Typical narratives of Achaemenid Persian history focus on the Greco-Persian Wars, making it seem as though Persia’s primary goal was always the conquest of Greece. In reality, Greece was on the peripheries of Persia’s attention between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. The Achaemenid Persian kings were focusing their resources on a western campaign which would be one of their most ambitious undertakings. Their greatest prize was Egypt, a far richer and more immediately threatening country than Greece.
Egypt & Mesopotamia during the rise of the Achaemenid Empire
Ancient Egypt vied almost continuously with the empires of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, for control of the Levant.These two geopolitical centres, the Mesopotamian empires of the east and the Egyptians in the West, struggled to gain the upper hand over one another.
Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt were still engaged in this tug of war when Persia rose as an imperial power in the 6th Century BCE. Pharaoh Apries (r. 589 – 570 BCE) successfully defended Egypt from Neo-Babylonian expansion during his reign but Egypt did not respond to Persia’s aggressive expansion as Egypt was being torn apart by internal disputes.
Egypt was somewhat decentralized during the Saite Period (664 – 525 BCE), with the Pharaoh only nominally controlling the country. Semi-independent dynasts in the Nile Delta controlled Egypt’s machimoi, a standing army of native infantry. Pharaoh Apries relied heavily on Greek and Carian mercenaries to counterbalance the power of these dynasts. Apries was eventually supplanted by these dynasts in 570 BCE, and a general named Amasis II (aka Ahmose II,r. 570 – 526 BCE) was crowned Pharaoh.
Preparing for the conquest of Egypt
After the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE, the Phoenician city-states offered their support to Cambyses. This chain of events made Persia’s dominance of the eastern Mediterranean seem all but certain.The 5th Century BCE Greek historian Herodotus recounts an apocryphal tale in which Cyrus the Great of Persia (r. 559 – 530 BCE) asked for one of Amasis’ daughters in marriage. If this event really occurred, it would have been a shrewd political move on the part of Cyrus. However, Herodotus claims that Amasis sent Cyrus the daughter of Apries instead, and that the discovery of this ruse was one of the causes of Persia’s war with Egypt.
Whatever political intrigues may or may not have unfolded between the royal courts of Persia and Egypt, the Persians had plenty of incentive to conquer Egypt.Egypt had always been resource-rich, and was by this time the last superpower in the basin. It is likely that Cyrus had plans to invade Egypt, but his death in 530 BCE meant that the invasion of Egypt was ultimately carried out by his son and successor, Cambyses II (530 – 522 BCE). Despite the scale and importance of this invasion, few contemporary accounts survive which document Cambyses’ undoubtedly massive preparation.
Although Amasis had become Pharaoh with the backing of Egyptian dynasts from the Nile Delta, he was forced rely heavily on foreign mercenaries to maintain power the way that his predecessor had.To safeguard himself, all of Amasis moved his Greek and Carian forces to Memphis, the fortified royal capital.While Amasis was preoccupied with domestic threats, Cambyses was preparing his invasion.
Cambyses was armed with valuable military and political intelligence from Egypt. Phanes of Halicarnassus, a Greek mercenary commander in the employ of the Egyptians, defected to the Persians and offered Cambyses insider information. Herodotus claimed that Phanes was instrumental in persuading Cambyses that the time was right for an invasion of Egypt.
However, the treacherous passage to Egypt still posed a challenge for any planned invasion. Egypt’s Mediterranean coast was notoriously difficult to navigate, and its cities were too far inland to be attacked by sea. Cambyses decided to cross the Sinai, and invade Egypt’s eastern delta. Cambyses also sent a large Phoenician fleet to Egypt’s Mediterranean coast to support his primary invasion force.
Once Cambyses had secured an alliance with the coalition of Arabian tribes which controlled territory stretching from east of Transjordan to Sinai, the path to the Egyptian border was wide open. In addition to allowing the Persian army passage through their territories, Cambyses’ Arabian allies also allowed the Persian army to replenish themselves from water depots along the way.
Amasis died sometime in 526 BCE, shortly before Cambyses’ invasion, and was succeeded by his son Psamtik III (aka Psammetichus III, r. 526 – 525 BCE). Psamtik believed that he would have the support of his Greek allies in Cyprus and Samos, but they instead sent supported Cambyses, who appeared to have the advantage.
