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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

More light on the Saite Period - Al Ahram Weekly

More light on the Saite Period

The Saite Period of ancient Egyptian history was a late glorious episode in the country's millennia-long civilisation, writes Hussein Bassir

Head of Saite King

The Saite Period was one of the last glorious periods of ancient Egyptian history and lasted for 138 years (664-526 BC). The dynasty came to rule Egypt due to various factors, including the flight of the Kushites to the south under Assyrian attacks and then the retreat of the Assyrians to their country. As a result of the withdrawal of the Assyrians, Saite warriors rose to rule a politically fragmented country, filling the political vacuum in Egypt. 

Although it had had vassal status, Egypt had benefited from the Assyrian invasion through its ending of Kushite rule and its becoming united under Egyptian rule. Psamtik I consolidated his control over the Delta and then ascended to the throne in 664 BC, becoming overall lord of Egypt. In 656, he succeeded in integrating Upper Egypt into his newly united kingdom through the appointment of his daughter Nitocris as the future "god's wife of Amun" at Thebes. 

The Saite unification of Lower and Upper Egypt thus passed through a peaceful and diplomatic process. Only two kings from this dynasty, Psamtik I and Amasis, ruled during two thirds of its total duration. After the century-long Saite rule over a unified Egypt, the Persian occupation ended the rule of this dynasty, and Egypt became part of the Persian Empire. 

King Amasis

There are various sources for the Saite Period. The internal sources, especially from the royal realm, are few and scanty. However, the external sources are plentiful, particularly those from classical writers (for example, Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus), and the Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and biblical mentions of Egypt. The Saite Period was also very productive in terms of scripts and statuary, although only a few tombs and temples have survived. The texts of the Saite non-royal elite are also abundant and commemorate the beneficent achievements of such individuals, providing us with data that can help in our understanding of the period. 


CHRONOLOGY: The chronology of the Saite Period can be divided into three phases, the first being the Early Saite Period of Psamtik I Wahibre (664-610 BC).

This includes the early foundations of the state and is followed by succeeding kings until the end of the dynasty. The only figure in it is Psamtik I, the first Saite king, who succeeded in uniting Egypt after a long period of division. He followed his father Necho I as a vassal to the Assyrians and then became the native Egyptian and sole ruler of the whole country, reigning in total for 54 years. 

One of the best-known events of his reign is his attack against his neighbours the Libyans. At the end of his reign, he campaigned in Syria-Palestine and encountered the rising power of the Neo-Babylonians in 616 and 610 BC. The number of Greeks in Egypt increased, and he hired foreign mercenaries, especially Greeks, Carians, and Ionians who lived in the city of Naukratis in the Delta. Psamtik I also allied himself with the king of Lydia, Gyges. The text of the adoption stela of his daughter Nitocris indicates that he moved peacefully into Upper Egypt and was aware of the religious norms of Thebes and the Amun Temple. 

The second period is the Middle Saite Period of Necho II Wehemibre (610-595 BC) and Psamtik II Neferibre (595-589 BC). This was not very long and witnessed only a few historical events, the most important being the Red Sea Canal of Necho II and the Nubian and Asiatic campaigns of Psamtik II. 

The third period is the Late Saite Period of Apries Haaibre (589-570 BC), Amasis Khnemibre (570-526 BC), and Psamtik III Ankhkaenre (526-527 BC). This is the last phase of Saite rule in Egypt before the Persian occupation. Apries and Amasis were the major kings, in addition to the very short reign of Psamtik III. However, Amasis is the most important figure of the period, and he successfully used religion and diplomacy to achieve what force of arms had failed to do. 

Apries was the fourth Saite king, and his foreign policy focused on stopping Neo-Babylonian expansion in the Ancient Near East. He first tried to put an end to the Neo-Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 589 BCE, but was defeated, and in 582 BC the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II invaded Egypt. 

In order to block the Neo-Babylonian advance to the south, Apries carried out successful campaigns against Tyre, Sidon, and Cyprus between c 574-571 BC. In 571-570, he launched a military expedition against Cyrene, a Greek city in eastern Libya, but his army was defeated, leading to a revolt by the Egyptian warriors. An officer of Apries, Amasis, led the rebels who defeated Apries in 570 BCE, but Apries himself escaped. 

In 567 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II dispatched an army to Egypt to reestablish Apries on the throne as probably a Neo-Babylonian vassal. However, the Egyptian army defeated the force, and Apries was drowned. Afterwards, Amasis buried Apries with the full honours of a late Saite king in the royal necropolis at the Neith Temple at the royal capital Sais. The scanty historical sources from the reign of Apries reveal that he paid much attention to temple organisation, and he kept the Theban priesthood on his side through the appointment of Saite royal women as the god's wife of Amun. 

His building activities are few. He had a palace at Memphis, and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions another at Sais. 

Amasis (569-527 BC), the fifth Saite king, was an army general selected by Egyptian troops to replace Apries. His reign was very productive: he proved himself capable of making excellent domestic and foreign-policy decisions, and he demonstrated great acumen as a first-class statesman. Amasis maintained fruitful diplomatic relationships with numerous foreign powers, especially with the Greek states, to support Egypt's trading interests. 

To keep the flow of foreign trade ongoing, he avoided military confrontation with the Neo-Babylonians. He was also successful in domestic policy, and he carried out a massive building programme throughout Egypt. When he died, he was probably buried in the tomb at the Saite royal necropolis at the Neith Temple at Sais. After his death, his son Psamtik III succeeded him to the throne for a very short reign. 

Psamtik III (527-526 BCE) only ruled for a few months, and the most important and dramatic event in his short reign is the Persian invasion of Egypt by Cambyses in 526 BCE. 

King Montumhat

SAITE SELF-PRESENTATION: The history of the Saite Period depends mainly on texts of non-royal elite members. History here is the "history of the individual" versus the "history of society" in its broader sense. 

Whereas societal history is broader, more general, and more comprehensive in focus and approach, "individualistic history" is specific and private and may or may not intersect with societal history. History in the texts of individuals such as Neshor and Payeftjauemawyneith is absolutely individualistic, and some scholars do not draw attention to the historical significance of such biographies. 

For example, in a comment on the statue of Udjahorresnet one scholar states his belief that this statue should be read as a dedicatory piece for the temple of the goddess Neith in the ancient capital of Sais in the Delta. He declares that the historical value of the statue was not the main aim behind its creation, which was its presentation of general and cosmological concerns. As a result, he does not believe in the historical implications of the individual's biography. While this argument is partly true, this treatment of Saite Period biographies is limited in approach and does not reveal their contexts and several levels.

The texts of the Saite non-royal elite were not composed for the writing of general history. The intention of these individuals was not to compose a chronological history of the period, but instead to select a corpus of their own history that they were very proud of achieving. Their texts were composed for writing a different kind of history, the "history of the individual".

Although the ancient Egyptians did not have the sense of history we have today, they were aware of the need to record and keep track of their public and private activities in several ways. It is very hard to think that these texts do not constitute history, since every text provides some history in some way. In these texts, history means that of these non-royal individuals, even if their texts also illuminate many historical realities or the sociopolitical history of the Saite Period.

As a mixture of "societal history" and "individualistic history", the texts of the Saite non-royal elite reveal that they were extremely influential, and they mirror the period and reflect its spirit and events. Finally, the texts of the Saite non-royal elite are very important sources for the writing of the history of Saite Egypt. 

The writer is director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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