Ramesses III

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Usimare Ramesses III (also written Ramses and Rameses) was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty and is considered to be the last New Kingdom king to wield any substantial authority over Egypt. His long reign saw the decline of Egyptian political and economic power, linked to a series of invasions and internal economic problems.

Ramesses III was the son of Setnakhte and Queen Tiy-Merenese. He was probably murdered by an assassin in a conspiracy led by one of his secondary wives, Tiye, and her son Pentaweret.


Ramesses' two main names transliterate as wsr-mꜢʿt-rʿ–mry-ỉmn rʿ-ms-s–ḥḳꜢ-ỉwnw. They are normally realised as Usermaatre-meryamun Ramesse-hekaiunu, meaning "The Ma'at of Ra is strong, Beloved of Amun, Born of Ra, Ruler of Heliopolis".


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.[1] Alternate dates for his reign are 1187 to 1156 BC.

In a description of his coronation from Medinet Habu, four doves were said to be "dispatched to the four corners of the horizon to confirm that the living Horus, Ramses III, is (still) in possession of his throne, that the order of Maat prevails in the cosmos and society".[2][3]

Tenure of constant war

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Ramses III offering incense, wall painting in KV11.

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, Meshwesh 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:

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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.[4]

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 5 and Year 11 respectively.[5]

Economic turmoil

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.[6] Something in the air (possibly the Hekla 3 eruption) 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 increase in grain prices under the later reigns of Ramesses VI–VII, whereas the prices for fowl and slaves remained constant.[7] Thus the cooldown 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.

Osirid statues of Ramses III at his temple in Karnak (in the first courtyard of the Great Temple of Amun).

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 temple in the heart of Egypt prior to Ramesses' reign had ever needed to be protected in such a manner.

Conspiracy and death

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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 three known wives (the others being Tyti and Iset Ta-Hemdjert), over whose son would inherit the throne. Tyti's son, Ramesses Amonhirkhopshef (the future Ramesses IV), was the eldest and the successor chosen by Ramesses III in preference to Tiye's son Pentaweret.

The trial documents[8] show that many individuals were implicated in the plot.[9] Chief among them were Queen Tiye and her son Pentaweret, 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.[10] According to the surviving trials transcripts, 3 separate trials were started in total while 38 people were sentenced to death.[11] The tombs of Tiye and her son Pentaweret 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 were involved were severely punished.[12]

Red granite sarcophagus of Ramesses III (Louvre)

It is not certain whether the assassination plot succeeded since Ramesses IV, the king's designated successor, assumed the throne upon his death rather than Pentaweret who was intended to be the main beneficiary of the palace conspiracy. Moreover, Ramesses III died in his 32nd year before the summaries of the sentences were composed,[13] but the same year that the trial documents[8] record the trial and execution of the conspirators.

Although it was long believed that Ramesses III's body showed no obvious wounds,[12] a recent examination of the mummy by a German forensic team, televised in the documentary Ramesses: Mummy King Mystery on the Science Channel in 2011, showed excessive bandages around the neck. A subsequent CT scan that was done in Egypt by Ashraf Selim and Sahar Saleem, professors of Radiology in Cairo University, revealed that beneath the bandages was a deep knife wound across the throat, deep enough to reach the vertebrae. According to the documentary narrator, "It was a wound no one could have survived."[14] The December 2012 issue of the British Medical Journal quotes the conclusion of the study of the team of researchers, led by Dr Zahi Hawass, the former head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquity, and his Egyptian team, as well as Dr Albert Zink from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen in Italy, which stated that conspirators murdered pharaoh Ramesses III by cutting his throat.[14][15][16] Zink observes in an interview that:

"The cut [to Ramesses III's throat] is...very deep and quite large, it really goes down almost down to the bone (spine) - it must have been a lethal injury."[17]

Before this discovery it had been speculated that Ramesses III had been killed by means that would not have left a mark on the body. Among the conspirators were practitioners of magic,[18] who might well have used poison. Some had put forth a hypothesis that a snakebite from a viper was the cause of the king's death. 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.

