Ancient History & Civilisation



THE SEPARATION OF THE TWO LANDS INTO THEIR CONSTITUENT PARTS might have been the new political reality, but it was anathema to traditional Egyptian ideology, which emphasized the unifying role of the king and cast division as the triumph of chaos. As the Hyksos had shown five centuries earlier, the sheer weight and antiquity of pharaonic beliefs had a tendency to win in the end. And, as the Libyan elite became more entrenched, more secure in its exercise of power, a curious thing happened. In certain important aspects, it started to go native.

It was at Thebes, heartland of pharaonic orthodoxy, that the first signs of a return to the old ways manifested themselves. After the “reign” of Pinedjem I (1063–1033), subsequent high priests eschewed royal titles, dating their monuments instead to the reigns of the kings at Djanet. Not that men such as Menkheperra, Nesbanebdjedet II, and Pinedjem II were any less authoritarian or ruthless than their predecessors, but they were willing to recognize the supreme authority of a single monarch. This was an important, if subtle, change in the prevailing philosophy. It reopened the possibility of political reunification at some point in the future.

That moment came in the middle of the tenth century. Near the close of the reign of Pasebakhaenniut II (960–950), control of Thebes had been delegated to a charismatic and ambitious Libyan chieftain from Bast, a man named Shoshenq. As “great chief of chiefs,” he seems to have been the most forceful personality in court circles. Moreover, by marrying his son to Pasebakhaenniut’s eldest daughter, Shoshenq reinforced his connections with the royal family. His calculations paid off. After Pasebakhaenniut’s death, Shoshenq was ideally placed to take the throne. The chieftain’s accession marked not just the beginning of a new dynasty (reckoned as the Twenty-second), but the start of a new era.

From the outset, Shoshenq I (945–925) moved to centralize power, reestablish the king’s political authority, and return Egypt to a traditional (New Kingdom) form of government. In a break with recent practice, oracles were no longer used as a regular instrument of government policy. The king’s word had always been the law, and Shoshenq felt perfectly able to make up his own mind without Amun’s help. Only in far-off Nubia, in the great temple of Amun-Ra at Napata, did the institution of the divine oracle survive in its fullest form (with long-term consequences for the history of the Nile Valley).

Despite his overtly Libyan name and background, Shoshenq I was still the unchallenged ruler of all Egypt. Moreover, he had a practical method of imposing his will over the traditionally minded south, and reining in the recent tendency toward Theban independence. By appointing his own son as high priest of Amun and army commander, he ensured Upper Egypt’s absolute loyalty. Other members of the royal family and supporters of the dynasty were similarly appointed to important posts throughout the country, and local bigwigs were encouraged to marry into the royal house to cement their loyalty. When the third prophet of Amun married Shoshenq’s daughter, the king knew he had the Theban priesthood well and truly in his pocket. It was just like the old days.

To demonstrate his newfound supremacy, Shoshenq consulted the archives and turned his attention to the activities traditionally expected of an Egyptian king. He ordered quarries to be reopened and sat down with his architects to plan ambitious building projects. While ordering further removals of New Kingdom pharaohs from their tombs in the Valley of the Kings, he nonetheless took pains to portray himself as a pious ruler and actively sought opportunities to make benefactions to Egypt’s great temples. For the first time in more than a century, fine reliefs were carved on temple walls to record the monarch’s achievements—even if the monarch in question was unashamed of his Libyan ancestry. But for all the piety and propaganda, the art and architecture, Shoshenq knew that there was still one element missing. In days of yore, no pharaoh worthy of the title would have sat idly by as Egypt’s power and influence declined on the world stage. All the great rulers of the New Kingdom had been warrior kings, ready at a moment’s notice to defend Egypt’s interests and extend its borders. It was time for such action again. Time to reawaken the country’s long-dormant imperialist foreign policy. Time to show the rest of the Near East that Egypt was still in the game.

