Late Egypt (Summary)
The decline of any great society is in many ways every bit as important as its rise, and one of the most interesting things about Ancient Egypt is its long decline. Two thousand years after the rise of the Early Kingdom and the building of the pyramids, the New Kingdom came to an end; but Egyptian culture lingered on for a further millennium and a half.
There were four main episodes: firstly there was the Third Intermediate period when Egypt, though divided, remained under local rulers. Then for 1200 years, Egyptian culture survived under foreign rulers: first the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans, until finally Egyptian culture came to an end with the conquest by the soldiers of Islam. How far this was due to the resilience of Egyptian culture, and how far it was as due to the tolerance of the foreign rulers?
Around 1200 BC, civilisation around the eastern Mediterranean came to an end: Troy was attacked and destroyed, the Hittite Empire collapsed, and Minoans in Crete and the Mycenaeans in Greece all came to an end and Greece entered its long dark age. The Assyrian Empire in Mesopotamia went into decline, and in Egypt the long reign of Rameses II petered out and gradually Egypt began to split up.
A document of Rameses III attributes the problems to the he attacks of the ‘Sea Peoples’ , and this concept was taken over by Gaston Maspero, a French scholar of the late 19th century as shorthand to explain the collapse of all the peoples all around the east Mediterranean. But the Sea Peoples were no single united force: what really happened is really that the policing of the seas broke down and piracy took over. Susan Sherratt makes out an interesting case that it may have been centred in Cyprus, a major source of copper, where there were no palaces but lots of traders who turned pirates: but it was more widespread than that. Internally all these societies seemed to be suffering from old age simultaneously and all fell down together.
And Egypt began its long decline with three major groups seizing power: two invaders, one home grown. In the north the Libyans seized power under the delightfully named Sheshonq, who appears in the Bible as Shishak, invading Judah and pillaging the Temple (2 Chronicles 12). The Libyans had long been pushing in from the deserts from the west, partly as immigrants, mostly illegal, but partly being invited in as policemen and border troops, and eventually these border troops seized power.
Centred around Thebes: the priests took over, or rather their women. Egyptian women had always been powerful and a powerful position was that of the God’s wife: Gods are responsible for fertility, so they had to be kept fertile, so they needed wives to look after them, and these wives always had to be a virgin – the gods do not like second hand goods. And because they had no children, they could appoint their successor and appointing your successor is a good way of transferring power, so they became figures of great power and took over the administration. And then from the south the Nubians invaded to form the Twenty Fifth Dynasty. The Nubians had been growing in power and sophistication as Egyptian satellites and now under the Kerma dynasty they invaded their master and took over as the 25th dynasty.
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.
However although politically all was chaos, art was flourishing. In particular this was the great age of mummy cases, indeed many of the best mummies to be seen in our museums are dated to this Third Intermediate Period. The trouble was that religion was changing: no longer were the wealthy buried with elaborate tombs approached by long passages which needed to be decorated; instead it was easier to reuse old tombs or to put your tomb in the extensive courtyards of temples where they would be safe. And since there were no longer elaborate tombs to be decorated, all artistic expertise was concentrated on the mummy cases, and these were superb.
Indeed one of the greatest surviving tombs belongs to this period- that of Psusennes (1037-991 BC) whose tomb was discovered in 1939 by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet. This is the only pharaoh’s tombs to be discovered untouched – that of Tutankhamen had been twice riffled by tomb robbers before it was finally sealed up and lost.
However whereas Tutankhamen’s tomb was in the dry desert where all the wood was preserved, Psusennes’ tomb was in the Nile delta where it was damp and all the wood had rotted and only the magnificent metal work had survived.
At the end of this period Egypt was once again united under the Saite Dynasty (664-525 BC) ruling from Sais in the Delta, but they were not very stable for very long and they soon fell to the ambitions of a rising power: the Persians.
The Persians were the rising power in the Near East; under a dynamic leader Cyrus the Great they overcame the Assyrians and established themselves as the ruling power. His son Cambyses invaded Egypt. Resistance was feeble as the rulers were not popular and Cambyses was a great success. He did all the right things: he had himself proclaimed as pharaoh and went through all the proper ceremonies, including sacrificing an Apis bull. However Persia was developing a sophisticated system of administration where the different regions were called Satrapies: Egypt was made a Satrapy and a layer of Persian administration was introduced. It worked well at first as much of the Pharaonic bureaucracy remained intact: funds were given for the repair of temples and by and large the Egyptians acquiesced. But subsequent rulers did not have the happy touch of Cambyses, and eventually one of the revolts succeeded and from 404 – 343 Egypt had had its last brief independent kingdom.
