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Assyrians, Persians and a Greek: 663-332 BC

From the 7th century BC the middle east is controlled by a succession of powerful empires - Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. Each, with the exception of Babylon, conquers Egypt. The long centuries of powerful native dynasties are now conclusively over.

The first intruders, the Assyrians, rule with a relatively light hand this large region which seems too distant to govern more directly. They entrust the administration to vassal princes. One of these establishes the 26th dynasty, controlling the entire country and becoming effectively independent of Assyria. During this period Egypt undergoes something of a revival (it is now that the remarkable voyage round Africa is achieved).

Egypt during this dynasty is only on the periphery of the dramatic events beginning in the middle east at the end of the 7th century - the destruction by the Babylonians of the Assyrian capital Nineveh (in 612 BC) and of Jerusalem (in 586), followed by the capture of Babylon by an army of the Persian emperor Cyrus (in 539).

After the fall of Nineveh the Egyptians attempt to stake a claim to the Assyrian empire as far as the Euphrates, a region which for so many centuries has been linked to Egypt. In 612 BC they confront a Babylonian army at Carchemish. The Egyptians are soundly defeated, but the Babylonians do not press their advantage to the point of invading Egypt itself.

A century later the rising power of Persia proves harder to keep at bay. This time the defeat of an Egyptian army is very much nearer home, at Pelusium in the Sinai peninsula in 525 BC. It is followed by the capture of Memphis (by now once again the main city of Egypt).

Egypt becomes a province of the new empire under the control of a Persian governor (or satrap). The Persian emperors take their imperial responsibilities seriously. Darius I, for example, commissions the codification of existing Egyptian laws. And under his orders, starting in about 515 BC, a canal is constructed between the Nile and the Red Sea.

But direct control from the distant capital of another empire is a new and unwelcome experience in Egypt. During the 5th and 4th centuries there are frequent uprisings (usually with the help of the Greeks, implacable opponents of Persia). Sometimes these result in periods of virtual independence. But in 343 BC a new Persian invasion brings Egypt back under tight control.

The date is significant. Just nine years later, in 332 BC, a young Greek prince arrives at the head of a victorious army. He is Alexander the Great. Understandably, in the circumstances, he is welcomed as a liberator.

Alexander spends the winter in Egypt. His actions there are the first indication of how he will set about keeping control of distant conquests, places with their own cultural traditions. One method is to establish outposts of Greek culture. In Egypt he founds the greatest of the cities known by his name - Alexandria.

Another method, equally important, is to present himself in the guise of a local ruler. To this end he carries out a sacrifice to Apis, a sacred bull at Memphis, where the priests crown him pharaoh. And he makes a long pilgrimage to a famous oracle of the sun god Amon, or Amen-Re, at Siwa. The priest duly recognizes Alexander as the son of the god.

The Greeks in Egypt: 332-30 BC

Alexander the Great arrives in Egypt at an early stage of his great journey of conquest. He clears out the Persian administration before moving against Persia herself.

After Alexander's death, in 323, his empire is divided among his generals. Egypt falls to Ptolemy, whose descendants will give Egypt her final dynasty - a glittering one, albeit largely Greek in flavour. Its capital is the city established by the conqueror himself, Alexandria.

Ptolemy adds legitimacy to his rule in Egypt by acquiring Alexander's body. He intercepts the embalmed corpse on its way to burial, brings it to Egypt and places it in a golden coffin in Alexandria.

It will remain one of the famous sights of the town for many years, until probably destroyed in riots in the 3rd century AD.

The Ptolemaic inheritance: 285 BC

The central struggle of Ptolemy's reign is to establish firm and broad boundaries to his kingdom. This involves him in almost continuous warfare against other leading members of Alexander's circle. At times he holds Cyprus and even parts of mainland Greece. When the dust of conflict has settled, he is firmly in control of Egypt and has strong claims (disuputed by the Seleucid dynasty) to Palestine.

He calls himself king of Egypt from 306 BC. By the time he abdicates in 285, in favour of one of his sons, the Ptolemaic dynasty is secure.

Ptolemy and his descendants show respect to Egypt's most cherished traditions - those of religion - and turn them to their own advantage. By favouring the priests, protecting the temple revenues and adopting the customs of the pharaohs, they acquire for themselves the same divine status as their Egyptian predecessors.

Inevitably, in the long run, there is local hostility to foreign rulers. But in the end this proves irrelevant. Egypt, an extraordinarily rich corner of the Mediterranean, falls prey to an irresistible new imperial power - that of Rome.

Nobody could claim that dynastic Egypt fizzles out. It flares to a romantic end, while the last ruler in the line of the Ptolemies flirts with two representatives of the most efficient and expansionist empire of the ancient world.

Cleopatra is twenty when she first meets Julius Caesar, in 48 BC. She is twenty-seven when she first meets Mark Antony, in 41 BC. She is thirty-eight when she applies the asp to her breast in 30 BC, a year after the battle of Actium. With her defeat, the Roman empire achieves a new completeness - encompassing the entire Mediterranean. And Egypt will remain under Roman control for the next six centuries.

Roman Egypt: 1st century BC - 4th century AD

The wealth of Egypt makes it the most important of Rome's overseas provinces. The Nile valley produces rich harvests of grain, much of which is shipped to Italy. The craftsmen of this ancient civilization, skilled in such difficult techniques as the manufacture of glass, produce luxury items much in demand in the capital. And the population, settled and relatively prosperous, is an easy target for a Roman poll tax.

A Roman prefect governs the province, with three legions to preserve internal order and guard the frontiers - which geography makes easier to protect than in most provinces of the empire.

Unlike the Ptolemies, the Roman imperial administrators have little influence on Egyptian life. The culture of the cities remains Greek. Alexandria, in particular, continues to be a centre of Greek science and enquiry.

Alexandria also plays an important role in the early history of Christianity. The deserts of Egypt are the home of the first Christian monks. And from the Christian community of Egypt there emerges a distinctive group which still survives today - the Coptic church.

Christian Egypt: 4th - 7th century AD

Although the sophisticated inhabitants of Egypt are now Greek in their culture, the majority of the people are indigenous Egyptians, speaking a version of the ancient Egyptian language. They are referred to by the Greeks as aigyptioi (Egyptians). From this Greek word (via an Arabic abbreviation, qubt) comes the name Copt - most often used of Coptic Christians.

The Christians of Egypt are often free-thinking on doctrinal matters (above all in the case of Arius). After the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, the Copts differ from the Greeks on a doctrinal point about the nature of Christ. The Copts are accused of believing that he has a single divine identity, even when on earth (the 'monophysite' heresy).

By the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, in 642, the majority of Egyptian Christians are Copts. It is they who become the Christian church in Egypt, surviving on sufferance within a mainly Muslim community. Coptic (the last link with ancient Egyptian) gradually dies out as a spoken language, though in the service books of Coptic churches today the liturgy is still printed in parallel columns of Coptic and Arabic.

Over the centuries a close link develops between two ancient and neighbouring Christian communities, isolated within the territories of Islam - the Coptic church of Egypt and the Orthodox church of Ethiopia.

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