Ancient History & Civilisation



FOR THE AVERAGE ANCIENT EGYPTIAN, ONLY TWO THINGS IN LIFE WERE certain: death and taxes. From a baby’s first breath, the twin specters of dying and destitution haunted every waking moment. Infant mortality was shockingly high, and of those who made it through the perils of childhood, few could look forward to a life span of much more than thirty-five years. It was not just the combination of poverty and a poor diet that reduced life expectancy. In the unsanitary conditions of Egyptian towns and villages, waterborne and infectious diseases were rife. Bilharzia, hepatitis, guinea worm, and amebic dysentery were inescapable features of everyday life. Those who were not carried off by such unpleasant conditions were often left disfigured or disabled. Visual impairment, caused by illness or injury, was particularly common: “The village was full of the bleary-eyed, the one-eyed, and the blind, with inflamed and festering eyelids, of all ages.”1

As if the afflictions of disease and premature decease were not bad enough, economic circumstances and the structure of the Egyptian state conspired to keep most ordinary people in a state of permanent penury. Even in a good year, the average farm yield amounted to little more than a subsistence income. If a peasant could have kept the entire crop for his own family, he might just have made a tolerable living. However, since in theory the whole of Egypt belonged to the crown, there were taxes due to the authorities for the privilege of farming the pharaoh’s land. Like other governments throughout history, ancient Egypt’s rulers were particularly adept at collecting these dues, employing a network of local agents to prevent evasion. Moreover, in a pre-monetary economy, the taxes were levied in the form of a share of each farm’s agricultural produce, and this had to be handed over, come feast or famine. Defaulters could expect to be thrown in prison—a deeply unwelcome prospect that most did their utmost to avoid. As a result, “peasant families always wavered between abject poverty and utter destitution.”2 As in Robin Hood’s England, the only escape from overbearing taxation was to abandon the fields completely and go on the run, living as an outlaw on the margins of society. As the New Kingdom progressed, an increasing number of people took this desperate step.

The hard life of a peasant is documented in unusual detail in a papyrus from the late Twentieth Dynasty. The text tells the story of a man named Wermai who fled from his village in Upper Egypt to the great oasis of the Western Desert (modern Dakhla) to seek a better life. Instead, he found himself in even worse circumstances, subject to an uncaring and unscrupulous mayor who had the power to make his people’s lives a misery. Not only did the local authorities extract taxation with all their customary ruthlessness, but they feathered their own nests by deliberately reducing the rations doled out to the already hard-pressed peasantry. As a result, the people went hungry while the local bureaucrats prospered.

Despised by the literate elite, Egypt’s great mass of agricultural workers were put upon and exploited, yet their unremitting and ill-rewarded labor lay at the base of the country’s prosperity. In a very real sense, the sweat of their brows built pharaonic civilization, not that the pharaohs or their advisers seemed either to notice or to care.

Perhaps the most burdensome and loathed of all forms of taxation was the corvée, a tax paid through labor, on demand, by every able-bodied male in the land (and not officially abolished in Egypt until A.D. 1889). The only workers exempt from the corvée were those employed by temples that had been granted immunity from the call-up by royal decree. From the earliest history of the Egyptian state, it was the corvée that provided the labor force required for massive government projects, from the quarrying of stone to the building of pyramids and temples. Conscription into the corvée was organized along military lines and, like other forms of taxation, was carried out by local officials, village and town elders acting on the orders of their regional and national superiors. The recruiting sergeants usually came calling at times of the year when the agricultural economy could manage without a large proportion of the workforce—during the inundation, when the fields were flooded, or in the growing season, when fewer workers were needed on the land.

The draft was indiscriminate and often unfair. Many who were ineligible for duty were nevertheless pressed into service despite their protestations. There was no right of appeal. Fathers found themselves assigned to labor gangs as substitutes for their indigent sons. As peasants were pulled from fields and villages throughout the country, they found themselves locked into a state-run system from which there was little or no chance of escape. Collective punishment was meted out to deserters, with their entire families being held hostage by the authorities against the deserters’ eventual return. For deserters who returned or were tracked down, the punishment was a life sentence in a labor gang.