A border incident in 925 provided the perfect excuse. With a mighty army of Libyan warriors, supplemented—in time-honored fashion—by Nubian mercenaries, Shoshenq marched out from his delta capital to reassert Egyptian authority. According to the biblical sources,1 there was murky power politics at play, too, with Egypt stirring up trouble among the Near Eastern powers and acquiescing in, if not actively encouraging, the breakup of Solomon’s once mighty kingdom of Israel into two mutually hostile territories. Whatever the precise context, after crushing the Semitic tribesmen who had infiltrated Egypt in the area of the Bitter Lakes, Shoshenq’s forces headed straight for Gaza, the traditional staging post for campaigns against the wider Near East. Having captured the city, the king divided his army into four divisions (with distant echoes of Ramesses II’s four divisions at Kadesh). He sent one strike force southeast into the Negev Desert to seize the strategically important fortress of Sharuhen. Another column headed due east toward the settlements of Beersheba and Arad, while a third contingent swept northeast toward Hebron and the fortified hill towns of Judah. The main army, led by the king himself, continued north along the coast road before turning inland to attack Judah from the north.

According to the biblical chroniclers, Shoshenq “took the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem.”2 Curiously, the Judaean capital is conspicuously absent from the roll call of conquests that Shoshenq had carved on the walls of Ipetsut to commemorate his campaign, but it is possible that he accepted its protection money without storming the walls. The city’s lament—that “he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took away everything”3—may indeed be a true reflection of events.

With Judah thoroughly subjugated, the Egyptian army continued its devastating progress through the Near East. Next in its sights was the rump kingdom of Israel, with its new capital at Shechem—the site of a famous victory by Senusret III nearly a millennium earlier. Other localities, too, echoed down the centuries as the Egyptians took Beth-Shan (one of Ramesses II’s strategic bases), Taanach, and finally Megiddo, scene of Thutmose III’s great victory of 1458. Determined to secure his place in history and prove himself the equal of the great Eighteenth Dynasty warrior pharaohs, Shoshenq ordered a commemorative inscription to be erected inside the fortress of Megiddo. Having thus secured an overwhelming victory, he led his army southward again, via Aruna and Yehem to Gaza, the border crossing at Raphia (modern Rafah), the Ways of Horus, and home. Once safely back in Egypt, Shoshenq fulfilled the expectations of tradition by commissioning a mighty new extension to the temple at Ipetsut, its monumental gateway decorated with scenes of his military triumph. The king is shown smiting his Asiatic enemies while the supreme god Amun and the personification of victorious Thebes look on approvingly.

Yet if all this sword-wielding and flag-waving was supposed to usher in a new era of pharaonic power, Egypt was to be sorely disappointed. Before the work at Ipetsut could be completed, Shoshenq I died suddenly. Without its royal patron, the project was abandoned and the workmen’s chisels fell silent. Worse, Shoshenq’s successors displayed a lamentable poverty of aspiration. They reverted all too easily to the previous model of laissez-faire government and were content with limited political and geographical horizons. Egypt’s temporary renaissance on the world stage had been a false dawn. The country’s renewed authority in the Near East withered away just as quickly as it had been established. And, far from being overawed by Shoshenq I’s brief display of royal authority, Thebes became increasingly frustrated at rule from the delta.

The specter of disunity stalked the city’s streets once more.


SHOSHENQ I’S POLICY OF PUTTING HIS OWN SON IN CONTROL OF Thebes had succeeded in its objective of bringing the south under the control of the central government. This achievement, as much as Shoshenq’s drive and determination, had made his Palestinian campaign possible. It gave the king the ability to levy troops and supplies from the whole of Egypt, and to recruit mercenaries from Nubia. But the ethnic tensions between the largely Egyptian population of Upper Egypt and the country’s Libyan rulers were never far below the surface, and the capital city of Djanet was a world away from Thebes, both culturally and geographically. It was only a matter of time before southern resentment boiled over.

