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6-08-2015, 15:53

Egypt’s Long Decline

THE FLOWERING OF EGYPTIAN CULTURE WAS COMING TO AN
end. When Ramesses XI died, Smendes, a relative of the Theban priests,
became king in the north and founded the Twenty-first Dynasty.

The Third Intermediate Period


This period covers Dynasties 21 through 25, spanning 419 years from
1075 B.C.E. to 664 B.C.E.. Smendes moved his capital from Piramesse to
Tanis, in the eastern Delta. The Tanite kings (who ruled only the Delta) and
the Theban kings recognized each other’s separate rights of succession,
respected one another’s power, and cemented ties between their families
with royal marriages. Both ruling families had strong Libyan roots, and
both kings were considered legitimate. But Egypt, with a population approaching
3 million, suffered from the lack of strong central government.
For most of the Twenty-first Dynasty, the Tanite kings in the Delta
and the Theban soldier-priest-kings in the rest of Egypt were closely related.
Sometimes they were brothers. The Theban king Pinedjem married
one of the daughters of Ramesses XI. One of Pinedjem’s sons,
Psusennes I, became the third king of the Tanis Dynasty. Two other sons
became priest-kings, ruling from Thebes. The daughter of Psusennes I
married the high priest of Amun-Re, further linking the ruling families. A
great temple at Tanis was dedicated to the Theban gods Amun-Re, Mut,
and Khonsu.
During his 25-year reign at Tanis (coinciding with the Biblical era
of David and Goliath), King Siamun built extensively at both Tanis and
Piramesse. Also during that time, Egyptian princesses started marrying
foreign princes and kings, reversing a long-held pattern.
The Theban priest-kings, well aware of tomb robberies in the Valley
of the Kings, worried that the great pharaohs buried there were losing
out on eternal life. They removed many royal mummies from their original
tombs (many had already been looted) and stashed them in large
groups in well-hidden, better-secured tombs. They also removed just about
all the gold, valuables, and grave goods they found, “recycling” the loot into
their temple treasuries, or saving it for their own tombs.
Two of these caches of royal mummies were discovered in the late
1800s by European explorers. One cache was discovered in 1881 in a
tomb at Deir el-Bahari near Thebes, another in 1898 in the tomb of Amenhotep
II in the Valley of the Kings. Dozens of royal mummies—including
most of Egypt’s great imperial pharaohs—had been packed into small
chambers, side by side, with only the linen on their backs.
Some of their recycled funeral goods showed up in the tomb of
Psusennes I—the only completely intact royal tomb ever found in Egypt.
Psusennes had a solid silver coffin trimmed with gold, and a solid gold
face mask. His sarcophagus, coffins, and other burial equipment had
clearly belonged to other kings. The borrowed finery did his mummy little
good; poor conditions in his tomb destroyed it.
Little is known about Psusennes II, last king of the Twenty-first
Dynasty. His son, Shoshenq I, founded the Twenty-second Dynasty, also
known as the Libyan or Bubastite Dynasty because the kings of the
Twenty-second Dynasty were descended from Libyan raiders who had
invaded Egypt during the reigns of Meneptah and Ramesses III and settled
in the eastern Delta at Bubastis. They ruled Egypt for 233 years.
Shoshenq I took the title great chief of the Meshwesh Libyans. He
led a campaign against Palestine (he is the ruler Shishak mentioned in
the Bible), plundering Solomon’s temple and looting everything but the
Ark of the Covenant. This bold raid restored some of Egypt’s old prestige.
A strong leader, Shoshenq I reunited Upper and Lower Egypt, and
kept them together for nearly 100 years.
Despite this, there was plenty of internal conflict. The power of the
Tanis faction weakened, and the north splintered in many hereditary fiefdoms
that paid little attention to the king. In the south, a patchwork of
small kingdoms arose. By the time Shoshenq III took the throne, Egypt
had entered the most confusing period in her long history.
During the Twenty-third Dynasty, Upper and Lower Egypt split
apart. Factions fought over control of the Delta. During this so-called
“Libyan anarchy,” nine major kingdoms (collectively called the Twenty-
third Dynasty) coexisted. This fragmentation seriously weakened Egypt,
leaving it unable to defend itself from the Nubians, who swept north. By
the end of the dynasty, at least three or four rulers claimed to be king of
Egypt. Too late, they saw the threat from Nubia.
One self-proclaimed king, Tefnakhte, ruling from Sais in the Delta
(the Twenty-fourth Dynasty), tried to organize a coalition of Upper and
Lower Egyptian rulers to fight the Nubian invasion. The forces of the
north met the Nubian forces at Herakleopolis. The northerners were
forced to surrender, but Nubian king Piankhy allowed them to remain
as governors of their cities. A second Sais king, Bakenrenef (Bocchoris)
rebelled. The Nubians killed him.
The Twenty-fifth Dynasty was the Nubian Dynasty. Nubia was a
stable, prosperous, completely Egyptianized state. Long a colony of Egypt,
the Nubians treasured ancient Egyptian culture. Believing that Egypt had
lost her way, they did not see themselves as invaders, but as restorers of the
old order. They took the titles of great New Kingdom pharaohs, and maintained
traditional Egyptian religion and culture. For 104 years, they ruled
Egypt from Memphis and Thebes. They worshiped Amun-Re, rebuilt and
refurbished neglected temples and monuments, and built many new temples.
Imitating the ancient pharaohs, the Nubian kings built pyramid tombs
(much smaller and steeper than
those at Giza) in their homeland.
When the Nubian pharaoh
Taharqa meddled in Palestine,
though, it angered the Assyrians, a
powerful empire in the Near East
that had control of the region. During
a half-century of power struggles
and open warfare, the Assyrians
sacked Memphis and Thebes, looting
the fabulous treasuries of the
Amun-Re temples. The Nubians
were driven back to their historical
borders south of the first cataract.
Thereafter, their contacts with Egypt
were limited to trade.

