A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the Third Intermediate Period

Wooden funerary stele of Djedchonsu, Third Intermediate Period (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt started with the death of Ramesses XI in 1077 BCE and ended with the founding of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty by Psamtik I in 664 BCE. It was a period of over 400 years during which Egypt was either divided or ruled by Libyan and Nubian pharaohs. And yet it would be wrong to see this period as a Dark Age in which Egypt was in total chaos and decline. There were also times of stability and beautiful art was made, especially during the Twenty-First Dynasty, with which I will start this post.

The Twenty-First Dynasty

This dynasty, founded by Smendes (ca. 1077-1052 BCE), moved the royal residence from Pi-Ramesses to Tanis, which was also situated in the Nile delta. The pharaohs of this dynasty only had effective authority in Lower Egypt; Upper Egypt was ruled by the high priests of Amun-Re in Thebes, while Nubia was lost for Egypt. This region had been annexed as a colony around 1500 BCE, but since the power of the pharaohs was now confined to the north, the Nubians were able to regain their autonomy. They founded a new kingdom, which is usually called Kush. The city of Napata was its political and religious centre. The loss of Nubia was a devastating blow for Egypt, for it also meant that the kingdom lost control of the goldmines there. Gold now had to come from an entirely different source: the tombs of the pharaohs. Organised grave robberies were common during the Third Intermediate Period.

Death mask of Psusennes I (photo: Brett Weinstein/ Nrbelex, CC BY-SA 2.5).).

Relations between the pharaoh in the Nile delta and the high priest of Amun-Re in Thebes were, generally speaking, not hostile. On the contrary, the high priests recognised the pharaohs as legitimate rulers and did not try to usurp the throne for themselves. Intermarriage between the ruling families was common, and a daughter of the pharaoh was sent to Thebes where she held the office of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’. This office was prestigious and anything but an empty shell: the woman who held it wielded genuine political power. In this way the pharaohs in Tanis were able to exert some influence south of the Nile delta. Among the artistic highlights of the Twenty-First Dynasty are the beautiful golden death mask of pharaoh Psusennes I (ca. 1047-1001 BCE) and the equally magnificent gilded death mask of his son and successor Amenemope (ca. 1001-992 BCE). Both were found in 1940 by the French Egyptologist Pierre Montet and can currently be admired in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Interestingly, the Bible claims that king Solomon of Israel was married to the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh.[1] This pharaoh is supposed to have destroyed the city of Gezer in Canaan and to have subsequently given it to his daughter as a dowry.[2] The woman’s name nor that of her father are ever mentioned, but it has been hypothesised that the father may have been pharaoh Siamun (ca. 986-967 BCE). Direct evidence is sadly lacking, and of course there is still debate among experts about the historicity of Solomon as well. The destruction of Gezer may furthermore very well have taken place under Sheshonq I, a pharaoh of the Twenty-Second Dynasty who now enters the stage.

The Libyans

The Egyptians had always had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with their western neighbours, the Libyans. Ever since the proto-dynastic period they had fought wars against them, but at times the Libyans had also been employed as mercenaries to fight in the armies of the Egyptian pharaohs. Libya (also known Tehenu) was far from united; it was home to several Berber tribes who were often at each other’s throats. During the New Kingdom various tribes had migrated to the Nile delta and had been recruited into the military. As a soldier caste they had created a power base in Egypt for themselves. As early as the Twenty-First Dynasty a Libyan from the Meshwesh tribe had ascended the throne in Tanis. How this Osorkon the Elder (992-986 BCE) managed to become pharaoh is unknown, but he happened to an uncle of Sheshonq I, the founder of the Twenty-Second Dynasty who was already mentioned above.

The Egyptian world during the Third Intermediate Period. Source for the map: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0.

We also do not know how Sheshonq I (ca. 943-922 BCE) became pharaoh, but his son Osorkon I was married to one of pharaoh Psusennes II’s daughters and Sheshonq may have used this family connection to claim the throne. There is no doubt that he was a competent and firm ruler. Sheshonq’s fame mainly rests on the fact that he is mentioned as king Shishak in the Bible.[3] As one of the very few pharaohs of the Third Intermediate Period he managed to successfully intervene in Canaan and somewhat restore Egyptian influence there. According to the Bible the kingdom of Israel had fallen apart after king Solomon’s death. The northern kingdom of Israel now existed alongside the southern kingdom of Judah.[4] Whether a united kingdom of Israel had ever existed is up for debate, but if it can be considered historical, then it is possible that Judah ultimately seceded from it. The Bible claims the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel was Jeroboam, who had fled to Sheshonq during Solomon’s reign, but returned after the latter’s death.[5] Jeroboam’s stay in Egypt may have resulted in an alliance between the king and the pharaoh. In any case, Jeroboam constantly quarrelled with Rehoboam, the first king of Judah, who ruled from Jerusalem. Sheshonq attacked Judah, took Jerusalem and pillaged both the royal palace and king Solomon’s famous temple.[6]

Sargon II (Archaeological Museum, Turin).

