Episode 6: Harem conspiracy papyrus

Murder, succession, and a 18-foot scroll of papyrus that reads like an ancient Egyptian episode of Law and Order. We get the lowdown on the Judicial Papyrus of Turin.

Photograph by Dinodia Photos, Alamy Stock Photo

Murder, succession and a 15 foot scroll of papyrus that reads like an ancient Egyptian episode of Law and Order. We get the lowdown on the judicial papyrus of Turin from National Geographic archaeolgist Fred Heibert, Egyptologists Susan Redford and Sahar Saleem.


FRED HIEBERT (ARCHAEOLOGIST): We're at the National Geographic Museum here in Washington D.C. for a magnificent new exhibition on Queens of Egypt.

PETER GWIN (HOST): So it’s 8:30 in the morning. The museum hasn’t even opened yet and we’re getting a special tour from archaeologist-in-residence Fred Hiebert.

HIEBERT: It's got 350 artifacts in it from the very oldest collection of Egyptian antiquities, actually, in the world.

GWIN: When Fred’s not out in the field studying ancient trade routes or searching for Nefertiti’s Tomb, he’s back here, helping to curate this museum. Fred winds us through the dimly-lit exhibit. He points out a perfectly preserved royal sandal, a bust of Cleopatra, some stone statues of Pharaohs from the Valley of the Kings.

HIEBERT: That’s a life-sized sculpture of Thutmose I.

GWIN: This is clearly a man who loves his job.

HEIBERT: Opening the boxes, it's like Christmas 350 times over. Here's this big box, it has no label whatsoever. We know that we have to open the box and it's like – wait, wait -- oh, it's Thutmose!

GWIN: He brings us over to a long glass case.

HEIBERT: So we have here an absolutely unique papyrus. it's about 18 feet long, describing this conspiracy that happened to pop off the Pharaoh.

GWIN: Fred says the text is written in hieratic -- a cursive form of hieroglyphics. It’s really beautiful. But the details written down here? Those are not pretty.

HEIBERT: It's a judicial document. It's a record of a court proceeding, in which the court has identified a couple of perpetrators who were scheming to assassinate pharaoh Ramesses III. It describes having the perpetrators plead guilty. It describes how the perpetrators were forced to commit suicide. It's all written down here.

GWIN: 39 people were convicted of high treason. Some were disfigured. Others were executed or forced to kill themselves. This papyrus tells the story of an inside job. A conspiracy hatched by the Pharaoh’s own family, by one of his wives.


GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin and this is Overheard at National Geographic. A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, and beautiful world. This week: a dynasty in disarray, a secret kept for millennia, and some new science that cracks the case wide open.

[music ends]

GWIN: It’s remarkable how much we still don’t know about Ancient Egypt. Egyptology is a field based on best interpretations. It’s filled with mystery. And this is a story that has stumped scholars for a very long time. What happened to Ramesses III? It’s been a mystery for more than 3000 years. But thanks to science and some clever detective work by dogged archeologists, we now have a better idea about what really went down.

SUSAN REDFORD (Egyptologist): I'm a dirt archaeologist. I dig in Egypt.

GWIN: Penn State University’s Susan Redford is, well, a dirt archaeologist.

REDFORD: Yeah, that’s what I call myself. I dig.

GWIN: Scholars call the papyrus Fred just showed us the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. It’s named after the museum in Turin, Italy, where it’s normally housed. But it’s got another name -- the ‘Harem Conspiracy Papyrus.’

REDFORD: This document relates a conspiracy that was formed and instigated by the women of the royal harem against Ramesses III to overthrow him, to raise in rebellion, and to also displace the crown prince.

GWIN: This isn’t the usual stuff of royal harems. To ensure the family line, Egyptian Pharaohs had a lot of wives. They all lived in the harem. It started out as a special place in the palace but by the time of Ramesses III, the harems had evolved into entire estates with their own mini-economies. There were schools, livestock, agriculture, dozens of wives, even more kids. And the wives had a very important job: to keep the family dynasty going. Typically, there was a Great Royal Wife and then there were several other wives whose sons could also be in line for the throne.

REDFORD: I mean, the harem had have been a hotbed of intrigue. A powder keg of different women, especially if they bore the king's sons. Like, whose son gets to be on the throne next?

