Ancient History & Civilisation



IN AN ABSOLUTE MONARCHY, A LONG REIGN COULD PROVE A MIXED blessing. While too rapid a succession of kings could undermine the divine pretensions of the institution and weaken the administration, an extended period of office posed the equal dangers of decadence and atrophy. Ramesses II’s extraordinary reign of sixty-seven years certainly had its positive and negative effects on the government of Egypt. On the plus side, the king’s determination and charisma enabled him to restore Egypt’s reputation as an imperial power, while the plethora of monuments erected during his reign testified to the country’s renewed confidence and prosperity. On the down side, Ramesses’s longevity combined with his extraordinary fecundity—he fathered at least fifty sons and as many daughters—sowed the seeds for major problems in the royal succession in the following decades.

Although Merenptah’s status as the oldest surviving son could scarcely be doubted, and his reign (1213–1204) therefore passed in relative stabililty, no sooner had he died than any number of royal grandchildren came forward to claim the throne. Ramesses II had been determined to reestablish a dynastic model of monarchy after the haphazard succession of the post-Akhenaten era, and had therefore broken with centuries of tradition by granting his many sons influential positions in government. Little wonder that they came to regard themselves as powers in the land, and that their offspring saw the throne as a legitimate goal.

It was no surprise that a major dispute broke out in the senior ranks of the royal family at Merenptah’s death in 1204, with two rival claimants attempting to seize control. On one side there was Merenptah’s eldest son and appointed heir, Seti-Merenptah. Against him stood another of Ramesses II’s many grandsons, Amenmesse. Despite the age-old principle of primogeniture, it was Amenmesse, not Seti-Merenptah, who initially gained the upper hand. He was clearly able to call upon friends in high places, and may even have had a significant section of the army behind him. Amenmesse managed to rule for four years (1204–1200), while Seti-Merenptah sweated it out in some far-flung royal palace, an internal exile in his own kingdom. But the usurper did not have it his own way for long. The balance of power eventually swung back to the legitimate claimant, and Seti-Merenptah was finally able to succeed to his birthright as King Seti II.

The purge began at once. A number of prominent officials who had held office under Amenmesse immediately lost their jobs. Included were two of the highest-ranking men in the kingdom, the high priest of Amun and the vizier. They had backed the wrong man, and now they paid the price. Proscriptions and dismissals swept through the corridors of power, temporarily crippling the administration as Seti removed anyone and everyone who had supported his rival. Nor did he look any more kindly on Amenmesse himself, despite the fact that the two men were first cousins. Every reference to the usurper was ruthlessly expunged. On statues and temple reliefs, the name of Amenmesse was excised and replaced with that of Seti. Since a lasting name ensured immortality, the opposite spelled annihilation. For an Egyptian there could be no worse fate.

Like his father, Merenptah, before him, Seti II was already an old man when he became king, and he was only too aware that he had but a short time to make his mark. The royal quarrymen, masons, and architects went into overdrive as the king sought to leave his legacy in the sacred landscape of Thebes. On the east bank, at Ipetsut, builders began erecting a three-chambered chapel for the sacred barque shrines of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. It might have been small and insignificant compared to the great columned hall of Seti I and Ramesses II, but it was a monument of sorts, better than nothing. Over on the west bank, the workmen in the Valley of the Kings had never known such a fever of activity as they set to work excavating and decorating not one but three tombs simultaneously—one for Seti, one for his wife Tawosret, and one for his favored chancellor, Bay. With no expansion in the workforce, the pressure was immense, and the valley echoed nonstop with the chisels, shouts, and expletives of the men. It is not surprising that the workmanship was distinctly shoddy.

Time was not on Seti’s side. After just two years on his hard-won throne, he went the way of his father and grandfather before him, to join the royal ancestors in the glorious afterlife. His intended heir, a second Seti-Merenptah, was either already dead or unable to assert his rights to the succession. Instead, with the backing of Chancellor Bay (a fickle friend, if ever there was one), the kingship was handed to a sickly teenager with a withered left leg—not exactly the most prepossessing candidate for pharaoh, but amenable to pressure and undeniably royal. For Egypt’s new monarch, Siptah, was none other than the surviving son of the usurper Amenmesse.

