The Harem Conspiracy

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The mummy of Ramesses III, who ruled Egypt from 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. Credit: The BMJ

The royal court is never an easy place.  Its full of intrigue and deception and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  This is true today as it was in ancient times.  In Egypt, no one was more powerful than the Pharaoh.  However, in the Twentieth Dynasty, Pharaoh Ramses III was getting old.  He had ruled Egypt for a little over thirty years, and people were getting antsy.  Since he wasn’t vacating the throne on his own power, perhaps it was time to help him along.

Ramses had many wives like most pharaohs, however, unlike most pharaohs he did not name a Great Royal Wife.  This left the harem open to scheming and backbiting of all kinds.  There was the son of a senior wife who was the heir designate though.  This did not sit well with one of Ramses secondary queens, Tiy.  She was ambitious for her son, Prince Pentewere.  Tiy wanted him on the throne of Egypt not his half brother.  To achieve this, she had to get rid of both the old man, Ramses III, and the heir.  Tiy hatched a plan, but to make it work she needed the help of others.  So she started recruiting, and won stewards, inspectors, women of the harem, a priest, a magician and even a general to her side.  Her main co-conspirators were Pebekamen, the chief of the
chamber, and Mesedsure, a butler.  Their plans are outlined in detail in the Papyrus Rollin, the Papyrus Turin and the Papyrus Lee, which are transcripts of their trial.  Spoiler alert.  They did not succeed.

Pebekamen procured wax figures from a man named Pehuybin, which was supposed to disable the limbs of people.  These figures were secreted into the harem and more magic spells were performed to weaken the targets and evade any guards who might try to foil their plans.  This magic was done by the court magician and Ramses’ personal physician.  Messages were sent from one of the harem wives involved to her brother who was a captain of archers to “stir up the people” against Ramses.  This was going to be a full on decapiter plot with a matching revolution.  However, the plotters ran into problems as someone must have gotten scared and ratted them out.  Tiy, Pentawere and dozens of others were put on trial.  In the Papyri, it is suggested Pentewere was convicted.  Ramses’ other son became Ramses IV.  The coup ultimately failed.

One thing remained unclear, however, how far did the plot go?  There was confusion around whether Ramses III died a natural death later or if the plot had succeeded in killing him.  There were some stories of poison or that Ramses III survived the initial attack to die at a later date.  In 2012, a team revisited the mummy of Ramses III and performed a CT scan.  They found the mummy had a serious wound in his throat.  In the paper discussing their findings, the team wrote, “The large and deep cut wound in his neck must have been caused by a sharp knife or other blade,” the team wrote in a paper on their findings, published in the British Medical Journal on Monday (Dec. 17). They added that the cut, which severed his trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels,
would have killed him instantly.”

There is also question around what happened to Pentewere.  After being found guilty, he would have most certainly been put to death.  However, what happened to his body?  No one is quite sure, however, there is an unidentified mummy called Unknown Man E or the Screaming Mummy.  It was discovered in 1886 with an agonized expression on his face, which led to speculation of poison or being buried alive.  A 2008 National Geographic documentary investigated the possibility that Unknown Man E was Prince Pentawere.  The Papyri indicate Pentawere was given the “option” to commit suicide instead of being executed.  He may have used poison to take this option.  The mummy of Unknown Man E contains all its organs and is wrapped in a goat skin, which is not inline with typical mummification procedure.  Goat skin was considered ritualistically impure in ancient Egypt.  All of these things, may be interpreted as evidence punishment into the afterlife.  However, it was a kinder punishment than if he was executed as his body would have been burned and his ashes scattered.  This would have excluded him from any sort of an afterlife.  A genetic analysis of this mummy showed that Unknown Man E shared the same paternal lineage as Ramses III, which “strongly suggest[ed] that they were father and son”.  


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