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Egypt: History - Dynasty XXVII (Twenty-seventh Dynasty)


Twenty-seventh Dynasty


Difficulties connected with the succession kept Cambyses fully occupied for the next three years, but the murder of his brother Smerdis left his hands free to proceed with the undertaking bequeathed to him by his father. Phoenicia had submitted voluntarily, providing him with a fleet invaluable for his coming operations. Cyprus abandoned its allegiance to Amasis, who died in 526 B.C., escaping only by a few months the shattering blow which was to befall his son Psammetichus III. The battle of Pelusium (525 B.C.) was fought with great stubbornness, but in the end the Egyptians fled in disorder to Memphis, which surrendered only after a siege of some duration. Egypt thus passed into Persian hands, Manetho's TWENTY-SEVENTH DYNASTY. His own reign was to last only three years longer, and each of the further expeditions which he planned proved unsuccessful. A projected attack upon the Carthaginians came to nothing, since the Phoenicians refused to fight against people of their own blood. The far more ambitious campaign against the Ethiopians, in which Cambyses himself took part, proved a perfect fiasco owing to neglect of proper preparation, while a force sent across the desert to the oasis where Alexander the Great consulted the Oracle of Amun two centuries later (Siwa) was overwhelmed by a sandstorm and disappeared. The anger of Cambyses at these failures was boundless and is said to have brought on an attack of madness, but at least the whole of Egypt had been won. According to Herodotus Cambyses was a monster of cruelty and impiety, his folly culminating in the killing of the sacred Apis bull. This act is, however, rendered more than improbable by the evidence from the Serapeum, two of these holy animals being recorded for his reign, and the sarcophagus of one of them being said by its inscriptions to have been dedicated by the Persian king himself. It is true that a Jewish document of 407 B.C. speaks of 'the destruction of all temples of the Egyptian gods' in the time of Cambyses, but by then the king's evil reputation had plenty of time to spread, and the damage done in that direction may have been confined to the withdrawal of the large official grants of materials that has previously been the custom. We shall see that a less severe view of the conqueror was taken by a high official who managed to secure his favor and to retain his important position throughout the following reign. On Cambyses' return to Asia in 522 B.C. Egypt was left in charge of the satrap Aryandes who, however, later fell under suspicion of disloyalty and was executed.


Meanwhile the Magian Gaumata had given himself out to be the real Smerdis and had won wide recognition throughout the Persian provinces. Discordant accounts are given of Cambyses' death, probably on his way home to combat the pretender. The throne now fell to Darius I, the son of Hystaspes and a member of the family of Cyrus. In his long reign of thirty-six years (521-486 B.C.) the Persian Empire was organized with consummate statesmanship, but only comparatively little is known of events in Egypt during this time. His first years were fully occupied in cruelly suppressing revolts and disorders that had followed his slaying of Gaumata, and it was not until 517 B.C. or thereabouts that he was able to visit Egypt. Of real importance, however, as illustrating his interest in the ancient civilization which had now come under his sway is an order sent to the Satrap in his third year bidding him assemble the wisest men among the country's soldiers, priests, and scribes. They were to set forth in writing the complete law of Egypt down to year 44 of Amasis, a task which kept them busy until his own nineteenth year. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this royal order, although it is made known to us only in a much later copy on the back of a demotic papyrus of miscellaneous contents. Indeed it goes far towards justifying Diodorus's description of Darius as among the greatest of Egypt's law-givers. Equally interesting is the information given by several huge stele confirming what Herodotus has to tell about Darius's completion of the canal leading from the Nile to the Red Sea. Neko II had been compelled to abandon this project, but Darius not only repaired the channel in its entire length, but was also able to dispatch through it twenty-four ships laden with tribute for Persia. The stele commemorating this were erected at intervals along the banks of the canal. Inscribed both in hieroglyphs and in cuneiform they are in deplorable condition, but tell their story in unmistakable fashion. That Darius, in governing Egypt, wisely sought to pose as a legitimate Pharaoh continuing the work of his Saite predecessors is shown by a variety of evidence. He alone of the Persian kings undertook building in the temples of the Egyptian gods. The stately and well-preserved temple of Amun in the oasis of Kharga is almost entirely due to him, and here he, like Cambyses before him, receives a complete royal titulary. A general whose business it was to summon all the mayors of the country to bring gifts for the embalming of an Apis bull bore the same name as King Amasis and wrote it in a cartouche, although his stele alludes to the Persian invasion. Similarly Khnemibre', the superintendent of works in the entire land, whose name is identical with the Prenomen of the same king. His many rock-inscriptions in the Wady Hammamat range from the last year of Amasis to the thirtieth of Darius. But the sole hieroglyphic memorial of the entire Persian period which presents a biography of any length in that inscribed on a fine naophorous statue preserved in the Vatican. Its owner Udjeharresne had been the commander of sea-faring ships under both Amasis and Psammetichus III, but the narrative of his subsequent career starts with the arrival of the Persians in his native land:

There came to Egypt the great chief of every foreign land Cambyses, the foreigners of every country being with him. When he had taken possession of this entire land they settled down there in order that he might be the great ruler of Egypt and the great chief of every foreign land. His Majesty commanded me to be chief of every foreign land. His Majesty commanded me to be chief physician and caused me to be at his side as companion and director of the palace, and I made his titulary in his name of King of Upper and Lower Egypt Mesutire. And I caused him to know the greatness of Sais which is the seat of Neith the great, the mother who gave birth to Re' and who was the initiator of birth after there had been no birth.