During Seti II’s brief reign, Bay had acted the loyal lieutenant with consummate skill, winning promotion from royal scribe to chancellor, and the rare honor of a tomb in the royal necropolis. It was quite an achievement for any commoner, let alone an outsider of Syrian extraction. Yet, before Seti’s mummy had even been laid to rest, Bay switched allegiance to support the polio-stricken son and heir of Seti’s archnemesis. It was the cruelest betrayal. The kingmaker boasted in public that he “established the king on his father’s seat.”1 In reality, Bay’s only concern was feathering his own nest. The new king was still underage, so a regency council had to be established; for purposes of legitimacy, it was headed by Seti II’s widow Tawosret, but, not very far behind the scenes, Bay pulled the strings.

In the fifth year of the regency, 1193, Tawosret took her revenge. Adopting full kingly titles (as Hatshepsut had done 280 years earlier), she mobilized her band of supporters at court and made her move against Bay. His fall from grace was swift and absolute. He was executed for treason and his name was officially proscribed, so denying him eternal life. Official documents referred to him instead as “the great enemy”2 or, sarcastically, as “the parvenu from Syria.”3 A year later, his protégé, Siptah, was conveniently dead, too. With her enemies deprived of their last rallying point, Tawosret launched a full-scale persecution of the puppet king’s memory. Siptah’s names were erased from his royal tomb, and from hers, to be replaced by those of her late husband, Seti II. The triumph of Merenptah’s heirs was complete.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Egypt had been rocked by more than a decade of internecine fighting among Ramesses II’s descendants. The country had been unsettled and undermined by coup and countercoup, purge and counterpurge. The government was paralyzed and powerless. There was no male heir to continue the line. Instead, the throne was occupied by a vengeful widow, a woman, an affront to the hallowed ideology of Egyptian monarchy. Not twenty years after Merenptah’s great victory at Perirer, the country had plumbed the depths. And the blame could be laid squarely at the feet of the ruling dynasty. What Egypt needed was a new broom to sweep away the cobwebs of Ramesside rule and reinvigorate the country’s sense of purpose and destiny.

Egypt had experienced such moments before. The crisis following the death of Tutankhamun, while no longer within living memory, offered a recent parallel to the situation the country now confronted. Then, the solution had been to turn to the army. If then, why not now? For the second time in a century, the power brokers in Thebes and Memphis looked to the ranks of the military for a strongman to establish a new dynasty and put Egypt back on an even keel. The candidate they chose fit the bill perfectly. An army commander, responsible for garrison troops, he had exactly the training and background for a successful soldier pharaoh. He already had a son (also in the army), and hence offered dynastic continuity. Even his name, Sethnakht (“Seth is victorious”), seemed tailor-made.

He did not disappoint. Marshaling his forces in 1190, Sethnakht set out to restore order and crush all opposition. Within a matter of months, the military coup was complete: “There was no enemy of His Majesty [left] in any land.”4 To set the seal on his triumph, he launched a barrage of propaganda to match his martial prowess. On a victory monument erected at Abu, Egypt’s traditional southern border, Sethnakht conjured up a bleak picture of life before his arrival on the scene: “This land was in desolation; Egypt had strayed from its trust in god.”5 The account went further, alleging a conspiracy by unnamed Egyptian authorities to take over the country with Asiatic help. This veiled reference to Bay played to the Egyptians’ oldest and strongest prejudice, their hatred and suspicion of foreigners. Sethnakht was thus able to present himself not as a military thug but as a national savior, whom the supreme deity had chosen “above millions, ignoring hundreds of thousands ahead of him.”6 Like Horemheb before him, Sethnakht had his immediate precedessors airbrushed from history; the party line presented him as the legitimate successor of Seti II. It was a sleight of hand, a careful distortion of the truth worthy of a great pharaoh.

