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Ramses III

Ramesses III

Usimare Ramses III (also written Ramesses and Rameses) was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty and is considered to be the last great New Kingdom king to wield any substantial authority over Egypt. He was the son of Setnakht and Queen Tiy-merenese. Ramesses III is believed to have reigned from March 1186 to April 1155 BC. This is based on his known accession date of I Shemu day 26 and his death on Year 32 III Shemu day 15, for a reign of 31 years, 1 month and 19 days. (Alternate dates for this king are 1187 to 1156 BC).

Tenure and chaos

During his long tenure in the midst of the surrounding political chaos of the Greek Dark Ages, Egypt was beset by foreign invaders (including the so-called Sea Peoples and the Libyans) and experienced the beginnings of increasing economic difficulties and internal strife which would eventually lead to the collapse of the Twentieth Dynasty. In Year 8 of his reign, the Sea Peoples, including Peleset, Denyen, Shardana, Weshwesh of the sea, and Tjekker, invaded Egypt by land and sea. Ramesses III defeated them in two great land and sea battles. Although the Egyptians had a reputation as poor seamen they fought tenaciously. Rameses lined the shores with ranks of archers who kept up a continuous volley of arrows into the enemy ships when they attempted to land on the banks of the Nile. Then the Egyptian navy attacked using grappling hooks to haul in the enemy ships. In the brutal hand to hand fighting which ensued, the Sea People were utterly defeated. The Harris Papyrus states:

As for those who reached my boundary, their seed is not. Their hearts and their souls are finished unto all eternity. Those who came forward together upon the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the rivermouths, and a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore.

Ramses III claims that he incorporated the Sea Peoples as subject peoples and settled them in Southern Canaan, although there is no clear evidence to this effect; the pharaoh, unable to prevent their gradual arrival in Canaan, may have claimed that it was his idea to let them reside in this territory. Their presence in Canaan may have contributed to the formation of new states in this region such as Philistia after the collapse of the Egyptian Empire in Asia. Ramesses III was also compelled to fight invading Libyan tribesmen in two major campaigns in Egypt's Western Delta in his Year 6 and Year 11 respectively.

The heavy cost of these battles slowly exhausted Egypt's treasury and contributed to the gradual decline of the Egyptian Empire in Asia. The severity of these difficulties is stressed by the fact that the first known labor strike in recorded history occurred during Year 29 of Ramesses III's reign, when the food rations for the Egypt's favoured and elite royal tomb-builders and artisans in the village of Set Maat her imenty Waset (now known as Deir el Medina), could not be provisioned. Something in the air (but not necessarily Hekla 3) prevented much sunlight from reaching the ground and also arrested global tree growth for almost two full decades until 1140 BC. The result in Egypt was a substantial inflation in grain prices under the later reigns of Ramesses VI-VII whereas the prices for fowl and slaves remained constant. The cooldown, hence, affected Ramesses III's final years and impaired his ability to provide a constant supply of grain rations to the workman of the Deir el-Medina community.

These difficult realities are completely ignored in Ramesses' official monuments, many of which seek to emulate those of his famous predecessor, Ramesses II, and which present an image of continuity and stability. He built important additions to the temples at Luxor and Karnak, and his funerary temple and administrative complex at Medinet-Habu is amongst the largest and best-preserved in Egypt; however, the uncertainty of Ramesses' times is apparent from the massive fortifications which were built to enclose the latter. No Egyptian temple in the heart of Egypt prior to Ramesses' reign had ever needed to be protected in such a manner.

Ramesses' two main names, shown left, transliterate as wsr-m3‘t-r‘–mry-ỉmn r‘-ms-s–ḥḳ3-ỉwnw. They are normally realised as Usermaatre-meryamun Ramesse-hekaiunu, meaning "Powerful one of Ma'at and Ra, Beloved of Amun, Ra bore him, Ruler of Heliopolis".

Conspiracy against the king

Thanks to the discovery of papyrus trial transcripts (dated to Ramesses III), it is now known that there was a plot against his life as a result of a royal harem conspiracy during a celebration at Medinet Habu. The conspiracy was instigated by Tey, one of his two principal wives (the other being Isis), over whose son would inherit the throne. Isis's son, Ramesses IV, was the eldest and the successor chosen by Ramesses III in preference to Tey's son Pentawere.

