April 19, 2012

Ramses III Death - The conspiracy to kill the king Facts

The conspiracy to kill the king
Another remarkable papyrus from the reign of Ramses III has a great deal of information on the structure and workings of the court, but from an unusual angle. Known as the Harem Conspiracy Papyrus, it exists in three portions (of which the largest section, the Judicial Papyrus, is in Turin) and concerns the trial of a group who plotted to murder the king.

The Mummy of Ramesses III, in the Cairo Museum.
The chief defendant was one of Ramesses' minor queens, Tiy, who hoped to see her son, Pentewere, succeed to the throne. Her name seems to be correct but that of the prince is a circumlocution, as are the names of a number of the other defendants, i.e. they have been given fictitious names such as Mesedsure, 'Re hates him', to indicate how great was their crime.

Fortunately for the king the plot was discovered and the guilty arrested. Ramses III himself commissioned the prosecution; however, since he is spoken of later in the papyrus as 'the great god', i.e. dead, he must have died during the course of the trial, although not necessarily from any effects of the plot. Fourteen officials were called to sit in judgment, including seven royal butlers (a high office, cf. Joseph), two treasury overseers, two army standard bearers, two scribes and a herald. Interestingly, several of their names betray foreign origins. The commission was given full powers to call whatever evidence was necessary and, most unusually, power to deliver and carry out the verdict - even the Ramses III death penalty, which was normally reserved to the king.

The majority of the conspirators were all personally close to the king, especially officials in the harem, which indicates how dangerous the situation was. Evidence also emerged of a plot to incite a revolt outside the palace to coincide with the intended coup within. Over 40 people were implicated and were tried in groups. The record of Queen Tiy's trial has not survived, but she would not have been allowed to live. Twenty-eight people, including the major ringleaders, were condemned in the first prosecution, almost certainly to death. The second prosecution condemned six people, who were forced to commit suicide within the court itself. In the third prosecution, the four people involved, who included the misguided prince Pentewere, were likewise condemned to suicide, although not immediately within the court, but presumably in their cells.

The fourth prosecution throws a curious light on the whole case. The defendants were not conspirators but three of the judges and two officers, who were charged that, after their appointment to the commission, they knowingly entertained several of the women conspirators and a general named Peyes. One of the judges was found to be innocent, the others were condemned to have their ears and nose amputated. Pebes, a butler who was one of the convicted judges, committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out.

Ramesses, as mentioned, seems to have died before the verdicts were reached. He was buried in a large tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 11) which has an unusual plan by virtue of its having been taken over from an earlier excavation. It is also unusual among the royal tombs in having some secular scenes, of which the paintings of the two blind male harpists are well known, although now sadly much damaged when compared to the early copies made by Sir John Gardner Wilkinson. The tomb is often referred to in the literature as 'The Tomb of the Harpers', or as 'Bruce's Tomb', after its discoverer, James Bruce, in 1769.

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