Harem Conspiracies

These large and highly privileged female communities, perhaps to some extent independent from the main royal court itself, could have provided a focus for unrest and even conspiracies against the king. We have evidence for three major possible examples of so-called 'harem conspiracies'. The earliest, and probably the most tenuous of the three, may have taken place during the reign of the 6th-Dynasty King Pepi I, and we know of it from a biographical inscription in the tomb of an official called Weni in a cemetery at Abydos. The text includes the following enigmatic statement: 'When a case was brought in the royal harem against the royal wife Weretyamtes in secret, his person ensured that I went down to hear it alone. No vizier nor any official were there, but only myself alone because I was worthy and because I was rooted in the heart of his person and the heart of his person was filled with me. I alone served as scribe, along with only one other chief justice of Hierakonpolis, while I held the rank of overseer of the royal tenants of the palace. It had never happened that the equivalent [of me] heard a secret of the royal harem ever before. But his person ensured that I heard (it) because I was excellent in the heart of his person, more than any of his officials, more than any of his nobles and more than any of his servants'.

There is also evidence for another possible conspiracy, this time in the 12th-Dynasty reign of Amenemhat I, although in this case the main narrative may be fictional or propagandist rather than referring to a real occurrence. According to Manetho's history of Egypt, a conspiracy took place at the end of Amenemhat's reign, but the real details are given in a so-called 'wisdom text' written near to the time that the events may have taken place: The Teaching of Amenemhat I: 'It was after supper, when night had fallen, and I had spent an hour of happiness. I was asleep upon my bed, having become weary, and my heart had begun to follow sleep. When weapons of my counsel were wielded, I had become like a snake of the necropolis. As I came to, I awoke to fighting, and I found that it was an attack of the bodyguard. If I had quickly taken weapons in my hand, I would have made the wretches retreat with a charge! But there is none mighty in the night, none who can fight alone; no success will come without a helper. Look, my injury happened while I was without you, when the entourage had not yet heard that I would hand over to you when I had not yet sat with you, that I might make counsels for you; for I did not plan it; I did not foresee it, and my heart had not taken thought of the negligence of servants'. The manuscript from which this brief extract derives is thought to be an early 12th-Dynasty composition, possibly created on behalf of Senusret I to support his claim to the throne. The piece would very well serve as a 'justification' for any punitive measures Senusret might have taken after he gained the throne.

Finally, we know from several surviving papyri that an attempt was made on Ramesses III's life by members of his harem. The most important of these papyri is the Turin Judicial Papyrus, which lists a large number of conspirators, describing their crime and punishments. The plot seems to have originated in the king's harem, presumably in Piramesse, where one of the officials involved, the scribe of the harem Pairy, had a house. He was just one of several harem officials implicated; the ringleaders were one of Ramesses' wives, called Tiy, and some other women from the harem, as well as several royal butlers and a steward; all of them were "stirring up the people and inciting enmity in order to make rebellion against their lord". The ultimate goal was to put Tiy's son Pentaweret on the throne instead of the king's lawful heir. Apparently the plan was to murder the king during the annual Opet Festival in Thebes, but included in the preparations were also magical spells and wax figurines which were smuggled into the harem. The plot must have failed, however, for the king's mummy shows no signs of a violent death and his crown prince Ramesses IV and not Pentaweret eventually succeeded him. When all of this happened we do not know, but the records of the court hearings and the sentences passed on "the great criminals" (most of them were forced to commit suicide) were written down at the beginning of the reign of Ramesses IV, who also compiled the Great Harris Papyrus which contains his father's 'testament', suggesting that the assassination attempt took place towards the end of Ramesses III's 31-year reign.