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Egypt: History - Dynasty XX (Twentieth Dynasty)


Twentieth Dynasty

Manetho has no more to tell us about Dyn. XX than that it consisted of twelve kings of Diospolis (Thebes), who reigned according to Africanus for 135 years and for 178 according to Eusebius. Nevertheless, it was a period of stirring events and at least one mighty Pharaoh. Also, a number of lengthy and highly informative writings have survived. The discussion of which will demand considerable space. Meanwhile, the enemies of Egypt were drawing ever closer, foreshadowing the humiliations which little over a century later were to reduce her prestige almost to vanishing point. At the outset, however, it seemed that an epoch of exceptional splendor was about to dawn. A retrospect, contrasting this with a largely imaginary period of previous gloom, is worth quoting if only to exemplify a standing convention of Pharaonic historical writing.


The land of Egypt was cast adrift; every man a law unto himself. They had no commander for many years previously until there were other times when the land of Egypt consisted of princes and heads of villages; one man slaying his fellow both high and low. Then another time came after it consisting of empty years, when Arsu a Syrian was with them as prince, and he made the entire land contributory under his sway.

The text goes on to speak of the bloodshed which ensued, and the neglect with which the gods were treated until they restored peace by appointing Setnakhte as king. In this strange passage, the glorious achievements of Dyns. XVIII and XIX are ignored and we are transported back to the conditions of pre-Hyksos times. The sole specific fact recorded is the emergence of a Syrian condottiere who gained mastery over the entire land. The identity of this foreigner has been much debated, the most interesting suggestion due to Cerny, being that we have here a veiled reference to the 'king-maker' Bay mentioned at the end of the last chapter. But the writer's only purpose here was to commend the new sovereign of Egypt. Little is known about Setnakhte except that he was the father of the great king Ramesses III and the husband of the later's mother Tiye-merenese. There are reasons for thinking that the interval between the end of Dyn. XIX and his accession was quite short, perhaps not more than ten years. He may have reigned less than two years. He usurped the tomb of Twosre and was doubtless buried in it. His coffin was found in the tomb of Amenophis II, but his mummy has not been discovered.

Whatever the author of the retrospect may have pretended, Ramesses III was himself very conscious of the greatness of the most celebrated of his predecessors in Dyn. XIX, for he modeled both his Prenomen and his Nomen upon those of Ramesses II. His early years were fraught with terrible dangers. In the south, it is true, he had little to fear. Nubia had grown into an Egyptian province, and the scenes which have survived of a battle in this direction seem likely to be a mere convention borrowed from earlier representation. For the very real and dangerous conflicts which Ramesses III had to face, our knowledge is mainly derived from the inscriptions and reliefs on the walls of his great temple of Medinet Habu; the best preserved and most interesting of all the funerary sanctuaries on the western side of Thebes. This splendid monument, with its gigantic pylons and noble columnar courts, lay within inner and outer enclosures containing, besides the central shrine itself, a whole township of dwellings for the priests and their dependents, as well as a garden and a lake. The outer girdle wall of crude brick, approached by a canal branching off from the Nile, had a height of 59 feet and a thickness of 25 feet, the length from front to back exceeding 300 yards. The center of the eastern side exhibited a unique feature in a lofty gatehouse built to resemble one of those Syrian fortresses which the Egyptian armies had met with so often in their Asiatic campaigns, but here the purpose was not military. The upper stories served as a resort where the Pharaoh could disport himself with the ladies of his harem. The palace proper abutted onto the south side of the temple's first court, with a balcony where the king might appear in order to distribute rewards to such nobles as he wished to honor. The walls of no other temple show scenes of greater interest. Religious subjects of course predominate, but pictures of warfare are also numerous and supplement the written legends in the most valuable fashion. More so since the latter have a turgidity in which narrative passages almost disappear among the surplus of flattering eloquence.

