The Papyrus Harris

By Megaera Lorenz

    The Papyrus Harris, the largest extant ancient Egyptian papyrus, dates to early in the reign of Ramesses IV, the successor of Ramesses III. The document is unique not only in its size, but also in its remarkable abundance of valuable historical documentation.
    The Papyrus Harris is essentially a summary of the important events of Ramesses III's reign, prepared by Ramesses IV, but written from the point of view of Ramesses III. Breasted (1906: 92) divides the Papyrus up into seven basic sections. The first is an introduction stating the ending date of Ramesses III's reign, along with his name and titles, and the purpose and dedication of the document (Breasted 1906: 110-111). The next three sections detail the contributions made by the king to the townships of Thebes, Heliopolis and Memphis, respectively, along with dedicatory prayers to the gods of these towns and lists of donations made by the king to the local temples (Breasted 1906: 111-177). Following is a general section detailing the king's contributions to smaller temples (Breasted 1906: 177-191), and a summary of the total contributions made by Ramesses III (192-198).
    Section VII is the historical section, recounting the accession of the king, his organizational policies, his military campaigns, and his death (Breasted 1906: 198-206).
    The Sea Peoples are mentioned in the historical section in the context of the northern wars of year 8 (Breasted 1906: 201). Ramesses describes the northerners as invaders of Egypt's borders, and describes their place of origin as "islands." The specific peoples mentioned in the text are Danuna, Tjekker, Peleset, Shardana and Weshesh.  The Shardana and Weshesh are singled out as being "of the sea," which is consistent with their depiction in other sources of the time as oceanic nomads and pirates (Redford 1992: 244).
    The most interesting aspect of this brief passage on the year 8 battles is the description of the fate of the Sea Peoples. Ramesses tells us that, having brought the imprisoned Sea Peoples to Egypt, he "settled them in strongholds, bound in my name. Numerous were their classes like hundred-thousands. I taxed them all, in clothing and grain from the storehouses and granaries each year" (Breasted 1906: 201).  It is likely that these "strongholds" were actually fortified towns in Canaan -- that is, the towns that would eventually become the Philistine Pentapolis (Redford 1992: 289).
    The Papyrus Harris passage concerning the Sea Peoples, while largely overlapping with the information provided in the Medinet Habu inscriptions, also provides some important details lacking in the Medinet Habu texts. Both sources taken together provide the most complete historical picture of the Sea Peoples at the end of the 13th century BCE.


Papyrus Harris, Ramesses III-IV, late 13th century-early 12th century BCE. Pp. 110-206 in:

Breasted, J. H.
   2001/1906   Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 4. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Redford, D. B.
    1992   Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.