The government of Egypt during the Ramesside period was divided into four broad, functionally distinct units. Supporting the activities of the court was the royal domain, administered by a chancellor and a chief steward. The civil service, headed by two viziers, one for Upper Egypt and one for Lower Egypt, was responsible for taxation, agriculture, and justice. The army, under its commander in chief (often a royal prince), played a relatively minor part in government, despite its prominent role as an instrument of foreign policy. Last but not least there was the religious establishment, led by the overseer of priests of all the gods of Upper and Lower Egypt. More often than not this exalted post was held by the high priest of Amun. Ever since the latter years of Ramesses III, the high priest of the country’s preeminent cult had been the most powerful individual in Upper Egypt, wielding more influence than the mayor of Thebes or even the southern vizier. The great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut was the largest landowner in the region, controlling vast estates with thousands of tenant farmers. It also had extensive workshops employing hundreds of craftsmen, and its granaries, attached to the mortuary temples of Ramesses II and III, acted as the main reserve bank not just for Thebes but for Upper Egypt as a whole. The man who controlled Ipetsut and its economic wealth controlled Thebes. As kings came and went, this most prestigious sinecure was monopolized by one family, that of Ramessesnakht. In troubled times, this local dynasty provided some measure of continuity and stability, even if it could not bring much succor to the common people’s increasingly blighted lives.
Then, in 1091, the unrest sweeping Thebes came home to roost. Hungry, desperate, and frustrated by the high priest Amenhotep’s intransigence, a group of Thebans succeeded in forcibly removing him from office and replacing him with a new man of their choosing. For eight months, Amenhotep languished at home, shorn of the trappings of power, deprived of his accustomed wealth, politically isolated. For a proud scion of Thebes’s leading family, it was quite a comedown. Worse still, there was only one person in Egypt who could reinstate a high priest, and that was the king. Groveling to the pharaoh was an unwelcome prospect for Amenhotep, but he knew it was the only path back to power. So, swallowing his pride, he petitioned Ramesses XI, far away in the royal residence at Per-Ramesses, to restore him to his rightful office.
Ramesses was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he failed to respond to Amenhotep’s pleadings and left the usurper in place at Ipetsut, it would be an admission of impotence, effectively signaling the end of the king’s writ in Upper Egypt. If, however, he took steps to restore Amenhotep to the high priesthood, it would merely confirm the supremacy of a family that had been building its own power base for generations at the expense of the Ramesside Dynasty. Neither option was particularly attractive, but restoring the status quo ante seemed marginally preferable. The only question was how to achieve the desired outcome. Reports from Thebes indicated that the usurper was not going to go quietly; considerable force would be needed to dislodge him from the heavily fortified enclosure at Djeme (modern Medinet Habu). Yet the king was hundreds of miles away in the delta, as were most of Egypt’s troops. Sending them southward to unseat a high priest would carry two unacceptable risks, drawing the king into the bitter internal politics of Thebes while leaving the royal residence exposed and vulnerable to attack. There was only one other garrison with enough troops to carry out the operation, and that was stationed in Nubia, under the command of the viceroy of Kush. So Ramesses sent an order to the viceroy, Panehsy, to march north with his Nubian troops as quickly as possible, to suppress the interloper.
It was a fatal error of judgment.
Within weeks, Panehsy had arrived at Thebes in force, and his Nubian soldiers were at the gates of Medinet Habu. An unruly mob stormed the temple enclosure, driving out the usurper and vandalizing the buildings. Other troops rampaged across the west bank, causing damage to its sacred monuments. The operation was a military success but a public relations disaster. Once order had been restored and Amenhotep reinstated as high priest, Panehsy moved swiftly to assess the damage, recover stolen property, and punish those responsible. Some culprits were summarily executed on the viceroy’s orders, without waiting for the inconvenience of a trial. In such situations, making an example of a few individuals usually did the job of keeping the rest in line. The inhabitants of Thebes suddenly remembered the roughness of military justice.
Having imposed law and order, Panehsy moved to seize control of the Theban economy, taking charge of the temple granaries. Amenhotep could hardly complain, given that he owed his restoration to the Nubian strongman. By 1087, Panehsy was styling himself as “general and overseer of the granaries of the pharaoh.” He, not the high priest of Amun, was now the de facto ruler of Upper Egypt. For a while, the viceroy loyally governed Thebes on behalf of the king, but Ramesses XI was becoming increasingly concerned about his subordinate’s growing power. He could sense Thebes and the south slipping away, and was determined to reassert royal authority at all costs. Egypt’s empire was no more, its borders were porous, and its people were starving. If he could no longer preserve even the country’s territorial integrity, a pharaoh would not be worthy of the name, nor could he call himself a true Ramesses.
From their earliest origins, the Ramessides had been a military dynasty, using military personnel and military solutions to govern Egypt. Now, having unleashed one general and come to regret it, Ramesses XI might have thought twice about doing the same again. Yet, with his options fast running out, all he could do was fall back on his instincts. In 1082, the king duly summoned one of his northern generals, Paiankh, and ordered him to march against Panehsy and drive the upstart viceroy back into Nubia. The result was civil war.
Panehsy was a skilled enough tactician not to sit and wait for the onslaught, but to take the fight to the enemy. He rounded up the Theban garrisons and, bolstered by local conscripts, marched north with his army to engage Paiankh’s forces. At first, the viceroy’s advance met with considerable success. Reaching Hardai, in Middle Egypt, he stormed and ransacked the town. For a moment, it seemed that the king’s army might lose the war. But Paiankh’s greater numbers eventually prevailed, and by 1080 Panehsy had been driven out of Egypt. The disgraced viceroy of Kush was back where he belonged, in far-off Nubia.
