Ancient Egypt and the Middle East: First contacts, The rise and fall of the empire, The struggle for national survival
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Ancient Egypt and the Middle East

First contacts

Elamite serpopards     Despite the difficulties posed by the crossing of the Sinai Desert there were prehistoric contacts with the Middle East, seemingly as far as Mesopotamia.

Elamite serpopards

    Depictions on pre-dynastic Egyptian artefacts, such as pottery or some of the decorative palettes, add to the evidence that there were contacts between Elam and Sumer and the nascent civilisation by the Nile: Serpopard images on the Narmer Palette are similar to those found in Elam, pictures of boats resemble depictions found in Mesopotamia. Whether these contacts included armed conflict, invasion and conquest as is sometimes claimed remains to be proven.

Partnership with Byblos

    Egypt did not have any indigenous trees which yielded the long timber needed for the construction of solar boats and the like. They entered into a trade relationship with Byblos on the Lebanese coast which endured for two millennia, and this city provided cedar wood cut on the slopes of the Lebanon mountain, the terraces in Egyptian parlance, to pharaohs and temples in exchange for Egyptian manufactured goods. Depiction from Ahirams sarcophagus

King Ahiram of Byblos, holding a lotus flower sitting in front of an offering table
Reused sarcophagus with early Phoenician inscriptions
Beginning of the 1st millennium BCE
Source of the excerpt: V. Easy

    Biblos became the town on the Asiatic Mediterranean coast most heavily influenced by Egyptian culture:
  • Some rulers of Byblos used Egyptian titles and cartouches. During the Middle Kingdom they were referred to as hatia (HAty-a), i.e. Mayor.
  • Native artefacts found in tombs of the local nobility (but not the lower classes) include stone vases.
  • Depictions show lotus, scarabs, hippos, and even the Red Crown.
  • Papyrus, grain, ivory and other raw materials were imported from Egypt.
    On the other hand Hathor came to be called "Lady of Byblos" in Egypt, silver and the much coveted lapis-lazuli reached the country through Byblos, and Egyptian ships were built with Lebanese timber. Thutmose III (c.1504-1450 BCE) who made good use of his navy recorded:
Behold, all the harbors of his majesty were supplied with every good thing of that [which (?)] [his] majesty received in Zahi (Djahi), consisting of Keftyew ships, Byblos ships, and Sektu ships of cedar laden with poles, and masts, together with great trees for the [///] of his majesty.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 492
    If the Tale of Wenamen is to be trusted, the special relationship between Egypt and Byblos had come to an end towards the end of the New Kingdom. Trade was still quite lively, but Egyptians were apparently treated like anybody else.


    As early as the pre-dynastic there was some Egyptian presence in southern Canaan. Under the first pharaohs there may have been some kind of Egyptian administration in the Negev, as finds of artefacts bearing Narmer's serekh seem to indicate.
    From the time of Snofru (c. 2613-2589) onwards the Sinai desert with its copper, turquoise and other mines belonged to Egypt, even if control over it was tenuous at times.
His majesty sent me to despatch [this army] five times, in order to traverse the land of the Sand-dwellers at each of their rebellions, with these troops. I did so that [his] majesty praised me [on account of it].
The autobiography of Weni
Reign of Pepi I (c. 2313-2279)
    The northern approaches to the country along the Horus road were guarded. Amenemhet I built a number of fortifications on the eastern border of the Delta called Wall of the Prince. Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom the central authorities were too weak to enforce border security, and significant numbers of Asiatics began to settle in the eastern Delta.

The first Asiatic take-over

    How the Hyksos became the rulers of most of Lower Egypt and were recognized as pharaohs throughout the country is unknown. The take-over may have been mostly peaceful, as was seemingly most of their reign, even though Upper Egypt and some regions of the Delta were ruled by local dynasties. The aspirations of the Theban princes brought about their downfall and expulsion from Egypt after a protracted war.
    Most of our knowledge about the Hyksos is speculative: Some of their kings wore what looks like Semitic names, they seem to have familiarized the Egyptians with the horse-drawn chariot which had been in use for some time in the Levant, their weaponry and armour appears to have been Asiatic, they may have introduced Baal, a Syrian god of storms and the sky, to Memphis where he was identified with Seth and worshiped from the 18th dynasty onward. They may have become mostly Egyptianized, though their pottery, for instance, remained largely Syrian in style.