The thought contained in the last few words is expanded by the mention of the actual temple of Neith as well as of other shrines in what had been the Saite capital. Then the speaker continues on another part of the statue:

I made petition beside his Majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Cambyses concerning all those foreigners who had settled down in the temple of Neith, that they should be driven thence and that the temple of Neith should be in all its splendor as it was aforetime. And His Majesty commanded that all the foreigners who had settled in the temple of Neith should be driven out and that all their houses and all their superfluities which were in this temple should be thrown down, and that all their own baggage should be carried for them outside the wall of this temple. And His Majesty commanded that the revenues should be given to Neith the great, the god's mother, and to the great gods who are in Sais as they were aforetime. And His Majesty caused that all their festivals and all their processions should be made as they were made aforetime. And His Majesty did this because I caused His Majesty to know the greatness of Said--it is the city of all the gods, they resting on their thrones in it eternally.

Udjeharresne was naturally concerned only to vaunt his influence with his new master, but there is no reason to doubt that Cambyses was willing, whenever it suited his interest, to do honor to the gods of Egypt, and the text goes on to relate that he himself came and prostrated himself before the goddess as every king before had done, after which he made her a great banquet. Obviously biased as these passages are they must be set against the execrations for which Herodotus is responsible. Udjehattesne touches only very lightly upon 'the great trouble that had come about in the entire land of Egypt'. There is much more of interest in this unique inscription, but it must suffice here to make brief reference to the House of Life or scriptoria which Darius, himself in Elam, sent Udjeharresne to re-establish in Egypt. They were to be staffed 'with persons of rank, not a poor man among them'. Apparently it was only in connection with the departments concerned with medicine that Udjeharresne was thus to be employed, for not only was he a chief physician, but also the text names as the purpose of his scriptoria to 'revive all that are sick'. At all events these sentences illustrate once again the enlightened way in which Darius conceived of his duty as King of Egypt. He was no mere despot avid of power and content to leave the welfare of his dominions in the hands of his satraps.

Of equal interest for the history of these times, though of wholly different character, is a great demotic discovered at El-Hiba and brilliantly written in the ninth year of Darius by an elderly temple-scribe named Peteese. He is complaining of wrongs done to himself and his family in connection with the prophetship of Amun of Teudjoi (El-Hiba), his native place, and in connection with the priesthoods of other associated gods, all of which carried with them substantial emoluments. It is an intensely complicated and confused story which Peteese has to tell, and the events that he narrates go back 150 years, to the fourth year of Psammetichus I. At that time his ancestor of the same name had restored the ruined temple of Amun on behalf of his cousin, yet another Peteese, who was the Master of the shipping resident in Heracleopolis Magna and the virtual governor of Upper Egypt. As a reward for these services Peteese I had been accorded all the priesthoods in question. His imprisonment, and tribulation to recount. His enemies have been various personages who had from time to time succeeded with the help of the highest authorities then in power to deprive the Peteese family of their rights, and who had been backed up by others described generally as the priests. No attempt can here be made to estimate the historical accuracy of all this, but it cannot be disputed that the world to which the papyrus bears witness was one of widespread graft and corruption. One detail corroborated from an outside source is the mention of that same Master of Shipping whom we found arranging the Gods Wife Nitocriss journey to Thebes.

Wise and enlightened as was Dariuss rule, his empire was too vast not soon to exhibit signs of fragility. Already in 499 BC the Ionian cities were in revolt, and the assistance lent to them by Athens and Eretria made war between Persia and the western Greeks only a matter of time. The resounding defeat of Artaphernes, Dariuss nephew, at Marathon (490 BC) could not fail to have serious repercussions throughout the entire Middle East. In 486 BC the Egyptians rose in revolt, and it was only in the second year of Xerxes, who succeeded his father toward the end of 486 B.C., that the rebellion was finally quelled. Herodotus relates that the new monarch reduced all Egypt to slavery much greater than it had suffered in the reign of Darius. Needless to say Xerxes made use of his suzerainty there to further his own ends. Before the battle of Salamis (480 B.C.), where he sought to avenge himself upon the Greeks, a large Egyptian fleet was given an important part to play. But for the advantage of the Egyptians themselves Xerxes did little or nothing. The monuments are almost completely silent. No temples were built and but few Egyptian officials were employed. Throughout these years Upper Egypt appears to have been entirely tranquil. Since a Persian who had probably visited the Wady Hammamat for the first time in the sixth year of Cambyses, did so at intervals right down to Xerxess twelfth year. He describes himself as governor of Coptos and was very possibly charged with protecting the road the Red Sea. After him his younger brother made similar visits in the reign of Artaxerxes and had now added to his Persian name the truly Egyptian one of Djeho.

