Ancient History & Civilisation

WHEN THE LAST OF THE RAMESSIDES PASSED AWAY IN 1069, little mourned and largely irrelevant, Egypt entered a period of profound change. The death of Ramesses XI was the stimulus for two strongmen, one in the delta and one in Upper Egypt, to assume royal titles and attributes, and to divide and rule the country between them. Whether the formal bifurcation of the Two Lands represented an outright rejection of the pharaonic ideal of national unity, or merely a return to a more natural state of affairs, it ushered in a long-lasting era of political fragmentation, of a kind not seen for a thousand years.

The Egyptians soon discovered that decentralization and regional autonomy could prove a mixed blessing. In the days of old, the consequences of a weak government might have been purely internal. In the first millennium, however, Egypt was surrounded by envious foreign powers, vastly more powerful than in earlier centuries. From the eleventh to the fourth centuries, Egypt’s strategic weakness led to repeated invasions. First Libyans, then Assyrians, Kushites, Babylonians, Persians, and finally Macedonians fought over the Nile Valley’s agricultural and mineral wealth. Foreign immigrants and nonnative rulers wrought significant changes to Egypt’s political organization, society, and culture, transforming pharaonic civilization forever. At the same time, ancient Egyptian religion, the last bastion of traditional culture, sealed itself off from outside influences and became ever more inward-looking. In the face of younger, more dynamic civilizations, Egypt’s introspection led in the end to atrophy and extinction.

Part V charts the final tumultuous millennium of ancient Egyptian history, from the Libyan takeover to the Roman conquest. The first three centuries of post-Ramesside rule were relatively peaceful, with collateral branches of a Libyan royal family managing to maintain an uneasy balance of power. But the return of Egypt’s old enemy, the kingdom of Kush, in 728 smashed the status quo, and for the next four hundred years the Nile Valley was racked by division, conflict, and foreign occupation. Four successive Assyrian invasions in the space of three decades culminated in the sack of Thebes, delivering a bitter blow to Egypt’s national pride. Amid the chaos, a dynasty from Sais maneuvered its way to power, throwing off the Assyrian yoke and repulsing attempted invasions by Babylonia, before finally succumbing to the Persians. Egypt lost its crown to a resurgent Mesopotamia, and never again regained its former supremacy in the Near East.

The ever present Persian threat hung like a dark cloud over the last native dynasties, whose members squabbled over the remains of Egypt, behaving like fractious warlords instead of mighty pharaohs. Alexander the Great’s arrival in 332 seemed to offer deliverance, and his brief sojourn in the Nile Valley had as profound an effect on Egypt as it did on the man himself. His successors, the Ptolemies, tried to recapture the glories of the past, albeit with a distinctly Greek flavor. But their constant feuding, coupled with their neglect of Upper Egypt—the crucible of pharaonic civilization—led to political instability, a long-running southern insurgency, and terminal decline. The last act of Egypt’s great drama was played out in the streets of Alexandria with a cast of characters as famous as any: Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. With her death, in 30, Egypt became a Roman imperial possession and its three-thousand-year-old pharaonic tradition came to an end.



PHARAONIC PROPAGANDA MUST SOMETIMES HAVE RUNG RATHER HOLLOW, even for a population fed an incessant and unvarying diet of government spin. By the time of Ramesses XI’s death in 1069, Egypt’s kings had been boasting of their famous victories against Libyan invaders for the best part of a century and a half. Back in 1208, Merenptah had ordered a great commemorative inscription to be set up in the temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut, recounting his crushing defeat of one such incursion led by the Libyan chief Mery. Just three years later, the Libyans had returned. Another military victory and another commemorative inscription had duly followed, but the pharaoh’s efforts had bought Egypt barely two decades of peace and security. And what Merenptah’s publicists had failed to mention was that the government had been forced to install a defensive garrison in the southern oasis to prevent infiltration from the desert—and that the very soldiers manning the defenses were themselves Libyan mercenaries! Poachers turned gamekeepers.

