Late Period Egypt: Who Was the Last Native Pharaoh?

The Late Period is the name given to the last era of native ancient Egyptian rulers, from 664 BCE to the campaigns of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

Aug 21, 2021By Ariadne Argyros, MA Egyptology, BA Anthropology & Classics
late period egypt saite king nectanebo ii
Nectanebo II Offers to Osiris Hemag, 360-343 BCE, from Behbeit el-Hagar, via the Met Museum; with (left) Bust from Statue of a King, Dynasty 26, 664-610 BCE, via the Met Museum

 

The phrase “Late Period Egypt” is an all-encompassing term for the series of dynasties immediately following the Third Intermediate Period. Almost all these dynasties were headed by native Egyptian rulers, something that had not been seen for several hundred years. The exceptions were dynasties 27 and 31; the Achaemenid Persian Empire took great interest in the Egyptian kingdom and upon conquering it, absorbed the territory into their empire as a satrapy.

 

The Persian leaders generally looked poorly upon the Egyptian people and their way of life and treated them accordingly. The Egyptians refused to stand for this mistreatment and revolted time and again, eventually securing their land under native rule once more. Unfortunately, the Egyptians were not able to continue to hold onto their territory, and it fell to the Achaemenids once more. However, their rule was short-lived for the Persian Empire and all its satrapies were conquered by Alexander the Great. By 332 BCE, Alexander named one of his generals, Ptolemy I, pharaoh, effectively marking the beginning of the Ptolemaic period.  Devastatingly, ancient Egypt would never again see one of its own upon the throne.

 

Dynasty 26: The Saite Period (664-525 BC) of Late Period Egypt

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Bust from Statue of a King, Dynasty 26, 664-610 BCE, via the Met Museum, New York

 

Dynasty 26 is somewhat of a mystery when it comes to designating it to a specific period. Some historians place it at the end of the Third Intermediate Period, while others designate it within the Late Period. Whatever the case, at this point in time Assyria had taken over ancient Egypt and employed several native loyalists on the throne as vassal princes, namely Psamtik I of Sais.

 

However, the Assyrians had stretched themselves too thin. Their conquest of Egypt resulted in a myriad of problems closer to home. While they occupied themselves with squashing these rebellions, Psamtik was given enough room to assert his independence and reclaim the lands of Egypt under the Saite Dynasty. Perhaps even more impressively, Psamtik was able to regain control of Egypt without the use of excessive force. When he conquered Thebes, Psamtik allowed its “mayor” to retain his post and kept powerful, pro-Kushite positions like that of the Wife of Amun.

 

late period egypt gods wife amun stela
God’s Wife of Amun stela, Dynasty 25-26, c. 670 BCE, from Medinet Habu, courtesy the Oriental Institute, Chicago

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The Wife of Amun was a position reserved for royal women and was the highest-ranking priestess of the cult of Amun, an extremely important religious cult centered in Thebes.  The title was based on the myth of the divine birth of the king, according to which his mother was impregnated by the god Amun. The initial title was first attested in the Middle Kingdom, but the full designation was realized only during and after the 18th dynasty. New Kingdom rulers were the ones who successfully drove out the Hyksos, the primary foreign rulers of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. As Thebes was their capital city and their local patron deity was Amun, the ancient Egyptians believed that Amun had guided them to victory. As such, the cult grew to national importance.

 

This office was essentially used as a political tool that ensured royal authority over Thebes and the priesthood of Amun. It reached its influential height during the Late Third Intermediate Period/early Late Period, as evidenced by the tomb of Amenirdis I at Medinet Habu. The office continued until 525 BCE when the Persian Empire overthrew Egypt’s last Saite ruler, Psamtik III, and enslaved his daughter who was next in line for the position. Thereafter, the powerful office of God’s Wife of Amun disappeared from historical records.