Life on corvée duty was hard and unremitting. Under ancient Egyptian law, serious criminals could be sentenced to hard labor, or even banished to the garrison of Kush to work in the appalling conditions of the Nubian gold mines. For ordinary law-abiding subjects, the prospect of forced labor was scarcely less dreadful. Workers were given few freedoms and no luxuries, while rations were at the subsistence level. Only at the end of their period of service could the men return home, assuming they had survived disease and injury. Unfortunately the standards of health and safety on government projects were abysmally poor, and the casualty rate correspondingly high.

The dangers of the corvée were brought into particularly sharp focus in 1153, early in the reign of Ramesses IV, during an expedition to the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat. Just five months after his accession to the throne, Ramesses decided to revive quarrying activity after a forty-year lull. To prepare the ground, he first sent a 408-strong mission to reconnoiter the area and make arrangements at the quarry site for the resumption of large-scale work. After further visits by various bureaucrats over the following months, everything was finally declared ready. So, in the third year of Ramesses IV’s reign, there set out from Thebes a great expedition, the likes of which Egypt had not witnessed for more than seven hundred years. In an indication of its national importance, the mission was led by the most powerful figure in Thebes, the high priest of Amun, Ramessesnakht. Assisting him were officials both civilian and military. The vizier, an overseer of the treasury, the chief tax officer, the mayor of Thebes, and two royal butlers were joined by a lieutenant general of the army, for this was a combined operation. Under their joint control marched a vast conscript army, comprising two thousand civilian workers, eight hundred foreign mercenaries, and five thousand ordinary soldiers. The use of the army for civil projects during the winter months was a pragmatic policy. It kept the soldiers busy and under the watchful eye of the king’s advisers at a time when campaigning was undesirable (because of the rainy season in the Near East) and when they might otherwise have been idle. The Ramesside pharaohs appreciated the coercive power of a large standing army but were also wise enough to recognize the political dangers of a military force with too much time on its hands.

Quarrying stone was essentially a hard, manual task, so Ramesses IV’s expedition included only a small contingent of skilled workers (just four sculptors and two draftsmen) to supervise the work. By contrast, there were fifty policemen and a deputy chief of police to keep the workers in line and prevent desertion. Once at the quarry face, the men toiled and sweated at their backbreaking work, for long days on end. Their meager rations, brought by oxcart from the Nile Valley, consisted largely of the basics—bread and beer, enlivened by the occasional sweet cake or portion of meat. Natural cisterns hollowed out of the rock were designed to trap rainwater for drinking, but in the parched landscape of the Eastern Desert rain was always in short supply, even in winter. Back in the days of Ramesses II, gold mining expeditions would routinely lose half of their workforce and half their transport donkeys from thirst. Seti I had taken measures to reduce this startling loss of life by ordering wells to be dug in the Eastern Desert, but the incidence of death on corvée missions remained stubbornly high. Hence, the great commemorative inscription carved to record Ramesses IV’s Wadi Hammamat expedition ends with a blunt statistic. After listing the nine thousand or so members who made it back alive, it adds, almost as an afterthought, “and those who are dead and omitted from this list: nine hundred men.” The statistic is chilling. An average workman on state corvée labor had a one in ten chance of dying. Such a loss was considered neither disastrous nor unusual.

In ancient Egypt, life was cheap.


UNWELCOME AS IT MAY HAVE BEEN, FORCED LABOR WAS, IN THEORY, part of the contract between the Egyptian people and their rulers. In return for his subjects’ daily toil, the king guaranteed the eternal order of the cosmos, appeasing the gods and ensuring Egypt’s continued prosperity. Even in the minds of the hard-pressed and downtrodden peasantry, it could just about be defended as a worthwhile exchange. Except that, after the death of Ramesses III, the country’s rulers signally failed to keep their side of the bargain. Following the turmoil surrounding his father’s demise, Ramesses IV looked forward to better times: “[Since] Egypt has come into his lifetime, a joyful period has come about for Egypt.”3 As a further sign of his hopes for renewed glory, he modeled his royal titles closely on those of his illustrious forebear Ramesses II, and even planned to outdo the mighty Ozymandias in longevity. On a stela dedicated at Abdju in the fourth year of his reign, Ramesses IV instructed the gods: “Double for me the extended life span and the great reign of King Usermaatra-setepenra [Ramesses II], the great god.”4

Next to a long life span, every pharaoh’s wish was for his heirs to succeed him in an unbroken line. In Ramesses IV’s case this desire was made even more acute by bitter experience. Mindful of the harem plot that had so nearly deprived him of the kingship, he hectored Egypt’s chief deities, asking—nay, telling—them, “Confer my great office on my heirs; behold, the disaffected are the abomination of your majesties!”5 If he, Ramesses, carried out his duty to beautify the gods’ temples and increase their offerings, then they should deliver the quid pro quo and grant his requests.