The rise and fall of the Egyptian Asiatic empire

Forays into Asia

    After the fall of the capital of the Hyksos Avaris Ahmose I pursued them into southern Canaan where they had taken refuge at Saruhen. The three-year siege of that city was the beginning of an expansionary policy which endured until the end of the New Kingdom.
Then Avaris was despoiled, and I brought spoil from there: one man, three women; total, four persons. His majesty gave them to me as slaves. Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His majesty despoiled it and I brought spoil from it
The autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana
    Thutmose I, after campaigning in Nubia turned toward Canaan and made the boundaries of Egypt as far as that which the sun encircles [1]. His successor Thutmose II had to deal with revolts in Canaan and went as far north as Naharin. These campaigns may have been little more than attempts to frighten potential enemies in Retenu and Naharin, defending the desert approaches of Egypt. Its power was still concentrated in the southern part of Canaan, around Gaza.


    During the New Kingdom Gaza was Egypt's main stronghold in Canaan. It was a fortress manned by Egyptian troops, the administrative centre, the most Egyptianized town in the land. Other cities, like Bet Shean, Lakhish, or Shechem had temples which showed Egyptian influence, the temple in Gaza was built by the Egyptians themselves under Ramses III, an edifice which to Grandet was a fortification including a temple, while Wimmer thinks of it as a mysterious house dedicated to the hidden god Amen, the deity of the Empire:
I built for you a mysterious house in the land of Djahi
(as) an image of the horizon of heaven, which is the sky,
(as) "The Temple of Ramses, Ruler of Iunu in Gaza,"
as a bequest for your name.
I created your statue
(as) a big one resting therein
(as) "Amun of Ramses, Ruler of Iunu."
It is according to its being divine
that the foreigners of Retenu are coming to it
with their tributes to its front.
Papyrus Harris I
After Stefan Wimmer, Egyptian temples in Canaan
S. Israelit-Groll, ed. Studies in Egyptology, Vol. II, p.1087, 1990

Subjugation of Djahi and Retenu (Southern and Northern Canaan)

    Thutmose III and Amenhotep II intensified Egyptian efforts in the region. After crushing a coalition of Canaanite princes at Megiddo Thutmose subjugated Canaan in a number of campaigns.
He brought the chiefs of Zahi (Djahi) as living prisoners to Egypt; he captured all their cities, he cut down their groves; no country remained /// /// ///.
The annals of Thutmose III
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §392
    His attempts and those of Amenhotep II to subdue the regions of Retenue close to Mitanni resulted only in temporary quiet.

Defeated towns and countries- List of towns and countries in Nubia and Retenu conquered by Amenhotep II
Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Abth. III, Bl.63

    The power of Mitanni, which had backed the rulers of northern Retenu in their fight against the Egyptians, was declining; and under Thutmose IV military intervention became less frequent. Retenu continued to be subjected to tribute
Bringing tribute of Retenu, presentation of the northern countries; silver, gold, malachite, every costly stone of God's Land; by the princes of all countries. They come, to [make gifts (?)] to the Good God [3], to ask for breath for their nostrils; by the real king's scribe, his beloved, commander of troops, scribe of recruits, Thaneni.
Tomb inscription of Tjaneni
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §820
    A list of offerings at Karnak speaks of things which his majesty (Thutmose IV) captured in /////n (Naharin) the wretched, on his first victorious campaign [2]. Mitanni paid tribute [4] too:
Bringing in he tribute of Naharin by the princes of this country, in order to crave the breath of life be granted to them. Obeisance to the great Lord of Two Lands, when they come bearing tribute to the Lord of the Two Lands, (saying): "Grant us breath which thou givest, O mighty king."
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §819
    Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III concluded treaties with the kings of Mitanni, Shuttarna and Tushratta, marrying Mitannian princesses. The name of the wife of Thutmose is unknown, but Amenhotep's marriage to Gilukhipa is well documented.
    The Egyptian sphere of influence in Canaan and Retenu continued to be ruled by local princes - kings in their own eyes but simple mayors (hazannu, Egyptian HAtja) to the Egyptians. It was divided into three parts:
  • Canaan, which was the best controlled, had a governor (jmj-rA xAswt mHtwt) residing at Gaza.
  • Amurru, the Lebanese coast, had a garrison at Sumur
  • Retenu whose administrator was at Kumidi
Canaan in the Amarna Period     Control over the whole region was not very tight. A number of towns harboured Egyptian garrisons, not just as police forces for quelling local unrest but also to protect supply depots which had become necessary, as living off the land became more difficult for the by now quite sizable expeditionary forces.
    Neighbouring rulers were often at odds with each other and appealed to the Egyptians to interfere. Under Akhenaten the rules of the game changed: He had married a daughter of Tushratta, Tadukhipa, but Mitanni disappeared, and in its stead Hatti made itself felt in Amurru and Retenu. What had been squabbles, the outcome of which was of little importance to anyone but those directly concerned, became a campaign whose aim was to end Egyptian hegemony.

