In Ancient Egypt, C1200 BCE, bitter contention and resentment, secret coups and assassination attempts may decide the fate of those who would become legends…by any means necessary.
Tiye, the first wife of Ramesses III, has grown so used to being the mother of the Heir she can no longer bear to see that prized title pass to the son of a rival wife. Her eldest sons have died and the one left wants to step down and devote his life to the priesthood. Then the son of the king’s sister/wife, also named Ramesses, will become Crown Prince and all Tiye’s ambitions will lie in ruins.
Ramesses III struggles to enrich Egypt by seeking the wealth of the Land of Punt. He dispatches an expedition to the fabled southern land but years pass before the expedition returns. In the meantime, Tiye has a new hope: A last son she dotes on. Plague sweeps through Egypt, killing princes and princesses alike and lessening her options, and now Tiye must undergo the added indignity of having her daughter married off to the hated Crown Prince.
All Tiye’s hopes are pinned on this last son of hers, but Ramesses III refuses to consider him as a potential successor, despite the Crown Prince’s failing health. Unless Tiye can change the king’s mind through charm or coercion, her sons will forever be excluded from the throne of Egypt.
Genre: Historical: Ancient Egypt ISBN: 978-1-925191-45-5 ASIN: B07BZQJSLC Word Count: 131, 671
Year 12 of Usermaatre Ramesses
Prince Khaemwaset speaks
I am the second-born son of the great Usermaatre Ramesses and now eldest and the heir, destined one day to sit upon the throne of my father and rule over the two kingdoms of Ta Mehu and Ta Shemau, the black and the red, the sedge and the bee. I have to admit the prospect holds no joy for me, mostly because to do so will mean that my father’s earthly shell has died and his essence ascended to Re. Long may that day be delayed. I love my father dearly, and I cannot bear to think of a time when he will not be here.
For those of you who cannot imagine being the son of the god-on-earth, I will say something of him. Put aside the idea of divinity, which truly is only a part of his being when he dons the double crown and represents the whole Land of Kemet to the gods–put aside that fact and think of him only as a man. It may surprise you to learn that he is only of middling height, for he displays a strength of personality that makes people think he is, if not a giant, at least a tall man. He is strong though, at least he was in his early years, for he was a career soldier, serving as a corps commander during the dying years of the House of the Great Ramesses, and later as General of the Armies under my grandfather Userkhaure-Setepenre. In those days he could run all day, fight a battle at the end of it, and still have time for his family.
He is a kind man, and a family man when his duties allow. Let me tell you of the man I remember, of sitting at his feet as he told stories to his sons. These stories were often of the kings of Kemet, and how the gods had once favoured them. He told of how the first king to bear the name of Ramesses had a son by a daughter of the great Nebmaetre Amenhotep, a red-headed wildcat of a woman who called herself Scarab, and how the Great Usermaatre himself, second to bear the name Ramesses, was descended from her, though he disavowed the relationship. When I was a child I thought it exciting to be descended from this Queen Scarab, but I now know it for a myth, a nursery story told to children. My father was a grandson of the Great Usermaatre, and would later become the third king to bear the name Ramesses.
That was still in the future when he told us the stories though, as he was no more than a soldier and without prospects of anything much more than he had. He worshipped the great Usermaatre, even as a common soldier. My mother Tiye was common-born as my grandfather who became Userkhaure Setnakhte was only royal through a concubine, and could not make a better marriage at the time. She was a good woman, from a decent if not high-born family, compliant and dutiful as a wife, giving my father a sheaf of sons, and he proceeded to name us after the sons of his hero. My elder brother was named Amunhirkhopeshef, after the first born of the Great Usermaatre, and I was named Khaemwaset like another son. Like him too, my father wanted me to become a priest. My younger brothers Meryamun and Prehirwenemef, also paralleled the older princes, as did the young princes who came later, such was my father’s obsession.
I can, of course, remember back to a time when our family did not live in one of the great palaces of Waset, of Men-nefer, or even of Per-Ramesses. In those days we were not the royal family, but were instead commoners. My grandfather and father were soldiers, and loyal to the rightful king of Kemet, Userkheperure Seti, son of Baenre Merenptah, himself son of the illustrious king Usermaatre Ramesses, after whom my father styled his life…but I have already spoken of that.
