Sunday, September 1, 2019

Wehem Meset: Letters From the Apocalypse

(America is to the left. This is quite a pedal.)
Edgar Dewdney's bid for an 1861 contract to link (Fort) Hope with Fort Steele (Cranbrook) via a 720km road running over the Allison Summit to join gold strikes along the Similkameen, at Rock Creek, and in the East Kootenays, amounted to less than $100,000 all found. It was completed in five years (by a subcontractor --I would bet that there is more to Dewdney's story than the official narrative suggests), and required a crew of fewer than 70 men.

Now, things were different, one era from another. The trail was specified as 1.5m, and, with the beginning of the Iron Age in mind in this post, it is worth noting that it was built with iron tools and intended for mule trains.

Dewdney's team built up Anarchist Mountain, so that they could strike down from the top towards Rock Creek on the Kettle while avoiding the United States, which starts roughly at that ridge to the left in this picture. I doubt that the mules thanked them for their service to the Crown. Masochistic bicyclists, on the other hand, are grateful.

Speaking of, in preparation for tackling the Anarchist, I took last Wednesday off, about which in general I will say no more except that Keremeos is a nice town; Osoyoos Taxi is good people; and the Adriatic Motel needs better internet. However, the motel is nicely located for a quick tour of the beaches on the west side of Osoyoos Lake, and I do need to say this: There are a fuck of a lot of people on the  beaches of the Okanagan as I write. They will be returning tomorrow for the new school year. Due to the way that our landlord is tearing up all road access to the Oakridge Mall to reroute the stream that the builders of 1959 saw fit to erect the mall over, it is not clear how many of the returning hoards will be shopping at my labour-starved store, but it is not unreasonable to fear a retail apocalypse, beginning this afternoon. 

So, anyway,trade, trails, iron, apocalypses: Welcome to the 19th year of Ramesses XI (r. 1107-- 1077.) 

A chatty and communicative ruler, Ramesses has a great deal to share with us, which seems like an unusual hobby for a Dark Age. Hence, letters from the apocalypse. 

Ramesses XI was the tenth and last king of the Twentieth Dynasty (1189-1077BC), which we will recognise as the age of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Egypt is not to escape the general apocalypse. The Twentieth Dynasty is deemed to be the last of the New Kingdom, with the Third Intermediate Period following directly. In the Egyptological tradition, the Third Intermediate Period, with its barbaric Libyan and Kushite kings ruling a partitioned land, is deemed an Egyptian Dark Age, although by comparison with the Greek Dark Age or, indeed, many other areas, this seems a bit harsh. --Hegelian state-worship, even.

The Twentieth Dynasty is still generally deemed to be a bad time for Egypt. It is certainly a difficult time for a historian, with eight kings named "Ramesses" following on the dynastic founder, Setnakhe and his son, Ramesses III (r. 1186--1155). Seven kings in 48 years is NOT a good sign in a table of dynastic successions. Ramesses III is known to have died in an attempted coup by one of his queens. The legitimate heir succeeded as Ramesses IV, but it has been  suggested that Ramesses XI was related to the intended beneficiary of the coup and a son of Ramesses III. Certainly, something was deeply wrong with Egyptian society. On the one hand, constant strikes roiled the communities of mortuary workers who served the Valley of the Kings.

Issues included a failure to provide supplies, attacks by Libyan raiders, and threats from "the people."  

On the other, the Temple of Amun at Thebes, established by Ahmose at the beginning of the New Kingdom, had developed into the main landowner in the nation, with far more revenue than the state. Under Ramessesnakht, the Temple reached perhaps its apex of power, with the high priest able to lead an 8000-strong army to the turquoise mines of Sinai. It is therefore somewhat frustrating to be unable to say quite when he died. It seems reasonably clear that Pinehesy, viceroy of Kush,  marched north and expelled his son, Amenhotep, in 1088. Upon which Ramesses XI proclaimed the "Age of the Rebirth," the Wehem Meset. Although not the first pharaoh to use the phrase, the mid-reign programmatic change was a departure. (And perhaps significantly, the reign of his predecessor in Renaissance produced the other most cited piece of ancient Egyptian literature, the Story of Sinuhe.)