But the gods were no longer listening.

To mark his accession, Ramesses IV had authorized a handout of silver to the workmen of the royal tomb, to win their goodwill and ensure conscientious work on his sepulchre. He had also doubled the workforce from 60 to 120 for good measure. Yet his tomb was, in the end, rather small and poorly finished. Despite his wish for glory and his penchant for ambitious projects, none of the king’s temple buildings was ever completed. Egypt’s economy was faltering, its government ossifying. There was neither the means nor the will, it seemed, to sustain the level of patronage that had characterized the golden age of the New Kingdom. And so much for a long reign: Ramesses IV had asked the gods for 134 years on the throne; fate allotted him just six (1156–1150).

Where Ramesses IV had struggled to keep up the appearance of royal authority, his successors gave up all pretense. While they all took the name Ramesses (so great was its prestige), none of them showed the same determination, resolve, or leadership as their two famous namesakes. Egypt was fortunate not to face another mass invasion on the scale of the Sea Peoples’ attack under Ramesses III, but its borders were far from secure against hostile incursions. Even though there was no longer a superpower in the Near East against which Egypt needed to defend its interests, as it had when facing the Hittites under Ramesses II, there were threats, nonetheless, to Egypt’s imperial possessions. Yet none of Ramesses IV’s successors was able or willing to give proper attention to the country’s foreign or security interests, so preoccupied was the administration with the deteriorating situation at home.

The brief five-year reign of Ramesses V (1150–1145) revealed the depths to which the country had sunk. The pharaoh’s accession and coronation ceremonies had barely been completed before the government uncovered a serious corruption scandal. It transpired that, for nearly a decade, a ship’s captain named Khnumnakht had been busy appropriating for his own profit substantial quantities of grain destined for the temple of Khnum at Abu. After collecting the grain from one of the temple’s estates in the delta, it was Khnumnakht’s job to take it hundreds of miles upstream to the temple granaries on Egypt’s southern border. In fact, during the course of the long voyage, aided and abetted by various farmers, scribes, and inspectors, and encouraged by a corrupt priest, he siphoned off a significant proportion of each delivery. By the time he was found out, more than five thousand sacks of barley had been stolen.

The investigation into Khnumnakht’s crimes soon revealed the true extent of corruption among the Abu priesthood. One of the priests had not only stolen equipment from the temple treasury, but he had also rustled calves of the sacred Merwer (also known as Mnevis) bull, believed to be an embodiment of the sun god Ra. This was not merely theft; it was sacrilege. Hundreds of miles from the royal residence at Per-Ramesses, and far from the gaze of government officials, state employees in distant parts of the realm had decided to put their hands into the till, confident that their misdemeanors would go undetected. It was the ultimate indictment of the pharaonic administration, by now so paralyzed that not even its own officials afforded it any respect. Central control over the entire Nile Valley, assisted by reliable and swift communication, had been the sine qua non of the Egyptian state. With local communities now effectively doing their own thing, the prospects for national cohesion looked increasingly grim.

Shaken by such a serious breakdown in economic and political control, Ramesses V determined to restore some measure of order. As earlier pharaohs had recognized, a proper census of national wealth was a prerequisite for effective government, so Ramesses commissioned a survey of landholdings in a ninety-five-mile stretch of Middle Egypt, paying particular attention to grain production and tax collection. The result was a papyrus register some thirty-three feet long, an impressive document indeed. But its royal author, like his administration, was in failing health, and he succumbed to smallpox before the survey’s findings could be implemented. In a further sign of government weakness, his pockmarked mummy lay unburied for a year while a modest tomb was hurriedly prepared to receive it. Ramesses V’s intended sepulchre had been summarily usurped by his successor. In uncertain times, it was every man for himself.

By now, the situation at Thebes was deteriorating fast. Soaring grain prices reflected the weakness of the economy and the failure of the government to guarantee wages. Contemporary accounts hint at hunger, even starvation, as the peasantry bore the full brunt of the hard times. Hyenas were spotted in the Theban hills, scenting death in the villages below. With tax revenues falling and the court unable to pay for new royal monuments, Ramesses VI (1145–1137) took drastic steps to economize. On the west bank, he halved the workforce of tomb builders to sixty men; on the east bank, at Ipetsut, he simply recarved the additions built by Ramesses IV, to claim them as his own.