The Twenty-sixth Dynasty


Aided by Greek mercenaries,
Psamtik I of Sais took the throne,
founding the Twenty-sixth Dynasty.
For the next 139 years, the Saites
presided over a relatively orderly,
prosperous Egypt, consisting of (according
to Herodotus) more than
20,000 towns. They used a combination
of force and diplomacy to reunite
Upper and Lower Egypt. They
hired Greek mercenaries for the
army, and oversaw the development
of Egyptian naval power. The Assyrians
had their own problems and
left Egypt alone. Most of Egypt’s
eastern allies were being conquered
by the Persian king Cyrus the Great.
The Saites carried on a vast
trade around the Mediterranean.
King Necho II preceded the modern
Suez Canal (connecting the
Mediterranean and Red Seas) by 2,500 years by building a canal connecting
the Nile to the Red Sea. They welcomed foreign traders, building
towns where foreigners could live as national communities. They
allowed the Greeks to colonize Naukratis in the Delta as a “free trade
zone,” where Greek traders enjoyed many privileges and rights.
The Saite Dynasty was an era of nostalgia. Saite kings revived ancient
religious, artistic, and cultural traditions. They resurrected the Pyramid
and Coffin Texts (see page 95). They built tombs at Giza and Saqqara,
to be near the ancient kings. Animal cults became extremely popular.
The Saite kings were well aware of the wealth and power of the
Theban priests of Amun-Re, and of their history of proclaiming themselves
kings. To secure their power over these powerful priests, the Saite
kings revived a New Kingdom custom of naming the king’s eldest daughter
God’s Wife of Amun. The old title had been largely honorary, but the
new one packed real power. The princess lived at the temple of Amun-Re
at Karnak. Revered as a near-goddess, she performed religious rituals and
controlled vast wealth and great estates. She was not allowed to marry, but
she could adopt an heir. Holding this post gave the king’s daughter enormous
personal wealth, power, and influence—and kept the throne safer for
her father, because the Amun-Re priests all answered to her.
But once again, winds of change were blowing around the Mediterranean.
The Babylonian Empire came to regard Egypt as its enemy. Babylon
defeated Egyptian forces in the Near East and seized Egypt’s foreign
territories. Then, the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered the
Babylonians. In 525 B.C.E., the inexperienced king Psamtik III faced the
Persian army of Cambyses at Pelusium on the eastern frontier. Defeated,
he fled back to Memphis, but was hauled off in chains to the Persian capital.
The Twenty-sixth Dynasty collapsed in confusion.

