The Conspiracy Against Ramses III in Dynasty XX


It is a somewhat well known fact among those of us involved with the history of ancient Egypt that in Dynasty XX during the reign of Ramses III an attempt to overthrow the king was undertaken.   Documents of the period record, albeit briefly, an account of this plot and the consequences that were derived.  The attempt on the king’s life ultimately proved in vain but the facts as presented make for an interesting story of court intrigues and conspiracies from a remote period of some three thousand and two hundred years past.  It is interesting, it is important and even amusing at times although perhaps not so for those involved who were ultimately caught and condemned.   In reading the main sources for this account, which are the Papyrus Lee and the Papyrus Rollin, in fact two parts of one document, and the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, one can see all the necessary elements for a modern day novel or drama.

          Who was the target of this conspiracy? As the record begins, the answer is not immediately clear. The king who calls together the prosecuting court in order to try the conspirators is referred to as the “ruler of Heliopolis, “ a somewhat elastic term that applied to several kings.  However, it is a term that seems to be especially applied to king Ramses III and reference is made to one of the accused as having secured a “magic roll of Ramses III ….., his lord”—a clear indication that the conspiracy was directed against this particular king. The record indicates that it must have happened near the close of his reign. 


         A woman named Tiye, one of his queens, institutes a plot to do away with the old king in order to place her son, named Pentewere, on the throne.   With the aid of stewards, inspectors, women of the harem, a general, a priest, a magician and several others, this plot was hatched to murder the king.  It was not successful. It is also
interesting to note that this is the only evidence of a trial or accusation of sorcery known from ancient Egypt.

         By not naming a “Great Royal Wife” or a crown prince (two of the latter had died with no replacement), Ramses III created the necessary conditions for a conspiracy of this nature to take place.  The Papyrus Rollin begins by telling us that the chief of the chamber, one Pebekamen, and a butler named Mesedsure, were the queen’s major co-conspirators.  Pebekamen obtained a number of magic wax figures of gods and men, from the overseer of the cattle, a man called Penhuybin, which had the supposed ability to disable the limbs of people.  It may be of interest to note at this point that the names given in the records are undoubtedly deformations or “damnatio memoriae” of the actual names of these people.  “Penhuybin,” for instance, can translate as “this evil Huy” or the like.   Two other men supplied similar materials that were secreted into the harem and by these means the conspirators were empowered, so they  believed, to evade the guard or any others who might discover the plot. 

Fortified Gateway at Medinet Habu. Where the plot against Rameses was foiled?

         Pebekamen and Mesedsure enlisted the co-operation of ten officials of various rank and placement within the harem.  Most of these people were in the personal service of the Pharaoh and so the serious and dangerous nature of the plot is evident.  Six of the wives of officers of the harem gate were involved in the transmission of messages as well as outside relatives of the harem themselves.  Most of these are not mentioned by name in the accounts.   We have a letter sent to a certain Binemwese by his sister.  Binemwese was a captain of archers in Nubia and was apparently drawn into this intrigue by his sister who was in the actual harem.   She urged him to stir up the people to hostile ends against the king, and such were the content of all the messages coming out of the harem.   It becomes apparent that the plan here was to ferment a revolution to accompany the planed coup within the palace.  It is not indicated in any of the correspondence that the assassination of the king is the actual planned outcome of this coup, but this should be assumed and is really self-evident.

         In any event at some point before this plan could be put fully into action someone “ratted them out” as the crime novels of our time would say.  Much evidence of their guilt was obtained and the king ordered their prosecution.  It now appears that the king may have died prior to the commencement of the trial, which  might be inferred from the wording used in the Papyrus Lee, col.1 line 3: “he gave to him (Pen-huy-bin) a writing of the (magic) scrolls of Wsr-Ma’at-R’-mry-‘Imn (Ramses III), L.P.H., the Great God, his lord, and he began to petition god for the derangement of the people.” The term “Great God” was applied only to deceased kings at this time in Egyptian history.  In any case, there is evidence that the old king may have been in poor health at this time, although not through the agency of the plot, as the Papyrus Turin relates some rather remarkable words transmitted by the king to the special court.

