How the Twentieth Dynasty gained power remains unclear. The only indication of the political events at this date is attested by a stela erected on the island of Elephantine by its first ruler, Sethnakht. On the stela, Sethnakht relates how he expelled rebels who on their flight left behind the gold, silver, and copper they had stolen from Egypt and with which they had wanted to hire reinforcements among the Asiatics. The Great Harris Papyrus from the beginning of the reign of Ramses IV is our second document from that time.
It describes how a state of lawlessness and chaos struck Egypt. After several years in which there was no one ruling, a Syrian called Irsu seized power, and his supporters plundered the country treating the gods like ordinary human beings and no longer sacrificed in the temples (a description that resembles the one given of the Amarna Period in the years of the Restoration).
The gods then chose Sethnakht to be the next ruler, just as they had Horemheb at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and he re-established order. From these texts we may conclude that, after the death of Tausret, Bay had tried to seize power and might even have succeeded for a brief span of time until he was expelled by Sethnakht. The date of the Elephantine Stela is not the first year of The Twentieth DynastySethnakht's regency, as one might expect on a victory stela, but the second year and this date is not given at the beginning of the text, as was customary on stelae, but towards the end. Be that as it may, he did not enjoy his newly gained kingship for long, for he died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his son Ramses III. :
Pharaoh Ramses III
He inherited peace and stability from his father, but soon he had his share of troubles as well. In the fifth year, he had to fight off further advances by Libyan tribes, who had used the period of internal struggle to penetrate into the Western Delta. By this time, the Egyptians appear to have accepted this peaceful immigration as inevitable, but when a revolt against the pharaoh broke out because he interfered in the succession of their king, Ramses III quickly responded and brought them back under Egyptian control.
A further Libyan campaign was launched in the 11th year. The great battle against the Sea Peoples broke out in the 8th year. Since the days of Merenptah, when some of the Sea Peoples had first tried to enter Egypt from the west, their movements had turned the whole of the Middle East upside down. In the 8th year of Ramses Ill's reign, they attacked the Delta, both by land and sea. The Egyptians were well aware of the imminent danger and had moved a large defense force to Djahy (southern Palestine) and had fortified the mouths of the Nile branches in the Delta. When the attack finally started, Ramses III' troops were well prepared for it and were able to beat the invaders back. Ramses III spent a lot of time and exerted much effort on his building projects, the most important of which was his large mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, begun shortly after his accession and finished by year 12. It still stands today as one of the best preserved temples of the New Kingdom. It was closely modeled on the Ramesseum of his great predecessor Ramses II, whom Ramses III tried to emulate in many other ways. his own royal names were all but identical to those of Ramses II and he even named his sons after the latter's numerous offspring.
The building of Medinet Habu and other projects, including the expansion of Piramesse, do not appear to have been held back by the various threats to Egypt's borders. There is a possibility that an expedition to Punt was sent during Ramses III's reign. Of his major achievements was his reorganization of the various temples throughout the country, after the disorder period which preceded his reign. The Great Harris Papyrus enumerates the huge donations of land he made to the most important temples in Thebes, Memphis, and Heliopolis and to a lesser extent to many smaller institutions as well. By the end of his reign, a third of the cultivable land was owned by the temples and of this three quarters belonged to Amun of Thebes.
An overall loss of control over the state financal and economic crisis were the result: grain prices raised and the monthly rations to the workmen at Deir el-Medineh, which had to be paid by the state treasury, were soon overdue, leading in the 29th year to the first recorded organized strikes in history. Things were made worse by repeated raids by groups of Libyan nomads in the Theban area. The gradual breakdown of the centralized state may well have been one of the reasons behind an attempt on the life of Ramses III or if it was not, the general unrest and insecurity may at least have given the conspirators the idea that they could count on general support if they succeeded. The plot originated in the King's harem, presumably in Piramesse, where one of the officials (Pairy the scribe of the harem) was involved, as well as several royal butlers and a steward. The ultimate goal was to put Tiy's son Pentaweret on the throne instead of the King's lawful heir. Apparently the plan was to murder the King during the annual Opet Festival in Thebes. The plot must have failed, as the King's mummy shows no signs of a violent death and his crown prince Ramses IV and not Pentaweret eventually succeeded him.
It is not definitely known when all of this happened, but the records of the court hearings and the sentences passed on the criminals were written down at the beginning of the reign of Ramses IV, who also compiled the Great Harris Papyrus, suggesting that the assassination attempt took place towards the end of the 31st year of Ramses III's reign.
Pharaoh Ramses IV
The entire remaining Twentieth Dynasty Kings were called Ramses, a name they adopted at their accession, adding it to their birth-name. They were probably all related to Ramses III, although in some cases we do not know exactly how. During their reigns, Egypt lost control over its territories in Syria-Palestine and the importance of Nubia was rapidly declining as well. Apart from the Temple of Khonsu in Karnak, no major temples were built by those Ramesside rulers who reigned long enough to do so. Ramses IV was the 5th son of his father and had become crown prince around the latter's 22nd year of regency, after 4 older brothers had died. The sons of Ramses III were not buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings like those of Ramses II, but in separate tombs in the Valley of the Queens.
