[This entry surveys the Late period of ancient Egyptian history, with reference to that period's major kings, main historical events, and significant cultural and social developments. It comprises four articles:

For related discussions, see ACHAEMENIDS; and PERSIA.]

An Overview

The Late period is one of the best-documented periods of Egyptian history, but it raises problems that are unknown to students of the earlier periods. A great advantage is the existence of a connected commentary written by an intelligent outsider: the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor visited the country in the 450s BCE and left his account in Book II of his Histories. Another asset is the wealth of sources on stone, potsherds, and papyrus, not merely in Hieratic and Demotic but also in the other languages of what had become a polyglot country: Aramaic and Phoenician, Cypriote and Lycian, Greek and Carian, and even some other languages that have yet to be identified. On the other hand, much of the archaeology of this period is lost (for example, hardly any of the great cities of the Delta have been excavated scientifically) or ignored (this is true of some of the art of the period). Traditionally the Late period has been neglected by Egyptologists, but in recent years aspects of it have become fashionable. Good comprehensive treatments, however, are still rare.

Historical periods do not begin overnight, but it is convenient to recognize the accession of Psamtik I in 664 BCE as the sign of a new dispensation over Egypt. At the beginning of his career Psamtik was merely the governor of Sais in the west central Delta. He made a virtue out of necessity in posing as the loyal vassal of the Assyrians, who had made an attempt at conquering the entire country in 667. Behind this smokescreen he was able to unite most of the principalities of the Delta, and to extend his power to Memphis and Middle Egypt. In his ninth year, he was able to pull off his greatest coup. His daughter, Nitocris, was adopted by the Theban authorities as the adoratress, or god's wife, of Amun; in effect, she became the head of the Theban clergy, a post which carried with it considerable economic and political power within Upper Egypt. This can be seen as a form of dynastic marriage, with the daughter of an ambitious ruler marrying another who was even more powerful. In this case, the other ruler happened to be a god, but the political effect was the same as if he had been human. This settlement could not have been reached without the support of the powerful Theban Montuemhat, and it is no surprise to find that this character, together with his family, profited greatly from the rise of the new regime. After 656 BCE, the twenty-sixth dynasty was in effective control of Egypt.

Psamtik needed an army, and in some ways his career resembles that of the adventurer Mohammed Ali at the beginning of the nineteenth century CE. He turned to the forefront of military technology, which was in the hands of the Greeks and their cousins, the Carians of Asia Minor. Mercenaries from both communities were easily induced into his service, since pharaoh had a reputation as one of the most generous employers on earth. This made good sense militarily, but it had the consequence of reminding the traditional Egyptian warrior class, who are known by Herodotus's term machimoi or “warriors,” that they were no longer in the forefront of things. The alienation of the native military caused by this decision produced a faultline running through society, and led to recurrent problems for the dynasty. The history of this period oscillates between expansive foreign ambitions and the need to pander to the interests of the traditional intelligentsia, whether aristocrats, priesthoods, or the machimoi.

Expansionism is the keynote of the reign of Psamtik's son Necho (r. 610–595), whose exploits involving Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa are recounted by Herodotus. The threat from Asia was no longer the Assyrians but a resurgent Babylonia, and Necho sent an army to the aid of his former overlord to fight the new menace. This army was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon at Carchemish in 604. Expansionism is also seen in the Nubian campaign of Psamtik II in 595, where the army was composed of Ionians, Carians, and possibly Phoenicians, as well as Egyptians. However, military activity in Nubia was comparatively safe. Action of a more dangerous sort can be seen at the end of the reign of Apries (589–570), when an expedition to conquer Greek Cyrene on the Libyan coast led to a mutiny by the army and the deposition of the pharaoh himself. Events of this sort may have happened in earlier Egypt, but the sources are silent. However, the deposition of Apries is unlikely to have been unique in pharaonic history.

Apries's successor, Amasis, is the survivor of the dynasty; he succeeded in occupying the throne for forty-four years (570/69–526), almost until the eve of the Persian conquest in 525. Amasis survived because he was able to balance forces which were in danger of tearing the state apart, and it is instructive to see how this was done. Amasis was the choice of the army, and it was vital for him to appeal to the machimoi who had supported him. At the same time, he needed to keep his throne in an international world where alliances could be made and broken very quickly. For the first decades of his reign, the main threat to Egypt's independence came from Babylonia, but after 538 the problem lay with Persia, whose expansion appeared unstoppable. A series of alliances were made with middling powers in the Aegean world, notably Lydia and the Greek island of Samos. These succeeded in diverting enemy attention away from Egypt, since the powers in question were easier targets, and they also provided outlets for the activities of pharaoh's foreign mercenaries. A more serious venture was the occupation of Cyprus, probably because of the island's importance as a naval base. In the meanwhile, Amasis could busy himself rebuilding the Egyptian economy. This was done to improve its defensive position, as well as to reconcile the population to the regime.

But the example of Apries made it clear that the affections of the native Egyptians had to be carefully cultivated. In Herodotus Amasis appears almost as a comical figure, a fool, but one with a heart full of common sense. He gets drunk at night, but makes the point to a visiting Greek that this releases tension, like an archer who relaxes his bowstring to make it more efficient. He is not exactly reverent toward the niceties of religion, but he is careful not to give the impression of atheism or hostility. This is not a purely Greek tradition, however, as is well shown by a Demotic tale which features Amasis drinking on a heroic scale in defiance of his courtiers' advice. (This is in fact a parody of the well-known New Kingdom genre known as the Königsnovelle.) The resulting hangover threatens to paralyze the mechanism of government, and the king proceeds to embark on an affair with the wife of a boat-captain. However, this is not just a titillating story. What Amasis is doing is to harness the Egyptians' traditional penchant for satire to his own propaganda aims. The times did not require an aloof god-king, which the unfortunate Apries had given the impression of being, so much as a human whom the traditional machimoi could identify with. A lovable rogue is not the obvious target for assassination attempts; instead, the instinct is to rally to his defense, especially when the threat comes from abroad.