Two distinguished pharaohs, grandfather and son, both called Nectanebo, were responsible for providing many Egyptian temples with their final upgrade.
Then the Persian Empire was itself overturned by the whirlwind force that was Alexander the Great. Having knocked out the Persians in two decisive battles, he then paused to sweep up the far corner of the Persian Empire that was Egypt. There was little resistance, as the Persians had made themselves unpopular and again Alexander did all the right things including having himself proclaimed pharaoh. A particular coup was when he went off to the Libyan Desert to the west, to the oasis of Siwa where there was an obscure cult of Amun, the chief Egyptian god. Here the oracle promptly recognised Alexander as being the son of the god so he could return to Egypt being not only pharaoh, but also the son of their greatest god – that is how to do it!
His greatest achievement was to found a new city which he modestly named after himself: Alexandria. It was on the sea, 20 miles west of one of the main mouths of the Nile where two magnificent harbours could be formed. However it was right on the edge of Egypt in the far corner and it became a hybrid city, part Greek and only part Egyptian – the ideal site to rule a country but rule it lightly.
Alexander’s empire collapsed at his early death, and Egypt was seized by one of his generals and drinking companions named Ptolemy. His main ambition was to outdo the generals who had received other parts of his empire, notably the Saleucids, and he and his successors, Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, set about building up Alexandria to make the most glamorous city in the Mediterranean. In this they largely succeeded.
At the mouth of the harbour they built a great lighthouse – the Pharos, 100 metres high, nearly as high as the Great Pyramid at 143 metres and one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Even more important however was the foundation of the Mouseion, the Temple of the Muses, which became a sort of university or institute of advanced study, with the greatest library in the world and a team of dedicated scholars and poets who set new heights of learning and erudition.
Ptolemaic Egypt set a new standard for the successful administration of what must I suppose be called a colonial empire. Alexandria was at the far corner and was the recipient of all the wealth that Egypt could produce. The big innovation was that the Ptolemies introduced money, and Egypt began to enjoy many of the benefits of a market economy. This meant that only a fairly thin layer of Greek administrators was needed. However, the Greek language began to penetrate everywhere. If you were an ambitious Egyptian scribe, you inevitably got on rather better if you learned Greek. But Egypt remained essentially Egyptian and the Egyptian agricultural system remained remarkably productive. Whoever was in charge: pharaohs, Greeks or later the Romans, could cream off the riches.
After the first three Ptolemies, the line declined. Part of the problem was that they got into bad habits of marrying their sisters. Ptolemy I set the example by marrying his sister Arsinoe, who had already been married, but who brought with her a rich dowry including Cyprus. But the later Ptolemies declined in ability. The one exception was the last Ptolemy, a remarkable lady called Cleopatra. She was not very beautiful but she was a brilliant conversationalist and also a very accomplished linguist; she was the only Ptolemy who actually learnt the Egyptian language and she could make dazzling conversation with you in your own language.
She realised that there was a rising empire in the West: Rome. She decided that the best way to secure Egypt’s future was to ally itself with Rome’s leaders. Unfortunately Rome at the time was going through the throes of the last days of the republic, and was ruled by successive warlords. So she set about seducing the most successful of these, Julius Caesar. They had a tumultuous love affair – you do not have to be beautiful to be sexy and Cleopatra who was not beautiful was clearly very sexy.
Was Cleopatra, beautiful?
Above is the Russian version version, a black basalt statue in the Hermitage Museum showing her dressed Egyptian style with a wig coming down to her breasts whihjcv are proudly bare. She apparently continueds naked down to her legs when suddenly she appears to acquire a skirt for her lower legs.
Below is the Berlin bust, often thought to be carved when she was visiting Rome. Right is an early coin of Alexandrine type.
Plutarch hints that she was not conventionally beautiful, but it was her wonderful conversation and her beautiful voice that made her so very attractive
But she produced a son named Caesarion. However Caesar was assassinated so she had to set about seducing another warlord, so she seduced Mark Anthony. Another passionate love affair and this time there were three children of the liaison, though two of them were twins. They set out to form the greatest empire in the world: a combination of Rome and Egypt, but it was not to be. Mark Anthony was defeated by Augustus, and Cleopatra committed suicide. Egypt fell into Augustus’s welcoming hand.
Egypt under the Romans
Augustus, or Octavian as he was at the time, promptly realised that the ideal solution was not to make Egypt into a province, but to keep it as his personal property. Emperors always need to be able to put their hand in their purse and produce money – bribes are always needed – and Egypt would produce him lots and lots of money.
