The Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Ramesses III
(Dekalb: Northern Illinois University, 2002) 202 pp., $32
The rulers of the ancient world are not known for their modesty. Take for example, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III (1182–1151 B.C.). Throughout his 31-year reign, Ramesses began most of his speeches with statements like “All my plans succeed” or “I am never wrong.” He also built himself a magnificent mortuary temple and adorned its walls with gigantic images of his military triumphs. After his death, Ramesses’ heirs even buried him with the world’s longest papyrus (the 133-foot-long Great Harris Papyrus, now in the British Museum), which painstakingly chronicles all of the “great king’s” spectacular military achievements and acts of royal largesse.
Thanks in large part to such lavish acts of self-promotion, Ramesses III is remembered today as “the last of the great pharaohs.” Most textbooks on ancient Egypt feature admiring descriptions of his temple at Medinet Habu and heroic accounts of his victories over the Libyans and “Peoples of the Sea.” There is, however, one important aspect of Ramesses’ life that remains obscure: his death.
Did Ramesses pass on to the next world peacefully, at the end of a long and glorious reign, or was he done in by his own courtiers as he dallied in his harem? This is the 3,000-year-old mystery that lies at the heart of Susan Redford’s new book, The Great Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Ramesses III.
According to the official chronicles set down by Ramesses’ heirs, the pharaoh died of natural causes while in his 60s (a relatively advanced age by ancient Egyptian standards). X-rays of Ramesses’ mummy (now in the Cairo Museum) seem to support this claim, showing no evidence of physical trauma or foul play of any kind. However, several fragments of ancient papyrus discovered in the early 19th century suggest a slightly different story. These papyri include a series of legal documents dating from the final days of Ramesses’ reign, and they describe the trial and subsequent execution of dozens of conspirators who plotted to “incite hostilities and make rebellion against their lord [the pharaoh].”
The chief defendant in the Harem Conspiracy was one of Ramesses’ many wives—a little known queen named Teya, who allegedly sought to kill the king and place her own son, Pentawere, on Egypt’s throne. According to the papyri, Teya managed to enlist several other unnamed members of the pharoah’s harem and more than 40 high-ranking royal officials in an attempted coup d’etat.
Unfortunately, the conspiracy papyri are long on symbolism and ceremonial rhetoric and short on hard facts. The names of most of the key conspirators have been changed and few details are given concerning how Teya and her confederates actually planned to eliminate the king. Instead, historians have had to content themselves with vague references to a plot involving rebel troops from Kush and “the use of black magic” to “overturn the royal bark” while the king was resting in his harem.
Ramesses III died only a few weeks after Teya’s trial was convened, leaving open for millennia sensationalist speculations that Teya slipped Ramesses a slow-acting poison, or that she commissioned others to do the deadly deed.
An experienced field archaeologist, Susan Redford attempts to bring some fresh ideas to this centuries-old debate by looking beyond the 057Harem Conspiracy papyri themselves to their broader social, political and economic context. Just who, Redford asks, were the anonymous conspirators sentenced to death in these documents? Who stood to benefit most from Ramesses’ death?
The answers Redford comes up with are intriguing. She argues that Teya and her son Pentawere were probably not the minor, power-hungry nobles most scholars have assumed; instead, she believes Teya was one of Ramesses’ two chief queens and Pentawere was one of the pharaoh’s elder sons, with an arguably legitimate claim to the throne. According to Redford, their so-called conspiracy was not simply some misguided play for personal power; it was a well-thought-out, possibly quite popular and, in the end, successful attempt to remove a king whose high-handedness and profligate ways were endangering his realm. Shockingly, Redford suggests that Ramesses’ assassination may have been tacitly endorsed by his oldest son and ultimate successor, Ramesses IV, who had grown weary of waiting for the crown.
All of these notions are, of course, provocative and interesting, but they are very difficult to prove. Despite her encyclopedic survey of monuments, hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyri dating from Ramesses’ reign, Redford does not succeed in uncovering any startling new evidence concerning the pharaoh’s alleged murder. All of her conclusions are based on creative new readings of old evidence, and they involve quite a bit of guesswork. As she herself acknowledges, ultimately “it is only possible to surmise what [the conspirators’] motives were” and “wonder at their course of action.”
This is disappointing—to get to the end of the mystery, to the point where Poirot or Sherlock Holmes is about to reveal the murderer, and to learn that we don’t know who did it or why. It’s hard not to feel a little cheated. Casual readers may also find themselves frustrated by Redford’s dry academic prose and her long explanations of “who was related to whom” in the ancient Egyptian court.
Nevertheless, those with a serious interest in Egyptology will still find The Harem Conspiracy worth reading for its vivid, and somewhat offbeat, portrayal of ancient Egyptian life. In reconstructing the social and historical context of the conspiracy, Redford ends up exploring some pretty arcane aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture. A few of the strange and wonderful subjects she touches on include: the causes of the world’s first labor strike, the origins and possible meanings of the word “harem,” and the pros and cons of trying to kill someone with a poisonous snake. Where else can you pick up such exotic trivia as the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for impalement?
Gems like this help bring the ancient world to life—one fascinating and quirky little detail at a time.
The Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Ramesses III