Ancient History & Civilisation



THE RULERS OF THE WESTERN DELTA CITY OF SAIS WERE THE GREAT survivors of ancient Egyptian history. Over the course of two centuries, they plotted, schemed, and muscled their way into a position of dominance, not just in their Lower Egyptian homeland but throughout the Nile Valley. Starting with the prince of the west, Tefnakht, in 728, the canny Saites had refused to kowtow to a rival dynasty from Nubia and had remained a thorn in the side of the Kushites for seventy years. They had then used Assyrian protection to widen their power base in the delta, finally throwing off their vassal status and claiming the prize of a united monarchy. As the ruling dynasty of Egypt, they had proved equally astute, siding with the Assyrians to counter the mutual threat from Babylonia. Honoring the native gods while buying the support of Greek mercenaries, the house of Psamtek succeeded in maintaining Egypt’s status and independence in an increasingly uncertain world.

But even the Saites were not invincible. Within a decade of repelling a Babylonian invasion, they found themselves facing an even more determined and implacable foe—an enemy that seemed to come out of nowhere.

In 559, a vigorous young man named Kurash (better known as Cyrus) acceeded to the throne of an obscure, insignificant, and distant land called Persia, then a vassal of the powerful Median Empire. Cyrus, however, had ambitions and soon rebelled against his overlord, dethroning him and claiming Media for himself. The Egyptian pharaoh showed little interest in all of this. It was a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom he knew nothing. Yet Egypt would come to rue its complacency. Within two decades of coming to power, Cyrus had conquered first the Anatolian kingdom of Lydia and then Babylonia, to become the undisputed ruler of an empire stretching from the shores of the Aegean to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Suddenly, out of the blue, there was a frightening new superpower in the region with a seemingly relentless appetite for conquest.

All Ahmose II could do was hire more Greek mercenaries, build up his naval forces, and hope for the best. Cyrus’s death in 530, while fighting the fierce Scythian nomads of Central Asia, seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. However, any thought of a reprieve was swiftly dashed by events in Egypt itself. King Ahmose, with his army background and strategic ability, had successfully held the line for four decades. So his demise in 526 and the accession of a new, untried, and untested pharaoh, Psamtek III (526–525), dealt the country a blow. The death of a monarch was always a time of vulnerability, but with an aggressor on the doorstep, it was nothing short of a disaster for Egypt.

The new great king of Persia, Cambyses, saw an opportunity and seized it. Within weeks of receiving the news of Ahmose’s death, he was on the march and heading for the delta. In 525, his forces invaded Egypt, captured Memphis, executed Psamtek III, and forcibly incorporated the Two Lands into the growing Persian realm.

Cambyses lost no time in imposing Persian-style rule on his latest dominion. He abolished the office of god’s wife of Amun, denying Ahmose’s daughter her inheritance and pushing aside the incumbent god’s wife of Amun, Ankhnesneferibra, who had been in office for a remarkable sixty years. There would be no more god’s wives to act as a focus for native Egyptian sentiment in Upper Egypt. Not that every Egyptian official saw the Persian takeover as a calamity. Some found it only too easy to change allegiance when faced with the new reality. One such was the overseer of works Khnemibra. Coming from a long line of architects that stretched back 750 years to the reign of Ramesses II, Khnemibra—like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him—bore an overtly loyalist name (in his case the throne name of Ahmose II), and he had served his pharaoh faithfully in the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat. But for all his professed loyalty to the Saite Dynasty, he showed no hesitation in accommodating himself to the Persian invasion. He not only survived the change of regime, he prospered, continuing to serve his new Persian masters and being rewarded for his trouble with a clutch of lucrative priestly offices. For many like Khnemibra, personal advancement trumped patriotism every time.

Others may have had slightly more altruistic reasons for collaborating with the Persians. For the Egyptian elite, nothing embodied their cherished culture and traditions better than their religion. Indeed, every prominent member of society took pains to demonstrate his piety to his town cult, and active patronage of the local temple was a prerequisite for winning respect in one’s community. When faced with alien conquerors who worshipped strange gods, some Egyptians decided not to fight but to try to win the Persians over—to the Egyptian way of doing things.

A native of Sais, proudest of delta cities, managed to do just that. Wedjahorresnet had all the right credentials. His father had been a priest in the local temple, and Wedjahorresnet had grown up with a deep devotion to the goddess Neith. Like many a Saite before him, he had pursued a career in the military, rising to the position of admiral under Ahmose II. His naval activities must have included sea battles against the invading Persians. He described the invasion as a “great disaster … the like of which had never happened in this land [before].”1 Yet within months of Cambyses’s victory, Wedjahorresnet had ingratiated himself with his new master, winning trust as a senior courtier and being appointed as the king’s chief physician, with intimate access to the royal presence. In public, Wedjahorresnet’s conversion was as thorough as it was rapid, and he showed no trace of embarrassment in lauding the Persian invasion in glowing terms:

The great leader of all foreign lands, Cambyses, came to Egypt, the foreigners of all foreign lands with him. When he had assumed rule over this land throughout its length, they settled there and he became great ruler of Egypt, the great ruler of all foreign lands.2

Yet there was more than simple collaboration behind this astonishing volte-face. With his knowledge of Egyptian customs, Wedjahorresnet was in a unique position to guide the country’s new Persian masters and begin the process of Egyptianization, which would turn them into respectable, even legitimate, pharaohs. An important step in this process was the composition of a royal titulary for Cambyses, which Wedjahorresnet masterminded and no doubt strongly encouraged. Little by little, slowly but surely, the Persians were acculturated, following in the footsteps of previous foreign dynasties—Hyksos, Libyan, and Kushite.

