Assyria and Egypt I


Assyrian War Chariot.



From its heartland on the banks of the River Tigris, the Kingdom of Assyria had first become aware of its Nilotic rival in the early fifteenth century. Following Thutmose I’s efforts to establish an Egyptian empire in the Near East, a wary friendship had developed between the two powers, the Assyrians sending tribute to Thutmose III in the wake of Megiddo and maintaining diplomatic, if strained, relations with the court of Akhenaten. But in Assyria, as in Egypt, a series of weak rulers had led to a serious decline. By 1000, it was once again reduced to its traditional heartland around the cities of Ashur and Nineveh. The ups and downs of the two great kingdoms mirrored each other again in the tenth to eighth centuries so that, by 740, just as the Kushites were beginning to consolidate their rule over the entire Nile Valley, the Assyrian Empire was being rebuilt by its own determined ruler (Tilgathpileser III). His tactics were ruthless and uncompromising. Conquered territories were administered directly by centrally appointed governors, who were themselves subject to spot checks by royal inspectors. To undermine local loyalties and identities, nearly a quarter of a million people were forcibly resettled across the empire in a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the time Shabaqo became king of Kush and Egypt, most of the Near East seemed to be smarting under the Assyrian yoke.

Faced with such an intimidating opponent, Shabaqo at first settled for a policy of cautious diplomacy. His first test came when one of the Assyrians’ more rebellious vassals, the king of Ashdod, fled to Egypt seeking political asylum. Shabaqo promptly sent him back to face his persecutors. But this entente with the Assyrians did not last long. When the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib began a systematic consolidation of his western territories, Egypt decided that the covert encouragement of local insurgencies would serve its interests better, and began to stir discontent among the fractious rulers of the Near Eastern city-states. The policy backfired disastrously. Sennacherib invaded Palestine to suppress a revolt, whereupon one of the ringleaders, Hezekiah of Judah, turned to Egypt for military support. It was a request Shabaqo could scarcely refuse. He summoned his nephew Taharqo (still just a prince of twenty) north from Nubia to lead the campaign, and the two armies met at Eltekeh, ten miles from Ashdod, in 701. Taharqo’s force was besieged, then heavily defeated. Withdrawing to a safe distance, he planned to attack the Assyrians from the rear once they had moved on to Jerusalem to demand Hezekiah’s surrender. But Sennacherib was too seasoned a commander to fall for such a ploy. He promptly recalled his troops from the Judaean hills, faced down the Egyptian attack, and forced Taharqo to flee back to Egypt with the remnants of his defeated and dejected army. Kushite military prowess had finally met its match. Egypt was on notice.

The accession of Esarhaddon as king of Assyria in 680 spelled the beginning of the end for Kushite rule. Esarhaddon was every bit as ambitious and ruthless as his predecessor, and determined to incorporate the Nile Valley within his growing empire. He launched a first attack in 674. Taharqo, fresh from his military exercises, repulsed the invaders and won the day. But he knew the Assyrians would not give up so easily, and gave vent to his uneasiness by publicly bemoaning the gods for deserting him in his hour of need. He was right to worry. Three years later, a second invasion force, this time led by Esarhaddon himself, swept down through the Near East, bound for the delta. After wiping out the city of Tyre, Egypt’s strongest ally in the region, the force pressed home its advantage and was soon at the gates of Memphis. Taharqo’s only option was to flee before the advancing army—leaving his wife and family at the mercy of the Assyrians. After just half a day’s fighting, the royal citadel was stormed and plundered for its treasures, which included hundreds of golden crowns “on which were set golden vipers and golden serpents,” eight thousand talents of silver, and fifty thousand horses. The Assyrian king could not resist gloating over Taharqo’s total humiliation: “His queen, the women of his palace, Ushanahuru [Nesuanhur] his heir, his other children, his possessions, horses, cattle and sheep beyond number, I carried off as booty to Assyria.” To rub salt into the wounds, Esarhaddon had an inscription carved to celebrate his victory; it showed the Kushite crown prince with a rope around his neck, kneeling pathetically at his new master’s feet. Two more rock inscriptions were cut at key points on the journey home to Assyria, the one at Nahr el-Kelb, in Lebanon, right next to a victory inscription of Ramesses II’s. The irony was not lost on either side.