         The Papyrus Turin, which is more judicial in nature, does not give us the scope of detail that the other sources do but, notwithstanding, it gives us a unique instruction from a king who it would seem knew his days were running out.  The actual line reads “while I am protected and defended forever, while I am among the just kings, who are before Amen-Re, king of the gods, and before Osiris, ruler of eternity.” (P. Turin, col.3, line 3).  As stated, the plot itself did not succeed: the P. Rollin clearly tells us that Re did not allow the hostile plan to succeed, but one may well conclude that it hastened the king’s end in any case. 

         The sources cited indicate to us that full discretion regarding the verdict and final power to mete out punishment was given to the court.  Again, this is usually something that was judged upon by the Pharaoh following the trial.  Instructions were to punish none but the guilty, but one still must wonder at the climate of the times, the “zeitgeist” if you will, following such an occurrence.  We need only look to our recent history to see what turmoil can ensue following such attempts, successful or not, as relates to political assassinations or coups in our history. 

         The court itself was made up of officials from within the inner circle of the king.   It is of some interest however; that some of the names of these people, as passed on to us by the P. Turin again, indicate they were of foreign nationality.   This would seem most unusual and may indicate a condition in the court of
Ramses III that was not well viewed by the Egyptians themselves.   To make matters worse it later came to light that two of the judges, a butler named Pebes and a scribe Mai, along with two officers in charge of the prisoners, had consorted with some of the women conspirators and the general Peyes.   One must assume that this action took place after their appointment to the prosecuting court.  The Papyrus Turin lists four separate prosecutions of the various accused criminals and the names of these mentioned appear in the fourth or final prosecution.  They were sentenced to having their noses and ears cut off and, as the papyrus states in col. 6 line 2, “this great criminal, Pebes, formerly butler.  This punishment was executed upon him; he was left alone; he took his own life.”

         Records of the four different prosecutions are preserved in a very matter of fact form and they list the names of the accused and in some cases what their punishment was.  It should be noted that not all the judges were present at the four prosecutions.   From the first prosecution we have the names of six judges, none are named for the second, from the third we see the names of five royal butlers (three of which are mentioned in the original court) and no judges are mentioned in the fourth prosecution.   The first three prosecutions however dealt with the capital crimes.  There is mention made twice of a Pentewere in the records.  In both the second and third prosecutions this name is mentioned.  In the second prosecution a Pentewere is named in conjunction with Pebekamen and Peyes and it is stated that being found guilty “they left them in their own hands in the court of examination; they took their own lives.”  In the third prosecution we see Pentewere standing by himself and is referred to as “Pentewere, who bore that other name.”  Once again we see that he was left in his place and he took his own life.  These refrerences leave us with some room, not only for ambiguity concerning this person but also some room for speculation on his actual fate. 

         From the Papyrus’ Lee and Rollin we get more internal accounts of the extraordinary use of magic in this conspiracy and an insight into the measures used to extract confessions from the accused.  The records are somewhat fragmentary in nature but we get slight shafts of light from what we can discern.  Papyrus Lee, col.2 line 1, states, “… on the offering table, he went away----his hand enfeebled (lame).”  Whether this was the result of torture or magic is not really clear.  Certain facts become clear from the writings contained in these two documents.  These records clearly show that as an integral part of this plot, several of the participants did in fact make use of written magical spells, wax figurines, which were inscribed, and of potions.  These would have been designed to disturb or otherwise enchant the persons against whom the magic was directed.  Instructions of this nature can be found in the royal execration ritual designed for just these purposes in order to bring harm upon the kings’ enemies.  The use of magic in the plot is even more likely because the probable source of this information was the kings’ own documents.  The Papyrus Lee is very clear in col.1 that the criminal Penhuybin was given this magical royal text by some unknown defendant with the express purpose of using it in a plot against the king. 

