Defender of the Frontiers
Defender of the Frontiers
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the reign of Rameses III, perhaps the last truly great pharaoh. Though external conflict would mar the first several years of his reign Rameses III would later go on to start a major building program, supplemented by another of tree planting and a consolidation of law and order. His internment would mark the end of an era in Egyptian history. Although the royal line was to continue, the vitality of the New Kingdom was all but spent, and never again would Egypt occupy such a lofty position on the world stage as it had done under the Thutmosides and earlier Ramesides.
The origins of Sethnakhte, founder of the Twentieth Dynasty, are obscure. His name’s compounding with that of the god Seth would suggest familial links with the Nineteenth Dynasty royal family, whose devotion to Seth is shown by the currency of the otherwise unusual name Sethy. Most probably, he was a grandson of Rameses II by one of the latter’s numerous offspring.
Sethnakhte was probably past middle age when he took power; certainly, his reign lasted only two years after Tawosret’s fall, with only the first four galleries of his tomb (KV11) having been cut and partially decorated on his death. The king was accordingly buried in the tomb of Tawosret, the figures of the female pharaoh being covered in plaster and replaced in a few cases by ones of the tomb’s new owner, or (given that time was short) by large writings of Sethnakhte’s cartouches.
The old king was followed on the throne by his son, Rameses III (fig. 49). The earliest years of the new reign were probably taken up with repairing the damage of the late–Nineteenth Dynasty conflicts, but by Rameses III’s fifth year, external threats had emerged that would test the mettle of the man who would prove to be perhaps the last truly great pharaoh. The first came from the west. Merenptah had had to repulse an attack by various Libyan tribes some twenty-seven years previously: now they made a new advance on the western Delta, ostensibly in response to Egyptian interference in their internal politics. In the battle that followed, Rameses’s forces were wholly successful: thousands of the enemy were killed, and many more captured. Nevertheless, the Libyan population of the western Delta continued to increase by peaceful infiltration, and would later form (p.130) the basis for a line that would ultimately take the throne of Egypt. The second, far more serious, threat came three years later:
The foreign countries conspired in their islands, and the lands were dislodged and scattered in battle together; no land could stand before their arms: the land of the Hittites, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Cyprus were wasted, and they set up a camp in southern Syria. They desolated its people and made its land as if nonexistent. They bore fire before them as they came forward toward Egypt.
The confederacy which had thus liquidated the principal states of Syria and Asia Minor were a new wave of the Sea Peoples who had threatened Merenptah (p. 123), and comprised a number of separate peoples, perhaps originally driven from their homelands by famine, and tempted by the promise of the rich lands to the east. Most seem to have come from southern Italy and from the Aegean, the latter region having recently experienced the collapse of the main centers of the Mycenaean civilization, together with the decay of the western part of the Hittite Empire, including such places as Troy. Thus released from central control, the various islands and coastal polities became ‘loose cannon’ in the international arena, which had long been regulated by the mutual relationships of the great powers, as manifestred in treaties such as that between Rameses II and Hattusilis III.
Of their destruction of the great Hittite monarchy and the ancient states of Syria, we have a number of contemporary accounts, telling of attacks from land and sea that destroyed much of the civilization of the Late Bronze Age. From their base in Syria, the main fighting units of the invaders, now reinforced by natives of the Levant, proceeded south by ship, with their families and support elements following by land, transported by oxcarts.
(p.131) To face these invaders, Rameses III established a defensive line in southern Palestine, with the mouths of the Nile secured by squadrons of warships and merchantmen. Commanding the land forces himself, he succeeded in signally defeating the opposition, while the sea battle in and around the Delta resulted in an overwhelming Egyptian victory. Elements of the enemy, in particular the Philistines, were able to settle in Palestine, but their power was entirely broken, and Egypt safe on the eastern frontier. It is possible that the victory was followed up by an expedition into Syria–Palestine, to mop up opposition and reinforce the Egyptian presence in the area. Among the memorials of the war against the Sea Peoples was a great structure built at Medinet Habu, which in all essentials imitates the features of a Syrian fortress, or migdol (fig. 50).