Cambyses seems to have acquiesced to the process. With his vast and polyglot empire, he could ill afford to take a culturally purist view. Instead, he showed great tolerance for the different cultures and traditions within his realm. His predecessor Cyrus had released the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and Cambyses followed suit, protecting the large Jewish community in Egypt on the island of Abu. Elsewhere in the Nile Valley, he was perfectly willing to retain the services of Egyptian officials, and life for many people, especially in the provinces, continued much as before. Only in the military were Egyptian officers replaced and their leadership skills directed anew, as with Wedjahorresnet.

Having been forced to relinquish his naval command, the erstwhile admiral turned his talents to safeguarding and honoring his local temple. His position at court gave him special influence, and he set about using it to further the cult of Neith at Sais. First, he complained to Cambyses about the “foreigners” who had desecrated the temple by installing themselves inside its sacred precinct, and he persuaded his master to issue an eviction notice. After further lobbying, Cambyses ordered the temple to be purified, and its priesthood and offerings reinstated, just as they had been before the Persian invasion. As Wedjahorresnet explained, “His Majesty did these things because I caused His Majesty to understand the importance of Sais.”3 To set the seal on this “conversion,” Cambyses paid a personal visit to the temple and kissed the ground before the statue of Neith, “as every king does.”4 The Persian conqueror was well on the way to becoming a proper pharaoh.

The same pattern was followed at sites throughout Egypt. In the delta city of Taremu, the local bigwig Nesmahes used his influence—he was overseer of the royal harem—to enrich his community and its cult. It may have helped that the Persian kings readily identified with the power of the local lion god, Mahes, but, here as elsewhere, the determination of Egyptian officials to convert their new masters was a key factor behind developments in the First Persian Period. At Memphis, burials of the sacred Apis bulls continued without interruption, and the Egyptian responsible for the cult could even boast of proselytizing the country’s new rulers: “I put fear of you [Apis] in the hearts of all people and foreigners of every foreign land who were in Egypt.”5

The Egyptians might have lost their political independence, but they were determined to maintain their cherished cultural traditions.


IN REALITY, THE PERSIAN CONQUEST OF EGYPT WAS FAR FROM BEING A “great disaster.” If anything, the country’s new rulers brought a much needed dynamism and energy to the government of the Nile Valley, breathing new life into its institutions and infrastructure. The high point of this renaissance was the reign of Cambyses’s successor Darius I (522–486). He took a particularly keen interest in Egypt’s repositories of learning, the “houses of life” attached to the major temples. From his royal palace at Susa (built by Egyptian craftsmen with ebony and ivory from Nubia), he ordered Wedjahorresnet, by now an old and trusted retainer living at the Persian court, to return to Sais and restore the house of life after it had fallen into ruin.

Perhaps drawing on the temple records, Darius is said to have codified the laws of Egypt to establish a firm basis for government. He recognized that Egypt was not just another satrapy in his empire. Egypt’s great wealth and ancient culture gave it a special significance, and it was simply too important a possession to risk losing. Hence the satrap (Persian governor) based in Memphis was not allowed any control over economic affairs. Instead, these were the responsibility of a separate chancellor, who was also tasked with keeping an eye on the satrap, to prevent him from going native. Satraps were frequently recalled to Persia to account for their activities in person before the great king.

On the whole, though, Darius ruled Egypt with a light touch. Native Egyptians continued to hold high office, the tribute exacted was not excessive, and contemporary documents suggest a degree of prosperity, even in the provinces. The keys to Persian control were excellent communication with the rest of the empire, a good intelligence network, and strategically placed garrisons. From the island of Dorginarti, in lower Nubia, to the deserts of the Sinai, imposing fortresses ringed Egypt’s perimeter, giving the Persians the means to put down any signs of insurrection quickly and decisively.

The Persian great king Darius I in the guise of an Egyptian pharaoh  TOBY WILKINSON

When it came to exploiting Egypt’s vast economic potential, Darius’s priority was to encourage maritime trade between the Nile Valley and the Persian Gulf. In Upper Egypt, the overland track through the Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea coast was reopened and was used regularly by Persian expeditions. In Lower Egypt, however, no such route existed, so a different solution had to be found. The answer was one of the greatest engineering projects in ancient Egyptian history, every bit as ambitious as the pyramids at Giza. Back in the heyday of Saite control, Nekau II (610–595) had initiated a scheme to build a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. Now, a hundred years later, his idea was finally realized. Where the Saites had merely dreamed, the Persians delivered. The result was a canal 150 feet wide that ran for some forty miles from the easternmost branch of the Nile, along the Wadi Tumilat, to the Bitter Lakes and thence southward to the Gulf of Suez.