GWIN: Top priority was given to the first-born son and as you might expect, sibling rivalry was very real. Ever since she was a grad student, Susan’s been fascinated by the Harem Conspiracy Papyrus.

REDFORD: And it really grabbed me. Of course. I think everybody loves a murder mystery.


GWIN: Susan says scholars have known about this papyrus for a long time. In the early 1800s it showed up at a market in Luxor, a place that, back then at least, was like a garage sale for Egyptian antiquities. It had been cut into pieces, probably so that it could be sold off in chunks for more money, so it’s hard to know how complete of a document it really is.

REDFORD: There was obviously a lot of unanswered questions.

GWIN: And there’s a rather conspicuous omission.

REDFORD: The women are not there. It includes the trial transcripts for the male perpetrators of the of the conspiracy and not the women.

GWIN: The court record says next to nothing about them, even though we know these women existed.

REDFORD: They were the king’s property. The women of the harem were king’s chattel. We're never going to know their names or how many there were or what happened to them. Except for Tiye.

GWIN: Tiye. The only woman mentioned by name in the papyrus. And Susan thinks that Tiye wanted her son, Pentawere, to become the next pharaoh. She’s accused of instigating the whole rebellion. Egyptologists have speculated about who Tiye was for a long time. One interpretation by an American archaeologist in the early 1900s stuck, but it didn’t hold up for Susan.

REDFORD: One thing that caught my eye was that he mentioned that the assassination of the king was instigated by Tiye and he says, “Oh, this was the lesser wife of the king.” And that over the years that had become entered and repeated as though it were fact. And I thought, there's something funny about that.


REDFORD: Because if she was a lesser wife of the king in the harem and there were countless women in the harem, why follow her?

GWIN: Right. Because Tiye rallied dozens of people to be her co-conspirators, including several powerful figures. The king’s physician, an army commander, the royal magician.

REDFORD: To feel that she could raise a rebellion with many high officials of the king following her, to put her son on the throne, and have the country go along with this -- I thought, this is not a lesser wife. This is not some faceless member of the king’s harem.

GWIN: Susan knew there was definitely more to this story.

REDFORD: I wanted to investigate all aspects of this case, marshall all the evidence to try to come up with the full picture of what occurred.

GWIN: But the more she looked into the document, the more curious it got. For example, right at the beginning -- the murdered pharaoh, Ramesses III, makes a strange appearance.

REDFORD: He is talking from beyond the grave. He's saying, ‘I'm already dead. I'm already among the great gods.’ And he's almost washing his hands as to what will become of these conspirators.

GWIN: So wait: the dead king’s ghost makes it into the judicial document? It’s kind of Shakespearean, right? But that spectral cameo has confused scholars for a long time. Some even wondered if Ramesses III had survived the assassination attempt.

But Susan is pretty convinced of her interpretation.

REDFORD: He died from this. There's no question. But how did he die?


GWIN: The court proceeding doesn’t identify a murder weapon. There’s no play-by-play of the crime scene, but we do have some physical evidence: the body of Ramesses III. He was found stashed in a tomb with a bunch of other royalty.

REDFORD: When this, the mummy of the king was examined -- and he was examined in the 60s, when they only had X-ray machines. They x-rayed all the mummies, the royal mummies. And the mummy of Ramesses III, we knew he was assassinated in you know conspiracy. But these initial pathological examination with an x-ray, it showed no wounds to the body and you would think the quickest way to dispatch the king would be with, you know, you stab him -- yeah!

GWIN: But it seemed like a natural death. There were other bodies, too. Tucked into the same tomb with Ramesses III were a handful of princes and princesses, some queens, some priests… all of these nicely embalmed mummies. And then, this other guy.

REDFORD: We've called it the Screaming Man because he looks like he died in agony. His head is back and his mouth is open. Now the interesting thing about this screaming man was that he wasn't embalmed.

GWIN: Archaeologists had never found a mummy like this before. He was wrapped in a sheepskin. Which, back in the day, was kind of a trashy thing to wear to the afterlife. This was one janky mummy. The examination showed something else too.

REDFORD: It showed that his hands and his feet had been tied.

GWIN: Meaning he probably put up a fight on his way out. Maybe he was executed.

REDFORD: It looks that way. But why is he being buried with royalty?

GWIN: None of it added up, so Susan kept digging. She headed to a place along the Nile called Medinet Habu. It’s the royal compound that houses the mortuary temple of Ramesses III.

