6 Empires that Conquered Ancient Egypt

Throughout its history, ancient Egypt was conquered by various powerful empires such as the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans.

May 18, 2024By Edd Hodsdon, BA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological Trust

empire conquered ancient egypt


Ancient Egypt is one of history’s most fascinating civilizations. However, Egypt was conquered several times by some of the world’s most famous ancient empires. Each of these empires left its mark on Egypt, adding foreign influences to a culture that had already existed for thousands of years. In turn, Egypt’s wealth and prestige allowed its conquerors to increase their power even further, affecting events throughout the ancient world.


The Hyksos: Ancient Egypt’s First Foreign Rulers

seal hyksos king apophis
Photograph of the Seal of the Hyksos king Apophis, circa 1581 to 1541 BCE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


At the end of the prosperous Middle Kingdom period, Egypt’s pharaohs had ruled for thousands of years. However, the Second Intermediate Period saw Egypt’s power decline due to plagues and feuding dynasties. In the resulting upheaval, Egypt’s first foreign rulers would emerge in approximately 1650 BCE to form the Fifteenth Dynasty, otherwise known as the Hyksos.


According to later Egyptian scholars, like Manetho in the third century BCE, the Hyksos were bloodthirsty foreign invaders who seized control of Egypt. This was the accepted view until new discoveries were made in the mid-twentieth century CE.


Now, modern scholars believe that the Hyksos had been moving into Egypt as migrants for centuries before the emergence of the Fifteenth Dynasty. These migrants likely came from parts of the Levant in Western Asia, with the majority of them being Canaanites.

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‘Hyksos‘ is a Greek word derived from the Egyptian phrase ‘heka khasut’, which means ‘rulers of foreign lands.’ As Egypt’s native dynasties collapsed, the Hyksos gradually took control of Lower Egypt (Northern Egypt). Their main power base was centered around the city of Avaris (modern-day Tell El-Dab’a) and the East Nile Delta.


bronze ax head
Bronze ax head, circa 1981 to 1550 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Despite the attempts of later Egyptian dynasties to demonize them, the Hyksos were incredibly influential. They introduced several technological innovations that may have included chariots, composite bows, and the bronze khopesh; the famous sickle sword associated with ancient Egypt.


In approximately 1580 BCE, the native Seventeenth Dynasty emerged in Thebes in Upper Egypt (Southern Egypt). Twenty years later, Pharaoh Seqenenre Tau tried to remove the Hyksos but was killed in battle. His sons, Kamose and Ahmose I, continued their father’s campaign.


Although Kamose died after a few years in power, Ahmose I succeeded in defeating and expelling the Hyksos in approximately 1550 BCE. Ahmose I went on to unite Egypt and founded the Eighteenth Dynasty, beginning the New Kingdom period.


The Kushite Empire: Nubia’s Revenge Against Egypt

taharqo shabti
Shabti of the Kushite Pharaoh Taharqa, 690 to 664 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


During the New Kingdom era, Egypt conquered several neighboring kingdoms and expanded to its greatest extent. Many pharaohs, like Thutmose III, launched campaigns into Nubia, a prosperous civilization to the south also known as the Kingdom of Kush.


Although the Egyptians conquered much of Nubia, the region flourished. Nubia possessed valuable commodities like gold, ebony, ivory, and horses. The flow of these luxury goods made Egypt even wealthier. The Egyptians also built several temples to their gods throughout Nubia. Thutmose III even built a large temple complex dedicated to Amun at modern-day Jebel Barkal in the city of Napata.


However, Egypt’s power began to wane after the Bronze Age Collapse in the Twelfth Century BCE. This decline culminated with the start of the Third Intermediate Period in approximately 1077 BCE. As Egypt fractured once again, Nubia began to expand its influence.


In the Eighth Century BCE, a Kushite king named Kashta managed to peacefully take control of Upper Egypt. However, his son and successor, Piye, took a very different approach. In approximately 728 BCE, after ruling for about twenty years, Piye assembled an army and invaded Lower Egypt.


kushite ruler head
Head of a Kushite ruler, circa 716 to 702 BCE. Source: Brooklyn Museum


Meanwhile, the Twenty-fourth Dynasty pharaohs that controlled Lower Egypt formed an alliance with other rulers in the Nile Delta to resist Nubia’s growing influence. Piye responded by defeating these chieftains and assuming control over the Nile Delta, establishing the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. However, Lower Egypt was still largely ruled by his opponent, Tefnakht I.