The king who tempted fate too far was Shoshenq I’s great-grandson, Osorkon II (874–835). During his long reign, he lavished attention on his ancestral home, Bast, especially its principal temple dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. Most impressive of all his commissions was a festival hall to celebrate his first thirty years on the throne. The hall stood at the temple entrance and was decorated with scenes of the jubilee ceremonies, many of them harking back to the dawn of Egyptian history. In conception, it was every inch a traditional pharaonic monument. In execution, too, it stood comparison with the grand edifices of the New Kingdom. But its location—the remote central delta, not the religious capital of Thebes—betrayed its patron’s provincial origins. Osorkon II further underlined his loyalty to his home city by building a new temple in Bast, dedicated to Bastet’s son, the lion-headed god Mahes. Yet, far from lionizing their sovereign for such pious works, the Thebans looked on in disgust.

Eventually, Upper Egyptian frustration reached the breaking point. The inhabitants of Thebes desperately wanted self-rule and looked for a figurehead to lead the charge. The spotlight, not unnaturally, fell upon the high priest of Amun, Horsiese. The fact that he was Osorkon II’s second cousin mattered less than the symbolic potency of his office. As head of the Amun priesthood, Horsiese represented the economic and political strength of Ipetsut and of Upper Egypt in general. So, in the middle of Osorkon II’s reign, Horsiese bowed to local opinion and duly proclaimed himself king in Thebes. Two centuries earlier, other high priests had similarly claimed kingly titles and ruled the south as a counterdynasty, separate from the main royal line in the delta but connected to it by family ties. Horsiese and his backers had obviously studied their history.

The declaration of independence by Thebes marked the end of Shoshenq I’s united realm, the end of his superpower dream, and a return to the fractured state of the post-Ramesside era. But the current sovereign, Osorkon II, seemed not to mind. For him, the devolution of power to the provinces was an honorable tradition, one that could be safely accommodated within the tribal system of alliances that was his inheritance from his nomadic forebears. He could tolerate breakaway rulers, as long as they were relatives. Keeping it in the family was the Libyan way.

In fact, Horsiese’s independent reign was a short-lived affair. Relations with the delta continued much as before, and any notion of real Theban independence was illusory. But the Amun priesthood, having savored the sweet taste of self-determination, had no appetite for a return to centralized control. The principle of southern autonomy had been reestablished, apparently with the tacit approval of the main royal line. The genie was out of the bottle. Henceforth, temple and crown would go their separate ways, with profound consequences for Egyptian civilization.

In 838, the new high priest of Amun, Osorkon II’s own grandson Takelot, picked up where his predecessor had left off, proclaiming himself king (as Takelot II) and establishing a formal counterdynasty at Thebes. Osorkon died just three years later, reconciled, it seems, to the explicit division of his realm and the diminution of his royal status. On his grave goods, he had himself shown undergoing the Weighing of the Heart, to decide if he was good enough to win resurrection with Osiris in the underworld. In the past, kings had enjoyed (or presumed) an automatic passport to the afterlife; only mortals had had to face the last judgment. Osorkon was not so sure on which side of the line he stood. In a gesture of farewell, the dead king’s faithful army commander carved a lament at the entrance to the royal tomb, but it was a threnody for a fellow traveler, not an elegy for a divine monarch. Within six years of Osorkon II’s death, even sporadic recognition of the northern dynasty ceased at Thebes, all monuments and official documents being dated to the years of Takelot II’s independent reign (838–812). The whole of Upper Egypt, from the fortress of Tawedjay to the first cataract, recognized the Theban king as its monarch. The future of the south now belonged to Takelot and his heirs.

