made its land as if non-existent. They bore fore before them as they came forward towards Egypt."

A scene of the navel battle involving the Sea People

Indeed, Cyprus had been overwhelmed and its capital, Enkomi, ransacked. They destroyed the Hittite capital, Hattusas, as well as many other empires. They conquered Tarsus and then settled on the plains of Cilicia in northern Syria, razing Alalakh and Ugarit to the ground.

This upheaval was caused by a group of people collectively known as the Sea People, who were displaced from their homes by events that are as of yet unknown to us. However, this apparently took place over an extended period of time, and involved massive numbers of humans, consisting of the Peleset (Philistines), Tjeker, Shekelesh (possibly Sikels from Sicily), Weshesh and the Denyen or Dardany, who could have been the Danaoi of Homer's Iliad. The invasion of these people into various regions of the Middle East apparently came in waves, as a number of Ramesses III's predecessors (perhaps most notably Merenptah) had to deal with similar bands of people.

Ramesses III had his fight against the Sea People documented on the outer wall of the Second Pylon, north side, of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. It is the longest hieroglyphic inscription known to us. On the outer north wall of the temple proper he had carved the illustrations of the battle. After having stayed for a time in Syria, the Sea People apparently traveled over land to the Egyptian border. This was not simply a military campaign. The Sea People had with them their women and children, together with their possessions piled high on ox-carts. They also employed a sea fleet that apparently stayed in tract with those on land. Their intention was to settle in Egypt.

Ramesses reacted swiftly to this threat, and in doing so, saved Egypt from the fate that would befall other empires, at least for a while. He dispatched squads of soldiers at once to the eastern Egyptian frontier at Djahy (southern Palestine, perhaps the Egyptian garrison in the Gaza strip) with orders to stand firm at any cost until the main Egyptian army arrived. Once deployed, the Egyptian army then had little problem in slaying these enemies, as was depicted in the reliefs at Medinet Habu. However, there was still the sea fleet to consider.

Rows of captives from the Sea people battles

Egypt was never particularly known for their navy, which was made up principally of infantry, including archers, who were given special marine training. Yet they hated the sea, known as wdj wr, the "Great Green", as they called the Mediterranean. However, as the Sea Peoples' fleet headed for the mouth of one of the eastern arms of the Nile, they were indeed met by the Egyptian fleet. In an inspired tactical maneuver, the Egyptian fleet worked the Sea Peoples' boats towards shore, where land based Egyptian archers were waiting to pour volley after volley of arrows into the enemy ships, while the Egyptian marine archers, calmly standing on the decks of their ships, fired in unison. As the Egyptian ships threw grappling hooks into the Sea People's vessels, by the grace of the god Amun, the enemies fell dead into the water from the onslaught of the combined Egyptian forces. In fact, this victory provided considerable respect for the priesthood of Amun at Thebes. We have no documentation of any pursuit of the fleeing Sea People as they returned to the Levant, but it is reasonable that there was such a campaign.

Hence, for some three years, all was well and Egypt was for the most part at peace. Then, after a gradual infiltration by immigrants into the area west of the Canopic arm of the Nile from Egypt's western border, the Libyans, together with the Meshwesh and five other tribes, launched another full scale invasion during Ramesses III's eleventh year as ruler. Once again, Ramesses III countered the attack, crushing these opponents as well. Apparently some 2,000 of the enemy dead were left on the killing fields, while the captured leaders were executed. The booty of the enemy captured during the battle, consisting of cattle and other possession's were sent south to the treasury of Amun. The details of this battle are found on the inner, north wall of the First Pylon at Medinet Habu.

There were apparently other campaigns during the reign of Ramesses III, as recorded on the walls of his mortuary temple, though some of these scenes are questionable. Many of these depictions record events that probably took place in bygone years, a common practice of many kings in order to elevate their reputations. In fact, some of these scenes from Medinet Habu clearly seem to be copies of earlier battles fought by his illustrious predecessor, Ramesses II.

However, it does seem that there were some other minor conflicts, particularly from the desert around the latitude of Thebes, but these were rather minor in nature.

Non-Military Actions

Ramesses III established a number of foreign contacts for trade, most notably with its old trading partner, Punt. This may have been Egypt's first contact with that land since the famous ventures in the days of Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty. He also seems to have sent an expedition to Atika, where the copper mines of Timna were located.

The king is well known for his domestic building program, a consolidation of law and order (as well as a tree-planting program). The end of the 19th Dynasty saw considerable corruption and various abuses, and Ramesses III was forced to inspect and reorganize the various temples throughout the country. The Great Harris Papyrus provides that Ramesses III made huge donations of land to the most important temples in Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis. In fact, by the end of his reign, a third of the cultivatable land belonged to the temples and of this, three quarters belonged to the temple of Amun at Thebes. Though Ramesses III's foremost construct was his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which was finished in about the 12th year of his reign, at Karnak he provided numerous relief decorations and two new, small temples including one dedicated to Khonsu, the moon god. Additional building work was carried out in a number of centers, including Piramesses (or Pi-Ramesses, modern Qantir), Athribis (Tell Atrib), Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis (Ashmunein), Syut (Greek Lycopolis, modern Asyut), Abydos and Edfu.

A depiction of Ramesses III from his tomb on the West Bank at Thebes

For many generations, Egypt had two viziers, one governing Upper Egypt and anther official who oversaw Lower Egypt. Apparently there was a problem; perhaps even a rebellion involving the unnamed Lower Egyptian vizier and so Ramesses III unified this high office under a single person named To (Ta).

The Death of Ramesses III While we know that Ramesses III likely died during the trial of the harem conspirators, we really do not know how he died, though some scholars believe it was at the hands of the conspirators while others believe it was not related to the plot. Irregardless, his death signaled the coming end of the New Kingdom, and even the lofty position that Egypt held on the world stage. He was buried in a large tomb (KV11) in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor). His is most famous for having some secular scenes that were unusual among royal tombs, including a painting of two blind male harpists. Hence, though sometimes called "Bruce's Tomb after its discoverer, James Bruce in 1769, in literature it is more well known as "The Tomb of the Harper". Presumably, he was succeeded by his son, Ramesses IV in about the year 1151 BC.






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