A brief history of Ancient Egypt: the Late Period

Nitiqret (Nitokris), daughter of Psamtik I (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

During the long reign of Psamtik I (ca. 664-610 BCE) Egypt became an independent kingdom again. He defended this independence against both the former oppressors of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the last pharaoh of the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, Tantamani. The latter was forced on the defensive and finally brought to his knees in 656 BCE. Tantamani was not defeated in a battle, but did succumb to the threat of force. Psamtik gathered a large army and a strong fleet and sailed to Thebes, where a daughter of the Nubian pharaoh Piye still held the office of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’. Psamtik replaced her with his own daughter Nitiqret, thus ending Nubian influence in Upper Egypt and reuniting the country under a single ruler. Tantamani held out in Kush and continued to rule there until his death in about 653 BCE. During Psamtik’s reign Sais became the de facto capital of the Egyptian kingdom. The pharaoh’s position was protected by his Ionian and Carian mercenaries. They had become an indispensible part of the royal army, but felt superior to the native Egyptian troops, an attitude which led to frequent tensions. For the moment the mercenaries were settled at two locations along the Nile, at ‘the Camps’ mentioned by Herodotos.[1]

The reign of Necho II

During the final years of Psamtik’s reign and the first of his son and successor Necho II (610-595 BCE) there were turbulent developments in the Ancient World. The once powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire suffered a steep decline after the death of the great Assurbanipal in about 631 BCE. Within a quarter of a century it was dead and buried. Dynastic troubles and civil wars seem to have played a major part in the process. Led by first Nabopolassar and then his son Nebuchadnezzar II Babylon shook off the Assyrian yoke. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was moreover no match for the emerging power of the Medes. The Medes captured Assur in 614 BCE and took Nineveh two years later. The Assyrian king Assur-uballit II, who bore the same name as a great king from the fourteenth century, was in urgent need of help. Rather surprisingly, help was provided by Egypt. Apparently pharaoh Necho held no grudge against the Assyrians, who had previously occupied Egypt. But then again the pharaohs in Sais basically owed their crowns to that occupation. Necho mobilised his army and advanced through Canaan to join forces with Assur-uballit II.

Then Necho’s advance was blocked by the army of Josiah, the sixteenth king of Judah. It is not entirely clear why Josiah wanted to deny the pharaoh passage, but it proved to be a foolish decision that cost him his life: in 609 BCE Necho cut the king’s army to pieces at Megiddo. Josiah died on the battlefield or shortly afterward in Jerusalem.[2] Necho joined Assur-uballit and together they besieged Harran. However, the city was never taken and this sealed the fate of the tottering Neo-Assyrian Empire. In 605 BCE crown prince Nebuchadnezzar II inflicted a heavy defeat on the Egyptians and the scant remains of the Assyrian army at Carchemish. Necho’s campaign had ended in disaster. Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, would soon inherit his father’s throne and remain in power until his death in 562 BCE. In 604 BCE he defeated the Philistines (known as the Peleset to the Egyptians) and had them deported. In 601 or 600 BCE the Babylonian king subsequently launched an attack on Egypt, which Necho narrowly managed to repel in the vicinity of Magdolos (Migdol).

Then Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the kingdom of Judah. In 597 BCE he took Jerusalem and pillaged both the temple of Solomon and the royal palace. King Jeconiah, who according to the Bible was just eighteen years old at the time, was deported to Babylon, as were the most important civilians and military officials. “None remained except the poorest people of the land” according to 2 Kings.[3] The Babylonian king then put Jeconiah’s uncle Zedekiah on the throne. After a rebellion Jerusalem was again besieged and taken in 586 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar razed the temple to the ground and deported the rest of the population, which was the start of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

The Nile delta of Egypt during the Late Period (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Necho for his part would win some fame for his attempt to create a kind of precursor to the Suez Canal. The idea to create a canal linking the Nile and Red Sea was an old one, and it is not inconceivable that even before Necho pharaohs had tried their hands at digging one. Herodotos claims that Necho’s canal started just south of Boubastis and then passed through ‘the Arabic town of Patoumos’. This was probably the Biblical town of Pithom, also known as Heroonpolis. According to the historian the canal then discharged into the Red Sea, but it must have first passed through the Pikrai Limnai, the ‘bitter lakes’ (see the map above). There may be serious doubt whether the canal was ever a success. Herodotos states it was only completed under the Persian king Dareios I (522-486 BCE), but it may very well have been much, much later, for example under the pharaohs of the Greco-Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies. Herodotos’ claim that 120.000 labourers died digging the canal[4] is no doubt exaggerated. However, we must keep in mind that the digging of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth and Panama Canal in the twentieth century did claim thousands of lives. This cannot have been much different in Antiquity. The story furthermore goes that Necho ordered a group Phoenician sailors to navigate around the African continent. Their journey was said to have taken two years.[5]

