Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Thirty-Nine

The End of the New Kingdom

Between 1185 and 1070 BC, Rameses III defeats the Sea People, but Egypt declines

AT SOME POINT during the muddle at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, a completely unknown king named Setnakhte came to the throne of Egypt and restored order. He may have been a grandson of Rameses II; he may simply have been an army officer with troops under his command. Whoever he was, he led an attack on the Asiatic invaders who were pressing into the Delta, and was so successful that his next move was to claim the crown.

The same papyrus that tells of the unrest at the Nineteenth Dynasty’s end (a papyrus that comes from the reign of Setnakhte’s grandson) credits Setnakhte with temporarily righting the Egyptian mess: not only driving off the usual “vile Asiatics,” but restoring law and order so that local noblemen were no longer fighting with each other over control of land, opening temples which had closed out of fear or poverty, and putting priests back on duty.1 And he did all this, apparently, within the span of three years, at which point he died and left the throne to his son.

This son took the name Rameses III, in imitation of the great pharaoh who had lived a hundred years before. He built a mortuary temple patterned after Rameses II’s; like Rameses II, he added to the various temples of Amun and gifted their priests with land, hoping to make a name for himself as god-chosen. “You, Amun, established me on the throne of my father, as you did for Horus on the throne of Osiris,” reads a prayer composed by Rameses III and written down by his son. “So I made you a house with towers of stone, rising to heaven; I built a wall before it; I filled its treasury with gold and silver, barley and wheat; its lands and its herds were like the sand of the shore.”2

The gifts to Amun didn’t keep invaders away. Like Rameses II, Rameses III found himself fighting a great battle against invaders from the north. Unlike Rameses II, he fought not in the northern provinces of the Western Semitic lands, but at the border of Egypt itself.

RAMESES III had an early hint of trouble coming in the fifth year of his reign, when a peaceful migration swelled suddenly into an attack. Libyan tribes, Africans from the western desert, had been wandering, a few at a time, into Egypt: moving from the dry red land into the black. Since the Hyksos disaster, no foreign people had been allowed to rule themselves within Egypt’s borders. When the Libyans showed signs of gathering together and appointing a king of their own, Rameses III sent his soldiers in to inflict a general slaughter. Shattered, the Libyans fled back into the desert, or were taken into slavery.3

Scarcely had this western threat been dealt with than all hell broke loose to the northeast. Setnakhte’s expulsion of the “Asiatics” had been temporary. The Western Semitic lands were a general seething mess from Troy all the way over to Assur and down to Babylon, with local chiefs asserting their independence, Hittite borders shrinking, Assur and Babylon at odds, the Elamites rampaging along the eastern borders, and—to make matters worse—a growing migration of tribal peoples who were coming in a steady stream into the area from past the Aegean and the Black Sea (from what we would now call the mainland of Eastern Europe). The wanderers of the ancient world were gaining the edge over the organized kingdoms: “The foreign lands burst forth and scattered in the strife,” Rameses III wrote on his temple wall, “no land could stand before them. They laid their hands on countries as far as the circuit of the whole earth.”4

Most of the “whole earth,” as it happened, had been suffering through a decade of on-again, off-again drought, the same famine-producing dryness that probably sent the Libyans into the Delta. To thirsty wanderers, Egypt, with its always-watered lands, began to look like the world’s prize jewel. Not long into Rameses III’s reign, an organized alliance of invaders headed his way.


39.1 Sea Peoples Invade

Invasions of the Delta were nothing new. But this particular invasion force was made up of a startling number of different tribes who swore allegiances with each other, with African tribes, and with Mycenaean seafarers (possibly mercenaries, leaving the Greek peninsula as the Mycenaean cities grew poorer). It is a little difficult to match the names Rameses III used for the invaders with our own names for the peoples in the area. Rameses’s “Weshesh” were probably African tribes; the “Shekelesh” were most likely from the Aegean; the “Peleset” were a seafaring folk of vaguely Aegean origin, who probably came over by way of Crete in the wake of Mycenaean unrest. The Peleset seem to have been responsible for arming the force; Egyptian reliefs of the attackers show the whole force in crested helmets of Cretan style.5

Together, the invaders had a frightening strength. “Not one stood before their hands,” Rameses III wrote, “…and they came with fire, prepared before them, forward to Egypt.”6 And perhaps the most alarming news came from the spies who told Rameses III that the armies, moving forwards towards Egypt, were trailed by oxcarts filled with women and children. These tribes didn’t want to attack and raid Egypt. They wanted to move in and take over.7

The Egyptian soldiers marched up to meet the invasion at the border, and won the first clash. The reliefs carved onto the walls of Rameses III’s mortuary temple gave the pharaoh credit for leading an enormous victory. In the carvings, the rejoicing Egyptian warriors are surrounded by piles of hands; it was customary for soldiers to sever the right hands of the dead and bring them back to the scribes, so that an accurate count of enemy casualties could be recorded.97

But the greater peril, given the Egyptian dislike for the Great Green, was yet to come: invasion by sea.

This second wave of the attack was directed by the experienced sailors in the alliance, probably those from the Aegean. Their skill on water was so great that the Egyptians, who had little sea experience and no fighting ships, knew the whole alliance by the name “Sea People.”

