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Egypt: History - Dynasty XXV (Twenty-fifth Dynasty)


Twenty-fifth Dynasty


Whether Bochchoris was taken captive by Sabacon (Shabako) and burned alive, as Manetho would have us believe, we have no means of knowing. However, it is certain that this younger brother of Pi'ankhy conquered the whole of Egypt, and established himself there as a genuine Egyptian Pharaoh. The texts of Sargon appear to indicate 711 B.C. as the likely date. Shabako reigned at least fourteen years, when he was succeeded by Shebitku (Sebichos in Manetho). We must assume he held the throne until the accession of Taharka (Tarcos) in 689 B.C., this date fixed by Apis stele. Considering the combined length of these two reigns, it is strange how seldom the names of Shabako and Shebitku are encountered. Apart from the pyramids at Kurru where they were buried and from a horse-cemetery in the same place, their Nubian home has hardly a trace of them to show. There are some indications that Shabako made Memphis his capital, but Thebes also testifies to his building activities. At Karnak and Medinet Habu, there are chapels erected by the same king . There was the less need for the Ethiopian monarchs to keep guard over the temple of their revered god Amen-Re' since their political power at the southern capital was otherwise represented. An essential feature of late Egyptian history is the importance gained by the royal princesses who bore the titles of 'God's Wife of Amun', 'Adorer of the God', or 'Hand of the God'. In earlier days, the epithet 'God's Wife' was commonly accorded to the Pharaoh's spouse, and doubtless carried with it a religious significance that remains to be determined. From Dyn. XXI onwards. However, this epithet was transferred to a king's daughter who became the consecrated wife of the Theban god, and to whom human intercourse was strictly forbidden. Such a one appears to have been earlier Ma'kare' believed to have been the daughter of the Tanite king Psusennes I. Her mummy was found in the Der el-Bahri cache, accompanied by that of an infant which suggests that she had died in childbirth after having offended against the rule of chastity imposed on her. It was only at the beginning of the Ethiopian supremacy, however, that the appointment of a God's Wife became a deliberate instrument of policy, and for this to happen the device of adoption had to be brought into play. Thus Kashta, who before Pi'ankhy had presumably made himself master of the Thebais, caused his daughter of the last Osorkon, and this Amonortais served again as adoptive mother to a second Shepenwepe, the daughter of King Pi'ankhy. Such a God's Wife wielded great influence, and was to all intents and purposes the equal of the king her father. She not only had great estates and officials of her own, but also being authorized to make offerings to the gods, a right elsewhere reserved for Pharaoh himself. The main limitation to her authority was that it was confined to Thebes, where she lived and died, at the end obtaining a burial-place near the temple of Der el-Medina.


The absence of the names of Shabako and Shebitky from the Assyrian and the Hebrew records is no less remarkable that the scarcity of their monuments in the lands over which they extended their sway. It is all the more interesting to find Sabacos mentioned by Herodotus as an Ethiopian whose army drove a rival Pharaoh into the fen-country of the Delta. This marks the point at which the Greek historian begins to show some knowledge of the true sequence of events, though his account never liberates itself from that fanciful anecdotal character which was as great a delight to him as it is to us. With the accession of Taharka, the brother and successor of Shebitku, our documentation becomes abundant. The excavations of F. Ll. Griffith at Kawa midway between the Third and Fourth Cataracts brought to light no less than five great stele. For the most part very well preserved, recounting the occurrences of his early years and the donations which he made to the temple in which they were found. Fragmentary duplicates of the most important of these stele have been found at Mata'ana, at Coptos, and at Tanis, showing that Taharka was nothing loath to publicize his fortunes and his achievements. We learn that at the age of twenty, he and others of the king's brothers were sent for from Nubia to join Shebitku at Thebes, where he quickly won the later's special affection. After Shebitku's death, he was crowned at Memphis and his first act was to remember the ruinous state of the temple of Kawa as he had seen it on his way to Egypt. His restorations and the multitudinous gifts which he heaped upon the local god Amen-Re' attest the devotion which he continued to feel towards the country of his birth. Of particular interest is the mention of 'wives of the princess of Lower Egypt' and of 'children of the princes of the Tjehnu' whom he transported thither as temple-servants, since this seems to imply victories over the mainly Libyan rival princes in the Delta. The sixth year of his reign was for him an annus mirabilis, a specially high Nile in Egypt itself and heavy rain in Nubia providing both lands with exceptional harvests and great prosperity. In that same year, he welcomed to Memphis his mother Abar whom he had not seen since his departure from Nubia. Characteristically, all these hieroglyphic memorials paint a roseate picture. There is no hint of the disasters which Taharka had actually to face. The buildings which he initiated at Karnak and at Medinet Habu prove that in the long-stretched Nile Valley works of peace were still possible even in a period of vital danger from the north-east.