Although he was already well past middle age, Sethnakht did not need to worry about his legacy. His son and heir, another Ramesses no less, would see to that. When Ramesses III succeeded as king in 1187, he consciously modeled himself on his great namesake, adopting all the names and royal titles of the victor of Kadesh. He even gave his sons the same names and positions at court as Ramesses II’s sons. And he ordered work to begin on a great mortuary temple in western Thebes, in the mold of the Ramesseum. For officials and ordinary Egyptians alike, it must have seemed like a new dawn, a return to the glorious days of Ozymandias.

History was indeed about to repeat itself, but in a way that Ramesses III neither desired nor expected.


IN THE EARLY YEARS OF RAMESSES III’S REIGN, WORRYING NEWS BEGAN to reach Egypt from the pharaoh’s emissaries in the Near East. All along the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, cities were being sacked and torched, harbors burned and looted, entire nations laid low. While coastal communities had been harried by pirates for decades, this new onslaught was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Most frightening of all, it had come from out of the blue, the sighting of enemy ships on the western horizon being the first warning of an impending attack. By the time the inhabitants of the Mediterranean ports could muster their defenses, their enemies were upon them. As Egypt watched from afar, great cities and civilizations were reduced to rubble, and the cultural achievements of centuries went up in smoke.

The first to fall was the great maritime city of Ugarit. Its altruism was its undoing. The king of Ugarit had dispatched sizeable military forces to southern Anatolia in response to pleas for urgent assistance from neighboring lands already under attack. Ugarit’s soldiers were fighting alongside the Hittites, while its navy was patrolling the coast of Lycia. By being an exemplary ally, Ugarit had unwittingly put itself in the line of fire. Overstretched and underdefended, its remaining forces were hopelessly incapable of defending Ugarit at home when the attack came. In an eleventh-hour attempt to save his entire realm from destruction, the king of Ugarit wrote a desperate letter to his counterpart in Alashiya (Cyprus). Its tone of panic is palpable: “the enemy ships are already here, they have set fire to my towns and have done very great damage in the countryside.”7 It was too late. The clay tablet bearing the king’s letter was never sent. It was found much later, still in the kiln where it had been fired, amid the rubble of the devastated city, a vivid firsthand account penned on the eve of destruction. Ugarit was laid waste, never to be reoccupied. One of the great natural harbors of the Mediterranean was reduced to smoldering ruins.

Next to feel the heat (quite literally) was Egypt’s close ally, the Hittite Kingdom proper. In a desperate flurry of diplomatic correspondence, the last Hittite ruler spoke of fighting a seaborne enemy—not just on the open seas but on the beaches, on the landing grounds, and in the hills. Fearless and indefatigable, the attackers moved ashore and pushed northward, heading for the Hittite capital at Hattusa. Even with soldiers from Ugarit fighting alongside them, the Hittites could not stop the invaders. In a last-ditch effort to halt the advance, the Hittite king invaded his own neighbor, the coastal territory of Tarhuntassa, seeking to engage the enemy before it could reach the Hittite homeland—but to no avail. First Tarhuntassa and then the Hittite Kingdom were defeated and despoiled. Hattusa itself was plundered and burned; the fortified royal citadel proved no match for the invaders.

Elsewhere in Asia Minor, the glittering cities of Miletus and Troy suffered a similar fate. As the enemy swarmed like a killer horde across the eastern Mediterranean, Mersin and Tarsus were ravaged, and devastation was visited upon northern Cyprus. Next, the hostile forces pressed inland to the Orontes Valley, sacking all the important towns along this strategic thoroughfare. Alalakh, Hamath, Qatna, and even Kadesh—all were obliterated. Farther south, the trading centers of Palestine soon succumbed, places such as Akko, Lachish, Ashdod, and Ashkelon—towns that stood astride the great coast road that led southward and westward … to Egypt.