The same study determined that the mummy of an unknown man buried with him was a good candidate for Ramesses's son Pentawer although it could not determine his cause of death. Both mummies shared Y chromosomal haplogroup E1b1a and 50% of their genetic material, which Zink stated "is typical of a father-son relationship."[14]

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, given that, in the Great Harris Papyrus, he implored Amun to ensure his son's rights.[19]


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:

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"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)[20]

Medinet Habu temple relief of Ramesses III

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.[21] 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.[22]

The mummy of Ramesses III was discovered by antiquarians in 1886 and is regarded as the prototypical Egyptian Mummy in numerous Hollywood movies.[23] His tomb (KV11) is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings.

Chronological dispute

There is uncertainty regarding the exact dates of the reign of Ramesses III. This uncertainty affects the dating of the Late Bronze/Iron Age transition in the Levant. This transition is defined by the appearance of Mycenaean LH IIIC:1b (Philistine) pottery in the coastal plain of Palestine, generally assumed to correspond to the settlement of Sea People there at the 8th year of Ramesses III.[24] Radiocarbon dates and other external evidence permit this transition to be as late as 1100 BCE, compared to the conventional dating of c.1179 BCE.[25]

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 in 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 c. 1159 BC.[26] 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" (950 BC) has since been proposed by scientists based on a re-examination of the volcanic layer.[27] Given that no Egyptologist dates Ramesses III's reign to as late as 1000 BC, this would mean that the Hekla 3 eruption presumably occurred well after Ramesses III's reign. A 2002 study, using high-precision radiocarbon dating of a peat deposit containing ash layers, put this eruption in the range 1087-1006 BC.[28]


  1. E.F. Wente & C.C. Van Siclen, "A Chronology of the New Kingdom" in Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes, (SAOC 39) 1976, p.235, ISBN 0-918986-01-X
  2. Murnane, W. J., United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu, p. 38, Oriental Institute, Chicago / American University in Cairo Press, 1980.
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  4. Hasel, Michael G. "Merenptah's Inscription and Reliefs and the Origin of Israel" in The Near East in the Southwest: Essays in Honor of William G. Dever" edited by Beth Albprt Hakhai The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research Vol. 58 2003, quoting from Edgerton, W. F., and Wilson, John A. 1936 Historical Records of Ramses III, the Texts in Medinet Habu, Volumes I and II. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 12. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
  5. Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, Blackwell Books, 1992. p.271
  6. William F. Edgerton, The Strikes in Ramses III's Twenty-Ninth Year, JNES 10, No. 3 (July 1951), pp. 137-145
  7. Frank J. Yurco, p.456
  8. 8.0 8.1 J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §§423-456
  9. James H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §§416-417
  10. James H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §§446-450
  11. Joyce Tyldesley, Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt, Thames & Hudson October 2006, p.170
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cambridge Ancient History, Cambridge University Press 2000, p.247
  13. J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, p.418
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 King Ramesses III's throat was slit, analysis reveals. Retrieved 2012-12-18.
  15. British Medical Journal, Study reveals that Pharaoh’s throat was cut during royal coup, Monday, December 17, 2012
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  18. J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, pp.454-456
  19. J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §246
  20. A. J. Peden, The Reign of Ramesses IV, Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1994. p.32 Atika has long been equated with Timna, see here B. Rothenburg, Timna, Valley of the Biblical Copper Mines (1972), pp.201-203 where he also notes the probable port at Jezirat al-Faroun.
  21. Jacobus Van Dijk, 'The Amarna Period and the later New Kingdom' in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press paperback, (2002) p.305
  22. Van Dijk, p.305
  23. Bob Brier, The Encyclopedia of Mummies, Checkmark Books, 1998., p.154
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  26. Frank J. Yurco, "End of the Late Bronze Age and Other Crisis Periods: A Volcanic Cause" in Gold of Praise: Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente, ed: Emily Teeter & John Larson, (SAOC 58) 1999, pp.456-458
  27. At first, scholars tried to redate the event to "3000 BP": TOWARDS A HOLOCENE TEPHROCHRONOLOGY FOR SWEDEN, Stefan Wastegǎrd, XVI INQUA Congress, Paper No. 41-13, Saturday, July 26, 2003. Also: Late Holocene solifluction history reconstructed using tephrochronology, Martin P. Kirkbride & Andrew J. Dugmore, Geological Society, London, Special Publications; 2005; v. 242; p. 145-155.
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Further reading

  • Eric H. Cline and David O'Connor, eds. Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt's Last Hero (University of Michigan Press; 2012) 560 pages; essays by scholars

External links