The malaise was not just a matter of economic weakness. There was also a security dimension. Ever since the reign of Ramesses III, Egypt had faced repeated incursions by Libyan tribespeople seeking to leave their parched lands and settle in the fertile Nile Valley: “They spend all day marauding the land, fighting daily to fill their bellies; they came to the land of Egypt to seek sustenance for their mouths.”6 In the space of six years, Egypt’s last great pharaoh had repelled two attempted Libyan invasions, but had failed to prevent attacks against the Theban region at the end of his reign. Now, with the organs of the state atrophying and the government machine unable to defend Egypt’s borders, the Libyan incursions increased in frequency. Under Ramesses V, work on the royal tomb halted altogether for a time as the workers stayed at home for fear of “the enemy”—a foe that had already ransacked and burned at least one Theban village.

In his choice of royal titles and his scenes of military triumph on temple walls, Ramesses VI might have pretended to be Egypt’s defender, but the old magic had worn off. The king’s protestations were hollow boasts, and they fooled nobody. As garrisons were hastily recalled to maintain national security, Egypt ceased copper mining at Timna, abandoned the “turquoise terraces” of the Sinai, and lost control of its last hard-won possessions in the Near East. So ended the Egyptian Empire, not with a bang but with a whimper. The land of the pharaohs had been reduced from the greatest power in the eastern Mediterranean to a weak and beleaguered nation in just four generations.

Cruel fate dealt pharaonic prestige the final blow. In happier times, a rapid succession of monarchs could have been managed. Now, a series of short reigns seemed to underline the ineffectiveness of Egypt’s rulers. Divine kingship looked like an increasingly academic concept. The all too obvious mortality of Ramesses VI, VII, and VIII—all three dying within an eleven-year period—merely emphasized their lack of credit with the gods. Politics abhors a vacuum, and as the influence of the royal court declined, so the stock of the great families of provincial Egypt rose. At Thebes in particular, the most important offices were increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of aristocratic dynasties. Offices passed from father to son, in accordance with the Egyptian ideal but ignoring the superior ideal of the royal prerogative. The king exercised less and less real influence as state offices became quasi-hereditary.

Ramessesnakht, high priest of Amun  © SANDRO VANNINI

This trend was exemplified by the richest and most powerful figure in Thebes for most of the late Twentieth Dynasty, the high priest of Amun, Ramessesnakht. His loyalist name (“Ramesses is victorious”) was all for show. In reality, the high priest and his family were the effective rulers of Thebes and, with it, much of southern Egypt. Rames-sesnakht saw off no less than six pharaohs, serving from the last years of Ramesses III into the reign of Ramesses IX. The high priest, not the king, was the new linchpin of the Theban government. Ramessesnakht saw to it that he was succeeded by his two sons in turn, Nesamun and Amenhotep. When the latter had himself depicted at Ipetsut, it was at the same scale as his sovereign. There could be no clearer indication of the hemorrhaging of royal status beyond the temple walls.


THE SANCTITY OF THE ROYAL TOMB WAS A FUNDAMENTAL TENET OF ancient Egyptian belief from the very beginning of pharaonic history. If the prosperity of the land depended upon divine will, and the well-being of the gods upon the ministrations of the king, then the eternal survival and benevolence of the monarch was in everyone’s interests. The royal tomb was designed not merely as a final resting place for an Egyptian ruler but as his passport to the next world and his guarantee of rebirth. As such, it was the single most important structure in the country. The ideal of inviolability had been rudely shattered during the civil unrest of the First Intermediate Period, when the Old Kingdom pyramids had been robbed and desecrated with impunity. A similar fate seems to have befallen the Middle Kingdom pyramids during the dark days of Hyksos rule. So the switch to hidden subterranean, rock-cut tombs under the rulers of the New Kingdom had brought with it a renewed hope that the mummies of Egypt’s monarchs would be allowed to rest in peace for all eternity.

