The Third Intermediate period
The decline of any great civilisation is in many ways every bit as interesting as its rise. Indeed for us in the full maturity of our Western civilisation, it is rather important to see how other great civilisations have declined. The decline of the Egyptian society is of particular interest. Already the Egyptian phenomenon had been extremely long, spreading over two millennia. However the decline would last for a further millennium and a half before the Egyptian culture was finally extinguished by Islam.
The decline is dominated by three outside civilisations: the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. However all three were benign conquests which permitted, and even encouraged the continuation of Egyptian culture. Thus the existing structure of the great temple at Dendera was begun by the Greeks and finished by the Romans but its appearance is wholly Egyptian. It is only with the arrival of the two totalitarian regimes of Christianity and then Islam that the Egyptian culture finally came to an end.
However between the end of the Ramessid dynasty and the arrival of the Persians, there is a long period when Egypt was divided and its rule was chaotic, a period which is thus known as the Third Intermediate period. Egypt was divided between north and south, each of which in turn was conquered by or greatly influenced by two outside neighbours: first the Libyans from the west and then the Nubians from the south.
The north continued to be ruled by pharaohs, by strong men who at least claimed to be the rulers of the whole of Egypt. Their power bases moved away from Memphis at the base of the delta of the Nile, up into the delta itself where the capital constantly shifted due to the shifting of the various channels of the Nile, going from Pi-Ramesse, to Tanis, to Bubastis and then to Sais .
The south however was dominated by the High Priests of Amun at Thebes. Temples are always a problem because they can easily grow too powerful (ask Henry VIII). We have already seen from the Great Harris Papyrus how Rameses III boasted of the huge gifts he gave to the three major temples of Egypt: this was very foolish because they thus became even more powerful. The temples were very rich in themselves; they possessed vast tracks of land which paid their tithes to the temple, and being temples they paid no taxes so they became ever richer and more powerful. Thus their wealth and power began to rival, if not exceed that of the pharaoh himself. And since this was a gift exchange economy, since the temples received most of the income, they were expected to perform the redistribution functions too: see the story of Joseph in the Bible and the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years. And thus when the priesthood became hereditary they became the de facto rulers.
The situation became even more complicated with the advent of women in the priestly hierarchy. The gods were the source of fertility and if the gods were to be kept fertile they needed women to stimulate them, and thus noble women were appointed as God’s Wife. And since the God’s Wife had to be a virgin they could not have any offspring, so they therefore appointed their successors which is a far better way of producing strong rulers. So the God’s Wives soon became very powerful indeed.
The 22nd Dynasty marks what should have been a great shame for the true born Egyptian, for the Libyan immigrants seized the throne. The Libyans had long been infiltrating Egypt, particularly the delta. They were dwellers in the lands along the Mediterranean to the west of Egypt and looked enviously at the fertility of the delta and wanted to move in. The Egyptian records always report victories against the Libyans, but even if the Egyptians won the big battles, the Libyans won the small ones. And when they moved in they were often employed as mercenary soldiers, so the Egyptian army soon became an army of immigrants. One thinks of the similar situation in Roman Britain when the invading Anglo Saxons infiltrated very gradually and were employed as mercenaries, until eventually, in the 5th century they took over.
However the 22nd Dynasty, the Libyan dynasty, began well when the pharaoh Shoshank (a good Libyan name) invaded to the north east up into Palestine where his campaign was recorded in the Bible (2 Chronicles XVII). He invaded with 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen, captured Jerusalem and carried off the treasures from the temple. According to the Bible the ruler of Judah, Rehaboam, the son of Solomon had forsaken the Law of the Lord and was punished by the invasion of the Libyans. However he then humbled himself before the Lord and the Egyptians were repulsed.
The Libyan episode was followed by an invasion from the south, from the Nubians. The Nubians had been building up their own empire over the centuries. There had been a successful empire centred around Kerma around 1600 BC, but then in 1504 Tutmoses I defeated them and made them a province of Egypt. The Nubians ejected the Egyptians, but for long remained quiescent. Then in the eighth century, they suddenly woke up and were united into a single kingdom which pushed down into the area around Thebes and then conquered the North as well to form the 25th dynasty.
But then they too were ejected, this time by the Assyrians. The Assyrians had been the big power in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium and had then declined, but now the neo-Assyrian empire had become the major dominating force and began to take an interest in Egypt. They expelled the Nubians but then they too had trouble at home and withdrew from Egypt. Already in 664 a powerful Egyptian called Psamtek I had seized power and inaugurated the Twenty Sixth Dynasty. The Third Intermediate Period was now technically over and the Saite Dynasty, which ruled from Sais, arose in the north and took power: it was to be the last home-bred Egyptian dynasty.