Under Ramesses III, the battles against the Libyans in 1182 and 1176 had been nowhere near as conclusive as the official propaganda had suggested. Behind all the triumphalism, the authorities had felt it necessary to fortify temples on the west bank of the Nile, including the king’s own Mansion of Millions of Years, with its valuable treasuries and granaries. Despite the Egyptians’ best endeavors, the Libyans who had been repelled from the western delta had simply turned southward to infiltrate the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt. The frequent attacks on Thebes during the later Ramesside Period showed the Libyans’ determination and persistence. Ramesses III had also boasted of forcing thousands of Libyan prisoners to “cross the river, bringing them to Egypt,” where they were settled in fortified camps (“strongholds of the victorious king”),1 branded with the pharaoh’s name, and forcibly acculturated: “He makes their speech disappear and changes their tongues, so that they set out on a path they have not gone down before.”2 Yet the integration had often been only superficial, and sizeable concentrations of Libyans around the entrance to the Fayum and along the edges of the western delta had resolutely hung on to their ethnic identity, forming distinctive communities within the local Egyptian population. By the reign of Ramesses V, a land survey of Middle Egypt noted a substantial proportion of people with foreign names. The Libyans were by now well ensconced. A generation later, a boisterous community that had settled in the central delta near the town of Per-hebit (modern Behbeit el-Hagar) was causing the Egyptian authorities particular concern. During the course of the Ramesside Period, Egypt had unintentionally become a country of two cultures, in which a large ethnic minority made its presence increasingly felt.

Of all the country’s institutions, the army had felt the impact of Libyan immigration most acutely. The Egyptian military had a long and proud tradition of employing foreign mercenaries, and had therefore proved a natural, and popular, career choice for many Libyan settlers. Whether manning remote desert garrisons or fighting on campaign, Libyan soldiers had served their adopted country with loyalty and distinction throughout the second half of the Twentieth Dynasty. Moreover, some of the more ambitious Libyan soldiers had been able to secure themselves positions of considerable influence at the heart of Egyptian government. Two such individuals were Paiankh and Herihor, the military strongmen who headed the Theban junta in the dying days of Ramesses XI’s reign.

By 1069, Libyans in Egypt had not only achieved high office, they stood ready to assume the government itself. With the death of Ramesses XI, and just two centuries after suffering its first Libyan raids, the Nile Valley passed into foreign control—not by invasion or armed conflict but through the discipline and determination of an enemy within. For the first time in Egyptian history, the underdogs had become overlords.

For the next four hundred years, Egypt was dominated by Libyan power brokers, a dramatic twist of fate that had a profound effect on every aspect of society. Although the earliest of these alien rulers, men such as Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet, sported traditionally pious Egyptian names (with their references to Horus and the ram god of Djedet), such outward trappings of pharaonic decorum were an illusion. Beneath a thin veil of tradition, non-Egyptian features flourished. In the predominantly Libyan areas of the delta, local dignitaries openly wore traditional Libyan feather decorations in their hair as a proud marker of their ethnic origin, and Libyan chiefly titles made a comeback. Once the Libyan generals had gained power after the death of Ramesses XI, their kinsmen had even less cause to integrate with the host population, and within a few generations many families reverted to giving their children unashamedly Libyan names that were strange-sounding to the Egyptians, names such as Osorkon, Shoshenq, Iuput, Nimlot, and Takelot. With such a strong sense of their own identity, generations of inhabitants of the western delta regarded themselves as Libyans, not Egyptians—a phenomenon still prevalent enough to be remarked upon by the Greek historian Herodotus five centuries later.

Together with the appearance of Libyan names in official inscriptions, the Egyptian language began to show other signs of the foreigners’ influence. Ever since the Middle Kingdom, written Egyptian carved into temple walls in finely executed hieroglyphs had preserved the classic form of the language. Vernacular spoken Egyptian, by contrast, had diverged a long way from this “pure” written form, to the point where the two versions were practically different dialects. While this posed no problem for native Egyptian scribes schooled in the classical script, it must have been a considerable impediment to the Libyan bureaucrats and priests who now ran the country. For them, mastering one form of Egyptian was quite enough. As a result, official inscriptions of the Libyan Period show a marked preference for spoken forms, workaday grammar, and simple vocabulary, in contrast to the more refined formulations of the ruling class.

Language and its precise use had always been of special significance to the Egyptian monarchy, since the choice of royal names and epithets expressed the underlying theology of kingship and set the pattern for a reign. But all this was alien to the Libyan rulers. They adopted the trappings of Egyptian royalty without, perhaps, properly understanding the trappings’ nuanced symbolism. Royal titles were simply recycled from one reign to another, repeated ad nauseam. The ancient designation “dual king” lost its sacred exclusivity and became just another handle. In their choice of royal names, too, the kings of the Twenty-first Dynasty seemed to be trying too hard, sporting bizarre and convoluted formulations such as Pasebakhaenniut, “the star rises over the city.” Such clumsy attempts at authenticity fooled nobody.