Deserted by his allies, and with his mercenaries far to the south in Memphis, Psamtik had only the forces available in the Nile Delta. Psamtik was forced to face Cambyses in a single decisive engagement rather than a protracted conflict.The first battle between Egyptian and Persian forces occurred near Pelusium, at the crossroads of the Nile Delta and the Red Sea. Psamtik’s ill-prepared forces were scattered by the Persians and suffered a decisive defeat.
Without support from the local dynasts in the Nile Delta, Psamtik fled to his stronghold in Memphis. Cambyses besieged Memphis and eventually captured the city along with Psamtik. In keeping with Persian policy, Psamtik was spared and treated well, and may well have been allowed to rule as governor of Egypt provided he submitted to Cambyses. These possibilities were dashed when it was discovered that Psamtik was plotting to resist the Persian occupiers, and the captive Pharaoh was promptly executed.
The dynasts of the Nile Delta submitted voluntarily, and Cambyses made no attempt to upset the status quo in Egypt. Garrisoning a large enough army to defend Egypt’s borders was simply impractical for a state as large as the Persian Empire. By leaving these dynasts and their machimoi intact, Cambyses ensured that Egypt’s western border would remain well protected.
Cooperation and resistance to Persian rule
Literary accounts of Persian rule over Egypt are scanty and heavily biased. Ancient Greek and Jewish accounts accused Cambyses of being an unhinged tyrant, drunk on power. Herodotus even claimed that Cambyses personally killed the sacred Apis Bull, and paid no respect to Egyptian cults. However, these accounts are heavily stained by later anti-Persian propaganda, and bear little resemblance to actual Persian policies towards conquered peoples.
Archaeological evidence such as commemorative stelae from the Achaemenid period has revealed that Cambyses and his successors worked to ingratiate themselves to the Egyptian populace, and acted much like traditional Egyptian Pharaohs. Cambyses took on the traditional Pharaonic titles, calling himself as King of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first Persian occupation of Egypt is sometimes referred to as the 27th Dynasty (525 – 404 BCE).
Udjahorresnet, a high ranking Egyptian admiral, is one of the most well known Persian collaborators from this period. An inscription on one of Udjahorresnet’s statues details how he lost his command after the Persian conquest of Egypt, but later rose in esteem at the Persian court and became an ambassador of sorts between Egyptian and Persian culture. Udjahorresnet helped Cambyses to understand Egypt’s political and religious landscape, and became a leading advisor behind Cambyses and Darius’ policies towards Egypt.
Many other Egyptian elites found a place for themselves in the Persian hierarchy, but alongside these were high-ranking Persians, including relatives of the royal family who were appointed to oversee the administration of Egypt. Cambyses appointed a Persian named Aryandes as satrap, or chief administrator of Egypt in his absence, and many Persian elites were appointed as governors of Egypt’s nomes or provinces.
The Epilogue: Egypt in the Achaemenid Empire
The Achaemenid Empire was relatively stable, with its major provinces remaining fairly loyal to a central authority which respected local customs and hierarchies. Egypt was something of an exception to this rule.Over the next 2 centuries, there were several large Egyptian rebellions and continuous resistance to Persian rule which continued right up until the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. The Persians launched no fewer than nine further campaigns against Egypt, with two other planned campaigns being abandoned.
By 332 BCE, Alexander the Great had succeeded in toppling the Achaemenid Empire, and appointed his own generals as satraps of its territories, including Egypt. Tenuous as it was, Persian rule of Egypt began a period of foreign domination in Egypt which lasted over two millennia.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Ruzicka, Stephen. Trouble in the West: The Persian Empire and Egypt, 525-332 BCE. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Waters, Matt. Ancient Persia: A concise history of the Achaemenid Persia, 550-330 BCE. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns, 2002.
Mysliwiec, Karol. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt: First Millennium BCE. Cornell University Press, 2000.
Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Random House, 2010.
Rawlinson, George. The Histories of Herodotus.
Fischer-Bovet, Christelle. Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt. Cambridge University Press, 2014.