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.
That he is descended from Ramesses the Great fills Ramesses III with obscene pride. Elevated to the throne following a coup led by his father Setnakhte during the troubled days of Queen Tausret, Ramesses III sets about creating an Egypt that reflects the glory days of Ramesses the Great. He takes on his predecessor’s throne name, names his sons after the sons of Ramesses and pushes them toward similar duties. Most of all, he thirsts after conquests like those of his hero grandfather.
Ramesses III assumes the throne name of Usermaatre, translated as “Strong is the Ma’at of Re” and endeavours to live up to the sentiment. He fights foreign foes, as had Ramesses the Great; he builds temples throughout the Two Lands, as had Ramesses the Great, and he looks forward to a long, illustrious life on the throne of Egypt, as had Ramesses the Great.
Alas, his reign is not meant to be. Ramesses III faces troubles at home–troubles that threaten the stability of Egypt and his own throne. The struggles for power between his wives, his sons, and even the priests of Amun, together with a treasury drained of its wealth, all force Ramesses III to question his success as the scion of a legend.
Genre: Historical: Ancient Egypt Word Count: 131, 143
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1 Shemu Day 26, Year 1 of Usermaatre Ramesses
The morning was cool with a fitful breeze off the river through the Eye of Re, shining down from a cloudless sky, promised heat as the day progressed. A slim man approaching middle age sat on a throne on a raised dais in the forecourt of the Great Temple of Amun in Waset, hearing the sonorous phrases of the priests but not really listening. His own thoughts occupied his attention, and the ceremony conferring on him the Double Crown of Kemet and godhead as Son of Re was little more than an anticlimax after the events of the last three years.
The dawn of that day had seen the new king washed and purified in the temple lake, presented within the dark recesses of the temple to the cobra goddess Wadjet and the great god Amun, and now he sat in state while crown after crown was placed on his head and the blessings of the gods invoked. It was a ceremony the king had seen performed on four men and one woman before him, on Baenre Merenptah, on Userkheperure Seti, on Akhenre Siptah, on Sitre Tausret, and most recently on his own father Userkhaure-Setepenre Setnakhte. The first two coronations he had watched with interest, the third with feelings of disdain and the fourth consumed by anger. Only that of his father had made his chest swell with pride and love and anticipation.
“Let this be an end to it for the lifetime of the youngest person here,” he murmured to himself as the priest droned on, placing one crown after another on the new king’s head. “The Great Usermaatre reigned for sixty-seven years and I mean to do the same. Kemet has had its fill of kings being crowned every few years…” He broke off as he realised the priest had stopped talking and was looking apprehensively at him.
“Son of Re?”
Five priests now confronted him and addressed the man sitting on the throne.
“Let Heru empower you,” cried the first priest. “Your name in Heru shall be Kanakht Aanisut, Strong Bull, Whose Royalty is Great.”
The man knew that Strong Bull was a common title, necessary to highlight the king’s fertility that would reflect upon the kingdoms; whereas the other phrase served to emphasise his royalty, necessary as his family had only just risen to the pinnacle of power from their former obscurity.
“Nekhabet and Wadjet name you also,” the second priest said. “Your name of Nebty shall be Werhabused mi Tatenen, Great of Hebsed like Ptah-Tatenen.”
This title had given the uncrowned king many sleepless nights as he wrestled with a way to convey his intentions regarding his reign. He was determined to rule for a long time, making the Hebsed festival of thirty years a regular feature, just as the Great Usermaatre had done. Ptah the Tatenen as god of the primordial mound would signify he also was a creator, fashioning Kemet anew from the chaos of the previous years.
The priests continued their acclamation of the king’s names. “The gods recognise you as their son on earth,” called out the third. “Heru Nebu names you Userrenput mi Atum, The golden falcon, rich in years like Atum.”
Another creator god, this one based in Iunu. Three gods, Amun for Waset, Ptah for Men-nefer, Atum for Iunu. The king knew that the forms were important, that names carried power and by naming the gods in his throne names, he would bind them to his rule.
“Nesut-byt, King of Ta Mehu and Ta Shemau, North and South, cried the fourth priest. “Usermaatre Meriamun, Strong is the Ma’at of Re, beloved of Amun.”
Let the Ma’at of Re be strong within me, the king thought, just as it was for the Great Usermaatre. Let Amun and Amun’s City welcome me. Waset, so important and yet so dangerous.
“Sa-Re, Son of Re,” the fifth priest said. “Ramesisu Heqaiunu, Ramesses, Ruler of Iunu.”
As the last words of the priests fell into the silence of the forecourt, the crowd of watching nobles and priests, sons of the new king and army officers, and as many of the common citizens of Waset as could fit into the temple grounds, raised up their voices in praise.