Egyptian paintings of the battle show the Sea People on ships very different from the oar-driven Egyptian craft, which were designed for rivers. These were sailing ships, wind driven, with birds’-head prows.8 Knowing that the Egyptians could never meet the expert sailors who manned them on equal terms, Rameses III filled his riverboats with soldiers until they were “manned completely from bow to stern with valiant warriors,” and then clogged the harbor entrances in the Delta with them, “like a strong wall.” He then lined his foot soldiers along the banks with orders to pelt the incoming enemy ships with arrows and spears. “A wall of metal upon the shore surrounded them,” he boasts.


39.1. Relief at Medinat Habu. An Egyptian scribe counts the severed hands of dead enemies; this scene is found on the victory relief of Rameses III at the temple of Medinet Habu. Photo credit Z. Radovan/

The strategy worked. The sea warriors were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that faced them. “They were dragged, overturned, and laid low upon the beach,” the inscriptions conclude, “slain and made heaps from stern to bow of their galleys.”9 Temple paintings show lines of prisoners, manacled and on foot, paraded in front of the victorious Rameses III. The greatest threat since Kadesh had been beaten off.

THE FAULT LINE running through Egypt, temporarily plastered over by victory reliefs and building projects, was still liable to crack open at any point. Rameses III held the throne by right of his father’s coup, and he was not immune to power plays.

Towards the end of his reign, one of his lesser wives hatched a plot to assassinate the king by mob violence. Scribes who recorded the affair during the reign of Rameses’s successor say that she began a campaign to “stir up the people and incite enmity, in order to make rebellion against their lord.”10 Apparently she hoped that the mob would not only remove Rameses III, but also his appointed successor—his son by another wife—so that her own son would become king.

A harem plot to kill the pharaoh was hardly unknown, but this one was remarkable for the number of people involved. The court recorder lists, among others, the two royal standard-bearers, the butler, and the chief scribe. The overseer of the herds was accused of making wax figures of the king, apparently for use in an Egyptian form of voodoo;11 the chief steward was convicted of spreading dissension. The conspiracy apparently stretched all the way down into Nubia: “Benemwese, formerly captain of archers in Nubia…was brought in because of the letter which his sister, who was in the harem, had written to him, saying, ‘Incite the people to hostility!’”12

The records of the conspiratorial accusations end, in monotonous regularity, with either “He took his own life” or “The punishments of death were executed upon him.” The exceptions were three conspirators who merely had their noses and ears cut off, and a single acquittal: a standard-bearer named Hori, who undoubtedly lived the rest of his years in disbelief that he alone had survived the purge.13

By the time the trials dragged to a close, the intended victim was offstage. Rameses III himself had died of old age.

Over the next eighty years, eight kings named Rameses ruled, most of them in such obscurity and chaos that only fragments of records and inscriptions survive. Egypt held onto its Nubian territories, but one by one its other holdings dropped away. The mines across the Sinai fell silent. Eventually the Nubian gold mines were abandoned by their workmen as well. By the 1140s, Egypt had stopped even trying to defend its Western Semitic holdings; the frontier forts lay just east of the Delta.14 The tombs in the Valley of the Kings had not only been discovered, but plundered by thieves. Libyans near the Delta had taken to attacking Egyptians who strayed near the western border. A court official named Wenamun, attempting to travel up the coast in order to negotiate a good price for cedar logs from Byblos, was set upon and robbed of his money; the thieves had no fear of Egyptian reprisals. Wenamun finally did reach Byblos, but his mission failed. The king of Byblos was not inclined to accept Egyptian credit, which was no longer any good up north. “I am not your servant,” he remarked to Wenamun, “nor am I the servant of the one who sent you. The logs stay here on the shore.”15

Meanwhile, the priests of Amun were growing richer. Amun’s reenthronement as chief god, under Tutankhamun, meant that pharaoh after pharaoh made rich offerings to the Temple of Amun. Rameses III gave Amun so much land that at the time of his death, the priests of Amun controlled almost a third of all the cropland in Egypt.

Horemheb’s appointment of military officers to the priesthood—done to assure priestly loyalty to the throne—eventually backfired. Sometime around the twelfth year of Rameses XI, a general named Herihor managed to have himself appointed High Priest of Amun. He now controlled not only the army, but also the greatest treasure in Egypt. When he began to make demands, Rameses XI seems to have buckled without a fight. Less than five years later, Herihor became the Viceroy of Kush; not long after that, he began to style himself as Vizier of Egypt; and ten years later, his name began to appear as co-ruler of the entire country. His portrait was carved into the temple walls beside that of Rameses XI, the two men equal in size and power.16

When both men died within five years of each other, neither leaving a son and heir behind, their sons-in-law began a civil war. Rameses XI’s son-in-law enthroned himself in the north, while Herihor’s son-in-law claimed a divine right to rule the south from the city of Thebes.

This time, no great unifier appeared on the horizon. The New Kingdom had ended. Egypt remained divided, and soon sank into a confused and battling disaster: the Third Intermediate Period.


If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!