The long inscription of year 5 first tells of a campaign against the western neighbors of Egypt known generically as the Tjehnu. These people were incensed at having had imposed upon them a new ruler of the Pharaoh's choice. The royal wisdom, so highly praised in the hieroglyphs, had evidently not been appreciated. Color on some of the sculptured reliefs shows prisoners with red beards, side-locks, and long richly ornamented cloaks. Three tribes are here mentioned, the Libu or Libyans who as we have seen are commemorated in the name still applied to the whole north-eastern part of Africa outside Egypt, the Sped of whom nothing more is known, and the Meshwesh, first mentioned under Amenophis III, who henceforth play an ever increasingly important part in our historical records. They are commonly thought of as the equivalent of the Maxyes located by Herodotus in the neighborhood of Tunis. The next threat to Egypt was far more dreadful, being nothing less than an attempt on the part of a confederacy of sea-faring northerners to establish themselves in the rich pasture-lands not only of the Delta, but also of Syria and of Palestine. Permanent settlement was their aim, and they brought their women and children with them in wheeled carts drawn by humped oxen. We have seen that an attack of this kind, in which the sea-peoples and the Libyans had been in alliance, had been repelled by Merenptah. Now the Mediterranean war, though almost simultaneous with the Libyan wars of years 5 and 11, is described as a separate event, but was none the less dangerous on that account. The main aggression, dated to year 8, swooped down by land and sea simultaneously. The Sherden were once again among the hostile forces, and once again warriors of this race are shown fighting both with and against the Egyptians. The long-since failing Hittite Empire was swept away, and with it the Anatolian allies who had taken part in the battle of Kadesh. Of the enemies who had confronted Merenptah perhaps only the Sheklesh still played a part. A new tribe named the Weshesh are a mere name. Of deep interest, to Greek scholars and to Orientalists, are three new peoples who emerge here for the first time, though it is just possible that the Danu or Danuna, surely the Danaoi of the Iliad, may have been mentioned once in the El-'Amarna letters. Much more important, however, are the Peleset and the Tjekker, since the incursion of these tribes into Palestine was, to some extent, successful and permanent. A narrative dating from about a century later describes the Tjekker as sea-pirates occupying the port of Dor, but nothing more is known of them or of the name they bore. The Peleset, on the other hand, are the Philistines who were later alternately conquerors of and conquered Israelites, who gave their name to Palestine and whom our modern parlance still remembers in an unfairly deprecatory way. There was a tradition that they came from Caphtor or Crete, but this may have been only a stage in their migratory wanderings. In the Medinet Habu reliefs, both they and the Tjekker have feathered head-dresses and round shields.

The rebuff inflicted upon these aggressive peoples is splendidly depicted in the reliefs; the naval battle, in particular, being unique among Egyptian representations. The verbal descriptions are sandwiched into a boastful speech addressed by Ramesses III to his sons and his courtiers. The following extracts omit sentences from which nothing historical is to be learned: The foreign countries made a plot in their islands. Dislodged and scattered by battle were the lands all at one time, and no land could stand before their arms, beginning with Khatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alasiya...A camp was set up in one place in Amor, and they desolated its people and its land as though they had never come into being. They came, the flame prepared before them, onwards to Egypt. Their confederacy consisted of Peleset, Tjekker, Sheklesh, Danu, and Weshesh, united lands, and they laid their hands upon the lands to the entire circuit of the earth, their hearts bent and trustful 'Our plan is accomplished!' But the heart of this god, the lord of the gods, was prepared and ready to ensnare them like birds...I established my boundary in Djahi, prepared in front of them, the local princes, garrison-commanders, and Maryannu. I caused to be prepared the rivermouth like a strong wall with warships, galleys, and skiffs. They were completely equipped both fore and aft with brave fighters carrying their weapons and infantry of all the pick of Egypt, being like roaring lions upon the mountains; chariotry with able warriors and all goodly officers whose hands were competent. Their horses quivered in all their limbs, prepared to crush the foreign countries under their hoofs.

Ramesses then compares himself to Mont, the god of war, and declares himself confident of his ability to rescue his army:

As for those who reached my boundary, their seed is not. Their hearts and their souls are finished unto all eternity. Those who came forward together upon the sea, the full flame was in front of them at the rivermouths, and a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore.

For the details of the naval defeat, we turn rather to the reliefs than to the verbal descriptions, although in the latter the outcome was described in the graphic words:

a net was prepared for them to ensnare them, those who entered into the river-mouths being confined and fallen within it, pinioned in their places, butchered and their corpses hacked up.