The smoldering hostility of the two great powers flared up afresh under Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.), whose third campaign started with the subjugation of the Phoenician coast-towns. Trouble had, however, arisen farther south. The people of the Philistine city of Ekron had expelled their king Padi on account of his loyalty to Assyria, but Hezekiah of Judah who had received and imprisoned him became afraid and appealed to Egypt for help. A great defeat was inflicted on the Egyptian and Ethiopian forces at Eltekeh. Padi's throne was restored to him. Many towns of Judah were ravaged, though Jerusalem was not taken. To avoid this, Hezekiah submitted to pay a heavy tribute. It has been much disputed whether this was Sennacherib's sole clash with Egypt, but a straightforward reading of 2 Kings xix. 8-35 demands that there was another. It is there recounted that 'Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia', had come out to fight against the Assyrians, but that the angel of the Lord had smitten a vast multitude of them in the night, so that in the morning 'they were all dead corpses'. The next two verses state that Sennacherib thereupon returned to Nineveh and dwelt there until he was assassinated. In the fantastic but amusing account that Herodotus gives of this abortive attack upon Egypt, the Assyrians retreat after reaching Pelusium was due, not to plague as the Old Testament suggests, but to swarms of mice who ate up the invaders' quivers and bows. Since Taharka succeeded Shebitku only in 689 B.C., he cannot well have been the enemy whom Sennacherib defeated at Eltekeh. Short of denying the accuracy of the Biblical story, we must suppose that he aimed at following up that victory by a later blow, which, however, circumstances prevented. The enemies will not have met.

It had long become clear that a decision between the equally pernicious Assyrian and Ethiopian rulers would have to be reached, but in point of fact there was a third party to the dispute and it was with this that the ultimate victory was destined to lie. As in the time of Pi'ankhy Lower Egypt and a part of Middle Egypt had disintegrated into a number of petty princedoms always ready to side with whichever of the two great powers would be the more likely to leave them their independence. One of these was to prevail before long, but for the moment it was Assyria which held the upper hand. Esarhaddon (680-669 B.C.), the son of Sennacherib, continued his father's aggressive policy with even greater success. The Egyptian records are silent, but stele and tablets inscribed in cuneiform give circumstantial accounts of the campaign in which, after subjugating Syria, he drove Taharka reeling back to the south. Here is a shortened excerpt from the best preserved of his inscriptions:

From the town of Ishhupri as far as Memphis, a distance of fifteen days, I fought daily very bloody battles against Tarky, king of Egypt and Ethiopia, the one accursed by all the great gods. Five times I hit him with the point of my arrows inflicting wounds, and then I laid siege to Memphis, his royal residence; I destroyed it, tore down its walls, and burnt it down.

After mentioning the booty which he carried off to Assyria he continues:

All Ethiopians I deported from Egypt, leaving not even one to do homage to me. Everywhere in Egypt I appointed new kings, governors, officers, harbor overseers, officials, and administrative personnel.

Soon after setting out for a further campaign, Esarhaddon fell ill at Harran and died, enabling Taharka to regain Memphis and to occupy it until driven out afresh in Ashurbanipal's first campaign (667 B.C.). The new Assyrian king found that 'the kings, governors, and regents' whom his father had appointed in Egypt had fled and needed to be reinstalled. The famous Rassam cylinder gives an invaluable list of these petty princes, naming all the more important Delta towns besides others farther south such as Heracleopolis, Hermopolis, and Asyut. Thebes (Ni) was occupied for the first time, but only to be surrendered temporarily:

The terror of the sacred weapon of Ashur, my lord, overcame Tarku where he had taken refuge and he was never heard of again. Afterwards Urdamane, son of Shabako, sat down on the throne of his kingdom. He mad Thebes and Heliopolis his fortresses and assembled his armed might.

The narrative goes on to tell that Urdamane, the name given by the Assyrians to the Ethiopian king Tanuatamun, reoccupied Memphis, and it was not until Ashurbanipal returned from Nineveh and started upon his second campaign that the Ethiopian abandoned first Memphis and then Thebes and 'fled to Kipkipi'. That was the last of him so far as the cuneiform records are concerned. Ashurbanipal claims to have conquered Thebes completely and to have carried away to Niniveh a vast booty, but that appears to have been his final appearance in Egypt (663 B.C.). Before describing the arrangements which he had made for reducing the Delta to vassalage, we must follow up the fortunes of Tanuatamun so far as any light is thrown upon them in the Egyptian records.

Found at Gebel Barkal at the same time as the great inscription of Pi'ankhy is one of the reign of Tanuatamun known as the Dream Stele. The facts recorded are the same as those of the cuneiform cylinder above quoted, but it would be difficult to find a great contrast that of the two presentations. Both tell a tale of triumph, but in the one case the victor is Ashurbanipal, in the other Tanuatamun. The Ethiopian relates how, in the first year of his reign, he saw in a dream two snakes, one on his right hand, the other on his left, and this was interpreted to him in the following words:

Upper Egypt belongs to thee, take to thyself Lower Egypt. The Vulture and Uraeus goddesses have appeared on thy head, and the land is given to thee in its length and breadth, and none shall share with thee.

