Ancient Egypt had more kings than any other civilization in history. Through the millennia of Egyptian history the pharaohs, rulers of the Nile, came in all shapes and sizes.
Some are extremely well known from their monumental palaces and temples, such as Ramesses II. Others are known from external sources, such as Necho, the pharaoh who killed King Josiah of Jerusalem at Megiddo. But there remain many gaps.
We know next to nothing of some pharaohs. But here and there, little clues emerge to remind us that history is only a series of modern conclusions based on available evidence. That evidence can point in unexpected directions.
Take for example, Pharaoh Ramesses III. The last great pharaoh of the New Kingdom is comparatively well attested, and we could be forgiven for considering his reign as one on which we can close the book.
But there are cues around the edge that something untoward may have happened to Ramesses. Tantalizing fragments suggest he may have been murdered by his own harem.
Who was Ramesses III?
Ramesses the Great, or Ramesses III, was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom period. He was the second pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty, who ruled from 1186 to 1155 BC, the son of Setnakhte.
He ascended to the throne at a time when Egypt faced significant external and internal challenges,. His rule in ancient Egypt were marked by different military campaigns, accomplishments, and architectural projects.
But, his reign was also one of decline, marked by both internal stagnation and external shocks. During the rule of Ramesses III, one of the most notable events was the invasion of Egypt by the Sea Peoples, a perennially mysterious maritime raider’s confederation from the eastern Mediterranean.
It has been found that these invaders posed a significant threat to Egypt and threatened the region’s stability. Ramesses III played a significant role in (more or less) successfully defending Egypt against the Sea Peoples by preserving the security of the kingdom and repelling their attacks.
Ramesses III undertook many expeditions to maintain control over territories of Egypt and quell rebellions in terms of his military campaigns. He led campaigns against the Nubians in the south and the Libyans in the west, ensuring the dominance of Egypt over these regions.
Moreover, he also started military campaigns in Syria and Canaan, securing important trade routes and asserting Egyptian influence. He was known as a warrior pharaoh but in truth he was only buying his empire time.
In addition to his military campaigns, Ramesses III was also known as a prolific builder. He took the initiative for many construction projects throughout Egypt, including statues, palaces, and temples.
The Mortuary Temple of Medinet Habu is one of the most notable building projects of Ramesses III, which is situated on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes. It is renowned for its elaborate reliefs and grandeur, offering valuable insights into the architectural and religious practices of the time.
Additionally, Ramesses III supported the arts and literature. He paid for the creation of numerous literary and artistic masterpieces, such as the Harris Papyrus, which details his triumphs and accomplishments.
Many papyri survive which detail the pharaoh’s rule, military conquests, and historical events. Despite the successful reign of Ramesses III, he also faced internal challenges during the end of his rule.
And, if we are to believe the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, he came to a sorry end at the hands of his own concubines.
How did he Die?
Ramesses III passed away around 1155 BC, and evidence from his mummy suggests that he died violently. His son Ramesses IV took over as Egypt’s monarch after him.
But, according to ancient scraps of information, this was not the plan. The Turin papyrus accuses his harem of being involved a plot to murder Ramesses III and replace him with Prince Pentawer, another of his sons.
However, the motivation behind the conspiracy is not entirely clear and is considered to be more complex. It has been found that many factors are contributing to this conspiracy.
The succession, ever a complex game in Egyptian politics, was the important factor. Each mother in the pharaoh’s vast harem wanted to guarantee the throne for her own child.
One of Ramesses III’s sons from a second wife, Tiye, Prince Pentawer, was the main conspirator. It is believed that Tiye-Merenese, the first queen, and her son Ramesses IV wanted to end Pentawer’s threat and reclaim the throne for their own family.
Moreover, the dissatisfaction among the priests and high-ranking officials could be another motive. It has been found that the rules of Ramesses III experienced economic difficulties, including the strain caused by the invasions of the Sea Peoples.
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At that time, some officials may have felt discontented or marginalized, and a decline in royal authority has been observed. It is possible that the Harem Conspiracy may have intended to remove both Ramesses III and his immediate family so that they could replace them with a new reigning elite.
The Turin Judicial Papyrus documents the conspirators’ court case proceedings. Ramesses III may have been the target of an assassination attempt, according to the text.
Consequently, the papyrus suggests that the conspirators proposed to use poison, magic, and spells to cause the demise of the pharaoh. However, the papyrus also is clear that the attempted murder was unsuccessful.
We have the mummy of Ramesses III, which has a deep wound in his throat. Based on this it appears the pharaoh did indeed die violently, and some have speculated that this was received from a member his harem when their magical attacks failed. Few others would have had access to the body of the king in order to inflict such a wound.
What is certain is that there was infighting over the succession after his death. The trial records show the interrogation, execution, and arrest of the conspirators, including Prince Pentawer. Some were sentenced to death by forced suicide or hanging, but the acquittal or banishment of others suggests this was not merely some purge.
Ramesses III’s triumphs in battle, accomplishments in architecture, and cultural contributions all serve as reminders of the strength and sway of ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom period. The monuments and records from his time give valuable insights into the social, political, and religious aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization.
The death of Ramesses III and the Harem Conspiracy reflect the internal power rivalries, political intrigue, and struggles that could occur within the Egyptian court. However, the motivations for the conspiracy are not clearly defined, but it is clear that discontentment among officials, ambitions for the throne, and the desire for political control played an important role in the plot.
Top Image: Pharaoh Ramesses III, who is believed to have died in a harem conspiracy. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri