Dear Readers: I am putting on my Egyptology hat today to review a little covered period of ancient Egyptian history: The Persian dynasties [the 27th (525-409 BC) and 31st (342-332 BC) ]. This is in preparation for the upcoming CANTO TALK show, featuring the famous battle of Thermopylae as described by friend and fellow SLOB, Barry C. Jacobsen (click here for his excellent MEET the SPARTANS series). The show will be Thursday, Sept. 6th, at 7 pm Pacific Time/9 pm Central Time; a podcast will be posted afterward.
When Alexander the Great and his troops entered Egypt in 332 BC, they were greeted by tossed flowers, great acclaim, and a wide-open treasury. There were two reasons for this enthusiastic reception of the Macedonian conqueror:
1) Greeks had migrated into Egypt for hundreds of years (their soldiers served as mercenaries under the pharaohs and there were trade/marketing opportunities between the two lands). The Hellenistic culture was familiar to Egyptians, and there was a mutual respect between the two peoples. In fact, a Greek wrote this of Egypt: Now, let me talk more of Egypt for it has a lot of admirable things and what one sees there is superior to any other country.
2) The Egyptians really despised Persian rule, and managed to mostly free themselves of it between 409 and 342 BC (for the 28-30th Dynasties).
The last pharaoh of the Saite period 26th dynasty, Psamtek III, had recognized the expanding influence of Persia, and realized Egypt would soon be a target. Despite avid preparations, Psamtek was defeated by the Persians in at Pelusium in 525 BC; he then fled to Memphis and was captured.
Why did the Persians decide to take-over Egypt? Interestingly, the ancient historian Herodotus proposes a few theories that involve women. As a woman, it amuses me to share these tales:
1) Cambyses II (the Persian king who lead the takeover) asked for the daughter of another Saite pharaoh, Amasis, as a mistress. As the throne of Egypt was inherited via marriage connection to the female line, this suggestion did not hold any appeal to a loving father who was also Egypt’s ruler. Amasis sent another girl in his daughter’s place. As a result, Cambyses II got pissed and decided to attack Egypt.
2) In a second version, Cyrus (Cambyses’ father) was sent a beautiful Egyptian girl who charmed the Persian king to the point the prince’s mother was neglected.
While the female-oriented fables are fascinating, most likely, the Persian king decided to simply remove a military and economic competitor. The records related to the battle at Pelusium show that it wasn’t so much a fight as a bloodbath:
The engagement between the two armies was not so much a battle as a carnage. Egypt at the hands of a young inexperienced prince, was no match for the Persians. No doubt some of the mercenaries made a stout resistance, but they were vastly outnumbered, and were not much better troops than their adversaries. Apparently both sides suffered heavy losses as Herodotus describes a sea of skulls at the Nile basin, upon the remnants of which he remarks on the differences between the Persian and the Egyptian heads. According to Ctesias, fifty thousand Egyptians fell, whereas the entire loss on the Persian side was only seven thousand. After this short struggle, the troops of Psamatik III (Psammenitus) fled, and soon the retreat became a complete rout. Disoriented, and fleeing, the Egyptians took shelter in Memphis. Egyptians were now in a siege in their stronghold in Memphis.
Though Cambyses did defeat Psamtek’s forces, the Egyptians were really not altogether subdued. When the Persians sent a herald to Memphis to work out the terms of conquest, the Egyptians tore the messenger to bits and destroyed the ship. No fan of unruly subjects, Cambyses leveled Memphis in reprisal. Egypt then became the 6th satrapy, a region to which Cyprus and Phoenicia also belonged.
The hate-hate relationship between the Egyptians and Persians set the tenor of these dynasties.
There is another tale related to the defeat of Psamtek: Testing the former pharaoh’s will, Cambyses had the Egyptian princes and other noble captives paraded with bridles in their mouths before swift executions. Psamtek kept a stiff upper lip until through the death of his sons, only losing it when a cherished friend was killed When the Persian king inquired why Psamtek didn’t also weep for his sons, the reply was: “My grief is too great”. Touched, Cambyses took Psamtek into the palace – from which the Egyptian ruler plotted to regain his throne, was discovered, and then joined his sons in death.
Herodotus also tells the story of Cambyses botched invasion of Ethiopia, which resulted in the decimation of his elite troops. Upon returning to Memphis after the failure, the Persians came across the Egyptians celebrating the festival of the Apis Bull. Thinking that their new subjects were celebrating the Persian defeat, Cambyses had the Apis Bull executed.
Nothing like a little sacrilege to endear you to your vassals.
Despite this unease, Cambyses did try to appeal to native sensibilities on occasion. In the artwork and records, the Persian kings took on the formal role of pharaoh. In fact, Cambyses II had an Egyptian Thone Name composed for him by a native official named Udjahorresneith. At the official’s suggestion, Cambyses took the Thone Name of “Mesuitre” (Offspring of Re), which highlighted his right to rule Egypt. His son, Darius, had “Setutre”(Likeness of Re) for his formal Throne Name.