Indeed, the Libyan elite showed their true colors in their obsession with family trees. The recitation of long genealogies is a feature of oral tradition in nonliterate seminomadic societies, and the Libyans of the late second millennium B.C. were no exception. Even after they had gained a written language from their Egyptian hosts, they lost none of their penchant for celebrating long lines of ancestors. For example, one priest from Iunu had a monument carved with the names of thirteen generations of his forebears, stretching back three centuries, despite the fact that the family had been settled in the same Egyptian city and had held the same office for eleven of those generations.

Another carryover from the Libyans’ nomadic past was their relative lack of interest in death and the afterlife. Their animal herding ancestors had been used to burying their dead where and when they fell, with little preparation and less fuss. Ancient Egypt, by contrast, had always been punctilious about mortuary provision. Yet the country’s new Libyan rulers stayed true to their own cultural instincts and showed a casualness in their approach to the next world that must have been truly shocking to their Egyptian hosts. Individual burials were eschewed as a waste of resources in favor of communal family vaults with little decoration. Even the Libyan pharaohs were content to be buried cheek by jowl with their relatives, in modest stone-built tombs cobbled together from whatever blocks came to hand. Funerary equipment was often recycled from nearby burials, as if equipping the deceased for eternity were a chore, to be accomplished as speedily and cheaply as possible. The construction of splendid royal sepulchres in the Valley of the Kings, and equally magnificent mortuary temples on the Theban plain, came to an abrupt halt, never to be resumed. Tombs lost their special role as a meeting place for the living and the dead, the mortal and the divine. They were now little more than holes in the ground for bodies.

If the Libyans’ attitude toward death had an impact on pharaonic culture, their favored model of government had an equally powerful effect on the course of Egyptian history. In their homeland of coastal Cyrenaica, the Libyans had organized themselves along tribal lines, with fairly loose power structures based on family groups, reinforced by marriage ties and feudal allegiances. It was a world away from the strongly centralized absolute monarchy of the Nile Valley. Even before the end of the New Kingdom, Ramesses XI’s Libyan generals had shown their disdain for a unified state, with Paiankh and Herihor happily ruling the south while Nesbanebdjedet governed the north of the country.

The administrative division of Egypt into two halves had been a feature of pharaonic government from earliest times, but always with a single king to bind “the Two Lands” together. Once Ramesses XI was dead and gone, his Libyan successors saw no need to maintain this tradition. For them, having two kings ruling concurrently over different parts of the country was not anathema but entirely normal, not anarchy but sensible decentralization. In any case, marriages and alliances maintained the bonds of loyalty between the two branches of the ruling house and served to prevent breakaway dynasties. Yet the subsequent delegation of unprecedented powers to kings’ sons—many of whom were put in charge of major cities—and other aspects of Libyan feudalism inevitably weakened the power of the central government and the monarchy, with inevitable long-term consequences.

But all that was in the future. For now, with the last of the Ramesside pharaohs safely interred in the Valley of the Kings, his Libyan successors could count themselves well pleased. One of them was undisputed master of Upper Egypt; the other was lord of the delta. Egypt had entered a new era of foreign domination.


ALTHOUGH THE HISTORY OF THE LATE TWENTIETH DYNASTY—THE paralysis and eventual extinction of the New Kingdom—is written in the monuments and machinations of Thebes, the principal seat of government and the main royal residence always remained in the north of the country. Memphis had been the capital of Egypt since the dawn of history, and it retained its role as the headquarters of the national administration right through the Ramesside Period. Thebes may have taken on the mantle of the nation’s religious capital, but it was at Memphis that royal decrees were issued, officials appointed, and kings crowned. As for the principal residence of the pharaoh, Per-Ramesses had served that role ever since its founding under Ramesses II. The delta, not the Nile Valley, was the senior political partner in the union of Upper and Lower Egypt. For this reason, when control was formally divided between Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet after the death of Ramesses XI, it was the northern ruler, Nesbanebdjedet (1069–1045), who claimed the first prize, the kingship, while his brother-in-law had to play second fiddle as mere army commander and high priest of Amun. In this way, a convenient fiction of political unity was maintained, even if the reality was a partnership of two quasi-independent kingdoms linked only by ties of marriage.

The division of Egypt into two parallel states was the defining feature of Libyan rule. Each half of the country had its own system of government, its own administration, and its own ceremonial capital. No longer a mere theological conceit, the idea of the Two Lands was now a practical reality.