The other pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty

Funerary stele of Irtyru from the Late Period. In the centre are the gods Re-Horachty and Atum (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Under Necho’s son Psamtik II (595-589 BCE) the Egyptians launched an offensive against Kush. The use of Ionian and Carian mercenaries proved to be decisive and the offensive was successful. Napata was taken and sacked, causing the kings of Kush to withdraw to Meroe, which was situated further to the south and was therefore safer. Egyptian control of the Nile was now restored to the Third or Fourth Cataract of the Nile. After this campaign all traces of the Nubian occupation of Egypt were systematically destroyed. The ‘Kushite Renaissance’ was apparently no longer seen as such.

Psamtik was succeeded by his son Haaibre Wahibre (589-570 BCE). He is perhaps better known under his Greek name Apries or as Hophra, the name given to him in the Book of Jeremiah.[6] On the battlefield he was much less successful than his father. In about 630 BCE the Greek colony of Cyrene had been founded in Libya, and the area surrounding the new city had subsequently been called Cyrenaica. Cyrene quickly became a success and drew ever more new Greek colonists. However, Greek settlement in the area had also led to tensions with the native Libyan population, who had lost a lot of land in the process. “The Cyreneans simply snatched it from them”, wrote Herodotos.[7] The Libyans asked pharaoh Haaibre Wahibre to intervene, and in 570 BCE he sent an army to attack Cyrene. Unfortunately his army was cut to pieces, which led to unrest and even rebellions in Egypt. The pharaoh instructed Ahmose (Amasis) to quell the revolt, but the rebels promptly proclaimed him pharaoh and Ahmose did not decline the throne that was offered to him.

Sarcophagus of Wahibremachet, a son of Greek immigrants in Egypt (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The subsequent clash between Haaibre Wahibre and Ahmose would be bloody. According to Herodotos, the former had 30,000 Ionian and Carian mercenaries with him at Sais, a number that is not doubt highly inflated. In any case, the mercenaries were far outnumbered by the Ahmose’s troops. Herodotos’ claims his army was entirely made up of native Egyptians.[8] At Momemphis in the Nile delta the two armies fought each other and there Haaibre Wahibre’s mercenaries were defeated. Ahmose then took control of the state and would rule Egypt for the next 44 years as pharaoh Ahmose II (570-526 BCE). There is some uncertainty about the fate of his predecessor. According to Herodotos Ahmose first allowed him to live in the palace at Sais, but was later forced to hand him over to his subjects, who were out for revenge and broke his neck. A famous monument erected by Haaibre Wahibre can nowadays be found in Rome opposite the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva: a small obelisk, carried by Bernini’s elephant. The obelisk was transported to Rome by the emperor Diocletianus (284-305) and erected near the temple of Isis and Serapis.

Ahmose II was a very important pharaoh, one who even expanded Egypt’s territory when he conquered the island of Cyprus. His relations with the Greeks were excellent. The mercenaries who had previously fought for his predecessor and had survived the war were allowed to join his own army. Greeks who wanted to migrate to Egypt were granted permission to settle in the town of Naukratis in the Nile delta. The pharaoh furthermore maintained diplomatic contacts with Polykrates, the tyrant of Samos, and with the Lydian king Kroisos. Relations with Cyrene were good, in part thanks to a marriage between the pharaoh and a Greek woman, a certain Ladike. She was probably a daughter of the Cyrenean ruler Battos III. It should be noted that she was not Ahmose’s only wife; the mother of his successor Psamtik III was an Egyptian woman named Tentkheta. Under Ahmose II Demotic became the official script. This type of script derived from the ancient hieroglyphs and from hieratic script (simplified hieroglyphs). The pharaoh was known as a great builder and legislator, but Herodotos claims he was also a heavy drinker. The biggest threat to a resurgent Egypt was the rising power of the Persian Empire. And one year after Ahmose’s death the Persians attacked.

