Ancient history

Sesostris III, the conquering pharaoh

Fragmentary portrait of the elderly Sesostris III. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York • WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When Sesostris III ascended the throne around 1878-1872 BC. J.-C., the pharaohs of the XII th dynasty (c. 1991-1784 BC) failed to recapture the imposing grandeur of the Old Kingdom. They still build pyramids, but they do not rival in size or technical perfection those of the distant rulers of the IV th dynasty… Yet they managed to take advantage of the reunification of Egypt, after the partitions of the First Intermediate Period, to once again solidly assure the power of the State.

Sesostris III asserts himself as the major architect of this recovery, both through a change in domestic policy reducing the power of the regional aristocracy in favor of a more marked centralization, and through a foreign policy turned towards the extension of the borders of the Empire. His great merit is indeed to have undertaken to definitively settle a problem which his predecessors had already tackled:the subjugation of Nubia, a rich region in direct contact with the southern border of Egypt.

The Mirage of Nubian Gold

The XII th dynasty was marked by a period of openness, during which the pharaohs conducted a much more developed foreign relations policy than before. Relations with "Asia", that is to say the Near East, are intensifying and, through it, those maintained with the world of the Aegean Sea. A few warlike expeditions, some perhaps as far as Cyprus, brought back considerable booty. They ensure the tributes paid by some city-states, and, more generally, the supply by constraint or by trade in materials and consumer goods that the Pharaonic civilization absolutely needed.

Egypt familiarizes itself with the "Asian" world and shines in it. In Byblos, a port on the Lebanese coast supplying timber, the local potentates became Egyptianized to the point of developing embryonic scripts inspired by hieroglyphs. Conversely, Egypt is opening up to more and more massive Asian immigration.

"I have established my border further south than that of my ancestors", boasted Sesostris III.

To the south, on the other hand, foreign policy is marked by an aggressiveness more due to necessity. The need for Egypt to exploit the gold mines of Nubia and to control access to African resources by the Nile or the desert, hindered the incessant agitations of the Nubian tribes, and especially the threats of the kingdom of Kush. This state, whose capital was Kerma, near the Third Cataract, had developed an advanced civilization based on the agricultural capabilities of Dongola.

The final subjugation of this region largely contributed to the development of the legend of Sesostris III until Roman times. It was certainly not an easy task, and however triumphalist the Egyptian sources were (the only ones available for the period), we guess that the Pharaoh had to deploy great means. He first had to facilitate the perilous passage of the first cataract of the Nile, the one that begins at Elephantine, by digging and then redeveloping a canal. From then on, he could bring the required forces to the spot. At least four campaigns – in the year 8, in the year 10, in the year 16 and in the year 19 of his reign – were necessary for him to make the annexation of Nubia effective. In order to perpetuate it, Sesostris III completed the defense system partially set up under his ancestor Sesostris I st .

Henceforth, from Buhen, downstream from the second cataract, stretched a chain of massive fortresses to that built near present-day Semna, and named "Khakaoure [the coronation name of Sesostris III] is powerful". Located in a narrowing of the Nile valley, already very narrow, halfway between the second and third cataracts, it now marked the new southern border of Egypt.

Propaganda stelae

The pharaoh added to the military device an ideological device thanks to the erection of stelae. Some forbade any Nubian to go down the river or to go north with arms and luggage, except if he was on a mission or if he came to trade in the counter installed downstream, at the foot of the fortress of Mirgissa. Others contained a proclamation put into the mouth of Sesostris III himself.

The pharaoh claimed to have established his border further south than that of his ancestors, thus satisfying the imperative of surpassing the predecessors which was imposed on the great pharaohs. He also enjoined his successors to have the same firmness vis-à-vis the Nubians that he had been able to display, the image he transmitted of himself through his stelae being, according to him, clean to stimulate them in the struggle to maintain the border.

This boasting, and especially the success of his enterprises and the successful annexation of Nubia, at least as long as a strong power in Egypt was maintained, earned the pharaoh immense posthumous glory. Throughout the territory he had acquired from Egypt, he was promoted to the rank of the deities that individuals invoked in their formula of offerings, and that the pharaohs of the 18th th dynasty (mid-16 th century to the middle of the 14 th century BC. J.-C.) made represent on the walls of the temples. Thus he rubs shoulders with the god Dédoun or the goddess Anoukis, as receiver of the rites celebrated by the king of the moment.

These honors are all the more remarkable since the deification of a pharaoh was an infrequent phenomenon when it was due to purely historical reasons, and not to the simple perpetuation of his maintenance cult in the restricted movement of his complex. funeral.

