In the heart of ancient Egypt, a sad and gruesome saga unfolded, with intrigue, power struggles, a mysterious mummy, and an overly ambitious mother at its center.
It all began with Ramesses III, who inherited the throne in 1186 BC from his elderly father; actually, he may have reigned with his father for a short time. But the origins of his father, Setnakhte, are shrouded in mystery. In those days, Egypt was in turmoil, divided into small provinces ruled by tribal leaders. Setnakhte’s rise seems to have brought a semblance of peace to the land, and the people accepted him.
Ramesses III was a ruler of great success. He achieved fame for defeating the menacing “Sea People.” To commemorate his victorious campaigns, he commissioned the grand Temple of Medinet Habu on the West Bank of Luxor, adorned with vivid depictions of his conquests. There was already a Temple built by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III on the site which is directly across the river from Luxor Temple and in ancient times it was believed to be the site of the “primordial mound” which was the first land to emerge out of the primeval waters – the “nun”.
On close examination, you will see on one wall of Medinet Habu what is obviously a pile of hands being counted. This was how the soldiers got paid: a certain amount per hand brought from battle (the right one, I think)
Yet Ramesses III was not merely a victorious warrior; he was also a shrewd and cautious ruler. Recognizing that hands could belong to anyone, he made a rather bizarre decision. He altered the trophy required for payment, and brace yourself for this surprising twist—it wasn’t hands anymore, but something entirely unexpected: penises. Yes, you read that correctly!
To understand how he came to think this was a more honest proof of victory over the enemy, you should know that the Egyptians practiced circumcision, a common tradition among their people. However, the Sea People, their adversaries in battle, did not. So, if you walk across the courtyard of Medinet Habu, you will see on another wall a pile of penises being counted.
Within his palace walls, Ramses’ harem was anything but serene, and amidst the wives, a storm was brewing. Tiye, a lesser wife, plotted a conspiracy with several court officials to assassinate Ramesses III during a festive banquet.
The outrageous plan succeeded, with the 60-year-old Ramesses III’s throat gruesomely slashed, nearly severing his head, as attested in recent years by examinations on his mummy. But the rebellion itself faltered in its objective to put Tiye’s son, Pentawere, on his father’s throne when most of the nobles and army commanders refused to support it. A court hearing ensued, revealing Tiye’s involvement and implicating her son, Pentawer, along with nearly 40 others.
In the aftermath, Pentawer and the high-ranking conspirators chose death, likely by poison; an agonizing death is likely the cause of the features in his face being frozen in a scream. Others who proved to be involved were executed.
The mysterious “screaming mummy” emerged from the shadows when it was discovered amongst several mummies in a cache in the Valley of the Kings in 1881. For a century and a half, its identity remained unknown until DNA testing unveiled the truth. The “screaming mummy” was, in fact, Pentawer, the ill-fated son of Ramesses III, who met his demise at the tender age of 20.
As a further indignity for his crime, Pentawer had not been properly mummified; he was wrapped in a sheepskin, a symbolic insult to his memory. His hands and feet had been bound with leather thongs, and some kind of resin had been put in his mouth. He was denied all means of getting through the Underworld to the afterlife.
Pentawer’s mummy is either still on display in the Antiquities Museum at Tahrir Square in Cairo or may have been moved with many others to the new Museum of Civilization.