The Persians in Egypt

Nectanebo I and the gods Khnum (with the ram’s head) and Satis (with the antlers). 30th Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

The Medes and Babylonians had joined forces in taking Nineveh in 612 BCE. After the fall of this city and the destruction of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Median Empire and the Neo-Babylonian Empire had become the dominant powers in the Middle East. However, their hegemony proved to be short-lived. Under Median rule, the Persians had initially had the status of simple vassals, but in 550 BCE the Persian king Cyrus (Kurush) managed to defeat and subjugate the Medes. The founder of the house of the Achaemenids then continued his advance, and in 547 BCE he took the Lydian capital of Sardis and deposed king Kroisos, the aforementioned ally of pharaoh Ahmose II. In September of 539 BCE Cyrus defeated the Babylonian king Nabonnedos (Nabunaid) at Opis and one month later he captured the city of Babylon and ended the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It was Cyrus who granted the Jews living in Mesopotamia permission to return to the areas from which they had been deported by the Assyrians and Babylonians. However, many were perfectly happy to stay in Mesopotamia, where they had become fully integrated.

As his achievements were truly impressive, Cyrus was deservedly called ‘The Great’. He did not live long enough to try and invade Egypt: in 530 or 529 BCE the king died, possibly after a defeat against the nomadic Massagetae led by queen Tomyris. His son Kambyses (Kabujiya; 529-522 BCE) now ascended the throne. In 525 BCE, supported by a Phoenician-Cypriot fleet, he attacked Egypt. At Pelousion the two armies clashed. Both sides fielded large numbers of Greek mercenaries and the Battle of Pelousion was extremely bloody. Both the Persians and the Egyptians suffered heavy casualties, but in the end the former were victorious. The surviving Egyptians fled to Memphis, which surrendered after a lengthy siege. Kambyses now had Egypt under his boot. According to Herodotos he had 2,000 Egyptians, including Psamtik’s son, executed in revenge for the lynching of a Persian negotiator and the crew of his ship. Psamtik was initially spared and allowed to live at the Persian court in Susa. He was said to have later tried to orchestrate an Egyptian rebellion against the Persians, whereupon he was forced to drink a poisonous potion called ‘bull’s blood’.[9]

Much of what Herodotos writes about Kambyses may be doubted. For instance, the claims that he stabbed the Apis bull to death and had Ahmose II’s mummy burned were probably fabricated. The claim that he was insane or suffered from the ‘sacred disease’ (i.e. epilepsy) cannot be proven or disproven. On the other hand it is reasonable to assume that the Persian king carried out several executions to try and break Egyptian resistance. This resistance remained strong during the first years of Persian occupation. Between about 522 and 520 BCE a rebel pharaoh named Petubastis III led the revolt against the oppressor. An interesting theory, launched by the Dutch archaeologist Olaf Kaper from Leiden, stipulates that this Petubastis was responsible for the disappearance of an entire Persian army. At some point Kambyses sent an army, reportedly 50.000 men strong (a number that is obviously inflated), to attack the Libyans living near the oracle of Amun at Siwa. This is the very same oracle that Alexander the Great would visit almost two hundred years later. The Persian army disappeared without a trace. According to Kaper it was crushed by Petubastis, and Kambyses and his successor Dareios I may have chosen to sweep the whole drama under the carpet.

Head of a pharaoh, presumably Nectanebo II. 30th Dynasty (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

Two other operations launched by Kambyses ended in failure as well. An offensive against Carthage had to be cancelled because his Phoenician sailors refused to participate. Carthage had, after all, been founded by colonists from Tyre in Phoenicia, and no Phoenician wanted to attack his own ‘children’. The second failure was an expedition in about 524 BCE against the ‘Ethiopians’ (probably the Nubians living south of Egypt). This time the operation was a flop because of a lack of preparation, which led to food shortages early in the offensive. The new Persian pharaoh of Egypt was, however, successful in other respects: both the Libyans and the citizens of the Greek cities of Cyrene and Barka submitted to the Persians. Kambyses died in 522 BCE and it is no longer possible to make a reconstruction of his succession, but there can be no debate about the outcome: Dareios (Darayavaus), who was not related to the late king, ascended the throne. As a member of the royal bodyguard he probably simply usurped it and eliminated the king’s brother, one Bardiya or Smerdis. Dareios had an uneasy start to his kingship, with among other things two unsuccessful rebellions in Babylon. But then he embarked on a long and successful reign (522-486 BCE) which earned him the same nickname as Cyrus: The Great. The greatest disappointment of his 36 years on the throne was no doubt his defeat against the Athenians at Marathon (490 BCE).