         What is of interest here is what is stated in col. 2 of P. Lee regarding the “great crimes of death, the great abominations of the land, the things he had done.”  The use of magic or sorcery must be seen in this light as not a crime in and of itself, since these scrolls were from the kings’ own library, but rather we must look at it from a different direction.  These texts were in fact used on a daily basis in the temples throughout the land. Should we then conclude that all priests were guilty of capital crimes of sorcery?  That makes no sense; we are forced to conclude that the use of “spells” for royal benefit were completely legal.  The crime here was their use in an attempt on the life of the king.  Since the earliest of times, magic was considered to be a weapon by the Egyptians.   In the “Instructions Addressed to King Merikare” of Middle Kingdom date we are told that “(god) made for them magic as a weapon, to ward off the blow of events,” and so the legality of its usage was dependent upon its intended victim.  Ultimately, the records here indicate that the adjuration of sorcery is that which is directed against the king, and not sorcery per se. 

         There is one more tangential bit of information that we need to bring into our discussion here, which may bear upon this conspiracy.  The reference here is to one of the mummies found in the famous cache discovered at Deir el Bahri in 1881.  In this find, which included many mummies of high-ranking officials and royalty, was found a plain white painted wooden coffin devoid of inscription or identification of any sort.  Upon opening this coffin a shrunken sheepskin was found and cut open to reveal one of the most famous and at the same time most horrific mummies ever seen in Egypt.  The repulsive odor of the unwrapped body was at complete odds with what one usually sees when dealing with Egyptian mummies, which generally emit a somewhat sweet smell due to the embalming materials and procedures.  The facial features were such as to give nightmares to any who see it.  The man, whose features were horribly distorted, surely died in some sensationally unpleasant fashion, most likely asphyxiated.  There is little doubt that he was buried alive.

         The hands and feet were bound and the body showed no signs of injury nor did it exhibit any indication of attempt at mummification.  This is further indicated by the fact that the internal organs were intact within the body and some natron, a salt used in embalming, had just been tossed into the sheepskin alongside the body.   This probably would have made the death even more painful!  The obvious question of course is just who was the person and why was he treated in such a disgusting way? 

         A crime such as treason might call for such a punishment but in that case the body would almost certainly have been destroyed.  I believe that we must look beyond this and posit an event that would call for this kind of punishment.   I would conclude that along with some form of treason the additional crime of sacrilege must be considered.   The cache itself was the result of the high priests from the temple of Karnak reburying many of the bodies of the kings and queens, which had become disturbed for reasons such as tomb robbery, at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty.   An attack on the person of the king, who was regarded as a god, would fit just such a definition of sacrilege.  The use of the sheepskin is interesting since the Egyptians would have regarded this as unclean or impure and would add additional force to the statement being made here.   Just who this person was we will probably never know, but being found guilty in association with an assassination attempt upon the king as we have just considered gives us ample reason to speculate that this may have been one of the conspirators’, and one of high rank.   Lesser personages would not have been given the “consideration” of a coffin, much less placed in a tomb of any sort.   And what of the queen Tiye, who we heard of at the beginning of this story?  She is never mentioned in the trial documents and we hear no more of her.  

        Not only was this fellow condemned in this life but by leaving him unidentified and with no written prayers or spells upon his coffin, condemned for all eternity.  Speculation here is of course, just that, but it is of interest when one pulls all the implications together to try to explain just what he was doing there in that cache and the burial condition seen.  None of the papyri mentioned make any reference to this kind of punishment, and rarely do we have such a good account of trials, but the Egyptians have a habit of not recording things that are of a nature that is upsetting to ma’at, the correct order of things.  Perhaps this is one such instance.                




War Prisoners (Medinet Habu)