As ships sailed the four days’ journey from one end to the other, they passed massive stelae of pink granite, set up at strategic points along the canal. On each giant slab, ten feet high and seven feet wide, carefully chosen scenes and texts emphasized Darius’s dominion over his vast empire. One side of the stelae depicted the great king under the protection of his Persian god Ahura Mazda, with an accompanying text in cuneiform; the other side showed the emblem of Egyptian unification under a winged sun disk, with a laudatory inscription in hieroglyphics. In time-honored pharaonic fashion, the Egyptian version also included a frieze of twenty-four kneeling figures, each perched on an oval ring containing the name of an imperial province. Such scenes would have been a familiar sight to any Egyptian acquainted with the great temples of the land—except that, on Darius’s monuments, one of the subject territories was Egypt itself. Little comfort that it was listed alongside such exotic and fabled lands as Persia, Media, Babylonia, Assyria, and even India. Darius drove the message home on the other side of the stela, where he boasted “I, a Persian, with Persians, I seized Egypt. I gave orders to dig a canal from the river that is in Egypt—the Nile is its name—to the bitter river [that is, the Red Sea] that flows from Persia.”6 To celebrate the official opening of his landmark project in 497, the king paid a personal visit to the canal and looked on proudly as a fleet of twenty-four ships laden with Egyptian tribute made its way slowly eastward, bound for Persia.

If the ancient Suez Canal was born of an interest in maritime trade routes, the Persians’ desire to control the desert routes across the Sahara, on the other side of Egypt, spawned an equally impressive feat of engineering. Kharga, the southernmost of the four great Egyptian oases, had long been a key nexus in desert communication, where a network of tracks converged, linking the Nile Valley with Nubia, to the south, and the lands beyond the Sahara, to the west. Not since the late Old Kingdom had the Kharga Oasis been permanently settled. The climate had become simply too arid, the annual rainfall insufficient to support even a small population. With their customary ingenuity, the Persians had two answers to the problem. First, they introduced the camel to Egypt. Brought from their Bactrian and Arabian provinces, it revolutionized desert travel, enabling caravans to travel far greater distances without the need to find water. Second, the Persians pioneered an extraordinary technique for bringing the water trapped inside the underground sandstone aquifer to the surface. Throughout the Kharga Oasis, they excavated deep underground rock-cut galleries that ran for miles across the parched landscape. These were, in effect, subterranean aqueducts, enabling gardens and fields on the surface to be irrigated with sweet, fresh artesian water. Thanks to this advanced technology, vast tracts of land were brought into agricultural production for the first time, yielding abundant crops of cereals, fruit, and vegetables, and cotton—another Persian introduction. New villages and towns sprang up around the aqueducts, complete with administrative buildings and temples. Because of the distance of these settlements from the Nile Valley, papyrus was rare and costly, so instead the local inhabitants used shards of pottery as a writing medium for their correspondence. As a result, an extraordinary archive has been preserved that illuminates daily life in this far-flung outpost of Persian imperialism. As might have been expected, individuals and institutions took care to preserve particularly valuable documents. Besides the receipts, household accounts, and everyday jottings, legal contracts feature heavily. They reveal that the basis of the local inhabitants’ wealth was not land but water. The water supply from each rock-cut aqueduct was carefully divided into days and fractions of days, and these could be bought and sold, rented, or used to guarantee loans. In this desert oasis, water was, quite literally, money.

There was coinage, too. In 410, the Athenian currency (stateres) was introduced as the monetary standard, revealing the pervasive influence of the Greek world on Egyptian commerce. It was yet another sign of the cosmopolitan character of Persian Egypt, a land where people married across the religious and cultural divide; where reliefs in Egyptian temples could depict strange winged creatures from Zoroastrian mythology; and where second-generation Persian immigrants could adopt Egyptian nicknames.

All in all, Egypt under Darius I was a dynamic melting pot of peoples and traditions, a place of cultural innovation, a prosperous trading nation, and a tolerant multiethnic community. But it was not to last.


DARIUS’S SUCCESSORS SHOWED MARKEDLY LESS INTEREST IN THEIR Egyptian satrapy. They ceased even to pay lip service to the traditions of Egyptian kingship and religion. Commercial activity began to decline, and political control slackened as the Persians focussed their attention increasingly on their troublesome western provinces and the “terrorist states”7 of Athens and Sparta. Against such a backdrop of political weakness and economic malaise, the Egyptians’ relationship with their foreign masters started to turn sour. A year before Darius I’s death, the first revolt broke out in the delta. It took the next great king, Xerxes I (486–465), two years to quell the uprising. To prevent a recurrence, he purged Egyptians from positions of authority, but it could not stop the rot. As Xerxes and his officials were preoccupied with fighting the Greeks at the epic battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, members of the old provincial families across Lower Egypt began to dream of regaining power—a few even went as far as to claim royal titles. After less than half a century, Persian rule was beginning to unravel.

The murder of Xerxes I in the summer of 465 provided the opportunity and stimulus for a second Egyptian revolt. This time, it was led by Irethoreru, a charismatic prince of Sais following in the family tradition, and the revolt was not so easily suppressed. Within a year, he had won supporters across the delta and further afield; even government scribes in the Kharga Oasis dated legal contracts to “year two of Irethoreru, prince of the rebels.” Only in the far southeast of the country, in the quarries of the Wadi Hammamat, did local officials still recognize the authority of the Persian ruler. Sensing the popularity of his cause, Irethoreru appealed to the Persians’ great enemy, Athens, for military support. Still smarting from the vicious destruction of their holy sites by Xerxes’s army two decades earlier, the Athenians were only too glad to help. They dispatched a battle fleet to the Egyptian coast, and the combined Greco-Egyptian forces succeeded in driving the Persian military back to their barracks in Memphis, and in keeping them pinned down there for many months. But the Persians were not going to give up their richest province so easily. Eventually, by sheer force of numbers, they broke out of Memphis and began to take the country back, region by region. After a struggle lasting nearly a decade, Irethoreru was finally captured and crucified as a grim warning to other would-be insurgents.

