Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt’s Last Hero

THE REIGN OF RAMESSES III has long intrigued scholars and laypersons alike, both because this pharaoh’s reign took place during a watershed period in history, and because of the remarkable preservation of his majestic “Mansion of a Million Years” at Medinet Habu. With Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt’s Last Hero (University of Michigan Press, 2012), volume editors Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor have provided a resource that takes on this 20th Dynasty pharaoh, and his reign, from multiple angles, including art, literature, foreign policy, monuments, legacy, and (naturally) Medinet Habu itself. The result is a valuable collection of essays that can provide both students and scholars with the latest in Ramesside scholarship, and one to which a brief review can hardly do justice. As a result, certain portions of this volume – in particular, the tripartite Chapter 5, which deals with Ramesses III’s foreign engagements – will receive outsize attention. However, this should not be seen to reflect negatively on the book’s other chapters, each of which holds significant value.

The volume “begins with a bang,” as chapter one is brief essay on “Ramesses III and the Ramesside Period” by renowned Ramesside scholar Kenneth Kitchen. In this chapter, Kitchen – with his usual gusto (at least five exclamation points are used, along with copious italics) – briefly summarizes the period being covered in this volume, with a particular emphasis on Ramesses III’s foreign policy and domestic building projects. Kitchen’s bluntness in dealing with thinly–supported hypotheses is on full display in his discussion of Ramesses III’s dealings with the Levant (particularly the Sea Peoples; pp. 11-17). He writes, “the suggestion, occasionally made, that [the Sea Peoples, Philistines in particular] had been native to Canaan from old1 is nonsense, contradicting both the clear statement of…firsthand texts and the evidence of these peoples’ material culture…Such a suggestion owes everything to the sociological/anthropological idiot dogma that nobody in antiquity ever migrated anywhere (especially in any quantity), in the teeth of abundant evidence to the contrary at all periods in recorded human history. It owes nothing to the facts of the case” (p. 15).

Chapters two through four (by Emily Teeter, Carolyn R. Higginbotham, and Christopher J. Eyre, respectively) address religious and administrative practices, and culture and economics in the Ramesside period. The invocation of “Ramesside Egypt” (Ch. 2) and “Late Ramesside Egypt” (Ch. 4) in the titles of these chapters appropriately captures that which they, and others within this volume, clearly demonstrate: that the reign of Ramesses III, and the practices, economics, events, etc. within it, cannot be taken in isolation, but must be viewed as one part of a larger whole, extending from the beginning of the 19th Dynasty to the end of the New Kingdom. A recurring theme in these and other chapters is continuity between previous reigns (and dynasties) and the reign of Ramesses III, albeit with some changes. In religion (Ch. 2), this meant a surprising level of continuity between 18th Dynasty Egypt and Ramesses III’s reign (P. 27), but with some natural changes, including the “Osirianization” of Egyptian cult (p. 56).

Society and economy as Ramesses III’s reign wore on (Ch. 4) were marked by a “collapse” in Egypt’s “tax base,” leaving the regime less able to fund the expansive building projects that had marked the preceding pharaohs’ reigns (p. 139). Meanwhile, Egyptian society was becoming more militarized than ever (p. 138), while the central administration was losing the ability to control the “agricultural base of the Egyptian economy” (p. 142), Upper Egypt – a loss of control that, once complete, would leave Egypt’s two lands separated once again, as they had been in the preceding first and second intermediate periods (between the Old and Middle, and Middle and New, Kingdoms, respectively). Sandwiched between these two chapters is Higginbotham’s excellent synopsis of Ramesside administration, which focuses on the delegated layers that made up the Egyptian bureaucracy, and on the efficiency with which these hereditary administrators worked, “expend[ing] mo more effort or resources than necessary to run the government (p. 97). “When [the Egyptians] ‘wasted’ resources,” Higganbotham writes, “it was on lavish displays of power like palaces, temples, and tombs, not on micromanagement” (ibid).

CHAPTER FIVE, “NOMADS of Sea and Desert: An Integrated Approach to Ramesses III’s Foreign Policy (pp. 151-208), is unique within this volume in that it is made up of three separate essays, each of which comments on a different aspect of the pharaoh’s foreign policy and interactions with peoples in Canaan and more distant.  These essays vary widely in length and comprehensiveness, as well as in the currency of their commentary and sources.  Peter Haider offers a very dense, high-level discussion of Egypt’s contacts with the Aegean and Anatolia, and addresses both toponymic problems and the sticky issue of the points of origin of several Sea Peoples (pp. 151-160).  Given Haider’s unique (contrarian?) take on some of the stickiest issues of Egyptian foreign contact, a lengthier discussion than that included in this volume (only 3½ pages of text [pp. 151–2, 154, 156] and a welcome two of maps [pp. 153, 155], but a disproportionate 4½ pages of endnotes [pp. 156–160]) would have been welcome.

