Papyrus Harris I is the largest and most magnificent of the papyri to survive from ancient Egypt. Along with four other scrolls, it was found by natives in 1855, in a hole in the floor of a cliff-tomb near Deir el-Medineh, Thebes. The document was purchased by A.C. Harris of Alexandria, Egypt, hence its name. It is now in the possession of the British Museum.

The scroll is 133 feet long by 16-½ inches high and contains 117 columns of 12 or 13 lines each. It is a remarkable manuscript, written in beautiful large hieratic characters (a cursive form of Egyptian writing) befitting an original state document of the utmost importance. Practically in a perfect state of preservation, there is only one small piece of three lines torn out of the first column. There is little question that the papyrus was written immediately after the death of Ramesses III in about 1153 B.C. It was probably then deposited in the library of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

Organized into seven main sections, Papyrus Harris I is a detailed statement of Ramesses’ benefactions to gods and men during his reign of over 31 years. Ninety-five percent of the document deals with gifts and lists. The first section is an introduction, followed by three sections listing Ramesses’ gifts to the major Egyptian temples at Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis. At the beginning of each of these sections is a vignette, showing the king worshipping the gods to whom the following section is devoted. The text of each section is then introduced by a prayer, which merges into a recital of the king’s building and other benefactions for the god, concluding with an appeal to him, calling attention to the following lists. These lists contain six different classes of material: (1) the god’s estate; (2) his income; (3) the king’s new gifts to him; (4) grain for the old feasts; (5) offerings for new feasts founded by him; and (6) offerings to the Nile-god.

The photo at top, for example, is of the beginning of the Theban section of Papyrus Harris. Ramesses III (right) is shown facing (from left to right) the Egyptian deities Khonsu, Mut and Amon-Re. The accompanying text states, “I tell the prayers, praises, adorations, laudations, mighty deeds and benefactions which I did for thee, in thy presence, O lord of gods.”

The fifth section is a general one devoted to offerings to smaller temples, followed by a section summarizing the king’s generosity to the gods. Finally, the seventh and last section is a historical recitation of Ramesses’ victories over his enemies. This is considered by most scholars to be an accurate record of his successes against the Sea Peoples, the Edomites and the Libyans. Author Bryant Wood, however, suggests in the accompanying article that Ramesses’ claims regarding his supposed subjugation of the Sea Peoples is mere boasting and not a reliable historical account.

(Adapted from James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt [Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1906], vol. 4, pp. 87–92.)