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“Times of Transition: Herihor and the High Priests of Amun at the End of the New Kingdom” Jennifer Palmer (EEG Talk)

On Sunday Jennifer Palmer came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about Herihor, who was High Priest of Amun in the reign of Ramesses XI and also called himself King. This is a complicated period of Egyptian history and there are several different views among Egyptologists. Palmer was presenting us with both an overview of the controversies and also her own opinions on the subject.

She started by giving us some historical context for the time of Herihor who lived at the end of the 20th Dynasty (which is also the end of the New Kingdom). This dynasty consisted of the Pharaoh Sethnakhte followed by Ramesses III to XI. They all (except Ramesses XI) had fairly short reigns, and there were several invasions of Egypt during this time (for instance the invasion of the sea peoples during Ramesses III’s reign). This was also a period of internal chaos as shown by documentation of unrest at Deir el Medina, and many tomb robberies and thefts from temples during the reigns of Ramesses IX to XI. Ramesses XI reigned for 30 years, and at the end of his reign Egypt was split into two (practically speaking) with a Pharaoh in the North and the High Priest of Amun ruling in the South. In his Year 19 an alternative dating scheme was introduced starting with Year 1 of the Repeating of Births (also called the Renaissance), which ran for 10 or 12 years in parallel with the normal regnal years.

Palmer said there are several puzzle pieces of known people and events that need to be fitted together if we are to understand this period. These are: the “suppression of the High Priest of Amun Amenhotep”; “King” Herihor; High Priest of Amun Piankh; disruption at Thebes; the Rennaisance. Until the last few decades the accepted theory was that High Priest of Amun Amenhotep had rebelled against Ramesses XI and been removed from office. His successor was Herihor who had set himself up as a “King” but many Egyptologists considered this to be more “playing King” than truly ruling. Herihor was then thought to be succeeded by his son Piankh who only called himself High Priest of Amun. Herihor was considered a good candidate for the person who instigated the Rennaissance – perhaps these were his “regnal” years. Taken together this seemed to show Ramesses XI as a weak king who had lost control of the south of his country.

However this was based in large part on a mistranscription of a single relief – this names all of Herihor’s children (19 sons and a handful of daughters). As copied down by a 19th Century scholar it seemed to list a son called Piankh, but re-examination showed that this wasn’t the case. This means that the chronology isn’t fixed and is open to re-interpretation. The last few decades have seen heated debate between Egyptologists about how and whether to re-interpret the evidence for this period!

After this scene setting Palmer first discussed whether or not Herihor should be counted as a real King. The evidence against it seems to boil down to it being inconvenient for the assumed timeline (Herihor succeeded by Piankh). It is true that he isn’t widely attested, and isn’t named in Manetho’s history of Egypt but Palmer doesn’t see this as sufficient reason to discount him. There is also a suggestion that he didn’t use royal iconography, but a thorough survey of his iconography shows that he does use royal iconography when appropriate and priestly iconography when that is appropriate – as other Pharaohs did before and since. Palmer’s conclusion here is that any explanation of this period needs to take Herihor’s kingship into account rather than dismiss it.

So is this a power struggle with Ramesses XI, instigated initially by High Priest of Amun Amenhotep? Palmer thinks that a re-examination of the sources for Amenhotep’s so-called rebellion don’t support this idea. She noted that Amenhotep asked for Ramesses XI’s help during the suppression, which suggests that Ramesses XI wasn’t doing the suppressing! Her preferred explanation is that Amenhotep was forced out of power by someone unknown and this is the suppression the documents reference. Pharaoh sent the Viceroy of Nubia (Panehsy) to restore him, in Year 12, and later Panehsy himself was forced out (perhaps by Piankh who is documented as campaigning against him in Nubia later).

Palmer next talked about how the Renaissance fits in. This has previously been used to back up the idea that Herihor was “playing King while Ramesses XI wasn’t looking” – the new dating scheme is thought to be part of Herihor’s “rule”. However this isn’t something based on any sources. Palmer thinks it is more plausible that Ramesses XI himself instigated the date change. The years of the Renaissance are documented as directly linked to regnal years of Ramesses XI, which doesn’t suggest any sort of break with the Pharaoh. And there is precedent for Pharaohs using the rhetoric of a Renaissance when restoring order after a period of chaos – for instance Seti I does so at the beginning of his reign (which is just after the Amarna period). There is also documentary evidence for Ramesses XI visiting Thebes in the early years of the Renaissance – which suggests he was still in control of Upper Egypt during this time.

So how do we fit Herihor in? Palmer suggests that he doesn’t call himself King until after Ramesses XI died. The timeline would then be: High Priest of Amun Amenhotep -> High Priest of Amun Piankh -> High Priest of Amun Herihor until Year 34 of Ramesses XI -> King Herihor (after Ramesses XI died) -> King Pinudjem I.

There are still a couple of things that need to be explained if this timeline is correct – and Palmer discussed those next. One of these is the dates that Herihor and Piankh are attested in. Egyptian dates are normally regnal years of a particular Pharaoh, but often the Pharaoh isn’t named, which is inconvenient for Egyptologists! Herihor is attested in a Year 5 and a Year 6, Piankh is attested in a Year 6 and a Year 7, and Year 10 of the Renaissance. So this seems to make perfect sense with the older idea of the chronology of these two men, and less sense for Palmer’s new chronology. Her theory after re-examining the evidence is that Herihor (and later Pinudjem I) are dating using the regnal years of the Pharaohs in Lower Egypt; whilst Piankh is using Ramesses XI’s regnal years when he’s not using the Renaissance dating.

The other thing that needs explanation is how come Herihor reigned between Piankh and Pinudjem I. It’s known that Pinudjem I was Piankh’s son, so why didn’t he succeed immediately – and why didn’t one of Herihor’s many sons succeed him? To explain this Palmer looked at the wives or mothers of these men. Herihor’s wife is a woman called Nodjmet, who is given the title King’s Mother (rather oddly one might think at first glance, as none of Herihor’s children became King). There are also letters from Piankh to Nodjmet in a fairly intimate style, and they are clearly very close. Piankh’s wife and Pinudjem’s mother is known only from an initial in a damaged graffito – which has been read as Ḥ but Palmer suggests that ndm is another possible reading, which is the beginning of Nodmjet’s name (the hieroglyphs in question are similar shapes and it is a damaged text). If that is the case then perhaps Piankh was married to Nodjmet before Herihor was? Palmer speculates that Piankh may’ve died unexpectedly (he was campaigning in Nubia shortly before he vanishes from the record, which may be an explanation). If his children were young, then there would be a power vacuum – and perhaps Herihor stepped in as a Piankh supporter to ensure the eventual succession of Piankh’s children, marrying Nodjmet to legitimise his assumption of the High Priest of Amun role.

Palmer’s conclusion is that the evidence is stronger for Herihor to be Piankh’s successor than his predecessor, and she believes that if the misreading of the list of Herihor’s children hadn’t happened in the 19th Century then no-one would be suggesting otherwise. She also believes that Ramesses XI wasn’t as weak a king as he is generally portrayed – he retained control of the country during his lifetime, and after his death the partition into two pieces went smoothly with both parts retaining close links (and using the Lower Egypt regnal years for a common dating scheme).

This was a fascinating talk, about a very confusing section of Egyptian history – I was glad I’d taken notes rather than relying on my memory as I usually do! I’m not sure my write-up makes it obvious, but Palmer was assiduous in explaining all the theories as well as her own one, and giving the evidence for and against them as she saw it.