The conflict may have saved face for Ramesses XI, but it was a disaster for Thebes. The depletion of the local garrisons and the conscription of men of fighting age led to a security vacuum across the city. Widespread looting of temples and tombs broke out and went unchecked for months. The tomb of Ramesses VI was targeted for a second time and its sarcophagus attacked. Worse still, as Panehsy’s army retreated, it carried out a scorched-earth policy, ravaging monuments in an orgy of destruction. When the dust finally settled, the pharaoh visited Thebes—in a rare outing from his delta residence—to see for himself the extent of the damage. It was a deeply depressing sight. Not since the dark days of the country’s first civil war, a thousand years earlier, had so much devastation been inflicted by fellow Egyptians.
In a vain attempt to turn back the clock and start afresh, Ramesses declared the beginning of a new era. The nineteenth year of his reign was to be known instead as the first year of the renaissance, and subsequent years would follow the new nomenclature. But nobody was fooled, least of all Paiankh—for he, not Ramesses, was the undoubted victor against Panehsy. To prove the point, Paiankh took over the viceroy’s titles and dignities, followed by those of the high priest as well. General, overseer of granaries, and high priest of Amun—military, economic, and religious authority were now combined in one person. The “restoration” of pharaonic authority in Thebes had in fact been just another military putsch—except that Paiankh had learned from history. While the viceroy had enjoyed only a brief period of absolute power, Paiankh’s regime would be designed to stand the test of time.
An army man through and through, brusque, determined, and ruthlessly efficient, Paiankh ruled Thebes with a rod of iron. He took pains to build a network of influential supporters, surrounding himself with men and women of ability. One such was his wife Nodjmet, a woman of considerable resolve and personal authority. Paiankh’s first policy, after imposing martial law in Thebes, was to lead his army into Nubia in pursuit of the renegade Panehsy. Only by securing its southern flank against a repeat attack could the new military junta achieve lasting security. While Paiankh was on maneuvers in Nubia, he left the running of Thebes in his wife’s capable hands. The two corresponded regularly, keeping each other informed about major developments. One particular exchange of letters underlines the dark side of military rule. In Paiankh’s absence, unease about the regime was growing in Thebes, and Nodjmet wrote to her husband to report on seditious statements made by two policemen. Even the forces of law and order were beginning to mutter against the junta. Paiankh’s reply was unequivocal and chilling:
Have these two policemen brought to my house and get to the bottom of their words in short order. Then have them killed and thrown into the water by night.
Interrogation followed by “disappearance”—the classic fate of dissidents under a military regime.
Political assassinations were not the only murky activities sponsored by Paiankh in his bid to retain power. In another letter from the Nubian front, he ordered two of his Theban henchmen, Butehamun and Kar, to perform an unnamed “task on which you have never before embarked.” The euphemistic phraseology was carefully chosen, for the task in question was nothing less than state-sponsored tomb robbery. The war against Panehsy showed no signs of a swift resolution, and Paiankh badly needed funds to finance his military operations and shore up his regime at home. The Theban hills offered a ready treasure trove of gold and silver, buried in the tombs of Egypt’s kings, queens, and high officials. So Paiankh’s men set out on a deliberate policy of breaking and entering, channeling the proceeds of their crime back to the government coffers. As they roamed the west bank in search of tomb entrances, they marked what they found for systematic future clearance. Butehamun alone left more than 130 graffiti, identifying the repositories of wealth amassed by generations of pious Thebans. Having survived Libyan attack, opportunistic robbery, and civil war, the remaining intact tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs were now ruthlessly exploited by the rulers themselves. A final taboo had been broken.
After a decade of rule, the junta faced its sternest test when Paiankh died unexpectedly. His sons were too young to take over, and the prospect of an interregnum was deeply unwelcome for a regime that had not yet consolidated its grip on power. So, postponing a dynastic succession in favor of a stopgap solution, Paiankh’s supporters moved swiftly and stabilized the situation by choosing another army general, Herihor, as interim leader. He was an inspired choice. A mature and capable leader in Paiankh’s mold, Herihor came from the same officer class. He was as vigorous in his private life as he was in military matters, fathering nineteen sons.
Yet none of them was to succeed him. Paiankh’s widow saw to that. In a brilliantly calculated move, Nodjmet immediately took Herihor as her new husband, at a stroke bolstering his position and retaining her influence over the eventual succession.
That succession left no room for the Ramesside royal family. While Herihor strengthened the rule of the generals in Upper Egypt, another army man, the king’s son-in-law Nesbanebdjedet, took effective power in the north of the country. Egypt was now a nation of two halves, each ruled by a military elite. Though Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet paid lip service to the continued reign of Ramesses XI, there was no denying where real power lay. Isolated and a virtual prisoner in his own royal residence, the last of the Ramessides had seen pharaonic authority slip from his grasp, through a combination of poor decisions and benign neglect. The same army that had brought the Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties to power was presiding over the country’s formal division. Military might had proved a double-edged sword indeed.
As Ramesses XI lay on his deathbed in 1069, after thirty years on the throne, the Nile itself seemed to signal the end of an era. The great river’s Pelusiac Branch, on which Per-Ramesses had been founded two centuries earlier, had been silting up for some time. By the end of Ramesses XI’s reign, the main channel was so clogged with sediment that ships were no longer able to use the city’s harbors. It was a fitting metaphor for the regime’s own sclerosis. Starved of commerce and communication, the traders, scribes, and bureaucrats abandoned Per-Ramesses in favor of a new site, Djanet (modern San el-Hagar), some twelve miles to the north. As the old king’s funeral cortège wound its way from the royal palace of Per-Ramesses, followed by a clutch of old retainers, the Ramesside Dynasty and its seat of government died together.