A new book offers previously unknown details about the so-called “harem conspiracy,” in which one of Ramses III’s secondary wives plotted to assassinate him and install her son on the throne more than 3,000 years ago. Based on CT scan images they took of the pharaoh’s mummy, the authors argue that multiple assassins set on him at once, slitting his throat with a knife and severing his right big toe with what appears to be an ax.

The son of Setnakht, founder of the 20th dynasty, Ramses III ruled ancient Egypt from about 1187 B.C. to 1156 B.C. During his reign, Egypt came under renewed threat from a mysterious confederacy of seafarers known as the Sea Peoples, who had been wreaking havoc in the eastern Mediterranean, even apparently toppling the powerful Hittite Empire. As depicted on his mortuary temple, Ramses’ forces halted a land invasion, while also luring the Sea Peoples’ navy into a devastating trap in the Nile Delta that brought the conflict to a close. Ramses likewise fought off two separate Libyan invasions, refurbished many religious sites and encouraged trade.

His reign was partially marred, however, by a deteriorating economy, culminating in history’s first documented labor strike, when royal tomb builders walked off the job over wage payment delays. To make matters worse, unfavorable weather affected food production, and corruption purportedly ran rampant. In this tumultuous political climate, Ramses’ secondary wife Tiye hatched an assassination plot with over a dozen fellow members of the pharaoh’s harem, along with the head of the treasury, a military captain, a butler and the chief royal chamberlain. According to ancient papyri detailing the court trial that followed, the conspirators planned on employing wax figurines and other magic to get past the royal guards, while simultaneously fomenting a rebellion throughout the kingdom. If all went well, they would then establish Tiye’s son Pentawere on the throne in place of Ramses’ handpicked heir apparent.

Head of mummy of pharaoh Ramesses III. (Credit: Public Domain)
Head of mummy of pharaoh Ramesses III. (Credit: Public Domain)

The ancient papyri show quite clearly that the “harem conspiracy” failed in its goal of crowning Pentawere. The conspirators were arrested, and some of them, including Pentawere, were compelled to commit suicide. However, because the papyri refer to Ramses III as “the Great God,” a term that was then restricted to deceased pharaohs, scholars long suspected that he may have been murdered prior to the scheme’s ultimate unraveling. This theory received a huge boost in 2012, when researchers using a high-powered CT scanner on Ramses’ mummy discovered a severe throat gash, covered up by an amulet thought to possess healing powers. Reporting their results in the BMJ medical journal, the researchers claimed that an assassin had cut through Ramses’ esophagus and trachea with a sharp knife, killing him almost instantly.

Since then, Cairo University radiology professor Sahar Saleem and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, two of the authors of the BMJ paper, have continued analyzing the mummies of Ramses III and other pharaohs of the New Kingdom (a period from the 16th century B.C. to the 11th century B.C. that covers the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties). As detailed in their recently published book, titled “Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies,” they discovered that, in addition to sporting a slashed throat, Ramses was missing part of his right big toe. Based on the shape and location of the injuries, as well as the fact that the toe wound never healed, they deduced that someone must have assaulted Ramses from the front with an ax or sword at the same time someone else snuck up from the back with a knife. “The evidence [suggests] that likely several assailants using different weapons simultaneously attacked the king,” Saleem and Hawass said in a press release.

Following his death, Ramses’ embalmers crafted a fake toe out of linen and covered it with thick layers of resin, thus hiding the injury. The embalmers also engaged in what Saleem and Hawass describe as a “precursor to modern plastic surgery,” inserting packing materials under his skin “so he would look life-like for the next world.” Most other pharaohs of the New Kingdom received similar postmortem cosmetic treatments, the book explains, including the boy king Tutankhamen.