“Usermaatre, Usermaatre, Usermaatre!” Waves of sound crashed into the temple walls, spilling out through gates and between the great pylons, washing over the high walls and disturbing the swallows nesting in the eaves. They flew out, twisting and turning as a thin black cloud in the azure sky, twittering their unrest before returning to their nests and roosts.
Usermaatre Ramesses, son of Setnakhte, stood and surveyed his people, savouring the moment. Three years before he had been just an army commander, today he was King of Kemet, the most powerful nation under Re.
He stepped down from the dais, the tall double crown high on his head, the symbolic beard jutting from his clean-shaven jaw and the robes and emblems of state draped about his muscular limbs. The crowd parted before him and he strode through them, across the forecourt, out through the temple pylon and into the dusty streets of Waset. A roar went up from the common people as they saw their king walk among them, men cheered, women shrieked their delight and called out blessings, and the Medjay ran to keep up, to form a protective cordon around the Son of Re.
It was unexpected. The ceremony had called for the newly crowned king to board the royal barge moored at the temple dock and return across the flooded river to the palace on the western bank. Instead, Ramesses chose to walk the dusty streets of Waset, communing with his people, and they loved him for it.
I am king, he thought. Like the Great Usermaatre before me, and like him I have strong sons to succeed me, even named for his sons. Ramesses smiled and as if he was turning to offer his countenance to the cheering crowds, looked behind him to where his sons walked. Boys, but they will soon be men, Amunhirkhopeshef my first-born, Khaemwaset marked for glory as a priest like his namesake, Meryamun the cheerful one, and Prehirwenemef my serious boy.
Ramesses turned off the main thoroughfare, letting his feet guide him into the streets dedicated to artisans. The shopkeepers gaped at the sight of their king, before breaking into cheers that shook the dust from the linen awnings lining the street. From there he continued on through the broad and narrow streets of Waset, the Medjay jostling the crowds as they pressed close to their king, and on to the palace of the Governor. On the steps of the palace, he stood for a time and basked in the adulation of his people, at last turning his steps toward the docks and the royal barge that would carry him across the river.
I will model myself on him, but I will not fail like him. The House of the elder Ramesses fell, but mine will not. I will leave strong sons behind me to carry my name into eternity. In a hundred years, men will name me Great Ramesses.
This day, all men would see him up close. In days to come, he would withdraw from the sight of common men, assuming the distance and dignity that was expected of a king, of a god, but this day he was their saviour, a king to unite the kingdoms that had been strained and shattered since the glorious days of the Great Usermaatre.
Those days will come again…
Year 1 of Usermaatre Ramesses
“I have ordered the construction of my Mansion of a Million Years.”
The three women present in the private quarters of King Ramesses looked at each other, but said nothing for several moments. Then the oldest of them inclined her head and said, “That is as it should be, my son, but how does that concern us?”
“It will not just be a funerary temple where priests will offer up sacrifices to me and for me for eternity, but a palace as well. I have it in mind to construct a new residence worthy of me.”
“It will be costly,” murmured a middle-aged, rather portly woman. “This palace is quite comfortable and…”
“I am not concerned with the cost, and this palace is old, well over a hundred years. I want something new that will reflect my glory.” Ramesses glared at the woman. “I don’t expect you to understand that. You have always thought small, but you are no longer the wife of a mere army officer. Learn to think like a royal wife.”
The Lady in question visibly flinched, but said nothing.
“I am sure that the Lady Tiye meant nothing by that remark, Son of Re,” said the youngest woman. She was fourteen years old, and already displayed a beauty that eclipsed both her mother and the king’s wife. “We all think only of your well-being, brother.”
Ramesses smiled at the young woman. “I know you do, Tyti. Both you and my mother understand what it is to be royal, but you must no longer call me ‘brother’. I am now ‘Son of Re’ or ‘Majesty’…or perhaps just ‘my lord’. Even to you.”
Tyti smiled and bowed her head submissively, though her eyes flashed her annoyance. “Let it be as you say, Son of Re.”
“And what of me, my son?” asked the older woman. “Will you insist that the mouth that kissed you as a babe must now utter formal phrases instead of endearments?”
A smile tugged at the king’s lips. “You are Queen Tiy-Merenese, Great Wife of my royal father. I will make an exception for you, in private.”
“And…and I?” Tiye whispered. “I am your wife and I alone have shared your bed these last fifteen years. Am I not a Queen also and exempt from having to utter these formal titles?”
Ramesses pursed his lips and looked at Tiye thoughtfully. “You are the wife of my youth, and were content to be the companion of a lowly army officer. You have borne my sons and stood by my side all these years and thus will always stand high in my estimation…” His voice trailed off.
After a few moments, when the king seemed disinclined to continue his thought, Tiye cleared her throat and prompted her husband. “I will always stand high in your estimation, my lord?”