Year 11, however, saw yet another invasion from Libya. Again, the enemy was driven back, over two thousand men being killed and the captured leaders executed. While this seems to have brought peace for the
(p.132) rest of the reign, problems persisted throughout the dynasty, although more in the form of incursions from the desert around the latitude of Thebes than direct attacks on the Delta. Other, more desirable, foreign contacts took place, however, in particular a reestablishment of contacts with Egypt’s old trading partner, Punt.
With the coming of peace, after six or more years of conflict, a major program of building was begun, supplemented by another of tree planting and a consolidation of law and order. At Karnak, the high priesthood had been since the beginning of the dynasty held by Bakenkhonsu iii, son of the general Amenemopet, followed in the twenties of Rameses III’s reign by Usermaatrenakhte, who was to remain in office until around the time of the king’s death. The temple buildings there were augmented by numerous reliefs and two new, small temples founded, one dedicated to the moon god, Khonsu. Other Egyptian centers also benefited from the king’s constructional works, including Pirameses, Athribis, Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis, Asyut, Abydos, and Edfu. The vizierate, for many generations split between Upper and Lower Egypt, was unified in the person of To, possibly as a result of the rebellion of an unnamed Lower Egyptian vizier during the reign. A number of major offices were assigned to the king’s sons.
It is clear that Rameses III was a great devotee of Rameses II: not only was his prenomen based on that of his ancestor, but his sons were named after those of the earlier king (fig. 51), and often received the same offices as their namesakes. A particular example of this is Khaemwaset E, who became sem-priest of Ptah at Memphis, just as had the famous prince of earlier times, although the younger prince never rose to the dignity of high priest.
Rameses III had two principal wives: Tyti, who was the mother of the king’s eldest surviving son, Generalissimo Rameses C, and Iset D, who was the mother of the Master of Horse, Amenhirkopeshef C. A number of older boys died during their father’s reign, and were buried in the Valley of the Queens, including an earlier Prince Amenhirkopeshef (B). Of younger offspring who survived at the end of the reign (and whose mothers are unknown), two of the most important were the Master of Horse, Sethhirkopeshef C, and the high priest of Re at Heliopolis, Meryatum B.
In addition to these individuals, Rameses III possessed a number of minor wives and their offspring, and in this lay the seeds of the end of his reign—and life. The late twenties saw economic problems that are most visible in the failures to pay the Deir el-Medina workmen that led to a sit-down strike (p.133)
by them in Year 29. Against this background was hatched a plot against the king’s life, with the aim of placing on the throne Prince Pentaweret, born of one Tiye, setting aside the rightful heir, Rameses C (Rameses IV).
The insurrection had a number of facets; in addition to the murder of the king, a popular rebellion was to be stirred up, with a magical element that involved the use of waxen images. Only one of these succeeded, however: the murder of the king, whose throat was cut across so violently that the blade penetrated back to his spine. The rest of the plot was rapidly squashed by loyalists, and a tribunal set up by the new king, Rameses IV (in the name of his dead father), to try the conspirators, all of whom were condemned to death, the more senior ones being permitted to take their own lives, as a mark of their rank.
Rameses III was buried in his huge tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV11). It had been constructed out of the unfinished beginning of Sethnakhte’s sepulcher, and is interesting in incorporating a number of sculpted scenes that are unique for a royal tomb. The royal memorial (p.134) temple lay at Medinet Habu, and was in many ways an enlarged copy of that of Rameses II, the Rameseum. It is the best preserved of all New Kingdom mortuary structures, and for many years the complex housed the headquarters of the Theban necropolis administration.
The interment of the third Rameses marked the end of an era in Egyptian history. Although the royal line was to continue, the vitality of the New Kingdom was all but spent, and never again would Egypt occupy such a lofty position on the world stage as it had done under the Thutmosides and earlier Ramesides. The reasons were various. First, the technical revolution of the Iron Age, beginning around 1200 bc, left Egypt behind, lacking as she did easily exploitable sources of ore. Second, however, the civil wars of the late Nineteenth Dynasty had fatally fractured the join between northern Egypt and that portion centered on the The-baid. The leitmotif for much of the rest of Egyptian history is the overt or covert conflict between the two portions of the country, frustrating any further attempts at truly national action.