BMCR 2009.07.62

Ramesside Inscriptions. Translations. Vol. 5, Setnakht, Ramesses III and Contemporaries

, Ramesside Inscriptions. Translations. Vol. 5, Setnakht, Ramesses III and Contemporaries. Malden, Mass./Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. xxiv, 523. ISBN 9780631184317. $400.00.

The Liverpudlian Egyptologist and emeritus Kenneth A. Kitchen is one of the leading authorities on the Ramesside Period, the 19th and 20th Dynasties of New Kingdom Egypt (ca. 1292- 1070 BC). His opus magnum is the Ramesside Inscriptions (KRI) in eight volumes — a painstaking compilation of inscriptions, graffiti, papyri and ostraca.1 The original edition completed in 1990 after 21 years primarily renders the hieroglyphic text of these sources in Professor Kitchen’s own hand. In recent years he has begun to add two supplemental series to the original edition: Series A: Translations and Series B: Annotations (RITANC). The latter is to provide a bibliography, introductions, and a compact commentary. Five out of seven volumes of the translation series and two of the annotation series have so far been published. The book under review is No. V in the translations series and concerns the rule of the early twentieth dynasty kings Setnakht (1187-1185 BC) and his son Ramesses III (1185-1154 BC).2 It covers all the texts in the original hieroglyphic edition in KRI V. Since a corresponding annotation volume is still in preparation, this book therefore does not contain any explanatory notes or commentary. Like in the original volume a lengthy table of content — which also includes the source references — precedes an abbreviations and sigla list as well a short preface. A brief introduction to this volume’s theme has been added. The text has marginal references to the pages of the hieroglyphic edition. Due to its size the table of contents can only be rendered in a concise form below, yet it provides a fair glimpse of the immense variety of the texts covered here. At the end of the book detailed indexes list the sources in museums and collections, papyri, ostraca, graffiti and private tombs in western Thebes.

The bulk of these texts derive from the huge mortuary temple of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu in western Thebes, one of the best preserved buildings from that period. It fills more than half the book. The accounts of the foreign wars remain a very important source here (pp. 9-87). They occurred between the years five and eleven, when Egypt had to fight against invasions by the Libyans (years 5 and 11) and the Sea Peoples (year 8). The latter consisted of an alliance of Peleset (Philistines), Tjekkeru, Shaklusha, Danuna (Danaeans) and Washash. How effective their impact was, can be seen by some lines from the great inscription of year 8 that refer to the destruction they caused in Asia: “(As for) as the foreign countries, they made a conspiracy in their isles. Removed and scattered in battle, were the lands at one time. No land could stand up against (‘before’) their arms, beginning with Hatti… cut off (all) at [once] in one [place] … within Amurru; they devastated its people and its land was like it had never existed (p. 34 = KRI V, 39, 16-40,2). This text therefore provides an approximate date for the end of several states in the Levant, once friends and vassals of Egypt. The Libyans and Sea Peoples did not succeed, however, in subduing Egypt thanks to the efforts of Ramesses and his army.

But despite these military successes this was also a period of crisis that continued after the death of Ramesses III. The loss of Egypt’s foreign possessions in Asia contributed to a decline in revenues and corruption in the administration became widespread. All too often the government was in arrears with payments to its workforce. This is exemplified by the protests of the workmen from Deir el-Medina over outstanding provisions, commonly referred to as the first known “strike” in history. Even though the lengthy Turin “Strike” Papyrus from year 29 which covers this event is not included here,3 O.Berlin 10633 (p. 416) reflects on that situation: “20 days have elapsed in the month, and we have not been given grain-rations.” Other documents relating to this affair have been included in the addenda volume.4

Also indicative of a crisis are the documents relating to the notorious Harim Conspiracy against Ramesses III (pp. 297-305): the Turin Juridical Papyrus, the Papyrus Lee-Rolin, and “Papyrus” Rifaud. The king was apparently assassinated during his 32 nd year by a group of conspirators who supported Tiyi, one of the royal wives, and her son Pentaweret regarding succession to the throne. A special court examined all suspects, many of which were sentenced to death, mostly through suicide. Others were mutilated, but only one person was acquitted after a stern rebuke. These chilling texts might remind the reader of a modern show tribunal: Each suspect is individually examined and introduced as “The great criminal…” and every entry is closed with the formula “they found him guilty, and they caused his punishment to befall him.”5 The accused hardly appear as personalities, some of them are not mentioned by their real names, or they were “renamed” to carry an evil connation.