The growing prosperity of Egypt in the twenty-sixth dynasty is shown by the increasing numbers of contracts drawn up on papyrus. At the beginning of the dynasty most contracts must have drawn up in the script known as Abnormal Hieratic, which was descended from the Hieratic of the later New Kingdom. However, the period shows the steady spread of Demotic, a new and (to the Egyptians' way of thinking) simplified script which probably originated in Memphis or the Delta. By the middle of Amasis' reign, the triumph of Demotic is complete. This centralizing of record-keeping, and with it economic life, must have benefited Egypt's prosperity considerably. A good index of this prosperity is temple-building, which reached a peak under Apries and Amasis, and which principally affected the Memphite region and the Delta, although there was also a major rebuilding program at Abydos. The impressive extent of this program can be grasped from the incomplete list of monuments given by Kienitz (1953). Another feature of this reign is a social change, under which marriage documents, which had previously been drawn up between the groom and the father of the bride, are now drawn up simply between husband and wife. This may have been a deliberate reform, but it is more likely to have been the culmination of a trend that was already under way. Meanwhile, the growing wealth of Egypt helped to provoke another process, that of foreign immigration. This in itself was not a new phenomenon: New Kingdom Egypt, for example, saw immigration on a considerable scale, and it is possible that the country acted as a magnet to foreign settlers at most periods of its history. However, it is in the Late period that the process can be documented most closely. The best-known community of immigrants is the various types of Greeks, notably from the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and the more adventurous states of the mainland. Because of the later power of Greek culture, we might be tempted to assume that they were the most influential community in Egypt, but an Egyptian contemporary might not have seen things this way. Like other foreign communities, however, the Greeks were entrepreneurial and successful, and this earned the enmity of the more conservative element among the Egyptians. Amasis dealt with this problem imaginatively, by giving the Greeks the city of Naucratis, not far from Sais, as a trading monopoly. This satisfied both sides. Herodotus states that Naucratis was founded at this point, but the city probably existed as early as Psamtik I.

Closely allied with the Greeks were the Carians, who came from the Asian mainland opposite the island of Rhodes. Both communities originated as mercenaries, though they later extended themselves into associated trades. It is quite possible that several generals of the period, who appear in our sources with excessively loyalist or pious names, are foreigners from one or other of these communities. Until recently the Carians were almost unknown, but a flood of light was released by the discovery by the Egypt Exploration Society of a series of stelae in the Egyptian style, taken from a cemetery which was used by the Carians of Memphis. These turned out to be bilingual, and the subsequent decipherment of the Carian language has yielded a wealth of information about the assimilation of the Carians to the manners and culture of their hosts. A third community with military associations is probably the Cypriote, which has left several inscriptions in its unique linear script, a survival from the world of the Myceneans. Some of these (for example, those at Abydos) may be Saite in date, while others, such as those at Karnak, are known to be fourth century.

Not all immigrants were warlike. From the opening up of the country under the first Saite kings, much of the commercial life of Egypt had been in the hands of traders from the Near East, in particular from the coast of Phoenicia. The Phoenicians kept their traditional language, which is recorded from some sites in Egypt, particularly Abydos. The characteristic amphorae of Tyre and Sidon are found in archaeological contexts, for example at North Saqqara. Obviously, the quiet activities of trade have left less of a mark in the historical record than other, more martial arts, but this should not lead us to underestimate the importance of such a community, many of whom may have become extremely wealthy. They might then have been in a position to penetrate the native ruling class through marriage and commercial influence. Even Amasis had a queen who bore the name Takheta, which means “the female Hittite.” There were no Hittites worth speaking of in the sixth century BCE, but she may well have been from a wealthy immigrant family from Syria or Anatolia. This person even became the mother of the last king of the dynasty, Psamtik III, who ruled for six months in 526/5 BCE.

Together with the Phoenicians, we may consider the large numbers of Near Eastern immigrants who were attracted to Egypt. Many of these seem to have been active in economic life, and this state of affairs was helped by the increasing use of Aramaic as a lingua franca. This must have been widely used in Egypt, and it is well attested in inscriptions; indeed, it can almost be considered as the second language of the country, at least by the time of the Persian Occupation in 525. The later stages of the Egyptian language show many loan words from Aramaic, whereas, interestingly, there are very few words of Greek origin. The latter permeated the written language only with the adoption of Christianity and the Scriptures.

The Jews form something of a special case among the immigrants from the Near East. Linguistically they were just another part of the Aramaic diaspora, although Hebrew may well have been used for liturgical purposes. The troubled history of Palestine at this period is well documented in the Bible, and there would have been a steady influx of Jewish political or economic refugees into the land of Egypt. Some of these communities prospered there, and it is against this background that we should view the well-known story of Joseph. Though the Bible sets this story at an earlier period, Donald Redford (1970) had no difficulty in showing that, in the form in which we have it, this story is a product of the Late period. The tale of an immigrant who was able to beat the Egyptians at their own games—running the economy and interpreting dreams—would have been irresistible to a community trying to make its way in the new world beside the Nile.

