The man who climbed the steps to the throne of Horus was no muscular warrior-king. He had occupied his throne only five years when he received word which must have hastened the loss of his remaining hairs.

For almost two hundred years the military ambitions of Egypt had been directed toward Syria and the east. Since Ahmose pursued the fleeing Hyksos invaders into Palestine, this area had provided the greatest challenges and the most pressing dangers to Egypt. There were always battles in Nubia to the south, and with the Libyans, west of the Delta; but these were lesser enemies than the great confederations of Syrian princes and the eastern empires of Mitanni and Hatti.

Now the status quo was changing, and drastically. A new wind was blowing against the isolated green island of Egypt, a wind cold and sharp with northern ferocity. The immediate threat to Egypt, the news of which reached the elderly king in March of his fifth year, came from the desert regions west of the Delta, which were occupied by various Libyan tribes. Maraye, king of the Libyans, led not only his fighting men but all the peoples of his tribe, women and children, with their cattle and house hold equipment, in a vast migration. Yet the threat of the Libyans was not new. What was new, and disturbing, was the presence of alien peoples among the military allies of Maraye. They have strange names: the Akawasha and the Luca, the Tursha and the Sheklesh. Perhaps the names will not sound so strange if we give the now commonly accepted equivalent: the Achaeans and the Lycians, the Tyrsenoi and the Sicilians.

The Egyptian records call these tribes “peoples of the sea.” We know them from Greece and also from Italy, if the Tyrsenoi are in actuality the ancestors of the Etruscans. How they came to be allies of a Libyan chieftain is a mystery, but it seems that there was ferment and unrest and a great movement of peoples throughout Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. The ancient empire of the Hittites was rocking on its foundations; Merneptah had sent grain to that country in order to relieve a severe famine. With a little ingenuity, we can trace most of the “peoples of the sea” to homelands in Asia Minor. The Tyrsenoi had lived in Lydia before they emigrated, and the Achaeans may have inhabited the Mycenaean colony at Miletus just south of Lydia.

If the famine and the general brouhaha that can be read in the Hittite records of this period affected the whole area of Asia Minor, the “peoples of the sea” may have been forced to migrate by hunger, or by pressure from other tribes to their rear. What ever their motive, they and the Libyans posed a formidable threat to Egypt, and Merneptah, in his extremity, sought advice from the gods.

They were reassuring. Ptah himself appeared to the king in a dream and offered him a sword. Merneptah, on this symbolic advice, sent out the army. We cannot condemn him for not taking part himself, for he was probably too old and possibly too fat for such exercise. But victory, in the orthodox view, was a gift of the gods who employed men and weapons as their tools, so Merneptah’s “pull” with divinity very properly received credit for the Egyptian success. Over six thousand of the enemy were slain, and nine thousand were taken prisoner.

Merneptah commemorated his victory in writing, upon a wall at Karnak. He also caused a stela to be carved—on the back of a stela of Amenhotep III, but he was not about to apologize for a minor usurpation of that sort after the outstanding example his father had given him. The inscription on this stela is one of the best known texts in Egyptology, and for a rather unusual reason. It gives the standard shouts of praises for the warrior-king, ending with a long list of conquered towns and tribes. The style of this hymn of victory is reminiscent of modern football reporting, which seems to have an unwritten rule against the use of the word defeated. Southern Cal smashes or flattens, or walks over, or edges an opponent; Merneptah plundered, and laid waste, and destroyed. Among the variegated verb forms we find the following phrase: “Israel is desolated, and has no seed.”

Naturally, this stela is called the “Israel stela,” and the reader can understand why it is so widely known. This is the one and only mention of the Israelites in all the Egyptian inscriptions we possess. And, of course, it provides a terminal point to the vexed question of the Exodus, which we glanced at earlier and then put off for future consideration.

