Egypt: History - Dynasty XXVI (Twenty-sixth Dynasty)

Twenty-sixth Dynasty

At the close of Ashurbanipal's Egyptian campaign the power of Assyria was at its zenith. He had defeated his foes in all directions, but they were too tenacious of their independence to allow him more than a brief breathing-space. The kingdom of Elam, his hereditary enemy to the east, was the first to give trouble. No sooner was this danger overcome than a new coalition of wider scope came into being, part in which was taken by his own treacherous brother Shamashshumukin, the semi-independent ruler of Babylon. It was clear that Ashurbanipal could retain his hold on the Egyptian Delta only through the loyalty of his own nominees. He was able to leave there only very few Assyrian troops. Esarhaddon had initiated the policy of replacing those princes whom he could not trust by others of his own choice. Among these latter was Neko of Sais, not improbably a descendant of Pi'ankhy's adversary Tefnakhte. But this Neko had soon rebelled and been carried away together with others captive to Nineveh. Evidently, however, Ashurbanipal had recognized in him a man of ability and enterprise since he showed him mercy, loaded him with fine raiment, jewels, and other riches and returned to him Sais as residence where my own father had appointed him king. Nabushezibanni his son I appointed for Athribis, treating him with more friendliness and favor than my own father did. Manetho makes this Neko I the third king of his TWENTY-SIXTH SAITE DYNASTY, preceding his name with those of an unidentifiable Stephinates and an equally problematic Nechepsos. There are good historic reasons, however, for taking Manetho's fourth king Psammetichus I as the real founder of the dynasty. The name, for all its outlandish appearance, is an Egyptian one meaning 'the negus-vendor', a designation apparently connected with Herodotus's story of his improvisation of a libation bowl out of his helmet. On an Apis stele he follows immediately upon Taharka, Tanuatamun not being alluded to. Most of Egypt was now in the hands of independent princes whose interest it was to combine against the foreigner rather than to indulge in internecine strife. Thus came about, with Psammetichus as its leader, the 'Dodecarchy' which Herodotus describes in his usual romantic fashion. The Greek historian's statement that Psammetichus had been a fugitive in Syria from Sabacos who had killed his father Nekos is impossible chronologically; when and where Neko found his death is unknown. There is a possibility that Psammetichus was the son to whom the Assyrian name Nabushezibanni had been given; however, in the account of Ashurbanipal's third campaign contained on the Rassam cylinder he appears with a name very different from both this and the Egyptian form. On the cylinder the circumstance which enabled Psammetichus to free himself from the Assyrian domination is recounted in an altogether trustworthy manner. It is there told that Gyges, the King of Lydia, being attacked by the savage Cimmerian hordes had with Ashurbanipal's help succeeded in repulsing them. But then, as Ashurbanipal writes:

his messenger, whom he kept sending to me to bring me greetings, he discontinued because he did not heed the word of Ashur the god who created me, but trusted in his own strength and hardened his heart,

