SENUSRET III, THE 5TH KING OF THE 12TH DYNASTY
by Jimmy Dunn.
Senusret III is probably the best attested king of the New Kingdom. He ruled the country for perhaps as long as 37 years as
the 5th pharaoh of Egypt's 12th Dynasty from around 1878 until 1841 BC. He is probably also the best known of the Middle
Kingdom pharaohs to the public because of his many naturalistic statues showing a man with often heavy eye-lids and lined
continence. Later statues seem to portray him with increasing "world-weariness". Taken along with contemporary text, these
statues seem to wish us to believe Senusret III was a king possessed of a concerned, serious and thoughtful regard for his
Egyptologists make a great deal out of Senusret III's statuary. It is much loser in terms of the rigid ideological
representations of earlier kings and illustrates a shift in both the function of art and a change in the ideology surrounding
the king. The human qualities of the statues give a sense of age and tension, rather then the all powerful king portrayed in
older works. We see in these statues a shift away from the king as god, and more towards the king as leader.
Senusret was this king's birth name, which mean, "Man of Goddess Wosret". He is also sometimes referred to as Senwosret III
and Senusert III, or by the Greeks, Sesostris III. His throne name was Kha-khau-re, meaning "Appearing like the Souls of Re".
Senusret III was most surely the son of Senusret II, changing a trend of having alternate leaders named Senusret and
Amenemhet. We know of no co-regency with his father, though most of the previous 12th Dynasty kings shared at least a few
years of their reign with their sons, and a co-regency would clear up some questions about Senusret III's long reign. His
mother may have been Khnumetneferhedjetweret (Khanumet, Weret), who we believe was buried in a tomb near his pyramid at
Dahshur. He was married to a principle queen named Mereret, who probably outlived him, and may have also been married to his
sister, Sit-Hathor. His son and successor was Amenemhet III.
Senusret III must have been a very dominant figure within his time. Manetho describes him as a great warrior, not
surprisingly, because he also says he was "of great height at 4 cubits, 3 palms and 2 fingers" (over 6 ft, 6 in or 2 meters).
In addition, he may also have been the model for the Sesostris of Maetho and Herodotus, who was probably a composite, heroic
Middle Kingdom ruler who was suppose to be a model for future kings.
While there had been fortifications built in Nubia, Amenemhet II and Senusret II, Senusret III's predecessors, had not been
extremely active in Nubia militarily, and some Nubian groups had gradually moved north past the Third Cataract. Senusret III
initiated a series of devastating campaigns in Nubia very early in his reign (perhaps year 6) in order to secure his southern
borders and protect the trading routes and mineral resources. Apparently, the Nubians were a troublesome lot during his reign,
for Senusret III would again have to mount campaigns in at least the years 8, 10, 16 and 19 of his reign. Regardless, these
campaigns seem to have been for the most part successful, for the king had inscribed on a great stele at Semna erected in year
8 of his rule, now in Berlin, "I carried off their women, I carried off their subjects, went forth to their wells, smote their
bulls; I reaped their grain, and set fire thereto". In other words, he killed their men, enslaved their women and children,
burnt their crops and poisoned their wells. The stele also provides that no Nubians were allowed to take their herds or boats
to the north of the specified border.
To facilitate these military actions in Nubia, he had a an existing bypass canal around the First Cataract (rapids) at Aswan,
originally dug in the Old Kingdom by Merenre (or Pepi I) cleared, broadened and deepened. According to an inscription, he had
it repaired again in year eight of his reign. This canal was near the island of Sehel.
His predecessors had also established a policy of building fortresses in Nubia, but in order to further secure the area,
Senusret III built more fortresses then any of the the other Middle Kingdom rulers. In the 64 km (40 mile) length of the
Second Cataract in Lower (northern) Nubia there were no less then eight such fortresses between Semna and Buhen However, many
Egyptologists disagree with exactly how many of these fortresses were built by Senusret III, or were instead, simply
rededicated or enlarged.. These fortresses were in close contact with each other, and with the region's vizier, reporting the
slightest movements of Nubians. At least some of the fortresses appear also to have been specialized. For example, the one at
Mirgissa was more involved with trade, whereas others, such as the fortress at Askut, were used as supply depots for campaigns
into Upper (southern) Nubia.
Senusret III managed to expand Egypt's boarders further south then anyone ruler before him, of which he was proud. A stele at
Semna with a duplicate at Uronarti records:
"I have made my boundary further south than my fathers,
I have added to what was bequeathed me.
I am a king who speaks and acts,
What my heart plans is done by my arm.
One who attacks to conquer, who is swift to succeed,
ln whose heart a plan does not slumber.
Considerate to clients, steady in mercy,
Merciless to the foe who attacks him.
One who attacks him who would attack,
Who stops when one stops,
Who replies to a matter as befits it.