Throughout the Near East, palls of smoke hung in the air where once there had been hubs of commerce and culture. Rich palaces and famous cities lay in ruins. Only Assyria, safe on the far bank of the mighty Euphrates, survived unscathed. By 1179, the eighth year of Ramesses III’s reign, the invaders had the last remaining maritime power of the eastern Mediterranean in their sights:

Countries were simultaneously taken out and devastated. No land could stand before their arms, from the Hittite kingdom, Qode [that is, Cilicia], Carchemish, Arzawa, and Cyprus—they were laid waste, one by one.… And on [the enemy] came toward Egypt.8

By now, the pharaoh’s advisers were well acquainted with the enemy. “The foreign countries plotted together in their islands.… Their league comprised Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh.”9 Though the names might be strange, the phenomenon was all too familiar. The dreaded Sea Peoples had returned. Thirty years earlier, a different coalition of Aegean and Anatolian peoples had conspired with the Libyans in an attempted invasion of Egypt in the reign of Merenptah. Now new bands had joined together in common cause, sweeping aside all before them. Driven from their homelands (unknown, but possibly the western Mediterranean or Anatolia) by drought, famine, and the desire for a better life, and possessed of a fierce and warlike nature, the Sea Peoples had proved an unstoppable force as they moved steadily southward and eastward, along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Asia Minor, and down the coast of the Near East toward the Sinai and the Nile delta. Alongside battalions of well-armed (and armored) soldiers came women and children in ox-drawn carts, carrying their meager possessions with them. This was a mass migration by desperate and determined people. So far, no city or state had been able to resist. Egypt knew it faced a battle for survival.

At this time of national peril, Ramesses III showed himself the true heir of his great predecessor. As soon as he learned of the impending land invasion that was heading toward Egypt from southern Palestine, he sent orders to the frontier fortresses of the eastern delta to stand firm until reinforcements arrived. Troops were mobilized throughout the country. Their orders were to converge on the eastern border and repel the invaders. But the leaders of the Sea Peoples knew very well that Egypt would be a determined opponent, and had decided to put maximum pressure on the pharaoh’s forces by attacking on two fronts. As the land force moved on the delta from the northeast, a substantial amphibious force of troopships made for the mouth of the main Nile branch, intending to land a second army. This army’s orders, no doubt, were to follow the river upstream toward the commercial and military headquarters at Per-Ramesses. Possession of the eastern delta capital would effectively mean control of the whole of northern Egypt—just as it had for the Hyksos 450 years earlier. As Ramesses and his generals pondered the situation, they realized that Egypt faced not merely a hostile invasion, but the threat of permanent occupation.

The response was an immediate nationwide conscription. At its hour of greatest need, the country needed all able-bodied men to stand together. While the professional army dug in at the northeastern border, the conscripts were dispatched to the coast, to blockade the Nile mouth against the enemy fleet. Ramesses’s own account of the preparations captures very well the tension, drama, and determination of the moment:

I had the river mouth prepared like a strong wall, with warships, troop carriers, and merchant vessels. They were all crewed from bow to stern with brave soldiers, fully armed. The infantry comprised every Egyptian recruit. They were like lions roaring on the mountaintops.10

In the eastern delta fortresses, the Egyptian army could only watch and wait. Their opponents were slow-moving, covering no more than ten miles a day, but what the Sea Peoples lacked in speed they more than made up for in weaponry and sheer numbers. Their proficiency in close combat fighting had already proved itself, time and again, against the chariot forces of the Near Eastern states. In little more than a generation, advances in military technology had changed the whole nature of warfare, and the great powers had failed to adapt. Egypt knew it had to do better, or go the same way. Merenptah’s victory at the Battle of Perirer had shown that it was possible to defeat the Sea Peoples’ tactics, if the Egyptians only maintained rigid discipline and used their forces to maximum effect.

The troops did not have to wait long to put the theory into practice. As the dust cloud on the horizon grew in intensity, the enemy came into view—a sheer wall of people, hundreds deep, moving inexorably toward the Egyptian border. The moment of truth had arrived.

The documentary sources are strangely silent on the details of the land battle, recording only the bald fact that the invasion was defeated. Perhaps the Egyptian losses were simply too heavy to acknowledge publicly; certainly, the effort involved in repelling the invaders was stupendous. By contrast, the naval battle off the Mediterranean coast seems to have gone Egypt’s way from the start, and provided a much more fitting subject for the official war record. The Sea Peoples’ armada, comprising troop carriers rather than warships, had no long-range weapons to pitch against the Egyptian archers on the shore. The pharaoh’s generals knew this was their trump card, and realized that if they could only force the enemy inshore, within range, but prevent any landings, victory might be possible. But if just a single troopship managed to break through and disembark its warriors on Egyptian soil, then the tide might turn very quickly.