The wicked pharaoh of the Exodus has long been sought by biblical scholars, and formerly Merneptah was a leading contender for the job. Proponents of the theory were confounded when Merneptah’s mummy was found, resting in peace though in poverty, in 1898; they had expected that his body would long since have dissolved in the waters of the Red Sea. The mummy is irrelevant to the problem, really; the thing that eliminates Merneptah as the pharaoh of the Exodus is this very stela, which demonstrates that Israel was a recognized entity by the time of Ramses II’s son. It is interesting to note, however, that the determinative of the word is not the sign for city or country, but for people—a tribe, rather than a state.

Who then was the pharaoh of the Exodus? Or was there a pharaoh of the Exodus? Was there, in fact, an Exodus at all?

A popular compromise answer holds that there was no single, massive exodus as described in the Old Testament. Asiatic peoples were continually wandering in and out of Egypt, as visitors or traders or conquered slaves, according to the vicissitudes of the Egyptian empire in Asia. A group of the people whose descendants formed part of the kingdom of Israel may have entered Egypt with the Hyksos; another group may have been led in chains behind the victorious chariot of Thutmose III; one group was active in the deserts of Palestine during the reign of Akhenaton, if the Habiru who devastated the southern half of Egypt’s empire at that time have any connection with the Hebrews. Or none of the above may be true. The biblical narrative specifically mentions the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramses, which implies that some of the Hebrews dragged stones under Merneptah’s father. However, there is the possibility that the names of the cities were added by a later compiler of the original tale, for the name of Ramses early came to loom large in the minds of men who thought of Egypt. As you can see, the problem is not simple, and the solutions to it are strongly influenced by the prejudices of the theorists. The archaeological evidence is equally conflicted. I don’t intend to go into details, since the subject is really outside the mainstream of our symposium.

Gallant (or lucky) old Merneptah, who was not the pharaoh of the Exodus, had a few years left to him after the battle with the Libyans and the Sea Peoples, and he spent them emulating his father; he tore down as many monuments as he could get at and built himself some memorials. Since he did not reign as long as Ramses II, he was unable to wreak so much havoc, though he did manage to dismantle the superb mortuary temple of Amenhotep III. When he died, a time of anarchy ensued, as Egyptologists like to say. It ensues, henceforth, with depressing frequency.

During this particular ensual, Seti II, Merneptah’s son, succeeded him. But he wasn’t the only king of Egypt at that time. A fellow named Amenmesse also occupied the throne. Did he control only Upper Egypt, with Seti II ruling in the north? Or did he snatch the throne away from Seti for three years, or five, or six? His mother was apparently a queen, but his father is unknown. Merneptah, Seti II? Take your pick. Seti II eventually ended up having sole control, and proceeded to replace Amenmesse’s name with his own wherever possible. Seti in turn was succeeded by a youth named Siptah, who was probably his son, but maybe Amenmesse’s. Siptah’s mother has an unusual name—Sitailja, or Shoteraja—certainly non-Egyptian, possibly Canaanite. He was only about eighteen when he died, after a reign of six years. His mummy has a severe deformity of the left foot, probably the result of polio.

Obviously a twelve-year-old king required a regent. Since his mother was almost certainly a concubine or lesser wife, the logical candidate, in accordance with tradition, was the chief wife of Seti II, Tausert.

Here’s where the sense of déjà vu all over again begins. In addition to the female regent we have a mysterious character named Bay, who held the title of chancellor. His name suggests that he was Syrian, possibly related to Siptah’s mother; his exalted position (for he was granted the high privilege of a tomb in the Royal Valley) has prompted the same sort of rumors that gathered around Hatshepsut and Senenmut. After Siptah’s death Tausert proclaimed herself king, as Hatshepsut had done before her, assuming kingly titles. We have no depictions of her in male attire and form, but that could be because only a few monuments of hers have survived.

Not very exciting, is it? Yet there is material for a thrilling historical novel here, and hints of dark events, murder, betrayal, and conspiracy. Bay’s influence did not endure; a recently discovered inscription calls him the great enemy, and proclaims that the king has had him killed. One would love to know why Siptah (or someone else in power) took this step. Chancellor Bay would make a splendid eminence grise, like Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu three thousand years later and, like them, the lover of the queen regent. Or was he a hated rival of the lady, who finally became powerful enough to order his execution? It’s pure fiction. The players in this drama are two-dimensional; we don’t know much about them, except for the fact that they all, including Tausert, had rather nice tombs in the Valley of the Kings. There is another tomb in the valley connected with Tausert and her husband, Seti II; the so-called Gold Tomb, though small in size and obviously not of royal dimensions, contained a cache of jewelry that was one of the most impressive found up to that time.

