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Ramesses III

Last defender of the New Kingdom

The last king of Egypt’s New Kingdom managed to stave off threats from without before being brought down by a conspiracy from within.

Written by Arianna Sacco on

Ramesses Usermaatra Meryamun Hekaiunu (i.e. “The Ma’at of Ra is Strong, Beloved of Amun, Born of Ra, Ruler of Heliopolis”), known as Ramesses III (r. 1184–1155 BC), second ruler of the 20th Dynasty (dated 1189–1077 BC), became king in 1184 BC after having succeeded his father Sethnakht (r. 1186–1184 BC). The latter had ascended to royalty by defeating other claimants to the throne following the death of queen Tausert (1292–1189 BC), who had died without an heir.

We do not know anything about the origins of Sethnakht. There are no private monuments that can be attributed to him from before he ascended to the throne. Perhaps he came from a military family in the Eastern Delta. If so, both he and his son Ramesses III had to demonstrate their right to rule through a display of strength and military ability. Ramesses III’s mother was Teye-Merenaset. As far as we know, she was Sethnakht’s only wife. She is depicted on some architectural blocks and on a stela in Abydos.

The Libyan campaigns

When Ramesses III ascended to the throne, the situation in Egypt was stable. However, in the fifth and eleventh years of his reign, he was forced to organize two defensive military campaigns. During these campaigns, he had to quash rebellions and repel incursions by groups of Libyan tribes, who were attempting to settle in the western Nile Delta.

These Libyans were not nomads: the Egyptians depicted them as living in settlements. Some may even have been allowed to live at the western fringe of Egyptian territory during the earlier New Kingdom period, where they supplied soldiers and helped in protecting the border. In any event, the Libyans eventually tried to move further into Egypt, but Ramesses III managed to defeat and enslave them. The main sources for both campaigns are descriptions in Papyrus Harris I and wall reliefs in Medinet Habu.

In the first campaign, the Libyan foes consisted of the Libu, the Seped, and the Meshwesh, who were attempting to seize agricultural and pastoral lands in Egypt’s Delta. On this occasion the Libyans took either the route of the western river zone, or went south through the Wadi Natrun. On the reliefs in Medinet Habu, it is written that 12,535 enemies were killed and a thousand taken captive. Some have argued that the total number of the enemy ranged from 24,000 to perhaps 63,000. However, this estimate – as typical for troop calculations for ancient armies – is far from certain.

In the second Libyan campaign, the Libyans were led by the Meshwesh group and went through the Wadi Natrun. They were probably following the example set by their predecessors, who had taken the same route during the reign of Merenptah (r. 1213–1203 BC), the son and successor of the famous king Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BC). When the Libyans tried to take the route southwards through the oases, this created problems in Nubia. Ramesses III fortified some precincts in year 28 of his reign. 2175 enemies were killed and 2052 were captured. Estimates have been put forth that put the total number of Libyans that tried to enter Egypt at as much as 16,000 people.

While the size estimates of the Libyan forces for the two campaigns are in doubt, it appears that the second campaign was a smaller affair than the first, and that it included entire families. The Egyptians captured some 43,000 animals during the second campaign, including cattle, donkeys, goats, and sheep. It seems, then, that the second campaign was rather different from the first, with the Egyptians stopping a group of Libyan clans from settling in the western Delta. This incursion had been considerably less threatening from a military point of view than the first and was thus celebrated as only a more minor success in the career of Ramesses III.

The written texts and figurative scenes about these campaigns give us an idea of the military technology that the Libyans had available. They used swords of two different sizes. They also had archers, since one Egyptian source mentions the capture of 123 bows. They had also acquired some technology from the Egyptians over the course of the New Kingdom, since the sources make mention of their use of horses and chariots. One source states the Egyptians managed to capture no fewer than 184 horses and 92 chariots. But while Ramesses III had defeated these relatively large incursions into Egyptian territory, the Libyans probably would have continued to engage in relatively small-scale raids in the region.

The Sea Peoples

While the Libyans presented a persistent threat, they were of relatively minor concern compared to the so-called “Sea Peoples”. From what we can tell based on the ancient sources, they seem to have been more technologically advanced than the Libyans and comparable to the Egyptians.