But not everyone in Thebes rejoiced at this turn of events. Takelot and his family had their detractors, and their effective monopoly of the Amun priesthood’s great wealth caused serious resentment, not least among jealous relatives who harbored ambitions of their own. If the Libyan feudal system allowed for regional autonomy, it also encouraged vicious squabbles between different branches of the extended royal clan. Just a decade into Takelot II’s rule, one of his distant relations, a man by the name of Padibastet (perhaps a son of Horsiese’s), decided to chance his arm. In 827, with tacit support from the northern king, he proclaimed himself ruler of Thebes, in direct opposition to Takelot. There were now two rivals for the southern crown. For a dyed-in-the-wool Libyan such as Takelot, there was only one solution to the crisis—military action. From the safety of his fortified headquarters at Tawedjay—which was named, with characteristic lack of understatement, the “crag of Amun, great of roaring”—he dispatched his son and heir, Prince Osorkon, to sail south to Thebes with an armed escort to oust the pretender and reclaim his birthright.

Force won the day, and “what had been destroyed in every city in Upper Egypt was reestablished. Suppressed were the enemies … of this land, which had fallen into turmoil.”4 On reaching Thebes, Prince Osorkon took part in a religious procession to confirm his pious credentials before receiving homage from the entire priesthood of Amun and every district governor. Nervously, they all made a public declaration, swearing that the prince was “the valiant protector of all the gods,” chosen by Amun “amongst hundreds of thousands in order to carry out what his heart desires.”5 And well they might, knowing as they did the alternative. Once back in control, Prince Osorkon showed the rebels (some of whom were his own officials) no mercy. In his victory inscription, he callously describes how they were bound in fetters, paraded before him, then carried off “like goats the night of the feast of the Evening Sacrifice.”6 As a brutal warning to others, “Every one was burned with fire in the place of the crime.”7

With his enemies literally reduced to ashes, Prince Osorkon set about putting Theban affairs in order. He confirmed the temple revenues, heard petitions, presided at the inauguration of minor officials, and issued a flurry of new decrees. And all this administrative activity came with an admonition:

As for the one who will upset this command which I have issued, he shall be subject to the ferocity of Amun-Ra, the flame of Mut shall overcome him when she rages, and his son shall not succeed him.8

To this he added, modestly, “whereas my name will stand firm and endure throughout the length of eternity.”9 The stones of Ipetsut must have echoed back their approbation: after all the vicissitudes of recent history, here was a prince in the old mold.

The following year, Prince Osorkon visited Thebes on no fewer than three occasions, to take part in major festivals and present offerings to the gods. He had evidently calculated that more frequent public appearances might win over the doubters and prevent further trouble. He was sorely mistaken. Far from cowing the dissenters, his harsh treatment of the rebels had merely stoked further resentment and hatred among the priesthood. A second, full-scale rebellion broke out in 823, once again with Padibastet as its figurehead. The “great convulsion” precipitated outright civil strife, with families and colleagues divided between the two factions. This time around, Padibastet was the winner, thanks to support from senior Theban officials. He moved quickly to consolidate his position, appointing his own men to important offices. Thebes was lost to Prince Osorkon and his father, Takelot II. They retreated to their northern stronghold to lick their wounds and bemoan their fate. “Years elapsed in which one preyed upon his fellow unimpeded.”10

But if recent events had shown anything, it was that Theban priests were fickle friends. Another decade later, and Prince Osorkon was back in Thebes, restored as high priest of Amun to the groveling acclamation of his followers: “We shall be happy on account of you, you having no enemies, they being non-existent.”11 It was, of course, all hot air. Padibastet had not gone away, and the death soon afterward of Prince Osorkon’s father, Takelot II, merely strengthened the rival faction. A third rebellion in 810 saw Padibastet seize control of Thebes once more, but by 806, Prince Osorkon was back in town and presenting lavish offerings to the gods. A year later, Padibastet had the upper hand again. The prince’s faction could not so easily bounce back from this latest setback, and Osorkon once again retreated to the “crag of Amun” to ponder his next move.