The Egyptians, however, had enjoyed their brief taste of freedom and it was not long before another rebellion broke out, once again under Saite leadership, and once again with Athenian support. Only the peace treaty of 449 between Persia and Athens brought a temporary halt to Greek involvement in Egyptian internal affairs, and allowed the resumption of free commerce and travel between the two Mediterranean powers. (One beneficiary of the new dispensation was Herodotus, who visited Egypt sometime in the 440s.) Yet Egyptian discontent did not evaporate. The prospect of another major uprising looked certain.

In 410, civil strife erupted across the country, with near anarchy and intercommunal violence flaring in the deep south. At the instigation of the Egyptian priests of Khnum, on the island of Abu, thugs attacked the neighboring Jewish temple of Yahweh. The perpetrators were arrested and imprisoned, but, even so, it was a sign that Egyptian society was in upheaval. In the delta, a new generation of princes took up the banner of independence, led by the grandson of the first rebel leader of forty years before. Psamtek-Amenirdis of Sais was named after his grandfather but also bore the proud name of the founder of the Saite Dynasty, and he was determined to restore the family’s fortunes. He launched a low-level guerrilla war in the delta against Egypt’s Persian overlords, using his detailed local knowledge to wear down his opponents. For six years, the rebellion continued unabated, the Persians discovering the impotence of a superpower against a determined uprising with popular local support.

Finally the tipping point came. In 525, Cambyses had taken full advantage of the pharaoh’s death to launch his takeover of Egypt. Now the Egyptians returned the compliment. When news reached the delta in early 404 that the great king Darius II had died, Amenirdis promptly declared himself monarch. It was only a gesture, but it had the desired effect of galvanizing support across Egypt. By the end of 402, the fact of his kingship was recognized from the shores of the Mediterranean to the first cataract. A few waverers in the provinces continued to date official documents by the reign of the great king Artaxerxes II—hedging their bets—but the Persians had troubles of their own. An army of reconquest, assembled in Phoenicia to invade Egypt and restore order to the rebellious satrapy, had to be diverted at the last moment to deal with another secession in Cyprus. Having thus been spared a Persian onslaught, Amenirdis might have been expected to welcome the renegade Cypriot admiral when he sought refuge in Egypt. But instead of rolling out the red carpet for a fellow freedom fighter, Amenirdis had the admiral promptly assassinated. It was a characteristic display of Saite double-dealing.

Despite such ruthlessness, Amenirdis did not long enjoy his newly won throne. By seizing power through cunning and brute force, he had stripped away any remaining mystique from the office of pharaoh, revealing the kingship for what it had become (or, behind the heavy veil of decorum and propaganda, had always been)—the preeminent political trophy. Scions of other powerful delta families soon took note. In October 399, a rival warlord from the city of Djedet staged his own coup, ousting Amenirdis and proclaiming a new dynasty.

To mark this new beginning, Nayfaurud of Djedet consciously adopted the Horus name of Psamtek I, the most recent founder of a dynasty who had delivered Egypt from foreign rule. But there the comparison ended. Ever wary of Persian reprisals, Nayfaurud’s brief reign (399–393) was marked by feverish defensive activity. His most significant foreign policy was to cement an alliance with Sparta, sending grain and timber to assist the Spartan king Agesilaos in his Persian expedition.

In 393, when Nayfaurud’s heir Hagar became king, a native-born son succeeded his father on the throne of Egypt for the first time in five generations. Despite having a name that meant “the Arab,” Hagar was proud of his Egyptian identity and was determined to fulfill the traditional obligations of monarchy. A favorite epithet at the start of his reign was “he who satisfies the gods.” But piety alone could not guarantee security. After barely a year of rule, the internecine rivalry between Egypt’s leading families struck again. This time, it was Hagar’s turn to be deposed, when a competitor usurped both the throne and the monuments of the fledgling dynasty.

As the merry-go-round of pharaonic politics continued to spin, it was only another twelve months before Hagar won back his throne, proudly proclaiming that he was “repeating [his] appearance” as king. But it was a hollow boast. The monarchy had sunk to an all-time low. Devoid of respect and stripped of mystique, it was but a pale imitation of past pharaonic glories. Hagar managed to cling to power for another decade, but his ineffectual son (a second Nayfaurud) lasted barely sixteen weeks. In October 380, an army general from Tjebnetjer seized the throne. He represented the third delta family to rule Egypt in just two decades.

However, Nakhtnebef (380–362) was a man in a different mold from his immediate predecessors. He had witnessed firsthand the recent bitter struggle between competing warlords, including “the disaster of the king who came before,”8 and understood better than most the throne’s vulnerability. As an army man, he knew that military might was a prerequisite for political power. Therefore, his number one priority, with the country living under the constant threat of Persian invasion, was to be a “mighty king who guards Egypt, a copper wall that protects Egypt.”9 But he also appreciated that force alone was not sufficient. Egyptian kingship had always worked best on a psychological level. Not for nothing did Nakhtnebef describe himself as a ruler “who cuts out the hearts of the treason-hearted.”10 If the monarchy were to be restored to a position of respect, it would need to project a traditional, uncompromising image to the country at large. So, hand in hand with the usual political maneuvering (such as assigning all the most influential positions in government to his relatives and trusted supporters), Nakhtnebef embarked upon the most ambitious temple building program the country had seen for eight hundred years. He wanted to demonstrate unequivocally that he was a pharaoh in the traditional mold. In the same vein, one of his very first acts as king was to assign one-tenth of the royal revenues collected at Naukratis—from customs dues on riverine imports and taxes levied on locally manufactured goods—to the temple of Neith at Sais. That achieved the twin aims of placating his Saite rivals while promoting his own credentials as a pious king. Further endowments followed, not least to the temple of Horus at Edfu. Nothing could be more appropriate than for the god’s earthly incarnation to give generously to his patron’s principal cult center.