The delta had borne the brunt of Libyan settlement in the dying days of the New Kingdom, and it was here that the new political order was most keenly felt. The inaccessible marshlands and winding waterways had always favored political fragmentation, and in the heyday of Libyan domination, the delta divided readily into a patchwork of competing centers. Each was ruled by a chief of the Ma or a chief of the Libu (the two main Libyan tribes settled in Egypt), who owed theoretical allegiance to the main royal line. In practice, though, the “king” was only first among equals. Even so, the monarchs based at Djanet (classical Tanis) were conscious enough of their theoretical preeminence to embark upon a grand project worthy of their pharaonic status—the transformation of their royal residence into a ceremonial capital every bit as grand as Thebes.

From humble beginnings as a replacement for Per-Ramesses, Djanet grew rapidly under the patronage of the northern kings into the greatest city in the delta. It was sited on one of the main Nile branches, in an area as favorable for trade as it was for fishing and fowling. To create space for residential quarters and public buildings, the first priority was to raise the banks of the main river and reclaim the land on either side. Only then could construction start in earnest.

If Djanet were to be a northern counterpart to Thebes, it needed an equally magnificent ceremonial centerpiece, a grand temple to the state god Amun-Ra. Unfortunately, many of Egypt’s major quarries were under Theban control, and the northern kings’ economic power was severely circumscribed. A full-scale royal building project such as might have been undertaken in the glorious days of the New Kingdom was no longer a practical proposition. Instead, Nesbanebdjedet and his two successors Amenemnisu (1045–1040) and Pasebakhaenniut I (1040–985) adopted an altogether simpler expedient, recycling monuments and building materials from nearby Per-Ramesses and other delta sites. The once glittering Ramesside residence was systematically stripped of its stone as obelisks, statues, and building blocks were torn down to be dragged the twelve miles to Djanet and reerected. Often the northern kings did not even bother to reinscribe the plundered monuments—a further sign that they paid only lip service to the age-old traditions of Egyptian monarchy.

On top of a large, sandy hill, where a cemetery for the local rural poor had grown up in the Ramesside Period, Pasebakhaenniut I erected the centerpiece of his “northern Thebes,” a suite of temples to the Theban triad of Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khonsu. To underline the sanctity of the complex, he had it surrounded by a great brick wall (in ancient Egyptian, “sacred” and “set apart” were the same word) and he designated one area of the temple precinct as the royal necropolis of his dynasty. Just as Thebes had been rendered sacred by the combination of divine temples and kingly tombs, so, too, would Djanet. By New Kingdom architectural standards, the Libyan royal sepulchres at Djanet were deeply unimpressive—small, irregular chambers built from rough-hewn reused blocks, with little ornament or decoration. But what Pasebakhaenniut’s burial lacked in grandeur, it more than made up for in wealth. Within a great granite chest—pilfered, with no little irony, from the Theban tomb of Merenptah, scourge of the Libyans—the king’s mummy lay on a silver sheet inside a silver coffin, its face covered with a mask of beaten gold. Around the body lay other costly treasures—inlaid bracelets and pectorals, a chunky necklace of lapis lazuli beads, silver and gold bowls, and a gold scepter. Even the king’s fingers and toes were sheathed individually in gold leaf.

Wendjebaendjedet’s cup of gold and electrum   WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Yet this gilded opulence was not used to set the king apart from his subjects, as it would have been in earlier periods. An equally sumptuous set of equipment was provided for the man who shared Pasebakhaenniut’s final resting place. In another sign of the times (and of the feudalism of Libyan rule), this man was not even a royal prince but merely one of the king’s chief courtiers. Wendjebaendjedet was a general and army leader, like many of his ilk, and held temple office at Djanet as high steward of Khonsu. In this capacity he may have functioned as the king’s deputy in the daily temple rites. But there was no sense of second best in his burial. The amount of gold placed around his body demonstrated his exalted status. There were several magnificent golden cups, including one in the shape of a flower with alternating petals of gold and electrum; a heart scarab on a gold chain; gold pectorals; gold statuettes of deities; a remarkable figurine of the god Ptah, fashioned from lapis lazuli, nestling in a gold shrine; and a series of gold rings, one of them pilfered from the tomb of Ramesses IX.

This last object gives a clue as to the source of such great wealth. The kings of Djanet and their loyal lieutenants derived their grave goods—and the rest of their city—not from trade or conquest but from recycling and outright robbery. To understand the full extent to which the Egyptian monarchy had debased itself, we must turn our gaze southward, to Thebes.

While the delta had concentrations of Libyan settlers and exhibited a tendency toward decentralization, Upper Egypt presented a very different picture. The Nile Valley was ethnically much more homogeneous, with native Egyptians forming the overwhelming majority of the population, and the geography of the valley lent itself to political cohesion. Thebes remained the largest and most important city; whoever ruled Thebes ruled the valley. So, for Upper Egypt in general, the collapse of the New Kingdom state brought not local autonomy but another long spell of Theban domination.