Finally, Padibastet’s death in 802 shuffled the pack anew, and his successor showed none of the same determination. So, in 796, nearly a decade after his latest expulsion, Prince Osorkon sailed again for Thebes. This time, he took no chances. His brother, General Bakenptah , was commander of the fortress of Herakleopolis, and hence was able to call upon a significant military contingent. Together, the two brothers stormed the city of Amun and “overthrew everyone who had fought against them.”12

After a power struggle lasting three decades, Prince Osorkon was finally able to claim the kingship of Thebes uncontested. For the next eighty years, under him and his successors, the destiny of Thebes and Upper Egypt did indeed lie with the descendants of Takelot II, just as the old king had hoped. The family’s public devotion to Amun of Ipetsut had paid off. However, far to the south of Egypt, in distant upper Nubia, another family of rulers, even more devout in their adherence to the cult of Amun, had been watching the turmoil in Thebes with increasing alarm. In their minds, true believers would never stand for such discord in the supreme god’s sacred city. And so they came to a stark conclusion: only one course of action would cleanse Egypt of its impiousness. It was time for a holy war.


BACK IN THE HEYDAY OF THE EIGHTEENTH DYNASTY, THE CRUSHING victories of Thutmose I and III in Nubia had imposed Egyptian rule as far south as the fourth cataract and had smashed the kingdom of Kush. Smashed, but not obliterated. Time and again throughout history, the Nubian people had shown astonishing resilience, an uncanny ability to hunker down, bide their time, and reassert themselves when the Egyptians’ backs were turned. Following the collapse of the New Kingdom, they had done just that, picking up where they had left off. Kush was reborn as the dominant power, and its rulers, once more masters in their own land, grew rich from trade with sub-Saharan Africa. By the middle of the ninth century (just as Thebes was breaking away from delta rule), they were building lavish tombs for themselves in native style, infinitely more impressive than the pathetic sepulchres of their Libyan contemporaries in Egypt.

The rulers of Kush considered themselves superior in another important respect, too. They earnestly believed themselves to be the true guardians of Egyptian kingship. This astonishing conviction was a legacy of New Kingdom imperialism. When Thutmose I had invaded Kush, he had taken with him not just battalions of Egyptian soldiers but also the high priest of Amun. His objective had been not simply to subjugate “vile Kush” but also to convert its heathen inhabitants to the “true” religion. To the same end, Thutmose III had built a great temple to Amun at the foot of upper Nubia’s holiest mountain, Gebel Barkal. The Egyptian propagandists had declared the mountain to be the southern home of Amun and a Nubian counterpart to Ipetsut. Moreover, they had pointed to a towering pinnacle of rock at one end of the mountain that closely resembled a rearing cobra (the protector of Egyptian kings) wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt. The presence of such powerful symbols of kingship allowed the Egyptians to claim that Gebel Barkal was the original birthplace of the Egyptian monarchy and, a crucial piece, that Nubia as far south as the holy mountain was merely an extension of Upper Egypt. Not for the first time, theology provided Egyptian rule with an irrefutable legitimacy. Little did the Egyptians imagine, however, that once they left Nubia, their own propaganda would come back to haunt them.

Gebel Barkal, the holy mountain of Kush  T. KENDALL

The cult of Amun and the belief that Gebel Barkal was the origin and source of pharaonic authority were so inculcated in the Nubian elite that these beliefs survived as tenets of faith long after the Egyptian withdrawal. In the tenth century, a Nubian queen could happily cast herself as a crusading monarch, battling to extend Amun’s writ across heathen territories. The early Kushite rulers of the eighth century were similarly ardent devotees of Amun. Around 780, the Kushite chieftain Alara, who called himself a “son of Amun,” restored and rebuilt the ruined temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal. His successor, Kashta “the Kushite,” went one step further and proclaimed himself the rightful king of the Two Lands. Extending his area of authority as far north as Upper Egypt, he prepared to make his boast a reality.