The great flotilla of strange craft got within sight of the shore, great sailing vessels without oars, their prows and sterns carved to resemble the heads of monstrous birds. On board, the enemy warriors looked equally fearsome with their reed helmets and round shields. The Egyptians saw, among the massed ranks of Peleset, Tjeker, Denyen, and Weshesh, a more recognizable opponent—the ubiquitous and treacherous Sherden, with their distinctive horned helmets. Although they had been protectors of Ramesses II at Kadesh, the Sherden were now fighting against the forces of another Ramesses.

As planned, the Egyptian navy maneuvered to force the enemy inshore, right into the Nile mouth. If the invaders thought things were going their way, they were sorely mistaken. No sooner were they within a few hundred yards of the shore than the Egyptian archers opened fire, sending a hail of arrows raining down on the attackers’ heads. With the troops on board falling like flies, the commanders of the Sea Peoples’ ships may have tried to make for open water again, but they found themselves hemmed in by the Egyptian navy. A great sea battle ensued, in which the enemy craft were systematically capsized, and hundreds of Sea Peoples drowned. By the end of the day, the Egyptians had triumphed; their opponents were either dead or captured. Alone among the great powers of the Near East, Egypt had repelled the Sea Peoples and preserved its independence.

Ramesses III had spared his country “the worst disaster in ancient history,”11 but his victory on the landing grounds of the delta would prove to be the swan song of the New Kingdom. The world was suddenly full of uncertainty; and the accustomed ways of doing things, ways that had served the Egyptians well for centuries, would be found wanting.


AFTER THE BRUISING ENCOUNTER WITH THE SEA PEOPLES, THE IMMEDIATE reaction of the Egyptian government was to bury its head in the sand and carry on as if nothing had changed. Tradition dictated that a great military victory demanded a monumental commemoration, so that is exactly what the king commissioned. Just as Ramesses II had used the Ramesseum to celebrate his (questionable) victory at Kadesh, so Ramesses III turned his own mortuary temple—closely modeled on his predecessor’s—into a war memorial. In the “Mansion of Millions of Years of King Ramesses, United with Eternity in the Estate of Amun” (known today as Medinet Habu), the entire northern wall of the temple was carved with a vast tableau depicting the land and sea battles against the Sea Peoples. So Egypt’s last great royal monument commemorated the country’s last great military victory.

Buoyed up by the completion of so grand an edifice, in 1172, Ramesses III ordered the nationwide temple inspection that he had originally planned a decade earlier. After ten years of defending Egypt’s borders—not only against the Sea Peoples, but against two attempted Libyan invasions as well—he and his administration finally felt confident enough about national security to turn their attention to the other abiding duty of kingship, honoring the gods. Headed by the chief archivist of the royal treasury (a man with an eye for detail and an interest in historic monuments), the commission started its tour of inspection at Abu, in Egypt’s southernmost province, and worked its way northward, slowly but methodically. Every temple in the land was examined with the full panoply of ancient Egyptian bureaucracy. Granaries were audited to assess the extent of temple wealth and the balance of the national grain reserves; buildings were checked for their state of repair; rituals were examined to ensure they were being carried out correctly; and corrupt practices were systematically exposed and rooted out. By the end of the exercise, the king had at his disposal perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the country’s religious infrastructure in its long history.

Based upon the commission’s findings, Ramesses ordered an extensive program of reorganization, reconstruction, and refurbishment. The ancient temple of Seth at Nubt was restored and a new shrine built alongside it in the deity’s honor. The barque shrine at Tod, crafted in the Eighteenth Dynasty, was restored to its former glory, and further beautifying works were carried out at nearby Luxor Temple. At Ipetsut, the country’s greatest sacred complex, the king commissioned a new way station and a temple to the god Khonsu. All in all, it was a religious revival, a renaissance of royal patronage to equal the achievements of Ramesses II’s reign. Explicitly or implicitly, Ramesses III was trying to turn back the clock and convince Egypt that the glory days of the New Kingdom were still at hand.