Nakhtnebef was not simply interested in buying credit in heaven. He also recognized that the temples controlled much of the country’s temporal wealth, agricultural land, mining rights, craft workshops, and trading agreements, and that investing in them was the surest way to boost the national economy. This, in turn, was the quickest and most effective method of generating surplus revenue with which to strengthen Egypt’s defensive capability, in the form of hired Greek mercenaries. So placating the gods and building up the army were two sides of the same coin. Yet it was a tricky balancing act. Milk the temples too eagerly, and they might come to resent being used as cash cows.

A wise student of his country’s history, Nakhtnebef moved to avoid the dynastic strife of recent decades by resuscitating the ancient practice of co-regency, appointing his heir Djedher (365–360) as joint sovereign to ensure a smooth transition of power. However, the greatest threat to Djedher’s throne came not from internal rivals but from his own cavalier domestic and foreign policies. Sharing none of his father’s caution, he began his sole reign by setting out to seize Palestine and Phoenicia from the Persians. Perhaps he wished to recapture the glories of Egypt’s imperial past, or perhaps he felt the need to take the war to the enemy to justify his dynasty’s continued grip on power. Either way, it was a rash and foolish decision. Even though Persia was distracted by a satraps revolt in Asia Minor, it could hardly be expected to contemplate the loss of its Near Eastern possessions with equanimity. Moreover, the vast resources needed by Egypt to undertake a major military campaign risked putting an unbearable strain on the country’s still fragile economy. Djedher badly needed bullion to hire Greek mercenaries, and was persuaded that a windfall tax on the temples was the easiest way of filling the government’s coffers. Hence, alongside a tax on buildings, a poll tax, a purchase tax on commodities, and extra dues on shipping, Djedher moved to sequestrate temple property. It would have been difficult to conceive of a more unpopular set of policies. To make matters worse, the Spartan mercenaries hired with all this tax revenue—a thousand hoplite troops and thirty military advisers—came with their own officer, Egypt’s old ally Agesilaos. At the age of eighty-four, he was a veteran in every sense of the word, and he was not about to be palmed off with the command of a mercenary corps. Only command of the entire army would satisfy him. For Djedher, that meant shunting aside another Greek ally, the Athenian Chabrias, who had first been hired by Hagar in the 380s to oversee Egyptian defense policy. With Chabrias placed in charge of the navy, Agesilaos won control of the land forces. But the presence of three such large egos at the top of the chain of command threatened to destabilize the entire operation. With resentment in the country at large over the punitive taxes, an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia pervaded the expedition from the outset.

The most vivid account of events surrounding Djedher’s ill-fated campaign of 360 is provided by an eyewitness, a snake doctor from the central delta by the name of Wennefer. Born fewer than ten miles from the dynastic capital of Tjebnetjer, Wennefer was just the sort of faithful follower favored by Nakhtnebef and his regime. After early training in the local temple, Wennefer specialized in medicine and magic, and it was in this context that he came to Djedher’s attention. When the king decided to launch his campaign against Persia, Wennefer was entrusted with keeping the official war diary. Words had great magical potency in ancient Egypt, so this was a highly sensitive role for which an accomplished magician and archloyalist was the obvious choice. Yet no sooner had Wennefer set out with the king and the army on their march into Asia than a letter was delivered to the regent in Memphis implicating Wennefer in a plot. He was arrested, bound in copper chains, and taken back to Egypt to be interrogated in the regent’s presence. Like any successful official in fourth-century Egypt, Wennefer was adept at extricating himelf from compromising situations. Through some astute maneuvering, he emerged from his ordeal as a loyal confidant of the regent. He was given official protection and showered with gifts.

In the meantime, before a shot had been fired, most of the army had begun to desert Djedher in favor of one of his young officers—no less a personage than Prince Nakhthorheb, Djedher’s own nephew and the Memphis regent’s son. Agesilaos the Spartan reveled in his role as kingmaker and threw his lot in with the prince, accompanying him back to Egypt in triumph, fighting off a challenger, and finally seeing him installed as pharaoh. For his pains, he received the princely sum of 230 silver talents—enough to bankroll five thousand mercenaries for a year—and headed home to Sparta.

By contrast, Djedher, disgraced, deserted, and deposed, took the only option available and fled into the arms of the Persians, the very enemy he had been preparing to fight. Wennefer was promptly dispatched at the head of a naval task force to comb Asia and track down the traitor. Djedher was eventually located in Susa, and the Persians were only too glad to rid themselves of their unwelcome guest. Wennefer brought him home in chains, and was showered with gifts by a grateful king. In a time of political instability, it paid to be on the winning side.