The waning of Theban power under Prince Osorkon’s hapless successors gave the Kushites the excuse and the spur they needed. In the reign of Osorkon’s son, King Rudamun (754–735), the chieftain of Kush, Piankhi, pressed his claim to Upper Egypt. Faced with the legendary power of the Nubian military, the Thebans capitulated. Almost without a fight, Piankhi reunited the two Ipetsuts (Nubian and Egyptian) and restored the New Kingdom empire, but under Nubian rule. In a further delicious twist, Piankhi adopted the throne name of Thutmose III, identifying himself as the incarnation of the very pharaoh who had conquered Kush and established Gebel Barkal in the first place. In exchange for recognizing Kushite sovereignty, Rudamun and his heirs were allowed to retain their royal dignity, but they had to agree to retreat to their northern stronghold of Herakleopolis, there to rule over a much reduced territory. Thebes, meanwhile, was handed over to its Nubian conquerors.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Piankhi showed himself the pious and just ruler he claimed to be, graciously allowing Rudamun’s relatives to maintain influential positions in the Theban hierarchy. Most prominent of these was Shepenwepet, Rudamun’s own half sister. As god’s wife of Amun, she was the most senior female member of the Amun clergy and equal to the high priest in the order of precedence. Indeed, it was through her that her father, Prince Osorkon, had continued to control the priesthood once he had elevated himself to the kingship. For Piankhi to leave her in place showed a remarkable degree of tolerance for the old order. Or perhaps it was just practical politics. Looking beyond Thebes, the Kushite ruler could see trouble brewing in the northern Nile Valley, and the last thing he needed was a rebellion in his new Egyptian heartland. Far better to maintain the balance of power for more challenging battles ahead.

They were not long in coming. In the seventy years since Prince Osorkon’s final victory over Thebes, the Libyan pattern of collateral dynasties had run riot. Egypt was characterized by a degree of political fragmentation unprecedented in its long history. In Upper Egypt, besides Piankhi himself, there were two kings—at Herakleopolis (the last representative of the old Theban dynasty) and at Khmun. Both had negotiated some sort of compromise deal with Piankhi to retain their thrones, however tarnished. The situation in Lower Egypt was even more extreme. Confined to the family seat of Bast were the lineal descendants of the great Shoshenq I. Elsewhere in the delta, Taremu (modern Tell el-Muqdam) had its own king, Iuput II, while other towns were governed by a bewildering array of great chiefs of the Ma, hereditary princes, and mayors. Piankhi lumped them together, somewhat contemptuously, as “all the feather-wearing chiefs of Lower Egypt.”13 Moreover, he recognized the absurdity of so many different individuals calling themselves “dual king,” referring to his rivals simply as “kings” and reserving the full, formal title for himself.

There was one petty ruler, however, who was more concerned with real authority than its outward display. Tefnakht, ruler of the western delta city of Sais, did not claim royal status. He did not need to. As “great chief of the west,” he had already expanded his territory to include large parts of Lower Egypt, seizing control of nearby Per-Wadjet by 740 and adding the adjoining delta provinces to his growing realm over the following decade. He, not the jumped up “kings,” was the real threat to Kushite control.

Late in 739, as Piankhi was sitting in his palace at Napata, in the shadow of Gebel Barkal, the storm broke. A messenger, ushered through columned halls, past the bodyguards in the waiting room, and finally into the royal audience chamber, brought the news the king had been fearing: “Tefnakht … has seized the whole of the west as far south as Itj-tawy.”14 Worse still, the Saite leader was heading south with a large army; towns and cities on both banks of the Nile were opening their gates to him; his forces were besieging Herakleopolis, the gateway to Thebes; and Egyptian officials were rushing to his side “like dogs at his heels.”15 Tefnakht looked unstoppable. To make matters worse, the Libyan ruler of Khmun, Nimlot, had torn up his treaty of friendship with the Kushites and thrown his lot in with the rebels. It was time for Piankhi to act, to protect Thebes and its holy sites from the heathen aggressors.

