Ancient History & Civilisation



HAVING COMPREHENSIVELY DEFEATED EVERY OPPONENT AND IMPOSED Kushite hegemony throughout Egypt, Piankhi could have gloried in his newfound status and enjoyed the considerable privileges of pharaonic kingship. However, as his love of horses had already demonstrated, he was a Nubian through and through, and there was no place like home. So, following his tour of conquest and victory in 728, he promptly headed south, stopping only at Thebes to install his daughter as eventual successor to the god’s wife of Amun and thereby ensure the continuity of Kushite influence in the god’s holy city. Having honored the cult of Amun, the Kushite king and his retinue continued on their way. Four days’ sailing brought them to the Nubian border at Abu, and a month later they were back in the familiar surroundings of Napata, their capital city nestled beneath the looming bulk of Gebel Barkal. Safe and sound in his sprawling royal palace, Piankhi reigned another twelve years, years of plenty and prosperity for Kush. But he never set foot on Egyptian soil again.

His attitude toward Egypt reflected his primary concern in going to war in the first place. If the campaign had been politically motivated, he would surely have taken steps to consolidate Kushite power, appointing loyal local governors to carry out orders on his behalf. However, his overriding objective had been religious, to safeguard the holy places of Amun from alien (that is to say, Libyan) interference. In that, he had succeeded. What happened subsequently in terms of Egypt’s internal politics was of little or no concern to him. It did not take the Libyan dynasts long to realize this.

As soon as Piankhi’s back was turned, his wily Lower Egyptian rivals returned to their old ways. Osorkon IV of Bast carried on playing the rightful monarch, sending a lavish diplomatic gift to the ruler of Assyria when he unexpectedly turned up on Egypt’s northeast frontier with a large army in tow. Elsewhere in the delta, Akanosh of Tjebnetjer recovered his injured pride by continuing to rule as before, while Piankhi’s archfoe, Tefnakht, now called himself king. It was as if the Kushite conquest had never happened. Indeed, Tefnakht’s refusal to submit to Piankhi in person had been a harbinger of things to come: the Kingdom of the West remained the principal player in the shifting politics of the delta, as Tefnakht sought to extend his influence over the whole of Lower Egypt. The Kushites should have learned the lesson the first time around.

Tefnakht died in 720 but his ambitions did not perish with him. His son and successor, Bakenrenef (720–715), was just as determined, just as hungry for power—and just as antagonistic toward Kushite claims on Egypt. To sum up his feelings, he commissioned an extraordinary goblet carved from pale blue faïence. An upper band of decoration showed Bakenrenef being presented with the sign of life by his patron goddess, Neith of Sais, and holding hands with the gods of kingship and wisdom, Horus and Thoth, under the protection of heavenly vultures grasping signs for “eternity.” (Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a characteristic display of Saite self-confidence.) In a lower band, captive Kushites—their arms bound behind their backs or above their heads—alternated with monkeys stealing dates from palm trees. It was a cheap racial slur, and a piece of propaganda in the best pharaonic tradition.

The new king of Kush, Shabaqo (716–702), who had only just succeeded Piankhi on the throne, could hardly take such an insult lying down. Unlike his predecessor, Shabaqo resolved to finish the job and bring his adversary to book, once and for all. After launching a second Kushite invasion of Egypt, he did not stop until he had captured Bakenrenef and neutralized him as a focus of insurrection. According to later accounts, the victorious Shabaqo had his opponent burned alive as a sacrificial victim. Certainly, the Nubian showed no hesitation in imposing his rule forcibly throughout the country. At Memphis, he intervened in the burial of a sacred Apis bull, amending the date on the tomb entrance from “year six of Bakenrenef” to “year two of Shabaqo.” Within a few months, the Kushite pharaoh was recognized across the eastern as well as the western delta, and he issued a commemorative scarab to celebrate his conquest. In characteristically bloodcurdling tones, it described how “he slew those who rebelled against him in Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and in every foreign land.”1

With the north brought to heel, Shabaqo could turn his attention to the south of the country. Thebes and its hinterland had always been more pro-Kushite—or anti-Libyan. The two amounted to the same thing. But Shabaqo was in no mind to leave things to chance. Although the office of god’s wife of Amun was safely in Kushite hands, with one royal relative already in the post (Kashta’s daughter, Amenirdis I) and another (Piankhi’s daughter, Shepenwepet II) lined up to succeed her, there were other influential positions in the Amun priesthood. Shabaqo decided he needed to control them, too, to be sure of Theban loyalty. As a first step, he installed his own son as high priest of Amun, having shorn the post of all political and military power. Then, favored retainers were appointed to other key posts. In subsequent years, a royal prince was made second prophet of Amun and a royal princess was married off to the mayor of Thebes to secure his allegiance. The Kushites had Thebes all wrapped up, or so it seemed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The Theban desire for self-determination was deep-seated, and the line of mayors of Thebes, while expressing undying devotion to their Nubian monarchs, in fact ran the city and its surrounding region as their personal fiefdom. They maneuvered their relatives into positions of influence in both the civil and religious administrations, and they grew fat on their wealth and status. A case in point was Harwa. Born into a family of priests during the reign of Piankhi, he rose to become head of Amenirdis I’s household. After her death, he continued to serve her successor, Shepenwepet II. Rather fancying himself as a man of letters, he described himself on one of his statues as “a refuge for the wretched, a float for the drowning, a ladder for him who is in the abyss.”2 His tomb was equally immodest and was one of the largest nonroyal funerary monuments ever built in Egypt. Moreover, in the privacy of his final resting place, Harwa could give free rein to sentiments that might have cost him his life if expressed in public: one of his shabtis held the crook and flail, the most ancient regalia of kingship. Harwa evidently fancied himself as a latter-day king of Thebes, and few among his contemporaries would have disagreed.

The existence of a de facto dynasty ruling Upper Egypt under Shabaqo’s overlordship simply reflected the uncomfortable reality of Kushite rule. In practice, it was virtually impossible for a single monarch and a single administration to control a realm stretching more than thirteen hundred miles by river, from the far reaches of Nubia beyond the fifth cataract to the shores of the Mediterranean. Although it must have stuck in Shabaqo’s throat, he had little option but to leave the old political structures in place, even as he was loudly claiming to have overthrown them. In the delta, the local rulers bounced back from their latest humiliating surrender. Men openly styling themselves kings continued to reign in Bast and Djanet, the twin centers of Libyan power. Hereditary princes still held sway in Hutheryib, and other local dynasties resumed their rule over the prosperous towns of Djedu, Djedet, Tjebnetjer, and Per-Sopdu. Even in Sais, hotbed and heartland of anti-Kushite resistance, Bakenrenef’s grisly end did not extinguish local ambition. A new strongman named Nekau emerged to fill the power vacuum and was soon adopting quasi-royal titles, too.

Behind the façade of a united monarchy, the political map of Egypt encountered by Piankhi in 728 persisted. History was not just repeating itself; time seemed to have stood still.


IN ANOTHER IMPORTANT RESPECT, TOO, THE KUSHITE MONARCHY represented a return to the past. With piety to Amun a central tenet of their claim to legitimacy, Piankhi and his successors set out to champion other indigenous Egyptian traditions that had been neglected or overturned by the country’s recent Libyan rulers. The Kushites saw it as their holy mission to restore Egypt’s cultural purity, just as they had saved the cult of Amun from foreign contamination. With active royal encouragement, therefore, priests and artists looked to earlier periods for inspiration, reviving and reinventing models from the classic periods of pharaonic history. An obsession with the past soon influenced every sphere of cultural endeavor.

Shabaqo gave a lead by adopting the throne name of Pepi II, to recall the glories of the Pyramid Age. His successor went one better, dusting off the titulary last used by the Fifth Dynasty king Isesi more than sixteen centuries earlier. High-ranking officials followed suit, adopting long-obsolete and often meaningless titles, just for the sake of their antiquity. The written language was deliberately “purified,” taking it back to the archaic form of the Old Kingdom, and scribes were trained to compose new texts in an antiquated idiom. A fine example was the Memphite Theology, a theological treatise on the role of the Memphite god Ptah. Commissioned by Shabaqo himself, the treatise was said to have been copied from an ancient worm-eaten papyrus, preserved in the temple archives for millennia. The authentically archaic language certainly fooled most scholars when the piece was first discovered. But, like much of the Kushite renaissance, the Memphite Theology was a product of the seventh century, cunningly designed to look like a relic of the past—an imagined past of cultural purity that existed only in the minds of the Kushite zealots.

The renewed prominence given to Ptah, alongside Amun, signaled the restoration of Memphis as the principal royal capital, a role it had fulfilled until the division of Egypt at the death of the last Ramesses. Not only was Memphis ideally situated to govern both delta and valley (the original reason for locating the capital at the “Balance of the Two Lands”), but the Kushite kings also had a particular fascination for the monarchs of the Old Kingdom whose monuments dotted the Memphite skyline. On his campaign north in 728, Piankhi had seen the pyramids, and they had clearly made a strong impression. Once back in Nubia, he commissioned one of his own, and in so doing changed forever the form of Nubian royal burials. To complement Piankhi’s pyramid, his tomb included other elements of a traditional Egyptian interment, including New Kingdom–style shabti figurines and copies of the Book of Coming Forth By Day (known today as the Book of the Dead), with extracts of the Pyramid Texts included for good measure. But the Egyptianization was not all-embracing. Piankhi still found room in his burial for a team of horses.

This same Egypto-Kushite blend of features gave artists of the period a new and vibrant style in which to work, revitalizing the output of the royal workshops. In statuary, there was a deliberate return to Old Kingdom proportions, the rather squat and muscular treatment of the male body perfectly in tune with the Kushite rulers’ self-image. The close-fitting cap crown favored by the Kushite kings also seems to have been chosen for its great antiquity. Yet certain features of royal portraiture were undeniably Nubian—African facial features, thick neck, large earrings, and ram’s-head pendants. Splendid but schizophrenic, the royal statuary made for Shabaqo and his successors reflected the contradiction at the heart of Kushite rule. These kings from upper Nubia were determined to present themselves as more Egyptian than the Egyptians, respectful of the ancient traditions. But underneath, they were foreigners all the same, born and bred of a fundamentally different, African culture. It was not always a comfortable mix.

Bronze statuette of a Kushite king  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Kushite rule reached its uneasy zenith in the reign of Piankhi’s son, Taharqo (690–664). He continued the eclectic archaizing of earlier reigns, copying Old Kingdom models for his Nubian pyramid, but, like his loyal servant Harwa, he based its underground chambers on the New Kingdom tomb of Osiris at Abdju. To recapture the glories of Egypt’s past, he ordered extensive renovations and renewals of temples throughout the country, from Meroë, in the far south of Nubia, to Djanet, in the northeastern delta. Of all these projects, the one closest to his heart seems to have been the temple of Gempaaten (modern Kawa), located on the east bank of the Nile at the terminus of a great overland track leading from Napata. Begun by Amenhotep III and extended by Tutankhamun, Gempaaten recalled Egypt’s golden age and thus represented the epitome of everything the Kushites wished to restore. As well as reendowing the temple, Taharqo brought the finest artists and craftsmen from Memphis to renovate and beautify it. Their familiarity with the great funerary monuments of the Old Kingdom strongly influenced their work, and this was no doubt the king’s intention. For example, a scene of Taharqo as a sphinx, trampling Libyan foes, was heavily based upon a similar scene in the pyramid temple of Pepi II, already sixteen hundred years old. This had itself been copied from the pyramid temple of Sahura, three hundred years older still. Recycling the past was an old tradition.

If Taharqo’s intention was to honor Egypt’s ancient gods and thus win divine favor for his kingdom and dynasty, his supplications seem to have been answered at an early stage. In the sixth year of his reign, when the king prayed for a good inundation, “the sky even rained in Nubia so that all the hills glistened”3 and the floodwaters “rose fast, day by day.”4 At Ipetsut, the Nile reached an extraordinary height of twenty-one cubits (thirty-six feet). More miraculous still were the aftereffects of such a great flood: “It made all the fields good; it killed off the vermin and snakes; it warded off the depredations of locusts; and it prevented the south winds from stealing [the harvest].”5 So impressed was Taharqo with these “four perfect wonders” that he commissioned a commemorative inscription to record them for posterity, with copies erected at Gempaaten and Djanet. To set the seal on the celebrations of this natural miracle, Taharqo’s mother made the long journey from Napata to visit him in Egypt for the first time since his accession. For the king, it was a moment of high emotion: “I had left her as a youth of twenty years when I came with His Majesty [King Shabaqo] to Lower Egypt. And now she has come, sailing downstream, to see me after years!”6 The deep bond between mother and son momentarily transcended the usual royal reserve.

Having inherited the martial instincts of his Kushite forebears, Taharqo lamented the diminution of Egypt’s status on the world stage, in particular the fact that tribute from Syria-Palestine was no longer sent to the temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut. To right this wrong, what he needed above all was a well-trained and disciplined fighting force that could project Egypt’s might beyond its borders as in days of old. The king and his army took great pains to achieve this objective, with long-distance running a favored method of building fitness. On one memorable occasion,

the king himself was on horseback to see his army running when he exercised with them on the desert behind Memphis in the ninth hour of the night. They reached the great lake [Birket Qarun] at the hour of sunrise and they returned to the Residence in the third hour of the day.7

In this six-hour nighttime marathon, the recruits covered a distance of nearly sixty miles, an impressive achievement by any standards. Such levels of stamina soon paid off. A strike against Libya—the first such campaign in four centuries—netted a good haul of booty for Ipetsut. This was followed by a series of military expeditions against Palestine and Lebanon, in which Taharqo succeeded in extending Egypt’s sphere of influence along the Mediterranean coast as far as Kebny. While not comparing with the conquests of the great New Kingdom warrior pharaohs, it was at least a start.

But a full-scale restoration of Egyptian imperial rule would prove an impossible dream. Unfortunately for Taharqo, another great king in the region had territorial ambitions of his own, ambitions that allowed no place for a resurgent Egypt.


FROM ITS HEARTLAND ON THE BANKS OF THE RIVER TIGRIS, THE KINGDOM of Assyria had first become aware of its Nilotic rival in the early fifteenth century. Following Thutmose I’s efforts to establish an Egyptian empire in the Near East, a wary friendship had developed between the two powers, the Assyrians sending tribute to Thutmose III in the wake of Megiddo and maintaining diplomatic, if strained, relations with the court of Akhenaten. But in Assyria, as in Egypt, a series of weak rulers had led to a serious decline. By 1000, it was once again reduced to its traditional heartland around the cities of Ashur and Nineveh. The ups and downs of the two great kingdoms mirrored each other again in the tenth to eighth centuries so that, by 740, just as the Kushites were beginning to consolidate their rule over the entire Nile Valley, the Assyrian Empire was being rebuilt by its own determined ruler (Tilgathpileser III). His tactics were ruthless and uncompromising. Conquered territories were administered directly by centrally appointed governors, who were themselves subject to spot checks by royal inspectors. To undermine local loyalties and identities, nearly a quarter of a million people were forcibly resettled across the empire in a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the time Shabaqo became king of Kush and Egypt, most of the Near East seemed to be smarting under the Assyrian yoke.

Faced with such an intimidating opponent, Shabaqo at first settled for a policy of cautious diplomacy. His first test came when one of the Assyrians’ more rebellious vassals, the king of Ashdod, fled to Egypt seeking political asylum. Shabaqo promptly sent him back to face his persecutors. But this entente with the Assyrians did not last long. When the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib began a systematic consolidation of his western territories, Egypt decided that the covert encouragement of local insurgencies would serve its interests better, and began to stir discontent among the fractious rulers of the Near Eastern city-states. The policy backfired disastrously. Sennacherib invaded Palestine to suppress a revolt, whereupon one of the ringleaders, Hezekiah of Judah, turned to Egypt for military support. It was a request Shabaqo could scarcely refuse. He summoned his nephew Taharqo (still just a prince of twenty) north from Nubia to lead the campaign, and the two armies met at Eltekeh, ten miles from Ashdod, in 701. Taharqo’s force was besieged, then heavily defeated. Withdrawing to a safe distance, he planned to attack the Assyrians from the rear once they had moved on to Jerusalem to demand Hezekiah’s surrender. But Sennacherib was too seasoned a commander to fall for such a ploy. He promptly recalled his troops from the Judaean hills, faced down the Egyptian attack, and forced Taharqo to flee back to Egypt with the remnants of his defeated and dejected army. Kushite military prowess had finally met its match. Egypt was on notice.

The accession of Esarhaddon as king of Assyria in 680 spelled the beginning of the end for Kushite rule. Esarhaddon was every bit as ambitious and ruthless as his predecessor, and determined to incorporate the Nile Valley within his growing empire. He launched a first attack in 674. Taharqo, fresh from his military exercises, repulsed the invaders and won the day. But he knew the Assyrians would not give up so easily, and gave vent to his uneasiness by publicly bemoaning the gods for deserting him in his hour of need. He was right to worry. Three years later, a second invasion force, this time led by Esarhaddon himself, swept down through the Near East, bound for the delta. After wiping out the city of Tyre, Egypt’s strongest ally in the region, the force pressed home its advantage and was soon at the gates of Memphis. Taharqo’s only option was to flee before the advancing army—leaving his wife and family at the mercy of the Assyrians. After just half a day’s fighting, the royal citadel was stormed and plundered for its treasures, which included hundreds of golden crowns “on which were set golden vipers and golden serpents,” eight thousand talents of silver, and fifty thousand horses. The Assyrian king could not resist gloating over Taharqo’s total humiliation: “His queen, the women of his palace, Ushanahuru [Nesuanhur] his heir, his other children, his possessions, horses, cattle and sheep beyond number, I carried off as booty to Assyria.”8 To rub salt into the wounds, Esarhaddon had an inscription carved to celebrate his victory; it showed the Kushite crown prince with a rope around his neck, kneeling pathetically at his new master’s feet. Two more rock inscriptions were cut at key points on the journey home to Assyria, the one at Nahr el-Kelb, in Lebanon, right next to a victory inscription of Ramesses II’s. The irony was not lost on either side.

Egypt itself was transformed by the Assyrian invasion. Towns in the delta were assigned Assyrian names, and Esarhaddon appointed “new local kings, governors, officers, harbour overseers, officials and administrative personnel.”9 These included the artful Nekau of Sais, who, within a year, had managed to have himself recognized as king by at least one neighboring delta princeling. Thus, when Taharqo returned to Memphis in 670, he faced rivals both inside and outside his shattered realm. A third Assyrian invasion in autumn 669 was only called off at the last minute because of Esarhaddon’s untimely death en route to Egypt. For the hard-pressed Kushites, it was a breathing space, but no more.

Sure enough, the third invasion came just two years later, led by Assyria’s latest and most ruthless king, Ashurbanipal. It was almost his first act as king and he had no thought of failure. Egypt was overwhelmed. Taharqo “heard in Memphis of the defeat of his army.… He became like a madman … and he left Memphis and fled, to save his life, into the town of Thebes.”10 There, he was kept busy putting down an opportunistic rebellion in the southern provinces. Meanwhile, Ashurbanipal imposed his formal overlordship on the whole country, demanding oaths of allegiance from the local rulers in the Nile Valley as well as the delta, and appointing Assyrian governors. Egypt was now a mere province of Assyria.

But the internal politics that had so undermined Kushite efforts to unify Egypt now offered them their only ray of hope. As soon as Ashurbanipal had left the country, many of the dynasts started to plot and scheme with Taharqo to recover Egyptian independence—on their own terms. They might have succeeded, had it not been for the efficiency of the Assyrians’ internal security apparatus. Once Ashurbanipal’s governors got wind of the plot,

they arrested these kings and put their hands and feet in iron cuffs and fetters.… And they put to the sword the inhabitants, old and young, of the towns of Sais, Pindidi, Djanet and of all the other towns which had associated with them. They hung their corpses from stakes, flayed their skins and covered the town walls.11

Public executions were held throughout the delta as a grim warning, and the ringleaders of the insurgency were deported to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, to be eliminated at Ashurbanipal’s pleasure. The only leader to escape with his life was Nekau of Sais, who made a profuse display of loyalty and was duly sent back to Egypt to govern his former fiefdom. As a further sign of Ashurbanipal’s trust, Nekau’s son and heir, Psamtek, was given a new Assyrian name and appointed to rule the delta town of Hutheryib, whose former prince had been executed along with the other plotters. Not for the first time, the cunning rulers of Sais emerged unscathed from a political maelstrom—unscathed and emboldened. Just as Tefnakht had been the main challenger to Piankhi, and Bakenrenef to Shabaqo, a third and a fourth generation of Saites now squared up against their Kushite adversaries for the mastery of Egypt.

Taharqo died in 664, defeated and dejected. Against the odds, his successor Tanutamun (664–657) made one last stand, a final attempt to seize back the Nile Valley from its Assyrian oppressors. Claiming Amun as his protector, Tanutamun turned his military advance into a public display of piety, ordering the restoration of ruined temples, making divine offerings, and reinstalling priests ejected by the Assyrians . The message was clear: once again, a crusading zeal would deliver the country from the infidels. However, this time the opponent was not a motley collection of minor rulers but a well-resourced, well-equipped, and well-trained occupying force.

Marching on Memphis, Tanutamun gained his first major propaganda coup. “The children of rebellion came out. His Majesty made a great slaughter among them, their number unknown.”12 The arch-collaborator Nekau was captured and executed; his fellow delta rulers simply refused to fight, retreating into their walled towns “like rats into their holes.”13 So Tanutamun returned to Memphis, there to await his opponents’ surrender. A few days later, the newly designated spokesman of the rebels, the mayor of Per-Sopdu, presented himself before the king to grovel for his life. As it happened, Tanutamun was in no mood for reprisals. Overcome by a rush of realpolitik, he instead released all his rivals to continue governing their respective cities. Hence, on returning home to Napata, he could claim to have restored Egypt’s fortunes:

Now the southerners fare downstream and the northerners upstream to the place where His Majesty is, carrying every good thing of Upper Egypt and every provision of Lower Egypt to please His Majesty.14

It was the last such boast any Kushite would make.


TANUTAMUN’S EGYPTIAN HONEYMOON WAS BRIEF IN THE EXTREME. Within months, toward the end of 664, Ashurbanipal responded to the Kushite takeover and the execution of his loyal lieutenant Nekau by invading Egypt for a second time. Memphis fell easily, aided by the lingering anti-Kushite tendencies and self-serving duplicity of the delta vassals, but it was not the major goal on this occasion. Instead, Ashurbanipal had his sights set firmly on Thebes, the religious capital and long-term supporter of the Kushite cause. After forty days’ march, the Assyrian army reached the gates of the great city. Tanutamun barely had time to flee before the fearsome Mesopotamians were swarming through the streets of Thebes, ransacking the temples, and carrying away fourteen centuries of accumulated treasure: “silver, gold, precious stones … linen garments with multicoloured trimmings … and two solid-cast electrum obelisks, standing at the door of the temple.”15 The sack of Thebes reverberated through the ancient world as a cultural calamity of epic proportions. Ashurbanipal summed it up succinctly, boasting, “I made Egypt and Nubia feel my weapons bitterly.”16

The Kushites had been driven back to Kush, there to stay. All of Egypt, from Abu to the shores of the Mediterranean, now recognized the Assyrians as their overlords. But if Ashurbanipal thought this would usher in a long period of Assyrian control in the Nile Valley, he had reckoned without those arch-schemers and most accomplished of political survivors, the rulers of Sais. The western fringes of the delta, with its thin population and low agricultural productivity, had always been relatively unimportant to the Egyptian state, yet, as Tefnakht had shown in the 720s, they could provide a power base for wider ambitions. Now a fourth generation Saite, Nekau’s son Psamtek, saw a chance to fulfill the family’s destiny and unite not just the entire delta but the whole of Egypt under his rule. After being placed in charge of Hutheryib and Iunu by the Assyrians in 671, Psamtek had inherited control of Memphis and Sais from his father seven years later. These four key dominions gave him jurisdiction over a vast, contiguous swath of territory and made him the unquestioned leader among Assyria’s delta vassals. Moreover, during his brief sojourn in Nineveh as Ashurbanipal’s prisoner, Psamtek had learned the arts of diplomacy and ruthless ambition from an acknowledged master. He now put the lessons to good use.

Bitter experience—the most devastating being the execution of his father—had taught Psamtek that political resolve was nothing without military supremacy. While still theoretically an Assyrian vassal, he set about building up his own forces. Raising an army in Egypt, right under the noses of the Assyrians, was not an option, and the Egyptians’ recent defeats showed how much they lagged behind in military tactics and equipment. Psamtek needed the very best, and he knew where to find it. Using his contacts with the wider Mediterranean world, he recruited Ionian and Carian mercenaries into his army, from the communities of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, putting them in charge of garrisons at key points along the delta frontier. Alliances with the king of Lydia and the autocratic ruler of the Greek island of Samos enabled Psamtek to boost the size and strength of the Egyptian navy. The presence of Greeks in the upper echelons of the armed forces did not go down well with Egypt’s traditional warrior class (of Libyan descent), but for the moment there was nothing they could do about it. Psamtek was a man on a mission.

The results spoke for themselves. Within months, two of the four Libyan chiefdoms that adjoined the kingdom of the west had submitted to Psamtek. The other two followed in short order, giving him most of the central and southern delta. Next to yield were Djedet and Per-Sopdu. Only the king of Djanet, the direct successor of the great Shoshenq I, held out against Saite hegemony, no doubt considering himself every bit as legitimate as his upstart rival from the backward western provinces. Yet by 656, even he had to recognize the inevitable. After eight years of sustained diplomatic and coercive pressure, Psamtek had emerged as the undisputed sovereign of Lower Egypt.

That still left Upper Egypt to be brought to heel.

Following the sack of Thebes, the departing Assyrian army had left the city’s mayor, Montuemhat, in control of the south. A close relative of Harwa’s and an equally dominant presence, Montuemhat had been a loyal servant of the Kushite Dynasty and was even married to a Kushite princess. In the heyday of Taharqo’s reign, none of this had done his career any harm, but it had latterly become something of an embarrassment. However, Montuemhat was a master at bending with the political wind. To strengthen his already considerable local support, he devoted himself to restoring the depradations of the Assyrian army, repairing temples and carrying out extensive building works to return the city’s monuments to their former glory. Not least among these was his own tomb, itself the size of an average temple. When it came to the final stages of its decoration, Montuemhat decided, diplomatically, to show his Kushite wife not as a Nubian princess but as the epitome of native Egyptian femininity—just in case his new political masters should suspect him of divided loyalties. It was through such maneuverings that he remained the effective ruler of Upper Egypt, from Khmun to Abu, under three different regimes, Kushite, Assyrian, and finally Saite.

In keeping with such masterful fence-sitting, official Theban documents continued to recognize the moribund Kushite Dynasty for the first eight years of Psamtek’s rule. The daughters of the two greatest Nubian kings, Piankhi and Taharqo, still occupied two of the most senior positions in the city’s religious hierarchy, god’s wife of Amun and “divine adoratrix of Amun,” respectively. In the face of such grandeur and tradition, a Libyan princeling from the western delta could hardly compete. Psamtek knew that effective mastery of the south depended upon control of the Amun priesthood. He had an answer to that, too.

On March 2, 656, a magnificent flotilla of ships set out from the quayside in Memphis, bound for Thebes. There were tenders, supply ships, and, at the center of the fleet, a royal barque, shimmering with gold leaf in the bright spring sunshine. In overall charge of the six-hundred-mile expedition was the prince of Herakleopolis and chief harbormaster of Egypt, Sematawytefnakht, Psamtek’s relative by marriage and a close confidant. He had been given the responsibility for planning the journey and requisitioning supplies from all the provincial governors through whose domains the flotilla would sail. As with the Following of Horus at the dawn of Egyptian history, this program achieved the dual purpose of sparing the royal exchequer the burden of such a costly undertaking while giving Psamtek’s local subordinates the opportunity to outdo one another in demonstrating their loyalty. Among the many exotic provisions under Sematawytefnakht’s command, there was one particularly precious cargo: Psamtek’s young daughter, Princess Nitiqret. For she was leaving the royal residence to follow a destiny mapped out for her by her father: she was about to be formally adopted as heiress to the god’s wife of Amun.

After sixteen days’ sailing, the flotilla arrived at its destination and moored at Thebes. Crowds of people lined the riverbank to see the princess come ashore. Before she had a chance to take in her strange new surroundings, she was whisked off by waiting officials to the great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut, to be welcomed by the god’s oracle. The formalities completed, Nitiqret was introduced to Shepenwepet II and Amenirdis II. How strange these two dark-skinned African women must have seemed to the delta princess! Yet they were about to become her legal guardians. Psamtek had taken a long-term view. Rather than forcibly ejecting the incumbent god’s wife and her designated heir and risk alienating Thebes, he had negotiated the adoption of his own daughter as their eventual successor. This set the seal on his reunification of Egypt and guaranteed that a Saite would eventually succeed to the most important religious office in the south. It was a diplomatic masterstroke.