As I have said, I remember being the son of a common soldier, albeit one who stood high in the sight of the king. My grandfather–then just plain Setnakhte–was a general, and my father Ramesses commanded a corps. I do not know exactly what went through their minds in those days, but something happened to make them rebel against the woman who then sat on the double throne.
I have read the histories of the time, sitting down to peruse the scrolls kept by both temple scribes and royal scribes, and I think I can understand their motives. It is no small thing to rebel against an anointed king, but the kingdoms were in disarray, torn apart by years of civil war and mismanagement. Truly, the House of Ramesses had fallen low. A Syrian commoner had even made a claim upon the throne, and a woman sat upon that very throne and dared have herself crowned as king. Neither my grandfather nor my father could countenance her action though, for despite her royal descent, she was only the wife of Userkheperure Seti and mother of the rightful successor, his son, who died as a small child.
For a time, even the son of the rebel Amenmesse, Akhenre Siptah sat upon the throne, such was the chaotic situation, but when he died, my grandfather saw no option but to rebel. Well, this is all old history and can be read by anyone if they take the time to consult the scrolls. I mention it only to show that my family was not always of royal status, but that the gods have placed us in a position of great power for a reason.
My father Usermaatre Ramesses has always sought to emulate his namesake, who was his grandfather. He fought against foreigners to expand the boundaries of Kemet and its strength, he reduced crime, he launched a great building program that littered the landscape with temples and shrines and made the kingdoms a wonderful place in which to live. But behind everything he did was the desire to exceed the deeds of his namesake, to be truly judged as ‘the Great Usermaatre’ in place of his grandfather–but it could not work. The first Usermaatre had a treasury bursting at the seams, with gold enough for any task, whereas my father inherited a treasury beggared by a protracted civil war. Foreign wars then ensued, and what little gold that remained leaked away.
And as the strength of the king waned, so rose the power of the priests of Amun. The god has always been rich in gold and land and influence, and the priests subtly insinuated themselves closer to the throne by lending gold to the king in exchange for land and favours. And of course the gold found its way back into Amun’s coffers as he spent it on refurbishing a thousand temples and shrines. Well, the king may lack gold, but ultimately the wealth of Kemet is his, and if he chooses to pass that wealth into the coffers of the god, none may gainsay him. He is still the king, after all, and the anointed Son of Re.
The second reason I do not want to sit upon the throne of Kemet has more to do with my own character and perhaps even my father’s expectations. I have said that I was named Khaemwaset (He who appeared in Waset) as my father sought to copy the Great Usermaatre in all things. The Prince who had gone before was raised to become a priest, and my father was determined I should follow a similar path through life. A king is also a priest, representing the people to the gods, so it was no unusual thing that a Son of the King’s Body should be one too. I was trained to arms, of course, but where my brothers could look toward to a life of service within the army, leading the corps to victories over Kemet’s enemies, my feet were turned toward more erudite matters.
My days were spent laboriously learning the language of the gods, the holy writing that adorns the temples and monuments. Priests learn it, and scribes, and I became both. If Amunhirkhopeshef had lived, I would have become just a priest and a scribe, petitioning the gods and writing of the exploits of my father and my brother as they brought glory to their names. It was not to be. My brother has passed into the West and my father has seen fit to raise me up in his stead. I am heir to the double throne, but I do not want it. I can hardly refuse, though I am more suited to a quiet life.
I was given no choice, for the enemies of Kemet invaded. The Sea Peoples have a navy, which Kemet lacks. We can defend ourselves on land, for our corps are second to none among the Nations, but Ta Mehu is vulnerable to a water-borne enemy. My father decided we had to have a navy, so put General Hori in charge of creating one, with me as a royal assistant. I am not one to shirk my duty, so until the threat passed, I endeavoured to make my father proud of me. Indeed, because I was heir, I could not do otherwise; else my failure should reflect on my father as king. He chose me as heir and as a naval commander, and if I failed in either duty, it is as if my father has shown a weakness.