However, human nature being what it is, the discord and uncertainty at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty had prompted opportunistic attempts to rob some of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Despite the kings’ best endeavors to hide their sepulchres from prying eyes and grasping hands, knowledge of the tombs’ whereabouts had clearly leaked out. Horemheb had sought to counter this threat by reforming the workmen’s village at the Place of Truth. Out went the transient, even casual workforce of earlier reigns; in came a rigidly controlled and closed community, with death the only means of exit. In return for their vow of perpetual silence, the workmen and their families could expect to be looked after by the state, receiving guaranteed employment and better than usual rations. The most successful workers could even look forward to a degree of prosperity and a tomb of their own in the hillside above the village. It was a contract designed to appeal to the self-interest of both parties.

The strikes of 1158 dealt a blow to this long-standing agreement between the king and the workers of the tomb. If the state was no longer committed to paying the men on time and in full, why should the men protect the state’s most jealously guarded secret? Little wonder, then, that amid the economic and political collapse of the late Twentieth Dynasty not even the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were considered sacrosanct.

The first serious incident took place early in the reign of Ramesses IX (1126–1108), when robbers broke into the tomb of Ramesses VI, sealed only a decade earlier. This act of sacrilege was followed a few years later by the wanton vandalism of two of the greatest monuments on the west bank of Thebes, the mortuary temples of Ramesses II and Ramesses III. Fortunately for the government, the thieves and vandals did relatively little damage on these occasions. A formal investigation headed by the high priest of Amun was launched, and security was no doubt tightened. But to little effect. Within a short time, the robbers were back, their soft target the less well guarded royal necropolis of the Seventeenth Dynasty on the hillside behind the Ramesseum. The thieves had little need to case the joint first. As inhabitants of the workmen’s village, they knew every inch of the Theban necropolis like the backs of their hands. So, one night in 1114, a stonemason by the name of Amunpanefer set out with his band of accomplices to commit the crime of the century. Entering one of the royal tombs,

we opened their coffins and their mummy wrappings. We brought back the gold we found on the noble mummy of this god, together with his pectorals and other jewelry that were around his neck.7

Having thoroughly pillaged the tomb of Sobekemsaf II for all its valuables, the robbers unceremoniously set fire to the coffins of the king and his consort, reducing their chests of life to smoldering ashes. It was an astonishing act of desecration and blasphemy. The actions of the pharaoh’s own employees were now actively undermining the foundations of the state. Not that the robbers were remotely concerned with the theological implications of their actions. For them, all that mattered was the spoils, all thirty-two golden pounds of it. That more than compensated for the state’s late rations.

When the robbery finally came to light four years later, all the government could do was punish the ringleaders and set up a royal commission to investigate what had happened (still a convenient substitute for decisive action). But a royal commission in the absence of royal authority was meaningless. It simply served to stoke the bitter rivalry between Thebes’s two most important civilian officials. Heading the commission was the mayor of Thebes, Paser. Hampering it by every means at his disposal, fair or foul, was the mayor of western Thebes, Paweraa, whose jurisdiction included the royal necropolis. The two men saw in the investigation a golden opportunity for one-upmanship. While Paser was determined to use the investigation to assert his authority and take his antagonist down a peg or two, Paweraa was equally resolved to eliminate his rival once and for all.

The commission’s findings must have made depressing reading back in the government offices of Per-Ramesses. Of the ten royal tombs inspected, only one was still intact. Some had been partly robbed, others completely ransacked. Faced with such a calamity, it was time to find a scapegoat. Yet no sooner had the commission implicated Paweraa than he struck back. Fighting for his political life and for life itself (since the penalty for robbing a royal tomb was death), Paweraa pulled out all the stops and called in every favor. With the help of the vizier Khaemwaset he managed to overrule the commission’s findings and emerge unscathed. At the end of the whole process, both Paser and the vizier had mysteriously disappeared from the scene, as had the robbers themselves. No witnesses.

Paweraa survived and prospered. The robberies continued.

