Usimare Ramesses III (also written Ramses 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 Setnakhte 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
Further information: Battle of Djahy (12th century BC), Battle of the Delta, and Bronze Age collapse
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 state:
" As for those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. As for those who came
forward together on the seas, the full flame was in front of them at the Nile mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore,
prostrated on the beach, slain, and made into heaps from head to tail. "
Ramesses 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 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 Tiye, one of his two known wives (the other being
Iset Ta-Hemdjert), over whose son would inherit the throne. Iset's son, Ramesses (the future 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.
Historian Susan Redford speculates 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; they did not attain an afterlife. They would have no chance of living on into the next world, and thus suffered a complete personal
annihilation. 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.
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 records some of Ramesses III activities:
" 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 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.
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 might connect 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. A rival date of "2900 BP" or c.1000 BC
has since been proposed by scientists based on a re-examination of the volcanic layer. However, no Egyptologist dates Ramesses III's reign to as
late as 1000 BC.
RAMESSES III, EGYPT'S LAST, GREAT PHARAOH
BY JIMMY DUNN
Over the some three thousand years of Egyptian history during the Pharaonic Period only a handful of the several hundred who ruled Egypt
(or part of Egypt) can be considered truly great kings. Of these, Ramesses III, who was the second ruler of Egypt's 20th Dynasty, was the
last of great pharaohs on the throne. His reign was a time of considerable turmoil throughout the Mediterranean that saw the Trojan War,
the fall of Mycenae and a great surge of displaced people from all over the region that was to reek havoc; even toppling some empires.
Ramesses was this king's birth name, as it was for most of the 20th Dynasty rulers who appear to have wished to emulate the great Ramesses
II of the 19th Dynasty. Ramesses means, "Re has fashioned him" A second (epithet) part of his birth name was heqaiunu, which means "Ruler
of Heliopolis" There are any number of ways that Egyptologists spell his birth name, such as "Ramses". His throne name was Usermaatre
Meryamun, which means "Powerful is the Justice of Re, Beloved of Amun.
The Family of Ramesses III
Ramesses III's father was his immediate predecessor, a relatively unknown king named Setnakhte. However, though the originator of what
Egyptologists refer to as the 20th Dynasty, he may actually have been a grandson of the famous Ramesses II. Ramesses III probably served
a short co-regency with him, we believe, because of a rock-chapel near Deir el-Medina that was dedicated to both his father and Ramesses
Ramesses III's mother was Queen Tiy-merenese. He had a number of wives, including Isis, Titi and Tiy, as well as a number of sons
including the next three rulers of Egypt, Ramesses IV, V and VI. We only know of one possible daughter named Titi. However, despite his
apparently long reign lasting some 31 years and 41 days according to the Great Harris Papyrus, little is known about the royal family.
We know that the mother of his wife, Isis, named, Habadjilat, was probably a foreigner, most likely of Asiatic extraction. She was buried
in tomb QV51 in the Valley of the Queens, though here name was omitted from the cartouches in the Medinet Habu temple where the queen's
name would normally have appeared. However, one of her sons would eventually rule Egypt as Ramesses VI
Another possible queen of Ramesses III was Queen Titi, who was buried in QV52 in the Valley of the Queens. Though this tomb is large, it
lacks any proper indication of her exact royal status. However, her titles suggest that she was possibly a daughter, and later a wife of
Ramesses III who probably outlived him. Her title as "Mistress of the Two Lands" appears some 43 times within this tomb, and she is listed
as "Chief Royal Wife" 33 times. Other titles include "King's Daughter, "King's Beloved Daughter of his Body", "His Beloved Daughter" and
"King's Sister". She is also called "King's Mother" eight times and her son might have been Ramesses IV.
Ramesses III had as many if not more than ten sons, many of whom predeceased him. A number of them were buried in the Valley of the
Queens. These include the tombs of Amenhirkhopshef (QV55), Khaemwaset (QV44), Parahirenemef (QV42) and Sethirkhopshef (QV43). Each of
these sons held high positions, as might be expected, prior to their deaths. Apparently devoted to Ramesses II, Ramesses III gave his sons
names that followed those of the earlier king's sons. An especially noteworthy example was his son, Khaemwaset C, named for Ramesses II's
famous child. Like the earlier Khaemwaset, he took the same office as sem-priest of Ptah at Memphis. However, Khaemwasret C. never
achieved the glory of Ramesses II's son, who rose to the position of High Priest. We also know that Amenhirkhopshef, named for Ramesses
II's oldest son, and Sethirkhopshef held the office of Master of Horse.
A number of other tombs in the Valley of the Queens, which appear to date from the reign of Ramesses III, appear to belong to unnamed
princes and princesses, though we have virtually no information on these individuals.
Another of Ramesses III's queens was Tiy, but in a several noteworthy papyrus from his reign, particularly one known today as the Harem
Conspiracy Papyrus, we learn of an assassination attempt upon the king in which she was at least a part of the plot. Her name is provided
in the text, but the other conspirators are called by names that indicate the great evil of their crime, such as Mesedsure, meaning "Re
hates him". Tiy apparently wished for her son, called in this papyrus, Pentewere, to ascend to the throne of Egypt.