After Piye’s death, his son, Shabaqa, launched a new campaign to subdue Egypt and defeated Tefnakht’s son, Bakenrenef. After his victory, Shabaqa ruled a new Kushite Empire that controlled both Egypt and Nubia from his new capital at Memphis. However, the Kushite pharaohs would soon attract the unwelcome attention of one of the ancient world’s most powerful empires — the Assyrians.


The Assyrians: Egypt’s Most Brutal Conquerors

assyrian soldier ferrying captives boat
Relief depicting an Assyrian soldier transporting captives by boat, circa 668 to 627 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


As the Nubian pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty consolidated their power over Egypt, they also tried to expand their influence further afield. In 701 BCE, Taharqa, a Nubian prince, led an army to assist Hezekiah, the King of Judah, against Assyrian forces besieging Jerusalem. The Assyrians were driven back, but Egypt had made a dangerous enemy.


Taharqa became pharaoh in 690 BCE and presided over a flourishing empire. He restored and expanded Egypt’s temples and monuments, especially at the Temple of Karnak. Under Taharqa’s rule, Egyptian and Kushite culture became further entwined.


Meanwhile, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon marshaled his forces and invaded Egypt in 674 BCE. Despite a costly campaign, Taharqa defeated Esarhaddon, inflicting one of Assyria’s worst losses. But Esarhaddon regrouped and invaded again in 671 BCE with a larger force. This time, the Assyrians won and seized control of Memphis and much of Lower Egypt. Taharqa fled south, but his family was captured and deported to Assyria.


Taharqa retook Memphis in 669 BCE and instigated revolts in Lower Egypt. After Esarhaddon’s death the following year, his son, Ashurbanipal, defeated the Egyptians in 667 BCE and forced Taharqa to retreat to Thebes. Ashurbanipal sacked several cities before installing Necho I, the ruler of Sais, as an Assyrian vassal.


saite king bust psamtik i
Bust of a Saite King, possibly Psamtik I, circa 664 to 610 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


After Taharqa’s death in 664 BCE, his son, Tantamani, continued to resist the Assyrians. During one of Tantamani’s campaigns, Necho I was killed and his son Psamtik I retreated to Assyria. Tantamani retook most of Egypt. However, Ashurbanipal and the Assyrians returned with a huge army, backed up by Psamtik’s forces.


The two armies clashed north of Memphis, with the Assyrians victorious. The battle effectively ended Nubian control of Egypt. Ashurbanipal then led the brutal Sack of Thebes, plundering the city and deporting many of its citizens. Psamtik I founded the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and eventually reunited Egypt in approximately 656 BCE.


Achaemenid Persia: Egypt’s First Superpower

achaemenid persian guard head
Limestone head of an Achaemenid Persian guard, circa 486 to 475 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Achaemenid Persian Empire was one of the ancient world’s true superpowers. Starting in 550 BCE, the Persians ascended rapidly under Cyrus the Great and conquered much of Western Asia, including Babylon. After Cyrus’s death, his son, Cambyses II, sought to capture the wealthy lands of Egypt.


After the reunification of Egypt under Psamtik I and the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 609 BCE, the Twenty-sixth Dynasty pharaohs started to expand into the Near East again. For the nascent Achaemenid Empire, this was a potential threat.


In 525 BCE, Cambyses engaged the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. Cambyses emphatically defeated his opponents before besieging and capturing Memphis. The last pharaoh of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, Psamtik III, was captured and deported to Susa after just six months on the throne.


After his quick victory, Cambyses became the first pharaoh of the Persian Twenty-Seventh Dynasty. Egypt was incorporated into the empire as a satrapy, with Memphis as the capital. After ruling for three years, Cambyses died in 522 BCE. Almost immediately, several provinces across the empire rebelled, including Egypt. However, the new Persian king, Darius the Great, marched to Egypt and quickly ended the uprising.


darius great wax cylinder seal
Wax cylinder seal of Darius the Great, circa Sixth to Fifth Century BCE. Source: The British Museum


Egypt flourished under Darius, who sponsored many Egyptian temples and even completed a canal near modern-day Suez. After Darius’s reign, Egypt rebelled against several Achaemenid kings, including Darius’s son, Xerxes I.