I do not want to be heir, but having had this honour thrust upon me, I will bear it. If I am honest, it is partly because there is no better person available. I love my brothers Meryamun and Prehirwenemef, but neither is suited to be king. The position needs a man of serious mien, a man who can face the gods and one day take his place among that exalted company. Neither of my brothers is that man, but I have already faced the gods in my priestly duties and know I can do it. I do not want to be king, but if I am called to it, I must do it.
This is my story, I suppose, but to tell it I need to relate the parts that my other brothers played in it, for it is not my story alone, nor even the story of my father Usermaatre Ramesses. It is the story of a family, but initially it is the story of the older princes–Amunhirkhopeshef who has now passed out of the story, Meryamun, Prehirwenemef and of course me, Khaemwaset. Ramesses too, though he is of a different mother, and the younger princes as well. I must not forget them, for they all have a part to play in the story of my father Usermaatre Ramesses.
Year 12 of Usermaatre Ramesses
A small boy raced through the corridors and hallways of the palace of Waset, six or seven other children at his heels. He dodged servants, skirted court officials, and leapt over articles of furniture in the rooms they cut through, but others in the little group, less agile than the leader, bumped against more than one servant, sent chairs and other furniture tumbling, and stacks of pottery crashing to the floor. Some of the boys in the group were longer-legged and faster than the boy in front, but they were careful not to catch him or even crowd him, allowing him dominance.
They burst out into the palace gardens and gave vent to whoops and cries as they scattered flocks of doves feeding on seed strewn for them by servants, splashed through the edges of ponds, and crashed through shrubbery, leaving the gardeners to shake their heads and clear up in their wake. The leading boy laughed out loud and headed back toward the palace. He leapt up steps and through a doorway, colliding with a maidservant. The girl screamed and fell to the floor, the pile of washing she held in her arms scattering. Grinning, the boy picked himself up and started on his way again, but a peremptory command halted him in his tracks.
“Stay right where you are, Prince Ramesses.”
Ramesses looked round and saw Tjaty Toh standing in a doorway, a disapproving stare fixed on his long face. He ventured a smile but quickly hid it as the Tjaty’s eyebrows drew together.
“Is this the behaviour your father the king would expect of you?” The Tjaty looked past the prince to the other children in the doorway. Already, one or two of the younger children were slipping away, reluctant to face Toh’s anger.
“The rest of you find some other mischief to get up to. Prince Ramesses and I have something to discuss.” He beckoned to the young prince and stalked away.
Ramesses followed, his expression slowly taking on a petulant frown. Tjaty Toh led him into one of the small audience chambers and dismissed the guard, shutting the door to allow them some privacy. Then he turned to face the boy and watched and waited in silence as the boy stared back at him.
After a few minutes, Ramesses averted his gaze and Toh nodded, thankful that his authority still held.
“Why do you think I wanted to talk to you?” Toh asked.
Ramesses shrugged. “Running in the hallways, I suppose…but the others were doing it too, and you just sent them away.”
“Why do you think I sent them away and not you?”
Another shrug. “Because you don’t like me.”
“What dung erupts from your mouth at times, boy. Stop feeling so sorry for yourself and think for a moment. Why do I discipline you and not the other palace children?”
Ramesses looked at Toh, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. “Because…because I’m a prince?”
“Exactly. And why should that matter?”
“I don’t know.”
Toh sighed. “Why do I bother with you?” he muttered. “You are the son of King Usermaatre and his Queen-sister Tyti. What lies in your future?”
Ramesses shrugged again. “Mother says I should be king, but father says not. I suppose I’ll end up being a priest or a general.”
“More likely a general, I think, given your nature, but I would not rule anything out. Trained properly, you could govern a city, a sepat or a province…maybe even more.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “More? But more is…”
“Yes.” Toh regarded the boy in front of him and then pointed to the throne on the slightly elevated dais at the other end of the room. “Would you like to sit on it?”
“I’ve already sat on it,” Ramesses said. “So has Perbenka, and he’s only son of an Overseer…”
“I don’t mean in play. I mean for real…as your right.”
“Only the king can do that. Or the Crown Prince.”