Like all volumes in the series, this book is basically a reference work and not necessarily something one will read from cover to cover. Some passages — especially the religious texts from the temple walls on the offerings to the gods or the management of the temple — are certainly more of interest to the student and scholar of ancient Egyptian religion. Much closer to real life are the numerous documents — mostly ostraca — from the people of Deir el-Medina (pp. 360-508), who worked in the construction of the royal tombs and temples. They reflect, however sober, the activities and concerns of these workers, be it the simple transfer of a donkey or the attendance record at a given task.

KRI V covers most of the relevant texts of the early Twentieth Dynasty but is by no means complete since the focus is primarily on inscriptions (which includes ostraca) while only a few papyri are added. Volume V of the translation series will, however, best be used alongside its forthcoming companion in the annotation series. The consultation of the latter will be vital for the understanding of most of the texts. This goes for one phenomenon in particular: Ramesses III saw a role model in his great predecessor and namesake Ramesses II from whose temples he copied or adapted many elements, textual and visual. The commentary will likely draw attention to these similarities. The translation is largely reliable. The more initiated reader might perhaps transliterate some individual names differently (Kitchen f.e. uses “Usimare” instead of the more conventional “Usermaatre”) for Ramesses III.

Outside the Egyptological community the original KRI volumes may appear as a work with many seals. With his supplementary series Kitchen has made these important sources accessible to a wider readership and he can only be congratulated for his diligence, perseverance, and competence.

Table of Content:

Setnakht Ramesses III
Foreign War
Works of Peace: Festivals of the Gods
Royal and Related Monuments – Dated series
Royal and Related Monuments – Geographical series
Western Asia
Upper Egypt
Thebes: East
Thebes: West
Southern Upper Egypt
Miscellaneous and Minor Monuments
Addenda to Royal Monuments
Documents of the Reign (The Harim Conspiracy)
The Royal Family
Private Monuments of Contemporaries
A. Civil and Royal Administration
Category I: Viziers
Category II: Viceroys of Nubia
Category III: Other Officials in Nubia
Category IV: Chiefs of the Treasury and other Staff
Category VI: Mayors of Thebes
Category VIII: Steward of King and his Foundations
Category IX: Cupbearers and Court Functionaries
B. Army, Police, Building and Transport
Category XI: The Army
Category XIII: Transport
C. Temples, Priesthoods and Staff
Category XV: High Priests of Amun in Thebes
Category XVI: E. Thebes, Other Priests and Staff
Category XVII: W. Thebes, Priests and Officials
Category XVIII: High Priests of Ptah in Memphis
Category XIX: Memphis, Other Priests and Staff
Category XX: Priests of Re-Atum, Heliopolis
Category XXI: Heliopolis
Category XXII: Lower Egyptian Cults
Category XXIII: Abydos, High Priests and other Staff
Category XXIV: Thinis, High Priests and other Staff
Category XXVI: Middle Egypt and Upper Egypt
Category XXVII: Scholars; Physicians, Other Specialists
Category XXVIII: Life at Deir el-Medina


1. K. A. Kitchen, The Ramesside Inscriptions, Oxford: Blackwell, 1969-1990.

2. The four previous volumes cover: I: Ramesses I, Sethos I and Contemporaries; II: Ramesses II, Royal Inscriptions; III: Ramesses II, his Contemporaries; IV: Merenptah and the Late Nineteenth Dynasty. Volume VI will deal with the reigns of Ramesses IV till Ramesses XI and their contemporaries. Volume VII contains the addenda.

3. The strike is aptly summarized by P. Vernus, Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt, Ithaca and London 2003, 54-61 and 171-177 (notes).

4. E.g., O.Varille + O.IFAO 1550 = KRI VII, 301.

5. For more details cf. the monograph by Susan Redford, The Harem Conspiracy. The Murder of Ramesses III, DeKalb 2003.