Despite its thoroughly Egyptian character, Thebes had also fallen under Libyan influence during the “renaissance era” of Ramesses XI’s reign, due to the presence of Libyan soldiers in the uppermost echelons of the Egyptian army. And, as we have seen, it was under the military junta headed by Paiankh that the state-sponsored theft of valuables from the royal tombs had begun. While campaigning in Nubia, Paiankh had sent one letter to Thebes ordering the scribe of the necropolis, Butehamun, and his assistant Kar to “uncover a tomb amongst the tombs of the ancestors and preserve its seal until I return.”3 The general’s instructions to his henchmen marked the beginning of a deliberate policy to strip royal tombs of their gold, to finance the war against Panehsy and to fund Paiankh’s wider ambitions. The fact that all this was going on under the ancien régime shows where power really lay. Once Ramesses XI was safely dead, the New Kingdom monarchy consigned to history, and the military rulers of Thebes de facto kings of Upper Egypt, the systematic dismantling of the royal necropolis could be openly pursued as official government policy.

At first, the main targets for the robbers were the tombs of the Seventeenth Dynasty, the burials of royal relatives in the Valley of the Queens, and the kings’ mortuary temples at the edge of the cultivation. Then, on the pretext of safeguarding the integrity of all royal tombs, the authorities switched their focus to the Valley of the Kings itself. In the fourth year of Herihor’s rule (1066), Butehamun received an order to carry out “work” in the tomb of Horemheb. It was the beginning of the end for the royal necropolis. Over the next decade, the tombs of the New Kingdom pharaohs were emptied one by one. The workmen who carried out the task even seem to have had a map of the valley (surely provided by the authorities) to assist the clearance. Their main objective was to expropriate the large quantities of gold and other valuables buried in the Theban hills. These were swiftly removed to the state treasury, leaving only the mummies—rudely unwrapped in the search for hidden jewels—to be taken to Butehamun’s imposing office at Medinet Habu for processing and rewrapping. Little wonder that Butehamun was proud to call himself, without a hint of irony, “overseer of the treasuries of the kings.” So rife was tomb robbery in the Theban necropolis at this time that private individuals designed their interments with an obsessive emphasis on inaccessibility, to make the robbers’ job as hard as possible.

Besides larceny, Butehamun’s exploratory work in the Valley of the Kings had a second aim—to identify a permanent repository for the royal corpses that had been so rudely removed from their resting places. The tomb of Amenhotep II (next to the tomb of Horemheb) was eventually identified as an ideal location. One fateful day around 1050, the sacred remains of Egypt’s divine kings were unceremoniously gathered up and shoved higgedly-piggedly into one of the tomb’s chambers. In the process, the great Amenhotep III ended up in a coffin inscribed for Ramesses III, with an ill-fitting lid made for Seti II. Merenptah came to rest in the coffin of Sethnakht, while his own sarcophagus made its way north to Djanet to serve the burial of Egypt’s new Libyan ruler (Pasebakhaenniut I). In this unholy mess, the dignified Thutmose IV lay cheek by jowl with the child king Siptah, the military tough guy Sethnakht with the smallpox-ridden Ramesses V. It was a desecration of everything that ancient Egypt had hallowed. An even more illustrious gathering of royal ancestors—including the victors against the Hyksos, Ahhotep and Ahmose; the founders of the workmen’s village, Ahmose Nefertari and Amenhotep I; and the greatest of all the warrior pharaohs, Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ramesses III—were bundled into a secondary cache in the tomb of a Seventeenth Dynasty queen, there to await a more secure, permanent resting place.

The result of all this robbery, officially represented as restoration, was to give the army commanders and high priests of Amun who ruled Thebes wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Some of the plunder found its way north to their nominal suzerains at Djanet, there to be buried alongside Pasebakhaenniut I and his loyal lieutenant Wendjebaendjedet. (Indeed, the favored chief courtier who ended up with so much gold may have been the king’s agent in Thebes, charged with overseeing the clearance of the royal tombs on behalf of his master.) However, for every gold ring or pectoral transported downstream to the northern capital, a great deal more stayed behind in Thebes, to bolster the economic and political fortunes of the southern rulers. Both Herihor (1069–1063) and his successor as high priest Pinedjem I (1063–1033) felt secure enough of their position to claim royal titles, in a direct challenge to their overlords at Djanet. While Herihor seems to have balked at outright confrontation, restricting his claim to the inner parts of the Ipetsut temple, Pinedjem showed no such reticence. Official inscriptions from the second and third decades of his rule were dated to the years of his independent “reign,” with scarcely a mention of the kings in Djanet. For his burial in the hills of Thebes, he reused coffins from the tomb of Thutmose I, to add a little Eighteenth Dynasty luster to his own monarchical pretensions.

