From devious assassination plots to usurp the throne, to epic battles fought on land and sea, and a face that even Hollywood couldn’t resist, the story of Ramses III really does have a little something for everyone.
The 2nd Pharaoh to rule in the 20th dynasty, Ramses III’s reign lasted over 30 years and was fraught with war, famine and conflict. Much of which he was kind enough to record for us at his mortuary temple in Thebes. (Well, the parts that make him look good at least).
Located on the west bank of Luxor, a little under a mile east of the Valley of the Queens and just Northwest of The Colossi of Memnon, Medinet Habu is the modern Arabic name for the area containing a temple complex that the Ancient Egyptians would have referred to as the “Mansion of Millions of Year of King Ramesses III, ‘United with Eternity in the Estate of Amon'”, to avoid confusion (and save ink), we’ll just stick with the Arabic name “Medinet Habu” that the site is commonly known by today.
Despite being badly damaged by centuries of “sebakh diggers” (a term for local farmers who loved to mine the site for the rich soil produced by the decomposed mud-brick walls within and around the complex), being occupied by an entire coptic town for many decades, and the victim of less than competent early excavators, Medinet Habu is still one of the largest and most well preserved mortuary temples in all of Luxor. And oddly enough, is one of the most over-looked sites on many tourist’s itinerary despite having a cumulative 75,000 sq ft of decorated surfaces.
Today’s visitors enter the site through the massive eastern gate of the complex via a nicely paved pathway. However, ancient visitors would have actually arrived on small boats which would have been floated right up to the eastern gate via a small canal connecting Medinet Habu directly to the Nile river.
It’s also interesting to note that this site served as more than just a Mortuary temple for Ramses III and was constructed for use as a fortified retreat in case of emergencies, an administrative headquarters, and also as a sort of residential Palace in which he, his family (and his harem) could reside when in town to participate in the various religious festivals held in Thebes throughout the year.
“The temple compound seems to have resembled a small town, with offices from which its far-flung land holdings were administered, housing for the staff, and a veritable beehive of magazines and workshops to supply the god’s requirements. Just as a landowner’s mansion might have it’s anterooms, public audience chamber, and private apartments, so was the temple laid out with semipublic forecourts leading into the festival halls in which the rites were celebrated; behind these in the deepest recesses of the building, were the shrines in which the gods dwelt.”United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu by William J. Murane
Another interesting aspect of the temple to note, is how deep some of the inscriptions are carved into the walls of the site. This is believed by many scholars to have been a preventative measure taken to ensure that later rulers would not be able to usurp a site by having the original builders name removed and their own name carved onto the site instead (which was a very common practice at the time). To that end, Ramses III chose to have many of his most important inscriptions (such as his name) carved extremely deep into the wall (some extending nearly 4″-8″ into the stone). Making it neigh impossible for any later ruler to try and erase his name from the site.
Inside the temple, the two main themes that dominate the majority of every surface in the complex are Ramses III land/sea conquest in the northeast against an enemy referred to by the Egyptians simply as “The Sea People” and another battle he fought in the northwest agains the Libyans. Of these two, the land/sea battle is the section that often excites visitors and archeologists alike, being the first known depiction of a sea battle in history, and what is thought to be the first known depiction of the biblical peoples, the Philistines. (Here they are below, tied up in shackles, being presented as prisoner of war to the Pharaoh).
One famous mural at the site that always get’s a lot of attention (and a few giggles from the crowd) is this one (that link will show you what I’m talking about better than the picture above) depicting the Pharaoh with Egyptian soldiers lined up in front of piles of various body parts. William J. Murane of the Oriental Institute explains the scene in the OI’s extremely in depth guide to the site this way:
The bound prisoners are led in from the right, while in front the scribes are busily taking a rather gruesome count: piled before them are the hands and genitals of the slain, allowing the enemy’s losses to be computed. For centuries it had been customary for soldiers to bring in such trophies: they were rewarded with gold on the spot, with land and slaves eventually following. […] each of the four piles is said to contain 3,000 hands and 3,000 phalluses, with 1,000 men reckoned up as living captives.United with Eternity: A Concise Guide to the Monuments of Medinet Habu by William J. Murane
What You Need To Know
THE HAREM CONSPIRACY
One most fascinating things about Ramses III is the overwhelming amount of information we have about his reign compared to nearly any other Egyptian ruler. Much of this comes down to two very important documents: The Papyrus Harris, which was discovered in a tomb near Medinet Habu and chronicled Rameses reign, and another document called The Judicial Papyrus of Turin which showed up at an Egyptian market in Luxor in the early 1800s, cut into pieces (most likely to be sold for more money by thieves). We’re going to focus on the Turin Papyrus, which reads more like a juicy episode of Law & Order than an official court document.
Written in hieratic (a cursive form of hieroglyphics), the document tells the story of how Tiye, one of Ramses III’s wives, plotted a coup to murder the Pharaoh and have her son installed on the throne.
Implicated in the coup were not only Tiye and her son (most likely Pentawere), but also the kings physician, one of his army commanders, seven of his palace butlers, two treasury overseers, two royal scribes, a herald and even the royal magician.