The best-documented Jewish settlement in Egypt is that on the island of Elephantine, opposite the city of Aswan at the First Cataract. The origins of this community may have been military (Aswan being a frontier region), but it was probably augmented by other settlers. The township had its own temple to the Jewish god, and it is possible to reconstruct much of its domestic history, thanks to a series of Aramaic documents on leather and papyrus. These cover much of the fifth century BCE, and they record marriages and divorces, house purchases, wills and transfers, litigation, and petitions to the authorities. A few texts, such as the biography of the Persian king Darius (522–486 BCE), and an Egyptian tale about a sorcerer which had been translated into Aramaic, give fascinating glimpses of the community's taste in literature. Details of these unique documents can be found in the publication by Bezalel Porten (1996). In general, the Jewish community at Elephantine shows a refusal to accommodate itself to Egyptian thinking, and a reluctance to intermarry; but this is to an extent an ideal image of the community as it would like to imagine itself. In practice, a Jewish woman from Elephantine was able to swear in court by the name of an Egyptian goddess, and the same woman turns out to have a weakness for Egyptian husbands taken from the more muscular professions. There may have been more activity of this sort than we are led to believe: the exclusivity of the Jews in Egypt must have been relative, not absolute.

There were other ingredients in this melting-pot of nations: immigrants from Libya and Anatolia, Arabians, and, as so often in ancient Egypt, settlers from Nubia. The latter go almost unnoticed in our sources, since Nubians were always part of the Egyptian scene. Nevertheless, it is likely that the majority of Nubians did jobs of low social status until, after a few generations, they were able to merge into the general population.

The presence of such a complex society raises problems of interpretation for the modern scholar. Equally important, it must have raised acute practical difficulties for the Egyptian authorities. How could such a society be made to function, and what were the most effective ways to keep it together? In practice, many of these communities must have brought with them their own traditions, covering such matters as civil and family structure and religious rituals. It is likely that many of these traditions were tolerated by the authorities, as long as they did not clash head-on with Egyptian practice. (The final days of the Jewish community at Elephantine have left us a series of reports and petitions designed to settle precisely such an incompatibility of religious observance, which had led to severe local differences.) In the end, however, Egyptian criminal law must have been given preference over local idiosyncrasies. Murder of a sacred animal, for example, could be a serious crime under Egyptian law, and it is unlikely that a Carian could evade such a law simply by pleading that baboons and ibises were unknown back in his homeland. It is no accident that one of the first acts of the emperor Darius, when he assumed control of Egypt in 522 BCE, was to draw up a complete codification of the law as it stood in the final year of Amasis. Systemization of this sort was probably essential, under the Achaemenid kings if not already under the Saites.

Law may command obedience, but it does not necessarily go to the heart. Armed force is one way of unifying a country, but a more effective solution can be to resort to a shared culture. The Egyptians who found themselves in a new situation, where strange languages were heard in the streets and immigrants grew to wealth and power, could be forgiven for falling back on their own culture, which they knew was millennia old. (In their enthusiasm and defensiveness they were not above adding extra millennia to their history, as is clear from Herodotus and from the exaggerated accounts preserved by other Greek writers.) This native culture was not only old, it was distinctive. In matters such as the belief in immortality, the elaborate care of the dead, the worship paid to animals, magical practices, and the theology of the transcendent nature of kingship as embodied in the pharaoh, it was unique in the ancient world. It is no coincidence that it is precisely these aspects—especially the first four—that are stressed during this period. It is almost as if the ruling elite had made a decision to use Egyptian culture as a form of adhesive, to bind together peoples who had come from differing traditions and backgrounds, and to reinforce the Egyptians' sense of identity against a world which no longer put their country at the center of things. This concentration on culture and religion (which to the Egyptians was quite inseparable from culture) may have been conscious, or it may have been instinctive. Either way, it was deeply felt, and it was effective.

This finds an echo in a famous passage quoted by Herodotus (II, 18). There the answer to the question “Who is an Egyptian?” is given by the oracle of Amun at Siwa: an Egyptian was anyone who lived downstream of Elephantine and drank the water of the Nile. The interesting point about this answer is that the idea of an Egyptian is not defined in racial terms. To the Egyptians, race and culture were closely identified, and it did not matter who one's parents might have been. The answer is geographical, giving the traditional limits of Egypt proper, but there is a subtext, to the effect that the definition is also one of culture. An Egyptian was someone who spoke Egyptian, worshipped the immemorial gods and goddesses in their temples, thought like an Egyptian, knew his or her history, and, when the bright day was done, went into the presence of Osiris surrounded by the protective powers of the hieroglyphs. The visual, cultural, and magical attraction of Egyptian culture was strong, and the ruling classes were determined to keep it that way. Most immigrants aspire to greater things, for their children if not themselves, and the way ahead was clear to them: it was to become a Greek Egyptian, or a Carian one, perhaps even a Jewish one. The monuments of the fifth-century Greek and Carian settlers show the absorption of Egyptian gods, burial practices, and iconography, while the Aramaic stelae from the same period show whole phrases adopted from Egyptian rituals and translated into the host language. Double-naming is common, at least at the beginning. Thereafter, it comes as no surprise to find that the Egyptian names start to predominate. The ancient culture of the pharaohs was adept at turning people into Egyptians.

The Persian conquest in 525 BCE marked the end of Amasis' dreams of glory, but in the long term it made surprisingly little difference. Egypt was integrated into a world empire for the first time—a state reflected in the grand opening of the Achaemenid equivalent of the Suez Canal in 497/6. There was an Iranian governing class grafted on top of the administration, and a Persian satrap in overall command. But this governor frequently needed to be recalled, in case he was tempted to declare his independence. The administration of the country continued in Egyptian, and in the time-honored mode of inspired chaos, as is shown by the informative Demotic text known as the Petition of Petiese, which dates from 509 BCE. As the period of Persian rule proceeds, one sees the gradual process of assimilation extended even to Iranian officials, who are shown worshiping Egyptian gods such as the Apis bull and dedicating stelae in hieroglyphs. One is sometimes tempted to wonder who has conquered whom. In 404 BCE, the Persian garrisons realized the inevitable and left the country.