A legend on the move

But there is much more. The memory of the exploits of Sesostris III, mixed with those of other great kings like Sesostris I st and Ramses II, inspired a flowering of popular stories in Demotic, the state of the Egyptian language from the second half of the 7th century. century BC. J.-C., relaying the legend of Sesostris, the pharaoh who would have multiplied the conquests. This was so widespread that it fed the notes that many Greco-Latin authors devoted to Pharaonic Egypt. Herodotus, Diodorus of Sicily, Strabo, Pliny the Elder and others still accumulate under the name of "Sesostris" astonishing deeds, extraordinary anecdotes and marvelous adventures in the four corners of the vast world.

In this hodgepodge of nonsense, anachronisms, inconsistencies and confusions, we sometimes manage to discern the distorted echo of historical facts. Thus, when he credits Sesostris with having been the only Egyptian to govern Ethiopia, Herodotus relies on an authentic Egyptian tradition which recognized in Sesostris III the very real prowess of having completed the subjugation of Nubia.

Find out more
• Sesostris' Campaigns in Herodotus, C. Obsomer, Knowledge of Ancient Egypt, 1989.
• Sesostris III and the end of the XII th Dynasty, P. Tallet, Pygmalion, 2005.
• Sesostris III, pharaoh of legend, Collective. Catalog of the exhibition Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Snoeck Éditions, 2014.

Around 1878 BC.

Sesostris III succeeds his father Sesostris II, who built his pyramid at El-Lahun, at the entrance to the Fayoum oasis.
1870 BC.
Sesostris III, after redeveloping the channel of the first cataract, leads an expedition to Nubia.
1868 BC.
Sesostris III leads a new campaign to put down the rebellion of the Kingdom of Kush.
1862 BC.
The situation calls for a new military expedition. The fortress of Ouronarti is completed.
1859 BC.
Ultimate expedition to Nubia and continuation of administrative reforms. Sesostris III has two funerary complexes:his pyramid, in the plain of Memphis, and his tomb dug under a pyramid-shaped mountain, in Abydos.

A pharaoh more human than divine
In general, the portraits of kings tend towards an idealization that makes them seem frozen in a rather impersonal hieraticism. The statuary of Sesostris III contrasts insofar as the face is rendered more expressively. Among other things, two depressions starting from the ends of the orbits and deviating obliquely, parallel to the wings of the nose, and especially the pursed lips and the lowering of the commissures in a skeptical pout, suggest a pharaoh who was not very communicative, severe and disillusioned, even bitter. Much has been said about what could appear to be a tendency towards a more marked individualization of the royal portrait, even to discern in it the stigmata of the political difficulties that Sesostris III had to face. In fact, it is above all an evolution in the way in which ideology expresses through sculpture the qualities required by the function of pharaoh.

Nubian Gold Adornments
Sesostris III had established one of his two funerary complexes at Dahshour, in the plain of Memphis. It was excavated by Jacques de Morgan, who discovered the tomb of Princess Sat-Hathor, probably a sister of the pharaoh. The tomb had been looted, but in an adjoining pit lay a box containing the princess's jewels. Another tomb had been set up for Queen Meret and, again in an adjoining pit, the Queen's jewels had been placed. In the pyramid which was the center of this funerary complex, the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie brought to light a third collection of jewels and precious objects. They belonged to another sister of Sesostris III, Princess Sat-Hathor-Iounet ("Iounet" is an epithet to distinguish her from her sister Sat-Hathor). All these treasures are in the Cairo Museum.

Bouhen, fortress of Nubia
Bouhen is located a little downstream from the second cataract, on the west bank of the Nile. Sesostris III reinforced the existing defenses in this place, long considered strategic, by building a monumental fortress, equipped with a powerful fortified enclosure. The city, with its temple dedicated to Horus, still retained its importance in the 18 th dynasty. The heart of the fortress was protected by an enclosure measuring 150 meters by 170 meters. It included various buildings and a temple. The fort had rectangular towers and defensive bastions. Fortified gates, located on the eastern flank of the fortress, opened onto the Nile. They had two moles between which you had to pass to access the opening. A drawbridge bridged the 3-meter-deep moat. The massive stepped outer walls, built of raw brick, were 4 meters thick and 11 meters high on average. They were reinforced by bastions. In the heart of the fortress had been built a temple dedicated to Horus. It was dismantled and transported to the Khartoum museum to remove it from the waters of Lake Nasser, after the construction of the Aswan dam. The fortress of Buhen was in service from the XII th in the XVIII th dynasty. 3,500 to 4,000 people could live there. Discovered in the 19 th century, it was only systematically excavated during the rescue of the monuments of Nubia threatened by the construction of the Aswan dam.