The Sea Peoples are attested in Egyptian documents already in the Eighteenth Dynasty, when certain groups, such as the “Sherden” and “Peleset”, were used as mercenaries. But they soon became a problem for the Egyptians. Already in the Nineteenth Dynasty, King Merenptah had fought against them. Despite having been defeated in Egypt, they managed to ransack and create turmoil in the Near East at large, ranging from Anatolia to Syria, relying on their fleet to move across the sea.

The origins of the Sea Peoples should probably be sought in the movements of peoples that can be traced back to the thirteenth century BC, with evidence that can be found as far afield as Greece. What brought about these migrations is not certain, though some have suggested overpopulation and famine may have played a role in turning desperate people into roving sea-borne raiders.

It has also been suggested that at least some of these seafaring peoples originally heralded from as far away as the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. But whatever the origins of these peoples, it is clear that by the end of the Late Bronze Age (i.e. the time period covered by this article), they were a sizeable threat along the entire eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean.

A drawing of the relief from the north wall of the temple at Medinet Habu, representing the “Battle of the Delta”. At far right, depicted large than life, is Ramesses III. The various peoples shown in disarray at the left must represent the “Sea Peoples”. Note the shapes of their ships.

The term “Sea Peoples” is first attested in texts written during the reign of Merenptah. The groups active then were slightly different from the ones faced later by Ramesses III. Merenptah mentions two groups not referred to at all in the sources dated to the reign of Ramesses III. The first of these are the Taresh, probably from the islands in the northern Aegean. Some scholars have identified them with the Tyrrhenians, who – as described by the Greek historian Herodotus – had originally come from western Anatolia and ultimately migrated to Italy; we refer to them more commonly as the Etruscans. The second group were the Eqwesh, who have – on etymological grounds – been identified with the Achaeans, i.e. the Mycenaean Greeks.

The sources from the reign of Ramesses III identify the following groups:

  • the Peleset (from Thessaly or Crete; they would later settle Palestine);
  • the Tjekkeru (probably from Sicily or the southern Cyclades, who would settle in Canaan after their defeat at the hands of Ramesses III);
  • the Shekelesh (also mentioned in Hittite documents and probably from Sicily, or eventually settled in Sicily);Show It should be noted that their connection to Sicily is uncertain and some archaeological remains at sites in Syria-Palestine are attributed to them.
  • the Sherden (already mentioned in the Amarna letters and probably from Sardinia, northern or western Greece, or the eastern Aegean; they would later settle Egypt and/or Canaan);
  • the Danuna (probably from the land of Danuna in south-eastern Turkey, who are mentioned in Hittite documents and in the Amarna letters; some identify them with the Homeric Danaoi from eastern Peloponnese);
  • the Washash (perhaps the Oassa/Oassassios from eastern Crete, but little is known for certain).Show In Papyrus Harris I, it is said that after the battle with Ramesses III, the Washash lived in Egypt as captives.

From the Egyptian sources it is clear that the Shekelesh, the Peleset, the Tjekkeru, the Danuna, and the Washash were all considered islanders, while the Sherden and the Eqwesh originally came from coastal territories.

There is archaeological evidence that the Sea Peoples at a certain point settled in southern Palestine, taking over settlements such as Akko and Dor. This made Egyptian control of the region more difficult. They also made it more difficult for the Egyptians to exert authority over the northern Levant and they disrupted the flow of goods via Gaza. It is not clear, however, if the Sea Peoples took the settlements before or after their battle with Ramesses III, or if their settlement of the Levant had been more gradual.

In any event, the Egyptians responded by going on the defensive and continue to try to govern the Levantine territories to the best of their abilities. They also strove to prevent the Philistines, who had settled in Palestine, to expand further inland. As a result, the Egyptians built or rebuilt fortresses and established both military and administrative personnel (mostly tax collectors) in Canaanite settlements, creating a defence network around the Philistine settlements to separate them from the rest of the region.

The Egyptian defences ranged from Tel Mor through perhaps Gezer, and then passed through Lachish, Tell es-Shari‘a and Tell el-Far‘ah in the south, before extending north again to Deir el-Balah and Gaza. The Egyptian presence in the region has been identified based on finds of Egyptian or Egyptianizing material, as well as inscriptions (e.g. hieratic inscriptions on bowls). From archaeological research it seems that the end of Egyptian activities at these sites is marked by sudden abandonment or destruction.