A great change had by this time come over there more or less uniform civilization of the land of the Pharaohs. As before, the native population carried on their personal business in their own language, employing the highly cursive style of writing which became known to the Greeks as Enchorial or Demotic. But so far as the government was concerned, Egypt was now only the farthest removed province of a great foreign empire. The Persian king and overlord, residing in Susa or in Babylon, left the actual administration in the hand of a local governor known as the satrap. For all bureaucratic purposes the Aramaic language and script were employed. Aramaic was a north-Semitic idiom which, after extending widely to Mesopotamia with the peoples deported there, doubtless later spread southward. For example, the exiled Jews whom Cyrus allowed to return to their original home. In the end this idiom completely replaced Hebrew in Palestine. It must not be imagined that in Egypt the use of Aramaic was confined to the Jews, though that impression might be conveyed by the great and sensational find of papyri written in that language discovered on the island of Elephantine just north of the First Cataract. It is true that the persons whose concerns are there displayed in such abundance and variety were all or mainly Jews, but they were members of a frontier garrison and consequently in the service of the Persian regime. The most convincing evidence, however, that Aramaic was the medium in which the Persian administration was carried on is afforded by a bunch of letters mostly addressed to his subordinates in Egypt by the satrap Arsames who was in power throughout the whole last quarter of the fifth century. These letters, written on leather, doubtless emanate from the satraps chancery, probably at Memphis; there were purchased from a dealer who either could not or would not reveal the place where they were found.

Little else would be known about Egypt in the fifth century but for the Greek historians, and in them only on account of her relations with the Athenians. Following the disturbances which arose after the murder of Xerxes and the accession of Artaxerxes I (465 B.C.) serious trouble sprang up in the north-western Delta. Here a certain Inaros, the son of Psammetichus-both names are Egyptian, but Thucydides calls him a king of the Libyans-revolted and established his headquarters at the fortress of Marea not far from the later Alexandria. The first clash with the Persians took place at Papremis, an uncertainly identified place somewhere in the west; the force under the satrap Achaemenes, the brother of Xerxes, was defeated and he was killed. The remnant of his army retreated to Memphis and entrenched themselves there. Inaros was now in complete possession of the Delta, but apparently made no claim to the kingship. The inevitable relief from Persia was long in coming, but in expectation of it Inaros called for help upon the Athenians, at that time successfully warring against the Persians in Cyprus. With their aid, two-thirds of Memphis or the White Wall, as Thucydides correctly termed it, was taken. The rest held out until the Persian general Megabyzus drove off the besiegers, who in their turn found themselves confined within an island in the marshes called Prosopitis. It was not until 454 B.C. that Megabyzus gained the upper hand. Few of the Athenians escaped and a number of ships arriving too late to be of assistance were annihilated. Inaros himself was betrayed into Persian hands and was crucified. This, however, was not quite the end of the revolt. A chieftain named Amyrtaeus-again the name is pure Egyptian-remained undefeated in the extreme western part of the Delta. He once more summoned the Athenians to his support and a number of their ships actually started, but the death in Cyprus of the Greek commander Cimon caused them to turn back. Shortly afterwards peace was declared between Athens and Persia and the interference of the former in Egyptian affairs came to an end (449-448 B.C.).

Excepting the west of the Delta the whole of Egypt was now at peace. Foreigners from all parts were welcome, particularly the Greeks. So widely had the latter extended their commerce that Naucratis could no longer maintain her monopolistic position, and lost her special importance. Herdotus toured Egypt shortly after 450 B.C. Though the undoubtedly fictitious claims that sixth-century philosophers like Thales and Pythagoras derived much of their wisdom from Egypt warn us to be skeptical also in the cases of Democritus of Abdera and Plato. There is little question but that the county would have been open to them. Some xenophobia there doubtless was, possibly once even a petty uprising against the alien rulers, but especially in Upper Egypt it will have required differences of race and religion to fan any unrest into flame. Such a case arose on the island of Elephantine in 410 B.C. Here the worshippers of Yahu and the priests of the ram-headed god Chnum lived cheek by jowl. The native priest took advantage of the absence abroad of the satrap Arsames to bribe the local commandant Vidaranag, with the result that the Jewish temple was completely razed to the ground. Vidaranag was punished, but for a time the temple remained unbuilt. The Aramaic papyri recounting this matter comprise a petition sent to Bagoas, the governor of Judah, pleading for the rebuilding, and it appears that this was ultimately conceded.


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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011

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