Amenhotep might have been restored to office after Pinehesy returned to Kush, but the records show two high priests of Amun active in rapid succession during the Wehem Meset. Egyptologists are divided over which came first, Herihor or Piankhe, with dire implications for dating key events of the Wehem Meset, and thus for autodidact bloggers trying to draw sweeping conclusion; but a reinterpretation of an obscure and difficult work of Egyptian literature, the Tale of Woe may provide a clue. Per G. Fecht's interpretation, Amenhotep and his immediate successors clung to power in the face of hostility from Pinehesy in Kush, who might have intervened in Year 10 of the Rebirth to bring the whole thing crashing down. 

In the mean time, we have quite an extraordinary array of literary sources from the decade (? twelve years at most) of the Wehem Meset, which tend to get recycled into histories of old Egypt without much emphasis on the narrow timeframe in which they originate. First of all is an inventory of "tomb robbery papyri" documenting investigations and trials of tomb robbers active in the Valley of the Kings during Twentieth Dynasty reigns that are difficult to pin down given the confusion over whether Herihor or Piankhe came first. It seems likely, however, that the robberies were in full swing during the reigns of Ramesses XI's predecessors going back to Ramesses III, and continued into the Wehem Meset. In a further escalation of the implied background of disorder, many of these texts were offered for sale to the state by "the people" in Year 6. Ad Thijs (the perfect name for a scholar of the period!) is more interested in dating details, but his picture of the papyri as having been stolen during Pinehesy's attack on the high priest and restored in Year 6. One of the documents that may have been returned in Year 6, the Abbott Papyrus, was less an investigation than an attack on Paser, mayor of the west bank of Thebes, by Pawero, mayor of the east bank. The upshot here is that, inasmuch as Tuntankhamun's tomb was found to contain a ton(!) of gold and vastly more bronze, there are significant economic implications of this activity, if the tombs listed as looted in these proceedings contained hoards of anything like the same magnitude. 

All of this has been obvious for years. If the New Kingdom was carrying out an extraordinary operation in sterilising the output of the old world's bullion, tin and copper mines by burying all of that metal, then an explosion of tomb robbing would have had serious consequences. Not only that, but the 1881 discovery of a cache of more than 50 royal mummies, including 10 pharaohs, at Tomb DB320 in the Valley of the Kings is what every cynic was more-or-less waiting for. Pinedjem II, high priest of Amun and de facto ruler of Upper Egypt from 990--969BC, out of an abundance of reverence for the kings who came before him, orchestrated what appears to have been the looting, or final looting, of some fifty tombs. With affecting piety, his workers even inscribed the mummies with full records of their travels, after unwrapping them to remove every last piece of grave jewelry. 

Like the Nineteenth Century rediscoverers of DB320 after him, Pinedjem could console hiimself with the moral superiority of his state-, and religion-sanctioned office. Spare a tear for Emil Brugsch, trapped underground at DB320 and orchestrating its frenzied stripping over a week in 1881, all the while panicking lest the brothers of Abd  el-Rassul, whom he had personally participated in torturing, arrive in company of some local banditti to assert the rights of private tomb-robbers over the state sponsored kind. Brugsch and Pinedjem were looting officially. I think it unlikely that Pinedjem's workers recovered anything like 10 tons of gold. They certainly weren't as successful at state-building as Brugsch and his comrades at the Egyptian Antiquities Service. But there might be wider implications. 

Just as the Story of Sinuhe helps us understand that even the ancient Egyptians had a white saviour complex
(Because "Ad Thjis" reminds me of "Dejah Thoris.") 

so the The Misadventures of Wenamun lets us know that they got to the picaresque first. In this document, found with The Tale of Woe and the Onomasticon of Amenope, Wenamun, servant of the Temple of Amun, sets out to secure timber with which to build a new sacred vessel for the cult image of Amun. Setting out either in Year 5 of the Renaissance, or sometime afterwards, depending on whether Herihor or Piankhe comes first, Wenamun sails to Byblos to receive a gift of cedar wood, as was done in the old times. Dispatched by Herihor and received along the way at Tanis by Smendes, at this point identified by the novel title of "overseer of the country,"Wenamun's voyage begins to go wrong after he enters foreign lands and begins to interact with kings. One of the more extraordinary things about the Misadventures is that  no pharaoh appears on the Egyptian side. Byblos is being asked to do a favour for Amun, not the ruler of Egypt. As it wouldn't be much of a story if Byblos complied, King Zakaar-Baal refuses. Finally, Wenamun, having been robbed in Dor, humiliated in Byblos, and threatened with an angry mob on Cyprus, is welcomed into the protection of Hatbi, a princess in that land. "Be at rest," she tells the wandering servant of Amun, at which point the papyrus either halts or comes to a resolution that escapes our grasp. 