And an economic triumph. At the heart of the legal agreement, which was drawn up in writing to ensure there could be no backsliding by the Theban authorities, financial concerns loomed large. The contract assigned to Nitiqret (that is, to her father) all the property of the god’s wife “in countryside and town.” She would receive daily and monthly supplies from the most powerful Theban officials, obligations from which they could not shirk. Heading the list of donors was Montuemhat, who promised to provide bread, milk, cakes, and herbs every day, together with three oxen and five geese per month—all in all, a considerable commitment. Joining him as donors were his (Kushite) wife and eldest son; their loyalty to the new dynasty was thus affirmed. The historic Ipetsut gathering of 656 brought together representatives of all the principal powers in Egypt’s recent past. Montuemhat was the last great figure of the old Theban hierarchy. Shepenwepet and Amenirdis, together with the high priest of Amun Harkhebi (Shabaqo’s grandson), stood for the old Kushite Dynasty. Sematawytefnakht embodied the altered dispensation in the north; while the young girl at the center of it all, Princess Nitiqret, represented Egypt’s new Saite masters. The ceremony was nothing less than a changing of the guard.

To reinforce his newfound authority in Upper Egypt, Psamtek dispatched one of his best generals to Thebes. His mission was to keep a lid on any potential dissent, establish a new garrison at Abu, and maintain a close eye on developments in Nubia. Diplomacy backed by force was the Saite way, and the new dynasty had no intention of allowing Tanutamun, his heirs, or his supporters to stir up renewed trouble in the south.

Yet the proud Kushites were not so easily tamed. After Tanutamun’s death in 653, new generations of Nubian rulers looked northward again with greedy eyes. As they rebuilt their forces and perfected their strategy, they waited for the moment to recapture their lost northern kingdom. After a long and patient interval, an opportunity finally presented itself in 593. Psamtek’s grandson and namesake, Psamtek II (595–589), had only recently ascended the Egyptian throne and seemed preoccupied with political developments in the Near East. The Kushites assembled their entire army in lower Nubia and prepared to strike. It was a profound miscalculation. Psamtek II differed from his grandfather in one crucial respect: he had neither the need nor the inclination to pander to Kushite pretensions. Upper Egypt had been firmly within the Saite sphere for half a century. Nitiqret had finally succeeded as god’s wife, and all the other important posts in the Theban administration had been given to Lower Egyptian loyalists. The Nile Valley was properly unified under central control for the first time in nearly five hundred years. No Kushite army was going to change that.

Warned of the impending invasion, Psamtek II did not hesitate, sending his own expeditionary force southward to Nubia, and accompanying it himself as far as Abu. Ionian, Carian, and Judaean mercenaries led the charge, pausing only at the temple of Abu Simbel to carve their names on the legs of Ramesses II’s colossi. On they pressed, razing the town of Pnubs (founded on the site of the ancient Kushite capital, Kerma) in an orgy of savagery worthy of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Walking among the Nubian dead, Psamtek’s troops are said to have “waded in their blood as though in water.”17 The army did not stop until it had reached Napata, where it sacked and burned the royal palace and smashed the kings’ statues in a symbolic act of vengeance against the Kushite Dynasty. Back home in Egypt, Psamtek II ordered the names of the Nubian pharaohs—Piankhi, Shabaqo, and their successors down to Tanutamun—to be erased from all monuments, even private statues. The aim, through might and magic, was to wipe the Kushites from the pages of Egyptian history. After 135 years of mutual hostility between the Saite and Kushite dynasties, with the Nubians having had the upper hand for more than half that time, revenge was sweet indeed.


IT WAS NOT IN THE ASSYRIANS’ CHARACTER TO LET A HARD-WON province secede. Having launched two invasions to secure Egypt’s dominion , Ashurbanipal must have been galled at the Saite expansion. Yet Psamtek I had broken free from Assyrian control with barely a twitch from Nineveh. The reason was a preoccupation closer to home. In southern Mesopotamia, right under the Assyrians’ noses, their old rival Babylonia was in the ascendant once again. Within months of Ashurbanipal’s death, a vigorous new king came to the throne in Babylonia and set about recapturing the lands lost to Assyria two generations earlier. Assyria decided to swallow its imperial pride and make common cause with its erstwhile vassal, Saite Egypt, in united opposition to this new threat.

At first, the policy was a spectacular success. Psamtek I came to Assyria’s support in the Near East, campaigning against Babylonian expansion all the way to Carchemish, on the banks of the Euphrates—the first time an Egyptian army had gone that far since the days of Ramesses II. Babylonia seemed to have been stopped in its tracks. But the tide of history was running against an overstretched Assyrian Empire. Despite Egyptian assistance, Assyria was heavily defeated by the Babylonians in 609 and forcibly absorbed into Babylonia a year later. Now fighting in self-defense, an Egyptian army returned to Carchemish in 605 and launched a spirited attack against a Babylonian force, but was thoroughly routed. Egypt lost its remaining footholds in the Near East and saw its allies fall to Babylonia’s sword. First Tyre, and then Jerusalem—one by one, the pharaoh’s friends were swept aside by the sheer might of the Babylonian military machine. By 586, despite a number of brave rebellions, the independent states of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine had been wiped from the map. Judah was enslaved and the Jews deported to Babylon, there to bewail their exile.