Sunset of Native Rule


Cambyses had a reputation as a cruel tyrant. Fortunately, he only ruled
Egypt for three years. He was followed by Darius I, a kinder,
gentler Persian. Darius supported Egyptian animal cults and added to
temples. He also improved the canal between the Nile and the Red Sea.
Still, the Egyptians were extremely unhappy about being part of
somebody else’s empire. Xerxes, another tyrant, put down several Egyptian
rebellions. After 120 years, the Egyptians threw off Persian rule,
regaining their independence for 67 years.
The Twenty-eighth Dynasty had only one, obscure, king,
Amyrtaeos, who ruled for 10 years. Chaos in the Twenty-ninth Dynasty left
a power vacuum. A usurper, Hakor, seized the throne. Ruling for 12 to 19
years, Hakor completed many building and refurbishing projects. Aided
by Greek mercenaries, he turned back a series of Persian attacks.
The Thirtieth Dynasty beat back an attack by combined Persian
and Greek forces. Nakhtnebef I (Nectanebo I) enjoyed a stable, 19-
year reign, restoring temples all over Egypt. The 19-year reign of
Nakhthoreb (Nectanebo II) saw a return to stability, the old gods, and
traditional values. But Nakhthoreb was the last native Egyptian to rule
Egypt for 2,300 years, until General Mohammed Naguib in 1952.
In 343 B.C.E., Persian ruler Ataxerxes reconquered Egypt. He
drafted Egyptian sculptors and artisans to decorate palaces at the Persian
capital, Persepolis. Again, the Egyptians chafed under foreign rule,
and longed for rescue.
In 332 B.C.E., Mazaeus, governor (the office was known as satrap)
under the Persian Darius III, opened the gates of Egypt to Alexander the
Great, saving the country and his own life. Egypt welcomed Alexander as
its savior—despite the fact that Alexander was Macedonian.
Egypt’s Greek merchant community had long conducted wideranging,
prosperous trade from their base at Naukratis in the Delta. Greek
mercenaries, rising through the ranks, had modernized the Egyptian army
and introduced new strategies and tactics. By the time of Alexander’s arrival,
old Egyptian traditions were already giving way to Greek culture.
Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, was a brilliant military leader
who set out to conquer the world. He swiftly conquered the entire Persian
Empire. He was an enlightened ruler, often leaving conquered lands better
off than they had been before his arrival. He used common social and
economic concerns to unite diverse cultures and religions. At the same
time, he established new cities to spread Greek culture.
Alexander, at 24, was already master of an empire when he reached
Egypt. His first stop was the Oracle of Amun, who proclaimed him Amun’s
son and Egypt’s rightful king, founding the Thirty-second Dynasty.
Alexander was crowned pharaoh at Memphis with traditional religious
splendor. He paid tribute to Egyptian gods and goddesses, repairing and
restoring many temples, including Luxor. Alexander spent six months in
Egypt setting up his new government. He appointed a viceroy and six
governors. He converted Egyptian finance, tax, and bureaucratic systems
to follow Greek models. He founded the new city of Alexandria, located
on the coast at the Nile’s west mouth—the ideal spot for it to become the
commercial hub for the entire eastern Mediterranean. This Greek city
became Egypt’s new capital and a center of Greek learning and culture.
Alexander left troops stationed at Memphis and at Pelusium on the
eastern frontier, put his own officers in charge of the Nile fleet, and left to
conquer the rest of the world. But he became ill and died in 323 B.C.E.
Alexander’s empire was divided among his top generals. Ptolemy, one of
the most trusted of his generals, got Egypt. For a time, Alexander’s halfbrother
and then his son were the rulers of Egypt in name, although Ptolemy
was actually in charge. Then, in 305 B.C.E., he was crowned Ptolemy
I—the beginning of the Thirty-second (Ptolemaic) Dynasty.
Ptolemy’s first move was to “kidnap” Alexander’s body as it passed
through Egypt on its way to Greece
for burial. Alexander, whom the
Egyptians considered a god, was
buried at Alexandria. This gave
Ptolemy tremendous religious and
political clout. To further strengthen
his position, Ptolemy married the
daughter of Nectanebo II, the last