The artist has managed to combine into a single picture the various phases of the engagement. First we see Egyptian soldiers attacking, in an unperturbedly form, the deck of their ship. Opposite them in a vessel, held fast with grappling irons, the enemy is in the utmost confusion; two of them falling into the water and one looks towards the shore in the hope of mercy from the Pharaoh. Another of their vessels, however, displays them met with a shower of arrows from the land. The Egyptian fleet now turns homeward, taking with it numerous captives helpless and bound. One of them seeking to escape, is caught by a soldier on the bank. On the way upstream a capsized vessel is encountered, with its entire crew flung into the water. The defeat of the invaders is complete. Nine separate ships have sufficed to tell the tale, and there remains to be recounted only the presentation of the prisoners and the other details of the triumph to Amen-Re.

The external troubles of Egypt were not yet at an end. In year 11, the Libyan peril flared up again. On this occasion, the enemy is specifically stated to have been the Meshwesh. A circumstantial account of Ramesses's dealings with these people is given in the closing section of the great papyrus from which the retrospect at the beginning of this chapter was quoted and which much will be said later.

The Libu and Meshwesh were settled in Egypt and had seized the towns of the Western Tract from Kikuptah (Memphis) to Keroben, and had reached the Great River on its every side. They it was who had desolated the towns of Xois for may years when they were in Egypt. Behold, I destroyed them, slain at one stroke. I laid low the Meshwesh, Libu, Asbat, Kaikash, Shaytep, Hasa, and Bakan, overthrown in their blood and made into heaps. I made them turn back from trampling upon the boundary of Egypt. I took of those whom my sward spared many captives, pinioned like birds before my horses, their women and their children in tens of thousands, and their cattle in number like hundreds of thousands. I settled their leaders in strongholds called by my name. I gave to them troop-commanders and chiefs of tribes, branded and made into slaves stamped with my name, their women and their children treated likewise. I brought their cattle to the House of Amun, made for him into everlasting herds.

Two great inscriptions at Medinet Habu, both dated in year 11, deal exclusively with the same struggle, but their flowery language, in which many foreign and otherwise unknown words occur, conveys far less information than the passage above quoted. There is only one addition. We learn that Mesher, the Chief of the Meshwesh, was taken prisoner, and that his father Keper appealed for mercy in vain. This incident is also depicted in the striking scene where are enumerated the hands and phalli of the slain, the captives, the arms taken as booty, and the cattle added to the herds of the Theban god and those otherwise disposed of. The numbers given, though great, are by no means incredible. Another picture shows the Egyptians fighting from two fortresses, a clear indication that they had been on the defensive.

At Medinet Habu, there are several scenes of campaigns in Asia which still require consideration. On one wall, Ramesses III is seen attacking two Hittite towns, one of them labeled 'The town of Arzawa'. In another scene, the town Tunip is being stormed, and a third town, Amor,is on the point of surrendering. All these pictures are clearly anachronisms and must have been copied from originals of the reign of Ramesses II. There is, however, ample evidence that the designers of Medinet Habu borrowed greatly from the neighboring Ramesseum. Confirmation is given in the papyrus cited above. This has no mention of a Syrian campaign, still less of one against the Hittites. All that is said is that Ramesses III 'destroyed the Seirites in the tribes of the Shosu'; the Shosu have been already mentioned as the Bedouins of the desert bordering the south of Palestine. 'The mountain of Se'ir' named on an obelisk of Ramesses II is the Edomite mountain referred to in several passages of the Old Testament. It looks as though the defeat of these relatively unimportant tent-dwellers was the utmost which Ramesses III could achieve after his struggle with the Mediterranean hordes, and this allusion closes for more than two centuries the story of Egypt's strivings to achieve an Asiatic empire.