It seems that Cambyses’ successor, Darius I, had a warmer interest in Egypt. In fact, he did his best to promote more respectful attitudes through religious support, temple building through the Nile valley, and actually honoring the Apis bull:
In September 518, Darius visited Egypt for the second time. He found the country in deep mourning. An inscription from Memphis, now in the Louvre, tells that “on the fourth day of the first month of the harvest season of his majesty’s fourth regnal year”, or 31 August, the Apis bull had died. During this visit, Darius buried this manifestation of the Memphite creation god Ptah, and ordered the search for a new Apis, which was found on 9 November.
During his stay in Egypt, Darius gave precious gifts to the temple of Neith of Sais and the sanctuary of Osiris at Busiris. At Hibis in the Kharga oasis, in the western desert, the great king dedicated a temple to Amun (and Mut!!!), although it is likely that the Egyptian king Psammetichus II (595-589) had already started its construction. Here, a cartouche was found with Darius’ Egyptian titulary as pharaoh: Son of Re, Lord of Appearances, the Great, Darius, given life.
Really….how bad could a ruler be if he did homage to Mut? In fact, the temple at Hibis to the Theban Triad of Amun-Mut-Khons is the best example of construction remaining from the Persian era and worth checking out (click HERE).
A sensible king of kings, Darius realized he was the ruler of a multicultural empire and was willing to accept the gods of other lands. Despite this interfaith PR-campaign, Darius’ successor (Xerxes I of Thermopylae fame) had 20-years of problems with the people of the Nile. The Egyptians continually revolted, and while they did contribute a marine contingent to the Persian forces that tried to conquer Greece, I suspect the Egyptians were none too sad when Xerxes failed miserably in implementing his plans for Greece.
Xerxes is the Greek transliteration of the name Khashayar shah, and it means “king of heroes.” Interestingly, this Persian did not take a formal Throne Name, and after dealing with the uncooperative Greeks, Xerxes showed little interest in the good governance of Egypt. It seems this king’s rule over ancient Egypt was extremely heavy handed, as he blatantly disregarded local customs and beliefs.
Xerxes essentially allowed Persian agents and officials sent to Egypt to act as they pleased. Xerxes son, Achaemenes, who participated in the battle of Salamis, was the designated Satrap of Egypt. The son reigned so brutally that he became the target of an uprising lead by a man identified as Inaros and was killed. Egyptians were inspired to continuously rebel until the natives regained control in 405 BC and tagged Amrytaios (Amenirdis) of Sais as the pharaoh of the 28th Dynasty.
One fascinating feature of this period of relative freedom is that during the 50 years between the two Persian dynasties, the Egyptians became friends and allies of Sparta, the city-state that proved to be a real thorn in the side of Persian ambitions. The Egyptians sent grain to Sparta in exchange for protection from Persia. The Spartans revered the Egyptian oracle at Siwa, which turned out to be a crucial stop for Alexander the Great in ensuing centuries. In fact, the Spartans had a special place in their heart for the Temple of Amun in the famous oasis (From Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean):
The Egyptians remained free of Persian control for about 50 years, when Artaxerxes III captured the country again in 342 BC, removing the last native pharaoh, Nakhthorheb/Nectanebo II. In fact, the alliance with Sparta was strong enough, that the Spartans declined to join the forces engaged in Egypt’s reconquest by the Persians.
Nectanebo initially got some assistance from Cyprus and Phoenicia. And, despite also investing wisely in 20,000 Greek mercenaries, Egypt was again defeated. It seems the Cyprian and Phoenician forces were re-recruited by Artaxerxes. Instead of just coming through Pelusium, the Persian forces were dispersed throughout the area: The Egyptians were spread so thin Nectanebo II was forced to retreat into Memphis. Ultimatley, Nectanebo fled into Nubia and tried to retake the throne with the aid of another powerful Siate noble, Khabash. However, it was to no avail and that was the end of the native rule of Egypt for many centuries. Kabash is an interesting figure, too: Though not much is known, in Egyptian records of that era, Kabash is referred to as “Lord of both lands” ( King of Upper and Lower Egypt) and as “Son of the Sun” (Se-Re, which is another pharaonic title). In fact, Kabash was actually given the throne name of Senen-setep-en-Ptah in a decree by Ptolemy Lagides/King Ptolemy I Soter.
One of the many myths associated with Alexander the Great was that Nectanebo was his real father, and that is why the Macedonian hero had a right to rule Egypt. One of the many reasons this is patently false is that part of the ancient Egyptian equation for figuring out who was the proper ruler involved marriage to royal females. However, the fact is Egypt embraced Alexander 10 years after Artaxerxes’s reconquest, as he accorded their ancient god and goddesses with all due respect.
Now, I just have to figure out how to work this all into Thursday’s show! Stay tuned. :)
1) The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw (2000)
2) The Great Courses/The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier (#40)
3) The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, Aidan Dodson and Dylan Hilton (2004)