Since there's not exactly a lot of narrative from this period, the Misadventures show up fairly frequently in attempts to grasp the nature of Late Bronze Age long distance trade. The discovery of multiple shipwrecks beginning with  the Cape Gelidonya wreck in 1950 establishes that people were shipping very large quantities of copper and tin on very small boats, at which point we either arrive at an impasse or turn to the Misadventures. This seems like an abuse of a self-consciously literary work that might not have taken its final form until the 920s, in which case it might just as easily described tenth century as eleventh century conditions. But what else are you going to do? Ignore it?

While, frankly, that would be my temptation, I'm not the one with an enormous OUP  contract to produce a sumptuously illustrated history of the Mediterranean from earliest times to the dawn of the Classical era. And in fairness to Professor Broodbank, he is not responsible for the fact that I have a copy of his book to thumb and take potshots at, nor is he inclined to place much weight on the Misadventures. It is just that, once again, what else have we?

So to single out what a narrative, Broodbank's essential conception of the transition that is frustrating Wenamun is one between palatial economies and sanctuaries. In another nod to great literature of old, Broodbank refers to Braudel's Mediterranean "caboteurs," maritime nomads or tramp sailors who live on their ships and make small profits in each port by trading or crafting. Braudel is specifically imagining the Cape Gelidonya ship in this context. Subsequent scholarship sees that wreck as directly sponsored by the King of Alashiya --it is just too rich. Broodbank argues that Wenamun sets out from the Nile mouth in the tradition of the Gelidonya wreck, and arrives in a world  where Braudel's caboteurs exist. The palatial economies of the Nineteenth Dynasty still controlled the world's metal stockpiles. Trade was controlled by kings. In the new world, Broodbank trade is guaranteed by "sanctuaries."

It is not that these religious institutions need to be seen as new things. What is important is that working hoards recovered at Early Iron Age sanctuaries show that metal stocks have become too common, and have escaped central control. The palatial economy is done. I'm a bit ambivalent about the temple of Amun at Karnak in Thebes. Is it a "sanctuary?" Or something else? The sanctuaries of the Iron Age tend to be about mobility. They mark boundaries --between states, between cultures, between wild and sown, city and rural. They mediate cultural differences and, perhaps, lend money. Hasn't Hans van Wees reminded us that state taxation in the early Athenian state begins with the "ham collectors" charged with taking choice cuts of animal sacrifices as the city's portion? The temple of Amun is an important financial institution, too; but that is because it controls the land, not because it taxes sacrifices. It seems more central than sanctuary, more like a state in itself than an institution through which the state governs.

Two things, then, to end with. First, while I hardly fell qualified to comment in any depth on the Onomasticon of Amenope, an attempt to organise all significant knowledge that just happens to have been shelved with the other texts we've been relying on can't exactly be ignored:
The text begins with the following introductory heading, which outlines its encyclopedic contents:
"Beginning of the teaching for clearing the mind, for instruction of the ignorant and for learning all things that exist: what Ptah created, what Thoth copied down, heaven with its affairs, Earth and what is in it, what the mountains belch forth, what is watered by the flood, all things upon which Re has shone, all that is grown on the back of earth, excogitated by the scribe of the sacred books in the House of Life, Amenope, son of Amenope. HE SAID:—"[6]
What follows is a series of 610 individual entires separated into a number of discrete categories. Scholars have argued that the "degree of order" within the text "can be exaggerated"[3] but rubrics are used throughout to mark divisions. Egyptologist Alan Gardiner summarized the contents as follows:
  1. Introductory Heading
  2. Sky, water, earth (1-62)
  3. Persons, courts, offices occupations (63-229)
  4. Classes, tribes, and types of human being (230-312)
  5. The towns of Egypt (313-419)
  6. Buildings, their parts, and types of land (420-73)
  7. Agricultural land, cereals and their products (474-555)
  8. Beverages (556-78)
  9. Parts of an ox and kinds of meat (579-610)

(From Wikipedia). See? See how knowledge descends from the universal to the particular, but also from the abstract to the relevant? See how it culminates with the details of butchering an ox? People are trying to tell us something. I think that it is about the new centrality of cult sacrifice by private actors in sanctuaries. 

