Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt

By Anthony Holmes

Note: The dates below are BCE (Before the Common Era)

The history of ancient Egypt is divided into several periods. Some periods were eventful and memorable for their achievements. The Old Kingdom remains famous for its pyramids and sphinx; the New Kingdom is remembered as the time of Tutankhamun and Rameses the Great, when tombs were excavated in the Valley of the Kings and massive stone temples were constructed. The Hellenistic Period was the time of Cleopatra VII, arguably the most famous ruler of the Ptolemy Dynasty. There were other periods that did not enjoy the same fame or notoriety. One of these is the so-called “Third Intermediate Period” that occupied four centuries between the era of the Rameside kings of the New Kingdom and the start of the final throw of the dice for ancient Egypt called The Late Period.

The New Kingdom began when the Hyksos invaders were driven out of Egypt. It was a great period which saw the rise of Tuthmose III and Rameses II, the two great warrior kings, but by the time Rameses VI came to the throne in 1141 the disintegration of the great Egyptian empire had begun. Little of note can be reported about the reigns of the remaining five kings of the New Kingdom who all chose the name Rameses, probably in the hope that the magic of the name would rub off on them. When Rameses XI died the New Kingdom came to an end and Egypt entered the Third Intermediate Period which lasted 400 years from 1064 to 664.

Period and Dynasties Dates

Predynastic Period: Naqada I & II & Dynasty 0 4000 to3000

Early Dynastic Period Dynasties 1 & 2 3150 to 2584

Old Kingdom Dynasties 3 to 6 2584 to 2117

First Intermediate Period Dynasties 7 to 11 part 1 2117 to 2066

Middle Kingdom Dynasties 11 part 2 to 12 2066 to 1650

Second Intermediate Period Dynasties 13 to 17 1650 to 1549

New Kingdom Dynasties 18 to 20 1549 to 1069

Third Intermediate Period Dynasties 21 to 25 1064 to 664

Saite Period Dynasty 26 664 to 525

Late Period Dynasties 26 to 31 525 to 332

Hellenistic Period Macedonians & Ptolemies 332 to 30

Roman Period Egypt ruled by Rome 30 to 395CE

In order to understand the Third Intermediate Period it is necessary to examine the rise and fall of the other kingdoms and empires of Asia and their impact on Egypt. By 1064, the Hittite kingdom, Egypt’s great enemy and the kingdom of Mittani, Egypt’s great ally had both collapsed and from 1020, the kingdom of Israel was the most powerful trading kingdom in Asia under its kings Saul, David and Solomon. After Solomon died the kingdom of Israel split into two; Israel in the north and Judah in the south. These were two kingdoms of similar people sharing a single religion. At times they were allies and at other times they were enemies, but throughout they shared one common enemy; the kingdom of Damascus across the Jordan River.

The Phoenician maritime traders expanded their activities in the Mediterranean Sea, founding colonies along the North African coastline as far as Spain. The most powerful Phoenician colony was Carthage, in modern Tunisia. The trade between the Phoenicians and Egypt prospered, with Egypt exporting fine linen to Tyre, where it was dyed purple. The increasing use of the Aramaic language in preference to Akkadian brought with it an increase in the demand for papyrus rather than clay tablets and Egypt was the sole supplier of papyrus, a scarce commodity at that time.


While Egypt’s trade prospered, the Assyrians (named for the ancient city of Assur, their original capital) became the region’s dominant military power. From their national home between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Assyrians surged forth with their military might. The Assyrian army continued to use heavy chariots with a three man crew, the design of which was pioneered by the Hittites. With the availability of larger breeds of horses they were also able to introduce cavalry, a new concept to middle-eastern warfare. The Assyrians conquered the various tribes of Mesopotamia and then swept westwards, over-running the area. The kingdoms of Israel, Judah and Damascus survived, but under Assyrian overlord-ship. Frequent rebellions in these kingdoms resulted in Assyria reducing two of them to the status of provinces. Only Judah was left as a kingdom. By 720 the Assyrian Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf into Anatolia (Turkey) in the north and to the Egyptian border in the southwest. Conflict with Egypt was inevitable.