As well as restoring the temples’ physical fabric, the king also enlarged their endowments of land and personnel. Determined to be recognized and remembered as a great benefactor, he ordered three expeditions to distant lands in a single year (1167), expressly to bring back exotic gifts for the temple treasuries. The first expedition was to the turquoise mines of the Sinai. The second had as its goal the copper mines of Edom. These lay at a place called Timna, about twenty miles north of Eilat, in a desert hollow surrounded by hills. The copper ores here had been exploited by Egypt since the reign of Ramesses II, but pharaonic power had waned in the intervening decades, and the Edomites had reasserted their control. So, before he could send in his miners, Ramesses III had to launch a military campaign to pacify Edom. Mission accomplished: copper extraction was restarted, and at the conclusion of the expedition, the newly smelted ingots were presented to the king at the palace balcony in Per-Ramesses. The third foreign expedition was perhaps the most ambitious of all—a two-month journey to Punt and back, to obtain myrrh and incense for use in temple rituals. It was the first major trading mission to Punt since the reign of Hatshepsut three centuries before, and it was spectacularly successful. The Egyptians returned with their precious commodities, and also with the ingredients for domestic myrrh production: fifteen cuttings from myrrh trees and one hundred seeds.

In his first two decades on the throne, Ramesses III had repelled invasions, restored Egypt’s temples, and reestablished national pride. The court now looked forward to the king’s thirty-year jubilee, determined to stage a celebration worthy of so glorious a monarch. There would be no stinting, no corners cut. Only the most lavish ceremonies would do.

It was a fateful decision. Beneath the pomp and circumstance, the Egyptian state had been seriously weakened by its exertions. The military losses of 1179 were still keenly felt. Foreign trade with the Near East had never fully recovered from the Sea Peoples’ orgy of destruction. The temples’ coffers might be full of copper and myrrh, but their supplies of grain—the staple of the Egyptian economy—were gravely depleted. Against such a background, the jubilee preparations would prove a serious drain on resources.

The cracks started to appear in 1159, two years before the jubilee. Of all the state’s employees, the most important—and usually the most favored—were the men who worked on the excavation and decoration of the royal tomb. Living with their families in the gated community of the Place of Truth, they had grown used to enjoying better than average working conditions, and better than average remuneration. So, when the payment of their monthly wages (which also included their food rations) was eight days late, then twenty days late, it was clear something was badly wrong. Their scribe and shop steward, Amennakht, went at once to the mortuary temple of Horemheb to remonstrate with local officials. Eventually, he persuaded them to hand over forty-six sacks of corn to distribute to the workers as interim rations. But that was only the start of it.

The following year, as the apparatus of government became increasingly preoccupied with the impending jubilee, the system of paying the necropolis workers broke down altogether, prompting the earliest recorded strikes in history. The crisis erupted just three months before the jubilee was due to begin. Having waited eighteen days beyond their payday and with still no sign of their wages, the workers decided to withdraw their labor. Perhaps then the state would sit up and take notice. Shouting “We’re hungry,”12 they marched en masse from their village and temporarily invaded the sacred enclosure surrounding Ramesses III’s mortuary temple. They then set off for the mortuary temple of Thutmose III, just behind the Ramesseum, and staged a sit-in. They weren’t going anyhere until their grievances were heard. The beleaguered government officials dispatched from the Ramesseum to reason with the strikers had to listen to their litany of protests, but without the authority to remedy the situation. Only at nightfall did the workers return to their village. Their protest had lasted the whole day. The only gesture by the state was a derisory delivery of pastries. If they have no bread, let them eat cake.