The Late period has its architectural masterpieces, such as the tomb of Montuemhat at Thebes and the lesser-known Saqqara complex of Khetbeneit-erboni II, daughter of one king (either Psamtik II or Apries) and wife of another (Apries or Amasis). Above all, it was an age of personal piety. The individual, faced with a world of disquieting change, turned to his relationship with the gods. The serene portraiture of its sculpture, the austere impressiveness of the funerary complexes of Saqqara, Abusir, and Thebes, the selective re-creation of Old, Middle, and New Kingdom motifs and their integration into a distinctive idiom, can all be seen as aspects of this introversion. The same is true for some of the Wisdom Literature written in Demotic, which is powerful and deserves to better known. There is a tendency to absorb Near Eastern practices, especially in the fields of omen-interpretation and astrology, but there too the foreign elements are quickly naturalized. These achievements are essentially aspects of the redefining of pharaonic culture within a changing world; this culture survived through the period of independence under the twenty-ninth (399–380) and thirtieth (380–343) dynasties, and the brief return to Persian rule after 343 BCE. It was still powerful and creative when Alexander the Great put an end to the Late period in 332 BCE and ushered in the Hellenistic world. The Egypt that had emerged from the regime of Psamtik I was still vigorous and recognizable six hundred years later, when Cleopatra sailed along the Nile.



  • Bothmer, Bernard V. Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 BC to AD 100. Brooklyn, 1960. Ground-breaking survey of Late Egyptian art.
  • Braun, T. F. R. G. “The Greeks in Egypt.” In Cambridge Ancient History, 2d ed., vol. 3, part 3, pp. 32–56. Cambridge, 1986. Study of several immigrant communities in Egypt.
  • Depuydt, Leo. “Regnal Years in Achaemenid Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81 (1995), 151–174. Improved chronology of documents from the period of Persian occupation.
  • Der Manuelian, Peter. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Chicago, 1994. Analyzes the Late period artistic and linguistic revival and its conventions.
  • Elgood, P. G. The Later Dynasties of Egypt. Oxford, 1951. Standard historical narrative.
  • Gardiner, Alan. Egypt of the Pharaohs. Oxford, 1960. Chapter 13 is useful for literary sources.
  • Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1992. Pages 334–382 present a readable account of the period.
  • Gyles, Mary F. Pharaonic Policies and Administration, 663 to 323 B.C. Chapel Hill, 1959. Concentrates on political history.
  • James, T. G. H. “Egypt: The Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties.” In Cambridge Ancient History, 2d ed., vol. 3, part 2, pp. 677–747. Cambridge, 1991. Sets the period into the context of the preceding Nubian domination.
  • Johnson, Janet H., et al. Life in a Multi-cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond. Chicago, 1992. Series of detailed studies on ethnicity and cross-cultural influence.
  • Kienitz, Friedrich. Die politische Geschichte Ägyptens vom 7. bis zum 4. Jahrhundert vor der Zeitwende. Berlin, 1953. Full lists of inscribed monuments and other sources.
  • Leahy, Anthony. “The Earliest Dated Monument of Amasis, and the End of the Reign of Apries.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 74 (1988), 183–199. Improves chronology of Amasis' coup d'état.
  • Lloyd, Alan B. Herodotus Book II: A Commentary. 3 vols. Leiden, 1975–1988. Covers almost all aspects of Late period culture and society.
  • Lloyd, Alan B. “The Inscription of Udjahorresnet, a Collaborator's Testament.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68 (1982), 166–180. Biographical text exemplifying native reaction to the Persian conquest.
  • Lloyd, Alan B. “The Late Period, 664 to 323 BC.” In Ancient Egypt: A Social History, edited by Bruce G. Trigger et al. Cambridge, 1983. Chapter 4 is an authoritative treatment, especially of classical sources.
  • Masson, Olivier. Carian Inscriptions from North Saqqâra and Buhen. London, 1978. Primary edition of bilingual texts from Memphis.
  • Mathieson, I., et al. “A Stela of the Persian Period from Saqqâra.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81 (1995), 23–42. New evidence for Iranian presence in Egypt.
  • Porten, Bezalel, et al. The Elephantine Papyri in English. Leiden, 1996. Complete new edition with commentary.
  • Ray, John D. “The Achaemenid Period in Egypt.” In Cambridge Ancient History 2d ed., vol. 4, part 1, pp. 254–286. Cambridge, 1987. Emphasis on social history, with bibliography.
  • Ray, John D. “Soldiers to Pharaoh: The Carians of Southwest Anatolia.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J. M. Sasson et al., vol. 2, pp. 1185–1194. New York, 1995. Account of a mercenary community which emigrated to Egypt.
  • Ray, John D. “Amasis: The Pharaoh with No Illusions.” History Today 46/3 (March 1996), 27–31. Emphasizes the use of propaganda.
  • Redford, Donald B. A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph. Leiden, 1970. Sets the narrative firmly into its Egyptian context.

John D. Ray

Twenty-sixth Dynasty

The last significant and relatively long-lasting period of native Egyptian unity, the twenty-sixth dynasty, ruled between 664 and 525 BCE. In particular, the twenty-sixth dynasty—also known as the Saite period—has about it the air of a siege mentality. Its founding pharaoh, Psamtik I (r. 664–610 BCE), had won control of Egypt through a judicious alliance with Assyria. Within a short time, by effectively cementing his relationship with Assurbanipal of Assyria, Psamtik was able, slowly but inexorably, to move from his domain in the western Nile Delta to all of Lower Egypt. Then, after crushing some troublesome Libyans to the west, he secured the services of hardy Greek and Carian mercenaries and placed them in key military garrisons at the borders of Egypt. After nine years, Psamtik peacefully took over Thebes, the religious and political center of Upper Egypt, which from the early eighth century BCE had been in the hands of the Kushite pharaohs of the twenty-fifth dynasty.