The result being that the Cimmerians invaded and overpowered the whole of his land. The same passage states that Gyges sent his forces to Tushamilki, King of Egypt, who had thrown over the yoke of my sovereignty. A distorted reference to the troops sent to Egypt by Gyges may possibly be found in the bronze-clad Ionians and Carians who according to Herodotus helped Psammetichus to gain the mastery over the other Delta princes. This will presumably have occupied him during the first years of his reign. No monument of his is dated before year 9. In that year he succeeded in extending his influence over the Thebaid by the method employed other Pharaohs before him. A great stele found at Karnak relates how he sent his eldest daughter Nitocris to become the 'God's Wife' of Amun as successor to Shepenwepe II, the sister of Taharka. The journey to Thebes is described in detail. The 'Master of Shipping' Samtowetefnakhte was in charge of the vessels. He was at the same time mayor of the Heracleopolitan nome, and there is evidence that other members of his family also enjoyed this prerogative, which gave them control over all the river traffic upstream. We have seen that Heracleopolis had acquired special importance in the Libyan period. On arrival at Thebes Nitocris was received with great rejoicing, however, than the opulent feast prepared for her on this occasion were the riches now showered upon her, in seven nomes of Upper Egypt no less than 1,800 aurora of land and in four nomes of the Delta 1,400 more. As a landowner she thus became possessed of some 2,000 acres. But this was not all; the most important priests of Amun, with the pliant Mentemhe at their head, provided her with ample rations, to which were added large quantities of bread contributed by the temples of the principal towns. Needless to say, an able chief steward was required to administer such wealth, and Pbes would have been less than human had he refused to avail himself of this opportunity. However, his tomb at Kurna and that of Iba, another chief steward of this long reign, are considerably less pretentious than those of several others of the same dynasty who held the like post. Sixty years later, when Nitocris was an old woman, the same process renewed itself, and she was forced to accept as her future successor 'Ankhnasneferibre', the daughter of Psammetichus II and the owner of a magnificent sarcophagus now in the British Museum. She arrived in Thebes and was received there by her adoptive mother in the first year of her father's reign, and she appears to have had conferred upon her at the same time the dignity of First Prophet of Amun, a position not accorded to any other 'God's Wife'. It was not until Nitocris died in the fourth year of Apries that she attained to the latter even more important post. These facts are related on a stele now in the Cairo Museum, which dwells upon her installation at Karnak and the attendance upon her of the priesthood, but says nothing about the endowments which had figured so largely in the case of Nitocris. The history of Egypt now becomes increasingly merged into that of the Middle East and of Greece, and our main authorities besides Herodotus are the cuneiform chronicles, the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Old Testament. It does not fall within the scope of this Introduction to deal with the principal facts more than sketchily, and we shall concentrate rather upon whatever the hieroglyphs have to contribute to the general picture. Nevertheless, it will be unavoidable to outline the broad trend of the development. We may pass rapidly over such conventionally worded inscriptions at that of Hor, the military commander at Heracleopolis, in the temple of which he erected many buildings. Nor need we dwell at length on the statue of Nesnimu, a prophet of Horus of Edfu, whom Psammetichus I promoted successively to be mayor of eight different towns, some in the Delta and some in Upper Egypt; the significance of this important act remains to be explained. This, however, is the place to expatiate on two related facts, namely the ever-increasing influx of foreigners into the country and the remarkable degree of archaism shown in the art and the religious texts of the period. It is as though the more mixed the blood of the inhabitants became the greater was the nostalgia for the Old Kingdom when the Pharaohs were true-born Egyptians and their monuments displayed a grandeur the decay of which was now all too apparent. It is in the Saite dynasty that the ancient titles of the nobility were revived, that their sculptures and reliefs were deliberately copied from those of the Old Kingdom, and that their tombs were inscribed with extracts from the Pyramid Texts. From this time onward there is a marked increase in Egyptian religiosity. Animal worship was ever more sedulously cultivated, neighboring provinces and villages actually fighting one another in defense of their own particular preferences. Gifts of land to the temples became very frequent, the king willingly accepted such sacrifices on the part of private owners in order to propitiate the hereditary priesthoods. There can be no doubt but that political considerations played a part in all this, for after all Psammetichus was himself half a Libyan, and the intense nationalism of the Egyptian natives found appeasement in this way. Moreover, Syrians and Jews had poured into the country, the latter forming a colony at Elephantine where they were even permitted to build a temple to their god Yahu, the Jehovah of our Authorized Version. We must here to refer to the different hereditary classes