Highlights: Harem Conspiracy Papyrus

"The Harem Conspiracy Papyrus" or so-called "Turin Judical Papyrus" (Cat. 1875)

The history of ancient Egypt has been reconstructed through documents such as the “Turin King List” (Cat. 1874), enabling scholars to establish a reliable chronology of ancient Egypt. Numerous surviving texts provide information about events that the Egyptian state wanted to remember, such as the “Turin Strike Papyrus” (Cat. 1880), or the punishment of individuals responsible for an attempt on the pharaoh’s life in the so-called “Turin Conspiracy Papyrus” (Cat. 1875). The texts have political purposes, so they are not “objective” accounts. They are nevertheless valuable as historical sources because we have to wait until the arrival of Herodotus in the 5th century BCE for the first account of Egyptian history.

Attempt to kill Pharaoh Ramesses III

A trial against a group of conspirators

This manuscript contains a judicial text that recounts a trial that (possibly) took place against a group of conspirators for having attempted to kill Pharaoh Ramesses III (c. 1187–1157 BCE).  The instigator was Queen Tiye, who, together with other women from the Pharaoh’s harem and several people with high-ranking positions in government, tried to place Tiye's son Pentaweret on the throne instead of the appointed heir. Although the death of Ramesses III is not explicitly mentioned in the papyrus, the assassination seems to have been successful, as an examination of the mummy of Ramesses III proved that a deep cut in the throat was the cause of his death.  However, the appointed heir still managed to ascend the throne instead of Pentaweret. He assumed the name Ramesses IV, and the culprits were arrested and put on trial. The papyrus describes the crime that each individual conspirator was charged with and the punishment that they received. The death sentence was imposed on most of those plotting against the Pharaoh, but they were not directly killed by the followers of Ramesses IV. Instead, the accused were “allowed” to take their own lives.

Death of Ramesses III and Ramesses IV’s throne accession

Papyrus Cat. 1946+1949

The verso (back) of a papyrus in Turin recounts the important event: an announcement was made to the workers by the high official Montumes about the death of Ramesses III and Ramesses IV’s accession to the throne. The text ends with the workers celebrating late into the night in honour of the new pharaoh.

Saying the unsayable

This document is unparalleled in ancient Egypt because it speaks about the unspeakable, an extreme sacrilege: a conspiracy to incite a rebellion, assassinate the pharaoh, and put a pretender on the throne. The text is a summary of the conspirators’ trial, from the formation of the court to the punishment administered. The text is interesting not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. It is a true exercise in reticence. It does not make clear whether the king survived or not. It does not say clearly that the conspirators were executed, using circumlocutions instead to protect the sentencers from the consequences of their own actions.

Infografic Harem Conspiracy Papyrus

The more than 5-meter-long manuscript is on permanent display accompanied by a complex infographic containing three levels of information. Created by Piera Luisolo and Federico Poole/Museo Egizio.

Names grotesquely distorted

The names of some of the conspirators are not correctly reported, but strangely distorted, such as: Bjn-m-wꜣs.t, a conspirator with the ridiculously distorted name “Bad in Thebes,” a military man whose real name must have been something like Nfr-m-wꜣs.t (“Good in Thebes”); or Pꜣ-rꜤ-kꜣ-mn=f wn.w m ḥr.y-tp “Parakamenef, formerly a magician”; as we know from other papyri, in the conspiracy it was the magicians’ task to fashion wax images “to deprive of strength the limbs” of the guards.

Documentary manuscript for the library or archive

A very high-quality papyrus

Unlike other Ramesside papyrus manuscripts in the Turin collection, the “Harem Conspiracy Papyrus” is not a reused papyrus: the documentary text was written in an elegant hand in large calligraphy on the front of a very high-quality papyrus, leaving the reverse blank. In total, six columns are preserved, the beginning is lost but not much of the text is thought to be missing regarding the fact that the entire description of the crime and court case is preserved. The text has been largely written across the papyrus, each column has a different length and range of lines: the layout here is clearly determined by the content of the columns, which each document different aspects of the court case. For example, columns four and five are the most detailed giving one line to each criminal who was involved in the conspiracy, introducing him, describing how he was involved and establishing his guilt. A visual subdivision is made through constantly repeating formulate such as ḫrw ‘great criminal NN’ and the subdivision of sections by phrases written in red ink, such as i͗n.tu̯=f ‘he was brought (to appear)’.

The calligraphic handwriting, the spacious distribution and clear delineations made between the columns and sections indicate the use of the papyrus scroll as a documentary manuscript with the purpose of being stored in a library or archive to preserve the trials surrounding that historical event. This was not a papyrus that was permitted to be reused despite the free space on the recto and verso due to its character as an archival document.

Bibliography (selection)

  • Buck de, Adriaan. “The Judicial Papyrus of Turin.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 23.2 (1937): 152–164.
  • Hawass, Zahi, Somaia Ismail, Ashraf Selim, Albert Zink et al., “Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study”, BMJ 345 (2012); doi:
  • Loktionov, Alexandre. “Convicting "Great Criminals": A New Look at Punishment in the Turin Judicial Papyrus”. Égypte Nilotique et Méditerranéenne 8 (2015): 103–111.
  • Redford, Susan. The Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Ramesses III. Northern Illinois: EDS, 2008.
  • Töpfer, Susanne, "Some Turin Papyri Revisited: A Look at Material Features and Scribal Practices". in:  Marilina Betrò , Michael Friedrich and Cécile Michel (eds), The Ancient World Revisited: Material Dimensions of Written Artefacts, Volume 37 in the series Studies in Manuscript Cultures 37, Berlin 2024, pp. 229-231.;

Museo Egizio