The foreign policy of Psamtik I and his son Necho II (r. 610–595 BCE) was based on the proximity of their home city, Sais, in the Delta, and its necessary commercial and political relations with eastern Mediterranean states. For the first time in centuries, Egypt conquered territory in Palestine (under both rulers) and secured effective naval control over the coast to the northeast of the Delta. Indeed, for the first time Egyptian texts reveal a relatively sizable number of Egyptian “admirals,” thereby indicating just how crucial the sea was for the nascent dynasty. Alliances with Polycrates of Samos and with the state of Lydia helped cement the Saite dynasty's outward-looking, aggressive policy. Moreover, the large number of Hellenic mercenaries who came to Egypt intensified the interaction of Greek culture with that of the Nile Valley, a cultural interaction that can be inferred as well from the increasing number of Jews who left their homeland, Judah, to settle at Elephantine and in Egypt's north (probably at Memphis). Unlike the previous dynasty, that of Psamtik and his successors was, by economic and military circumstances, forced to deal in a complex of foreign relations with the other nations and peoples of the day.

The power of Assyria went into a slow decline after Psamtik I's elevation to the throne of Egypt. From the 620s BCE, Egypt was still aligned to the Assyrian empire and was faced by the growing threat of new contenders for superpower status. In one way, and remarkably, both Psamtik and Necho II managed to stave off the continuous advances of the Babylonians, now led by Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadrezzar. We must keep continually in mind that Egypt had no sources of iron, the then-newly advantageous metal for the technology of war. In addition, Egypt's gradual reliance on foreign soldiers—mercenaries—to strengthen the state meant that a portion of the state's revenues were paid to hired soldiers who were ultimately loyal only to themselves or to their division leader, rather than to the king of Egypt. Certainly by 610 BCE and onward, the Saite kingdom's control over the southern Levant was contested. It was one thing for Egypt to conquer the small state of Judah led by Josiah in the Battle of Megiddo in 609 BCE, another for Egypt's forces to meet those of Nebuchadrezzar. In 605 BCE, the Egyptian forces were crushed by the Babylonians, and from that time onward Egypt failed to regain control over any portion of the Near East. The conquest of Jerusalem by Babylonia in 597 BCE also meant that Necho II could not seek any important ally in southern Palestine; noteworthy are the later erasures of his name, quite possibly instigated by his successor Psamtik II (r. 595–589 BCE), a result of his failures abroad. Although Necho II had begun a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean—note once more the maritime policy of this dynasty—he had been unable to complete it.

The old enemy of Sais was that of the kingdom of Kush to the south (in Sudan). Although robbed of their territory north of Aswan and Elephantine, Kushite monarchs continued to pose a problem for the Egyptian state. Not surprisingly, then, difficulties occurred at the southern boundary during the Saite dynasty; in fact, in the reign of Psamtik II, a massive Egyptian expedition was sent into Kush to break, once and for all, its military power. Psamtik II's expedition followed in principle that practice of an earlier Egyptian monarch, Kamose (ruled c.1571–1569 BCE), who had also been faced with a threat from the south—from the Nubians. Kamose was then also facing the Hyksos to his north. In both cases, the Egyptian state was caught between two foes, on two fronts. Under Psamtik II, the Saite policy was different in one way from that of Kamose: instead of moving first to the north, Psamtik rid Egypt of the Kushite threat in the south. Soon after, a massive expurgation policy against the twenty-fifth (Kushite) dynasty pharaohs occurred, in which as many monuments of those kings as possible were attacked and their names erased.

When Psamtik II died, his successor Apries (r. 589–570 BCE) attempted to consolidate his sphere of influence over the eastern Mediterranean islands, rather than face the might of Babylonia to his north and east. Certainly, with the eventual fall of Judah, after the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 or 586 BCE, Egypt had no potential land ally. At this time, the philo-Hellenic attitudes of the twenty-sixth dynasty became preeminent, those that Apries' successor (and opponent), Amasis (r. 569–526 BCE), also continued. The instability of Egypt then was evident in the short civil war that took place as Nebuchadrezzar finally penetrated Egypt in 568 BCE. Amasis took care to strengthen contacts with the Greeks and with Lydia as well, while he stayed apart from the rivalry of Babylonia, the Medes, and the Persians. Internally, he came increasingly to rely on the foreign contingents in his army. Yet, just prior to his death, Persia—under Cyrus and Cambyses—became the deciding factor.

The popular traditions surrounding Amasis would be worthwhile to bring into this discussion. The ancient Greek historians Diodorus Siculus and Herodotus reported on this king's fondness for drinking; indeed, the “human” aspect of the pharaoh was stressed in those accounts. That this attitude was not one of a later reconstruction can be seen from a fragmentary Demotic tale, Amasis and the Skipper, a literary narrative that contrasted to no small extent with another native Egyptian tale (Berlin Papyrus 13598), in dealing with the death of Psamtik I, among other things. In the latter account, the formality of the pharaoh's role was what counted, whereas in the former, the alcoholic depiction of Amasis was quite unexpected, if not shocking.

Such local literary productions seem to have been devised during the Saite period; as such, one may see an indigenous revival of the art of storytelling, with the protagonist being the king. One major concomitant of this was the rapid spread of the new system of writing in Egypt: Demotic. As can be seen from both accounts above, as well as from other more mundane papyri of this era, the older forms of writing—in particular, Hieratic—were abandoned and a more rapid and flexible system of cursive writing was used. As an example, one can mention an Egyptian account in Demotic of a Nubian conflict dated to regnal Year 41 of Amasis. Such a description would previously have been immortalized on a freestanding stone stela, carved with hieroglyphs. The expansion of the Demotic script appears to have been a product of the successful reunification of Egypt under Psamtik I, as this script was apparently developed in Lower Egypt, if not at Sais itself, in the context of the revival of a civil service. In Upper Egypt, the more archaic, abnormal hieratic script was abandoned later than in Lower Egypt, undoubtedly caused by its later annexation by the successful diplomatic activity of Psamtik I.