of the population upon which Herodotus lays so much stress. From Ramesside times Libyans and other Mediterranean peoples had, as we have seen, contributed a substantial part to the armies on which the Egyptian monarchs relied; land had been bestowed upon them in return for their services, and it is not to be wondered at if their capabilities were now a large element of exaggeration and distortion about the account given by Herodotus of that portion of the population known to the Greeks as machimoi 'warriors'. According to him they were exclusively trained for war and forbidden to learn any other craft. Also, they were settled in different nomes of the Delta, the Hermotybians and the Calasirians in separate districts of their own. The former name has not been identified in the hieroglyphs, but the latter occurs a number of times as a proper name of which -shire, the second half, is the word for 'little'. But even if there was thus a definite section of the people devoted solely to warfare, it cannot be disputed that the Greeks whom Psammetichus deliberately encouraged also played a large part in a situation fraught with both external and internal dangers. In the wake of the troops sent by Gyges there followed Ionian traders only too glad to obtain a permanent foothold in so fertile and wealthy a land. Psammetichus for his part was content to acquire new forces of proven valor to counterbalance the machimoi who were always more or less under the control of the local princes of their particular districts. A great advantage which accrued to the Saite king was the skill of the Greek colonists as mariners. Their ships carried Egyptian corn to their fatherland, which paid for it with silver. Apart from military action which, as we shall see, became necessary on the northeast border, garrisons had to be maintained on both the western and the southern fronts. Herodotus reports such garrisons 'at Daphnae of Pelusium, another towards Libya at Marea', and a third at Elephantine. He goes on to say that the last-named, not having been relieved for three years, revolted and deserted to Ethiopia, which at that time enjoyed the reputation of a kind of El Dorado. Psammetichus is stated of have set forth in pursuit of them, but to have been unsuccessful in persuading them to return. We have hieroglyphic authority for a similar revolt and desertion under Apries, but on that occasion the superintendent of the southern frontier, Neshor, managed to overpersuade the fugitives. An Apis stele proves that Psammetichus died after a reign of fifty-four years and was succeeded by his son Neko II in 610 BC. The new king was hardly less enterprising than his father, but was less fortunate. His native monuments are not very numerous, and are singularly uninformative. For his achievements at home Herodotus is again the main source. A courageous attempt to link the Nile with the Red Sea by a canal had to be abandoned, but it is almost certain that Phoenician ships sent by him to circumnavigate Africa succeeded in doing so, returning through the Pillars of Hercules in his third year. In order to understand the military undertakings in which Psammetichus and Neko found themselves involved on their northeastern front, we must be given a rough idea of what had been happening there since the former's accession. When the victorious Ashurbanipal withdrew his army from Egypt, no serious retaliation from that quarter was to be expected. It appears, however, that Egyptian troops pursued the retreating Assyrians into Philistia as had happened 900 years earlier after the expulsion of the Hyksos. But Herodotus's account of a twenty-nine year siege of Ashdod, the longest in history, can hardly be correct as it stands. Far more dangerous for Assyria was an invasion of Scythians who swept through that country and, according to the Greek writer, were halted at the Egyptian frontier only by gifts and entreaties on the part of Psammetichus. Even more formidable, however, was the emergence in northwestern Iran of the great new empire of the Medes under Phraortes and his son Cyaxares. In 627 BC Ashurbanipal died, and a year later, after an Assyrian army had been decisively beaten by the Babylonians always striving to assert their independence, Nabopolassar 'sat on the throne in Babylon. All attempts on the part of the Assyrians to regain the lost ground were unsuccessful. By 616 BC it had become clear to Psammetichus that an alliance between Medians and Babylonians would be more dangerous than the Assyrians had ever been, so he decided to throw in his lot with his former enemies. The decision was unfortunate because in 612 BC Niniveh fell and was ravaged and looted with characteristic thoroughness. The Assyrian king Ashur-uballit attempted to carry on the struggle from Harran far to the west, and for the next years the issue remained undecided. From 609 BC no further mention is made of his last king of Assyria, and Neko now took his place as the main adversary of Nabopolassar. When 'Pharaoh-necoh, King of Egypt, went up against' the Babylonians, as we read in the Old Testament, all went well with him at first. King Josiah of Judah made the mistake of intervening at this juncture and was slain at Megiddo by Neko. A hieroglyphic fragment from Sidon attests the later's control of the Phoenician coast, made the easier by his possession of a Mediterranean fleet. In 606-605 BC the Egyptians captured the strong-point of Kimukhu and defeated the Babylonians at Kuramati, both places situated on the Euphrates south of Carchemish. There, according to the Babylonian Chronicle, Nebuchadrezzar, the son of Nabopolassar,

