Persian Egypt

Persian Egypt


Egypt had a very long after life.  The Saite Dynasty was nearly the last dynasty of proper Egyptians, but for the next millennium Egypt was ruled by foreigners: first the Persians, then the Greeks and then the Romans.  But throughout this period the culture of Egypt remained, and we must ask the question: how far this because of the strength of Egyptian culture, and how far it was due to the tolerance of the outside rulers; and why it was that first the Christians and then the Muslims finally brought Egyptian culture to an end.

Egyptian cat: the Gayer-Anderson cat in the British Museum

Animal cults became frequent in at this time. This bronze cat was donated by Major Gayer-Anderson to the British Museum

The first break came with the invasion of the Persians under Cambyses.  Cambyses was the son of Cyrus the Great who had turned Persia from being a small kingdom into the greatest power in the Middle East.  His task as the son of the great ruler was to expand the empire, and Egypt was right for the plucking. The capture was comparatively simple, all the neighbouring states fell into line behind the Persians, but he then did everything right.  He had himself proclaimed as pharaoh and went through all the proper ceremonies, including sacrificing an apis bull.


Udnahorresnet,the official who collaborated with the Persians. His statue is covered with a script giving his life story

In this he was helped by Udjahorresnet whose statue in the Vatican is covered with a long inscription giving his life story, beginning as a high official in the Egyptian state, and then after the conquest becoming a collaborationist, seeing that Cambyses behaved properly and paid due respect to Egyptian customs.

Egypt became part of the Persian Empire, indeed when the Persians invaded Greece the Egyptian navy contributed 200 triremes to the sea battles against the Greeks.  Nevertheless Egyptian culture continued though the gods became more local, and a strange animal cult developed where animals were often mummified and buried in huge underground catacombs .

The first Pylon at Karnak, built by Nectanebo.

Nectanebo built not only the first pylon at Karnak, but also the  sphinxes that line the avenue leading down to the river.

The great Persian Empire had been modernised by Cyrus the Great into a series of satrapies, which initiated a system of devolved government which was followed by their successors. Much of the Pharaonic bureaucracy remained intact; funds were given for the repair of temples and by and large the Egyptians acquiesced.

Persian rule continued for over a century from 575 – 404, eight ‘pharaohs’ being Persian rulers who formed the 27th Dynasty.  However subsequent rulers did not have the happy touch of Cambyses; there were revolts and eventually in 404 one of them succeeded and from 404 – 343 Egypt broke away and we have the last brief independent Egyptian kingdom.

Head of Nectanebo

Head, probably of Nectanebo, in the British Museum

This was headed by the remarkable pharaoh Nectanebo and his grandson Nectanebo II who were both great builders. Indeed at Karnak it was Nektanebo who built the first great pylon much admired by visitors today, and also the great enclosure walls which still mark off the great temple.

However there was constant fighting with the Persians and in 343 the Persians gained the upper hand and for the next eleven years Egypt once again part of the Persian Empire.  However the Persian Empire was crumbling and a new power was rising in the west and Persia was about to be defeated by the Greeks at hands of a remarkable young man called Alexander.

A new Greek era was to begin.


On to Egypt under the Ptolemies


7th September 2019