In 404 BCE, a major rebellion saw the Persians lose control of Egypt for approximately 60 years. During this time, Egypt was ruled by three native dynasties. The last of these, the Thirtieth Dynasty, was eventually reconquered by the Persians in 343 BCE under Artaxerxes III. The Persians ruled Egypt under the Thirty-first Dynasty until the fall of the Achaemenid Empire just over a decade later.


Alexander’s Macedonian Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt

Engraving of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, by Philip Galle after Maerten van Heemskerck, 1572. Source: National Gallery of Art


After being the dominant power in Western Asia for centuries, the Persians faced a new challenge with the arrival of Alexander the Great. At just twenty years old, Alexander gathered his Macedonian armies and set out to conquer the mighty Achaemenid Empire.


By 332 BCE, Alexander had already defeated the Persians twice at the Battle of the Granicus and the Battle of Issus. After the brutal Siege of Tyre, Alexander headed south and entered Egypt. Instead of a fearsome conqueror, the Egyptians saw Alexander as a liberator who could overthrow the Persians. Indeed, the Achaemenid satrap, Mazaces, quickly surrendered Egypt to Alexander.


As he did across Asia, Alexander founded a new city in his name: Alexandria. He also reformed the tax system and restored or dedicated new temples to the Egyptian gods. Alexander then traveled to the famous Oracle at Siwa, where the priest declared that he was the son of the Egyptian god Amun.


Alexander only stayed in Egypt for a year before pursuing the Persian king Darius III. After his victory at the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander took control of the Persian empire. However, he never returned to Egypt and died in Babylon in 323 BCE.


gold stater ptolemy i
Gold stater of Ptolemy I, circa 305 to 284 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


After Alexander’s death, his generals, also known as the Diadochi, fought among themselves to control his vast new empire. During the chaos, Ptolemy I Soter assumed control of Egypt and founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty in 305 BCE.


Ptolemy chose Alexandria as his new capital and declared himself pharaoh. He also intercepted Alexander’s body en route to Macedon and interred the corpse in Alexandria, possibly to legitimize his claim as Alexander’s greatest successor.


Ptolemaic Egypt gradually became one of the leading successor kingdoms of the Hellenistic world. However, after over 250 years, another new empire would eventually supplant the Ptolemies as masters of Egypt.


The Roman Empire: The Final Conquerors of Ancient Egypt

meeting anthony cleopatra artwork
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1745 to 1747. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


By the reign of Ptolemy XII in approximately 80 BCE, Egypt was a shadow of its former glory. When Ptolemy XII died in 51 BCE, his son, the ten-year-old Ptolemy XII, and his teenage daughter, Cleopatra VII, succeeded him. However, several powerful court officials exiled Cleopatra and took control of Ptolemy XIII, plunging Egypt into civil war.


Across the Mediterranean, another civil war engulfed the Roman Republic. After Julius Caesar’s victory at the Battle of Pharsalus, his rival, Pompey Magnus, fled to Egypt. However, Pompey was murdered by Ptolemy’s officials, prompting Caesar to side with Cleopatra. After a series of battles in Alexandria, Caesar and Cleopatra defeated Ptolemy’s forces in 47 BCE.


After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, his successor Octavian and former ally Marc Antony engaged in their own civil war. Once again, Cleopatra played a major role by siding with and marrying Marc Antony. Octavian’s fleet decimated the navy of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.


After the subsequent Battle of Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian in control of Egypt. When Octavian declared himself Emperor Augustus in 27 BCE, Egypt became one of the most important provinces in the Roman Empire. Although Rome would control Egypt for centuries, it was not always easy.


zenobia last look palmyra
Zenobia’s last look on Palmyra, by Herbert G Schmalz, 1888. Source: Art Gallery of South Australia


During the Crisis of the Third Century, several of Rome’s eastern provinces rebelled and formed the Palmyrene Empire under the formidable Queen Zenobia. In 269 CE, Zenobia’s armies invaded Egypt and seized control. However, the Romans reconquered Egypt in 272 CE under the leadership of Emperor Aurelian.


While the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE, Egypt remained under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 618 CE, Egypt was occupied for ten years by the rival Sasanian empire before reverting to Roman control. However, the final blow came in 641 CE, when the Muslim Arabs of the Rashidun Caliphate captured Egypt.

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By Edd HodsdonBA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological TrustEdd holds a BA in Professional Writing, he has worked at the Dover museum as well as the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. He is most fascinated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire and has been interested in the Ancient world his entire life. His hobbies include walking, philosophy, history, photography, and writing fiction.