Jilted wives, a disputed succession, and the use of black magic against an ailing king. It sounds like a spy story, but it actually happened. It was the Harem Conspiracy against Ramesses III. It’s a cautionary tale of power and ambition, and it marked the final, humiliating end of Egypt as a great power. No faction won out in this conspiracy.
Ramesses III became king around 1186 B.C. By then, Egypt was no longer the mighty empire that Thutmose III had forged. It had lost its Asiatic provinces. The international order that prevailed for the past few centuries had been overturned in one generation. Egypt’s closest ally, the Hittite Empire, collapsed. The Mycenaean centers in Greece were burned and abandoned. The rich cities of Syria, Canaan, Cyprus, and western Anatolia, including the site of Troy, all collapsed. The advanced international trading network dissolved.
This was the situation facing Ramesses III in his early reign. Marauding sea raiders, known as the Sea Peoples, rampaged through the eastern Mediterranean and were on Egypt’s doorstep. Merneptah had defeated them 25 years earlier, but they were back, and Egypt stood alone. Miraculously, Ramesses III repulsed them, saving Egypt from invasion. He also kept order in the country for 31 years.
During his three decades on the throne, Ramesses III accumulated several wives and many children, which was only proper for a good pharaoh. Two of these wives were given positions of prominence in his harem, Tiyti and Tiye (not to be confused with Akhenaten’s mother, the Tiye of the 18th Dynasty). Tiyti gave birth to a son named Ramesses, and Tiye to a son named Pentawer. Both princes were born at roughly the same time.
Egyptian succession rules are still unclear. Customarily, a pharaoh would take a Great Royal Wife, who was the most important woman in the harem. Often, her eldest son became the heir to the throne, but there were many deviations from this over the centuries. Ramesses III’s Great Royal Wife appears to be Isis, who it was once believed mothered the future Ramesses IV, but recently, the mother was proven to be Tiyti. This meant that both immediate candidates to the throne came from lesser wives. The younger Ramesses looked like he was favored, but Tiye wasn’t just going to accept this quietly, and she had a chance to act.
By the time the conspiracy was hatching in the harem, Egypt was once again under pressure. The king had defended his country against invasion, but the collapse of the Bronze Age trading networks took a toll on the economy. Egypt’s coffers were so poor that the government couldn’t afford to pay some of its workers, the skilled craftsmen and artisans that worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This resulted in the first documented labor strike in history.
The economic decay mirrored Ramesses’ physical decay. By the end of his reign, the vigorous warrior that defeated the Sea Peoples was a distant memory. A CT scan of his mummy revealed a calcified heart. He would have been in constant pain and shortness of breath (see 20:25).
Egyptian kings were treated as semi-divine figures in royal propaganda, but those closest to this particular one knew the truth, and people around the country evidently weren’t respectful of a demi-god that couldn’t provide them with sustenance.
With the king’s support fraying, Tiye saw an opportunity to fill the vacuum and ensure her son’s succession.
The primary source for the Harem Conspiracy is the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. Though the conspiracy originated with Tiye, it quickly spread beyond the harem. Powerful officials are implicated, including the chief of the king’s chamber, Pebekkamen, his butler, Mesedsure, the overseer of the harem, Peynok, and even the commander of the army, Peyes.
The conspiracy spread far and deep, then. The conspirators even employed black magic against the king. Another official, Penhuibin, was specifically implicated in this part of the plot:
Now, when Penhuibin, formerly overseer of herds, said to him: “Give to me a roll for enduing me with strength and might,” he gave to him a magic roll of Usermare-Meriamon (Ramses III), and he began to employ the magic powers of a god upon people. He began to make people of wax, inscribed, in order that they might be taken in by the inspector, Errem, [hindering] one troop and bewitching the others, that a few words might be taken in, and others brought out.
The conspirators evidently made statues of the people they wanted to harm and cast spells on the likenesses, hoping that it would transfer to the real people, essentially like a voodoo doll. This sounds strange to us, but it was deadly serious to the ancient Egyptians. Using black magic, especially against the king, would have been as serious an offense as the actual conspiracy. It showed that the conspirators were all in. It was dangerous to have so many involved in the plot, but there was no turning back. They would sink or swim together.
But was the Harem Conspiracy successful? For a while, it was unclear. The CT scan of Ramesses’ mummy, though, showed that his throat had been slit to the bone. As you would imagine, the wound was lethal. The scan also showed that his toe had been chopped off with an axe. There were multiple assailants.
There’s still some confusion about the timing. Some believe the king survived the initial conspiracy, but either way, the attempts on his life eventually succeeded.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, this was their high point. In a story that Herodotus would love, fortune’s wheel now turned against them. The plot to place Pentawer on the throne failed. Ramesses IV quickly took control, enacting swift and brutal justice. Many of them, including Pebekkamen and probably Tiye, were burned alive. Aside from this being one of the most painful deaths, it was even worse to the ancient Egyptians, because it meant that they wouldn’t be able to get to the afterlife.
Prince Pentawer was permitted to commit suicide. CT scans of his mummy (whose identity was confirmed by DNA testing), revealed that he died of strangulation – the rope marks and expanded lungs were unmistakable. He hung himself.
His mummy was wrapped in goatskin. According to Zahi Hawass, this was a dirty garment, placed there so that Pentawer couldn’t enjoy the afterlife. Crime doesn’t pay.
The conspirators might have been brought to justice, but Egypt paid for their actions. Ramesses III was the last strong pharaoh. After his death, nothing arrested the country’s inexorable decline. The economic problems grew worse, to the point that tomb robberies blossomed into a quasi-state sanctioned industry. The wealth of Nubia and Asia were permanently cut off. The country would split into petty polities in the Third Intermediate Period, and Egypt would face repeated invasion from north and south.
It’s a long, sad end to a once great country.
Could Ramesses III have saved himself?
An institutional harem is always dangerous for those in power. Jealousies and rival factions are inevitable in such a place. Putting powerful officials there is also asking for trouble. Louis XIV would never have allowed this. His mistresses and officials would have centered their lives on him, not on any other institution. If Ramesses had created jealousies about access to his person, rather than permit centers of power to form elsewhere, he might have survived.
He’s also at fault for not knowing the true character of his wife, Tiye. Unlike Odysseus, he appears to have been too trusting without doing the necessary surveillance.
Lost in a morass of many women, it becomes more difficult to discern the character of one. The Harem Conspiracy shows the instability of polygamous marriage systems. Compare it to Western societies, which have always permitted a man to take only one wife. One benefit of this system is that succession rules are clear. Tiye would have had no leg to stand on if she were Greek. Pentawer couldn’t have been a legitimate heir in such a system.
Alternatively, the ailing king, knowing he was past his prime and losing respect, could have abdicated. It wouldn’t have been traditional, but it likely would have saved him. His base of power wasn’t the same as that of his predecessors. Things were rapidly changing. A new king might have done the country good, while he could have lived out his retirement.
Hindsight is 20/20, but the Harem Conspiracy shows how important it is to never take power for granted, even if you’re a semi-divine monarch. Its workings and vulnerabilities must always be studied and pondered.
If you’re interested in the workings of power, read Stumped, a contemporary case study that’s easy to understand.