REDFORD: This is the king's temple. It's all about him. He's the star here.

GWIN: There are massive reliefs carved on the walls showing palace life. Religious ceremonies. Scenes of Ramesses III in battle.

REDFORD: In the first half of his reign, he was almost a hero king.

GWIN: He made a name for himself early on by fighting off two foreign invasions. First from the Libyans, and then, later, a really big one from the Peoples of the Sea.

REDFORD: They were almost unstoppable until they, they faced Ramesses III in Egypt.

GWIN: But the temple walls don’t tell the whole story. Scholars say the fighting took a serious toll on Egypt’s economy. And then other problems started to pop up: droughts,

famine, and the first recorded labor strike.

REDFORD: So, you get the feeling that he's losing support. Those that conspired against him, they seem to be quite confident that the people would go along with the, a rebellion.

GWIN: But a rebellion isn’t pictured on the temple walls either. No, the walls only portray the pharaoh’s greatest hits and the VIPs in his life.

REDFORD: There was a scene in the back wall of the temple that showed the king sitting at one end of the wall, sort of a religious scene. And there were two senior princes. These are the senior sons, obviously the sons in line for the succession.

But in another relief, Susan realized the order of succession had changed. The first prince is there, but the second prince is missing.

REDFORD: And I thought, oh my God. It went unnoticed.

GWIN: Other scholars hadn’t noticed that in this relief a new person, a different son, is now second in line to the throne. So why would Egyptian royalty remove and replace such a high-ranking prince in the family line-up?

REDFORD: I thought there he is, this has to be Pentawere.

GWIN: Pentawere. A son of Ramesses III and the son of Tiye. He was named in the papyrus as a chief conspirator along with Tiye and her followers.

Okay. So. In the first relief, Pentawere was the son who was second-in-line to the throne, but in the second relief he’s been replaced.

REDFORD: I think we're on firm ground in saying that since it was Tiye, and her son was involved, that they really honestly felt that the son Pentawere should have been the next in line for the throne.

GWIN: And that’s why they plotted to overthrow the pharaoh. And if Tiye’s son was already that close to the top, then Tiye wasn’t simply a lesser wife.

REDFORD: She was a queen. This was a queen.

GWIN: But Susan says the writers of the papyrus downplayed Tiye’s rank, and they aimed to keep the skeletons of this family drama hidden in the closet.

REDFORD: This was disgraceful. You didn't want this blackening the family.

GWIN: So, this is what we know: Ramesses III was murdered. And if the aim of the conspiracy was to place Pentawere on the throne? That was thwarted. And that’s where Susan left the story when she published her book in 2002.

REDFORD: Ah, but -- there’s new evidence!


GWIN: Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “dead men tell no tales.” But whoever came up with that clearly hasn’t met Dr. Sahar Saleem.

SAHAR SALEEM (PALEORADIOLOGIST): I spend maybe more time with the mummies than with my family, but just don’t tell them.

GWIN: Sahar’s a paleo radiologist living in Cairo. She x-rays and CT scans fragile, ancient artifacts.

SALEEM: I love my mummy patients. The mummy patient sometimes is better than the human because they don't move.

GWIN: Think of her as a mummy coroner, minus the scalpel. Sahar and her team have scanned lots of royal mummies. And in 2009, Ramesses III was on her table.

SALEEM: There's a lot of serenity in the face of Ramesses III. There was nothing funny or peculiar.

GWIN: So just your average, well-kept mummy.

SALEEM: The face is with strong features, although the embalmers -- they had the wrapping so tight that they flattened the nose of the king.

GWIN: Sahar says there must have been miles of linen around the pharaoh’s body. And so well-glued, she says, that he was hard to unwrap. Anyone who tried probably got frustrated and gave up. Sahar didn’t unwrap him either. Instead, she slid him into a CT scanner. The machine took thousands and thousands of images.

SALEEM: And I just keep rolling these scans for hours and hours and look at each one of them. You just get more and more acquainted with the mummy.

GWIN: The images where then transformed into three-dimensional composites so Sahar could see the pharaoh from all angles. Outside and inside.

SALEEM: And when I just put them together, I just stood up on my desk and I start dancing because I was very happy. You imagine -- I can see what is inside the mummy and what the embalmers placed.