EGYPT’S CAT-AND-MOUSE GAME WITH THE MIGHTY PERSIAN EMPIRE IN the fourth century determined not just its domestic and foreign policies, but also its national psychology. The ever present threat of reconquest and the constant need for defensive vigilance turned Egypt in on itself as it struggled to find the basis for a renewed sense of security. In a world of global forces, change, and uncertainty, the Egyptians looked increasingly to those traditions and values that defined them and set them apart from other cultures. The most enduring and distinctive feature of pharaonic civilization was its religion. Regarded with haughty disdain by the Greeks and with mystified detachment by the Persians, Egypt’s plethora of animal deities embodied the best native Egyptian values. Moreover, the gods represented age-old, unchanging forces that promised ultimate salvation, whatever the vicissitudes of real life: “Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.”11

Sacred animal cults had a long history in the Nile Valley—animals had been buried in funerary enclosures in the early Predynastic Period, and the Apis bull had been worshipped at Memphis since the foundation of the Egyptian state—but their rapid rise in popularity was a defining phenomenon of Egypt’s brief period of independence from Persian rule. And it led to some of the strangest practices ever witnessed in the land of the pharaohs.

By the middle of the fourth century, animal cults were ubiquitous. There were sacred cats at Bast, sacred dogs and gazelles at Thebes, sacred bulls at Iunyt, sacred crocodiles at Shedyt, even sacred fish at Djedet. Each cult had its own temple and priesthood, and because of the system of rotation used for temple employees, this meant that a large proportion of the population shared in the wealth of a nationwide phenomenon. One of the greatest concentrations of animal cults was at Saqqara, burial place of kings and nobles since the dawn of history. By the reign of Nakhthorheb (360–343), Egypt’s dead elite found themselves joined in their subterranean world by a veritable menagerie of beasts, great and small.

One of the most holy places on the Saqqara plateau was the Serapeum, where temples and workshops on the surface covered a vast underground catacomb for the Apis bulls. Nearby stood a further complex of temple, hypogeum, and administrative buildings serving the cult of the mother of Apis, a sacred cow worshipped as the incarnation of the goddess Isis. After its death, each successive cow was purified, embalmed, wrapped in linen bandages, and adorned with amulets before being interred in a subterranean vault that had taken up to two years to excavate from the living rock. The huge stone sarcophagus carved for every mother of Apis was so heavy that the team of thirty men required to haul it into place could command up to a month’s wages for ten days of backbreaking work.

Beyond the catacombs for the sacred bulls and their mothers, there was a vast network of underground galleries for mummified baboons. Brought by river or sea all the way from sub-Saharan Africa (only a few were successfully bred in captivity), the apes were kept in a special compound inside the temple of Ptah at Memphis. There, they were worshipped as manifestations of Thoth, the god of wisdom, and embodiments of “the hearing ear” that acted as intermediary between people and the gods. Animals were thus the saints of ancient Egyptian religion. After death, each baboon was deified as Osiris and buried in a rectangular wooden box, which was placed in a niche cut into the rock walls of the subterranean vault. The niche was sealed with a limestone slab bearing the name of the baboon, its place of origin, and a prayer. A typical inscription read,

May you be praised before Osiris, O you Osiris Marres the baboon. He was brought from the South. His salvation [that is, death] happened and he was placed in his coffin in the temple of Ptah.12

Pilgrims came to Saqqara from far and wide seeking advice, insight into the future, cures for sickness, even success in court cases—all in the hope that Osiris the baboon would carry their supplication to the gods in return for a votive offering or for the pious act of mummifying and burying one of the sacred animals. The area thronged with fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, soothsayers, and purveyors of magical amulets, plying their dubious trades among the countless worshippers. As for the myriad priests and embalmers, they also made a handsome living out of the pilgrims, especially as they often substituted cheaper, smaller monkeys for the rarer, more expensive baboons; because the animal was hidden beneath mummy wrappings, the purchaser could not tell the difference.

Mummified falcons  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Perhaps the most extensive of all the animal cemeteries at Saqqara were the ibis galleries. Ibises, like baboons, were sacred to the god Thoth, and the desperate search for wisdom led the Egyptians to mummify and bury up to two million birds at Saqqara alone. Each ibis gallery measured thirty feet wide by thirty feet high, and was filled from floor to ceiling with neat stacks of pottery jars, each containing a mummified body part or an entire corpse of a sacred ibis. To keep pace with demand, ibises were bred on an industrial scale, on the shores of nearby Lake Abusir and at other farms throughout Egypt. At Khmun, the principal cult center of Thoth, a vast area was devoted to feeding the flocks of birds. When they died, even the tiniest parts of them—individual feathers, nest material, fragments of eggshell—were carefully gathered up for sale and burial. Indeed, the ibis priests would often bury the birds’ dead bodies in the ground to speed up decomposition, making it easier to separate individual bones and turn a quick profit. The use of turpentine, imported from Tyre, accelerated the process still further, but had the unfortunate side effect of scorching the bones inside the mummy package. But by then, the pilgrim had paid the fee and gone home.

The final catacomb at Saqqara was devoted to falcons, sacred to the god Horus. Here, Egyptian ingenuity went a stage further. As well as dedicating mummified falcons, visitors could also purchase and donate Horus statuettes. The hollow base of the statuette, accessed through a sliding panel, could accommodate either an inducement—for example, a mummified scrap of shrew, by way of a snack for the falcon deity—or a prayer, written on a roll of papyrus. By packaging the prayer and offering together, the pilgrim could be sure of delivering request and payment at the same time, for added efficacy.