“May the gods grant your father a long life, and I certainly wish no harm to befall Prince Khaemwaset, but what would happen if something did? Who knows what the gods intend, after all?”
“I have other older brothers…well, half-brothers anyway.”
“Yes, and younger brothers too, but none of them are capable of being heir, let alone holding a throne in strength.”
“And I am? I’m only ten.”
“That’s about the same age as Nebkheperure Tutankhamun, when he came to the throne.”
“A boy can’t be king.”
“He can if he has able ministers. Nebkheperure had his uncle Ay as Tjaty…” Toh smiled. “And you have me.”
Ramesses thought about this. “I couldn’t become king anyway, unless father made me heir first, and that won’t happen. Meryamun and Prehirwenemef would be heir before me.”
“Probably, but that is with the gods.”
“So why are we talking about it?”
“Well, it brings me back to why I stopped you running in the hallways and generally being a nuisance around the palace. You are ten years old, Prince Ramesses, and should be displaying a bit more responsibility.”
“Why? If all I’m going to be is a priest or a general, what does it matter what I do?”
“Don’t you want to be more?” Toh leaned forward and tapped the boy’s chest. “In your heart, lad. What do you want to be, more than anything else in the world?”
Ramesses stood silently for a time, and then he turned and walked slowly down the length of the room, mounted the dais and sat on the throne. “I want to be king…after my father, of course.”
“Good. Then tell me what you will need in order to achieve this ambition.”
“I need to be made heir.”
“What do you mean ‘what else’? Isn’t that enough? If I’m not heir I can’t inherit the throne…unless you mean I should fight against Khaemwaset?”
“No, that is not what I meant, Ramesses. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Khaemwaset was no longer heir…for whatever reason…and that Prehirwenemef and Meryamun were unavailable, who would be the most suitable candidate?”
“What about the other Prince Amunhirkhopeshef? He’s only a year younger than you.”
“The son of the Syrian whore?” Ramesses made a rude noise with his lips.
“Why not?” Toh asked. “He is as royal as you–son of the king and Queen Iset. You may not like the fact that his mother is Syrian, but having a foreign mother never stopped anyone becoming king.”
“You said it yourself; he’s a year younger than me.”
“All right, put that aside for one moment. Imagine you have the task of appointing a court scribe and there are two candidates. One has been a scribe for ten years in the temple of Amun, can read all scripts fluently, and writes quickly and neatly. The other one can barely read and his writing is almost illegible, despite being the son of a friend. Which one will you appoint?”
Ramesses shifted on the throne and frowned. “Is this a test of some sort?”
“Just answer the question.”
“Well, I suppose if he was the son of a very good friend, I might…no. I would make my friend a gift to show him I still loved him, but I would appoint the first one. Was that right?”
Toh nodded slowly. “A wise decision, Prince Ramesses. Now answer me another. Your father wants to appoint a new heir, but the elder of his two sons just likes running around and playing with other children, whereas his younger son applies himself to his studies and does his best to learn how to govern. Who does your father pick? For the good of the kingdoms?”
“Amunhirkhopeshef is learning how to govern?”
“So I am told. His mother brought him down to Men-nefer at the king’s command, there to be raised as a proper Kemetu prince alongside Tiye’s children. Tiye expects one of her sons to be the next king, and is making sure that they learn appropriate lessons. So what do you think Amunhirkhopeshef is learning alongside them?”
“But I’m the elder. He can’t pass me over.”
“Not even if you know less about how to be king?”
Ramesses stared at his father’s Tjaty. “How can I learn to be king?”
Toh smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The Tjaty took the Prince in hand and introduced him by easy stages to the laws of the kingdoms and how they applied to both nobles and commoners. Ramesses learned of the division between religious and secular life and how one impinged on the other in every aspect of day to day existence. He accompanied Toh when he went out to examine estates that were the subject of dispute in the law courts, and watched as the Tjaty and other officials probed to determine the truth of witness statements.
On one of these truth-finding excursions, they walked the boundaries of a farm, pacing out the distances between boundary makers and comparing the results with the information recorded in the scribe’s tablet.
“What does that tell you?” Toh asked.