Although Ramesses III reigned for a full thirty-one years and celebrated a Sed-festival perhaps at the beginning of his thirtieth, there are signs of various internal troubles, particularly towards the end of his life. At one moment the monthly rations due to the workmen engaged on the royal tomb were sadly in debt, and this led to strikes ended only by the intervention of the vizier To, who was, however, unable to supply more than half what was actually required. Far more serious was a conspiracy which threatened the life of the monarch himself. From early in the reign, there had been indications that trouble was likely to arise over the succession. To judge from the latest date recorded at Medinet Habu, that great temple had been completed by year 12, and it is a curious fact that though, as in the Ramesseum, many of the king's sons were there depicted, as well as the queen in a few instances, no names were ever filled in, though space was left for them. And yet, it is certain that the son who actually succeeded as Ramesses IV was already alive, since his mummy, discovered in the tomb of Amenophis II, was that of a man at least fifty years of age and probably more'. Without speculating on this and much further evidence of the kind which complicates the history of all the next reigns, we turn now to the graphic story related in several papyri of which the most important is preserved in the Turin Museum. This magnificent manuscript, written in large hieratic majuscules befitting a state document of the highest importance, suggests that its original home may have been the temple-library at Medinet Habu. Omitting, for the moment, the long but fragmentary introduction which precedes the main narrative, we now quote the first entry:

The great enemy Paibekkamen who had been major-domo. He was brought on account of his having attached himself to Tiye and the women of the harem. He made common cause with them and proceeded to carry their words outside to their mothers and their brothers and sisters who were there, saying 'Collect people and foment hostility' so as to make rebellion against their lord. And they set him in the presence of the great officials of the Place of Examination and they examined his crimes and found that he had committed them. And his crimes took hold of him, and the officials who examined him caused his punishment to cleave to him.

Twenty-nine of the criminals, classified in five categories, are dealt with in similar manner, besides six wives not individually specified. A curious fact is that a number of the men's names have been deliberately disguised, apparently on account of some overauspicious word that entered into their composition. Thus a certain butler--very high court-officials were often butlers in Ramesside times--assuredly did not bear the name Mesedsure' here credited to him. Mesed-means 'hates' and the real name will have been Mersure' 'Re loves him'. The harem, in which the plot was hatched, is termed 'the harem in accompanying', presumably one not stationed in a particular place like those of Memphis and of Miwer in the Fayoum, but one which accompanied Ramesses upon his journeying. Many harem officials were involved, the overseer and deputy-overseer, two scribes, and six inspectors, besides the wives of the door-keepers. More dangerous than most of those arrested was a troop-commander from Cush. He had been suborned by his sister, one of the harem-women, and had their schemes prospered they might have stirred the whole of Nubia into revolt, especially if assisted by the general Paiis. It is characteristic of the age that among both accused and judges, several were foreigners: Ba'almahar was clearly a Semite, Inini is described as a Libyan, and the name of Peluka proclaims him a Lycian. The more prominent among the guilty were allowed to perish by their own hand. Others who were left unharmed 'died of their own accord' possibly from starvation. Cutting off of the nose and ears was the fate of four officials who in spite of precise instructions given to them had caroused with women of the harem and with Paiis. Only one man, a standard-bearer, got off with nothing worse than a severe reprimand. This was a person who together with two of the four just mentioned, had found a place among the judges when first appointed. It is strange that so little should be learnt about Tiye; the lady around whom the entire plot centered. Also, her son Pentawere, possibly the boy whom the conspirators were planning to place upon the throne, is mentioned only very casually as one of those who 'died of their own accord'.

Further light is thrown upon the conspirators' machinations by the other fragmentary papyri dealing with the case. A former overseer of cattle had induced a learned scribe to write magical spells and to make waxen images which were to be smuggled into the harem, but it is expressly said that the ploy was unsuccessful and that the culprits met with the fate that they deserved. It still remains to discuss the nature of these extraordinary documents. A first step in the right direction was taken by Breasted, who noticed that in one place where Ramesses III is mentioned, he receives the epithet 'the great god' reserved for kings already deceased. He concluded that though Ramesses had ordered the trial, he had been severely wounded and had died before the criminals were brought to trial. Unhappily, in Breasted's day our knowledge of Late-Egyptian syntax was not sufficiently advanced to enable him to translate the damaged introduction of the Turin papyrus correctly. It is the merit of de Buck to have seen that instead of the king there giving an order in the present tense, the whole text is a narrative of past events fictitiously put into the mouth of the dead monarch. After enumerating the judges whom he had appointed and quoting the words of his instruction to them, he continues as follows:

And they went and examined them, and they caused to die by their own hands those whom they caused to die, though I know not whom, and they punished the others also, though I know not whom. But I had charged them very strictly saying 'Take good heed and beware lest punishment be inflicted upon anyone crookedly by an official who is not over him'; thus I spoke to them (the judges) again and again. And as for all that has been done, it is they who have done it; let all that they have done fall upon their heads. For I am exempted and protected everlastingly, being among the righteous kings who are in the presence of Amen-Re', King of the Gods, and in the presence of Osiris, the Ruler of Eternity.