Under Dareios the rebellions in Egypt were crushed. The fate of Petubastis III is uncertain, but it is likely that he was ultimately beaten. Dareios and his satraps then tried to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptians. Loyal Egyptians were rewarded by appointing them as royal officials and the king had temples built and a new law code drafted. The administrative language of the Persian Empire was Aramaic, and this language was now introduced in Egypt. But however mild Persian rule may have been, new revolts kept erupting. One such revolt took place during the early years of the reign of king Xerxes (Xsayarsa; 486-465 BCE), who was Dareios’ successor. The revolt is tentatively attributed to a rebel pharaoh named Psamtik IV. Xerxes managed to put it down. A much more serious rebellion broke out in about 459 BCE. Its target was the satrap appointed by Xerxes, his brother Achaimenes; Xerxes himself had by that time already been murdered by his bodyguard and succeeded by his son Artaxerxes I (Artakhsaça; 465-424 BCE). Aided by Athens the Libyan prince Inaros managed to defeat and kill Achaimenes, but a few years later he was himself defeated and executed. Although his rebellion had ended in failure, the Libyan had managed to do the Persians much harm.[10]

Independent and occupied again

The Twenty-Seventh Dynasty – for that is what the Persian kings ruling over Egypt are collectively called – came to an end after the death of Dareios II (423-404 BCE). Under the next dynasties Egypt would for a short time be independent again. Even when Dareios was still alive a certain Amenirdisu (or Amyrtaios) had risen again the Persian oppressors. His rebellion was a success and so Amenirdisu – who possibly took the name Psamtik V, although this is not certain – became the first and only pharaoh of the Twenty-Eighth Dynasty of Egypt (404-398 BCE). He was then defeated on the battlefield by Nefaarud I (or Nepheritis; 398-393 BCE), the founder of the Twenty-Ninth Dynasty. The new pharaoh hailed from Mendes, which subsequently became the new seat of the Egyptian government. Under Hakor (393-380 BCE) Egypt was attacked by the Persians and their king Artaxerxes II (404-358 BCE). Hakor and his army narrowly managed to repel the attack, which must have taken place in about 385 BCE.

Alexander the Great (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

After just a short reign Hakor’s son Nefaarud II was deposed by the founder of the Thirtieth Dynasty: Nakhtnebef from Sebennytos, who is more widely known as Nectanebo I (380-359 BCE; see the image above). He and his grandson Nectanebo II (359-343 BCE; see the image above) managed to withstand the mounting pressure from the King of Kings and keep Egypt independent. Under them the royal residence was moved from Mendes to – unsurprisingly, given the dynasty’s origins – Sebennytos. Both Nectanebos became famous as great builders. The first Nectanebo defeated a Persian attack on Egypt in about 375 BCE and then happily supported a satrap rebellion against the Persians in Asia Minor several years later. Artaxerxes II would not live to see the reconquest of Egypt: it was effectuated by his son Artaxerxes III (358-338 BCE). In 343 BCE he defeated Nectanebo II at Pelousion, causing the pharaoh to flee to Nubia. Artaxerxes III became the first pharaoh of the Thirty-First and last Egyptian Dynasty.

The Persians did not enjoy their re-appropriation of the Land of the Nile for long. Just ten years later king Dareios III was decisively defeated at Issos by the Macedonian king Alexander. In 332 BCE this Alexander conquered Egypt. He visited the aforementioned oracle of the Libyan Amun (or Zeus-Ammon) and declared that he was a son of the god. It is with Alexander that the Macedonian dominion of Egypt starts (332-30 BCE). It was a period of over 300 years that ended with the annexation of the kingdom by the Roman Empire.


  • Dieter Kessler, ‘The Political History of the Twenty-first to Thirtieth Dynasties’, in: Egypt. The World of the Pharaohs, p. 273-275;
  • Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 100-110.


[1] Book 2.154.

[2] 2 Kings 23:29 and 2 Chronicles 35:23-24.

[3] 2 Kings 24:14.

[4] See Book 2.158.

[5] Herodotos, Book 4.42.

[6] Jeremiah 44:30.

[7] Book 4.159.

[8] Book 2.161-169.

[9] Book 3.13-16.

[10] According to Herodotos, Book 3.15.

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