Ramesses scratched his head. “Two of the boundaries are shorter than the recorded lengths.”
“Very good. Now let’s pace out the neighbour’s boundaries.”
They did so, and had another official check the distances.
“Longer,” Ramesses said.
“These are the two properties in dispute. The boundary markers have been moved in favour of the second farm.”
“So the owner is guilty of theft?”
“Perhaps. What are the boundary markers?”
Ramesses looked at one, then turned and stared across the fields to the other. “One is a log, while the other is a stake in a pile of earth.”
“Indeed,” Toh agreed. “Hardly immovable objects. It is interesting to note that the dispute only arose since the last flood. What might that suggest?”
Ramesses frowned, thinking hard. “Water might have moved them?”
Toh nodded. “It seems likely…or at least possible. So perhaps the crime is not so much one of deliberate theft, but accidental. We can order the markers moved to their original positions and the dispute is resolved.”
“Except that the second farmer has had the use of that extra strip of land to grow melons.”
“A small fine then. How many melons grew on that strip?”
Both farmers and a few officials entered the discussion and eventually decided on a total of sixty melons. Unfortunately, the melons concerned had been harvested and sold, exchanged for grain which had been ground and baked into bread. This in turn was partly sold to make beer. Scribes recorded each transaction, attempted to measure the worth of each change of produce and work out suitable recompense. After a lot of argument, it was decided that the farmer whose land had been temporarily lost would benefit by having a worker transferred from the other farm for a period of three months.
Not all land disputes were solved so equitably. Several farmers brought suit against the Estate of Amun, saying the boundary markers–in this case carved sandstone stelae–had been moved in favour of the god. The temple scribes held the view that the original records were at fault, and that the priests of Amun were blameless.
“It’s like the other case,” Ramesses said. “Except here the stelae could not be moved by the flood waters. The priests on the Estate of Amun must have moved them.”
“They say not.”
“Then how are we to decide? Who is lying?”
“In such a case as this we must find in favour of the god.”
“Without evidence? How is that just?”
“As you say, there is no evidence, so we must rely on the honesty of the people concerned. One side represents the god and the other does not. Whom will you trust?”
“Always? The priests cannot lie?”
“I would not say that,” Toh said after a moment’s consideration, “but to accuse the priests of Amun is to accuse the god.” He smiled. “I think it would be unwise to do that.”
“So the god is always right?”
“Who is more likely to be truthful; man or god?”
“When you put it like that…”
* * *
Usermaatranakht, Steward of the Estate of Amun, called on Tjaty Toh, requesting a private audience. Toh was happy to grant it, and offered his guest fine wine from his estates and a platter of delicately flavoured slivers of fish, covered in breadcrumbs and fried lightly. The two men ate and drank, and Usermaatranakht commented politely on the flavours of both fish and wine. The priest wiped his fingers on clean linen before addressing the matter uppermost in his mind.
“You are fostering the attention of Prince Ramesses.”
“I would have thought that was obvious. He is the only son of the king and Queen Tyti his sister. As such he must rank highly in the succession.” Toh held up a hand to forestall Usermaatranakht’s objection. “I know, the king currently favours the sons of Tiye, but I believe that will change.”
“Even if he was to inherit, is it wise to acquaint him with the wealth and influence of Amun? The power, yes, and a good dose of fear…but…”
“You have spoken to Bakenkhons of my vision of the future?”
“Eh? What? Oh…er…you mean your ambition?”
“Not mine alone, for I have tied my future to that of the priests of Amun. Now, as you are no doubt aware, Usermaatre Ramesses is malleable. He already bends toward us, allowing Amun control of the Treasury, but what of his heir, if it is indeed to be Khaemwaset?”
“Bakenkhons believes him to show proper respect for the god.”
“At the moment, but I am told he is more keen to follow a priesthood in Ptah than the throne. If he forsakes his royal path, who will take it up? His younger brothers? Neither of them holds Amun high, so we need another.”
“You believe Prince Ramesses to be that man?”
Toh smiled and poured wine for both of them. “Not yet, for he is young and foolish, but when I have trained him, I will have a prince I can bend to my will; and after that a king who will deny me nothing. After that…well, we shall see.”