Among the loot was a pair of very small silver gloves, with a number of rings inside the fingers. Nothing organic had survived. It may well be that the theory suggested by one scholar is correct: that the burial was that of a small prince or princess, and that when the modern excavator cleaned out the silver gloves he threw away the rotted flesh and bone of a royal child.

Tausert’s successor was Setnakhte, a man of unknown antecedents, who took over her elegant tomb in the Valley of the Kings and was buried there after a reign of only a few years. Like Hatshepsut’s, Tausert’s mummy is missing, unless one of the unidentified females in the royal cache is hers.

Setnakhte is considered the founder of a new dynasty—the Twentieth—but his chief claim to fame is that he fathered Ramses III.

The name had already become one to reckon with, and Ramses III’s aping of his predecessor was certainly deliberate; it is too exact and too consistent to be otherwise. Ramses III built grandly and without undue modesty. His most famous monument is his mortuary temple, which today bulks large upon the West Bank of the Nile across from Luxor, not far from the mortuary temple of his idol, Ramses II. Medinet Habu is the name given to the temple of the third Ramses; it has been studied with more intense concentration than has any other Egyptian temple. The Oriental Institute has been copying texts and excavating in and around the temple for more than thirty years. The results fill several immense volumes, each about half as tall as I am, and they may truthfully be said to be as precise and accurate as any product of modern archaeological methods can be. If you visit Medinet Habu—which you certainly will do if you go to Luxor, since it is part of the standard tour—you will be struck by the yards and yards of inscriptions. I have a personal interest in these texts because I spent one semester translating some of them, and I contemplated the inscribed walls with loathing. The laudatory texts are as turgid and repetitive and pompous as the architecture. Once again—compare it with Deir el Bahri.

Medinet Habu was more than a temple. The king had a palace here, one of a number that he maintained, with the usual offices and servants’ quarters. Ramses entertained his harem in the gate house, and the reliefs that survive here are chastely indicative of the purpose of the structure. In defense of the adverb, let me add that the Egyptians saw nothing shocking about nudity; climate and common sense alike decreed relatively few garments in informal situations.

The Medinet Habu reliefs and inscriptions tell of more serious matters than dalliance with the girls of the harem. When Merneptah crushed the Sea Peoples and the Libyans, he may have believed that he had settled one problem for good and all. But he had only encountered the first wave of the great migrations, or Völkerwanderungen, which marked the first millennium before the Christian Era, and revamped the political map of much of the Middle East. The Sea Peoples and the Libyans were on the march once more; the old tribes who had harassed Merneptah had acquired fresh allies. Some of the new names may be identified; the Danu are possibly the Danaoi of the Iliad, and the Peleset are surely the Philistines, who settled along the coast of Palestine and irritated the Israelites in succeeding years. These people were not so much an army as a swarm of army ants, a vast column of warriors, oxen, children, wagons, and baggage carts which swept like a scourge through the eastern lands. They dealt the Hittites their death blow and came down on Egypt by sea and by land.

Ramses III defeated them in ferocious fighting on land and water. In three separate engagements he took care of the Libyans and the Sea Peoples, which makes his military accomplishments much more impressive than those of Ramses II. But there was one important difference. Ramses II was fighting at Kadesh, in what might be called a war of aggression hundreds of miles from Egypt. The men who fought under Ramses III had their backs to the wall, and they fought with the knowledge that defeat meant slavery or annihilation. The Egyptian empire was dead. Later there would be attempts to resurrect it, just as there would be imitations of other elements of past glory. But the ka of Thutmose III, safely settled in the Land of the Westerners, was not reembodied in Egypt.