At some point during the latter part of Ramesses III's reign, there were economic problems that became most visible when the Deir el-
Medina workmen failed to be paid, leading to a general strike, the first in recorded history, in the 29th year of the king's reign.
Against this background was hatched a plot against the king's life.
This was no simple conspiracy, considering that at least 40 people were implicated and tried as a group. Amongst their numbers were harem
officials many of whom were close to the king. Not only had they intended to kill the king, but also to incite a revolt outside of the
palace in order to facilitate their coup. The plot was seemingly hatched in Piramesses where one of the conspirators had a house.
The plan called for the murder of the king during the annual Opet Festival at Thebes. Preparations for this included magical spells and
wax figurines which were smuggled into the harem.
This conspiracy is thought to have failed, and the guilty were charged and brought before a court consisting of a panel of fourteen
officials including seven royal butlers (a respectably high office), two treasury overseers, two army standard bearers, two scribes and a
herald. Ramesses III himself most likely commissioned the prosecution, but according to the language of the papyrus, probably died during
the trial, though not necessarily from the effects of the plot. Curiously, this court was given authority to deliver and carry out
whatever penalty they deemed fair, including the death penalty, which normally only the king could inflict. It should be noted, however,
that scholars are in disagreement over the events of this conspiracy. Some maintain that Ramesses III was in fact killed by the
conspirators, and that his son, Ramesses IV, set up the tribunal, but others maintain that the mummy of the king shows no acts of
All of those involved in the plot were apparently condemned to death, as was certainly the fate of Queen Tiy herself. Though the record of
the actual trial is lost, there were apparently three different prosecutions. The first consisted of twenty eight people, who included the
major ringleaders, who were found guilty and (almost certainly) put to death. In the next prosecution six people were condemned and forced
to commit suicide within the court itself. In the final trial, four additional individuals, including the son of Queen Tiy, were likewise
condemned to suicide, though they were presumably allowed to carry out the act in their prison.
Interestingly, there was also a fourth trial, but this one did not involve the actual conspirators, but instead three of the judges and
two officers. It would seem that the curious affair resulted from accusations that, after their appointment to the conspiracy commission,
they knowingly entertained several of the women involved in the plot, as well as consorted with a general referred to as Peyes. Though one
of the judges was found innocent, the remainder of the group was condemned to have their ears and noses amputated. One of the judges
called Pebes committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out.
The Military Affairs
Ramesses III's reign began quietly enough as he attempted to consolidate his empire begun by his father after problems arose in the late
19th Dynasty. Nubia seems at this time to have been nothing more than a subdued colony to the south. However, in his fifth year as ruler,
Egypt was attacked by Libyans for apparently the first time since Merenptah had to deal with them in the 19th Dynasty. The Libyan invasion
forces included two other groups of people known as the Mshwesh and the Seped. Ramesses III easily dealt with this threat, annihilating
many, and making slaves of the rest. Though the Libyan population of the western Delta continued to increase by peaceful infiltration (as
they had actually done before the invasion), and would later form the basis for a line of kings that would ultimately rule Egypt, for a
time at least, this firm action kept other enemies at bay.
By his eighth year as ruler, Ramesses III had to contend with a force of such great magnitude, that it destroyed at least the Hittite
empire, and devastated the entire region, though we really do not know of its source. We read that:
"The foreign countries conspired in their islands, and the lands were dislodged and scattered in battle together; no land could stand
before their arms: the land of the Hittites, Qode, Carchemesh, Arzawa and Cyprus were wasted, and they set up a camp in southern Syria.
They desolated its people and made its land as if non-existent. They bore fore before them as they came forward towards Egypt."
Indeed, Cyprus had been overwhelmed and its capital, Enkomi, ransacked. They destroyed the Hittite capital, Hattusas, as well as many
other empires. They conquered Tarsus and then settled on the plains of Cilicia in northern Syria, razing Alalakh and Ugarit to the ground.
This upheaval was caused by a group of people collectively known as the Sea People, who were displaced from their homes by events that are
as of yet unknown to us. However, this apparently took place over an extended period of time, and involved massive numbers of humans,
consisting of the Peleset (Philistines), Tjeker, Shekelesh (possibly Sikels from Sicily), Weshesh and the Denyen or Dardany, who could
have been the Danaoi of Homer's Iliad. The invasion of these people into various regions of the Middle East apparently came in waves, as
a number of Ramesses III's predecessors (perhaps most notably Merenptah) had to deal with similar bands of people.
Ramesses III had his fight against the Sea People documented on the outer wall of the Second Pylon, north side, of his mortuary temple at
Medinet Habu. It is the longest hieroglyphic inscription known to us. On the outer north wall of the temple proper he had carved the
illustrations of the battle. After having stayed for a time in Syria, the Sea People apparently traveled over land to the Egyptian border.
