Ramses III reigned
over Egypt for 31 years (1184 –1153 BC) and like many Pharaohs before
him was a prodigious builder. As well as greatly enlarging the Medinet
Habu (Habu’s City) to become his mortuary palace, he built the wonderful
Osiris courtyard in Karnak temple.
The Medinet Habu was a sacred site long before Ramses III started building
there: it was revered as the place where the primeval gods lay the egg
from which the earth began but Ramses’ works made it the most beautiful
of the Theban sites. The temple, which is of a similar design to the Ramesseum,
is second in size only to Karnak but has a grace and symmetry that Karnak
lacks. It was not just a mortuary temple as it incorporated Ramses’
palace where he lodged on his visits to Thebes, his pleasure rooms where
he entertained his harem, his government offices, a sacred lake and a
Nilometer which measured the rise and fall of the river Nile. The outer
walls of the temple are also finely decorated and a mud-brick wall surrounds
the whole complex.
Ramses III was the son and heir of Sethnakht who became the first King
of the 20th Dynasty. Sethnatkht’s path to the throne is unclear.
It is possible that there was a family relationship between him and Ramses
II, but it is just as likely that he grabbed power when the opportunity
arose just as Ay and Horemheb had before him. Ramses made his own claim
to the throne clear by having the words “I did not take my office
by robbery, but the crown was set upon my head willingly” inscribed
on one of the temple pylons.
During his long reign, Ramses III fought several campaigns including
the battle with the sea peoples, which is shown on the walls of inner
walls of the first pylon. However, even in peaceful times there was wide
spread corruption and internal strife in Egypt. This unrest might have
led to the harem plot, which occurred later in his reign, when several
of his ministers and his wife Ty aimed to have him assassinated during
the Opet festival celebrations, intending to make Ty’s son king.
Despite the wide use of magic and spells, the plot appears to have failed
as the culprits were caught and forced to commit suicide, but as Ramses
appears to have died before their trial was complete, who is to say that
they did not succeed in killing him after all.
the mortuary temple visitors pass under the windowed gateway where Ramses
had his pleasure rooms and enter an open space which was once a magnificent
garden. Facing, is the deeply carved first pylon, which shows Ramses fighting
imaginary battles against the enemies of Egypt but on the inner walls are
scenes of battles that he really did fight and win. To the right of the
gateway is the temple that Hatshepsut built and on the left is the temple
of the Divine Adoratrix, which was added at a later date.
Inside the first pylon is a large open courtyard, and on the northern
side stands rather fat-legged statues of Ramses in the form of Osiris
with wives at his feet. Unfortunately, many of these statues were removed
to make way for a Coptic Church, which remained inside the temple until
the nineteenth century.
In the second courtyard, a series of reliefs show scribes completing
a tally of the dead after a battle with the Libyans. This series is interesting
as it starts with the counting of hands, which confused the issue as each
enemy had two, and finishes by counting genitals of which they only had
Beyond the second
courtyard is the hypostyle hall, which is now roofless and largely ruined
but has some very interesting sanctuaries and chapels leading from it.
To the left are chapels to Ramses and Osiris and on the right are chapels
and storerooms decorated with scenes from the Opet festival and the annual
festival for the fertility god Amun-Min. At the back are three sanctuaries
to the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu.
The temple has a chequered history. Apart from being plastered over with
mud and turned into a Coptic monastery, when the Egyptian economy began
to crumble it was the scene of a labour demonstration when workers from
Deir el Medina went on strike over their lack of pay and poor conditions
of employment. Was this the first organised labour dispute? When social
order broke down even further, gangs of Libyan bandits roamed the area
and when they were attacked, the entire population of Deir el Medina abandoned
their town and took refuge within the temple walls.
The temple is interesting enough to be visited several times and on each
visit something new will be discovered. The outer walls are worth walking
around to view the decoration and to see the ruins of Ramses’ palace.
There is a calendar of festivals and scenes of Ramses hunting and fighting
Although it tends to be less crowded than some of the other archaeological
sites, it can still get very busy in the mornings when the tour buses
arrive but they tend to have whistle stop tours and the site quickly becomes