For Ancient Egypt, the years between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE were ones of decline and foreign occupation.
For a time the kings were able to hold things together by co-opting leading provincial families as allies of the royal family through marriage ties and grants of hereditary privileges. The inevitable result of these policies, however, was further fragmentation of power, exacerbated by divisions within the royal family itself as different princes contended with each other. Rival principalities emerged within Egypt’s borders.
It was into this situation that the king of Kush invaded Egypt, culminating in a campaign that brought the entire country under Kushite subjection in 728 BCE. The new king, Piy, presented himself in purely traditional terms, and clearly saw himself as a true Egyptian pharaoh. Furthermore, he did not depose the existing kings and princes, but imposed himself upon them as their overlord.
The dominance of Piy and his dynasty (the 25th) was short-lived, however. A foreign policy which sought to regain Egyptian influence in Palestine brought Egypt into conflict with the huge and aggressive Assyrian empire. A series of Assyrian invasions, in which the invaders were by no means always victorious but which could in the end have only one outcome, resulted in complete defeat for the Nubian kings, their flight back to their Nubian capital, Napata, the sack of the historic city of Thebes, and the occupation of northern Egypt by an Assyrian army.
Detail of a drawing of the Victory stele:
Piy (left, partially erased) is tributed by four Nile Delta rulers.
For the first time in their long history, the ancient Egyptians found themselves conquered by a foreign empire. The Assyrians on the whole preferred to exert their control over Egypt through local rulers, who in effect swapped the overlordship of the king of Kush for the (more distant) overlordship of the king of Assyria.
This suited many of them very well. Above all, it suited the princes of Saise, in the Delta. Necko of Sais built up his power under Assyrian sponsorship, and was given the governorship of Memphis by them. His son Psamteck I (664-610 BCE) inherited Necko’s positions and then took full advantage of troubles elsewhere in the Assyrian empire to expand his power throughout the entire country. By 639 BCE Psamteck ruled an independent, united Egypt.
Psamteck founded the 26th dynasty (639-525 BCE). The kings of this dynasty associated themselves with the glory days of Ancient Egypt by erecting monuments in the style of the Old Kingdom.
This policy masked great changes that had taken place in the country. Sizeable communities of foreigners now lived within its borders. Libyans, Greeks, Phoenicians and Jews had brought their distinctive cultures as well as their particular technological skills with them – it was with Greek assistance that Neko II (610-595 BCE) set about building a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea, and it was Phoenician seamen that he sent on a famous expedition to explore the west coast of Africa. Naukratis, a Greek colony, was now the chief port of Egypt. Foreign mercenaries lived in scattered settlements throughout the country. Temples now owned much of the cultivated land, correspondingly weakening the economic base for royal power.
The kings of the 26th dynasty resumed the traditional Egyptian policy of seeking to secure a predominant influence in Palestine. Their chief opponent was now the resurgent power of Babylon, under its dynamic leader Nebuchadnezzar, who had take over from Assyria as the leading empire in the Middle East.
The Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish (605 BCE), and so got the upper hand in Syria. Two Babylonian invasions of Egypt (601 and 569 BCE) were beaten back. Psamtek II (595-589 BCE) secured the allegiance of the Philistine cities, and Apries (589-570 BCE) supported Judaea in her abortive revolt against Babylon (589 BCE) before occupying the Levantine cities of Tyre and Sidon (574-750 BCE). His successor, Amasis (570-526 BCE) occupied Cyprus in 560 BCE. In the south, Psamtek II had invaded Nubia, and penetrated as far as Napata, but had not occupied the country.
Sphinx of Psamtik II
Recreated under Creative Commons 3.0
The occupation of Cyprus proved to be the high watermark of Egyptian success under the 26th dynasty. In 545 BCE a new power in the Middle East, the Persian empire, took that island from the Egyptians. The Persians went on to conquer the Babylonian empire, and in 526 BCE invaded Egypt.
At the battle of Pelusium the Egyptian army was defeated, and Egypt incorporated into the huge Persian empire. This event marked the effective end of the history of ancient Egypt as the home of an autonomous civilization. Henceforth her history was as a member of a wider world, her fate largely determined by foreign players.
Continue: Part 6: Ancient Egypt 500 BCE – 30 BCE – ancient Egypt under the Persians, Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies
History Atlas: Maps of Ancient Egypt
Overview: Ancient Egypt
Overview of Ancient Egypt,
Location of Ancient Egypt,
Ancient Egyptian Art,
Ancient Egyptian Architecture,
Ancient Egyptian Technology,
Ancient Egyptian Governance,
Ancient Egyptian Economy and Society,
Ancient Egypt in World History
The History of Ancient Egypt
Part 4 – Ancient Egyptian History 1500 BCE- 1000 BCE: A Strong Monarchy, An Imperial Power, International Trade and Diplomacy, Egyptian Imperialism, Religious Upheavals, The Hittite Challenge, New Threats, Impotence Abroad c.1153-1069 BCE, Weakness at Home