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Egypt: History - Dynasty XX (Twentieth Dynasty)


Twentieth Dynasty

It is only in passing that reference can be made to the buildings erected by Ramesses III elsewhere, a small temple at Karnak being particularly well preserved. His huge tomb in the Biban el-Moluk differs from others of the period by introducing such secular scenes as that of the royal kitchen. The picture of a harper is specially celebrated. This last of the great Pharaohs was followed by eight kings each of whom bore the illustrious name of Ramesses, now so firmly associated with the thought of Pharaonic grandeur that even when his descendants had long relinquished any pretensions to the throne certain functionaries of high station still prided themselves upon the title 'king's son of Ramesses'. That Ramesses IV was a son of Ramesses III is clear both from the Harris papyrus and from other evidence, but the insistence with which he introduced into Prenomen and Nomen of goddess of Truth while protesting that he had banished iniquity arouses the suspicion that his claim was not substantiated without some difficulty. Of his successors at least two appear to have been his brothers. The reigns of all eight kings except Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI were short, so that the total for the dynasty works out at less than the figure given by Manetho. The custom of starting upon a tomb in the Biban el-Moluk at the beginning of each reign was consistently adhered to, although not quite all these later Ramessides actually found burial in the places to which they aspired, and in three cases the mummies were subsequently removed for safety's sake to the tomb of Amenophis II. The general trend of subsequent history suggests that the actual residence of these petty rulers was ever increasingly confined to the Delta, as a result of which the importance and wealth of the high-priest of Amen-Re' at Thebes waxed all the more. Monumental undertakings dwindled perceptibly. Asiatic adventures were at an end, and the latest record at Sinai dates from Ramesses VI. On the other hand, the administration of Nubia continued along the old lines, though we hear less about it. In spite of these gradual fallings off, the annals of the twelfth century before our era are no complete blank. A number of highly interesting inscriptions and papyri have survived, but with subjects as disconnected both materially and locally as the items in a modern newspaper. Such as they are, it is indispensable here to characterize them.


The reign of Ramesses IV lasted no more than six years, and in view of its shortness the tale of his building activities is not inconsiderable; where he did not actually erect, at least he commemorated his existence by hieroglyphic dedications. Two great stele found at Abydos by Mariette proclaim his exceptional piety and devotion to the gods. Their wording is unusual, and may reflect royal authorship. A long inscription of year 3 in the Wady Hammamat records a quest for the splendid stone of its famous quarry involving more than 8,000 participants. Already in year 1 he had caused the high-priest of Mont to visit the site, and in year 2 had sent other capable officials and scribes to investigate the possibilities. The inscription of year 3, however, acquaints us with an enterprise on a more grandiose scale. The skilled quarrymen and sculptors sent were only a small proportion of the entire number. The 5,000 soldiers were certainly not needed for any combative purpose, but may perhaps be thought of as employed to haul the huge monuments over the rough desert roads. The real problem of this perplexing inscription is to account for the presence so far from the Nile Valley of many of the foremost dignitaries of the land. At their head was the high-priest of Amen-Re' Ra'messenakhte; for him we have at least the partial excuse that he combined with his sacerdotal and administrative functions that of 'superintendent of works'; he was responsible in fact for the temples and statues with which the Pharaoh endowed the local gods. But how to account for his being accompanied by two butlers of the king, by the over-seer of the treasury, and above all by the two chief taxing-masters, all of these important personages being mentioned by their names? Here as so often in our Egyptian records the valuable information for which we have to be thankful is counterbalanced by enigmas that must be left unresolved.

For another important document of this period, we have to direct our eyes as far southward as Elephantine. An ill-written but comparatively well-preserved papyrus in the Turin Museum recalls in language resembling and no less virulent than the Salt papyrus grave accusations against a number of persons, prominent among whom was a lay-priest of the temple of Chnum charged with many thefts, acts of bribery, and sacrilege, not to mention the unavoidable imputations of copulation with married women. Heinous offences against religion were his misappropriation and sale of sacred Mnevis calves, his joining in the carrying of the god's statue while three of his ten days of natron-drinking were still to run, and his heaping of gifts upon the vizier's henchmen to make them arrest his priestly accuser while the latter was only half-way through his month of ritual service. Among facts of interest that we here learn were the vizier's power to appoint the local prophets and the intervention of Pharaoh himself to send his chief treasurer to look into the abstracting of garments from the temple treasure-house. More serious, because they must have involved the corruptibility of a number of persons, were the losses of corn suffered by the priesthood of Chnum. Seven hundred sacks per annum were due from estates in the Delta owned by the temple. A ship's captain who had succeeded another deceased in year 28 of Ramesses III started upon his defalcations in year 1 of Ramesses IV and in the course of the next nine years down to 'year 3 of Pharaoh', i.e. of Ramesses V, had stolen a total of more than 5,000 sacks.