The Third Intermediate Period began in 1064 with the founding of the 21st Dynasty when Nesibanebdjedet, the former governor of the delta city of Tanis acceded to the throne. The political control of Egypt had always been difficult because it was such a long, narrow land. Strong rulers were able to exert their control over the whole land from the Nile Delta to the first cataract at modern day Aswan (about 1,000 kms), but the country was frequently divided in two, with control of the delta region under a northern king and the control of the long southern region under a different king. The 21st Dynasty lasted 124 years and saw Egypt split into two (again!). Lower Egypt (the delta region in the north) was under the rule of the King in the delta city of Tanis, while Upper Egypt (the south) was controlled by the High Priest of the god Amun at Thebes. Fortunately this time the division of the land did not result in conflict. In fact there was a high degree of co-operation between the two areas. During his 53 year reign, the fourth king of the 21st Dynasty Pasebkhanut I ruled from Tanis as King and his brother Menkheperre ruled from Thebes as High Priest. Understandably, researchers find it to be a period of confusion. The sixth king of the 21st Dynasty, Osorkon was of Lybian background. The Lybians were traditional enemies of Egypt, but now their bloodline was infused into in the so-called royal family of Egypt. History records eight kings during the 21st Dynasty.

The 22nd Dynasty commenced in 948 with the accession of Shoshenq 1 and the reunification of Egypt (again!). The hereditary role of High Priest of Thebes as a ruler of Southern Egypt in his own right was abolished and instead it became a position held by the son of the reigning king (a sort of ‘Prince of Wales’ appointment). This consolidation worked for a number of years. Egypt reasserted its military force and at least two military campaigns were recorded under Shoshenq 1, one of which took place in the Levant and is recorded in the Bible.

Regrettably personal ambition prevailed and Harsiese, the High Priest of Amun did not wait for his turn on the throne, but took full kingly status for himself and passed the pontificate of Amun to his own son. So once again Egypt was divided. Royal and priestly titles were taken and conferred prolifically in Tanis, Memphis and Thebes. It was a royal supermarket! At this time several parallel kingships existed. The 23rd Dynasty commenced in 867 and the 24th Dynasty operated from 735, both running in parallel with the existing 22nd Dynasty. A Biblical passage that refers to the ‘kings of Egypt’ was in all probability a reference to this period. My all-time favourite king name for this period is King Takelot.

It was the power of Kush, Egypt’s southern neighbour from Nubia (Sudan) that was to see a change in the traditional line of kings of Egypt. Piye, the king of Kush installed his sister as heir to the position of God’s Wife of Amun, a most influential female appointment, without encountering any opposition.

The 25th Dynasty called ‘Rule of Kush’ began in 752. King Piye moved north from Kush, defeating all in his way, but having succeeded in his mission of subduing Egypt, he left Egypt under the control of his newly appointed vassals and withdrew to his home base in Nubia. His successor Shabaka was less accommodating. He took up residence in Memphis in Egypt and curtailed the power of the vassal lords. Shabaka ruled as King of the lands of Egypt and Kush, but not without some internal resistance from the Egyptian princes of the Delta region who resented the Kushite invasion. With a little patience this period might have seen the resurgence of the power of Egypt, but it was not to be! The next king, Shabataka overreached himself by marching a combined Nubian and Egyptian army into Asia Minor to challenge the Assyrians. The combined forces were soundly beaten by the mighty Assyrian forces. Shabataka’s impetuous challenge awakened the Assyrians to the potential (and the weakness) of Egypt/Kush and although Shabataka’s successor Taharqa followed a strictly domestic strategy, the ultimate fate of the Kushite kings was looming.

The Assyrian king Esarhaddon attacked Egypt twice and on his second incursion he defeated and subdued Egypt as far as Memphis. Taharqa fought back and helped by the unexpected death of Esarhaddon regained a foothold in Lower Egypt. It was not for long. The next Assyrian king, Assurbanipal renewed the Assyrian surge and drove Taharqa all the way back to Napata, beyond the third cataract in Nubia. The Kushites tried one more time to reassert their rule over Egypt and managed to reclaim territory as far as Thebes, but Assurbanipal drove Taharqa’s successor Tanutamun back into Nubia. By 656 the 25th Dynasty had ended. The Nubian royal line continued to rule upper Nubia until the 4th Century AD, but the rule of Egypt passed into the hands of the Delta princes who had supported the Assyrians against the Kushites.

The Third Intermediate Period ended with the death of Tanutamun and the accession of Psametik I of the 26th Dynasty. This was the beginning of 60 years of rule of the Delta Princes from Sais, called the Saite Period, after which The Late Period commenced.