Map of the eastern Mediterranean coast
Amarna Period
After Y. Aharoni, Carta's Atlas of the Bible

    The Egyptians tied the Asiatic princes to their cause in a number of ways: They confirmed their right to reign if they deemed them to be loyal; they took their heirs as hostages, removing them to Egypt where they were educated with Egyptian nobles; they presented them with gifts; they could rule in their favour when ending disputes; they might reduce their tribute or marry one of their daughters.
    Sometimes they got it disastrously wrong as in the case of the Amorite Aziru who allied himself with the Hittites and brought about the defection of Northern Amurru and Retenu to Hatti. Akhenaten was busy confronting the Amen priests and his successors too inexperienced and short lived.
    Among the Asiatic powers only Mitanni and later Hatti made any impact on Egyptian policies during the New Kingdom. The pharaohs had diplomatic relations with a number of countries exchanging letters and gifts with the kings of Babylonia Kadashman-enlil and Burnaburiash, with the ruler of Alasiya, with the Assyrian Ashur-uballit and with the kings of Mitanni until the disappearance of their kingdom. The relations with the Hittite were not very cordial. Suppililiuma was far from happy and he expressed his discontent in a letter:
And who is it who troubles the good relations between us? Has such behaviour become custom? My brother, have you written to me thinking that we become allies? If you are my brother, why have you praised my name, when I am no better thought of than a cadaver?
    Horemheb chose as his successor a general, Ramses I. The influence of the army preponderated thereafter resulting in a confrontational foreign policy.
The Good God [3], Sun of Egypt, Moon of all lands, Montu in the foreign countries; irresistible, mighty-hearted like Baal, there is none that approaches him on the day of drawing up the battle line. He has extended the boundaries of Egypt as far as the heavens on every side. The rebels, they know not how they shall [flee]; the vanquished of the Shasu, who were ///, /// /// his majesty; [becoming like] that which exists not.
Karnak relief of Seti I
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, §86
    The claims of victory, like this one over the Shasu, ill-organized bedouins of the Negev desert, were grandiose, but with all their campaigning, Seti I and Ramses II just about held on to the territories which had been under Egyptian influence in the time of Akhenaten. The Battle of Kadesh almost ended in disaster for Ramses II and brought about a slow change in Egyptian attitudes toward Hatti which ended in a peace treaty and a family alliance between the ruling dynasties.

Decline of the Egyptian influence in the Middle East

    The spheres of influence agreed upon by Ramses and Hattusili in 1283 BCE endured until the arrival of the Sea Peoples. Merneptah described his successes against foreign enemies in a hymn. Somewhat later Ramses III (c. 1197-1166) waged war in the west, the south and the north-east. In Canaan he reached Amurru.
Ramses III, captured enemies
Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Abth. III, Bl.209
From left to right:
    1.The wretched chief of Kheta as living captive.
    2.The wretched chief of Amor.
    3.Chieftain of the foe of Thekel.
    4.Sherden of the sea.
    5.Chieftain of the foe of Sha[su].
    6.Teresh of the sea.
    7.Chieftain of the Pe[leset].
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 129
    He succeeded in defending Egypt against all invaders, but Canaan was eventually lost to the Philistines and other remnants of the Sea Peoples. These were the people the possibly fictional Wenamen had to deal with, independent and proud. In the story the king of Byblos says:
'If the ruler of Egypt had been the possessor of mine own and I too his servant, he would not have caused silver and gold to be brought when he said 'Perform the commission of Amun'; it was no gratuitous gift that they used to make for my father. And as for me too, I myself, I am not your servant, and I am not the servant of him who sent you either.'