The purpose of Egypt to Augustus was to provide money, and in particular to provide grain. When Rome acquired the vice of bread and circuses, the bread came in large part from Egypt. The Ptolemies had already set up a superb system for enabling the economy to produce a huge surplus and the Romans simply took this over.
A window into this bureaucracy is provided by the remarkable discovery of the rubbish dumps of the provincial city of Oxyrhynchus. Here in 1896 two young Oxford scholars, Grenfell and Hunt, hearing that numerous fragments of papyri were being discovered, set out to investigate. Almost immediately they found the apocryphal gospel of St Thomas, together with pages from St. Matthew. In late Victorian England this was a huge success and finance poured in. In six further seasons they filled nearly 700 boxes with an estimated half a million scraps of papyri which were taken back to Oxford where the project to read and translate them is now nearly halfway through. Apart from biblical scraps there were scraps of classical texts, including some songs of the early poets Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus. Rather more interesting to the modern scholar are the bits and pieces of everyday life: legal documents, bills, letters and other trivia which enable of the life of Oxyrhynchus to be discovered. Numerous families can be traced, and the everyday life of the ordinary people is being revealed
Roman Egypt worked with great efficiency for 300 years with only occasional outbursts of discontent and revolt, but then another force began to take over – Christianity. Egypt had always been a hotbed of religious speculation and when Christianity came along, it fell on fertile ground. Here was a religion that told a good story about real people, mixed with intellectual ideals, but which attracted all, whether Egyptian or Greek, or even Roman. It was periodically persecuted which made it even stronger, and thus when Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration in 311, Christianity flourished and soon the Patriarch of Alexandria assumed an importance which in some ways rivalled that of the Prefect.
Egyptian Christianity soon began to acquire its own characteristics: they invented monasticism. It began around 270 when St Anthony went out into the desert and became a hermit and a saint. Soon hermits began banding together and the first monasteries began to appear. Meanwhile in Alexandria Christianity was gaining strength and in 391 a mob attacked the Temple of Serapis and destroyed it. The gospels were written down in a new form – the Egyptian language written in Greek letters and was called Coptic – hence the Coptic Church which still survives. But the trouble with monotheism (just having one god) is that it is liable to splitting. If you have many gods, then if your neighbours worship a different god, you simply fit this god into your system, and do as the Roman did, and join them together. But early Christianity was plagued with heresies: Arianism, Monophysitism and Pelagianism. Egypt in particular was wracked by the Monophysite controversy which revolved round the question of whether Christ was a man who became god, or a god who became man (it was slightly more complicated than that). It was debated at great length at the Counsel of Chalcedon in AD 451, and the Egyptians lost and the Byzantines won. The Byzantine church became the dominant force in the Eastern Empire, and the Egyptians went their own way: the Coptic Church still survives – just – today.
But it was another religion that finally finished off the long story of ancient Egypt. Whereas Christianity was born at the height of the Roman Empire, and once it attained toleration, it rapidly and easily adopted the benefits of the Roman rule, and soon became the Roman Empire, Islam by contrast, began in the deserts of Arabia and always saw civilisation with suspicion. Following Mohammad’s death in A.D. 632, his successors with remarkable rapidity conquered both Romans and Persians to the north and the Romanised Mediterranean religions to the West, and Egypt was among the first to fall. Islam brought with it not just a new religion, but also a new way of life, and ancient Egypt was forgotten. There was no momentous collapse just a gentle decline, but by the 9th century, a new city had grown up at Cairo, and Alexandria had become a village. Christianity had already hollowed out what remained of Egyptian religion and culture, and under Islam it disappeared.
Why did Egyptian culture collapse so rapidly? The first point is surprise that it lasted so long. The Egyptian culture was immensely strong, based on the corps d’esprit that the Old Kingdom built up in erecting the pyramids, and reaching even greater heights under the New Kingdom. But when politically it collapsed and the rule was taken over by foreign rulers, the culture survived.
Its survival was due mainly to the toleration of the new rulers. The Greeks and Roman had many gods, and were able to assimilate the Egyptian gods into their belief system. I am coming to believe that monotheism, the belief that there is only one god, is inherently intolerant: you inevitably believe either openly or by implication that your God is right, and all other gods are false. The new monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam destroyed not only the old Egyptian religion, but also its culture and traditions; and if a society loses its core beliefs and sees them replaced by an outside set of beliefs, that society will soon will collapse. The same thing was happened at much the same time in Rome. And if a society loses its culture, and forgets its traditions, it loses its soul.
This brings to an end my account of the great civilisation of Egypt
Now there are two choices:
14th October 2019