The great Wilbour papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum, dated in year 4 of Ramesses V, is a genuine official document of unique interest. Its main text records in four consecutive batches covering a few days apiece the measurement and assessment of fields extending from near Crocodilonpolis (Medinet el-Fayyum) southwards to a little short of the modern town of El-Minya, a distance of some 90 miles. The fields, of which the localization and the acreage are given in every case, are classified under the heads of the different land-owning institutions, these proving to be the great temples of Thebes, Heliopolis, and Memphis, then after them a number of smaller temples mainly in the vicinity of the plots owned by them. Lastly, there were various corporate bodies too different and too problematic to be mentioned here. The assessments are reckoned in grain and clearly refer to taxes. They are presented in two distinct categories, according as the owning institutions were themselves liable or as the liability rested upon the actual holders or cultivators of the soil. The latter type of paragraph is the more interesting since it names a multitude of different proprietors or tenants, including whole families, men of Sherden race, and sometimes even slaves. In one single paragraph, for example, we find side by side, dependent upon the temple of Sobk-Re' of Anasha and localized near a place named the Mounds of Roma, plots each of ten arouras occupied by the well-known overseer of the treasury, Kha'emtir, by a certain priest, by a temple-scribe, another scribe, by three separate soldiers, by a lady, and lastly by a standard-bearer. A second text, on the verso of the same roll, deals exclusively with a kind of land known as khato-land of Pharaoh. The area of the fields so described appears to have been constantly varied, and we dimly discern in them properties which for some unspecified reason had reverted to the ownership of Pharaoh and had to be disposed of anew by him. Despite the great efforts that have been devoted to the study of this all-important papyrus, the abbreviated style in which it was written and the fact that the scribes were not concerned to offer explanations to posterity have left its main problems a riddle still to be unraveled. To whom were the taxes paid? How can the orderliness here depicted be reconciled with the Pharaonic indigence which, as we have seen, often left the workmen on the royal tomb short of the rations due to them? These and many similar related questions still await their answers, but there is some ground for thinking that the great temple of Karnak, with the high-priest of Amen-Re' at its head, was the principal beneficiary rather than the Pharaoh. It is at least significant that the Chief Taxing-master Usima're'nakhte was a son of the then reigning high-priest Ra'messenakhte. As a valuable addendum to the Wilbour papyrus, we may mention a very well-preserved letter dating from the reign of Ramesses XI some fifty years later. In this letter, the mayor of Elephantine complains to the Chief Taxing-master of his time that taxes had been unjustifiably exacted from him on two holdings for which he disclaimed all responsibility.

The tomb of Ramesses IV is of special interest because a plan of it, giving the exact dimensions, is preserved on a papyrus in the Turin Museum. The mummy of Ramesses V, discovered in the tomb of Amenophis II, reveals the fact that he died of smallpox. He probably reigned little more than four years, the fourth being the highest date known. His own unfinished tomb in the Biban el-Moluk was then annexed by Ramesses VI, who completed its decoration; from the latter king's reign of seven years only insignificant monuments have survived. There is evidence, however, that even if his usual place of residence was in the Delta, he could still command loyalty in Nubia. There the governor still bore the title of King's Son of Cush, and the present holder of the post Siese is mentioned together with his sovereign at 'Amara between the Second and Third Cataracts. For administrative purposes, Nubia had long been divided into the two provinces of Wawae or Lower Nubia, and Cush farther south. Under Ramesses VI the deputy-governor of Wawae was Penne, who was also mayor of the important town of Aniba. He describes in his tomb a statue of the king which he caused to be made there, and gives a detailed list of the fields set aside for its upkeep. For these services, to which was added the capture of some rebels in the gold-bearing region of Akati, he was rewarded with two silver bowls for unguent; the King's Son of Cush himself, together with the Overseer of the Treasury, visited Aniba for the presentation.

Meanwhile the office of high-priest of Amen-Re' at Karnak had become hereditary, and after being held by Nesamun, a son of Ra'messenakhte, had passed into the powerful hands of Amenhotpe, another son. At what exact date Amenhotpe attained this exalted position is not recorded. In year 10 of Ramesses IX, we find him arrogating for himself an eminence such as no subject of the Pharaoh had ever previously enjoyed. That a great dignitary should figure in the reliefs of a temple was not altogether unprecedented. Under Sethos II the high-priest Roma, also known as Roy, had caused himself to be depicted at Karnak petitioning the god Amen-Re' for long life and power to hand on his office to his descendants. But Amenhotpe went a step further: Egyptian Art had always made a point of proportioning the size of its human representations to the rank and importance of the persons represented, and now for the first time Amenhotpe, facing the Pharaoh, is shown as of equal height with him. Admittedly, Amenhotpe is here seen receiving rewards in the time-honored fashion, but the pretension to something like equality is unmistakable. Also, this claim accords with as much as we can ascertain from the facts and from subsequent history. The king might be the undisputed ruler in the north, but in the south the great pontiff at Karnak loomed larger than he.