The struggle for national survival

The Libyans

    The first millennium BCE saw Egypt being taken over by foreigners. The Libyans served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army and had been settled in the western Delta for some time. Their chiefs of chiefs ruled the country as the 22nd dynasty pharaohs for two centuries from 945 onward. Their interests coincided with traditional Egyptian interests and they meddled in the affairs of Juda and Israel which had come into being in Canaan. Sheshonq I's campaign resulted in the conquest of a number of towns as far north as Megiddo and Shunem. Some of the fighting he did was pretty close to home, by the Bitter Lakes
////// Said his majesty to the court: "////// the evil things which they have done." Said they: "////// his horse after him, while they knew (it) not. Lo ////// His majesty made a great slaughter among them ////// he //ed them upon the [dyke (?)] of the shore of Kemwer (the Bitter Lake). He was //////
Karnak stela of Sheshonq I
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §724A

The Kushites and the Assyrians

    Egypt soon fell apart into a number of competing kingdoms and lost any capability for acting as a state. The Kushite Piye took advantage of this situation and after a short campaign was acknowledged as pharaoh by all the kings of the Delta.
    Half a century later the Assyrians extended their power to Juda. They were opposed by Shabaka who was defeated near Gaza in 720 BCE, but Taharka, Shabaka's general, lead a successful defense of Pelusium. Years later, after the murders of Shebitku (689 BCE) and Sanherib (681 BCE), Asarhaddon defeated the Kushite army (668 BCE) and Taharka fled upriver to Thebes. Asarhaddon conquered Lower Egypt and appointed native princes as local governors. After a revolt by these governors, supported by Taharka, was suppressed, they were at first exiled to Nineveh and then pardoned and reinstated. Tanutamen, Taharka's successor, tried to retake the Delta from the Assyrians, first defeating some of their Egyptian allies like Nekhau of Sais
His majesty sailed downstream to the Northland, while the west and the east made great jubilee, saying: "Welcome is thy coming, and welcome thy ka! ...."
When his majesty arrived at Memphis, there came forth the children of rebellion, to fight with his majesty. His majesty made a great slaughter among them; their number being unknown.
Stela of Tanutamen
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, §§ 927f
    In 661 the Assyrians returned and ended the Kushite reign. Ashurbanipal's sack of Thebes destroyed the city's vitality for ever.
    The Libyans, who had been mostly integrated into Egyptian society, and the Kushites, who saw themselves as a part of its culture, had pursued policies which followed Egypt's traditional policy of securing the country's eastern border against foreign invasion. The Assyrians, the first foreign pharaohs not to have any cultural affinities with Egypt, ruled the country relatively benignly with the help of Egyptian proxies, but their very presence goaded the natives into resisting, which was followed by Assyrian repression.

The 26th dynasty

    The Saite pharaohs were of Libyan warrior origin. Their policy toward the threatening Asiatic forces was activist. They increased the strength of their army by hiring foreign mercenaries and their navy by entering a program of ship building and development. They used their military to try and achieve a balance of power in the Middle East by supporting weak decaying empires against dynamic and aggressive rising powers: In the last quarter of the 7th century BCE Assyria was threatened by Babylonia and, despite Egyptian support, crumbled in 610 BCE.
    Babylonia was too weak to endanger Egypt. Nebukadrezzar was repulsed twice by Ahmose II when he tried to invade the Delta, but the Egyptians refrained from interfering too openly in Judah, which had been crushed by the Babylonians.

The Persians

    Cambyses, the Persian conqueror of Egypt (525 BCE), enjoyed a very bad reputation. According to Herodotus he treated Psammetic III and his family in an insulting fashion: he made the pharaoh's daughter perform the duties of a slave, he almost had his son executed and he desecrated the dead body of his father, Ahmose II. But worse was his behaviour towards the Egyptian deities:
[3.29.1] When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses--for he was all but mad--drew his dagger and, meaning to stab the calf in the belly, stuck the thigh; then laughing he said to the priests: [3.29.2] "Simpletons, are these your gods, creatures of flesh and blood that can feel weapons of iron? That is a god worthy of the Egyptians. But for you, you shall suffer for making me your laughing-stock." So saying he bade those, whose business it was, to scourge the priests well, and to kill any other Egyptian whom they found holiday-making. [3.29.3] So the Egyptian festival ended, and the priests were punished, and Apis lay in the temple and died of the wound in the thigh. When he was dead of the wound, the priests buried him without Cambyses' knowledge.
Herodotus, Histories, 3.29.1ff
    In contrast to their wont the Persians did not install the deposed king or his son as governor of Egypt
But as it was, Psammenitus (Psammetic III) plotted evil and got his reward; for he was caught raising a revolt among the Egyptians; and when Cambyses heard of it, Psammenitus drank bull's blood and died. Such was his end.
Herodotus, Histories, 3.15.4
    Egypt became an important part of the Persian empire. It was heavily taxed and its economy became more tightly integrated by the re-excavation of the shipping canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea, opening up a direct naval link to Mesopotamia and Persia.
    The mainly peaceful relations were occasionally interrupted by risings, such as the one put down by Xerxes in 486 BCE.