The end of the Twentieth Dynasty is a sad spectacle. Almost every document that survives from this time, beginning with the last years of Ramses III, tells the same tale of corruption and abuse, a deadly rot that invaded every cell of the body politic. The death of Ramses III is an example; it does not seem appropriate to call it a “good” example. He was probably murdered by members of his own house hold in a case involving the blackest treachery, witchcraft, and subornation. The conspirators were headed by a queen named Ti, who wanted to see her son upon the throne of Egypt. The true heir, Ramses IV to be, did not succeed in saving his father’s life—was it, one wonders cynically, his primary aim?—but he defended his own rights with a vigor which he displayed in no other activity during his brief reign. The queen, her son the pretender, and certain harem officials were seized and condemned to trial.

During the hearings the ghastly tale of black magic emerged. One of the criminals began to make humans of wax, inscribed, so that they might be taken in by the inspector of the harem. To what purpose? one wonders. Were the waxen images used as they have been used in Europe an witchcraft? Such a doll could be identified with a particular individual by means of fingernail clippings, hair, or the like kneaded into the wax; torments worked upon the image inflicted corresponding injuries upon the victim’s body. The use of these “humans of wax” or clay is very, very old, but it is impossible to be sure that this is how they were used by the Egyptians. There is a suggestion that one of the figures may have been that of Ramses III, animated by means of a magical roll and thus a puppet in the hands of the conspirators. Though we do not fully understand the means, the deadly purpose of the magic is clear enough. To make matters worse, some of the judges fell under the influence of two of the accused criminals, consorting and carousing with them while the trial was under way. All the criminals died. The lesser were executed, but those of higher rank were accorded the privilege of supervised suicide.

We are told of only one other attempt at assassination, that of Amenemhat III back in the Twelfth Dynasty, but one can’t help suspecting that this sort of thing happened every now and then. If successful, the usurper would piously proclaim himself the chosen of Amon and bury his victim with suitable ceremony. If unsuccessful, why talk about anything so distasteful, so threatening to maat? The only reason why we know so much about this one is due to an accident of survival—a record of the court proceedings—or perhaps it’s only part of the proceedings. There is no mention of witnesses, no questioning of the accused by the judges, only a methodical list of the condemned and their punishments.

Up to this time the priesthoods had done well for themselves. A document called the Papyrus Harris, written at the end of the reign of Ramses III, lists the extent of the temple property. We are not sure whether the fantastic figures indicated only the gifts of Ramses to the gods, or the total amounts, including his donations; but in either case the holdings of the ecclesiastical foundations must have been enormous. Estimates range from 2 percent of the people of Egypt and 15 percent of the land, to 20 percent of the people and almost one-third of the total acreage. The figures would not be so formidable if the wealth had been equally divided; Egypt had so many gods and so many temples that the grand total would have been safely fragmented. But the great gods of Egypt held the lion’s share of the wealth, and the greatest of them all, Amon-Re of Thebes, was mightiest in temporal terms as well. One scholar has estimated that Amon alone owned one-fifteenth of the population and one-eleventh of the land.

The last kings of the Twentieth Dynasty are a dreary roll of Ramses—eight more of them. The events of their reigns are equally dreary. Asia, as a field of conquest, was closed to Egypt, and Ramses VI was the last king to work the mines in Sinai. At home, the stain of decay spread and deepened. The necropolis workers of Thebes, the men who built and maintained the tombs on the West Bank, went on strike on numerous occasions, demanding the pay that was overdue them. Each time the responsible officials met them with soothing words and promises that were never, or inadequately, fulfilled.

The priests were no less venal than their counterparts in the civil bureaucracy. Indeed, the distinction between civil and religious functions was far from sharp, and a man might hold offices in the temple and in the court simultaneously. But if he had to choose between the two, the ser vice of the gods was preferable. As far back as the Eighteenth Dynasty the convenient omniscience of historians allowed us to utter dire predictions of the danger of the trend that Papyrus Harris illustrates so vividly. We were able to view the generosity of Thutmose III and his successors to their patron god as a portent because we knew what was going to happen. It has been suggested that there was an element of political expediency in Akhenaton’s religious experiment, if not in Akhenaton himself. However, this interpretation necessitates the assumption that someone possessed a remarkable degree of insight into a situation that had not, at that time, taken on the shape it was to assume later, and which was probably never defined in such clear-cut terms. The conception of church and state as separate, rival entities was antithetical to the Egyptian worldview.

