The Last Great Pharaoh? The Story of Ramesses III

Ramesses III is often dubbed the ‘Last Great Pharaoh’ as the Egyptian state fell into decline after his reign. But is that the only reason for this title?

Mar 31, 2024By Heather Reilly, MSc Ancient Cultures, BA Ancient History

ramesses iii last great pharaoh


Ramesses III was the second pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty during the New Kingdom and came to power when Egypt was in a period of decline. During his reign of around 30 years, he was able to slow this decline by defeating the Sea People and the Libyans, as well as keeping up an impressive building program. After his reign, the kingdom of Egypt went into turmoil through internal fighting and Egypt’s inability to capitalize on the innovation of iron during the Iron Age. Ramesses’ death marked the closing of Egypt’s position of prosperity and stability, which is why he is known as the last Great Pharaoh.


Ascension and Early Reign

Statue of Ramesses III with Horus (left) and Seth (right) found in Ramesses III’s mortuary temple. Source: Egyptian Museum, Cairo.


Ramesses directly succeeded his father, Setnakhte, in the line of succession. Not much is known about Setnakhte, but he seemingly had no relation to at least the previous two Pharaohs and was a possible usurper who was perhaps related to the famous Ramesses II (the Great). Moreover, he only ruled for a maximum of three years. The Ramesside Dynasty had started successfully but mirrored the 18th Dynasty before it as it fell apart due to infighting. Like Horemheb nearly a hundred years before him, Setnakhte, a military commander, took the crown. When Ramesses III succeeded his father, he consolidated his kingship by modeling himself on Ramesses the Great. He named his sons the same and gave them identical positions at court.


In year five of his reign, Ramesses III’s strength as a ruler would be tested. An amalgamation of Libyan tribes, such as the Meshwesh and the Seped people attacked Egypt. Around 25 years earlier, under the reign of Merenptah, a similar conglomerate had attacked, and under both pharaohs, the Libyans were defeated. Ramesses fought the Libyans in two battles — one on land and one at sea.


The Sea People

Tableaux of Ramesses III and the Egyptian forces in battle with the Sea People, North Wall of Medinet Habu, via Breasted, J. H. (1930) The Excavation of Medinet Habu 1. Source: The University of Chicago.


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Three years later, Egypt would have to defend itself again, and this time against a much greater adversary. When Ramesses III came to power, many coastal cities and old powers were suffering economic problems, natural disasters, and falling to a largely unknown foe. This period is now known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Ugarit, parts of Cyprus, the Mycenaeans, Palestine, and the Hittite empire had all been defeated by a group known as the Sea People, who fought both on land and at sea. In year eight of Ramesses’ reign, the Sea People attacked on two fronts: one on land, moving toward the Delta of the Nile on the northeast on their way from battles in Palestine and the other moved via ships to the main mouth of the Nile. Ramesses prepared by issuing a nationwide conscription and sending these men to the mouth of the Nile while the trained army met the Sea People at the Delta.


According to contemporary sources, Ramesses had archers positioned on shore and naval warships met the Sea People in open water. The Sea People had ships designed to carry hordes of people — not fight at sea. Once the enemy ships were in range, arrows rained down on the Sea People and they seemingly tried to retreat off of the shoreline only to meet the Egyptian ships. As the Egyptian armada was much better equipped for seafaring battle, the Sea People’s troop carriers were easily capsized, and hundreds drowned. The land battle may not have been so successful. Interestingly, there are very limited sources with most documents only stating victory with no details. Scholars typically cite this as evidence of heavy Egyptian losses.



Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. Source: EBT Tours, Egypt.


After another, larger uprising from the Libyan tribes was defeated by Ramesses III, he turned his attention to a renovation project, as was traditional for a pharaoh. Ramesses began construction on his mortuary temple, which was modeled after his great predecessor of the same name. The ‘Mansion of Millions of Years of Ramesses III, United with Eternity in the Estate of Amun’ or Medinet Habu as it is known today, recorded many of the king’s achievements through great reliefs and carvings. In addition to extensive imagery showing his military successes, Ramesses had himself rendered in scenes of hunting and within the royal harem surrounded by women. This magnificent work of architecture and art is also the last great monument of ancient Egypt, and later pharaohs chose to build smaller chapels on the site. Furthermore, the site was continuously occupied until the ninth century CE with Coptic Christians erecting multiple churches within the mortuary temple.


Ramesses III depicted in the pharaonic tradition of hunting, reverse of the First Pylon at Medinet Habu. Source: Meisterdrucke Fine Arts.


Honoring the deities was arguably the most important role of the pharaoh in ancient Egypt. Ramesses adhered to this standard not only by constructing his own monuments but also by ordering an inspection of temples across Egypt. The way rites and rituals were performed was monitored and corrected if not to the Pharaoh’s standards. Moreover, the state of temples and their contents were recorded in intense detail, and restoration of such began. The Luxor Temple was refurbished, the Temple of Seth in Nubt had a new shrine, and a new temple for Khonus was constructed at Ipetsut.


Equally as impressive were Ramesses’ expeditions in search of foreign goods. He sent men to Sinai for turquoise, to Timna for copper, and to Punt for incense and myrrh. The latter of which was likely in modern-day Somalia and trade here had not been seen since the reign of Hatshepsut around three hundred years prior. Ramesses was noticeably harking back to the glorious building programs and foreign exploits of the infamous 18th Dynasty.