crossed the river to go against the Egyptian army which lay in Carchemish...fought with each other and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them into non-existence.As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat and no weapon had reached them, the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them in the district of Hamath, so that not a single man escaped to his country. At that time Nebuchadrezzar conquered the whole area of Khatti-land.

or, as 2 Kings xxiv. 7 says,

the king of Egypt came not again any more out of his land; for the king of Babylon had taken, from the brook of Egypt unto the river Euphrates, all that pertained to the king of Egypt.

The great battle of Carchemish took place in 605 BC and Nabopolassar died a month or two later. After Nebuchadrezzar's speedy return to Babylon to assume the kingship he returned to Syria to carry on his campaign against that country. In 604 BC the Babylonians attacked and sacked Ashkelon, an event which may have given rise to an appeal to the Pharaoh for help by a coastal city. We have the authority of the above Old Testament statement for believing that the appeal remained unanswered. Nebuchadrezzar seems never to have given up hope of securing the Egyptian border. In 601 BC, according to the same Babylonian Chronicle, he deliberately marched against Egypt, but was driven back with heavy loss and retired to Babylon. This ended direct hostilities between the two countries for several years to come. The defeat of the Babylonians was probably the cause of Jehoiakim's defection and alliance with Egypt despite the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. When Neko II died in 595 BC he was succeeded by his son Psammetichus II, whose relatively short reign of six years has frequently been underestimated. In point of fact, the number of monuments naming himself or his officials is considerably greater than that of his two predecessors. Also a much-discussed expedition to Nubia lends it a special interest. Knowledge of this expedition is mainly derived from the longest of a group of Greek inscriptions carved upon one of the colossi of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. In translation this reads:

When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine, this was written by those who sailed with Psammetichus the son of Theocles, and they came beyond Kerkis as far as the river permits. Those who spoke foreign tongues were led by Potasimto, the Egyptians by Amasis. Both Potasimto and Amasis are known to have lived under Psammetichus II and to have held high military posts. The Nubian expedition is recorded also on much-damaged stele form Tanis and Karnak, the former dating it to year 3 and mentioning a native ruler whose forces had been massacred, while the latter states that Pnubs was reached. But if it is thus certain that the campaign (or was it a mere foray?) extended farther south than was formerly supposed, it is unlikely that, as has been suggested, this was Psammetichus's answer to an Ethiopian attempt to regain the hold upon Egypt lost after Tanuatamun's flight from Thebes. Nevertheless, it was in his reign that a marked hostility towards the Ethiopians on the part of the Saites is first noted, the names of Taharka and his predecessors being systematically erased from their monuments. An equally problematic event of Psammetichus II's reign is an expedition to Phoenicia mentioned in a later demotic papyrus. This seems to have been a peaceful affair since priests form many temples were summoned to take part. Meanwhile the situation in the northeast had grown increasingly complicated. In 590 BC the aggressive Median king Cyaxares became engaged in a fierce war against the neighboring kingdom of Lydia, ended five years later by a diplomatic marriage between the two families. In these circumstances clearly Nebuchadrezzar could look for no help from his powerful ally. Nevertheless, it was impossible for him to remain inactive when in 589 BC Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against him, and at the beginning of the following year he invested the Holy City. In 589 BC Psammetichus II died, and was succeeded by his son Apries, the Pharaoh Hophra of the Bible, who at once set about reversing the peaceful, defensive policy adopted by his predecessors. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel are our main authorities for his intervention in Syria. To meet this attempt to relieve Jerusalem, Nebuchadrezzar broke off the siege, only to renew it later. In 587 BC the city fell and was completely destroyed. Zedekiah was taken prisoner at Jericho. The larger portion of the Jewish population was deported to Babylonia, but later some of the remnant, feeling the situation in Judah to be intolerable, fled to Egypt taking the prophet Jeremiah with them. The part played by Apries in all this is obscure, the Egyptian records being completely silent. At the very beginning of his reign he appears to have sent troops to Palestine in support of the Jews, but then to have withdrawn them. An attack of his army upon Sidon and of his fleet upon Tyre is reported, but at least the first half to the statement does not square with the rest of the evidence. Nor perhaps does the second half, since the exiled priest Ezekiel testifies to a siege of Tyre by Nebuchadrezzar lasting thirteen years without his ever succeeding in capturing the island state. In 570 BC Apries became embroiled in a new and unhappy adventure. Herodotus here takes up the story. At Cyrene, far out on the North-African coast, the Greeks had created a large and thriving colony, the reverse of welcome to the indigenous Libyans. One of the Libyan chieftains, Adicran, turned to Apries for protection. The Egyptian army which was sent suffered an overwhelming defeat. For this Apries was rightly blamed and in consequence lost his throne. Monuments from his reign of nineteen years are fairly numerous, but his importance as a Pharaoh is altogether overshadowed by that of the usurper who supplanted him. When Herodotus's account of Amasis (570-526 BC) is shorn of its lively and picturesque gossip, what is left is likely to be sound history. He was a man of the people upon whom acceptance of the Double Crown was thrust by opportunity and the indignation of his compatriots. The native Egyptians were unanimous in his support, while the troops loyal to Apries were chiefly Greeks, somewhat strangely so since he had recently been fighting against a Greek colony. The civil war that ensued cannot have lasted more than a few months and was confined to the northwestern Delta. Herodotus locates the decisive battle at Momemphis, whereas a great red granite stele which narrated the triumph of Amasis placed it at Sekhetmafka near Terana on the Canopic branch. It is regrettable that this important stele is almost illegible, having been used as the threshold of a palace at Cairo. Apries was taken alive and brought to Sais, which had been his own place of residence and now became that of Amasis. We are told that the victor at first treated his royal prisoner kindly, but later handed him over to the fury of the populace. The stele seems to confirm that he buried him with the honor due to a Pharaoh. A cuneiform fragment in the British Museum ascribes to this same year. The thirty-seventh of Nebuchadrezzar's reign (568-567 BC) some sort of military action against Amasis, but it is unlikely that the two powers ever came into conflict with one another either at this time or later. When the great Babylonian monarch was succeeded by three weak kings and them by a fourth, Nabonidus (555-539 BC), whose troubles never took him nearer to Egypt than northern Syria and Edom. As a ruler Amasis proved predominantly a man of peace. In the west he made a treaty of alliance with Cyrene, and if he brought certain towns on the island of Cyprus into subjection that was his only conquest. Certain it is that dependence upon Greek energy and enterprise became more and more indispensable to him. His own prudence and conciliatory nature made him the well-merited epithet of Philhellene. Symptomatic of these good relations were his marriage to Ladice, a Cyrenaean lady, his large contribution to the rebuilding of the destroyed temple of Delphi, and his rich gifts to several other Greek temples. His friendship with Polycrates, the successful but treacherous tyrant of Samos, is the subject of the well-known story of the ring told by Herodotus. Nevertheless, something had to be done in order to mitigate the envy of the native Egyptians to whom, after all, his debt was enormous. As merchants settled in the Delta the Greeks were becoming unduly powerful. Amasis checked this development by confining their activities to the great city of Naucratis rediscovered by Petrie a little distance to the southwest of Sais. Here the population was exclusively Greek. Great temples were built by the different communities of colonists, and Naucratis became the forerunner of Alexandria and, in its own age, of not much inferior importance. Egyptians and Greeks were alike satisfied. This action on the part of Amasis was a political masterpiece. It was doubtless the result of his own sagacity combined, if Herodotus can be believed, with a convivial and light-hearted temperament that he was able to retain his throne for forty-four years, just escaping the catastrophe which only a year later (525 BC) was to overtake his country. The unification of a world torn by unceasing wars was long overdue and was now to be attempted on a grand scale. This initiative came from a most unexpected quarter. Persia, in the original sense of the name, is the land lying along the eastern side of the Persian Gulf and extending far inland, with Persepolis and Pasargadae as its capitals. From this mountainous and in part inhospitable country arose the Aryan family of the Achaemenids from whom the all-conquering Cyrus II (c. 558-529 BC) sprang. The first kingdom to be overrun was Media, where Astyages, the son of Cyaxares, was able to put up only slight resistance before being ousted from his capital Ecbatana, midway between Susa and the Caspian. Next was the turn of Lydia. Foreseeing what was to come, its king Croesus had sought alliances with Egypt, Babylonia, and Lacedaemon, but before help from them could arrive, Sardis was captured (546 BC) and Lydia ceased to exist as a separate kingdom. The cities of the Ionian coast were now at the Persian monarch's mercy; leaving them in the charge of his generals, Cyrus was free to direct his energies elsewhere. Babylon was naturally his next objective, but he was in no hurry to cope with it. Here Nabonidus, the scholar and antiquarian king, was reigning after a ten years' exile at Taima in Arabia, where he returned in 546 BC on the invitation of the subjects with whom he had previously disagreed. In 539 BC Babylon was occupied, Cyrus with characteristic wisdom sparing the king's life and relegating him to distant Carmania either as governor or as exile. So far-flung and empire would naturally demand much consolidation, and little is heard of Cyrus's military activities during the next few years. He was well aware, however, that the conquest of Egypt was a necessity, and this task he entrusted to his son Cambyses. He himself perished in 529 BC whilst combating attacks by Turanian hordes on his northern frontier. Within thirty years he had arisen from humble beginnings to be the most powerful monarch that the world had thus far ever known.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011