What ever the causes of the heresy, the results did not weaken Amon but gave him renewed strength. With the progressive debility of the state, and the succession of feeble pharaohs clinging to the name of Ramses as to a talisman, the power of Amon continued to wax.

The last Ramses, number eleven, marks the end of the Twentieth Dynasty. Egypt was in bad shape by then, impoverished and torn by what was essentially civil war. It ended with the country again divided, Ramses XI being allowed to retain the titles of king and control of the north, while the high priest of Amon controlled the south. By this time even Amon-Re must have been feeling the pinch. Presumably the temples still owned a great portion of the country, but no longer did tribute from abroad enrich the gods. However, there was one source of wealth available to the man who ruled at Thebes—the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Tomb robberies, which had never been completely suppressed, increased as the necropolis workers increasingly suffered from nonpayment of wages and official corruption. They knew where the loot was buried, and they may have figured it was of more use to them than to the silent dead. At first the authorities tried to carry out regular inspections and repair the damage they found. It was extensive; in some cases even the bodies had been dismembered and left scattered on the floors of the burial chambers. Eventually the priests decided they were fighting a losing battle. The only sure way of protecting what was left of the royal dead was to collect them and tuck them away in secret hiding places.

An honorable, pious enterprise, to be sure. Or was it?

Well, partly. The ruined bodies were rewrapped and relabeled, but it now seems clear that anything of value left on or with the mummy was recycled by the emissaries of the high priests. Two of them, scribes of the tomb named Djehutymose and his son, Butehamon, have achieved belated and somewhat dubious fame among Egyptologists. Their names appear all over the cliffs of the West Bank, noting the presence of the tombs they had located—and emptied. A series of letters between the High Priest Piankh and these two men makes their activities clear. The process went on for years, and by the time it was finished the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been cleared of their former occupants and what had remained of their possessions—all except one. The location of Tutankhamon’s tomb had been forgotten by the end of the Twentieth Dynasty. The mere fact that its contents survived is proof of that.

The gold in the other tombs, even the gilding on the coffins, went into the coffers of the high priests. Stripped of their valuables and in some cases mislabeled, the pathetic remains of the royal mummies found final resting places where they lay undisturbed for three thousand years.

Even before this time the office of high priest of Amon had become hereditary, like the kingship. The High Priest Amenhotep had been preceded in the office by his brother and his father, and he had shown signs of increasing presumption by having himself carved on a temple wall the same size as the pharaoh whom he faced. This would have been inconceivable in earlier times. He had to appeal to Ramses XI, however, when the viceroy of Nubia, Panehsy by name, marched north with an army and actually beseiged the high priest at Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, which had formidable walls. The royal army, led by a general named Piankh, eventually met and overcame Panehsy’s army, which retreated to Nubia. Not too surprisingly, General Piankh seems to have settled down at Thebes, where he eventually took the additional office of high priest of Amon.

His successor in both high offices was a figure of some stature. Here the presumed conflict between church and state is seen in its true light; Herihor was church and state in one person. As a soldier and viceroy of Nubia he commanded a large and effective army. The high priesthood was probably a prize of his prowess rather than the source of it. When he added the title of high priest to those of his military rank, he had more prestige than any man in Egypt except the pharaoh, and more real power than any man, including the pharaoh. It was only a matter of time before he would adjust the fiction to suit the fact and climb into the throne from behind.

The reliefs on the walls of the Khonsu temple at Karnak tell the tale with an ironic clarity that needs no words. In the outer courts the high priest usurps the functions of the king and makes offerings in his own person; inside the temple, the latest part to be built, he assumes the crown and the cartouche. So pass the Ramessids—unwept and unhonored, perhaps, but not unsung, thanks to the strenuous efforts of the second and third bearers of that now diminished name.

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