The next morning, with no resolution of the dispute and no wages in sight, the men stepped up their action, installing themselves at the southern gate of the Ramesseum, Thebes’s principal storehouse of grain. This time they refused to return to their village at dusk, instead spending the night in uproarious demonstration. At dawn, a few plucky souls broke into the temple itself, hoping to persuade the authorities to give them their dues. The crisis was getting out of hand. Panicked by the angry workers in their midst, the temple administrators called the chief of police, Montumes, who ordered the men to leave immediately. They refused. Unable or unwilling to assert his authority, Montumes was forced to withdraw, tail between his legs, to consult his boss, the mayor of Thebes. When he returned some hours later, he found the workers deep in negotiations with the priests of the Ramesseum and the local government secretary of western Thebes. The men’s demands were clear:

“We have come here out of hunger and thirst. There is no more clothing, no more oil, no more fish, no more vegetables. Send [word] to the pharaoh, our good lord, and send [word] to the vizier, our boss!”13

Mention of the vizier and the pharaoh clearly unsettled the Theban authorities. If the situation escalated into a national crisis, they knew their jobs—and necks—would be on the line. So, after several more hours of talking, they capitulated and gave the strikers their overdue rations from the previous month. It helped to diffuse the immediate tension, but the underlying problem had still not been addressed. It was now nearly halfway through the new month, with no sign of the next installment of wages.

On day four of the dispute, news reached the workers that the mayor of Thebes had crossed over to the west bank with more provisions. The chief of police pleaded with them to go with their wives and children to the nearby mortuary temple of Seti I, to await the mayor’s arrival. But the strikers were not so easily fobbed off. They had heard such promises before, and had learned not to trust the weasel words of officials. Indeed, it took another four days of protests and marches—including one at night, the men’s flaming torches lighting up the sky—to secure the long-overdue rations.

Still the state apparatus proved incapable of carrying out its basic duties. Two weeks after the first series of disputes, the necropolis workers went on strike again, this time taking their protest to the control point leading to the Valley of the Kings. The authorities were beginning to be seriously shaken by these public demonstrations of disobedience, and put pressure on the community leaders to escort the strikers back to their village. Faced with forcible removal, one of the workmen threatened to damage a royal tomb, regardless of the consequences. The mood was turning ugly.

The showdown between workers and state authorities culminated just two months before the start of the jubilee year. Striking for a fourth time, the men marched once more from their village, dismissing the shouted pleadings of their superiors with determined obstinacy: “We won’t come back. Tell that to your bosses!”14 This time, they made it clear that their grievances were not just about overdue rations but about the broader failings of the administration:

“We have gone [on strike], not from hunger but [because] we have a serious accusation to make: bad things have been done in this place of Pharaoh.”15

For authorities used to a subservient populace, this was dangerous talk indeed. Yet still the ostrich mentality prevailed at the heart of government. A few weeks later, the vizier himself came to Thebes—not to placate the striking workers but to collect cult statues for the imminent jubilee celebrations. He paid only a fleeting visit to the west bank and incensed the workers with a small handout from his security chief—provoking yet more demonstrations.

When the jubilee arrived, the authorities’ indifference was temporarily put aside in the interests of national unity. Decorum and basic self-interest demanded that the king’s big year should pass off without major incident, so the workers were paid on time and in full. But no sooner had the jubilee passed than the system broke down once more, prompting further, regular strike action. The heart of government was rotten, and the relationship between the state and its workers never fully recovered. Despite the outward show, Egypt’s economic vitality and political stability were in serious decline.


IN THE PRIVATE ROOMS ABOVE THE GATEWAY OF HIS MORTUARY TEMPLE, delicate reliefs show Ramesses III in intimate poses with various unnamed women in his household. The king relaxes in a comfortable armchair and plays board games with his youthful companions. They offer him fruit and whisper sweet nothings in the royal ear: “Here’s to you, Ses!”16 The royal harem was a venerable Egyptian institution, providing not just a supply of concubines for the king but also residential facilities and gainful employment for all his female relatives. The harem palace had its own landholdings, its own workshops, and its own administration. It was effectively a parallel court, and such a setup was not without its dangers.

As far back as the Old Kingdom, the harem had been a hotbed of plots. There was something about the claustrophobic atmosphere that fed the bitter jealousies and personal rivalries of the king’s many wives. With little to occupy their minds besides weaving and idle pleasures, the more ambitious concubines nurtured resentments, angry at the lowly status of their offspring and wondering how they might improve their own and their children’s fortunes. When the pharaoh was a strong and successful leader, such murmurings fell away, but when things were going badly in the country at large, the allure of sedition was more tempting.