To stop when attacked is to make bold the foe's heart,
Attack is valor, retreat is cowardice,
A coward is he who is driven from his border.
Since the Nubian listens to the word of mouth,
To answer him is to make him retreat.
Attack him, he will turn his back,
Retreat, he will start attacking.
They are not people one respects,
They are wretches, craven-hearted.
My majesty has seen it, it is not an untruth.
I have captured their women,
I have carried off their subjects,
Went to their wells, killed their cattle,
Cut down their grain, set fire to it.
As my father lives for me, I speak the truth!
It is no boast that comes from my mouth."
In fact, he not only stabilized Egypt's southern border at Semna, his troops regularly penetrated the area beyond and we know
of a record recording the height of the inundation as far south as Dal, many miles beyond Semna. This stele continues with an
admonishes later kings,
"Now as for every son of mine who shall maintain this boundary, which My Majesty has made, he is my son, he is born of My
Majesty, the likeness of a son who is the champion of his father, who maintains the boundary of him that begat him. Now, as
for him who shall relax it, and shall not fight for it; he is not my son, he is not born to me."
Certainly his son, Amenemhet III heeded this warning, and interestingly, Senusret III was later deified in Nubia as a god.
However, we also know that, in what we believe to be his final campaign in Nubia in year 19 of his reign, his efforts were
less successful. Apparently, due to a drop in the Nile's water level, his forces had to make a retreat to avoid being
Most of Senusret III's military attention was directed towards Nubia, but he is also noted for a campaign in Syria against
the Mentjiu, where rather then a goal of expansion, he seems to have been after retribution and plunder. We owe this
information to a a stele belonging to an individual named Sobkkhu, who apparently also participated in the Nubian campaigns.
The king apparently led this campaign himself, capturing the town of Sekmem, which may have been Shechem in the Mount Ephrain
It was probably during Senusret III's reign that we also find the "Execration Texts". These were inscriptions found in Nubia
and Egypt, usually inscribed either on magical figurines or on pottery. The inscriptions were usually a list of enemies of
Egypt. These objects were often ritualistically smashed, and the shards placed under the foundations of new building, thus
"smothered", or nailed at the edge of the area they were meant to protect.
The plunder from the Nubian and Syrian campaigns was mostly directed towards the temples in Egypt, and their renewal. For
example, at Abydos, an inscription by a local official named Ikhernofret states that the king commissioned him to refurbish
Osiris's barge, shrine and chapels with gold, electrum, lapis lazuli, malachite and other costly stones. He also adorned the
temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari (West Bank at Luxor) with a series of six life size granite standing statues of
himself wearing the nemes headdress. They once lined the lower terrace.
Religiously, we are told in a graffiti that, even though his capital, burial ground and other interests were in Northern
Egypt, he also helped maintain a large number of priests associated with the cult of Amun in Upper (southern) Egypt at Thebes.
He also had built a large temple to the old Theban war god, Montu, just north of Karnak at Nag-el-Medamoud. While this temple
was refurbished in the New Kingdom and again in the Greek and Roman period, nothing remains of it save two finely carved
granite gateways that were discovered in 1920, along with some very splendid statues and a few inscriptions.
Domestically, Senusret III was able to carry on his military campaigns and building projects because he had matters at home
largely under control. He divided the country into three administrative divisions (waret), including a North, South and the
Head of the South (Elephantine and Lower Nubia), that were each administered by a council (djadjat) of senior staff who in
turn reported to a vizier. This sufficiently weakened the power of local nomarchs (governors) and other high officials who had
once again begun to challenge the central government and the monarch. Decentralization due to powerful local officials and
nobles had, in the past, created chaos and ultimately led to the dark times of the First Intermediate Period. It would seem
that most all of the Middle Kingdom rulers were aware of this threat, and were constantly on guard.
This new administrative scheme apparently also had another effect, in that it promoted the rise of the middle class, many of
whom were incorporated into the administration, and were no longer under the influence and control of the local nobles.
Sunusret III had his pyramid built at Dahshur, a mostly Middle Kingdom necropolis. It was the largest of the 12th Dynasty
pyramids, but like the others with mudbrick cores, after the casing was removed it deteriorated badly. In the excavation
season of 1894-1895, Jacques de Morgan also found the tombs of Queen Mereret and princess Sit-Hathor near the northern
enclosure wall of Senusret III's pyramid complex. Also found with these tombs were some fine jewelry, missed by earlier
robbers. However, some Egyptologists doubt that Senusret III was buried in this pyramid. He also had an elaborate tomb and
complex built in South Abydos. This huge complex stretches over a kilometer between the edge of the Nile floodplain and the
foot of the high desert cliffs that form the western boundary of the valley. This complex consists of an underground tomb
which, at least at one time, was considered to be the largest in Egypt (that may have been eclipsed by the discovery of the
Tomb of Ramesses II's Sons in the Valley of the Kings). Other components include a mortuary temple at the edge of the
cultivated fields and a town south of the tomb that supported the complex. The name of this funerary complex was "Enduring are
the Places of Khakaure Justified in Abydos".
