The Harem Conspiracy and the Murder of Ramesses III

Updated on February 7, 2018
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Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and is also a collector Egyptian art.

The Assassination of Ramesses III

In 2012, a reexamination of the mummy of pharaoh Ramesses III revealed that his throat was cut to the bone, and that the 70 mm wound that was inflicted must have been lethal. These findings fit very well with ancient texts that describe an elaborate conspiracy against the pharaoh’s life, which included the involvement of the women from his harem, sorcerers and high ranking court officials. The plot was revealed and the conspirators were put on trial. The main instigator was one of the secondary wives of Ramesses called Tiye, and her intended aim was to get her son, prince Pentawer onto the throne of Egypt. The case became known as the ‘Harem Conspiracy’ and it was meticulously documented by the ancient Egyptian judicial system.

Ramesses III
Ramesses III | Source

The Breeding Ground for High Treason

With the murder in 1155 BC, the reign of Ramesses came to an end after 31 years. During the last decade a steady decline had set in. The many military conflicts that Ramesses had fought with Egypt’s enemies in the first 20 years of his reign, had taken a toll on the economy and subsequently, the pharaoh’s position had become weakened. This situation was made worse by consecutive years with disappointing harvests. In this atmosphere of discontent, Tiye was able to find enough co-conspirators to hatch the murder plot.

The mummy of Ramesses III
The mummy of Ramesses III | Source

The Judicial Papyrus of Turin

The main source for the Harem Conspiracy is the so-called Judicial Papyrus of Turin. It is a rather bureaucratic listing of the accused, their crimes, the individual verdicts and the punishments. This is for example a somewhat typical phrase:

“The great criminal, Eshehebsed, formerly assistant of Pebekkamen.
He was brought in because of his hearing the words from Pebekkamen; and when he had left him, he did not report them. He was placed before the nobles of the court of examination; they found him guilty; they brought his punishment upon him”.

Pebekkamen apparently confided in Eshehebsed who failed to report what he had learned to the proper authorities. Although no specific punishment is mentioned, it is safe to assume that this was a capital offence. The document lacks detailed information, however there are still some very interesting things we can learn from it:

  • The king seems to have given the court carte blanche to deal with the traitors, possibly in an attempt to distance himself from the inevitable outcome.
  • The members of this court appeared to have been judge, juror and executioner at the same time.
  • During the trial, three of the appointed court members were caught colluding with six of the female defendants in an attempt to pervert the course of justice. The charges against one member of the court were dismissed, but the other two were not so lucky. One was forced to take his own life, the other had his ears and nose cut off. In addition, two men that served as the guards of the women were also sentenced to the same disfigurement.
  • Some of the convicts were not put to death by the king's henchmen, but they were either allowed, or forced to kill themselves. Some of these suicides took place in the courtroom itself.
  • The names of some of the accused were changed in the court records, most likely to deny them good memory. So for example, Meryra (‘Beloved of Ra’) is referred to as ‘Mesedura’ (‘Ra hates him’).
  • Some of the accused were of foreign descent, most notably a Libyan and a Lycian (a descendant from one of the 'Sea Peoples'). Ramesses had battled their peoples in the first two decades of his reign and defeated them. Also, among the members of the court were foreigners.
  • Overall, the Judicial Papyrus of Turin contains a list of twenty-seven men and six women who were charged with high treason, and five men that were charged with corruption.

Ramesses III making an incense offering. From his Tomb  (KV11)
Ramesses III making an incense offering. From his Tomb (KV11) | Source

Sorcery

Also other textual sources have been preserved, most notably the Rollin Papyrus and the Lee Papyrus. They deal with three separate cases where the conspirators enlisted sorcerers to help in the execution of the murderous plot:

"He began to make magic rolls for [hindering] and terrifying, and to make some gods of wax, and some people, for enfeebling the limbs of people; and gave them into the hand of Pebekkamen"

Again we meet Pebekkamen, who is now enlisting the help of a sorcerer. The magician provided him with wax dolls portraying their opponents, that could be used to weaken them with spells and witchcraft. By bewitching the guards of the king, they could be paralyzed at the time that the assassin was to strike.

The Harem Conspiracy

The Plan

The basic plan for the coupe d’etat was twofold. Of course the first concern of the plotters would be the elimination of pharaoh Ramesses III and the sidelining of his chosen heir, prince Ramesses Amonhirkhopshef (who became known to us as Ramesses IV). But there was also another scheme to stir up revolt outside the palace walls. One of the women in the harem had written to her brother, a captain of the army commanding Nubian archers, saying:

"Incite the people to hostility! And come thou to begin hostility against thy lord."

Also in this part of the plot Pebekkamen played a key role. He served as an intermediary between the secluded women in the harem, and their families, in an attempt to get outside support for the revolt. In an already volatile situation this sort of agitation could have been disastrous for the weakened state of Egypt.

The Conspirators

So, who were these conspirators? The first thing that is evident is that all the conspirators came from the close inner circle of the pharaoh. Another thing to notice is that there was a broad support base for the plot. Among the plotters were military men, domestic servants as well as civil servants. Also sorcerers and women from the harem were involved. To exemplify, some of the titles held by the conspirators:

  • Commander of the army
  • Overseer of the White House (meaning: the Treasury)
  • Butler
  • Scribe of the Sacred House of Writings
  • Overseer of the Herds

The ringleaders of the plot were of course Tiye, a minor wife of Ramesses, and Pebekkamen. He was a very high ranking servant in the household of the pharaoh, and he was instrumental in orchestrating the whole affair. His formal title was ‘Chief of the Chamber’. It is also likely that prince Pentawer would be part of the collusion, although it is also conceivable that he was merely a pawn on the chessboard. Whatever his level of complicity, he was condemned to die by his own hand. The same was true for Pebekkamen. There is no record of the trial of queen Tiye, but there can be little doubt that she also received the death sentence.

The sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III. The pharaoh is surrounded by Isis and Nephthys
The sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III. The pharaoh is surrounded by Isis and Nephthys | Source

Did Ramesses III Survive the Harem Conspiracy?

Based on the evidence given, there is no way to be sure whether the death of the pharaoh was the result of the Harem Conspiracy. Plausible cases can be made either way.

The main evidence that Ramesses survived the conspiracy, is that in the Turin Papyrus Ramesses himself appoints the members of the court of examination, and gives instructions on how to proceed with the case. On the other hand we have the Lee Papyrus, which must have been written after the pharaoh had passed. We know this from the epitaph ‘the Great God’ used in reference to Ramesses III, which can only refer to a deceased king. So if we piece these things together, it leads to the conclusion that the king must have died during the trial. Physical evidence from the mummy revealed that the cut to the throat was so severe, that is it hard to see how Ramesses could have survived this attack for more than a just few hours at the most. This would exclude the Harem Conspiracy as the cause of his death because the court proceedings show that he only died once the trial got underway.

Physical evidence also revealed that besides the fatal wound to the throat, his toe was cut off just before his death, possibly with an ax. This points to a coordinated attack by multiple assailants. If Ramesses was not killed as a result of the Harem Conspiracy, then there must have been a second, successful attempt on his life during the ongoing trial. This also seems highly unlikely because it would imply that two conspiracies to commit regicide were conjured up independently of each other, at almost the same time.

So the verdict is still out. Either way, in the end the aim of the conspiracy was not achieved. Not prince Pentawer, but the chosen heir, Ramesses IV took the throne of the severely weakened nation. With Ramesses III, the last great warrior king of Egypt died.

Sources

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