But the big surprise of this ‘intermediate’ period is that it produced some excellent art, particularly in mummies and in metal-working. The changes may be due in part to changes in religion. Whereas before, elite burials were made in underground sepulchres, accessed by a long corridor with much of the art decorating the walls of the corridors, now communal burials became the norm, often clustering round within a temple enclosure both to be close to the gods and to be safe from tomb robbery. The burial places became far simpler, and as a result all the artistic endeavours were devoted to the actual mummies, which thus became ever more elaborate.
The third intermediate is the great period of mummies, and many of the more glamorous – dare one say gaudy? – mummy cases that one sees in museums today, belong to the third intermediate period. All the effort of making a glorious display of death was devoted to the actual mummy case, and the elaborate outer covering, often in the form of cartonnage (basically primitive papier mache made from linen and plaster) was gorgeously decorated
Two of the highly decorated mummies of the late period, in the Turin museum. Left is Taiefmutmut, chantress of Amun: note her wig coming down and touching her breasts. One arm is stretched across her midriff, the other stretches down to her leg. The mummy on the right has lost one of her hands.
This is sometimes attributed to the Libyan influence: the Libyans being nomadic did not have elaborate burial places and therefore concentrated the burial ritual on the actual burials. In the traditional Egyptian style you spent half your life preparing for your death, digging out elaborate tunnels underground and decorating them with elaborate wall paintings, and then building a fine temple tomb above ground. Now tombs became much simpler, often they were moved within the temple complex. There was a lot of reuse of old tombs and there were no longer the walls of tombs on which to lavish time and attention. This meant that all the attention could be paid to the mummy itself, sometimes two or three mummies, in two or three story mummy cases, and their decoration was no longer just of the face and neck but covered the whole length of the mummy often in garish colours. The finest mummies that are on display in museums tend to come from this Third Intermediate Period.
The most remarkable find comes from the very beginning of the period when a complete royal tomb was discovered – that of Psusennes (1039 – 991 BC). He was a moderately successful pharaoh who ruled for forty eight years, but in 1939 his tomb was discovered intact by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet. This is the only tomb of a pharaoh to be discovered intact – the tomb of Tutankhamen had already been twice ransacked before it was finally sealed. However whereas Tutankhamen’s tomb was in the dry desert and so all the wood was preserved, the tomb of Psusennes was down in the delta and damp and therefore no wood survived, only the magnificent jewellery. The tomb was in a necropolis in which two other pharaohs were also buried with similar riches. Psusennes was buried in three cases, the outer two cases being recycled from earlier pharaohs. But the inner tomb had some of the finest jewellery ever discovered in Egypt of which his bust and a pectoral, and a very fine wristlet are particularly well known. Two later pharaohs were also buried in the same complex with slightly less finery.
The changes may be due in part to changes in religion. Whereas before, elite burials were made in underground sepulchres, accessed by a long corridor with much of the art decorating the walls of the corridors, now communal burials became the norm, often clustering round within a temple enclosure both to be close to the gods and to be safe from tomb robbery.
The burial places became far simpler, and as a result all the artistic endeavours were devoted to the actual mummies, which thus became ever more elaborate. The third interregnum is the great period of mummies, and many of the more glamorous – dare one say gaudy? – mummy cases that one sees in museums today, belong to the third intermediate period.
Great advances were also made in metalwork. Firstly, advances were made in embellishing the surface of bronze vessels with strands of gold or silver. There was also an advance in the lost wax technique where statues were produced with hollow casts, making them lighter – and cheaper. These advances soon spread around the Eastern Mediterranean and were taken up avidly by the Greeks, particularly in Samos. Similarly faïence (glazed ceramic material) became more common, and shabtis, the figures representing servants who were often buried with the dead, were increasingly made of faïence.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this period is that, although it was a Dark Age across the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt is one place where it is possible to tell a more or less coherent history can be told, with the help of written evidence and not just conjectured from the archaeology. The age generally may be dark, but Egypt was considerably less dark than the rest of the Western world.
The final chapter, on the long sunset of ancient Egypt, will be coming shortly.
Thereafter, it is time to explore classical China, to see how the third of our ‘palace economies’ shared some of the experiences of ancient Egypt, and how it differed.
Header: Mummy of Meresamun, a female musician in the cult of Amun, now in the Ashmolean Museum.