The four centuries of the Third Intermediate Period presented Egypt and its southern neighbour Kush with every opportunity to consolidate and re-assert the nation’s role as a powerful force in the region. It was a leading manufacturer of linen, papyrus and producer of wheat, but internal fighting for leadership and the lack of a single unifying force on the throne wasted that opportunity. With Assyria in power, Persia to follow and still later Macedonia and ultimately Rome rising up to take over the leadership of the known world, Egypt would never again achieve the heights of the golden age of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


*No, it’s not a misprint! We spend a great deal of study-time examining various aspects of the ancient Egyptian iconography from head to foot, but how often do we consider the importance of the tail? There are several depictions and references to ‘tails’ and they deserve more than a passing glance.

The first and by far the most important tail is the bull’s tail. The gods and the kings wore a bull’s tail as part of their regalia and it may be seen attached to every portrait or statue of a divinity or a king. The tail was hung onto the king’s belt during the coronation ceremony. The symbolism is clearly designed to imbue the king with the power and potency of the bull.

When the king is seated and the back of the chair precludes showing the tail behind him, the artist shows the bull’s tail draped to the front of the chair or throne. Interestingly Akhenaten, the monotheist is often depicted with a bull’s tail attached to his waist-band, showing that he did not totally eschew all the ancient traditions. As a further coronation blessing, the king was anointed with fat obtained from the powerful tail of a crocodile to impart the divine power of Sobek, the crocodile god. The heb-sed, which means ‘the festival of the tail’, usually held after the king had been on the throne for thirty years, was designed to ensure the king still had the strength to rule his people. The heb-sed ceremony renewed the king’s strength and ensured that his ‘bull’s tail’ retained its earlier potency. Included in the king’s list of honours was mut em ef, translated as ‘bull of his mother’, a further reference to the king’s strength and virility.

The cult of the Hap (or Apis bull) can be traced back to the early pharaonic period and it survived for nearly three millennia. A black bull with special markings was considered to be the animal form of Ptah, a creator god who dwelt in the underworld and was the patron of all craftsmen. In his aspect of the bull, Ptah was revered in Saqqara, and it was here that the Hap lived and died in his sacred stall, tended by the priests of Ptah and surrounded by his harem of cows. Upon his death, the Hap was mummified, placed in a huge sarcophagus and lowered into an underground labyrinth. In its many depictions, the Apis bull is shown to be well-endowed with its normal reproductive equipment and additionally to have a great, long tail.

The tail sported by Anubis, the canine god of mummification is probably the most beautiful of the tails of ancient Egypt. The elongated ears, the snout and the huge brush of the canine creature are all exaggerated by the artists. The tail that droops over the side of the shrine found in Tutankhamun’s tomb is wonderful example of Anubis’ rear appendage. The black desert dog-fox that frequents the tombs and the pyramids is supposed to have been the inspiration for the deity, but the live specimens I have seen in Egypt do not compare to Anubis when it comes to the magnificence of their tails.

The tail of the Sphinx, carved in the ancient stone of Giza, can be clearly seen as it curls round the lion’s haunch. Some years ago the suspicion that a chamber of ancient wisdom lay beneath the Sphinx waxed strongly (has it ever waned?). The prospect of entering the world’s most famous sculpture through its rear end presented us with another famous tale of a tail. Regrettably for some, the entrance next to the tail of the Sphinx proved to be shallow and unrewarding, however in 1988 Zahi Hawass reported that he had entered an obscure horizontal tunnel into the Sphinx where he found a pit inundated with water. Perhaps this was one of the taller of the ‘tales’ of ancient Egypt.

The side members of funerary beds or couches used in mummification were invariably crafted in the form of animals and frequently the tails of these animals, whether realistic or not, curved over the bed itself in a stylised arch. In this case the tail represented a form of protection for the body of the deceased.

One tail that presents a puzzle is the one seen attached to the panther or cheetah skin worn by the high priest. The panther skin is normally shown on papyrus and depicted on walls with its spots (actually rosettes) clearly painted by the artist, but the tail is invariably shown with hoops or bands. A leading zoologist I consulted was unable to identify a feline, past or present, whose pelt would be of sufficient size and that had a coat with spots (or rosettes) and a tail with bands. I think we must assume that the artists were taking licence and going for speed rather than accuracy.

The last tail to which I would like to refer is that of Seth, the murderer of his brother Osiris. When Seth is depicted in his animal form he appears to be a combination of the features of several creatures. He has the body of a grey hound, an elongated snout, pricked up ears with flat tips, almond-shaped eyes and a long, fork-ended tail standing up from its body. The fork-ended tail has come down through the ages as a sign of evil, as has the name of the evil deity Seth that transmutes into Satan in modern language.

There may be other tails that carry a tale, so to speak. Perhaps stories lurk in the tail of Bastet the cat or in that of Sekhmet the lioness and if you discover them, be sure to let me know.