As a solar deity, Horus enjoyed a special affinity with Thoth (associated with the moon), so ibises and falcons formed a natural pairing. But there was another, less subtle reason for the popularity of the falcon cult at Saqqara. The cult was actively encouraged and sponsored by the state. Not that the government was much interested in popular religion, but it was keen to promote the cult of the king. And according to ancient beliefs, the monarch was the earthly incarnation of Horus. More than that, Nakhthorheb’s very name alluded to the cult of Horus (“Horus of Hebyt is victorious”), so king and falcon were identified even more closely than usual. The cult of “Nakhthorheb the falcon” was fostered alongside the sacred animal cult, so that the two became virtually indistinguishable. It was a policy carefully calculated to harness popular religion in the service of the monarchy.

Right from the beginning of his reign, Nakhthorheb recognized the power of beliefs and symbols to consolidate support for himself and his dynasty. One of his first orders to his loyal servant Wennefer was to restore the two-thousand-year-old mortuary cults of Sneferu and Djedefra, two kings from the height of the Pyramid Age. The propaganda value in reviving these institutions was considerable, since it publicly associated Egypt’s new ruler with two of his most illustrious predecessors. Beyond Memphis, too, Nakhthorheb indulged in a frenzy of building not seen since the reign of Ramesses II. Scarcely a temple in the country escaped some form of royal beautification. Nakhthorheb wanted to be regarded by his contemporaries as well as by posterity as a true pharaoh, not merely the latest in a long line of warlords that were here today, gone tomorrow. But there was also a hint of panic in his orgy of construction. He concentrated much of his effort on gateways and enclosure walls—the most vulnerable parts of temples—and seems to have felt an overriding need to protect Egypt’s sacred buildings from malign forces. In this respect, his religious policy was of a piece with his international agenda. Both were focused on safeguarding Egypt from the enemy.

As for the Persians, they never accepted the secession of their most affluent province. No amount of temple building, mummification of sacred animals, or pharaonic posturing would deflect them from their aim of recapturing the Nile Valley. Back in 373, Nakhtnebef had successfully repelled an attempted Persian invasion directed against the delta. Thirty years later, his grandson Nakhthorheb was not so lucky. The forces of the great king Artaxerxes III captured Pelusium, on the Mediterranean coast, with relative ease, and marched southward to Memphis. By the late summer of 343, the Egyptian capital had fallen, resistance had crumbled, and independence had been extinguished. Nakhthorheb, the last native-born Egyptian until the modern era to rule unchallenged over his homeland, fled abroad. In the end, his piety and politicking were no match for the sheer strength of Artaxerxes’s army. The clock had been turned back seven decades, and Egypt was once again a satrapy of the mighty Persian Empire.


IF ANYONE ALIVE DURING THE PERSIAN INVASION OF 343 COULD HAVE remembered Cambyses’s conquest 180 years earlier, they would have had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Yet, for most, grown accustomed to a precarious independence, the country’s forced reabsorption into a foreign realm must have seemed a genuine disaster. Many Egyptians, especially in the provinces, adopted a head-in-the-sand approach to the latest reversal of fortune. They hunkered down and continued with normal life as much as possible, quietly maintaining their native traditions as far as they could, in quiet defiance of their alien masters. A fine example of this tendency was Padiusir, a pious devotee of Thoth who lived in Khmun, the god’s principal cult center. Day in, day out, as the thousands of sacred ibises squawked and screeched in the nearby feeding grounds, Padiusir carried out his duties in the temple with exemplary diligence—while, beyond his narrow horizons, the country seethed with unrest:

I spent seven years as controller for this god, administering his endowment without fault being found, while the ruler of foreign lands was protector in Egypt, and nothing was in its former place, since fighting had started inside Egypt, the South being in turmoil, the North in revolt …, all temples without their servants; the priests fled, not knowing what was happening.13

Egypt’s unshakeable confidence in its own traditions was both its genius and its undoing. What had been the country’s greatest strength in happier, more settled times became its fatal weakness in the face of unfamiliar forces. The customs and solutions that had maintained Egyptian civilization in the third and second millennia were no longer up to the job. Egypt had lost its preeminence and was now just another country—albeit a wealthy one—to be fought over by younger, nimbler empires. Padiusir’s conscientious resignation was thus a symptom of a wider malaise. Frightened and bewildered by the rapidly changing global situation, most Egyptians preferred to look the other way, put their trust in their old gods, and carry on regardless.

The last, feeble gasp of Egypt’s once proud spirit of independence came at the end of 338. The stimulus was the death of yet another Persian great king. As the court in Persepolis mourned the passing of Artaxerxes III and prepared to crown his successor, the last in a long line of Egyptian freedom fighters stepped forward to liberate his country. Little is known for certain about the mysterious Khababash, his obscurity reflecting the hopelessness of his cause. He seems to have been a native of Memphis, or at least to have had a close association with the capital, and the city was one of the first places in Egypt to recognize his “kingship.” But Khababash’s popularity was not confined to Lower Egypt. Thebes, too, threw its weight behind his attempt to seize the throne. From the upper reaches of the Nile Valley to the shores of the delta, the whole country was anxious to cast off the Persian yoke. Khababash was the best—the only—bet. Recognizing that Persian retaliation was likely to be in the form of a seaborne invasion, he headed straight for the strategically important harbor city of Per-Wadjet, “crossing the marshlands that were in all its districts, penetrating the morass of Lower Egypt, and inspecting every estuary leading to the Great Green [that is, the Mediterranean Sea] in order to repel the Asiatic fleet from Egypt.”14 It was a sensible enough strategy, but a rebel leader, even one with the hopes and aspirations of Egypt riding on his shoulders, was no match for the Persian army at its mightiest and most determined. Khababash’s insurrection lasted barely eighteen months. His fate, like most things about him, remains a mystery. The final outcome was renewed Persian control, under a new great king, Darius III (336–332 in Egypt, 336–331 in Persia).