 

Dynasty 27: The Achaemenid Empire

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Antelope Head, Dynasty 27, 525-404 BCE, from Memphis, via the Met Museum, New York

 

Persian rulers adopted the traditional title of pharaoh, but they ruled like foreigners, unlike the Libyans and Nubians, who had adopted many native customs and blended them with their own. The Persians ruled through a position called a “satrap,” the ancient equivalent of a governor. The Egyptian satrapy was essentially a province of the Achaemenid Empire between 525 and 404 BCE and was founded by Cambyses II following the Battle of Pelusium, the first major conflict between Persia and Egypt. It was fought near Pelusium on the eastern side of the Delta in 525 BCE. According to Herodotus, a key reason for this war was a personal conflict between Ahmose II of Egypt and Cambyses II of Persia.

 

Cambyses requested a physician from Ahmose, who complied. The physician was extremely displeased at being forced to leave his home to take on extra work, so he retaliated by convincing Cambyses to ask Ahmose for a daughter to marry. Ahmose did not want to give up any of his daughters, but also did not want to start a conflict with Cambyses, so he sent an Egyptian girl by the name of Nitetis. She felt no loyalty toward Ahmose because he allegedly executed her father, the previous king of Egypt, and she told Cambyses the truth about Ahmose’s trickery. Infuriated, Cambyses swore to avenge this grave insult. He sent a message to the King of Arabia, a known enemy of Ahmose II, and secured safe passage through Gaza into Pelusium.

 

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Wooden naos door with Darius I, Dynasty 27,522-486 BCE, from Kharga Oasis, via the British Museum, London

 

Ahmose II died approximately six months before Cambyses entered Egypt. Psamtik III, his son and the last king of the 26th dynasty of Late Period Egypt, gathered his army and faced off against the Persian army and their allies. Unfortunately, Psamtik did not have much military experience and none of his allies came to the rescue. The battle was short and decisive; Egyptian troops retreated en masse to Memphis. More blood was shed, mostly Egyptian, until the Egyptians surrendered. Psamtik was captured after the fall of Memphis and was permitted to live under Persian rule; not long after, he attempted a revolt against the Persians, failed, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Egypt became the latest province to become a Persian satrapy, alongside Cyprus and Phoenicia.

 

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Frieze of Darius I, 6th century BCE, from Susa, via the British Museum, London

 

Under Cambyses, many ancient Egyptian traditions were diminished or completely shut down and he ordered a limitation on the resources given to almost all Egyptian temples. When Darius I took over, he spent much time quashing rebellions in various places around his empire. Unlike Cambyses, however, Darius actually respected Egyptian religious beliefs and internal affairs, earning the respect of the locals.

 

Among other accomplishments, he finished the construction of a canal system at Suez, which allowed for quicker and easier access from the Great Bitter Lake to the Red Sea. Darius ended up using this canal to import skilled Egyptian workers for construction projects in Persia; unfortunately, this resulted in a general decrease of high-quality art and architecture in Egypt during this time.  Nevertheless, Darius’s construction of temples and public works in ancient Egypt actually benefited the economy, as did his reform of the legal system and his strengthening of the irrigation system. Darius was well-regarded as a ruler by the Egyptians, something that certainly could not be said of most Persian rulers during the Late Period.

 

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Bull’s head from column capital, 5th century BCE, from Istakhr, via the Met Museum, New York

 

Xerxes I “the Great” was one such example. His outlook and policies were much like those of Cambyses. After appointing his brother as governor, Xerxes effectively ended the privileged status of Egypt as it existed under his predecessor. He also increased exports out of the country, lessened the focus on Egyptian gods, and completely halted the construction of monuments. Xerxes was killed in 465 BCE by another Persian politician, which led to a series of internal conflicts. Eventually, Artaxerxes I, third son of Xerxes, was crowned the next pharaoh.

 

Five years after his ascent to the throne, another Egyptian rebellion took place, led by a Libyan chief by the name of Inaros II, son of Egyptian prince/ruler Psamtik IV. With the assistance of the Athenian army, he recaptured Memphis and took control of a large part of Egypt. Eventually, he was defeated by a Persian general and later executed by Artaxerxes. After his death in 424 BCE, a brief struggle for the throne occurred, culminating in Darius II coming to power in 423 BCE and ruling until 404 BCE. Near the end of his rule came another round of revolts from Egypt led by Psamtik V; none of the Persian successors were able to quash them, which allowed Egypt to solidify its independence.