While the document focuses mostly on the punishments doled out at trial, what we do know of the crime goes a bit like this:
Ramses III constant battles on land and sea had come at a great cost to Egypt and the country was experiencing a major economic downturn as a result. Then to compound the matter, drought and famine hit the country causing the first recorded labor strike in history.
Tiye and her conspirators saw their opportunity and during a ritual celebration at Medinet Habu seized their chance to strike. And that’s where things get a bit fuzzy.
According to some scholars, word of the conspiracy reached the king’s rightful heir Amenherkhepshef just in time to stop the plot. Other scholars believe that the plot was successful in inflicting a fatal blow and killing the king.
What we DO know is that Ramses III died of severe knife wounds around that time. (Wounds deep enough to severe a toe and nearly decapitate him) and that the conspirators were all rounded up and made to stand trial for their crimes. 22 of which were executed, 11 of which were forced to commit suicide, 4 were punished by having a nose or ear severed and 1 person somehow escaped with just harsh words and a slap on the wrist.
So the plot was ultimately unsuccessful in usurping Amenherkhepshef and placing Pentawere on the throne, but does seemed to have succeeded in murdering Ramses III. For more information on this story check out this podcast episode from The National Geogrphic.
WHEN HOLLYWOOD COMES CALLING
After his assassination, Ramses was buried in The Valley of the Kings, in KV 11 (which you can read all about and even see pictures of the interior of his tomb on my previous blog post here!). However, due to tomb robbers, or some other reason, at some point in antiquity, the Pharaohs mummy went missing, only to be discovered, along with a large cache of other royal mummies and artifact, in 1881 by a tomb-robber named Abd el-Rassul.
The story goes that one day Abd el-Rassul discovered that his goat had fallen down a shaft in the mountain side above Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahari. When he crawled down to retrieve the goat, he discovered a tomb filled with royal mummies and artifacts. Abd and his brothers proceeded to remove items, little by little from the cache (to avoid suspicion) and proceeded to live off the profits for years before they were caught by local authorities and made to give up the location of the cache.
Just a few decades after the cache was discovered in 1881, Howard carter would make another discovery in 1922 in the Valley of The Kings, setting off a wave of Egyptomania that would sweep the world. Eventually even Hollywood was consumed by all things Egyptian and began work on producing films that would take advantage of the publics seemingly endless passion for all things Egyptian. But to do that they need inspiration, and were instantly captured by images that had been recorded of Rameses III mummy after it had been discovered in the royal cache.
Using Ramses III mummy as a pattern, Hollywood set out to replicate his facial features and dressings down to the last detail. They would even end up copying the excess bandages around his neck where thieves had disturbed them while trying to get at the small amulets of gold and precious jewels that were often placed inside the wrappings during the embalming process.
LIFE AFTER RAMSES III AT MEDINET HABU
After Ramses III assignation, the country was left on shaky ground and would ultimately never fully recover. So by the reign of Ramses XI (some 84 years later) the Egyptian empire, which had lasted for thousands of years, was now well into its decline as evidenced by the strong divisions emerging between the north and the Theban region in the south. By the 17th year of Ramses XI reign the conflict had escalated into civil war, during which the high priest of Amun was besieged inside Medinet Habus fortified walls for 8 or 9 months. This turmoil would signal the end of the New Kingdom period of pharaohs with Ramses XI death and launch the country into what is today know as the Third Intermediate Period.
Then, like many temples in Egypt around the first century AD, Medinet Habu would be reborn as the coptic city of Jeme as Christianity took root in Egypt.
During this period the entirety of the temple was completely filled with a compact mass of multi level mud-brick dwellings and the second court was repurposed for use as a Coptic Church. This repurposing of the temple caused extensive damage to the site as “pagan” reliefs were covered up, columns were removed and openings were cut in the walls. Luckily, unlike other temples that had their reliefs systematically defaced to remove all evidence of the previous “pagan gods” for whom the temple was originally designed, the copts that inhabited Medinet Habu chose to simply plaster over the original carved reliefs, allowing for much of the temple to be restored to its original state..
Ultimately, this thriving community would inhabit the site until the 9th century when the village was suddenly abandoned for unknown reasons.
Sadly due to dubious early excavations of the site solely concerned with the Pharaonic temple, most evidence this later coptic occupation of the site was destroyed.
As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, the west bank of Luxor is not the most tourist friendly of locations, which is why many tourists choose to hire a guide for the day, or hire a car to drive them around to the the various sites. However, if you’d like to go it on your own, you have a few options. If you’re staying on the east bank, you’ll need to walk down and take the public ferry across to the west bank. From there it’s about a 2.7 mile walk from the ferry landing to Medinet Habu. Alternatively you can rent a bike near the ferry HERE and ride over to the site.
Once there the site is very easy to navigate on your own, however there is little to no signage, so you’ll want to come prepared with your own guidebook or research. An INCREDIBLY detailed version of which you can download here from the Oriental Institute. For those wanting something a bit less in depth, I found my rough guide book to have a decent verbal overview of the site (but containing no pictorial references).
We personally explored this site with a guide as a part of our tour with the Steam Ship Sudan.