Saite Dynasty Begins in Egypt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After defeating the Kushites and Assyrians, Psamtik I unified Egypt and founded the Twenty-sixth Dynasty in Egypt, a time of relative peace and cultural renaissance.

Summary of Event

The Saite Dynasty (664-525 b.c.e.), the Twenty-sixth Dynasty of Egypt, originated in the conflicts between the Kushite pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty and the Assyrian Empire, according to the historian Manetho. Toward the end of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, the Kushite rulers reversed their earlier conciliatory stance toward the rising might of Assyria and assisted the kingdoms of Syro-Palestine in their efforts to cast off the Assyrian yoke. This Egyptian interference provided the pretext for the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (r. 680-669 b.c.e.) to attempt an invasion of Egypt in 674 b.c.e., but he was successfully repelled by the Kushite ruler Taharqa (r. 690-664). However, in 671 b.c.e., Esarhaddon managed to capture Memphis and drive Taharqa into the south. Necho I Tanutamuni Psamtik I Mentuemhat Nitocris

Esarhaddon’s successor, Ashurbanipal (r. 669-627 b.c.e.), expanded Assyrian control of Egypt during his invasion in 667/666 b.c.e., which penetrated all the way to Thebes and drove Taharqa back to his capital Napata, far in the south. Vassal rulers were then established in the Nile Delta, including Necho I, ruler of Saïs, a descendant of Tefnakht and Bakenranef, rulers of Saïs who had fought against the Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaoh Piye (r. 742-716 b.c.e.). Despite Necho’s family history, he entered into an alliance with Taharqa against the Assyrians and was taken with his son Psamtik I (who is called Nabushezibanni in the Assyrian documents) to Nineveh by Ashurbanipal. For unknown reasons, Necho I was the only Delta ruler spared execution, and he was returned to Egypt and given control over Saïs and Memphis, while Psamtik I ruled over Athribis.

Meanwhile, in the south, Tanutamuni succeeded Taharqa. As the well-known Dream stela reports, Tanutamuni received a prophetic dream that he was destined to rule all of Egypt, and soon after his accession, he captured Thebes, Middle Egypt, and Memphis. During the battles between the Delta rulers and Tanutamuni, Necho I was killed (664 b.c.e.). This new threat from Kush brought Ashurbanipal back to Egypt, and he reconquered Memphis and sacked Thebes in 663 b.c.e. with the aid of Psamtik I and northern Egyptian troops. Psamtik I returned to Saïs again as an Assyrian vassal, but he quickly asserted dominance within the Delta and was probably in control of most of northern Egypt by 660 b.c.e.

By 658 b.c.e., Psamtik I had expelled the Assyrians and created an independent Egyptian state under the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Several factors allowed Psamtik to take control. First, he allied himself with Gyges of Lydia, giving him access to Ionian and Carian mercenaries, the “bronze men of the sea” as reported by the Greek historian Herodotus. Additionally, Assyria at this time faced internal instability and pressure from its eastern and northeastern neighbors and therefore was unable to commit military forces to far-off Egypt. Finally, the Assyrians may have known that Egypt would become their ally once independent, which did indeed happen by the end of the reign of Psamtik I, when the Egyptian pharaoh sent troops to help the Assyrians in their struggles with the Neo-Babylonians.

After the battles with the Kushites and the Assyrians, the fifty-four-year reign of Psamtik I, by far the longest of the Saite Dynasty, ushered in a long period of stability. Except for brief skirmishes with the Scythians and Libyans, the remaining reign of Psamtik I was relatively peaceful. During this time, Egypt developed strong ties with other powers in the eastern Mediterranean basin and became especially reliant on Greek mercenaries. To guard the eastern edge of the Delta, Psamtik I constructed fortresses at Daphnae (now Tall al-Dafana) and other sites in the eastern Delta and western Sinai. Archaeological evidence from these sites indicates that they may have had garrisons of foreign mercenaries. The trading city of Naucratis in the central Delta—a site that became a center for Greek settlers in Egypt—was probably founded late in the reign of Psamtik I.

