Egypt: Amasis, the Last Great Egyptian Pharaoh

Amasis, the Last Great Egyptian Pharaoh

by Jimmy Dunn

Cartouche of Amasis

Amasis who was probably the 5th ruler of Egypt during the 26th Dynasty, has been called the last great Egyptian Pharaoh. This is because the rule of his son, Psammetichus III, was very short lived, and in fact even in the last days of Amasis' life the Persians were already advancing on Egypt. They were the overwhelming power of the region, and would control Egypt up until Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, and the ensuing Greek rulers. After his son, never again would an Egyptian rule ancient Egypt.

Amasis was actually the king's Greek name. His birth name was Ahmose II, which means "The Moon is Born, Son of Neith". His throne name was Khnem-ib-re, meaning "He who embraces the Heart of Re". We believe he ruled Egypt between 570 and 526 BC. We believe that Amasis was the son of a Lady Takheredeneset, and married two women by the names of Tentheta and Nakhtsebastetru. He may have had a third wife named Khedebneithireretbeneret, who was actually a daughter of his great nemesis, Apris. He had a number of children by the first two wives, including his successor, Psammetichus III. Another child we specifically know of was General Ahmose, who, along with his mother Nakhtsebastetru, were buried in tomb LG 83 at Giza. A daughter, Nitokris II, may have come to Thebes for adoption as prospective God's Wife.

If so, she was probably the daughter of Khedebneithirerebeneret, because the current God's Wife, Ankhesenneferibre, was a sister of Apries. From Herodutus, we learn that he was a likeable, popular ruler who is said to have had such a strong inclination for drink that he sometimes delayed state matters in order to indulge in a drinking bout.

However, he did not ascend the throne easily, nor was he in line to do so.We first know of Amasis as a general in Nubia under Psammetikhos I. It would seem that his predecessor, Apries, undertook several military campaigns, but his last against the Greek city of Cyrene ended in disaster. Apries was blamed for the failure, and so a revolt broke out.

In reality, the defeat at Cyrene was really only an excuse for this revolt by Egyptian troops. For some time, the Greek mercenaries within the Egyptian army, who were probably treated better than the Egyptians themselves, were apparently the subject of jealously and contempt by the native Egyptian elements.

Actually, Amasis, as a general in the Egyptian army, was sent to put down the revolt of the machimoi (the native Egyptian soldiers), but instead the soldiers proclaimed him as Pharaoh.

When word reached Apries of Amasis' treason, he slaughtered the messenger and proceeded to advance on the forces of Amasis. By this late date in Pharaonic history, Apries' army was mostly made up of of Aegean mercenaries. The two armies met somewhere in the north-west Egyptian Delta in about January or February of 570 BC, and Apries was forced to retreat.

This bust is either of  Apries or Amasis

This bust is either of Apries or Amasis

However, this did not give Amasis complete control of Egypt. Apries's apparent retreat was only as far south as Memphis and he continued to control southern Egypt, while Amasis established himself at Sais in Northern Egypt. Yet Apries was not content with this, and aided by his Greek troops, once again marched on Amasis in October of 570 BC, where he was once again defeated by his former general. With this defeat, Apries could only find safety abroad, and he eventually turned up in the court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Now, Amasis took control of a united Egypt. This was complete when sometime between October 19th and December 9th of 570 BC, Thebes submitted to his reign.

Yet poor Apries was not yet finished. In March of 567, he again marched on Egypt at the head of a Babylonian army, but once again, Amasis defeated him, this time capturing the former king. It seem that Amasis allowed Apries to live for a short time, however, because we find Herodotus telling us that:

The Egyptians complained that he did wrong by maintaining a man who was the greatest enemy both to them and (Amasis), therefore he delivered Apries to the people, who strangled him.

Apparently, Amasis still held some respect for his former ruler, because he buried Apries with kingly honors in the royal necropolis at Sais. This may very well be explained if indeed Amasis was married to Apries' daughter.However, various sources differ somewhat on these events. For an alternative version, see our section on Apries.

Now as the ruler of all Egypt, Amasis took on the traditional role of builder, and is attested to by quarry inscriptions at Tura and Elephantine, and with building projects at Memphis, including two granite colossi and a temple of Isis, Philae, Elephantine, Edfu, Sohag, Abydos, Koptos, Karnak and any number of Delta sites, including his tomb at Sais. While we have never discovered this tomb, again Herodotus steps in to describe it for us:

(It is) a great cloistered building of stone, decorated with pillars carved in the imitation of palm-trees, and other costly ornaments. Within the cloister is a chamber with double doors, and behind the doors stands the sepulchre."

This was really a very prosperous time for Egypt. We are told that agriculture, always the backbone of Egypt, met a spectacular level of success, and Herodotus again tells us that the number of inhabited cities in Egypt reached as high as 20,000.

After consolidating his power, Amasis was apparently somewhat weary of the Greeks, who had been around since the beginning of the Dynasty, and of course, fought against him on the side of Apries. Psammetikhos I had encouraged the Greek merchants in the city of Naukratis, and Amasis consolidated them in that area only. This made for easier control of these merchants, and created a lucrative income for the crown in the form of taxes.

Prior to Apries' defeat, the Greek mercenaries were established in camps between Babastis and the sea on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, where Herodotus tells us they had remained for over a century. Apparently, he first moved them to Memphis, where he could keep an eye on things.

But, Amasis was not willing to push the Greeks too far because he needed their alliance against the expanding threat of the Persians, as well as an attempted invasion by the Chaldaeans. Apparently after this unsuccessful invasion, he formed an alliance with the Chaldaeans, Croesus of Lydia and Sparta.

Unfortunately, the Persians destroyed the alliance by first capturing Lydia in 546 and then the Chaldaeans. So instead, he cultivated his relationship with the Aegean world, extending his foreign relationships to include Cyprus. He is said to have even financed the rebuilding of the temple of Apollo at Delphi after its destruction in 548 BC. According to archaeological records, he probably even allowed the Greek soldiers to return their old mercenary camps. Regrettably, for all his efforts, the Persians would eventually prove too ambitious to stop.

By the time of Amasis' death after a long reign of some 44 years, the Persians had long ago conquered Babylon, and were already at the frontiers of Egypt. His son was eventually captured by the Persians, and Herodotus tells us that the Persian ruler Cambyses had Amasis's mummy exhumed, and:

"subjected to every indignity, such as lashing with whips and the plucking of its hairs, until the executioners were weary. At last, as the corpse had been embalmed and would not fall to pieces under the blows, Cambyses ordered it burnt"

See Also:

Herodotus on Amasis


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Monarchs of the Nile Dodson, Aidan 1995 Rubicon Press ISBN 0-948695-20-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Who Were the Pharaohs? (A history of their names with a list of cartouches) Quirke, Stephen 1990 Dover Publications

ISBN 0-486-26586-2


Last Updated: June 20th, 2011