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Queen Tiy and the Harem Plot

Harem life was comfortable but dull. There was only one escape route for an ambitious woman: she had to become the next King's Mother. Her son had to become king of Egypt before one of his half-brothers succeeded to the throne and he became displaced from the succession. Usually the throne passed to the son of the consort, but this was not invariably the case; not all consorts produced sons, and there was always a chance that a favourite son born to a more junior wife might succeed his father. We have no contemporary account of harem life, and can only guess at the amount of scheming and manipulation designed to bring a lesser son to his father's notice.

We do know, however, that at least one of Ramesses' secondary queens was not prepared to leave things to chance. A collection of con­temporary court papers preserves the details of a plot masterminded from the 'harem of the accompanying' by the secondary queen Tiy, and sup­ported by a number of courtiers close to the king. Ramesses was to be killed, the people were to rebel, and the throne was to pass to Tiy's other­wise insignificant son, a youth named as Pentaweret. The name Pentaweret translates as 'The [male] One of the [female] Great One', the female Great One presumably being his mother, Tiy. This was almost certainly not the prince's real name. Records of criminal trials tended to replace 'good' Egyptian names - names incorporating the name of a god, for example - with more appropriate descriptive 'bad' names, and this is likely to be the New Kingdom equivalent of the Old Kingdom Queen 'Great of Sceptre' whom we met in the Pepi I harem case.
The unthinkable crime


The
hieroglyphic
determinative for
putting to the
wood'. Death by
impaling meant a
painful and
sometimes
lingering death.

Regicide should, of course, have been the unthinkable crime. Ramesses III was untouchable, a semi-divine being, the only mortal capable of maintaining the maat that was so crucial for Egypt's survival. The assassination of such an important individual was not only an act of treason, but also a dangerous act of heresy that threatened the whole world. His wife, however, did not see things that way. 

The first assassination attempt relied on magic alone, an entirely logical approach for a people who believed in the supernatural. Remote killing was an accepted part of ancient Egyptian ritual, and everyone knew that the king's symbolic smiting of a token foe on a Theban temple wall would cause vast numbers of the enemy to weaken, if not actually drop down dead, many miles away. And so a group of conspirators decided to use a combination of wax figurines and potent spells to murder their king. Fortunately for Ramesses, they were caught before any damage could be inflicted. Two contemporary and near-identical documents - Papyrus Rollin and Papyrus Lee - are, like so many ancient Egyptian texts, infuriatingly vague, but they do give us a good idea of the sequence of events.
Here Papyrus Rollin takes up the tale: 
It happened because writings were made for enchanting, for banishing and confusing. Because some Egyptian gods and some men were made of wax... He was examined and substance was found to every allegation and every crime... These were offences that merited death... And when he understood that the offences that he had committed were worthy of death, he brought death upon himself.
Naturally, such a heinous crime deserved the ultimate sentence. In ancient Egypt this meant a painful death either by impaling on a sharp wooden stake pushed through the torso, or by burning. It is not surprising that the offender chose instead to commit suicide, and equally unsurpris­ing that the palace officials, wary of a harem scandal, allowed it.

The next plan was, to modern eyes at least, far more practical. The king was to be killed as he celebrated a religious festival at his Medinet Habu mortuary temple at Thebes. It is tempting to assume that the king was to be killed in the most intimate and unguarded environs of the Medinet Habu harem palace. We know that the plot went ahead, and we know that it ultimately failed, as the conspirators were arrested and Ramesses III was succeeded by his intended heir Ramesses IV. What we don't know, most crucially, is whether Ramesses survived the assassination attempt. His mummy, recovered from the Deir el-Bahari cache, remains partially wrapped and therefore unautopsied. It shows no immediately obvious wounds, but as we do not know what weapons were used, we do not know what sort of injuries we should be looking for. Poison or smothering, of course, would leave no obvious mark. Contemporary accounts of the trial of the conspirators are less helpful than we might have hoped. The Turin Judicial Papyrus implies that Ramesses himself presided over the court, but this may be a literary conceit similar to that which saw the definitely dead 12th Dynasty king Amenemhat I writing to tell his son about his own death. 
The Trial
Initially the legal proceedings went much as expected. Three separate trials saw 38 people condemned to death, either by their own hands or by execution:

The great enemy Pabakkamun ('The Blind Servant'; presumably a dis­tortion of Pabekenamun, 'The Servant of Amun'), sometime Chief of the Chamber. He was brought in because he had been plotting with Tiyand the women of the harem. He had made common cause with them. He had carried their words outside to their mothers and their brothers who were there, saying, 'Arouse the people and incite hostility so as to make rebellion against their lord.' And they set him in the presence of the great officials of the Court of Examination. They examined his crime and found him guilty. And his crimes took hold of him, and the officials who examined him caused his punishment to befall him...
Wives of the men of the harem gateway, who had colluded with the men who plotted these matters, were placed before the officials of the Court of Examination. They found them guilty, and caused their punish­ment to befall them. They were six women...
Pentaweret was found guilty of plotting with his mother, and was allowed to kill himself. Tiy presumably suffered the same fate, although we have no record of her trial and sentence. Then things took a most-unexpected turn, as some of the trial judges and court officials were themselves arrested and charged with gross misconduct with the ladies of the harem. This, again, was a highly serious offence. Only one judge was found not guilty. The rest received suitably severe punishments that would allow them to survive as a dire warning to others:

Persons who were punished by the amputating of their noses and ears because they had ignored the good instructions given to them. The women had gone. They had followed them to the palace where they were and revelled with them... Their crime caught up with them..
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