Egypt itself was transformed by the Assyrian invasion. Towns in the delta were assigned Assyrian names, and Esarhaddon appointed “new local kings, governors, officers, harbour overseers, officials and administrative personnel.” These included the artful Nekau of Sais, who, within a year, had managed to have himself recognized as king by at least one neighboring delta princeling. Thus, when Taharqo returned to Memphis in 670, he faced rivals both inside and outside his shattered realm. A third Assyrian invasion in autumn 669 was only called off at the last minute because of Esarhaddon’s untimely death en route to Egypt. For the hard-pressed Kushites, it was a breathing space, but no more.

Sure enough, the third invasion came just two years later, led by Assyria’s latest and most ruthless king, Ashurbanipal. It was almost his first act as king and he had no thought of failure. Egypt was overwhelmed. Taharqo “heard in Memphis of the defeat of his army.… He became like a madman … and he left Memphis and fled, to save his life, into the town of Thebes.” There, he was kept busy putting down an opportunistic rebellion in the southern provinces. Meanwhile, Ashurbanipal imposed his formal overlordship on the whole country, demanding oaths of allegiance from the local rulers in the Nile Valley as well as the delta, and appointing Assyrian governors. Egypt was now a mere province of Assyria.

But the internal politics that had so undermined Kushite efforts to unify Egypt now offered them their only ray of hope. As soon as Ashurbanipal had left the country, many of the dynasts started to plot and scheme with Taharqo to recover Egyptian independence—on their own terms. They might have succeeded, had it not been for the efficiency of the Assyrians’ internal security apparatus. Once Ashurbanipal’s governors got wind of the plot,

they arrested these kings and put their hands and feet in iron cuffs and fetters.… And they put to the sword the inhabitants, old and young, of the towns of Sais, Pindidi, Djanet and of all the other towns which had associated with them. They hung their corpses from stakes, flayed their skins and covered the town walls.

Public executions were held throughout the delta as a grim warning, and the ringleaders of the insurgency were deported to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, to be eliminated at Ashurbanipal’s pleasure. The only leader to escape with his life was Nekau of Sais, who made a profuse display of loyalty and was duly sent back to Egypt to govern his former fiefdom. As a further sign of Ashurbanipal’s trust, Nekau’s son and heir, Psamtek, was given a new Assyrian name and appointed to rule the delta town of Hutheryib, whose former prince had been executed along with the other plotters. Not for the first time, the cunning rulers of Sais emerged unscathed from a political maelstrom—unscathed and emboldened. Just as Tefnakht had been the main challenger to Piankhi, and Bakenrenef to Shabaqo, a third and a fourth generation of Saites now squared up against their Kushite adversaries for the mastery of Egypt.

Taharqo died in 664, defeated and dejected. Against the odds, his successor Tanutamun (664–657) made one last stand, a final attempt to seize back the Nile Valley from its Assyrian oppressors. Claiming Amun as his protector, Tanutamun turned his military advance into a public display of piety, ordering the restoration of ruined temples, making divine offerings, and reinstalling priests ejected by the Assyrians . The message was clear: once again, a crusading zeal would deliver the country from the infidels. However, this time the opponent was not a motley collection of minor rulers but a well-resourced, well-equipped, and well-trained occupying force.

Marching on Memphis, Tanutamun gained his first major propaganda coup. “The children of rebellion came out. His Majesty made a great slaughter among them, their number unknown.” The arch-collaborator Nekau was captured and executed; his fellow delta rulers simply refused to fight, retreating into their walled towns “like rats into their holes.” So Tanutamun returned to Memphis, there to await his opponents’ surrender. A few days later, the newly designated spokesman of the rebels, the mayor of Per-Sopdu, presented himself before the king to grovel for his life. As it happened, Tanutamun was in no mood for reprisals. Overcome by a rush of realpolitik, he instead released all his rivals to continue governing their respective cities. Hence, on returning home to Napata, he could claim to have restored Egypt’s fortunes:

Now the southerners fare downstream and the northerners upstream to the place where His Majesty is, carrying every good thing of Upper Egypt and every provision of Lower Egypt to please His Majesty.