It belongs to the unequal chances of archaeology that more written evidence should be forthcoming from the last reigns of Dyn. XX than from any other period of Egyptian history. The source is the west bank at Thebes, especially Medinet Habu and the neighboring village of Der el-Medina . Here vast quantities of papyri, more often fragmentary than complete, were discovered in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and are now scattered among the great collections of Europe. Initiated by Drovetti, the French Consul in Egypt, the Turin Museum secured the lion's share from the digs. The picture disclosed by the day-to-day journals of work in the necropolis is one of great unrest. Long stretches of time found the workmen on the royal tomb idle, and there are ominous references, many of them dating from the later years of Ramesses IX, to the presence at Thebes of foreigners or Libyans or Meshwesh, though we do not know exactly how these ought to be interpreted. Were they real invaders or were they the descendants of captured prisoners who had been incorporated into Egyptian army and who now felt themselves strong enough to rise in rebellion or at all events to create serious disturbances? These questions must remain unanswered for lack of evidence, but at least it is clear that the effect upon the native population was disastrous. More than once the rations of the workmen were two months overdue. Want and greed combined led inevitably to crime. The royalties and noblemen of former days had been buried with the costliest of their possessions, and the temptation of the living to despoil the dead was overwhelming. Tomb-robbery had been a common practice from the earliest times, but now, it would appear, this mode of counteracting poverty had become so widespread that energetic steps had to be taken to bring the thieves to justice. By a lucky chance, a whole series of well-preserved papyri has survived to throw light on the arrests and the trials which began in year 16 of Ramesses IX and continued, perhaps with an intermediate lull, a whole generation later. Some account has been already given of two of the most famous of these fascinating documents, namely the Abbott and the Amherst papyri. Both tell their tale in characteristically dramatic fashion, reading more like chapters out of a novel than like sober excerpts from official administrative records. It is in the later batch of which Papyrus Mayer A is the most complete example that we come nearest to the actual procedure followed in the judicial examinations of witnesses. Even those witnesses who were subsequently found innocent and set free had to undergo the ordeal of the bastinado.

There were important state trials, and the judges specially chosen to conduct them were the highest available officials. Under Ramesses IX, the vizier Kha'emwise, the high-priest of Amen-Re' at Karnak, the setem-priest of the Pharaoh's own funerary temple, two important royal butlers, a general in charge of the chariotry, a standard-bearer in the navy, and finally the mayor of Thebes Pesiur, the sworn enemy of Pwero, the mayor on the west bank (whom he had tried with very limited success to make responsible for the thefts in the royal tombs) were appointed to these trials. The court presiding over the later trials was similarly constituted, but the high-priest is lacking, probably because engaged upon even more important business. Here the names of the judges are all changed, this marking the lapse of time between the two sets of events. The Pharaoh, though absent from Thebes, was not indifferent to the crimes committed against the buried treasures of his predecessors. The trials were ordered by him and, at least in one case, the condemned were imprisoned until the king should decide what their punishment should be.

In the wider historical sense, the importance of these happenings at Thebes lies rather in the hints of great political occurrences let drop by the witnesses in making their depositions or otherwise indicated in the papyri of these times. Ramesses IX, after reigning for seventeen or more years, was succeeded by the tenth of the name, whose highest date is year 3. The long line of Ramesside kings came to an end with Ramesses XI, whose Prenomen Menma're'setpenptah recalled the great monarch Sethos I of two centuries earlier. His first eleven years have left no contemporary dated records, but information written down a decade later leaves no doubt as to the troubled condition of the land. It is probably to the early years of the reign that belongs a momentous event recalled in the testimony of a porter named Howtenufe:

The barbarians came and seized Tho (the temple of Medinet Habu), while I was looking after some asses belonging to my father. And Peheti, a barbarian, seized me and took me to Ipip, after wrong had been done to Amenhotpe, who was formerly high-priest of Amun, for as long as six months. And it so happened that I returned when nine whole months of wrong had been done to Amenhotpe, and when this portable chest had been misappropriated and set on fire.

Elsewhere, mention is made of 'the war of the high-priest' which must surely refer to the same event. The ambitious priest, who had been so powerful under Ramesses IX, here met with his nemesis. Chronological considerations make it impossible to link up this conflict with a revolt in which a certain Pinhasi was the protagonist. In Papyrus Mayer A, a document dating from late in the reign of Ramesses XI, some of the thieves are stated to have been 'killed by Pinhasi', while others perished in the 'war in the Northern District' and we read too of a moment 'when Pinhasi destroyed Hardai', which is the town called Cynonpolis by the Greeks, the capital of the seventeenth nome of Upper Egypt. The name Pinhasi is written in such a way as to make it certain that he was an enemy of the loyalists at Thebes, and the absence of any title shows that he was a very well-known personage. He can hardly have been other than the King's Son of Cush who was responsible for the collection of taxes in towns south of Thebes in year 12, and to whom in year 17 a somewhat authoritative order was sent by the king bidding him co-operate which the royal butler Yenes in the fabrication of a piece of furniture needed for the temple of a certain goddess and in supplying various semi-precious stones required for the workshops of the Residence City. It seems, accordingly, that his rebellion must have been posterior to year 17. There is a possible reference to him in a letter of considerably later date which suggests that he retired to Nubia and carried on his resistance there. But apart from this, nothing more is heard of him, nor are we able to guess anything beyond the fact that he was presumably a native of Aniba in Nubia, where a tomb prepared for him has been found.

Continuation of 20th Dynasty

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Last Updated: August 21st, 2011

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