In the eighth year of Ramesses III’s reign, the Sea Peoples united and attacked Egypt, both by land and by sea, at the Nile Delta, bringing with them their women, children, and baggage train pulled by oxen, with the aim to settle on the coast. This attack is detailed in Papyrus Harris I and on the wall reliefs at Medinet Habu. It is not clear if it happened in the eastern or western Delta, because at Medinet Habu, only Djahy – probably in Gaza – and the Nile mouths are mentioned. The attack probably happened along the coast and brought the battle directly on the shore, but a location more in the inner Delta cannot be excluded.

In the end, the Sea Peoples were defeated by the Egyptians, who had learnt about the danger and had fortified the Delta. They had also moved military forces to Djahy. Furthermore, the Egyptians had positioned lookouts at the masts of their ships in the Delta, and had placed slingers in crow’s nests, which in the reliefs of Medinet Habu are represented for the first time in Egyptian art. Altogether, the Egyptians were ready to fight the attackers when they arrived.

Despite the fact that it wasn’t fought in open sea, the battle in the Delta was naval and fought ship to ship or shore to ship. It seems that the Egyptians used the ships mostly as platforms for archers to loose arrows at the enemy ships. In addition, the combatants also engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. Naturally, the nature of the engagement precluded the use of chariots.

Furthermore, long spears planted like stakes in the ground protected the Egyptian soldiers on the shores and deterred the enemy from landing. The types of ships used in the battle are mentioned in the reports, and include regular ships used on the River Nile (which could probably transport 25 people), ship used for seafaring (which could hold perhaps around 200 people), and cargo ships.

Medinet Habu and its reliefs

Ramesses III also took on an ambitious building program. This included the expansion of Pi-Ramesses (the capital city built by Ramesses II), and the construction of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which he started soon after his ascension to the throne and completed in the twelfth year of his reign. On the external walls of this temple are represented both the wars against the Libyans and the battle against the Sea Peoples, as well as a military campaign in Syria and one in Nubia.

The campaign in Nubia is shown on part of the exterior side of the western wall of the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. There are three scenes in total. The first depicts Ramesses attacking the Nubians with his troops. The second shows him returning in triumph in his chariot and accompanied by his troops and Nubian prisoners. The third and final relief depicts how the prisoners and the spoils of war were offered to the deities Amun and Mut.

These scenes are not regarded as descriptive of any real campaign, but only a symbolic representation, because no specific details are given in the reliefs. Nevertheless, rebellions in Nubia undoubtedly happened every once in a while, and these then had to be quashed. Furthermore, military action in Nubia, probably at the beginning of Ramesses III’s reign, is implied in the inscriptions at Medinet Habu and in Papyrus Harris, as well as on a stela in a chapel south of Deir el-Medina.

An aerial shot of the funerary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. Photo: Steve F.E. Cameron.

The campaign in Syria is represented on part of the exterior side of the northern wall of the first court of the mortuary temple. The campaign seems to have been waged against the cities of Ullaza (at first mistakenly identified as Arzawa), Tunip, and Amurru. Like the Nubian encounter(s), this campaign is not known in any detail from surviving documents and some scholars have suggested that it was strictly symbolic, or even that Ramesses III was simply copying campaigns of predecessors. Nevertheless, there is no immediate reason not to believe that Ramesses never engaged in military actions in Syria, considering the Egyptian interests there.

There is evidence, such as rock texts and ostraca, as well as statues, that arguably demonstrate that Ramesses III exerted control until at least the battle with the Sea Peoples; more specifically the route in western Palestine from Egypt to Tel Sera/Tell esh-Sharia (possibly Ziklag), as well as over Lachish, Gezer, Megiddo, and Bet Shean in the Valley of Jezreel, over Nahal Roded and Timna in southern Israel, and over Byblos in Phoenicia. It’s also possible that, after the battle, some groups of Sea Peoples became Ramesses III’s vassals when they settled in territories in Palestine, which were ostensibly under Egyptian control.

The Libyan campaigns are depicted on the inner walls of the first court of the northeast temple, as well as on part of the external face of this same court’s northern wall, and in part of its second court; a report is engraved on the southern wall of its second court.

In this scene from temple at Medinet Habu, the severed hands of the enemy are tossed onto a pile so that they can be more easily counted. Photo: Asta.