Three decades and several high-profile thefts later, a second royal commission was set up by Ramesses XI (1099–1069). This time, to reduce the likelihood of cover-up, the inquiry was led by the vizier himself, as the king’s personal representative in Upper Egypt, assisted by the royal treasurer and two royal butlers. If the government was showing how seriously it took the problem, it was little prepared for the scale of the corruption that its investigations uncovered. Once again, most of the men involved in robbing the royal tombs came from the workmen’s village. But this time they had not acted alone. The commission found evidence of widespread negligence and complicity among state and temple officials. Some had turned a blind eye to crimes carried out under their noses; others had actively collaborated in theft, sharing in the spoils. One of the suspects questioned by the tribunal had professed innocence, arguing, “I saw the lesson that was meted out to the thieves in the time of the vizier Khaemwaset. Is it likely, then, that I would set out to seek such a death?”8 But the commission concluded that he was lying. Another robber decided to confess from the outset, recounting how he and four accomplices had emptied a tomb of its silver vessels and divided the spoils among them. The commission was suspicious of this unforced confession, so ordered the man to be “examined with the stick, birch, and screw.” But he stuck to his story: “I didn’t see anything else; what I saw is what I’ve said.” After a second beating and the promise of many more, he broke down: “Stop, I’ll talk …”9 A little light torture worked wonders.

As the net was cast wider, the authorities started to reel in some bigger fish. A theft from the great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut, arguably the most sacred place in the whole of Egypt, had been particularly audacious, striking at the heart of the regime’s theological power base. On further investigation, the chief guard of the temple was found to have been behind the robbery.

The conclusion was stark: corruption was now endemic at every level of the priesthood and the government. At Thebes in particular, repeated Libyan incursions combined with food shortages and starvation had led to a complete breakdown of law and order. People no longer felt secure, personally or economically; they no longer trusted in the state’s ability to defend them or provide for them. Nor did they fear the state’s power to hold them in check or prevent them from taking the law into their own hands. After half a millennium of stability, the edifice of the state was crumbling and collapsing with alarming rapidity. Egypt stood on the brink of anarchy.


THE GOVERNMENT OF EGYPT DURING THE RAMESSIDE PERIOD WAS DIVIDED into four broad, functionally distinct units. Supporting the activities of the court was the royal domain, administered by a chancellor and a chief steward. The civil service, headed by two viziers, one for Upper Egypt and one for Lower Egypt, was responsible for taxation, agriculture, and justice. The army, under its commander in chief (often a royal prince), played a relatively minor part in government, despite its prominent role as an instrument of foreign policy. Last but not least there was the religious establishment, led by the overseer of priests of all the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt. More often than not this exalted post was held by the high priest of Amun. Ever since the latter years of Ramesses III, the high priest of the country’s preeminent cult had been the most powerful individual in Upper Egypt, wielding more influence than the mayor of Thebes or even the southern vizier. The great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut was the largest landowner in the region, controlling vast estates with thousands of tenant farmers. It also had extensive workshops employing hundreds of craftsmen, and its granaries, attached to the mortuary temples of Ramesses II and III, acted as the main reserve bank not just for Thebes but for Upper Egypt as a whole. The man who controlled Ipetsut and its economic wealth controlled Thebes. As kings came and went, this most prestigious sinecure was monopolized by one family, that of Ramessesnakht. In troubled times, this local dynasty provided some measure of continuity and stability, even if it could not bring much succor to the common people’s increasingly blighted lives.

Then, in 1091, the unrest sweeping Thebes came home to roost. Hungry, desperate, and frustrated by the high priest Amenhotep’s intransigence, a group of Thebans succeeded in forcibly removing him from office and replacing him with a new man of their choosing. For eight months, Amenhotep languished at home, shorn of the trappings of power, deprived of his accustomed wealth, politically isolated. For a proud scion of Thebes’s leading family, it was quite a comedown. Worse still, there was only one person in Egypt who could reinstate a high priest, and that was the king. Groveling to the pharaoh was an unwelcome prospect for Amenhotep, but he knew it was the only path back to power. So, swallowing his pride, he petitioned Ramesses XI, far away in the royal residence at Per-Ramesses, to restore him to his rightful office.

Ramesses was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he failed to respond to Amenhotep’s pleadings and left the usurper in place at Ipetsut, it would be an admission of impotence, effectively signaling the end of the king’s writ in Upper Egypt. If, however, he took steps to restore Amenhotep to the high priesthood, it would merely confirm the supremacy of a family that had been building its own power base for generations at the expense of the Ramesside Dynasty. Neither option was particularly attractive, but restoring the status quo ante seemed marginally preferable. The only question was how to achieve the desired outcome. Reports from Thebes indicated that the usurper was not going to go quietly; considerable force would be needed to dislodge him from the heavily fortified enclosure at Djeme (modern Medinet Habu). Yet the king was hundreds of miles away in the delta, as were most of Egypt’s troops. Sending them southward to unseat a high priest would carry two unacceptable risks, drawing the king into the bitter internal politics of Thebes while leaving the royal residence exposed and vulnerable to attack. There was only one other garrison with enough troops to carry out the operation, and that was stationed in Nubia, under the command of the viceroy of Kush. So Ramesses sent an order to the viceroy, Panehsy, to march north with his Nubian troops as quickly as possible, to suppress the interloper.

