In 1855, the British Commissioner to Alexandria, a 64-year-old named Anthony C. Harris, was approached by locals with an intriguing sales-pitch. A bundle of more than 20 papyrus rolls had just been discovered in a cliff-tomb near the Theban site of Medinet Habu: Would Harris like to purchase them? Harris declined to buy all but one, a 133-foot-long, 18-inch-high papyrus in excellent condition, which featured three vividly painted illustrations. Now known as the Great Harris Papyrus after the canny commissioner, and housed in the British Museum, this document offers invaluable data about the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153 B.C.E.).

Commissioned by Ramesses IV upon his father’s death, the Great Harris Papyrus is a detailed account of Ramesses III’s good works and great deeds over the course of his 31-year reign. It is divided into five sections. The first three catalog the deceased pharaoh’s donations to the major temples at Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis. In the vignette shown above, illustrating the third or “Memphite” section, Ramesses III (far right), wearing the banded cloth headdress and triangular-fronted kilt that were reserved for the pharaoh, stands before the principal deities of Memphis—from right to left, the god Ptah, the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and their son Nefertem.

The fourth part of the Great Harris Papyrus concerns royal donations to a number of minor temples, and the fifth part, often called the “historical section,” describes the notable events of Ramesses III’s rule, including a lucrative expedition to an unknown place the writer calls “Atika”:

I sent forth my messengers to the country of the Atika, to the great copper mines which are in this place…Their mines were found abounding in copper; it was loaded by ten-thousands into [the messengers’] galleys. [The copper] was sent forward to Egypt, and arrived safely. It was carried and made into a heap under the [palace] balcony, in many bars of copper, like hundred-thousands…I allowed all the people to see them, like wonders.1

Until quite recently, only this final section of the papyrus had been studied extensively; despite its propagandistic tone, it contains some important historical details, such as Ramesses III’s enslavement of the Shosu Bedouin after he had taken them captive (as Manfred Bietak relates in the accompanying article).

With its exhaustive lists of donations, the papyrus can be a dry read, but it powerfully attests to the great wealth of XXth Dynasty Egypt: In one list relating to Thebes alone, we learn that the pharaoh made an offering of an incredible 309,950 sacks of grain.