If the institution of kingship had survived the end of Ramesside rule, it had done so only by cannibalizing the past.


APPROPRIATING THE WEALTH AND TRAPPINGS OF MONARCHY MIGHT have been straightforward enough, but buying legitimacy was not so easy. Until the very end of the New Kingdom, the Egyptians had viewed Libyans and all foreigners with customary disdain. For the effortlessly superior natives of the Nile Valley, these hirsute, feather-wearing tribespeople from beyond the Sahara were, at best, mercenaries, and at worst, vile barbarians. Less than a generation later, the same Libyans could scarcely expect to be accepted as legitimate rulers of Egypt, even if they now held all the levers of power.

The solution to the Libyans’ dilemma lay, as always, in the subtle application of theology. It was no accident that, at Djanet and Thebes, temples were placed at the symbolic heart of Libyan rule. The great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut had been the religious epicenter of the New Kingdom monarchy. By replicating the temple in the northern capital of Djanet, Nesbanebdjedet and his successors were pursuing a very deliberate agenda, an attempt to gain divine sanction for their alien regime by placing the supreme god at the apex of society. Conveniently, they could present their policy as a continuation of Ramesses XI’s “renaissance,” taking Egypt back to its pristine state at the dawn of time when the gods ruled on earth. But in practice, it represented a decisive break with New Kingdom modes of rule. Supreme political authority was now explicitly vested in Amun-Ra himself. In temples and on papyri, the god’s name was written in a royal cartouche. One document said that Amun-Ra was “dual king; king of the gods; lord of heaven, earth, the waters, and the mountains.”4 On temple reliefs, Amun was sometimes shown in place of the sovereign, offering to himself or other deities, and he was widely addressed as the true king of Egypt. Nesbanebdjedet’s ephemeral successor Amenemnisu went one step further, announcing in his very name that “Amun is king.” It was an extraordinary claim.

If the god was monarch, then the king was effectively reduced to the status of his first servant. In Djanet, Pasebakhaenniut I adopted the moniker “high priest of Amun” as one of his royal titles, even enclosing it within a cartouche as an alternative to his throne name. In Thebes, his half brother Menkheperra (1033–990) was high priest of Amun, even if his real power came from the sword rather than the censer. This theocratic form of government effectively solved two problems at once. It made it theologically possible to have more than one mortal “ruler” at any one time, since Amun was the only true king. And it helped make Libyan rule more palatable for the native population, especially in Thebes and Upper Egypt, where pious Egyptians still dominated.

In reality, the theocracy was a convenient sleight of hand, a fig leaf to cover the embarrassing reality of a fractured monarchy. But it was important to maintain the fiction, so oracles became a regular instrument of government policy. In both Djanet and Thebes, the god Amun held audiences and issued decrees, like any human monarch. In the southern capital, this trend culminated in the establishment of a regular ceremony, the Beautiful Festival of the Divine Audience, at which the oracle of Amun pronounced on various matters of state. Of course, the people who benefited most from this new type of administration, besides the Libyan rulers themselves, were the priests who staffed and interpreted the oracles. Living in considerable luxury within the sacred precinct of Ipetsut, they helped themselves while serving their divine master.

Their devotion to mammon as much as to god bubbled to the surface in particularly striking form during the pontificate of Pinedjem II (985–960). An acrimonious dispute broke out at Ipetsut between the two classes of priest—the “god’s servants” and the “pure ones”—over access to the temple revenues. The god’s servants, as the senior of the two cadres, jealously guarded their special access to the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, which was barred to ordinary mortals. This privilege brought with it access to the offerings of food, drink, and other commodities that were placed before the cult statue of Amun during the daily temple office. Once the god had “finished” with them, these offerings were routinely gathered up and redistributed to the god’s servants, a nice little bonus. By contrast, pure ones were not allowed into the sanctuary; instead they were employed to carry out ancillary tasks in the outer parts of the temple. One such task involved carrying the barque shrine of Amun when it left the sanctuary to take part in processions, both within the temple enclosure and beyond the walls, through the streets of Thebes. In former times, this portering role would have gone unremarked. But now, with divine oracles taking center stage in the affairs of state, the subtle movements of Amun’s barque shrine, as it was borne through the city, were imbued with enormous significance. A sudden lunge, a fleeting tilt—these could be interpreted as indications of god’s will, with repercussions for the priesthood, the Theban realm, and the whole of Egypt. The lowly porters recognized that the destiny of the entire nation rested, quite literally, on their shoulders, and they were not slow in turning this influence to their economic advantage. Their demand for a larger slice of the cake brought them into direct conflict with the god’s servants. A new political reality had intruded upon ancient privileges.