It was a fatal error of judgment.

Within weeks, Panehsy had arrived at Thebes in force, and his Nubian soldiers were at the gates of Medinet Habu. An unruly mob stormed the temple enclosure, driving out the usurper and vandalizing the buildings. Other troops rampaged across the west bank, causing damage to its sacred monuments. The operation was a military success but a public relations disaster. Once order had been restored and Amenhotep reinstated as high priest, Panehsy moved swiftly to assess the damage, recover stolen property, and punish those responsible. Some culprits were summarily executed on the viceroy’s orders, without waiting for the inconvenience of a trial. In such situations, making an example of a few individuals usually did the job of keeping the rest in line. The inhabitants of Thebes suddenly remembered the roughness of military justice.

Having imposed law and order, Panehsy moved to seize control of the Theban economy, taking charge of the temple granaries. Amenhotep could hardly complain, given that he owed his restoration to the Nubian strongman. By 1087, Panehsy was styling himself as “general and overseer of the granaries of the pharaoh.” He, not the high priest of Amun, was now the de facto ruler of Upper Egypt. For a while, the viceroy loyally governed Thebes on behalf of the king, but Ramesses XI was becoming increasingly concerned about his subordinate’s growing power. He could sense Thebes and the south slipping away, and was determined to reassert royal authority at all costs. Egypt’s empire was no more, its borders were porous, and its people were starving. If he could no longer preserve even the country’s territorial integrity, a pharaoh would not be worthy of the name, nor could he call himself a true Ramesses.

From their earliest origins, the Ramessides had been a military dynasty, using military personnel and military solutions to govern Egypt. Now, having unleashed one general and come to regret it, Ramesses XI might have thought twice about doing the same again. Yet, with his options fast running out, all he could do was fall back on his instincts. In 1082, the king duly summoned one of his northern generals, Paiankh, and ordered him to march against Panehsy and drive the upstart viceroy back into Nubia. The result was civil war.

Panehsy was a skilled enough tactician not to sit and wait for the onslaught, but to take the fight to the enemy. He rounded up the Theban garrisons and, bolstered by local conscripts, marched north with his army to engage Paiankh’s forces. At first, the viceroy’s advance met with considerable success. Reaching Hardai, in Middle Egypt, he stormed and ransacked the town. For a moment, it seemed that the king’s army might lose the war. But Paiankh’s greater numbers eventually prevailed, and by 1080 Panehsy had been driven out of Egypt. The disgraced viceroy of Kush was back where he belonged, in far-off Nubia.

The conflict may have saved face for Ramesses XI, but it was a disaster for Thebes. The depletion of the local garrisons and the conscription of men of fighting age led to a security vacuum across the city. Widespread looting of temples and tombs broke out and went unchecked for months. The tomb of Ramesses VI was targeted for a second time and its sarcophagus attacked. Worse still, as Panehsy’s army retreated, it carried out a scorched-earth policy, ravaging monuments in an orgy of destruction. When the dust finally settled, the pharaoh visited Thebes—in a rare outing from his delta residence—to see for himself the extent of the damage. It was a deeply depressing sight. Not since the dark days of the country’s first civil war, a thousand years earlier, had so much devastation been inflicted by fellow Egyptians.

In a vain attempt to turn back the clock and start afresh, Ramesses declared the beginning of a new era. The nineteenth year of his reign was to be known instead as the first year of the renaissance, and subsequent years would follow the new nomenclature. But nobody was fooled, least of all Paiankh—for he, not Ramesses, was the undoubted victor against Panehsy. To prove the point, Paiankh took over the viceroy’s titles and dignities, followed by those of the high priest as well. General, overseer of granaries, and high priest of Amun—military, economic, and religious authority were now combined in one person. The “restoration” of pharaonic authority in Thebes had in fact been just another military putsch—except that Paiankh had learned from history. While the viceroy had enjoyed only a brief period of absolute power, Paiankh’s regime would be designed to stand the test of time.