As we can deduce from the name of his mother, Ramses III's Great Royal consort Isis-Ta-Habadjilat, the new king must have had at least some foreign blood running through his veins. At the beginning of his reign, he started several building projects, especially his royal tomb and mortuary temple at Thebes, for which he doubled the workforce of Deir el-Medineh to 120 men. He sent several expeditions to the quarries of Wadi El-Hammamat, where little activity had taken place since the days of Sety I, as well as to the turquoise and copper mines in Sinai and Timna. None of his building plans came to fruition for he died after a reign of five or perhaps seven years, before he could complete any of them.
During Ramses IV's reign, further delays in the delivery of basic commodities at Deir El-Medinet occurred. In the meantime, the influence of the High Priest of Amun was growing. Ramsesnakht, holder of that high office, was soon accompanying the state officials when they went to pay the men their monthly rations, indicating that the Temple of Amun, not the state, was now at least responsible for their wages.
The highest state and temple offices were in fact in the hands of the members of two families. Thus Ramsesnakht's son Usermaatranakht was 'Steward of the Estate of Amun' and as such administered the land owned by the temple, but he also controlled the vast majority of the state-owned land in Middle Egypt. The holders of the offices of 'Second and Third Priest' and of 'God's Father of Amun' were all related to Ramsesnakht by marriage. This well illustrates the marked tendency of these high positions, including that of high priest itself, to become hereditary and Ramsesnakht himself was to be succeeded by two of his sons. The office became more and more independent and the king had only nominal control over who was appointed High Priest.
Pharaoh Ramses V
Ramses IV was succeeded by his son, who became Ramses V upon his accession. A major crime and corruption scandal among the priesthood at Elephantine (which had in fact evolved during the reign of his father) is the main event known from his reign, although he continued the father's mining activities in Timna and the Sinai. Apart from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 9) and his mortuary temple, which was modeled on that of Ramses IV, he also had buildings at Heliopolis and Buhen. Among the documents dating to his reign is a great text called the Wilbour Papyrus. After four years, Ramses V died of small-pox at a young age.
Pharaoh Ramses VI
Ramess VI was a younger son of Ramses III. He usurped the royal tomb and mortuary temple begun by his nephew (Ramses V), whose burial had therefore to be delayed until an alternative tomb had been found for him in Ramses VI's 2nd year of regency. Ramses VI inscribed his cartouche at Karnak and a number of other temples, but he also paid due attention to add his name in one other place: the list Ramses III's sons in the portico at Medinet Habu, where his name had not originally appeared. Mainly, Ramses VI reigned for seven years. The signs of decline were increasing and Egyptian domination beyond the Nile Valley had become more and more limited: Ramses VI was the last ruler of the New Kingdom whose name is attested in Sinai. At Thebes and throughout the kingdom, the power of the chief priests of Amun was growing, despite the fact that Isis, daughter of Ramses VI, maintained a link with the priesthood in her role of God's Wife of Amun.
Pharaoh Ramses IX
The 18 years or so of the reign of Ramses IX were marked by increasing instability. In the 8th-15th years of regency, we know of Libyan nomads disturbing peace in Thebes, and there were also strikes again. It is not surprising that this period witnessed the first tomb robberies, attested by a whole series of papyri that record the trials of the thieves that had been apprehended. Only one Seventeenth-Dynasty-royal-burial in Dra Abu El-Naga and a number of private tombs were robbed, and various thefts from temples were also investigated. At the beginning of the reign, Ramsesnakht had died, and was succeeded as high priest firstly by his son Nesamun, and then by the latter's brother, Amenhotep. However, Ramses IX undertook construction at Heliopolis, where the most architectural works of his reign are situated, confirming the royal family's growing identification with the northern part of the country. This did not prevent him from decorating the wall to the north of the 7th Pylon in the Temple of Amon-Re at Karnak, where the office of Chief Priest was held first by Ramsesnakht then, in the 10th year of the reign by his sons Nesamun and Amenhotep. Ramsesnakht had exploited a series of marriages with the aim of transforming his family into a power base which included the Second, Third and Fourth Prophets of Amun, the Mayor of the City of Thebes and various other important figures.
Pharaohs Ramses X & Ramses XI
Almost nothing is known about the reign of Ramses X, who seems to have lasted for nine years, and was buried in the Valley of the Kings (KV 18). Ramses XI, on the other hand, ruled for 27 or 30 years, although certainly during the last ten years the geographical extent of his power was virtually reduced to Lower Egypt. During his reign, the crisis that occurred in the Theban area in the previous decades deepened even further: persistent trouble with Libyan gangs preventing the workmen on the West Bank from going to work, famine, further tomb robberies and thefts from temples and palaces, and even civil war. At some point, in or before the 12th year of regency, Panehsy the Viceroy of Nubia appeared in Thebes with Nubian troops to restore law and order, perhaps at the request of Ramses XI himself. In order to feed his men in a city that was already suffering from economic troubles, he was given or perhaps usurped the office of 'Overseer of the Granaries'. This must have brought him into conflict with Amenhotep, the High Priest of Amun.