Senusret III is further attested by blocks from a doorway found near Qantir and by his rock inscriptions near the island of
Sehel south of Aswan that record the reopening of the bypass canal.
Khakhaure Senusret III (also written as Senwosret III or Sesostris III) was a pharaoh of Egypt. He ruled from 1878 BC to 1839 BC, and was
the fifth monarch of the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom. Among his achievements was the building of the Sisostris Canal. He was a
great pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty and is considered to be perhaps the most powerful Egyptian ruler of the dynasty. Consequently, he is
regarded as one of the sources for the legend about Sesostris. His military campaigns gave rise to an era of peace and economic prosperity
that reduced the power of regional rulers and led to a revival in craftwork, trade and urban development. Senusret III was one of the
few kings who were deified and honored with a cult during their own lifetime.
Senusret III cleared a navigable canal through the first cataract and relentlessly pushed his kingdom's expansion into Nubia (from 1866
to 1863 BC) where he erected massive river forts including Buhen, Semna and Toshka at Uronarti.
He carried out at least four major campaigns into Nubia in his Year 8, 10, 16 and 19 respectively. His Year 8 stela at Semna documents
his victories against the Nubians through which he is thought to have made safe the southern frontier, preventing further incursions into
Egypt. Another great stela from Semna dated to the third month of Year 16 of his reign mentions his military activities against both
Nubia and Canaan. In it, he admonished his future successors to maintain the new border which he had created:
" Year 16, third month of winter: the king made his southern boundary at Heh. I have made my boundary further south than my fathers.
I have added to what was bequeathed me. (...) As for any son (ie. successor) of mine who shall maintain this border which my Majesty has
made, he is my son born to my Majesty. The true son is he who champions his father, who guards the border of his begetter. But he [who]
abandons it, who fails to fight for it, he is not my son, he was not born to me. Now my majesty has had an image made of my majesty, at
this border which my majesty has made, in order that you maintain it, in order that you fight for it. "
His final campaign in Year 19 was less successful because the king's forces were caught by the Nile being lower than normal and they had
to retreat and abandon their campaign to avoid being trapped in hostile Nubian territory.
Such was his forceful nature and immense influence that Senusret III was worshipped as a god in Semna by later generations. Jacques
Morgan, in 1894, found rock inscriptions near Sehel Island documenting his digging of a canal under the king. Senusret III erected a temple
and town in Abydos, and another temple in Medamud.
His pyramid was constructed at Dahshur. A papyrus in the Berlin Museum shows Year 20 of his reign is equivalent to Year 1 of his son
Amenemhat III. This means that he initiated a coregency with his son in this year. According to Josef W. Wegner, a Year 39 hieratic control
note was recovered on a white limestone block from
" ...a securely defined deposit of construction debris produced from the building of the Senwosret III mortuary temple. The fragment
itself is part of the remnants of the temple construction. This deposit provides evidence for the date of construction of the mortuary
temple of Senwosret III at Abydos. "
Wegner stresses that it is unlikely that Amenemhet III, Senusret's son and successor would still be working on his father's temple nearly
4 decades into his own reign. He notes that the only possible solution for the block's existence here is that Senusret III had a 39-year
reign, with the final 20 years in coregency with his son Amenemhet III. Since the project was associated with a project of Senusret III,
his Regnal Year was presumably used to date the block, rather than Year 20 of Amenemhet III. This implies that Senusret was still alive in
the first two decades of his son's reign.
Visually, Senusret III is known for his strikingly somber sculptures in which he appears careworn and grave.
His court included the viziers Sobekemhat, Nebit and Khnumhotep. Ikhernofret worked as treasurer for the king at Abydos.
Pyramid and complex
Senusret's pyramid complex was built north-east of the Red Pyramid of Dashur and in grandeur far surpassed those from the early 12th
dynasty in size and underlying religious conceptions.
There has been speculation that Senusret was not necessarily buried there but rather in his sophisticated funerary complex in Abydos with
his pyramid more likely to have been a cenotaph.
Senusret's pyramid is 105 meter square and 78 meters high. The total volume was about 288,000 cubic meters. The pyramid was built of a
core of mud bricks. They were not made a consistent size implying that standardized moulds weren't used. The burial chamber was lined with
granite. Above the vaulted burial chamber was a second relieving chamber that was roofed with 5 pairs of limestone beams each weighing 30
tons. Above this was a third mudbrick vault.
The pyramid complex included a small mortuary temple and 7 smaller pyramids for his queens. There was also a southern temple, however this
has since been destroyed.