Pious and pugnacious in equal measure, his response was immediate and decisive. Kushite troops stationed inside Egypt were given the order to advance, engage the enemy, and encircle and capture them. Special ferocity was to be reserved for the traitor Nimlot. His home district was to be besieged and attacked daily. Then Piankhi mobilized the main army, based in Nubia, and sent them forth with a crusading zeal: “You know that Amun, the god, commands us!”16 Theirs was a divine mission, and Piankhi gave them strict instructions on what do to on their march north. “When you reach the heart of Thebes, in front of Ipetsut, enter the water, purify yourselves in the river, and put on clean linen.”17 Only then they were to make offerings to Amun and kiss the ground in front of his temple, asking for his guidance: “Show us the way, that we may fight in the aura of your strength!”18

The Nubian troops did exactly as their sovereign had commanded, before continuing on their way north to engage the enemy. In a fierce naval battle south of Khmun, and on land near Herakleopolis, the Kushites carried the day. Word then reached Piankhi that Nimlot had eluded capture. Enraged, the Kushite ruler decided to go himself to Egypt, to take personal command of the operation, but only after he had celebrated the New Year festival, which he dedicated to his patron deity Amun. In the meantime, his forces threw a security cordon around the entire province of Khmun. Nimlot would not be allowed to escape a second time.

After stopping at Thebes to burnish his fundamentalist credentials, Piankhi arrived on the outskirts of Khmun early in 728. Like Ramesses II on the eve of Kadesh, he appeared in his royal chariot to encourage his troops before giving the order to attack. At his command, missiles rained down on the city, day after day, as the noose was drawn ever tighter. Eventually, “Khmun began to exude a foul odor.”19 It was the stench of death. A short while later, the city capitulated and its treasuries were emptied for Piankhi—even Nimlot’s royal crown was offered up as a trophy. In a pathetic gesture of submission, the defeated leader’s female relatives came to beg mercy from Piankhi’s wives, daughters, and sisters—a plea for clemency, woman to woman. Nimlot’s own act of obeisance was to appear before his nemesis with two well-chosen gifts: a sistrum made of gold and lapis lazuli, used in temple rituals to appease a deity, and a horse. Like every other Kushite ruler, Piankhi was a lover of all things equine. (He was so pleased with the gifts, and the gesture, that he had them immortalized in stone at the top of his victory monument, erected on his return home in the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal.)

Piankhi’s fondness for horses showed itself again in an extraordinary episode some hours later, when he went to inspect Nimlot’s palace. Two rooms in particular caught his eye, the treasury and the stables. What followed speaks volumes about Piankhi’s priorities:

The king’s [Nimlot’s] wives and daughters came to him and paid honor to him as women do. But His Majesty did not pay them any attention. [Instead] he went off to the stables, where he saw that the horses were hungry. He said … “It is more painful to me that my horses should be hungry than every [other] ill deed you have done!”20

The Nubian pharaoh would not be the last monarch in history to prefer horses to people.

The next ruler to submit was the Kushites’ erstwhile ally, King Peftjauawybast of Herakleopolis, confirming the total surrender of Upper Egypt. The conquest of Lower Egypt, by contrast, would be an altogether more difficult proposition. The first target in this next phase of the campaign was a group of rebels, including one of Tefnakht’s own sons, who had holed themselves up in a fortress at the mouth of the Fayum. On reaching the town walls, Piankhi railed against them, calling them “the living dead”21 and threatening them with annihilation if they did not surrender within one hour. His bellicose language evidently had the desired effect, and the rebels gave themselves up. Anxious to demonstrate his magnanimity, Piankhi ordered his forces not to kill any of the fort’s inhabitants. All the same, its granaries, like those of Khmun, were added to the wealth of the temple of Amun at Ipetsut. It was payback time for Piankhi’s divine patron.

