The exact time that marked the end of ancient Egypt is a contentious one. Was it the last native Egyptian rule of dynasties 28-30? Could it be the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.? Was it the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire in 30 B.C.? Or was it the demise of the hieroglyphics?
Relief of a Nobleman, ca. 1295-1070 B.C.E
The fall of ancient Egypt is still a debate among scholars and the factors that led up to its collapse are quite complex. It is argued that the weakening of the dynasty can be traced as far back as the nineteenth dynasty during the rule of Rameses II. Egypt’s advance in military technology was sluggish; the Egyptian army was using weapons of bronze while its fiercest opponent—the Hittite army—had access to the new material: Iron.
Egypt was also struck by economic crises, an orgy of tomb-robbing and attacks by foreign bandits.
In the period from 1070 B.C. onwards, under the 21st dynasty, Egypt was split into two: the northern part of the region was governed by the pharaoh and the south by the High Priests of Amun at Thebes. This disturbed the nation’s unity.
1085-664 B.C.—The Third Intermediate Period
Third Intermediate Period (1085-664 B.C.) lasted for about 400 years. Egypt saw political, social and cultural revolutions.
During the 21st Dynasty there was a rebellion carried out by local officials; Egypt was also invaded by foreign forces from Nubia and Libya who reigned over certain areas and stamped their culture on the society.
The period of the 22nd Dynasty, which began around 945 B.C., was founded by King Sheshonq I. He was a Libyan descendant who had conquered Egypt during the ruling days of the 20th Dynasty. In this era, the local rulers were autonomous.
Dynasties 23 and 24 were poorly documented.
The Nubian ruler of the kingdom of Kush, King Piye (752-722 B.C.) founded Dynasty 25. Egypt was once again united and the culture flourished. But it wasn’t for long, as the Assyrians under Esarhaddon set out to invade the country in 667 B.C. The Assyrians did manage a successful invasion but had no long-term plans to remain in the region. They left Egypt in ruins and vulnerable to the imminent invasion.
664–30 B.C.—The Late and Hellenistic Period
Cambyses II of Persia attacked the defenseless Egypt at the Pelusium in 525 B.C. His approach was a rather ingenious one. Having insight into the religion of the Egyptian people, he had his army paint cats on their shields. This was because he knew that cats were believed to be the living representation of the goddess Bastet by the Egyptians. He also ordered for cats and other sacred animals to be driven before the army at Pelusium. Cambyses II was able to defeat the last kings of the Saite dynasty Psammetichus III (he was the son of Nechoa) at the battle of Battle of Pelusium. Egypt became a constituent of the Persian Empire.
Persian rulers respected the Egyptian religion and culture; leaders such as Darius (522-485 B.C.) upheld Egyptian cults, built and restored temples. Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), however, was a despotic leader who sparked rebellions that extended to the reign of his successors. In 404 B.C., one of these rebellions became a successful one. This triumph ushered in the last period of native Egyptian rule, Dynasties 28-30.
This period was abbreviated by another attack of Persia in the mid-fourth century. Under Ataxerxes III in 343 B.C., Persia was able to restore its power in Egypt. However, in less than a decade the army of Alexander the Great of Macedonia was able to defeat the Persian force and conquer Egypt in 332-331 B.C.
Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria, by Placido Costanz (1736-1737)
Alexander was never seen as a conqueror; rather he was seen as a liberator. He instituted the city of Alexandria before moving on his pursuit of Phoenicia and the whole of the Persian Empire.
After his death, Egypt was governed by a line of Macedonian kings—Alexander’s general Ptolemy being the first. Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers. Her defeat by the Octavian forces in the Battle of Actium on 2nd September, 30 B.C., led to Egypt’s annexation by the Roman Empire. As a Roman colony, Christianity became the predominant religion of Egypt and the people were forced to forsake their indigenous cults.
Following the six centuries of rule by the Romans, Egypt was invaded by the Arabs under Caliph Umar in 646 A.D. and Islam was brought to the nation.
In discussing Ancient Egypt’s fascinating history, the Historian Will Durant writes:
“The effect or remembrance of what Egypt accomplished at the very dawn of history has influence in every nation and every age. ‘It is even possible', as Faure has said, 'that Egypt, through the solidarity, the unity, and the disciplined variety of its artistic products, through the enormous duration and the sustained power of its effort, offers the spectacle of the greatest civilization that has yet appeared on the earth.' We shall do well to equal it.”