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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Conspiracies of the harem - Al Ahram Weekly

Conspiracies of the harem

Life at the ancient Egyptian royal court could be driven by ambition and conspiracies to seize the throne, writes Hussein Bassir 

Hussein Bassir
Ancient Egypt was a splendid society that alternated between glory and debility. Life at the royal court saw events driven by jealousy, ambition and hectic conspiracies where the attempt to gain the throne could give rise to the most florid conspiracies of all.

Though ancient Egyptian official documents did not record such events as they did not meet the sacredness and magnificence of Egyptian royalty, we can deduce some of them indirectly through the scarce references to them and by occasional notes from individuals wanting to underline their own importance. 

The first indication that something was wrong at the royal court comes in the self-presentation of the official Weni the Elder from the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (the Age of the Pyramid Builders), when he refers to the blessings bestowed on him by the Pharaoh Pepi I and how much he was trusted by him.

"When there was a private investigation within the royal harem against the queen," Weni remarks, "his Majesty made me investigate it by myself… Such a case had never happened before — that someone like me had investigated a matter within the royal harem, though his Majesty himself made me investigate it," Weni says.

We have no idea what sort of accusations had been made against the queen since Weni did not say more. As a result, later interpreters have been kept wondering what the missing text could have said. Perhaps the vizier himself had been charged with assisting the queen, or perhaps she had cheated on the king or had led a conspiracy against the lesser queens or against one of the king's children to prevent him from being heir to the throne. Perhaps she had even conspired against the Pharaoh himself.

 What we know as a fact is that Pepi I ordered Weni alone to investigate the incident. The action taken against the queen remains unknown.

During the New Kingdom at the end of the 20th Dynasty, members of the royal harem and others conspired against the Pharaoh Ramses III. The latter lived in the royal court with members of his family and top officials, and life within its walls was kept busy by events caused by jealousy and ambition. Probably the most important of these was the struggle to gain the throne after the former king had passed away among the officials and lesser queens and their sons. Such conspiracies involved threats to the life of Ramses himself.

The subsequent trials included members of the royal harem, water-bearers, guards and servants. This conspiracy was led by Ty, one of the lesser queens, assisted by members of the royal harem, and it aimed to make her son Pentawer the heir to the throne instead of the legitimate heir. The conspiracy had been discovered, and the king ordered a fuller investigation to be carried out. Those convicted were executed, ordered to commit suicide, or whipped, with other punishments including imprisonment, the amputation of ears and noses, or, occasionally, being set free after being found innocent.

We know of this conspiracy from a papyrus in Turin where it is called the "Harem Conspiracy". The text of the papyrus describes the incident to reflect on the changes that had occurred in the conception of Egyptian kingship that now saw the Pharaoh as a mere mortal that could be as weak as any other human being. He was not conceived of as a god ruling on earth on behalf of his ancestor gods.

In the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, there is a mummy of an unknown man known as the "Mummy of the Unknown Man" or the "Mummy of the Screaming Man". Recent studies of this mummy and of the mummy of Ramses III led by Zahi Hawass have shown that Ramses III was killed by being stabbed in the back with a knife. The other mummy, that of the Screaming Man, is thought to be of Ramses' son Pentawer who was sentenced to commit suicide by hanging, and this can be seen by the marks still visible on the mummy's neck. 

Pentawer was also punished after his death since his body was not mummified as was the usual practice, but instead was simply wrapped in sheep's skin. This was not considered to be pure in ancient Egypt, and it would have consigned Pentawer to the underworld in the afterlife.

The incidents of the trials referred to in the Turin papyrus indicate that the royal boat "had turned over", believed to be a reference to the death of Ramses III, and that his soul had ascended to the heavens. What is certain is that the conspiracy failed, since the following king was the legitimate heir, Ramses IV, and not Pentawer.

We do not know anything about the fate of queen Ty, though the history of this unfaithful queen is a shameful one, fuelled by jealousy between the queens of the royal court struggling for the throne. Such incidents can happen in any society, though they are usually hidden. Such were the secrets of ancient Egypt.

The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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