Egypt was now the front line. Psamtek II’s son and successor, Wahibra (589–570), successfully repulsed an attempted Babylonian invasion in 582, but knew very well that he would need allies to safeguard Egyptian independence. Following his father’s example, he looked to the Greek world, and appointed Ionian and Carian mercenaries to positions of prominence in the Egyptian army. They had served with distinction under Psamtek I and II, and might do so again in the cause of freedom. It was a necessary strategy, given the circumstances, but proved deeply unpopular with the native Egyptian military, who felt increasingly marginalized by the high-ranking foreigners in their midst. For the generals, the last straw came in January 570 when a disastrous campaign in Libya led to a full-scale mutiny by the surviving Egyptian forces. Wahibra sent one of his most experienced commanders, Ahmose, to put down the revolt. But far from reimposing order, Ahmose promptly seized power and was proclaimed king by the rebels. Turning back toward Egypt, he and the renegade army marched on the dynastic seat of Sais, seized it, and forced Wahibra to retreat to his heavily fortified palace in Memphis. By August, the general had been recognized as pharaoh, a second Ahmose, throughout the western delta. In October, after a lengthy standoff during the hot summer months, Wahibra attempted to regain his throne by marching on Sais. Ahmose’s army met him head-on and comprehensively defeated the loyalist forces. Wahibra escaped with his life and fled abroad … to the court of Babylon. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzar, could scarcely believe his luck. Here was an unmissable opportunity to meddle in Egypt’s internal affairs and put a Babylonian puppet on the throne of Horus.

Realizing the impending danger, Ahmose II (570–526) took immediate measures to guard against an invasion. He concluded an alliance with the Greeks of Cyrene, on the North African coast of Libya (founded by colonists in the seventh century), while removing a Greek garrison in the eastern delta thought to harbor sympathies for Wahibra. Pragmatism, not ideology, was the order of the day. In 567, a Babylonian force led by the deposed king attempted to invade Egypt by land and sea, but was roundly defeated. This time, there was no escape for Wahibra. He was captured and killed. Despite the ignominy of his final years, he was nonetheless buried with full royal honors by a victorious Ahmose. The new pharaoh had his finger firmly on the pulse of popular opinion and, although he was happy to be portrayed in satirical texts as “one of the boys” (no doubt to retain the support of the native military), he took pains in public to position himself as a pious and legitimate ruler.

If the army rebels who had put Ahmose II on the throne had been hoping for a reversal of Egypt’s recent philhellenic tendencies, they were to be frustrated. As part of his staunchly anti-Babylonian foreign policy, Ahmose actively curried favor with the Greek city-states. In the aftermath of the Sea Peoples’ ravages, Greece had been resettled during the ninth century and was now dominated by a series of independent cities that were actively extending their influence by establishing colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Greek wealth depended above all on free trade, and the city-states were no fans of a Babylonian kingdom whose expansionary ambitions threatened their prosperity. Besides this political alliance, Egypt also had a military interest in the Greek world, for the Aegean mercenaries were famed and prized in equal measure throughout the Near East. The pharaoh made generous donations to Greek shrines (he paid handsomely toward the rebuilding of Delphi after it was gutted by fire) and even married a Greek princess. But his flagship initiative was directed at the Greek traders in Egypt. Ever since the reign of Psamtek I, settlers from the Ionian coast had made their home in the delta. Mercenaries had become entrepreneurs, and many had grown rich from the import-export business, bringing olive oil, wine, and, above all, silver from the Greek world and sending Egyptian grain back in return. It was far too lucrative a business for the Egyptian government not to take an interest, and Ahmose II wanted a share of the profits. Under the guise of granting the Greeks a free trade zone, he passed a law limiting their mercantile operations to the town of Naukratis—conveniently situated just ten miles from Ahmose’s royal residence at Sais. This allowed him to regulate and profit from international trade, while posing as its enlightened sponsor.

With royal patronage and protected status, Naukratis swiftly became the busiest port in Egypt. It also developed into an extraordinary cosmopolitan city, where Cypriots and Phoenicians rubbed shoulders with Milesians, Samians, and Chians. Several Greek communities had their own temples—the Chians reverenced Aphrodite, while the Samians preferred Hera—and there was even an ecumenical “Hellenion,” where the different communities could come together to worship “the gods of the Greeks.” But alongside all this piety, there was also a seamier side to life. Naukratis developed a reputation throughout the Greek world for the attractiveness and looseness of its women. As Herodotus remarked, it was “a good place for beautiful prostitutes.” One particularly notorious courtesan had her freedom bought by the brother of the poet Sappho; he no doubt had mixed motives for her emancipation.

By the middle of the sixth century, under Ahmose’s wise and wily rule, Egypt was experiencing a minor renaissance. Prosperous and stable at home, respected and valued abroad, it could claim, once again, to be a leading power. In the space of a century it had seen off first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, and had won its spurs as a key player in the tangled web of international relations. It was also a changed country, more multiethnic and multicultural than in the past. But the Nile Valley had always been a melting pot and a magnet for immigrants, and had successfully absorbed them all. In the end, pharaonic civilization had always emerged stronger, triumphant. For the gods had ordained it, and it would always be the case—or so the Egyptians naively believed.

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