The second essay in this chapter, James Weinstein’s “Egypt and the Levant in the Reign of Ramesses III” (pp. 160–180), is the most archaeologically detailed in the book as a whole.  In many ways a revision and expansion of his 1992 article on “The Collapse of the Egyptian Empire in the Southern Levant,”2 Weinstein lays out in brief but informative detail the archaeological evidence for Egyptian presence and policy in the southern and northern Levant.  It is a mark of the significant differences in evidentiary interpretation and belief between scholars in the field of Ramesside studies (particularly with regard to the Sea Peoples) that within this very volume Weinstein draws exactly the opposite conclusion, based on the same available evidence, from Kitchen regarding the establishment of the Philistine cities in southern Canaan and Egypt’s posture toward them.  In Chapter 1, Kitchen writes that “Egyptian tax collectors would have…had freedom of movement through Philistia, even to reach centers such as Tel Sera, Lachish, or Gezer, besides going the main road north.  Thus, it is clear that in year 8, Ramesses III did not merely defeat his Sea Peoples opponents on the day of the battle but had them also as his vassals in Philistia when they settled down in Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron” (p. 15).  Weinstein, on the other hand, follows Manfred Bietak, Lawrence Stager,3 and others in arguing for an Egyptian cordon sanitaire around Philistia.  He writes, “The Egyptian response to the presence of large Philistine settlements along the coast and in the southern coastal plain was a defensive strategy designed to block Philistine expansion, as well as a plan to administer the areas of southern Palestine that remained under Egyptian control” (p. 164).  The latter seems closer to the mark, as Weinstein demonstrates with references to the archaeological evidence, though the most likely case is the middle ground articulated, among others, by Amihai Mazar.4

One error in this section is in note 56 (p. 178), where Weinstein mentions that the “grotesque-style” anthropoid coffins from Beth Shan, which seem to mimic the headdresses seen on the feathered-cap-wearing Sea Peoples in the naval battle at Medinet Habu (among other scenes), “are often linked to Aegean mercenaries (generally the Sherden) in the employ of the Egyptians.” The Sherden are not associated with this style of headdress, instead being identified by horned helmets (almost always with a circular protrusion in the middle), while the feathered-headdressed Sea Peoples are identified at Medinet Habu as the Peleset (Philistines), Sikils, and Denyen.5 It is the latter that the source Weinstein cites in his note6 thought most likely to be associated with the Beth Shan coffins, though Stager (cited above) among others has argued against any association between anthropoid coffins (a well-known Egyptian burial style) and the Sea Peoples.

The final essay in Chapter 5, by prolific and talented volume editors Eric H. Cline and David O‘Connor, is simply titled “The Sea Peoples” (pp. 180-208).  This section is thorough for its relatively brief length, and contains a helpful series of translations of “the inscriptions concerning the Sea Peoples” (pp. 200-205; Ramesses III’s Deir el-Medineh stela mentioning the Peleset and Teresh is omitted, as are all references to the Sea Peoples that are not directly connected to Merneptah’s Year 5 and Ramesses III’s Year 8, along with multiple relevant Ugaritic texts).  While an informative essay, it is unfortunate that Cline and O’Connor appear to have almost identically reproduced their 2003 chapter on the Sea Peoples from another volume.7  Though that in itself was and is a valuable work, revision for this publication should have included correcting errors in the original, like the authors’ conflation, based on the mis-reading of another source8, of a reference to the Sherden in Ramesses II’s Tanis II stela and his separate reference to a victory over an unnamed seaborne foe in the Aswan stela of regnal year 2 (p. 186), as well as an updating of source material. The essay cites no publications that have appeared in the nine years following their 2003 contribution, despite several relevant works having been published since then, including the valuable 2010 analysis of the Aegean migration at the end of the LBA and the evidence for intrusive Sea Peoples presence in the Early Iron Age Levant by Cline’s fellow excavator at Tel Kabri, Assaf Yasur–Landau.9

