Ancient Egypt

Ramesses III: Egypt’s Valiant Defender in a Time of Tumult

Did Ramesses III's victories over invading forces and ambitious building projects truly justify his 'Last Great Pharaoh' title?

Ramsess III pharaoh

Ramesses III, inheriting a troubled Egypt from his enigmatic father Setnakhte, ascended the throne of the Twentieth Dynasty. Setnakhte’s lineage was obscure, possibly that of a usurper with distant ties to the legendary Ramesses II. His short rule mirrored the decline of the opulent 18th Dynasty, fractured by internal conflict. Setnakhte, a military man, brought temporary stability. Yet, upon Ramesses III’s succession, the challenges were clear.

Seeking to consolidate power, Ramesses III strategically emulated Ramesses the Great, employing identical names and court appointments for his own sons. This was a potent echo of a revered predecessor.

Barely five years into his reign, Ramesses III faced his first test. A coalition of Libyan tribes, including the Meshwesh and Seped, surged against Egypt’s borders. Mirroring his predecessor Merenptah, Ramesses confronted, and repelled, the Libyan threat in both land and sea engagements.

The Enigmatic Sea Peoples

Tableaux of Ramesses III and the Egyptian forces in battle with the Sea People, North Wall of Medinet Habu, via Breasted, J. H. (1930) The Excavation of Medinet Habu 1. Source: The University of Chicago.

A mere three years later, a far graver menace loomed. In this tumultuous era known as the Bronze Age Collapse, coastal powers across the region were buckling beneath the onslaught of the enigmatic Sea Peoples. These formidable adversaries, adept at both land and naval warfare, had brought ruin to Ugarit, Cyprus, the Mycenaeans, Palestine, and even the mighty Hittite Empire.

In Ramesses III’s eighth year, the Sea Peoples struck a two-pronged attack. One force advanced overland toward the Nile Delta after clashes in Palestine, while the other closed in on the Nile’s main mouth by sea. His response was swift and decisive: a nationwide draft bolstered the ranks of the army deployed to the Delta, while archers and warships were strategically positioned at the Nile’s mouth.

Ancient records depict the clash. Arrows rained upon the Sea Peoples’ vessels – ships designed for transport, not battle. In the face of this onslaught, the invaders struggled to retreat, only to be met by the superior Egyptian fleet. Ill-equipped for naval combat, the Sea Peoples’ ships were upended, casting their warriors into the depths. While the land battle’s outcome is less clear, with scant detail suggesting potential setbacks, victory appears to have ultimately been Egypt’s.

Restoration

Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. Source: EBT Tours, Egypt.
Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. Source: EBT Tours, Egypt.

In the wake of his triumph over the Libyan tribes, Ramesses III, the last pharaoh to wield significant power in ancient Egypt, sought to bolster his legacy. His reign saw the rise of the majestic mortuary complex of Medinet Habu, a testament to both his prowess and the artistic zenith of the era. This ‘Mansion of Millions of Years’ stands as a chronicle in stone, its reliefs proclaiming the pharaoh’s military conquests and depicting scenes of hunting and royal leisure amidst the harem’s splendor. It was a final, breathtaking flourish of monumental architecture; subsequent rulers were forced to more modest additions within its grounds. Medinet Habu also bears witness to centuries of transformation, with Coptic Christians establishing churches within the temple complex as late as the ninth century CE.

Ramesses III depicted in the pharaonic tradition of hunting, reverse of the First Pylon at Medinet Habu. Source: Meisterdrucke Fine Arts.
Ramesses III depicted in the pharaonic tradition of hunting, reverse of the First Pylon at Medinet Habu. Source: Meisterdrucke Fine Arts.

Ramesses III’s reverence for the divine extended beyond his own grandiose projects. He ordered sweeping inspections of temples throughout Egypt, ensuring adherence to ritual protocol and initiating restoration efforts where necessary. The Luxor Temple received a splendid refurbishment, a new shrine adorned the Temple of Seth in Nubt, and a temple dedicated to Khonsu rose within the hallowed precinct of Ipetsut.

The pharaoh’s ambition encompassed foreign shores as well. Expeditions to the Sinai yielded gleaming turquoise, while Timna’s mines supplied precious copper. Most audaciously, Ramesses revived the near-mythical trade routes to Punt (likely modern-day Somalia), procuring incense and myrrh after a centuries-long hiatus that began in Hatshepsut’s reign. These echoes of the glorious 18th Dynasty underscored his resolve to restore Egypt’s prestige.

Economic Turmoil and Unrest

Yet, beneath the veneer of might and magnificence, economic woes gnawed at the empire’s foundations. The cost of repelling foreign invaders took its toll on the treasury. While temples overflowed with exotic treasures, grain stores– the backbone of the Egyptian economy – dwindled alarmingly. Trade with the Near East languished, a casualty of the Sea Peoples’ destructive campaigns.