Then Tanuatamun 'arose upon the seat of Horus in this year and went forth from the place where he was even as Horus went forth from Chemmis', and proceeded unopposed to Napata where he made a great feast to Amen-Re'. Faring downstream, he did similar homage to Chnum of Elephantine and to the Amen-Re' of Thebes. On the way to Memphis, he was welcomed everywhere with great rejoicing, and on arrival at the northern capital

the Children of Rebellion came forth to fight with His Majesty, and His Majesty mad a great slaughter among them, their number is unknown.

Thus Tanuatamun took Memphis and made offerings to Ptah and the other gods of the city, after which he sent a command to Napata to build a great portal there in token of his gratitude.

Before commenting upon the story, as here told, it will be as well to summarize with some extracts the rest of Tanuatamun's stele. Next we read:

After this His Majesty fared downstream to fight with the princes of Lower Egypt. Then they entered within their walls, like...entering into their holes. Thereupon His Majesty spent many days beside them. and not one of them came forth to fight with him.

So Tanuatamun returned to Memphis, there to cogitate on his next step. A message then came saying that the princes were ready to wait upon him, and on his asking whether they wished to fight or if they wished to become his servants they assented to the latter course. Thereupon, they were admitted to the palace, where the king told them that victory had been promised him by his god Amun of Napata. In their reply the prince of Pi-Sopd acts as their spokesman, and all undertake to serve him loyally. After being entertained at a banquet, they ask to be allowed to return to their towns so as to get on with their agricultural labors. They then disperse and the inscription comes to an abrupt end.

There is probably much truth in both the Assyrian and the Ethiopian accounts, but the way in which they dovetail into one another is not altogether clear. Taharka and Tanuatamun are mentioned together on a building at Thebes, but there is no reason to suppose a co-regency. Of Taharka's end all we know is that he returned Napata and was buried at Nuri, a short distance to the south. Tanuatamun's successful occupation of Memphis and his reconciliation with the Delta princes preceded Ashurbanipal's thrust southwards to Thebes, but his end was not yet. At Thebes all through these troubled times a man of great ability managed to retain the practical power side by side with the God's Wife, Shepenwepe II, a sister of Taharka. Mentemhe is first mentioned in the Rassam cylinder of Ashrubanipal, where he figures as 'king of Thebes'. In point of fact he was only the 'fourth prophet of Amun', though descended from a distinguished priestly family. However, it is certain that he altogether overshadowed the 'first prophet'. His grandfather bore the title of 'Vizier', while his father Nesptah was merely the 'mayor of Ne' (Thebes). His monuments are numerous, naturally for the most part confined to Thebes. Two short inscriptions from Abydos suggest that his authority may have extended as far north as that city. Of great interest is a long, but unfortunately much-damaged hieroglyphic text occupying the side-walls of a small chamber in the temple of Mut at Karnak, the back-wall showing a scene of Taharka worshipping the goddess and followed by Mentemhe with his father and his son. This proves that Mentemhe, for all his power, regarded himself as no more than a faithful subject of the Ethiopian king. None the less, the inscription boasts of numerous and varied constructions and repairs such as at other times could only have been ascribed to the Pharaoh. Here the sovereign is only indirectly alluded to, and Mentemhe takes all the credit to himself, no doubt justifiably. The references to the topsy-turvy state of the land are few and obscure, and there is, of course, none to the brief occupation of the southern capital by the Assyrians.

Tanuatamun kept up the pretense of being the true Pharaoh for several years after Ashurbanipal's hasty raid upon Thebes. A few inscriptions of his have been found there, one of them recording a sale of land in his eighth year. Long before that, he will have retired in Napata, ultimately dying there and being buried at Kurru. After a little short of seventy years the Ethiopian venture had come to an end. Apparently all direct contact between the two kingdoms now ceased, though some sort of trade relations will have persisted. The northern boundary of the Napatan kingdom was probably Pnubs south of the Third Cataract. Between there and Aswan may have become a sort of no-man's-land inhabited by wild tribes. Henceforth, the Ethiopians began to look southwards instead of northwards, establishing a new capital at Meroe within the fork of the Atbara and the Nile. Here cattle could be raised and crops grown, and there were also abundant deposits of iron. If there was thus politically a scission between Egypt and Ethiopia, nevertheless the old Pharaonic culture died in the latter country only very slowly. The temples exhibited the same stereotyped scenes in relief; the royal tombs were pyramidal in shape. Several fine stele written in passably good Middle Egyptian were found together with that of Pi'ankhy at Gebel Barkal, one of King Aspelta giving a graphic account of his election as king. Some generations later similar hieroglyphic inscriptions, though still using the Egyptian language, are barbaric to the point of unintelligibility. Meanwhile, there had been developed out of the Egyptian hieroglyphs , an alphabetic script used for writing the native language. Side by side with this, there was developed a linear type of writing corresponding to the native hieroglyphic sign for sign. In the decipherment of these two scripts jointly known as Meroitic, F. L. Griffith played the largest part. It does not belong to our task to recount the story of this gradual deterioration, which came to a head with the destruction of Meroe by Aeizanes of Axum about A.D. 350.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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