Under this modification of Egypt's writing system—aimed toward a more effective rendition of the vernacular—the art of writing was continued on the great revival of statuary that prevaled during the twenty-fifth dynasty. Since the Saite pharaohs had been of a Delta origin, not surprisingly, they depended on Old Kingdom norms for their inscriptions as well as for their depictions. Whether in reliefs or in freestanding sculpture, the statuary of the Saite dynasty overtly reflected their dependence on age-old northern norms, especially those at the great cemetery of Saqqara. Those tombs of the fifth dynasty and the sixth formed, in essence, free and available templates for the artisans to copy; they were of great importance, since the private officials of the twenty-sixth dynasty were also buried at Saqqara. Although such “archaizing,” if it can be called that, had been part of the twenty-fifth (Kushite) dynasty as well, the emphasis on Old Kingdom models by Psamtik I and his lineage went considerably further. The archaizing tendencies extended beyond the plastic arts and script. Old cultic texts were recopied, and orthography aped old-fashioned, if not obsolete, renderings of words. Archaic terms and phrases, titles long-since defunct, and long-abandoned methods of dating were self-consciously resuscitated and prominently displayed in new creations.

In the twenty-sixth dynasty, a great use was made of Old Kingdom models and moreover, an increasing flexibility occurred in the hieroglyphic writing system; also at that time, the first evidence of a simplified, alphabetic-style script is known in Egypt. A further example of such changes having occurred within the Saite period, rather than in the preceding dynasty, can been seen in the revival of the squatting type of figure, a mark of the great Memphite school of sculpture from the fourth dynasty to the sixth. Finally, mention may be made of the realistic portraiture of this time; often attributed as “brutal,” the sculpted heads of the twenty-sixth dynasty stand alone as witness to the highly developed art that was begun under Psamtik I.

In contrast, at Thebes, the tombs of the elite of the Saites reflected New Kingdom antecedents. That is to be expected if only because there the nobles of the eighteenth dynasty to the twentieth were buried. Yet it cannot be ignored that private tombs at Thebes also borrowed extensively from the models of the Old Kingdom as well as the New Kingdom. Perhaps a better interpretation is a fusion, as represented by the Southern Egyptian approach to art and writing, in contrast to the Northern. Even such lowly texts as the offering lists reveal this eclecticism. At Saqqara, in the North, offering lists were virtually duplicates of feast lists, which could be found in many an Old Kingdom lintel or architrave; at Thebes, there were copies of eighteenth dynasty lists, as well as those of the earlier age. Significantly, at the capital, Sais, a different and local tradition obtained, thereby indicating that the twenty-sixth dynasty was not solely reliant on old models for their outlook on religious life.

The twenty-sixth dynasty ended under the extremely short reign of Psamtik III (r. 526–525 BCE), son and successor of Amasis. As the opportune time for the Persians to attack the Nile Valley, they, unlike the Babylonians, routed the Egyptians and their foreign soldiers. With the help of some native Egyptians who were disgruntled by Amasis' seizure of the throne, Cambyses of Babylon took Egypt and successively imposed his governorship.

See also AMASIS; APRIES; ARCHAISM; GRAMMAR, article on Demotic grammar; NECHO II; PSAMTIK I; and SCRIPTS, article on Demotic script.


  • Bothmer, Bernard V., Herman De Meulenaere, and H. W. Müller. Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period. 700 B. C. to A. D. 100. Edited by Elizabeth Riefstahl. Brooklyn, 1960. A remarkable volume concerned with the art of Egypt during the specified period; although dated, it remains paradigmatic.
  • Der Manuelian, Peter. Living in the Past: Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. London and New York, 1994. A complex but valuable work covering questions of art and language during the Saite period.
  • Freedy, K. S., and Donald B. Redford. “The Date of Ezekiel in Relation to Biblical, Babylonian and Egyptian Sources.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (1970), 462–85. This useful study links the foreign relations of the Saite dynasty with its Assyrian and Babylonian competitors.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100–650 BC). Warminster, 1973. An extremely significant work that covers the period in some detail.
  • Spalinger, Anthony J. “The Concept of Monarchy during the Saite Epoch—An Essay of Synthesis.” Orientalia NS 47 (1978), 12–36. A study of the twenty-sixth dynasty with a sociohistorical view.

Anthony J. Spalinger

Thirtieth Dynasty

The First Persian Occupation over Egypt lasted from 525 until 404 BCE, when the country regained its independence. Egypt's independence, however, continued to be overshadowed by the former colonial power, and no native ruler was in any position to forget this. In reality, the country was far from unified, and a series of princes emerged, mainly in the Nile Delta, who might well be described as warlords or even freedom fighters. Such people have a habit of not wanting to share their freedom very widely, and the brief rule of Amyrtaeos (twenty-eighth dynasty) was followed by a coup dʾétat staged from the city of Mendes in the central Delta. This is conventionally known as the twenty-ninth dynasty (c.399–380 BCE), although the situation has several features in common with the political structure that prevailed in the Third Intermediate Period. In addition, the threat from Persia remained real. The major figure of this dynasty is Hakoris (r. 392–380 BCE), who made an alliance with Evagoras of Salamis in Cyprus and was able to impose his rule over most of Egypt. It is possible that even his reign was interrupted by one or more usurpers. Ancient Egypt is sometimes seen as an unbroken sequence of dynasties, but the reality was more complex: dynasties took many forms.