Deir el-Medina, village of artisans and craftsmen. Source: Explore Luxor.
Deir el-Medina, village of artisans and craftsmen. Source: Explore Luxor.

The first recorded labor strikes in history erupted under Ramesses III, stark manifestations of this turmoil. Necropolis artisans in Deir el-Medina, denied their wages and rations for over a month, abandoned their tools in protest. Their demonstrations escalated into sit-ins at sacred temples, even daring to block access to the Valley of the Kings, disrupting vital funerary rites. Local officials, paralyzed by indecision and fearing the Pharaoh’s wrath during jubilee preparations, failed to resolve the situation. Strikes flared intermittently for three years before wages were finally paid with regularity.

Though likely unaware of the full extent of the unrest, Ramesses III bore the onus of Egypt’s faltering economy. His focus on monumental projects and outward prestige came at the price of domestic hardship, revealing the widening fissures in his administration. The common people and local economies bore the brunt of these failings, particularly in the face of diminishing grain reserves.

Palace Intrigue: The Harem Conspiracy and the Fall of Ramesses III

The Egyptian pharaoh’s harem, a place of opulence and veiled power struggles, existed since the Old Kingdom. This secluded world held wives, concubines, and royal family members in a complex social hierarchy. Its own internal administration mirrored a miniature court, where ambition and rivalry simmered. As Ramesses III’s health declined following his jubilee in 1157 BCE, the precarious balance of power within the harem began to shift, offering a tantalizing opportunity for those who sought dominion.

Ramesses III playing a board game in the royal harem with two women via Nims, C. F. (1970) The Excavations of Medinet Habu 8. Source: The University of Chicago.
Ramesses III playing a board game in the royal harem with two women via Nims, C. F. (1970) The Excavations of Medinet Habu 8. Source: The University of Chicago.

The Judicial Papyrus of Turin offers a chilling glimpse into the events that transpired – a conspiracy hatched within the harem’s gilded walls. Tiye, a secondary wife, plotted to assassinate the pharaoh and his designated heir, paving the way for her son, Pentaweret, to seize the throne. Her web of accomplices extended deep into the palace, enlisting the likes of butlers, courtiers, and even the Head of the Treasury. Word was sent to a military leader, Tiye’s own brother, to incite a rebellion and divide the pharaoh’s attention. The precise outcome of the conspiracy remains shrouded in historical debate. Early interpretations suggested Ramesses III briefly survived the attack, based on the papyrus’ opening address where he appoints officials to investigate the treason.

A Pharaoh’s Demise

Yet, subsequent mentions of Ramesses III as “The Great God” – a term reserved for deceased rulers – cast doubt on his survival. Despite the lack of visible wounds on his mummy, a breakthrough came in 2011 when a CT scan exposed a fatal neck wound, reaching deep into the bone. This grisly discovery confirmed the pharaoh’s assassination.

The conspirators’ fates were sealed. Of the 38 found guilty, some were driven to suicide, while others endured horrific mutilations as punishment for their silence.

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Ramesses III: Legacy of a Besieged Pharaoh

The tomb of Ramesses III (KV11), nestled among the grand sepulchers of the Valley of the Kings, stands as a testament to the pharaoh’s formidable achievements. His victories against the marauding Sea Peoples, who brought ruin to Egypt’s rivals, were undeniably remarkable, even amidst possible heavy casualties. Ramesses III sought to revitalize Egypt after a turbulent period, restoring hallowed temples and rekindling foreign trade. These endeavors are chronicled in the Great Harris Papyrus, an extraordinary 41-meter-long document commissioned by his son, Ramesses IV – a fitting record of the reign of the ‘Last Great Pharaoh’.

Mummy of Ramesses III found in KV11. Source: The University of Chicago.
Mummy of Ramesses III found in KV11. Source: The University of Chicago.

Yet, Ramesses III’s reign was not without its shadows. Incessant warfare in a volatile political climate laid the groundwork for Egypt’s economic decline. Like many 19th Dynasty pharaohs, Ramesses ascended the throne amidst internal strife, a pattern that persisted after his death. Ramesses IV’s rule began auspiciously but soon fell prey to unrelenting economic woes. By the reign of Ramesses V, Egypt was plagued by Libyan raids, and the pharaoh seemed powerless to stem the tide. This downward spiral marked the dynasty’s end and brought about a significant erosion of Egypt’s power. The might of the pharaohs waned while the clergy’s influence grew unchecked.

Despite the mounting challenges, Ramesses III is undeniably a testament to capable leadership. Within a tempestuous era, he managed to maintain the legacy of the great pharaohs who came before, temporarily stemming Egypt’s decline during his reign.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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