So great was the material wealth of the Amun priesthood, especially in Thebes, that the Libyan ruling class used every means at their disposal to secure lucrative temple posts. Wives and daughters played a particularly prominent role, helping to secure their clan’s economic and political power by putting themselves forward for prestigious positions in the priestly hierarchy. Within a few generations, the office of “god’s wife of Amun” came to eclipse even the high priesthood itself.

Although the post-Ramesside rulers of Thebes styled themselves high priests of Amun and claimed to take their orders from the supreme deity, the real basis for their political authority was naked force. The power of the army, not divine sanction, underpinned their regime. Herihor and his successors were experienced enough tacticians to realize that coercive power was the most effective tool of government. So, right from the start, they set about reinforcing their military dictatorship with the architecture of oppression, a string of fortified installations throughout Upper Egypt. The initial links in this chain were five forts in the northern stretch of the Nile Valley—forts that, ironically, had been built by the Ramesside pharaohs to keep the Libyans out of Egypt. By the end of Ramesses XI’s reign, these forts had fallen into Libyan hands, to be used as a springboard for the takeover of the whole country. They enabled Egypt’s new strongmen to monitor Nile traffic and crush any local insurrections quickly and ruthlessly. Little wonder that the rule of the generals was established with little resistance before the last Ramesses was even cold in his grave.

Chief among the northern forts was Tawedjay (modern el-Hiba), which commanded the east bank of the Nile just south of the entrance to the Fayum. This marked the northern border of the Theban realm and was the principal residence of the army commanders–cum–high priests. It is telling that, from Paiankh onward, the generals who ruled Thebes visited the great city only on high days and holidays, preferring the security of their northern bunker to their city palace surrounded by native settlements. Perhaps they realized just how unpopular their rule was with the traditionally minded population of the south.

The simmering tensions in Upper Egypt exploded early on, at a moment of weakness for the military regime. When Pinedjem I elevated himself to the kingship, he appointed his eldest son, Masaharta, to succeed him as high priest of Amun. For someone with such an overtly Libyan name to stand at the head of the Amun priesthood must have been an affront to many Egyptians, but they had no choice. However, when Masaharta died suddenly in office in 1044, the Theban populace saw its chance and erupted in revolt. Masaharta’s successor, his younger brother Djedkhonsuiuefankh, was forced from office after the briefest of tenures. (To the skeptically minded, his rapid fall from grace would have proved the unreliability of divine oracles. Despite bearing a name that meant “Khonsu said he will live,” Djedkhonsuiuefankh had his fate sealed by rather more human forces.)

For a moment, it looked as if Upper Egypt might reassert its independence, but the army commanders were not going to give up without a fight. From the safety of Tawedjay, Pinedjem immediately proclaimed his third son, Menkheperra, high priest and sent him southward “in bravery and strength to pacify the land and subdue its foe.”5 With the full backing of the army, Menkheperra quelled the uprising and reasserted his family’s authority over Thebes. The ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up and banished to the Western Desert oases, their death sentences commuted to internal exile, perhaps to avoid stoking further resentment among the local population. Only after an interval of some years, with the flames of resistance well and truly smothered, were the exiles allowed back. However, Menkheperra retained the right to execute any future plotters who threatened his own life.

To drive the message home, he ordered a new series of fortresses to be built much closer to Thebes, at strategic locations on the east and west banks. Like the Norman castles of England, the Libyan strongholds dominated the Nile Valley, a daily reminder to the natives that they were now a subject people in their own land. Throughout the length and breadth of the country, civilian settlements, too, were fortified. The Egyptians were surrounding themselves with high walls to shut out an increasingly frightening and unfamiliar world.


IN THE DYING DAYS OF RAMESSES XI’S REIGN, THE GENERAL PAIANKH had posed in one of his letters home a heavily loaded rhetorical question: “Of whom is Pharaoh still the superior?”6 Its answer lay in its very asking. At that very moment, royal power was ebbing away fast, and the age-old pattern of pharaonic government was about to be radically rewritten. The formal division of Egypt between a line of kings at Djanet and their close relatives (the army commanders and high priests of Amun at Thebes) only served to tarnish still further the reputation of the Egyptian monarchy.

