Journal: Tuesday 3 October 2000
Since the first time I visited Luxor I have had a special affinity with the Temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu. Usually one of my first ports of call when I’m here, it is my favourite temple in the whole of Egypt and I’ve seen quite a few. Yesterday I suddenly realised that I have been here for four days, staying in an apartment only five minutes away from the temple and though I’ve walked past it several times I have still not been inside. Today when the temple opened at 7.00am – I was waiting at the gate.
For several years I have wanted to have a good look at the battle reliefs of Rameses on the north outer wall of the temple. I’ve looked at the wall before of course, but many of these very detailed carvings are only really visible when lit by the early morning sun and by 9.00am they are already dimmed by shadow. This morning with Jenny I walked through the tall Migdol gateway, past the little Dynasty XVIII Temple built by Hatshepsut and around to the right of the First Pylon. I knew that the battles were more or less in sequence and began on the rear wall, though they quite damaged there. The north wall reliefs, however, stood out beautifully in the bright low sunshine – the light was perfect.
Together Jenny and I worked our way down the wall from the top, looking at each register and we tried, with the help of a few books, to work out which battles are which. The history of Rameses’ campaigns is richly depicted here along with detailed lists of his enemies, including the Western Desert tribes of Libu, Seped and Meshwesh and the enigmatic ‘Sea Peoples’. The story begins (after one or two skirmishes with Nubians) with Rameses leaving the temple in the company of the war-god, Montu and several priests carrying standards. The king is seen in his chariot, his lion (a symbol of his strength) alongside, while a trumpeter calls the soldiers to follow and they all set off for the Libyan War in Year 5 of the reign. The King wears the blue ‘war’ crown and is shown, as is the custom, larger than everyone else. Rameses had been warned of the Libyan unrest. These were a people who had been defeated by the Egyptians decades before and now, once again determined to settle in Egypt in search of fertile land, had formed a strong alliance with other westerly tribes in an attempted uprising. There are many of the usual sort of battle scenes, charging horses, falling bodies and the taking of enemy captives. A little further on, Rameses is depicted standing on a balcony near a fort, facing his army with piles of spoils before him. The heaps of severed hands and phalli are counted by scribes, presumably in a tally of the dead and for which the soldiers were rewarded with gold. This scene is similar to those in the First Court.
The next battle shown here takes place in Year 8 of the King’s reign when an unidentified group of people who we only know as the ‘Sea Peoples’, invaded the Nile Valley from the north. There are seven scenes, beginning again with the King in his chariot setting out for battle with his well-armed troops. One scene shows scribes recording the distribution of weapons to the Egyptian army. The warriors of the ‘Sea Peoples’ can be identified by their wide helmets and striped kilts. Some of the reliefs are very realistic, showing hand-to hand combat and there are even women and children cowering near their ox-carts, while the battle raged around them. Though this group of people were totally defeated on land, the sea battle was yet to begin off the Delta shore. The Egyptian ships are identified by a lion-head on the prow. I found these scenes even more graphic with boats capsizing and surviving swimmers being shot at by Egyptian archers from the shore as they fought for their lives, only to be captured. During the campaign Rameses can be see taking time off to go hunting lions, which is probably another symbolic reminder of his strength and prowess.
Meanwhile the tribes were once more on the move and in Year 11 of his reign Rameses again must chase the enemy out of the Delta where they have tried to settle. The Libyans had been filtering in from the west, more or less with the permission of the Egyptian authorities, but when their allies the Meshwesh began a mass movement towards the Delta, Rameses determined to put a halt to the immigration. Their leader Meshesher was captured and the tribes were chased back into the desert to a fort with the romantic name of ‘Castle in the Sand’. With his victories complete, the King is shown presenting his Libyan and Asian captives to Amun, Mut and Khons, the Theban Triad, amid much celebration.
Many cameos of these battles are depicted in the reliefs of the First Court, but this morning it was good to see the whole story highlighted by the slanting sun on the north wall.