IN CHAPTER SIX, volume co–editor David O’Connor provides an extremely detailed analysis of Ramesses III’s impressive and well–preserved “Mansion of a Million Years,” his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. In chapter seven, Bojana Mojsov contributes a study on the topic of her doctoral dissertation, the monuments of Ramesses III, Chapter eight is a lengthy (99–page, 349–footnote) study of “the Literary Environment of the Age of Ramesses II” by Ogden Goelet. Like chapters two and four (in particular), Goelet’s analysis is broad in the information it considers, and is dependent on a broader context. With dual foci on performance and didactics, a combination of the revered old and the creatively modern, and an ever-present concern for ideology and religion, Goelet writes, “literary threads came together in the reign of Ramesses III to form a new tradition that stands as one of the great cultural achievements of the age” (p. 379).

The volume concludes with an outstanding contribution by Steven Snape on “The Legacy of Ramesses III and the Libyan Ascendancy.” The first eleven pages of this chapter (pp. 404-414) deal with the assassination of Ramesses III, his succession, and the representations of Ramesses’ sons at Medinet Habu. While this initial portion is germane to the overall study, the remainder of Snape’s chapter, which deals with “the Libyan ascendancy” (p. 427), stands apart as an engaging and wonderfully presented summary of, and commentary on, current scholarly understanding of the transition from the New Kingdom to the Libyan-led Third Intermediate Period in Egypt.

A COMMON THEME among the contributions to this volume is the place of Ramesses III – his words, his deeds, and his legacy – within the greater Ramesside period (and the New Kingdom as a whole). Though constantly and actively seeking to replicate the success and persona of his namesake, Ramesses II (“the Great”), Ramesses III was a pivotal pharaoh who presided over what has been seen as the tipping point of the Egyptian New Kingdom. The collapses of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms and empires around the eastern Mediterranean were stopped (perhaps literally) at Egypt’s doorstep, but the Egypt that Ramesses III inherited was deeply flawed, and it never recovered from the events of his reign, or those of his successors.

Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt’s Last Hero serves as an excellent primer on the reign of Ramesses III and the context surrounding it, and the chapters included within it provide a snapshot of current trends in the research and understanding of this pharaoh and the end of the New Kingdom in Egypt. As such, this volume will be a welcome addition to the libraries and reading lists of students and scholars alike.

Ramesses III: The Life and Times of Egypt’s Last Hero, edited by Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor (ISBN 978-0-472-11760-4; xvi+542 pages; $90.00), is published by the University of Michigan Press.



1.  See, inter alia, Drews, R. (1998). Canaanites and Philistines. JSOT, 81, 39–61; Nibbi, A. (1975). The Sea Peoples and Egypt. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes; Sherratt, E. S. (1998). ‘Sea Peoples’ and the Economic Structure of the Late Second Millennium in the Eastern Mediterranean. In S. Gitin, A. Mazar & E. Stern (Eds.), Mediterranean Peoples in Transition, Thirteenth to Early Tenth Centuries BCE (pp. 292–313). Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.^

2.  Weinstein, J. M. (1992). The Collapse of the Egyptian Empire in the Southern Levant. In W. A. Ward & M. S. Joukowsky (Eds.), The Crisis Years: The 12th Century B.C. from Beyond the Danube to the Tigris (pp. 142–150). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt.^

3.  Bietak, M. (1993). The Sea Peoples and the End of the Egyptian Administration in Canaan. In A. Biran & J. Aviram (Eds.), Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990 (pp. 292–306). Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Stager, L. E. (1995). The Impact of the Sea Peoples in Canaan (1185–1050 B.C.E.). In T. Levy (Ed.), The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (pp. 332–348). London: Facts on File.^

4.  Mazar, A. (2007). Myc IIIC in the Land of Israel: Its Distribution, Date and Significance. In M. Bietak & E. Czerny (Eds.), The Synchronosiation of Civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. III (pp. 571-583). Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.^

5.  Epigraphic Survey. (1930). Medinet Habu I: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (See especially Pl. 43-44)^

6.  Oren, E. D. (1973). The Northern Cemetery of Beth Shan. Leiden: Brill. (See especially p. 138.)^

7.  Cline, E. H., & O’Connor, D. (2003). The Mystery of the ‘Sea Peoples.’ In D. O’Connor & S. Quirke (Eds.), Mysterious Lands (pp. 107–138). Portland: UCL Press.^

8. Sandars, N. K. (1985). The Sea Peoples. London: Thames and Hudson. (See pp. 50, 209 n.14.)^

9.  Yasur–Landau, A. (2010). The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.^


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