Further capitulations followed, as the Kushite forces swept all before them. Next to lay down its arms was the Middle Kingdom capital of Itj-tawy, still an important town in the northernmost Nile Valley. And then, after weeks of campaigning, Piankhi reached the ultimate objective of his holy war, the capital city of Memphis itself. Once again, he urged its citizens not to bar their gates or fight, promising that, if they surrendered, he intended only to honor the local god Ptah and then “continue northward in peace.”22 He pointed to his exemplary record of clemency: “Look at the southern districts. Not a single person was killed there, except for enemies who blasphemed against god.”23 Memphis ignored his blandishments and closed its gates anyway. That night, under cover of darkness, the rebel leader Tefnakht paid a secret visit to the city, to steel its resolve. He knew only too well that without Memphis his cause was doomed. Leaving again before dawn, he slipped past the Kushite army before it realized what had happened. When news of the clandestine visit reached Piankhi, he flew into a rage. Ignoring his commanders’ suggestions, he led the charge himself, throwing everything into the capture of the capital. Having won the day, he was as good as his word, taking the earliest opportunity to honor the city’s chief god, Ptah. In Memphis, as in every other location he visited, Piankhi was at pains to portray himself as a righteous leader. His was no mere campaign of conquest, but a crusade to purify Egypt and restore its true religion.

Once the capital had fallen and all the citadels in the surrounding province had surrendered, a host of delta rulers came rushing to submit themselves. King Iuput II of Taremu, chief of the Ma Akanosh of Tjebnetjer (modern Samannud), and Prince Padiese of Hutheryib all made formal obeisance to Piankhi. When he visited Iunu to make sacrifices in the temple of Ra, King Osorkon IV of Bast (the lineal descendant of the great Shoshenq I) came “to gaze at His Majesty’s splendor.”24 The last, enfeebled representative of the once mighty Libyan Dynasty needed to see for himself the phenomenon that had so forcefully reestablished the majesty of monarchy. Following his lead, the assembled rulers of Lower Egypt pledged their allegiance and a large portion of their wealth to their new suzerain: “Send us back to our towns to open our treasuries to choose according to your heart’s desire, and to bring you the choice of our studs and the best of our horses.”25 They had clearly heard about the Nubian’s penchant for thoroughbreds, and were desperate to curry favor. Piankhi did not demur.

When a final halfhearted revolt against Kushite rule was swiftly put down, Tefnakht, the leader and the last of the rebels, knew the game was up. He sent an embassy to Piankhi to negotiate terms, not for a surrender but for a cease-fire. Despite his protestations of subservience—“I cannot look at your face in these days of anger, nor stand before your flames!”26—Tefnakht knew that he was negotiating from a position of strength. The whole of the western delta was still in his hands, and his troops could keep the Kushites bogged down for months if he so desired. To underline his confidence, he refused to submit in person to Piankhi but cheekily asked for a Kushite delegation to visit him in his capital at Sais. It was hardly the outcome Piankhi had been planning for, but if a long, drawn-out war of attrition was to be avoided, it would have to serve. Thus, in the temple of Neith at Sais, and no doubt through gritted teeth, Tefnakht finally swore an oath of loyalty to Egypt’s new, undoubted master. The following day, Piankhi witnessed a final, symbolic act of obeisance. The four reigning kings—Nimlot and Peftjauawybast from Upper Egypt and Osorkon IV and Iuput II from Lower Egypt—each wearing the royal uraeus, was ushered into his presence and, prostrating themselves, kissed the ground before him. While Egypt might have had five monarchs, only one was sovereign. The irony of the occasion was not lost on the assembled spectators. It had taken a Nubian to restore the dignity, if not the unity, of kingship.

Before setting sail for Thebes and home, his ships laden with the spoils of victory, Piankhi made one final gesture to underline his zealotry. Of the four kings assembled to pay him homage, all but Nimlot were barred from entering the royal enclosure, not because of their weakness or active opposition, but because they were uncircumcised and had eaten fish—serious affronts to Piankhi’s strict interpretation of religious purity laws.

Under Kushite rule, military strength would go hand in hand with moral absolutism. Might and right would prove a dangerous combination.

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