From 656 b.c.e., Psamtik I also gained control of Upper Egypt (at this time still dating documents to the Kushite pharaoh Tanutamuni), not through conquest, but by means of skillful diplomacy. To secure their own rule over Thebes and Upper Egypt, the Kushite pharaohs had resurrected the office of the god’s wife of Amen, a high priestess. As the well-known Adoption stela reports, Psamtik I had his daughter Nitocris adopted by the god’s wife Shepenwepet II and her already adopted successor Amenirdis II (both daughters of Kushite pharaohs) so that she could be the next god’s wife of Amen. Psamtik I’s success in Upper Egypt was also caused by the cooperation of Mentuemhat, the mayor of Thebes who was the de facto ruler of Upper Egypt during the transition between the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties and the Assyrian invasions.

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In addition to his political role, Mentuemhat occupies an important position in the art history of the Saite Dynasty because his large tomb on the west bank of Thebes is one of the best-preserved tombs of the period, and his statues are excellent examples of Saite sculpture. Although the Egyptians did not use the term renaissance for the beginning of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the artistic production that marked its start has caused scholars to call the period the Saite Renaissance. Saite art is characterized by archaistic tendencies and the production of exact replicas of earlier art, especially Old Kingdom reliefs. Sculpture of the period also draws on Old, Middle, and New Kingdom models but often mixes elements from different periods to create entirely new styles. The sculpture of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty is distinctive in its use of hard stones such as granite and quartzite and the highly polished surfaces of the statues.

The Saite Dynasty was also a time of prolific temple construction, especially during the prosperous and peaceful reign of Psamtik I. Almost all the major monuments of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty were built in the Delta, where very few archaeological sites have remained intact (in contrast to those in Upper Egypt). Thus, it is difficult to reconstruct the architectural style of the Saite Dynasty, but the limited evidence available suggests that many of the innovative features of later Ptolemaic temples can be traced back to the seventh century b.c.e., most notably composite columns. The recent redating of the earliest composite columns to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty indicates that early Greek Corinthian columns were influenced by Egyptian columns, and not vice versa as was previously assumed.

Significance

The Saite Dynasty, as one of the last independent Egyptian dynasties, influenced later attempts to reestablish Egyptian independence after the First and Second Persian periods. From the Saite Dynasty onward, Egyptian independence was closely linked to foreign mercenaries; these mercenaries enabled Psamtik I’s successors to briefly control Syro-Palestine, and foreign naval forces in addition to infantry were recruited by Twenty-sixth Dynasty pharaohs. However, the resulting conflicts with local Egyptian machimoi (warrior class) would become a major problem for the Saites, causing civil war during the reign of Apries (r. 589-570) and the subsequent usurpation by Ahmose II (r. 570-526). The establishment of Naucratis paved the way for increased trade interactions between Greece and Egypt. The Delta origin of the Saite rulers also led to the adoption of the northern Demotic (as opposed to the southern abnormal hieratic) as the official administrative script. This Demotic script survived until the fifth century, when Coptic was adopted as the writing system of Christian Egypt.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Dieter. The Temples of the Last Pharaohs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An analysis of Egyptian architecture during the Late period, including its influence on Greece.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980. Discusses the development of Naucratis and other Greek settlements in Egypt, along with Egyptian influences on Greek art and architecture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothmer, Bernard. Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 b.c. to a.d. 100. Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Brooklyn Museum, 1960. Catalogue of an exhibit with a discussion of Saite Dynasty art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Der Manuelian, Peter. Living in the Past: Studies in the Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-sixth Dynasty. London: Kegan Paul International, 1994. Includes translations of Saite historical texts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, Alan. In Ancient Egypt: A Social History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. The chapter “The Late Period” addresses the Saite Dynasty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myœliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Historical overview with discussion of primary sources.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Ashurbanipal; Cyrus the Great; Piye; Sennacherib; Psamtik I; Tiglath-pileser III. Saite Dynasty

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