The last king of the dynasty, Nepherites II, was deposed after a reign of a few months. The usurper was Nekhtenebef, a governor the city of Sebennytos in the north-central Delta, who is conventionally known as Nektanebo I (r. 380–363 BCE)—essentially a military commander—and he was a shrewd one. A Late period Wisdom text includes the maxim, “Great is a great man, if his great men are great,” and the strength of the new regime lay precisely in this detail. Some of Nektanebo's appointees may have been foreign mercenaries, but others were undoubtedly related to him, and therefore to the old military aristocracy. These included the vizier Harsiese, and another, Petineit, whose tomb excavation at Saqqara has been published by Bresciani (1980). Petineit seems to have been a descendant of a vizier of Psamtik I, whose original tomb he adapted for his own burial. There were generals of the caliber of Wahibre (known from a sphinx now in Vienna) and Tjaharpto. In practice, this regime can be described as a military junta. The junta's twin aims were to avoid anarchy at home and to defend the country abroad against the revenge of Persia.

From the first year of the reign comes the Naucratis Stela, a magnificent work of art now in the Cairo Museum. Naucratis was a major trading center, and in the stela's text the new king assigns one-tenth of the revenues on riverine traffic, plus the same on local manufactures, to the temple of Neith at Sais. This was not mere window dressing: the point of the exercise was to stimulate the wealth of temples in order to revitalize the economy. Temple industries and landholdings were important sources of taxation, and this taxation paid for the defense of Egypt. In addition, temples were able to deliver loyalty to a usurper pharaoh by nevertheless representing him as the choice of the gods. A program of temple building was initiated, which was to put the two Nektanebos alongside Ramesses II at the top of the list of royal temple founders. There was hardly a cult center that was not the object of their activities, and an entirely new sanctuary was added at Iseum (Beḥbeit) near Sebennytos. The art of the period—precise relief on dark background, sculpture in the round, and architecture—is characterized by reticence and careful draftsmanship, and it has several of the more introverted features of the art of the Middle Kingdom. It is worthy of serious study.

In 375 BCE, the Persians struck. The preceding dynasty had been inclined to turn to the power of Sparta for defense, but the Persians entered into a pact with Athens, which had recovered from its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The Persian forces, led by Pharnabazus and the Athenian Iphicrates, found the mouths of the Nile barricaded, but they were able to force a landing near the Mendes branch. Iphicrates was for pressing on to Memphis, but the Persian commander overruled him. During the resulting delay, the Nile flooded, and the invaders, disoriented, were forced to evacuate the country. Nektanebo had reason to believe that his piety had brought this flood, and piety became one of the keynotes of the intellectual life of the period. Quiet conformity with “the way of the god,” as a contemporary biography puts it, was the key to survival and prosperity.

Nektanebo's son, Teos or Tachos (r. 362–361 BCE), may have felt that quiet piety was unexciting, and immediately on his accession he launched an aggressive campaign into Phoenicia. He had the advantage of surprise, but of nothing else. His advisors were Agesilaus, the aged king of Sparta, and the Athenian admiral Chabrias, but these two disagreed openly. The atmosphere of chaos and distrust is confirmed by the autobiography of a priest, Onnofri, son of Painmou, who was denounced during the expedition by forged letters accusing him of treason. Chabrias advised the king to finance his campaign by confiscating wealth from the temples. Some of this wealth was turned into gold and silver coins to pay Greek troops—the first coinage ever struck by an Egyptian pharaoh. Theoretically, pharaoh could do this, but he was carrying Nektanebo's policy of cooperation with the temples to an unworkable extreme. The army mutinied and installed as pharaoh Tachos's young nephew, Nekhtharnehbo, conventionally known as Nektanebo II. The expedition returned to Egypt, and Agesilaus went home with a fortune.

Nektanebo II had learned that the temples could be a good friend, but a terrible enemy. He continued the temple-building program with vigor and with the same quality of design. In addition, the propaganda value of the priesthood was exploited increasingly. In many temples, statues of the dynasty were installed, which themselves received divine worship, together with their own priesthood. (In this scheme the disgraced Tachos was replaced by Nektanebo's father, Tamos.) The inclusion of the regime into the religious pantheon was deliberate, emphasizing both Nektanebo's piety and the reverence due to him. Another innovation was the cult of Nektanebo the falcon (which is well exemplified by a cult statue now in New York); this embodies a visual pun on the king's name, Nḫt-Ḥr-ḥb, in that the falcon is Horus (Ḥr), and the king holds a scimitar (nḫt) together with the sign for festival (ḥb).

Nektanebo II is famed in later tradition as a magician, and it is clear that this image was not a personal idiosyncrasy but an item of deliberate policy. The king wished to show himself as the agent of piety, who could converse with the gods and obtain their goodwill. Unlike his irreligious uncle, he epitomizes the age. This romanticized image is the subject of a story, The Dream of Nektanebo, which survives on a papyrus in Leiden. Though written in Greek, this tale is clearly Egyptian, and fragments of a Demotic version are now known. There, the king is shown as defending Egypt with model boats in magical bowls. Unfortunately, there is still one gap in the temple-building scheme, that of Onouris, the god of the capital city, Sebennytos, and it is implied that it was this omission that caused the gods to give eventual victory to the Persians. It is also made clear that this was not the king's fault, but the result of human failing at the temple itself. In the end, Nektanebo's magic may have let him down, but his reputation lived on among his people.

The Dream of Nektanebo is dated to the night of 5 July 343 BCE, which must be close to the date of the Persian invasion and the Second Persian Occupation. This time there was to be no respite, and the country once again became a Persian province, a state of affairs which lasted until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Nektanebo fled, and his unused sarcophagus later found its way to Alexandria, where it was used as a public bath; it is now in the British Museum. Yet Nektanebo was not forgotten. In the Greek Romance of Alexander, written in early Ptolemaic Alexandria, he takes the place of Aristotle as Alexander's tutor. Alexander kills him out of boredom, but as he dies he confesses that he is really Alexander's father. He had flown over the sea to visit Alexander's mother: perhaps an echo of the cult of Nektanebo the falcon. In this folkloric way, Egypt was able to deny the reality of foreign conquest, and Nektanebo gained the romantic immortality that his magic deserved. He was the last native Egyptian to rule Egypt until the Officers' Revolution of 1952 CE.