This passage reads like an apologia on Ramesses III's part for an excessive severity or even some degree of injustice which had been charged against him. The narrative as presented to us was evidently compiled by command of Ramesses IV, and it will soon be seen how eager the son was to display his deceased father's reign as a period of clear generosity. That Ramesses III himself ordered the trial cannot be reasonably doubted, but the note of self-pardon put into his mouth may well have been the invention of his successor. There is no solid ground for supposing that the conspiracy was either wholly or half successful. The mummy of Ramesses III found in the cache at Der el-Bahri is stated by Maspero to have been that of a man about 65 years of age, and no trace of wounds is reported. Nor is there any reason for dating the plot towards the end of the reign. It may have occurred much earlier. No mention of it is found in the great manuscript now to be described.

Papyrus Harris No. 1, in the possession of the British Museum, is the most magnificent of all Egyptian state archives. It is a document 133 feet long by 16 1/2 inches high containing 117 columns of hieratic writing of an amplitude that could only belong to an original of the utmost importance. The somewhat vague information that has survived with regard to its discovery suggests that it, like the conspiracy papyri, once belonged to the records of the great temple of Medinet Habu. The opening page summarizes the benefactions bestowed by Ramesses III upon the various divinities of the entire land, and here again he is clearly represented as a dead king speaking in his own person. Next, a fine colored picture represents the king worshipping before Amen-Re', Mut, and Chons, the three principal deities of his Theban capital. In a long narrative passage he then describes in rhetorical, self-laudatory fashion all the buildings, temple equipment, lands, ships, and so forth with which he has endowed the city. This is followed by a lengthy statistical section giving precise figures for the donations received from various sources throughout the entire duration of the reign, first the personnel, cattle, vineyards, fields, ships, towns in Egypt and Syria given by the king himself from his first to his thirty-first year, then the amounts obtained by taxation, and lastly other items received in various ways and for other purposes. This part of the book concludes with a prayer in which Ramesses III asks that as his reward blessings may be bestowed upon his beloved son Ramesses IV. There follows, written by a different hand, and obviously furnished by the priesthood of Atum in the north, a Heliopolitan section composed upon exactly the same lines and ending in exactly the same way; to this succeeds a Memphite section addressed to Ptah and to the associated deities of the third great capital city. The remaining local divinities are dealt with comprehensively in a shorter section of special value as showing what towns were particularly honored by Ramesses III, but the list names no place farther south than Coptos. Then comes a summary in which are added up, though not without some errors, all the figures previously given, and we see that the estate of Amen-Re' at Karnak was by far the greatest beneficiary. Even if the Pharaoh more frequently resided in Lower Egypt, Thebes remained the spiritual center of the kingdom, and its wealth was prodigious.

The great roll ended with that comprehensive survey of past and recent events from which several quotations have been given above. Doubtless belonging to the era of peace which followed upon the early wars of the reign were several expeditions which are graphically described: one to Pwene whence the returning ships brought back with them much myrrh to be presented to the Pharaoh himself at his downstream capital by the children of that distant land's chieftain. Quests for copper to some unlocated mines and for turquoise to the famous site of Serabit el-Khadim in the Peninsula of Sinai. Ramesses III had previously boasted of having refrained from taking from the temples one man in every ten to serve in the army, that having been the custom under earlier kings. He would now have us believe that perfect tranquillity prevailed throughout the entire land:

I caused the woman of Egypt to walk freely wheresoever she would unmolested by others upon the road. I caused to sit idle the soldiers and the chariotry in my time, and the Sherden and the Kehek in their villages to lie at night full length without any dread.

Some internal disturbances there may indeed have been, apart from the formidable plot above treated at length. There was trouble in Athribis with a vizier who was removed from his office. It may have been on this occasion that, contrary to previous custom, To was granted the vizierate of both halves of the country. The final retrospect was addressed to all the officials and military officers of the land, and concluded by urging them to show loyal service to the new king Ramesses IV. Perhaps that was the real purpose of this voluminous composition.

Continuation of 20th Dynasty

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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