The last indigenous dynasties

    In 404 Amyrtaeus of Sais ousted the Persians, and reunited the country a few years afterwards. The pharaohs who succeeded him reinforced the Egyptian ground and naval forces, but achieved little more than staving off Persian attacks. Their reliance on Greek mercenaries made the Egyptians vulnerable to Greek politicking and their influence on Middle Eastern politics remained small. Djedhor's adventure in Palestine was of little consequence and, after a failing in 351, Artaxerxes conquered Egypt in his second attempt in 343 BCE.

The second Persian occupation

Seal: Artaxerxes, victor over Egypt The Persian rule under Artaxerxes III (343-338 BCE) and Darius III (335-332 BCE) was seemingly interrupted by a three-year interlude under the Nubian Khabbash after the assassination of Artaxerxes, and was mercifully short.

Line drawing of Persian seal showing Artaxerxes victorious over Egypt

    The Persians attempted to weaken Egypt as much as possible. They razed city walls, heavy taxes were imposed and the country's treasures were looted:
... the statues of the gods, which had been robbed by the barbarians of the land Persia from temples of Egypt ...

The Hellenists

    Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and conquered of the whole Persian empire. His takeover of Egypt in 332 was unopposed and the oracle at the Siwa oasis declared him to be the son of Amen. After Alexander's death a Macedonian general Ptolemy consolidated his power over Egypt, led the country to independence in 305 and tried to control as much as possible of the Middle Eastern coast. This traditional Egyptian policy brought his successors into conflict with the Seleucids who governed in Syria. In 170 Antioch IV conquered Egypt and held it for a short time until he was forced to abandon his conquest under pressure from the Romans.

Economic and cultural exchanges

    The exchange of goods and ideas between Egypt and the Middle East improved the stock of domesticated animals and plants in both regions, though Egypt had more to gain: horses, zebu cattle, chickens and camels were introduced from the east at various periods, as were olive and a number of other kinds of tree - many of which did not flourish in the Egyptian climate - and seemingly grape vines.
    Raw materials like wood for shipbuilding, copper, tin and iron for tool and weapon manufacture, silver and precious stones like lapis lazuli from Afghanistan for making ornaments, oils, resins and wine for consumption or religious offerings were imported. The raw material the Egyptians had more of than their eastern neighbours was gold, and they used it to improve international relations.
    Egypt's manufactured goods were often of high quality and well received abroad. Stone vases were given to foreign potentates as tokens of esteem. Gold and silver vessels were probably appreciated for the value of the metal as well as for the craftsmanship. Egyptian linen was among the finest produced anywhere. Stone scarabs, cherished as talismans, have been found in most ancient sites on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
    Metal working technologies were more advanced in the East, as was anything connected with war, which the Egyptians were lucky enough to experience little of in their own country until the first millennium BCE. Glass working was developed independently in Egypt but glass blowing was invented in Syria from where it reached Egypt towards the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Pottery techniques owed little to foreign influences, though the style changed at times under the impact of imported ceramics.
    Compared with its deep going influence in Nubia, Egypt's culture affected the highly developed cultures of the Levant only marginally. Apart from Byblos, where Baalat came to be worshipped as Hathor, Egyptians prayed to local gods and no attempts to Egyptianize Canaanite religion was made. Egyptian magic and the related art of healing was widely appreciated. The language never attained a position of lingua franca as Akkadian did, nor was the intricate script mastered by many non-Egyptians, even though it may have influenced the development of the Phoenician alphabet.
    Politically Egypt played a major role in western Asia during the second half of the second millennium BCE, but even after its decline it continued to interfere in Middle Eastern affairs, though the warning of Isaiah depicts Egypt's capabilities realistically:
Behold, you trust in the staff of this bruised reed, even in Egypt, which if a man leans on it, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.
Isaiah 36:6

[1] Abydos Stela of Thutmose I, J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 98
He also indulged in elephant hunts while in Syria.
[2] J.H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 817
[3] Good God: Pharaoh.
[4] tribute: The Egyptians did not conquer Mitanni. They were at times prone to consider gifts sent by foreign potentates to be tribute, though in this case the term seems to be appropriate.

- -The Assyrian Expansion into Palestine
-The Assyrian conquest of Egypt
-Egypt and the rising Persian empire
-The Persian Satrapy
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