native Egyptian king.
Under the Ptolemies, Egypt
looked outward to Greece, not inward
into the Nile Valley. The new
upper class was Greek. The rulers
paid lip service to Egyptian religion
and traditions—they appeared in
paintings and statues with Egyptian
royal dress and symbols—but to the
outside world they were Greek
rulers, appearing on coins in Greek
dress and trappings.
The Ptolemies were patrons
of the arts. They expanded and supported
the Library at Alexandria,
attracting scholars from all over the world. Temples they built at Dendera,
Edfu, Philae, Esna, and Kom Ombo still draw tourists today. They
built many new cities and towns. The Pharos of Alexandria, an immense
lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was
completed by Ptolemy II.
Under the Ptolemies, Egypt was prosperous and stable, exporting
huge quantities of papyrus and grain all over the Mediterranean. But as
a family, the dysfunctional Ptolemies were united mainly by shared names
and bad behavior. The Ptolemies were fond of high living and gross excess;
Ptolemy X was so fat that he could not walk unaided.
The Ptolemaic court was a complex, ongoing soap opera of scheming
courtiers, corrupt officials, double-crossing advisors, and backstabbing
siblings. It was peppered with intrigue, conspiracies, rivalries, and
murders. It is difficult to sort out the players. All the kings were named
Ptolemy, and most of the royal women were named Cleopatra, Berenice,
or Arsinoe. At least two Ptolemies married their sisters named Arsinoe.
Other Ptolemies also married their sisters, claiming reverence for Osiris and
his sister-wife, Isis. But their motives were usually political, not religious.
By the time of Ptolemy VII, Rome was the Mediterranean’s dominant
power. Like bickering children, feuding Ptolemies ran to Rome for
help. Ptolemy XII paid a large bribe (with Egyptian government funds) to
Roman emperor Julius Caesar to be backed as king. Rulers around the
region took advantage of Egypt’s internal disorder to seize her possessions
and naval bases. Egypt became a rich pawn in Roman power struggles—
vital because Egyptian grain fed the Roman mobs.
The last Ptolemy, Cleopatra VII, became queen at age 17. A talented,
ambitious woman, she is said to be the only one of the Ptolemies who
could understand and speak Egyptian. Her older brother, whom she was
scheduled to marry, tried to kill her instead (this was typical Ptolemaic
behavior). She fled to Rome—and returned with an army. Julius Caesar
favored her claim, and her. Cleopatra became Caesar’s mistress and they
had a son. She then married her younger brother, who became king.
After the death of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra took up with Mark
Antony, a former Roman consul who was engaged in a power struggle
with Caesar’s heir, Octavian (the future emperor Augustus Caesar). The
Battle of Actium, off the coast of Greece in September, 31 B.C.E., left
Octavian victorious. In August, 30 B.C.E., Octavian entered Egypt,
claiming it for Rome. Rather than surrender, Cleopatra committed
suicide. Dynastic Egypt died with her.
Octavian ran Egypt as his personal estate, selling Egyptian grain
to feed the Romans’ endless appetite for “bread and circuses”—free food
and entertainment supplied by the government. Roman Egypt was extremely
prosperous and productive, and the population grew rapidly. Several
Roman emperors appear in Egyptian trappings on monuments within
Egypt, but it was just a political fiction.
Major changes lay ahead. The spread of Christianity wiped out most
traces of the old Egyptian religion. The Coptic language evolved from
earlier Egyptian. Hieroglyphics, hieratic, and demotic writing disappeared,
replaced by the Greek alphabet with a few additional letters. The last
known hieroglyphic inscription was carved on a temple at Philae in 394.
Egypt remained a territory of the Roman Empire, and then the
Byzantine Empire, until Arab general Amr ibn el-As conquered the area
in 641. The Arabs introduced the Islamic faith to Egypt. Although a small,
strong Christian community survived (they became known as Coptic
Christians), Egypt became, and remains, an Islamic nation, firmly a part
of the Arab cultural tradition.

 

 

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