Egypt had never been more vital to the Persians. Its wealth was desperately needed to buy mercenary support for an increasingly embattled empire. For a century and a half, Persia had been grappling with the Greek world for control of the Aegean and Anatolia. Sparta and Athens had proved persistent thorns, putting up heroic resistance and humbling the great king’s armies with acts of bravery and defiance. Now attention had swung northward to the mountainous kingdom of Macedon, which had recently taken on the mantle of Panhellenic leadership against the Persians. In the late summer of 336, at precisely the same time that Darius III was being enthroned at Persepolis, the new young king of Macedon, Alexander III, was winning recognition throughout Greece as head of the League of Corinth and commander of the Persian expedition initiated by his father. The world was at a turning point, if only Darius could have sensed it.

By the spring of 334, Alexander had crossed the Hellespont, into Persia’s western province, and marched southward to engage the massed ranks of the imperial army. The epic battle at the river Granikos in May that year signaled the beginning of the end for Da-rius and for Persia. Further campaigns in Anatolia followed during the summer, culminating in the siege of Halicarnassus. Autumn and winter saw Alexander’s forces moving along the coast, sweeping all before them. In November 333, a second pitched battle between the two opposing armies was fought at Issos, in Cilicia. Ironically, the Persians counted a sizeable number of Egyptians among their multiethnic forces. Ordinary soldiers no doubt fought for whoever paid them. But the willing collaboration extended also to members of the elite, including the eldest son of the exiled Nakhthorheb, who apparently saw no contradiction in supporting the very army that had defeated his father. As it had shown time and again, the Egyptian military, even in its upper echelons, had one overriding wish—to align itself with the winning side. History is written by the victors, as the Egyptians, with a history longer than most, well knew.

Now, however, history was running out for the Persians. An Egyptian collaborator, Sematawytefnakht, watched from the sidelines as Darius suffered another crushing defeat. Suddenly, Alexander looked unstoppable. Overcome with homesickness, or a powerful desire to save his own skin, Sematawytefnakht fled the battlefield and returned to Egypt, there to await the installation of a new regime and further opportunities for advancement.

As news reached the Nile Valley of Alexander, his thirst for glory and his invincible army, the Egyptians began to wonder whether he could be the strongman they were looking for to rid them of the hated Persians. In the absence of a native-born hero, and faced with a stark choice between Darius and Alexander, the Macedonian looked like the lesser of two evils. For sure, there could be no illusions about his methods. After the seven-month siege of Tyre in the first half of 332, Alexander had shown exemplary cruelty to those who had dared to oppose him, ordering the public crucifixion of the survivors. A few months later, the unfortunate governor of Gaza, a city that had also shut its gates against Alexander, suffered an even worse fate. The governor was tied to a chariot while still alive and driven around the city walls until he died from his wounds in excruciating agony. Nothing and no one would be allowed to stand in Alexander’s way. But the Egyptians had always been used to despotic rulers. Authoritarian dictators had been the norm in the Nile Valley for the best part of three thousand years. As the country looked back to its glorious past with increasing nostalgia, it must have seemed that Alexander was a man very much in the traditional pharaonic mold, a ruthless tyrant, to be respected and feared. More important still, he was a proven winner, and Egypt longed for victory, if only by proxy.

In the dying weeks of 332, Alexander marched across the Egyptian border and seized power without a fight. The Persians simply melted away. Here he was, the conqueror of the known world in the land of the pharaohs. Whether by instinct or through careful advice, he knew what was expected of him. One of his first acts on reaching Memphis was to pay his respects to the sacred Apis bull. The great beast was brought out from its stall into the adjoining courtyard for the curious Macedonian to inspect. For Alexander’s hosts, it was a sign that the old ways had returned. Here was a king who understood the demands of piety.

Yet, for Alexander himself, an interest in ancient Egypt’s religious traditions was more than just a public relations exercise. Like all previous invaders, he was entranced by the country’s age-old culture. Egypt was casting its inimitable, irresistible spell. Thus far, nothing had been allowed to delay or detain Alexander in his military crusade. Each victory had been the spur to another, giving the enemy no respite or time to regroup. Now, against all expectation, he deliberately turned his back on the Persians. In the early spring of 331, after founding the city that would bear his name for eternity, Alexander headed not eastward to engage Darius a third time but westward into the sandy wastes of the Sahara. His destination, three hundred miles distant, was the Siwa Oasis with its famed oracle of Amun. Whatever passed between god and king remained a mystery, but Alexander emerged from the encounter a changed man—indeed, no longer a man but a living god, descended from the creator himself. “He put his question to the oracle and received (or so he said) the answer that his soul desired.”15

Thus did the ruler of Macedon become king of Egypt. The Nile Valley would not be ruled by one of its own sons for another twenty-two centuries, yet the allure of pharaonic civilization was as influential as ever.

Padiusir and his ilk had been proved right.

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