“Yes, but a wife and a Queen are two different things.” Ramesses sighed. “You were born a commoner…”
“As were you, my lord,” Tiye blurted. She went pale and her eyes opened wide as she realised what she had said, but forged ahead, determined to make her point. “We were all born common, my lord, but now we are royal.”
Ramesses frowned. “I am the son of a king, this lady here…” he gestured toward Tiy-Merenese, “is mother of a king, and Tyti is daughter and sister of a king. What are you?”
“I am the wife of the king,” Tiye said. Her voice trembled slightly but she held her head up.
Ramesses nodded. “And you will always be wife of the king, but a king has responsibilities to the kingdoms; responsibilities that he must face no matter what are his personal inclinations.”
“What are these responsibilities, my son?” Tiy-merenese asked.
“I am Bull of Heru, and I must be seen to be fertile, more fertile than those around me…”
Tiy-Merenese and Tyti nodded, murmuring, “It is the king’s responsibility.”
Tiye looked stricken. “I have given you four healthy sons that live and five daughters, though only two yet live. What are you saying, royal husband?”
“I am saying that as king I must plough many fields. A king must have a Per-Khemret stocked with many women to bear the king’s children.”
“Even your father took other women when he became king,” Tiy-Merenese conceded. “I would expect no less of you, my son.”
“The king may do as he pleases,” Tyti agreed. “There are no limits placed on the person of the King.”
“Of course you will have concubines,” Tiye admitted. “Lesser women on whom to father children to become scribes, priests and court officials. It is expected.”
“Not just concubines,” Ramesses said. “A king may have more than one wife, and I mean to.”
“You promised me when you first brought me to your father’s house that I would be your only wife,” Tiye whispered.
“You are talking nonsense,” Tiy-Merenese snapped. “My son was a lowly army officer at the time, but now he is king. It is his right to enjoy as many women as he pleases.”
“I agree,” Tyti said. “My brother the king…Son of Re…knows his duty. He will have many wives and father a great sheaf of sons. Have you picked out your new wives yet?”
“I have picked out one.”
“Will you tell us, Majesty? Is it perhaps some young woman of the court in Waset who has caught your eye? Or in Men-nefer?”
Ramesses smiled. “She is in Waset.”
“She is well born?” Tyti asked. “Of course, she would have to be if you mean to make her your wife.” She turned to her mother. “Who do we know that is noble enough to be joined to the King’s House?”
Queen Tiy-Merenese laughed. “There is only one woman of high enough birth to marry a king and become not only a wife but also Queen.”
“Who?” Tyti demanded. “Who is this paragon…?” Her mouth gaped open as she stared at her mother and then turned to face her brother. “Tell me, brother.”
“You know who it is, Tyti my sister. Do you think I would let just any man marry my sister and join his blood to ours? No, you will be my wife and my Queen, Tyti, and have many sons with me.”
“But she is your sister…” Tiye murmured.
“Foolish woman,” Tiy-Merenese said. “What is forbidden to common men is the purview of kings. What could be more fitting, a royal wife for a king?”
Tiye looked at the young girl in some distress. “You cannot agree to this…”
Tyti shook her head, setting the gold beads in her wig softly clattering. She turned to Ramesses. “I will be Queen?” she asked. When the king nodded, she grinned and bowed. “Son of Re, do with me as you will.”
Behind her, Tiye wept softly.
* * *
Work started on the Mansion of a Million Years, and on the adjoining palace, walls of stone and mud brick soaring upward as a thousand workers transformed the bare soil of the western shore. Further inland, in the dry, dusty valley of Ta-Sekhet-Ma’at, the king’s tomb proceeded apace with the specialised tomb workers transforming bare cut rock into majestic chambers and corridors, walls already ablaze with coloured inscriptions and images. Work had started on it in the days of his father Userkhaure-Setepenre Setnakhte, an open entryway followed by a corridor with two side chambers, and another corridor with eight chambers leading off it.
Tyti, daughter of Userkhaure-Setepenre Setnakhte, married her brother Usermaatre Ramesses, though the event attracted little notice. Typically, a woman moved from her father’s house to her husband’s house, taking her personal possessions and a symbolic pot of fire from the family hearth. There was no ceremony, civil or religious, though the scribes made the appropriate notations in the temple records. Tyti was already a part of the king’s Per-Khemret, or Women’s Residence, the wing of the palace where the women lived. She merely changed rooms, moving from the suites that housed a dozen women of the king’s household into one that befitted her new station as King’s Wife. The best room in the Per-Khemret was occupied by the king’s mother, Tiy-Merenese, and the second best by Tiye, but when Tiye returned to her suite the evening of Tyti’s elevation, she found many of her sumptuous furnishings had been removed from her rooms.