This was not simply a military campaign. The Sea People had with them their women and children, together with their possessions piled high
on ox-carts. They also employed a sea fleet that apparently stayed in tract with those on land. Their intention was to settle in Egypt.
Ramesses reacted swiftly to this threat, and in doing so, saved Egypt from the fate that would befall other empires, at least for a while.
He dispatched squads of soldiers at once to the eastern Egyptian frontier at Djahy (southern Palestine, perhaps the Egyptian garrison in
the Gaza strip) with orders to stand firm at any cost until the main Egyptian army arrived. Once deployed, the Egyptian army then had
little problem in slaying these enemies, as was depicted in the reliefs at Medinet Habu. However, there was still the sea fleet to
Egypt was never particularly known for their navy, which was made up principally of infantry, including archers, who were given special
marine training. Yet they hated the sea, known as wdj wr, the "Great Green", as they called the Mediterranean. However, as the Sea
Peoples' fleet headed for the mouth of one of the eastern arms of the Nile, they were indeed met by the Egyptian fleet. In an inspired
tactical maneuver, the Egyptian fleet worked the Sea Peoples' boats towards shore, where land based Egyptian archers were waiting to pour
volley after volley of arrows into the enemy ships, while the Egyptian marine archers, calmly standing on the decks of their ships, fired
in unison. As the Egyptian ships threw grappling hooks into the Sea People's vessels, by the grace of the god Amun, the enemies fell dead
into the water from the onslaught of the combined Egyptian forces. In fact, this victory provided considerable respect for the priesthood
of Amun at Thebes. We have no documentation of any pursuit of the fleeing Sea People as they returned to the Levant, but it is reasonable
that there was such a campaign.
Hence, for some three years, all was well and Egypt was for the most part at peace. Then, after a gradual infiltration by immigrants into
the area west of the Canopic arm of the Nile from Egypt's western border, the Libyans, together with the Meshwesh and five other tribes,
launched another full scale invasion during Ramesses III's eleventh year as ruler. Once again, Ramesses III countered the attack, crushing
these opponents as well. Apparently some 2,000 of the enemy dead were left on the killing fields, while the captured leaders were
executed. The booty of the enemy captured during the battle, consisting of cattle and other possession's were sent south to the treasury
of Amun. The details of this battle are found on the inner, north wall of the First Pylon at Medinet Habu.
There were apparently other campaigns during the reign of Ramesses III, as recorded on the walls of his mortuary temple, though some of
these scenes are questionable. Many of these depictions record events that probably took place in bygone years, a common practice of many
kings in order to elevate their reputations. In fact, some of these scenes from Medinet Habu clearly seem to be copies of earlier battles
fought by his illustrious predecessor, Ramesses II.
However, it does seem that there were some other minor conflicts, particularly from the desert around the latitude of Thebes, but these
were rather minor in nature.
Ramesses III established a number of foreign contacts for trade, most notably with its old trading partner, Punt. This may have been
Egypt's first contact with that land since the famous ventures in the days of Hatshepsut of the 18th Dynasty. He also seems to have sent
an expedition to Atika, where the copper mines of Timna were located.
The king is well known for his domestic building program, a consolidation of law and order (as well as a tree-planting program). The end
of the 19th Dynasty saw considerable corruption and various abuses, and Ramesses III was forced to inspect and reorganize the various
temples throughout the country. The Great Harris Papyrus provides that Ramesses III made huge donations of land to the most important
temples in Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis. In fact, by the end of his reign, a third of the cultivatable land belonged to the temples and
of this, three quarters belonged to the temple of Amun at Thebes. Though Ramesses III's foremost construct was his mortuary temple at
Medinet Habu, which was finished in about the 12th year of his reign, at Karnak he provided numerous relief decorations and two new, small
temples including one dedicated to Khonsu, the moon god. Additional building work was carried out in a number of centers, including
Piramesses (or Pi-Ramesses, modern Qantir), Athribis (Tell Atrib), Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis (Ashmunein), Syut (Greek Lycopolis,
modern Asyut), Abydos and Edfu.
For many generations, Egypt had two viziers, one governing Upper Egypt and anther official who oversaw Lower Egypt. Apparently there was a
problem; perhaps even a rebellion involving the unnamed Lower Egyptian vizier and so Ramesses III unified this high office under a single
person named To (Ta).
The Death of Ramesses III While we know that Ramesses III likely died during the trial of the harem conspirators, we really do not know
how he died, though some scholars believe it was at the hands of the conspirators while others believe it was not related to the plot.
Irregardless, his death signaled the coming end of the New Kingdom, and even the lofty position that Egypt held on the world stage. He was
buried in a large tomb (KV11) in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at ancient Thebes (modern Luxor). His is most famous for having
some secular scenes that were unusual among royal tombs, including a painting of two blind male harpists. Hence, though sometimes called
"Bruce's Tomb after its discoverer, James Bruce in 1769, in literature it is more well known as "The Tomb of the Harper". Presumably, he
was succeeded by his son, Ramesses IV in about the year 1151 BC.