Second, we do not know for sure how the Wehem Meset ended. Piankhe left Thebes to "meet" Pinuhe in Kush. With an army? There are clues here that the "high priests of Amun" were much more exactly army leaders than holy men, rather as the turbulent figures of the late Roman Republic added priestly office to secular in their power struggles. That doesn't mean that this is what the text is saying. Perhaps it was an attempt to reconcile with Pinuhe, who appears to have survived the encounter.  Perhaps it was the end for Ramesses.

What we do know is that perhaps directly afterwards, and perhaps a year or more later, the body of Ramesses XI arrived in the palace of Smendes (and his wife, Ramesses XI's daughter) in Tanis. Smendes buried the former king, and became, by Egyptian tradition, the new pharaoh and progenitor of a new dynasty, albeit one confined to Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt was left to the high priests of Amun, while the border country came under the control of Pinuhe and his successors, we speak of the Third Intermediate Period, which is where I came in.
They are intact burials, too, not that anyone but egyptologists
care on account of there not being any treasure buried with them.
By Jon Bodsworth -,
Copyrighted free use,

Except for one tiny detail: Ramesses XI was buried within the temenos, the sacred boundary of the urban sanctuary of Amun at Tanis. This grew into a very substantial necropolis as later kings of the Third Intermediate Period were buried in proximity, but calling it that elides the fact that burial within an urban temenos is a very different way of honouring the royal dead than the creation of a necropolis out on the desert beyond the boundary of wild and sown. 

If this distinction can be sustained, then the interment of Ramesses XI is of a piece with the return of excarnation and the revival of cremation. It is a  new ways of disposing of the dead parallel in conception, if completely unlike in execution, to that we've seen elsewhere at the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition. 

What's going on? Well, technically, it is a lot easier to bury people, as it is easier to do most things, with iron tools. If that's not too utilitarian a context in which to frame a change of mental frameworks,  I can also return to the idea of sanctuary replacing palaces. This one is a bit iffy, in that the excarnation rites that Niall Sharples documents in Wessex, while the arrival in the Mediterranean of Urnfield cremation burials practice, as important as it seems to Broodbank (and to me) can't be put in my model at all. It seems important, however. 

In some parts of the world, the Late Bronze Age Collapse looks like an apocalypse. In Egypt, where there is a surviving literary tradition, we see what might well be a managed change. The difference here might be as simple as the survival of the state, and the issue at stake would then be reframing the relationship of palace and mortuary temple to one between palace and sanctuary. Anyway, it is nice to have someone trying to tell us what is going on, even if we have perhaps not been as attentive as we could be to the way in which they are trying to explain. Having letters that take us through the apocalypse gives us a little hope that there is something to look forward to after the scrabbling-for-the-last-drops-of-go-juice-in-the-Wastelands phase. And if there is, was it really an apocalypse in the first place?


  1. Just finished the second volume of John Romer's History of Egypt. He is careful to stress that one cannot fit Egyptian governance or economy into modern categories. There were no towns as such - just villages, upper-class households and temple complexes. Gold was not a medium of exchange (no money at all). The titles mostly don't convey what the person actually did (a lot of people seem to have been 'companions' - trusted administrators who were expected to turn their hands to whatever needed doing, whether organising some rock-shifting to performing an embassy to overseeing a district.

  2. Indeed, and it is likely that the same can be said for the Aegean civilisation or civlisations --even, perhaps, the Near East, depending on what we mean by temple complex.

    The transition from Bronze Age to Classical age, when we have to reckon with the political entity that is the city state is profound. Modern research seems to be coming round to the centrality of the "sanctuary" in all of this, which is a pretty tough conceptual row to hoe, since, if it is a new institution, we've obscured the fact behind the idea of a "temple." It's like the Dark Age "ecclesiastical settlement" in Britain --it's not a town, monastery or cathedral, but has a bit of all of those roles all wrapped up together.