  • Bresciani, Edda, et al. Saqqara I: Tomba di Boccori. La Galleria di Padineit. Pisa, 1980. Publishes tomb of an important vizier under Nektanebo I.
  • de Meulenaere, H. “Les monuments du culte des rois Nectanébo.” Chronique d'Égypte 35 (1960), 92–107. Examines mechanism of loyalist propaganda.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 3. Berkeley, 1980. Pages 86–89, translation of Naucratis Stela, with comments.
  • Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago, 1966. Chapters 28 and 29 integrate period into general history of the Near East.
  • Ray, John D. “Egypt: Dependence and Independence, 425–343 BC.” In Proceedings of the Groningen 1983 Achaemenid Workshop, pp. 79–95. Leiden, 1987. Concentrates on diplomatic relations with the Achaemenid Empire.
  • Ray, John D. “Nectanebo, the Last Egyptian Pharaoh.” History Today 42.2 (Feb. 1992), 38–44. Deals with the personality of the last native pharaoh, and his role in later literature.
  • Ritner, Robert K. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Chicago, 1995. Thorough survey of Egyptian magic, with emphasis on the Late period.
  • Stoneman, Richard. The Greek Alexander Romance. London, 1991. On the role of Nektanebo II in later fiction.
  • Traunecker, Claude. La chapelle d'Achôris à Karnak. 2 vols. Paris, 1981. Contribution to the architectural history of the period.
  • von Kaenel, F. “Les mésaventures du conjurateur de Serket Onnophris et de son tombeau.” Bulletin de la Société Française d'Égyptologie 87–88 (1980), 31–45. Edits a fragmentary but informative text about the political situation during the campaign of Tachos.

John D. Ray

Thirty-first Dynasty

The thirty-first dynasty, more properly known as the Second Persian Occupation (343–332 BCE), includes the years between the reconquest of Egypt by Persia under King Artaxerxes III Ochos and the succeeding conquest by Alexander the Great (after his defeat of Darius III).

The last pharaoh of the thirtieth dynasty, Nektanebo II (361/60–343 BCE), had managed to repel two attacks by the Persian invaders—one in 358 BCE by an army led by Artaxerxes (then a prince), and the second in 351 BCE, led by the then-crowned Artaxerxes. Nektanebo finally suffered defeat when the Persian king retook Cyprus and Sidon and then reached Pelusium, with the help of the betrayal by Mentor of Rhodes. The Persian commander Bagoas first took Pelusium and eventually the other cities of the Nile Delta and Memphis. Nektanebo fled into Nubia with his treasure. (The episode of the ephemeral sovereign Khabbash, perhaps an Ethiopian or a Libyan, mentioned on the the satrap-stela of Ptolemy, should probably be placed between 344 and 343 BCE.)

As in the case of Cambyses, who conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, classical authors accuse this new conqueror of acts of violence and brutality. Artaxerxes is reported to have killed the Apis bull, offering in its stead an ass for the adoration of the Egyptians; he is also said to have killed the bull of Heliopolis and the ram of Mendes, as well as sacking temples and cities. In fact, recent excavations at Mendes have shown that the city underwent violent destruction and desecration at about this time (c.343–342 BCE). Artaxerxes died in 338 BCE, killed by the eunuch Bagoas, who in 336 BCE also killed Arses, who had succeeded his father.

There is little that we can say for certain about Egypt during the decade of the Second Persian Occupation. We know that under Darius III, Egypt was ruled by the satrap Sabakes, who fought and died at Issos, and by the satrap Mazace. At the battle of Issos, in the army that the Persians fielded against Alexander of Macedon, there were some Egyptians. One was the noble Samtowatefnakht of Herakleopolis, whose autobiographical stela (the “Stela of Naples”) recounts how he survived the battle unscathed, and how Arsafe, his city's god, protected him, allowing him to return to his homeland. In 332 BCE, the satrap Mazace ceded the satrapy to Alexander without a fight.

The rule of the Achaemenids thus came to an end, and Egypt became a province of the empire of Alexander the Great, though still administered as a satrapy. The second-century CE Greek historian Arrian (Flavius Arrianus) informs us that Alexander made the Egyptian Petesi satrap in Egypt, together with Doloaspis; in the text of a Demotic ostrakon found in Saqqara by a British archaeological expedition, a certain “Petesi the satrap” is appointed (Pʒ-di-1st pʒ ihstrpny), who may be identified with the “Pateesis” of Arrian's text.



  • Bresciani, Edda. “Persian Occupation of Egypt.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, pp. 502–528. Cambridge, 1985.
  • Bresciani, Edda. “L'Égypte des satrapes d'après la documentation araméenne et égyptienne.” Comptes rendus de l'Académie, Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 96–108. Paris, 1996.
  • Bresciani, Edda. “Letteratura e Poesia dell'antico Egitto. Cultura e società attraverso i testi.” Turin, 1999.
  • Briant, P. Histoire de l'Empire Perse. Paris, 1996.
  • Burstein, Stanley. “Foreigners in the Documents from the Sacred Animal Necropolis, Saqqara.” In Life in a Multi-Cultural Society, edited by H. S. Smith, p. 296. Chicago, 1993.
  • Elgoed, P. G. Later Dynasties of Egypt. Oxford, 1951.

Edda Bresciani; Translated from Italian by Robert E. Shillenn