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With revolt rumbling during a troubled period in the New Kingdom, a conspiracy was hatched up in the harem. Led by Tiye, a secondary wife of Ramses III, the plot involved killing the pharaoh and placing Tiye’s son Pentawer on the throne in place of the crown prince borne by the Great Royal Wife.

The plot was successful and the pharaoh was killed, but the conspirators were discovered and tried. Some 30 dignitaries and harem workers were implicated, such as the director, scribes, supervisors, doormen’s wives, and magicians tasked with bewitching palace guards.

A remarkable document, the “harem conspiracy papyrus” records the conspirators’ names and the punishments delivered by a court of justice. Ramses III (in reality Ramses IV) questions the accused while taking care to exempt himself from all responsibility for their fate, lest the condemned take their revenge on him from the afterlife. A risk better left to the judges! Some, such as Pentawer, were forced to commit suicide. Another was severely reprimanded. And some judges, who became inebriated with some of the accused women during the trial, had their noses and ears cut off. As for Tiye, her fate remains unknown.

Papyrus, ink
Likely from Deir el-Medina
New Kingdom, 20th dynasty
(1190–1076 B.C.)

© Museo Egizio (Turin, Italy)

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