Furthermore, Paiankh’s protracted war against the viceroy of Kush, Panehsy, signally failed to reestablish Egyptian control of Nubia. With access to the all-important gold mines and the sub-Saharan trade routes lost, Egypt’s economy faltered. The loss of the Near Eastern colonies dealt pharaonic prestige another severe blow, reducing the state’s revenues from Mediterranean commerce. Even if Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet had been able to mobilize the nation’s manpower and resources as in former times, the state’s much-reduced coffers would simply not have supported ambitious building projects. It was all the northern kings could do to demolish the monuments of Per-Ramesses and use the secondhand stone to construct their ceremonial capital. Most of them did not even bother to record their achievements at Thebes, as all their New Kingdom predecessors had done.

Herihor’s military regime could have tried to win back some international prestige by going on campaign, in traditional pharaonic fashion. But Nubia was too distant and dangerous, and the Near East was separated from Thebes by the northern kingdom. More to the point, the army authorities and garrisons were preoccupied with internal security, which left them little opportunity or appetite for foreign adventures.

Nothing better illustrates the precipitous decline of Egypt’s international reputation than the Report of Wenamun, a text written in the early years of Herihor’s rule. Whether fact or fiction, it takes Egypt’s sharply reduced status on the world stage as a leitmotif, at times seeming to revel in the country’s embarrassment at the hands of its erstwhile vassals. According to the Report, Wenamun, an elder of the portal of Ipetsut, was sent by Herihor in 1065 to Kebny to bring back a consignment of cedar for the barque shrine of Amun-Ra. The hills of Lebanon had been Egypt’s principal source of cedar for two millennia, and a state-sponsored expedition to Kebny was nothing unusual. After stopping off at Djanet to pay his respects to King Nesbanebdjedet and his queen, Tentamun, Wenamun eventually set sail for Kebny, hugging the coastline as countless expeditions had done over the centuries. But no sooner had he dropped anchor in the harbor of Dor, a port in southern Palestine, than he was robbed by his own crew. Wenamun’s pleas to the ruler of Dor for compensation fell on deaf ears, and the hapless envoy spent nine days marooned in the harbor before setting sail again. Arriving at Tyre, Wenamun resorted to theft himself, stealing from a ship belonging to the local Tjeker inhabitants (the very same Tjeker who, with the other Sea Peoples, had invaded Egypt a century earlier, in the reign of Ramesses III). After fleeing at dawn to avoid detection and reprisals, Wenamun eventually arrived at his destination, Kebny—only to be refused entry to the harbor by the local ruler. In the changed circumstances of the eleventh century, an Egyptian envoy without documents or gifts could be shown the door just like any other unwelcome visitor. It was a severe embarrassment, both for Wenamun and for his masters back home. He had to wait nearly a month for payment to be sent from Egypt, all the while enduring the taunts of the ruler of Kebny. Eventually, Wenamun received the consignment of timber, narrowly escaped arrest for theft (the Tjeker having caught up with him), and fled once again, this time to Cyprus, where the locals welcomed him by threatening to kill him. At that point, the Report breaks off, but the tenor is clear.

In the far-off days of the Twelfth Dynasty, another great literary classic, The Tale of Sinuhe, had also taken as its theme an Egyptian abroad. The contrast between Sinuhe’s fate and Wenamun’s could not be greater. While the former had radiated Egyptian power to his Palestinian hosts, the tables were now well and truly turned. How the mighty had fallen.

A final humiliation awaited Egypt in its dealings with its former imperial possessions in the Near East. If a fragmentary relief of King Siamun (970–950) from Djanet can be taken at face value, this Libyan ruler launched a raid against southern Palestine, perhaps capturing the important town of Gezer. But rather than annexing it to Egypt or giving its treasures to the temple of Amun, as any self-respecting pharaoh would have done in former times, Siamun seems to have used the booty to buy the favors of the local superpower. According to the biblical First Book of Kings, the spoils of Gezer were handed over, together with the pharaoh’s own daughter, to Solomon of Israel.7

In the prosecution of New Kingdom diplomacy, the pharaoh had frequently taken other kings’ daughters in marriage to cement strategic alliances, but he would never have agreed to an Egyptian princess being used in this way. Now, in the tenth century, Egypt had to face the uncomfortable truth—a house divided, it was no longer a force to be reckoned with, merely another bit player in the febrile world of Near Eastern power politics. Egypt’s star had waned, its reputation was in tatters, and there seemed little prospect of a return to the might and majesty of the New Kingdom.

Yet, at least one Libyan ruler had other ideas.

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