The fight against the Sea Peoples is depicted on nearly the entire external northern face of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. In the reliefs, the peoples represented with feathered helmet are probably the Danuna, the Peleset, and the Tjekkeru, while the ones wearing a headscarf or thick cap are probably the Washasha. The ones with the horned helmets can be identified with Sherden and Shekelesh. Furthermore, the evidence from the reliefs indicate that the Sea Peoples seem to use mostly spears and thick swords of medium length. They also used round shields. In contrast, the Egyptians rely largely on their archers, equipped with composite bows.

In the scene depicting the battle at the mouth of the Nile, illustrated earlier in this article, Egyptian ships are shown to be long and low, with masts topped with crow’s nests (a new feature now attested for the first time in Egyptian art, as mentioned earlier). The sails are depicted narrower than before and of a type that could be secured. It is not completely clear when exactly loose-fitted sails were introduced during the New Kingdom.

More in general, the ships as represented in the relief show Syrian and Phoenician influence, with non-Egyptian elements such as high angular sternposts, sterncastles with two stories, high bulwarks, high angular sternposts, rigging, crow’s nests, and low prows. This and other data suggest that already from the Eighteenth Dynasty (1549–1292 BC), the Egyptian fleet started to incorporate Syrian and Aegean/Cretan elements.

At first, these ships were used for transport, but successively they were deployed in naval battles. In contrast, the ships of the Sea Peoples are depicted as having an angular hull with vertical prows and sternposts; prows and sterns are topped with bird’s heads. In addition, their vessels appear to be powered just by the wind, not by oarsmen.

The Harem Conspiracy and Ramesses’ death

Ramesses III is well-known for an episode that happened towards the end of the 31st year of his reign: the Harem Conspiracy. Some of the wives and women of the king’s harem, as well as the harem scribe Pairy, the Chief of Bowmen of Kush (i.e. the head of the army in Nubia), and some other officials, butlers, and a steward working in the harem, conspired to kill Ramesses III.

One of the leaders of the conspiracy was Tiy, one of the royal wives, who through the assassination of the king attempted to hurry along the accession of her son Pentaweret instead of the designated heir. Other two important conspirators were the overseer of the travelling harem and a scribe, while a deputy and six agents of the harem were indicted because they had not reported the plot. Possibly, the murder would have taken place during the Opet festival in Thebes, but it is still not completely sure whether the plot had been carried out successfully or not.

Ramesses III was buried in the main section of the Valley of the Kings, in tomb KV11. The tomb was originally intended for Sethnakht, but when they discovered that it was breaking into the tomb of Amenmesse, a king of the Nineteenth Dynasty and successor of Merenptah, Sethnakht was buried in a new tomb (KV14). His original tomb was redesigned and designated for use by Ramesses III.

The head and shoulders of the mummy of Ramesses III. CT scans have shown that the throat was cut using a sharp blade, probably a dagger. Photo: G. Elliot Smith.

Recent CT scans on the mummy of the king have shown a deep cut on the throat made using a sharp blade (quite likely a dagger), but the researchers say it could even, though not very likely, have been made post-mortem by the embalmers. Furthermore, genetic analysis on the mummy of a young man from the same tomb of Ramesses III has shown that both he and the king are genetically linked. The unusual, non-royal way in which he had been buried have led some to hypothesize that this was the body of Pentaweret. Some features in the neck and the chest suggest that he was strangled; however, written sources indicated that he had killed himself.

Ramesses III was succeeded by his designated heir, Ramesses IV (r. 1155–1149 BC). During his early reign, the court hearings of the harem conspirators – most of whom were afterwards obliged to kill themselves – took place in four sessions and were recorded in several documents, of which the most important are the ones known as the Lee and Rollin Papyri and the Turin Juridical Papyrus. From the same period we also have a document known as Ramesses III’s testament, contained in the Great Harris Papyrus. In this papyrus, Ramesses IV lists his temple endowments, and concludes with a description of Ramesses III’s many achievements.

Further reading

For more detail on the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, I recommend the series The Epigraphic Survey, Medinet Habu, published by the Oriental Institute of Chicago.

  • E.H. Cline and D. O’Connor (eds), Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt’s Last Hero (2012).
  • E.H. Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014).
  • N. Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (1992).
  • I. Shaw, Egyptian Warfare and Weapons (1991).
  • A.J. Spalinger, War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom (1991).
  • J. van Dijk, “The Amarna Period and the later New Kingdom (c. 1352-1069 BC)”, in: I. Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000), esp. pp. 304-306.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.