Economic Turmoil and Unrest

Deir el-Medina, village of artisans and craftsmen. Source: Explore Luxor.


However, Ramesses’ achievements were slightly undermined by economic instability. Unsurprisingly, fighting off foreign invasions was expensive, and as a result, the Egyptian treasury suffered. While temples were heavily stocked with exotic goods, the granaries were noticeably exhausted — grain being central to the Egyptian economy. Moreover, general commerce with the Near East was relatively poor since the Sea Peoples had sacked most trade centers.


Overt evidence of this economic turmoil became evident in what became the first recorded strikes in history under Ramesses III. The necropolis workers of the Valley of the Kings received their wages, which also included their food, a month late, and temporary measures were put in place but were ultimately neglected due to preparations for the Pharaoh’s 30-year jubilee. The craftsmen, who lived in a specialist village called Deir el-Medina, received their next wages late and late again. They waited over two weeks before stopping work and marching to Ramesses’ mortuary temple and then orchestrating a sit-in at the temple of Thutmose III. The strikes became bolder with protests occurring at the Ramesseum and even saw the workers preventing access to the Valley of the Kings. This meant mourners were not able to visit the deceased and maintain sacred rituals. It was apparent that local officials had no idea how to respond to the strikes and refused to tell the pharaoh to not ruin the upcoming celebrations. The strikes were on and off for around three years before the officials could routinely pay the workers on time.


Although Ramesses was unaware of the strikes, it demonstrated the uncertainty of the economic state of Egypt under his rule. Likewise, the incidents exhibited the cracks growing within the government and failings within the organization of administration and politics as a whole. Overall, the common people and local economies were overlooked to keep up appearances as Ramesses was very conscious of the dwindling grain reserves.


Death and Conspiracy

Relief of Ramesses III from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings KV11. Source: The Not So Innocents Abroad Travel Blog.


The harem of the Egyptian pharaohs was a notable feature since at least the Old Kingdom. Female members of the kings’ families as well as many wives and concubines, all lived together in a facility with its own administration and essentially functioned as a second court with various political factions. After Ramesses’ jubilee in 1157 BCE, his deteriorating health was palpable to those within the harem and presented an opportunity for those who intended to gain power.


Thanks to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, the transcripts from the trial of the harem conspiracy survive to the present day. A secondary wife of Ramesses, called Tiy or Tiye conspired to have the pharaoh and his heir assassinated and her son, Pentaweret, installed on the throne. The plan was complex and involved multiple members of the harem and courtiers, including butlers, the Chief of the Royal Chamber, and the Head of the Treasury. One woman sent word to her brother, a military leader, to stage a mass mutiny to distract Ramesses. What ensued has been debated as it was long thought that Ramesses survived the attack briefly as the papyrus begins with him addressing the court and it is stated that he appointed twelve trusted officials to investigate.


Ramesses III playing a board game in the royal harem with two women via Nims, C. F. (1970) The Excavations of Medinet Habu 8. Source: The University of Chicago.


However, further in the transcripts, Ramesses III is referred to as ‘The Great God’ which is only used for dead kings. While his mummy exhibited no obvious signs of assault, in 2011, the body was CT scanned and revealed a wound on his neck going through to the bone; a wound that scientists stated was impossible to survive.


The 38 conspirators were found guilty. Some were forced to take their own lives while others faced heavy mutilations for remaining silent on the affairs.


Legacy and Conclusion

Chamber E within Ramesses III’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Source: The Theban Mapping Project.


Ramesses’ tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV11) is one of the largest in existence and symbolic of his successes as pharaoh. His military victories, particularly against the Sea People, who destroyed many of Egypt’s contemporary states, were undoubtedly impressive despite potentially heavy losses. Additionally, his restoration of multiple religious centers and efforts to reinstate foreign trade displayed his attempts to strengthen Egypt after a period of instability. His son and successor, Ramesses IV, had his father’s exploits detailed in the Great Harris Papyrus. This document is 41m long and the longest known papyrus from Egypt — an appropriate way to memorialize the Last Great Pharaoh.


Mummy of Ramesses III found in KV11. Source: The University of Chicago.


Ramesses’ reign was not without its failings. Frequent wars set against an unpredictable political backdrop set the Egyptian kingdom up for economic turbulence. Ramesses came to power in much the same way as the pharaohs at the start of the 19th Dynasty, after a period of infighting and internal chaos. This was reflected after Ramesses’ death as Ramesses IV’s reign began successfully but in turn, oversaw continuous economic problems. Under Ramesses V, raiding parties from Libya increased, and the Pharaoh was seemingly ill-equipped to deal with the matter. Similar trends repeated until the end of the Dynasty, and Egypt declined significantly. Noticeably, the power of the pharaohs decreased whilst the authority of the priests grew dramatically.


However, it is safe to say that Ramesses III was a successful ruler in his own right. Amid the commotion, he was able to adhere to the standards of impressive pharaohs before him and put Egypt’s decline on hold, at least during his own reign.

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By Heather ReillyMSc Ancient Cultures, BA Ancient History Heather has a BA in Ancient History from Cardiff University and an MSc in Ancient Cultures from the University of Glasgow. She has continually focussed on ancient religions and art from various civilisations, her most specialist areas being New Kingdom Egypt, the Neo-Assyrians and Iron Age Europe yet strives to continue learning. After a brief (and muddy) spell as an archaeologist, she now works in an archive in London.