The most important power in the Middle East in the ninth century BCE was the Neo-Assyrian Empire. In 853 BCE the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III battled a coalition of regional kings at Qarqar. The coalition included kings Hadadezer of Aram-Damascus and Ahab of Israel. It was aided by 1,000 soldiers from Mu-us-ra, which is sometimes interpreted as Egypt. The interpretation has been challenged, but if it is correct, then it was Osorkon II (ca. 872-837 BCE) who sent the troops. The battle ended in a draw. It was under the aforementioned Osorkon that the pharaohs in Tanis had to accept that a separate group of Libyan rulers took control of Upper Egypt. These rulers are often counted among the pharaohs of the Twenty-Third Dynasty. Osorkon IV (ca. 730-715 BCE) is generally considered to have been the last Libyan pharaoh. He can presumably be equated to the Egyptian king So who is mentioned in the Bible. King Hoshea of Israel tried to forge an alliance with this king So when he was under heavy pressure from the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V (727-722 BCE), who had forced Israel to pay tribute. We do not know Osorkon’s response, but things did not end well for Hoshea. He was captured and Shalmaneser subsequently besieged the Israelite capital of Samaria. The city was taken by Shalmaneser’s successor Sargon II after a three-year siege. The Israelites were deported and their kingdom ceased to exist.[7]

The Nubians

The overlap between the pharaohs of the Twenty-Second to Twenty-Fifth Dynasties is explained by the fact that multiple rulers controlled various parts of Egypt. Usually only two pharaohs are counted among the rulers of the Twenty-Fourth Dynasty, Tefnakht and Bakenranef (or Bocchoris in Greek), who both ruled from Sais. Of greater interest is the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty (ca. 744-656 BCE), which originated in Napata in Nubia. The rulers of the kingdom of Kush had been greatly influenced by Egyptian culture, but they also remained loyal to their Nubian roots. Led by Piye (774-714 BCE), the Nubians invaded Egypt and managed to occupy large parts of the country. Their rule was not contested in Upper Egypt, but in the Nile delta Bakenranef managed to remain independent for a little longer. The conquest and reunification of Egypt were completed under the next two Nubian pharaohs, Shebitku and Shabaka. The Nubians had great respect for Amun-Re, who was also worshipped in Napata, and were responsible for what is often called the ‘Kushite Renaissance’ in Egypt. They reinstated Egyptian traditions, often of a religious nature, that had long been neglected.

Assyrian deportation scene, 7th century BCE (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

The Nubian pharaoh Taharqa (ca. 690-664 BCE) is mentioned in the Bible as ‘Tirhakah’.[8] He sent help to the thirteenth king of Judah, Hezekiah, who was under attack from the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705-681 BCE). In the end, the story goes, this Sennacherib was not repelled by Taharqa, but by God himself. An angel of the Lord was said to have slain 185.000 Assyrians, causing the Assyrian king to give up the siege of Jerusalem.[9] Of course an outbreak of a contagious disease in the Assyrian camp is a much more logical explanation for the king’s retreat. Maybe Hezekiah simply offered his opponent a large sum of gold, who knows. The siege of Jerusalem was possibly part of a larger campaign of Sennacherib which aimed to reach Egypt. The Greek historian Herodotos mentions a confrontation between a pharaoh named ‘Sethoos’[10] and Sennacherib close to Pelousion. Hordes of mice were said to have miraculously damaged the Assyrian weaponry, obviously a case of divine intervention.[11] Again an epidemic is a much more logical explanation for the Assyrian withdrawal. Matters are complicated a bit by the fact that Sennacherib’s campaign against Egypt and Judah is generally dated to 701 BCE, so about ten years before Taharqa actually became pharaoh.

Sennacherib was killed in 681 BCE and succeeded by Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE), who made a fresh attempt to conquer Egypt. In 673-671 BCE he was finally successful. The Nile delta and Memphis fell into Assyrian hands, but for the moment Taharqa managed to hold out in Upper Egypt. In Lower Egypt the new rulers were not received with open arms. Rebellions were crushed using brute force, but the prince of Sais turned out to be a loyal ally of the Assyrians. This Necho I (ca. 672-664 BCE) was subsequently awarded with the status of client ruler and an expansion of his lands. After Esarhaddon’s death in 669 BCE Taharqa tried to take back the territory he had previously lost, but quickly found out he was no match for the new king Assurbanipal. The Nubian died in 664 BCE and was succeeded by his nephew Tantamani, who launched an offensive to retake the north of the country. Necho was killed trying to repulse the Nubian attack, but Assurbanipal’s response was strong and determined. In 664 BCE he captured and sacked Thebes. The usual Assyrian strategy to punish rebellious subjects and to prevent new rebellions was to deport hordes of people, and this was exactly what they did after the conquest of Thebes. Thousands of Egyptians must have been deported to Assyria.

Bust of Psamtik I (photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Necho’s son Psamtik I (ca. 664-610 BCE) is generally seen as the founder of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty and as the pharaoh who managed to reunite Egypt again. As Assurbanipal was far too busy fighting Elam and Babylon, Psamtik managed to make Egypt independent from the Neo-Assyrian Empire. To protect this independence, the pharaoh made use of Ionian and Carian mercenaries, the ‘bronze men from the sea’ mentioned by Herodotos.[12] The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty marks the start of the Late Period of Ancient Egypt. During this period, the Greeks began playing an ever greater role in Egyptian affairs, a process that was partly related to the founding of the Greek colony of Cyrene in Libya in about 630 BCE. The Late Period was furthermore a time when old powers such as the Assyrians disappeared from the stage and were replaced by newcomers such as the Persians.


  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Twenty-first to Thirtieth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 271-273;
  • Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 90-91.


[1] 1 Kings 3:1.

[2] 1 Kings 9:16.

[3] Herodotos calls him Asychis (Book 2.136).

[4] 1 Kings 12.

[5] 1 Kings 11:40.

[6] 1 Kings 14:25-30.

[7] See 2 Kings 17:3-6.

[8] 2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9.

[9] 2 Kings 19:35-36.

[10] Herodotos claims he was a high priest of Hephaistos (Ptah). The name bears resemblance to ‘Seti’, but is also sometimes seen as a corrupt version of Shebitku. From a chronological point of view, none of these pharaohs can be connected to a war against Sennacherib.

[11] Book 2.141.

[12] Book 2.152.

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