GWIN: Inside the abdomen of Ramesses III were four figurines of the sons of the Egyptian god Horus. These were figures you might find painted on urns in ancient Egyptian tombs. One looks like a person, another a jackal, a baboon, and a hawk.

SALEEM: This is like one of the, like, most joyful moments in this hard study that I do -- to get to know something and to see it for the first time

GWIN: And there was a lot to see. The body was filled with treasures.

SALEEM: The embalmers even tried to put specific kinds of amulets -- the eye of Horus, which has the characteristic of giving the healing power.

GWIN: Amulets were placed in his neck and around his feet.

SALEEM: That means that -- this areas, they need attention they need to be healed for the body to be used in the life after as sound, as complete as possible.

GWIN: Sahar says this is the idea behind mummification.

SALEEM: It's to preserve the body in order to be, to be there for the life after. This is the exact body they are going to use.

GWIN: But this mummy was wrapped and glued unusually tight. Sahar says that’s because the embalmers wanted to hide his injuries and they remained hidden for a very long time. Remember those x-rays done in the 1960s? The ones that made it look like Ramesses III died a natural death? Well, Sahar’s scans showed something different.

SALEEM: There was this wide deep cut wound in the front of the lower neck. It’s so deep that it reached the bone. This is a sort of a fatal wound that nobody could escape its fate.

GWIN: So really, really bloody. Then, there was something else.

SALEEM: And there is another wound in the left foot. The big toe was totally chopped off and there was no evidence of healing. This is something that happened just prior to death.

GWIN: To patch the pharaoh up for the afterlife, the royal embalmers made a prosthetic toe. They placed healing amulets all over his body and they used lots of glue. The murder of Ramesses III was coming into focus.

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SALEEM: Yeah, and I'm bringing the crime scene back to life. We got to know the plot with the different assailants from different… standing in different positions using different weapons. So, this is a really bloody crime scene that if you imagine happening in the palace will necessitate lot of chaos.

GWIN: A LOT of chaos. And there was more to discover. There was still someone else to be examined. Remember that other mummy, who was also found in the same tomb as Ramesses III? The Screaming Mummy?

SALEEM: This mummy smelled really bad.

GWIN: He was hastily preserved. Not cleaned, oiled, and wrapped. No, he was sprinkled with salt, wrapped in a sheepskin, and stuffed into a crudely made wooden box. And he still had his brain and guts, which was really strange. Embalmers always took those out, but not with this guy.

No one knew for sure who he was, so Sahar checked the DNA and she confirmed that the screaming mummy was related to Ramesses III.

SALEEM: There is 99 percent that the relationship is a father and son.

GWIN: Sahar thinks she knows who it is: Pentawere.

SALEEM: Pentawere was mentioned in the in Papyrus that he was forced to kill himself. We found that there were marks of maybe ropes at the neck. It could be they just asked him or just forced him to or to hang himself. It could be like that.

GWIN: So, we have Pentawere, we have Ramesses III, but where’s Tiye?

REDFORD: I don't think we have her mummy.

GWIN: Archeologist Susan Redford has a theory. Ancient Egyptians sometimes used fire as a form of punishment.

REDFORD: They talked about when they burn people alive that then they’re, they've gone to dust, you know, so they won't go into the afterlife. And then that their ashes are strewn on the road for donkeys to walk over.

GWIN: This is just about the worst fate imaginable for an Ancient Egyptian. Total obliteration. No body, no afterlife.

REDFORD: That's the end of you. That's it. That’s it.

GWIN: Well, that’s it. Until thousands of years later when some dogged archeologists decide that’s not it.

SALEEM: I think that as an Egyptian, this is something that I have to do. I honor the bodies I examine. I look at them as my great ancestors, the great kings that they deserve all the respect and the honor and I hope by doing what I'm doing is I’m bringing them back to life.

GWIN: And that is how their stories live on.


GWIN: To learn more about the harem conspiracy, check out the links in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.

And be sure to subscribe to Overheard at National Geographic.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Robin Miniter, Emily Ochsenschlager, Kristen Clark, Brian Gutierrez, and Jacob Pinter.

Our editors are Casey Miner and Ibby Caputo.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes, with additional help from Jay Olszewski and Ruth Michaelson.

Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media and WPSU Penn State.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.

I’m your host, Peter Gwin.

Thanks for listening, and see y’all next week.

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