An army man through and through, brusque, determined, and ruthlessly efficient, Paiankh ruled Thebes with a rod of iron. He took pains to build a network of influential supporters, surrounding himself with men and women of ability. One such was his wife Nodjmet, a woman of considerable resolve and personal authority. Paiankh’s first policy, after imposing martial law in Thebes, was to lead his army into Nubia in pursuit of the renegade Panehsy. Only by securing its southern flank against a repeat attack could the new military junta achieve lasting security. While Paiankh was on maneuvers in Nubia, he left the running of Thebes in his wife’s capable hands. The two corresponded regularly, keeping each other informed about major developments. One particular exchange of letters underlines the dark side of military rule. In Paiankh’s absence, unease about the regime was growing in Thebes, and Nodjmet wrote to her husband to report on seditious statements made by two policemen. Even the forces of law and order were beginning to mutter against the junta. Paiankh’s reply was unequivocal and chilling:

Have these two policemen brought to my house and get to the bottom of their words in short order. Then have them killed and thrown into the water by night.10

Interrogation followed by “disappearance”—the classic fate of dissidents under a military regime.

Political assassinations were not the only murky activities sponsored by Paiankh in his bid to retain power. In another letter from the Nubian front, he ordered two of his Theban henchmen, Butehamun and Kar, to perform an unnamed “task on which you have never before embarked.”11 The euphemistic phraseology was carefully chosen, for the task in question was nothing less than state-sponsored tomb robbery. The war against Panehsy showed no signs of a swift resolution, and Paiankh badly needed funds to finance his military operations and shore up his regime at home. The Theban hills offered a ready treasure trove of gold and silver, buried in the tombs of Egypt’s kings, queens, and high officials. So Paiankh’s men set out on a deliberate policy of breaking and entering, channeling the proceeds of their crime back to the government coffers. As they roamed the west bank in search of tomb entrances, they marked what they found for systematic future clearance. Butehamun alone left more than 130 graffiti, identifying the repositories of wealth amassed by generations of pious Thebans. Having survived Libyan attack, opportunistic robbery, and civil war, the remaining intact tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs were now ruthlessly exploited by the rulers themselves. A final taboo had been broken.

After a decade of rule, the junta faced its sternest test when Paiankh died unexpectedly. His sons were too young to take over, and the prospect of an interregnum was deeply unwelcome for a regime that had not yet consolidated its grip on power. So, postponing a dynastic succession in favor of a stopgap solution, Paiankh’s supporters moved swiftly and stabilized the situation by choosing another army general, Herihor, as interim leader. He was an inspired choice. A mature and capable leader in Paiankh’s mold, Herihor came from the same officer class. He was as vigorous in his private life as he was in military matters, fathering nineteen sons.

Yet none of them was to succeed him. Paiankh’s widow saw to that. In a brilliantly calculated move, Nodjmet immediately took Herihor as her new husband, at a stroke bolstering his position and retaining her influence over the eventual succession.

That succession left no room for the Ramesside royal family. While Herihor strengthened the rule of the generals in Upper Egypt, another army man, the king’s son-in-law Nesbanebdjedet, took effective power in the north of the country. Egypt was now a nation of two halves, each ruled by a military elite. Though Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet paid lip service to the continued reign of Ramesses XI, there was no denying where real power lay. Isolated and a virtual prisoner in his own royal residence, the last of the Ramessides had seen pharaonic authority slip from his grasp, through a combination of poor decisions and benign neglect. The same army that had brought the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties to power was presiding over the country’s formal division. Military might had proved a double-edged sword indeed.

As Ramesses XI lay on his deathbed in 1069, after thirty years on the throne, the Nile itself seemed to signal the end of an era. The great river’s Pelusiac Branch, on which Per-Ramesses had been founded two centuries earlier, had been silting up for some time. By the end of Ramesses XI’s reign, the main channel was so clogged with sediment that ships were no longer able to use the city’s harbors. It was a fitting metaphor for the regime’s own sclerosis. Starved of commerce and communication, the traders, scribes, and bureaucrats abandoned Per-Ramesses in favor of a new site, Djanet (modern San el-Hagar), some twelve miles to the north. As the old king’s funeral cortège wound its way from the royal palace of Per-Ramesses, followed by a clutch of old retainers, the Ramesside Dynasty and its seat of government died together.

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