It was the last such boast any Kushite would make.


Tanutamun’s Egyptian honeymoon was brief in the extreme. Within months, toward the end of 664, Ashurbanipal responded to the Kushite takeover and the execution of his loyal lieutenant Nekau by invading Egypt for a second time. Memphis fell easily, aided by the lingering anti-Kushite tendencies and self-serving duplicity of the delta vassals, but it was not the major goal on this occasion. Instead, Ashurbanipal had his sights set firmly on Thebes, the religious capital and long-term supporter of the Kushite cause. After forty days’ march, the Assyrian army reached the gates of the great city. Tanutamun barely had time to flee before the fearsome Mesopotamians were swarming through the streets of Thebes, ransacking the temples, and carrying away fourteen centuries of accumulated treasure: “silver, gold, precious stones … linen garments with multicoloured trimmings … and two solid-cast electrum obelisks, standing at the door of the temple.” The sack of Thebes reverberated through the ancient world as a cultural calamity of epic proportions. Ashurbanipal summed it up succinctly, boasting, “I made Egypt and Nubia feel my weapons bitterly.”

The Kushites had been driven back to Kush, there to stay. All of Egypt, from Abu to the shores of the Mediterranean, now recognized the Assyrians as their overlords. But if Ashurbanipal thought this would usher in a long period of Assyrian control in the Nile Valley, he had reckoned without those arch-schemers and most accomplished of political survivors, the rulers of Sais. The western fringes of the delta, with its thin population and low agricultural productivity, had always been relatively unimportant to the Egyptian state, yet, as Tefnakht had shown in the 720s, they could provide a power base for wider ambitions. Now a fourth generation Saite, Nekau’s son Psamtek, saw a chance to fulfill the family’s destiny and unite not just the entire delta but the whole of Egypt under his rule. After being placed in charge of Hutheryib and Iunu by the Assyrians in 671, Psamtek had inherited control of Memphis and Sais from his father seven years later. These four key dominions gave him jurisdiction over a vast, contiguous swath of territory and made him the unquestioned leader among Assyria’s delta vassals. Moreover, during his brief sojourn in Nineveh as Ashurbanipal’s prisoner, Psamtek had learned the arts of diplomacy and ruthless ambition from an acknowledged master. He now put the lessons to good use.

Bitter experience—the most devastating being the execution of his father—had taught Psamtek that political resolve was nothing without military supremacy. While still theoretically an Assyrian vassal, he set about building up his own forces. Raising an army in Egypt, right under the noses of the Assyrians, was not an option, and the Egyptians’ recent defeats showed how much they lagged behind in military tactics and equipment.

Psamtek needed the very best, and he knew where to find it. Using his contacts with the wider Mediterranean world, he recruited Ionian and Carian mercenaries into his army, from the communities of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, putting them in charge of garrisons at key points along the delta frontier. Alliances with the king of Lydia and the autocratic ruler of the Greek island of Samos enabled Psamtek to boost the size and strength of the Egyptian navy. The presence of Greeks in the upper echelons of the armed forces did not go down well with Egypt’s traditional warrior class (of Libyan descent), but for the moment there was nothing they could do about it. Psamtek was a man on a mission.

The results spoke for themselves. Within months, two of the four Libyan chiefdoms that adjoined the kingdom of the west had submitted to Psamtek. The other two followed in short order, giving him most of the central and southern delta. Next to yield were Djedet and Per-Sopdu. Only the king of Djanet, the direct successor of the great Shoshenq I, held out against Saite hegemony, no doubt considering himself every bit as legitimate as his upstart rival from the backward western provinces. Yet by 656, even he had to recognize the inevitable. After eight years of sustained diplomatic and coercive pressure, Psamtek had emerged as the undisputed sovereign of Lower Egypt.

That still left Upper Egypt to be brought to heel.

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