In 1157, when the temporary euphoria of Ramesses III’s jubilee had died away, the gathering storm clouds were clear for all to see. The king was in failing health and Egypt was in a downward spiral. Desperate times seemed to call for desperate remedies. In the seclusion of the harem palace, one of the king’s secondary wives, the lady Tiy, decided to take matters into her own hands. She revealed her treacherous plan to the director of the harem and his scribe. Her intention was to remove the heir apparent, Prince Ramesses, and install her own son, Pentaweret, on the throne. Before long, the conspiracy had drawn in many more employees of the harem palace. Even members of the king’s inner circle joined the plotters. With the head of the treasury and the royal chamberlain involved, Ramesses III and his heir were in grave danger.

The plan was both complex and devious. While the ringleaders pursued the main objective (the assassination of Ramesses III and the removal of his designated heir), the other harem women would actively spread sedition among their relatives beyond the palace gates, so as to “agitate the people and incite conflict, in order to foment rebellion against their lord.”17 One of the women had written to her brother, who was a commander of Nubian troops, to win his support. A mass mutiny among the ranks of the army, combined with a revolution in the countryside, would surely distract and weaken the authorities. Finally, to give their plot the best chance of success, the conspirators turned to darker means. They enlisted the help of professional magicians, made wax effigies of their opponents, and composed spells designed to paralyze the harem guards. After weeks of careful planning, everything was in place. The stage was set for regicide and revolution.

But the plotters had made a fatal error. With so many people involved, it was virtually certain that someone would blab. Before the plans could be carried through to their fateful conclusion, the authorities were alerted and the conspirators arrested. As the details of the plot became clear, so did the extreme level of the threat to national security. Fearing the repercussions of a full, open trial (with himself as the final court of appeal), the king opted instead for a special tribunal. He appointed a group of twelve trusted officials to investigate, pass judgment, and impose an appropriate sentence. Carefully chosen agents of the state—representing the court, the military, and the civil service—would be judge, jury, and executioner. Ramesses III’s only involvement was to give the tribunal carte blanche in dealing with the plotters: “May all that they have done be upon their own heads.”18

With such a remit, the outcome was never in doubt. In a series of three prosecutions, thirty-eight individuals were tried and found guilty. The ringleaders were allowed to take their own lives. Some were forced to commit suicide inside the courtroom, while others, including Prince Pentaweret, were granted the questionable privilege of doing so outside. All those convicted of treason were further condemned to a second death: their names were hacked out of their monuments and changed in the official court proceedings to deny them a good memory. Hence the commander of Nubian troops Khaemwaset (“arisen in Thebes”) became Binemwaset (“evil in Thebes”), Meryra (“beloved of Ra”) became Mesedsura (“Ra hates him”), and Paraherwenemef (“Ra is at his right hand”) became Parakamenef (“Ra blinds him”). Minor conspirators escaped the death penalty but suffered dreadful mutilations, their noses and ears being cut off to identify them as convicted criminals forever after. As a warning to the population at large, even those who had not been directly involved in the plot but had merely kept silent were punished. Turning a deaf ear to sedition was tantamount to treason.

Finally, to wipe away all evidence of the conspiracy and the tribunal established to investigate it, a prosecution was brought against three of the judges and two officers of the court. On trumped-up charges, they were accused of improper liaison with the plotters. One judge was found innocent. The other two were condemned to mutilation but—conveniently for the state—committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out. With the tribunal report signed off, the authorities hoped that the whole sorry episode could be safely consigned to history.

Except, of course, that it couldn’t. It had revealed serious divisions between the ruling dynasty and members of the government, between different factions of the royal family, between the blithe optimism of those in power and the deep malaise in the country at large. The signs could not have been more ominous for the future of Ramesside Egypt.

Whether from wounds inflicted by assailants or from natural causes, Ramesses III died in 1156, a matter of months after the plot was uncovered. His death marked not just the demise of Egypt’s last great pharaoh, but the end of the country’s confidence in its own destiny. The unwritten contract between rulers and ruled, an arrangement that had secured Egyptian civilization since the dawn of history, was unraveling. So too, before long, would the very fabric of the state.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!