Tiye grimaced and stamped her foot in annoyance, but there was nothing she could do. The items had been removed on the king’s orders, so she just had to make do with whatever she could take from women lower down the social order. She stalked from room to room, servants in tow, and removed a chair here, a wall hanging there, ignoring the protests of their owners. One item could not be replaced though, a small table inlaid with turquoise and malachite that had been a wedding gift from her father many years before. This loss was not to be borne, and the next day she set out in search of the king to protest its confiscation.
She found the king at his noon meal, and entered the room boldly, though her confidence received a jolt when she saw young Tyti sitting on a couch with the king. The king and queen were feeding each other morsels of food, making a game of it.
“My lord.” Tiye bowed as required when entering the king’s presence but rose again quickly.
Ramesses did not appear to notice, wiping a spot of grease off Tyti’s lips with clean linen. “Have you come to join us, Tiye? I would have you be friends with Tyti.”
“As my lord commands, but I came to ask for the return of my table.”
“What table is this?” The king selected a ripe fig from the plate on a side table and broke it open, revealing the pink flesh inside. He fed half to the young woman beside him and bit into the other half.
“The turquoise and malachite inlaid table that was removed from my room. The servants said that it was removed on your orders and taken to the rooms of…of your new companion.”
Ramesses smiled at Tyti. “You have such a table, my love?”
“I believe so. It is a very nice table.”
“Well, I did tell my servants to find the very best furnishings for you.”
“My lord is most kind,” Tyti said.
“But do I get my table back?” Tiye asked. “It was a gift from my father.”
Ramesses frowned and touched the corner of his mouth where a fig seed had stuck. “Is a gift from your father, who was, after all, a commoner, more important than a gift from the king? I have given it as a gift to my queen as a token of my love. Would you have me go back on my word?”
“My lord, it…it was not yours to give…”
“Not mine? Are you mad, Tiye? Everything in Kemet belongs to the king. The contents of this palace are mine, and if I choose to give something in it to someone, that is my right. No one could possibly…” Ramesses broke off as Tiye started sobbing. “What is this, Tiye? What is the matter?”
“It…it was a gift, my lord, from my father. Now that he is dead, I have nothing else of his, and I desired that it should remain with me in my rooms until I died, at which time it should be buried with me.”
Ramesses sighed. “I have already gifted it to another.”
Tiye thought for a moment as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “Yet by your words the table remains your property, my lord, as do all things in Kemet. You could just give it back to me.”
“But then I would be deprived of its use,” Tyti remonstrated.
“Your words have merit, Tiye,” the king admitted. “As do yours, my beloved Tyti.” He frowned in thought. “Will you give the table back to Tiye, my Queen?”
“Is this your wish, my lord?” Tyti asked.
“It would keep the peace within Per Khemret, preserve the Ma’at of the palace and soothe my spirit.”
“Then I will be glad to do so, for your sake, my lord. Only…”
“Allow me to keep the table for one more day. It is pleasing to the eye and I would gaze upon its beauty once more.”
“That seems reasonable. You agree, Tiye?”
“If it pleases my lord.”
“It does please me. Return the table tomorrow morning and I shall commission another table for you that will be twice as beautiful.”
The table was returned the following morning, but one of the legs now had deep scratches on it, and several pieces of the stone inlay had been loosened or were missing. Tiye glowered at the servants who delivered it, but said nothing, knowing she would lose standing if she railed at them. They were only servants, after all. Instead, she sent for a scribe and had him pen a short note thanking Tyti for its return, and including a small gift of jewellery. It was a minor victory of the spirit at best, but Tiye felt better for it.
There was peace for a time within the Per-Khemret of the Waset palace. Ramesses spent many nights with his new wife, so it was no surprise that within two months of the marriage, Tyti was with child. She was examined by the court physicians and her urine taken for testing; the chief physician being delighted that he could report to the king that the grains had germinated in such a way as to indicate the child would be a boy. The king’s delight at this news caused Tiye to scowl once more and berate her servants.
“Why does the king delight in this news of a son?” she asked. “Have I not already given him four strong sons in whom to rejoice?”
Of course, there was nothing the servants could say to this, or even dared to, should they be so inclined. This was wise as it was well known that the king did not look kindly on any criticism, and their wellbeing would be in jeopardy should word of an ill-judged comment be reported to him. So they kept their counsel and waited for the storm winds of a slighted wife to blow over.
Word of Tiye’s anger reached the king’s ears, however. Whispers ruled the palace, so it was inevitable that his wife’s words would be reported eventually. Ramesses was inclined to send for her and berate her, but then thought it over.
“It is hard for her to grasp as she is of common birth,” Ramesses told his Tjaty, “but a son born to me and my sister-wife is of great importance to the kingdoms. I can see she feels this as a slight, though it is not intended as such. I will make it up to her.”
“Your words are wisdom, Son of Re,” the Tjaty said.