The trial documents emphasize the extensive scale of the conspiracy to assassinate the king since many individuals were implicated in the plot. Chief among them were Queen Tey and her son Pentawere, Ramesses' chief of the chamber, Pebekkamen, seven royal butlers (a respectable state office), two Treasury overseers, two Army standard bearers, two royal scribes and a herald. There is little doubt that all of the main conspirators were executed: some of the condemned were given the option of committing suicide (possibly by poison) rather than being put to death. According to the surviving trials transcripts, 3 separate trials were started in total while 38 people were sentenced to death. The tombs of Tey and her son Pentawere were robbed and their names erased to prevent them from enjoying an afterlife. The Egyptians did such a thorough job of this that the only references to them are the trial documents and what remains of their tombs.

Some of the accused harem women tried to seduce the members of the judiciary who tried them but were caught in the act. Judges who took part in the carousing were severely punished.

It has been suggested that Pentawere, being a noble, was given the option to commit suicide by taking poison and so be spared the humiliating fate of some of the other conspirators who would have been burned alive with their ashes strewn in the streets. Such punishment served to make a strong example since it emphasized the gravity of their treason for ancient Egyptians who believed that one could only attain an afterlife if one's body was mummified and preserved--rather than being destroyed by fire. In other words, not only were the criminals killed in the physical world, but also in the afterlife. They would have no chance of living on into the next world,and thus suffered a kind of 'second death'. By committing suicide, Pentawere could avoid the harsher punishment of a second death. This could have permitted him to be mummified and move on to the afterlife.

It is not known if the assassination plot succeeded. Ramesses III died in his 32nd year before the summaries of the sentences were composed. His body shows no obvious wounds. But some measures would have left little or no visible traces on the body. Among the conspirators were practitioners of magic, who might well have used poison. Some have put forth a hypothesis that a snakebite from a viper was the cause of the king's death but this proposal has not been proven. His mummy includes an amulet to protect Ramesses III in the afterlife from snakes. The servant in charge of his food and drink were also among the listed conspirators, but there were also other conspirators who were called the snake and the lord of snakes.

In one respect the conspirators certainly failed. The crown passed to the king's designated successor: Ramesses IV. Ramesses III may have been doubtful as to the latter's chances of succeeding him since, in the Great Harris Papyrus, he implored Amun to ensure his son's rights.

Legacy

The Great Harris Papyrus or Papyrus Harris I, which was commissioned by his son and chosen successor Ramesses IV, chronicles this king's vast donations of land, gold statues and monumental construction to Egypt's various temples at Piramesse, Heliopolis, Memphis, Athribis, Hermopolis, This, Abydos, Coptos, El Kab and other cities in Nubia and Syria. It also records that the king dispatched a trading expedition to the Land of Punt and quarried the copper mines of Timna in southern Canaan. Papyrus Harris I has Ramesses III relating that:

I sent my emissaries to the land of Atika, [ie: Timna] to the great copper mines which are there. Their ships carried them along and others went overland on their donkeys. It had not been heard of since the (time of any earlier) king. Their mines were found and (they) yielded copper which was loaded by tens of thousands into their ships, they being sent in their care to Egypt, and arriving safely." (P. Harris I, 78, 1-4)

More notably, Ramesses began the reconstruction of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak from the foundations of an earlier temple of Amenhotep III and completed the Temple of Medinet Habu (temple) around his Year 12. He decorated the walls of his Medinet Habu temple with scenes of his Naval and Land battles against the Sea Peoples. This monument stands today as one of the best-preserved temples of the New Kingdom.

The mummy of Ramesses III was discovered by antiquarians in 1886 and is regarded as the prototypical Egyptian Mummy in numerous Hollywood movies. His tomb (KV11) is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings.

Chronological dispute

Some scientists have tried to establish a chronological point for this pharaoh's reign at 1159 BC, based on a 1999 dating of the "Hekla 3 eruption" of the Hekla volcano at Iceland. Since contemporary records show that the king experienced difficulties provisioning his workmen at Deir el-Medina with supplies in his 29th Year, this dating of Hekla 3 links his 28th or 29th regnal year to circa 1159 BC. A minor discrepancy of 1 year is possible since Egypt's granaries could have had reserves to cope with at least a single bad year of crop harvests following the onset of the disaster. This implies that the king's reign would have ended just 3 to 4 years later around 1156 or 1155 BC. However, a rival date of "2900 BP" or c.1000 BC has since been proposed. However, no Egyptologist dates Ramesses III's reign to 1000 BC.

References

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