The conflict quickly rose and during a period of 8 or 9 months (sometime between the 17th and 19th year), Panehsy and his troops actually besieged the High Priest at Madinet Habu. Amenhotep then appealed to Ramses XI for help and this resulted in a civil war. Panehsy marched north, until he was eventually driven back by the king's army, which was almost certainly led by General Piankh. Eventually, Panehsy had to withdraw to Nubia, where trouble persisted for many years, and where he was eventually buried.
In Thebes, General Piankh took over the titles of Panehsy as well as styling himself vizier. Besides, after the death of Amenhotep, who may or may not have survived Panehsy's assault, he also became High Priest of Amun, uniting the three highest offices of the country in one person. With Piankh begins the period of the renaissance 'whm-mswt' a term that had also been used by kings at the beginning of the Twelfth and Nineteenth Dynasties to indicate that the country had been 'reborn' after a period of chaos. In the Theban area, documents were now dated in years of the renaissance rather than the years of the king's regency. The first years of the renaissance to the tenth were identical with the 19th to 28th years of Ramses XI's regency. After the death of Piankh, his son-in-law Herihor took over all his functions, and after the death of Ramses XI the former even assumed royal titles.
In the north of the country Smendes mounted the throne, and with these two men the Twenty-first Dynasty begins. In the time of Ramses XI, it was the tomb of Ramses VI that was devastated. The authorities attempted at least to save the royal mummies by successive transferals whenever necessary. The movements of the mummy of Ramses II, for instance, can be followed because of the inscription on the lid of the last coffin in which it was placed. Evidently, the Chief Priest Herihor placed it in the tomb of Seti I in the 25th year of the reign of Ramses XI. Later, in the Twenty-first Dynasty under Siamun, the Chief Priest Pinudjem had it transported into the cache at Deir El-Bahari along with the body of Seti I. Apart from the robberies and the atmosphere of insecurity that have been described, it appears that Upper Egypt was suffering from famine. Moreover, the chief priests usurped the royal prerogatives so that they were virtually equal to the pharaohs. The Chief Priest Amenhotep had himself depicted at Karnak at the same scale as the king. It seems, however, that Amenhotep may have gone a little too far, for he was sent into exile in the first part of Ramses XI's reign.
A little before the 19th year of Ramses XI's reign, there appeared a new chief priest of Amun with a strong personality (namely, Herihor). His origins are not properly known, but he was probably descended from a Libyan family. He started his progressive growth into power by acquiring control over Upper Egypt. At some point, there appeared 3 powerful men: Ramses XI, Smendes and Herihor. The first of these was the King, who remained in principle the most powerful of the three, but in practice no longer exercised any power: when Ramses XI died around 1069 BC, the tomb that was being prepared for him in the Valley of the Kings (KV 4) was not even finished. The second figure was an administrator named Smendes who was originally subservient to the Amun Priesthood, but in fact appears to have controlled the northern part of the country from the royal residence of Piramesse.
This city was in the last years of its existence, for it was soon to be dismantled to provide stone for the construction of Tanis]. Herihor, the third member was the one who controlled the armies of Upper Egypt and Nubia. By the death of Ramses XI, power was eventually divided between Upper and Lower Egypt. In the North, Smendes founded a new royal dynasty and established a new capital, Tanis. In the south, the chief priests of Amun had all control and authority, with the base of their regime as the temple estate of Amun, which was ultimately the only true beneficiary of the immense empire created by the Ramesside Kings. By the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, the Temple of Amun had become wealthier and more powerful than the king himself. After Ramses III's death, Egyptians finally lost their provinces in Palestine and Syria, which after the invasion of the Sea Peoples and the disappearance of the Hittite Empire had broken up into several small states. Problems in the North had been made worse by the gradual sanding-up of the harbor of Piramesse owing to the slow but inexorable eastward shift of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile.
The kings of the Twentieth Dynasty no longer possessed the power or the resources to mount major expeditions to the gold mines in Nubia. Towards the end of the dynasty, the treasury of the Temple of Amun sent some small-scale expeditions to the Eastern Desert in search of gold and minerals, but the quantities with which they came back were small. During the years of the renaissance, Piankh and his successors, assisted by the descendants of the workmen of Deir El-Medinet who were now living at Medinet Habu, began to use a different source of gold and precious stones: the same tombs in the Valley of the Kings that their fathers and grandfathers had carved and decorated, as well as many other tombs (both royal and private) in the Theban necropolis.
Over the next century and later, the tombs were gradually despoiled of their gold and other valuables: eventually they would be emptied out completely, and even the mummies of the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom would be unwrapped and stripped of their precious amulets and other trappings and reburied together in an anonymous tomb in the Theban cliffs. Only two royal mummies would escape this fate: a mummy of Tutankhamun (in KV 62) and another of his father Akhenaten (in KV 55).