Ramesses III (also written Ramses and Rameses) was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty and is considered to be the last great New Kingdom king to wield any substantial authority over Egypt. He reigned from 1183 to 1152 BC (alternate dates are 1187/1186 to 1156/1155 BC). The Ancient Greeks knew him as Rhampsinitus.
During his long tenure in the midst of the surrounding political chaos of the Greek Dark Ages, Egypt was beset by foreign invaders (including the so-called Sea Peoples and the Libyans) and experienced the beginnings of increasing economic difficulties and internal strife which would eventually lead to the collapse of the Twentieth Dynasty. In Year 8 of his reign, the Sea Peoples invaded Egypt by land and sea. Although Ramesses III defeated them in 2 great land and sea battles, he was unable to stop the creation of several new states by these people in parts of the Asiatic Egyptian Empire. The heavy cost of these battles slowly exhausted Egypt's treasury and contributed to the gradual decline of the Egyptian Empire in Asia. The severity of these difficulties is stressed by the fact that the first labor strike in recorded history occurred during Year 29 of Ramesses' reign, when the food rations for the favoured royal tomb-builders in the village of Set Maat her imenty Waset (now known as Deir el Medina), could not be provisioned. The reason for this deficiency was due to the the 1159 BC eruption of the Hekla III volcano in Iceland, which expelled up to 12 cubic kilometres of rock into the atmosphere and caused large-scale failures of the crop harvest. The presence of significant quantities of volcanic soot in the air prevented sunlight from reaching the ground and also arrested global tree growth for almost two full decades until 1140 BC. The result in Egypt was inflationary grain prices; however, the prices of fowl remained stable during this difficult period.
These realities are completely ignored by the images of continuity and stability presented in Ramesses' official monuments – most of which seek to emulate his more famous predecessor, Ramesses II. He built important additions to the temples at Luxor and Karnak, and his funerary temple and administrative complex at Medinet-Habu is amongst the largest and best preserved in Egypt – however the uncertainty of Ramesses' times is apparent from the massive fortifications which were built to enclose the latter. No Egyptian temple in the heart of Egypt prior to Ramesses' reign had ever needed to be protected in such a manner.
Thanks to the discovery of papyrus trial transcripts (dated to Rameses III), it is now known that there was a plot against his life as a result of a royal harem conspiracy during the celebration of Medinet Habu. The conspiracy was instigated by Tey one of his two principal wives (Isis and Tey) over whose son would inherit the thone. Isis's son, Ramesses IV, was the eldest and the chosen successor by Ramesses III rather than Tey's son Pentawere. It is not known if the plot succeeded because the body of Ramesses III shows no obvious wounds. However a hypothesis has been put forth that a snakebite was the cause of death. Ramesses III may also have initiated the trials himself to capture the perpretators of the conspiracy late in his life. His mummy includes a protective amulet to protect Ramesses III in the afterlife from poison. The servant in charge of his food and drink was among the listed conspirators.
The documents also emphasize the extensive scale of the conspiracy to assassinate the king since 40 individuals were tried in all. Chief among them was Queen Tey and her son Pentawere, 7 royal butlers(a respectably state office), 2 Treasury overseers, 2 Army standard bearers, 2 royal scribes and a herald. There is little doubt that all of the conspirators were sentenced to death: some of the condemned were given the option of committing suicide by poison rather than execution. In the case of Tey and her son Pentawere, their means of death is not known but their royal tombs were robbed and their names erased to prevent them from reaching the afterlife. The Egyptians did such a thorough job of this that the only references to them are these ancient documents and the remains of their tombs.
It has been recently suggested that Pentawere, being a noble, had been spared the humiliating fate of the other conspirators. The others would have been burned alive with their ashes strewn in the streets. Such a punishment would serve to make a strong example since it conveyed such a religious gravity for ancient Egyptians who believed that one could only attain the afterlife if one's body was mummified and preserved. In other words, not only were the criminals killed in the physical world, but also in the afterlife. They would have no chance of living on in the next world, a kind of 'second death'. Pentawere, however, may have been given the option to commit his own suicide and to avoid the harsher punishment of second death, allowing him to be mummified (and hence to at least carry on into his afterlife, as was believed).
The Great Harris Papyrus or Papyrus Harris I, which was commissioned by his son and chosen successor Ramesses IV, chronicles this king's vast donations of land, gold statues and monumental construction to Egypt's various temples at Piramesse, Heliopolis, Memphis, Athribis, Hermopolis, This, Abydos, Coptos, El Kab and other cities in Nubia and Syria. It also records that the king dispatched a trading expedition to the Land of Punt and quarried the copper mines of Timna. More notably, Ramesses reconstructed the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak upon the foundations of an earlier temple of Amenhotep III and completed the Temple of Medinet Habu around his Year 12. He decorated the walls of his Medinet Habu temple with scenes of his Naval and Land battles against the Sea Peoples.
Ramesses III died after a reign of 31 Years, 1 Month and 19 days. His accession date was III Shemu day 26 while he died in Year 32 III Shemu day 15. The mummy of Ramesses III was discovered by antiquarians in 1886 and is regarded as the protypical Egyptian Mummy in numerous Hollywood movies. His tomb (KV11) is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings.