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Pharaoh Ramses III murdered in 'harem conspiracy,' experts say

December 18, 2012|By Amina Khan
  • Pharoah Ramses III's throat was slit by an assassin in a plot by members of his own harem, says a study in BMJ. The wound is so deep that he could have died on the spot.
Pharoah Ramses III's throat was slit by an assassin in a plot by members… (Mus?e du Caire )

In the year 1155 BC, members of an Egyptian pharaoh’s harem hatched a plot to assassinate him. But did they succeed?

The "harem conspiracy" against Ramses III remains one of ancient Egypt's scandalous tales of deadly intrigue. But scholars have been unable to determine whether the god-king was actually killed in the attack. Now, a fresh examination of Ramses III’s mummy finds that the unfortunate pharaoh’s throat was slit.

The report, released Monday by the journal BMJ, also strengthens the case that that another mummy may have been one of the perpetrators – Ramses III’s own son, Pentawere.

Ramses III’s secondary queen, Tiy, and her son, Prince Pentawere, conspired with others to kill Ramses III  and usurp the throne. Ramses III had handpicked another, older son from a more senior wife as successor, a fact that apparently did not sit well with Tiy and her co-conspirators.

The plot was ultimately unsuccessful: The older son assumed the throne and became Ramses IV, per his father’s wishes. Meanwhile, Tiy, Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial. But the ancient documents chronicling the trial, known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, never really made clear whether Ramses III had been murdered or died at a later date. 

To solve the mystery, an international team of researchers decided to reexamine the mummy. They found that, if a 7-centimeter-wide, bone-deep slash in the throat is any indication, it’s possible the pharaoh was killed instantly. His neck is wrapped in thick linens, and a Horus amulet appears to have been inserted into the wound during the mummification process – such amulets were thought to possess healing properties.

Ramses III was found with another mysterious mummy, known as E – which might have been the body of the Pharaoh’s traitorous son, Pentawere. A bone analysis showed the man was about 18 to 20 years old. His body was wrapped in ritually impure goat skin, which could be interpreted as a sign of punishment. Moreover, the mummy was not properly embalmed: the brain and organs were left inside the body, rather than being removed. The man’s face is contorted as if its owner met an unpleasant end, and there are compressed folds of skin on the neck that could indicate strangulation.

It’s not strong enough evidence to prove this was indeed Pentawere, however. And the documents indicate that Pentawere was given the "option" to commit suicide – rather than having his body burned and ashes scattered, eliminating his hopes of an afterlife.

The genetic analysis may contradict that suicide claim, however: The team found several matching DNA markers and identical Y-chromosome DNA. The two mummies could very well be father and son.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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