 

The Late Dynastic Period: Dynasties 28-30

Dynasty 28

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Limestone stela with five registers, Dynasty 28, c. 400 BCE, via the British Museum, London

 

The 28th dynasty of Late Period Egypt was short-lived, lasting only from 404 BCE to 398 BCE and including only a single pharaoh, Amenirdis, also known as Psamtik V. As already mentioned, he led a revolt against the Persian king Darius II in the last years of his reign with the aid of Greek mercenaries. Following Darius’ death in 404 BCE, Psamtik declared himself the rightful pharaoh of ancient Egypt. He ruled until 398 BCE when he was overthrown and exterminated by Nefaruud I, leading to the establishment of Dynasty 29 of the Late Period Egypt.

 

 

Dynasty 29

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Statue of King Psammuthis, Dynasty 29, 392-380 BCE, via the LACMA, Los Angeles

 

Nefaruud I, perhaps better known by his Hellenized name Nepherites I, was the founder of the 29th dynasty. He came from Mendes, a city located in the northeastern Delta. In order to fight off continuous Persian advances, he formed alliances with Sparta and various Greek mercenaries. His successor, Psammuthis, reigned only for a single year before being overthrown by Hakor, the alleged grandson of Nefaruud I.

 

He ruled for 13 years — more than half of the dynasty’s existence — and in that time he constructed many buildings and restored the monuments of his royal predecessors such as the chapel for the sacred barque of Amun-Ra at Karnak that was begun by Nefaruud I or Psammuthis and the Temple of Hibis in the Kharga Oasis. Hakor also managed to successfully fend off the Persians through agreements with Athens and Cyprus. Upon his death in 380 BCE, his son and heir, Nefaruud II, became king, but he was not able to hold onto the throne.

 

Dynasty 30

late period egypt relief nectanebo ii osiris hemag
Nectanebo II Offers to Osiris Hemag, 360-343 BCE, from Behbeit el-Hagar, via the Met Museum, New York

 

Lasting from 380 BCE to 343 BCE, this was the final native dynasty not only of Late Period Egypt but ancient Egypt in general. Nectanebo I overthrew Nefaruud II in 380 BCE. He gained control over all of Egypt, but most of his reign was spent defending his kingdom from the Achaemenids. Nectanebo made the decision to co-rule with his son, Teos, and did so until his death in 363 BCE. From there, Teos began invading Persian territories in modern-day Syria and Israel before being pushed aside by his brother, Tjahapimu. He took advantage of Teos’ rather unpopular standing among the Egyptian people and placed his own son, Nectanebo II, at the throne. The Egyptian army, too, chose to give Nectanebo II their loyalty, forcing Teos to flee the country; interestingly, he ended up at the court of the Persian king.

 

Similar to his namesake, Nectanebo II’s reign was largely devoted to halting the activities of the Persians headed by Artaxerxes III. Nectanebo was able to hold Artaxerxes off for the first ten years of his reign and then again when the Persian king attempted to invade Egypt around 350 BCE. His failure to seize the kingdom prompted a series of revolts in the satrapies of Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Cilicia. Eventually, Artaxerxes was able to suppress these revolts and attacked Egypt a second time in 343 BCE. This time he succeeded, forcing Nectanebo to retreat from the Delta to Memphis. Once he realized that he had lost control, the Egyptian king fled to Nubia. His defeat marked the end of Egypt as an independent nation.

 

Dynasty 31: The Second Egyptian Satrapy & the End of Late Period Egypt

late period egypt coin artaxerxes
Coin depicting Artaxerxes III, 4th century BCE, from Memphis, via the British Museum, London

 

This dynasty was the second time that the Achaemenid Persian Empire ruled over Egypt. Upon his defeat of Nectanebo II, Artaxerxes III crowned himself pharaoh and unleashed severe changes upon his “reclaimed satrapy.” He had city walls destroyed, looted all Egyptian temples, stole important religious texts and persecuted believers, and raised taxes on Egyptian citizens to such a degree they couldn’t possibly revolt against the Persians ever again.

 

The order of rule after Artaxerxes III is rather nebulous, however, a few names of note remain. Darius III rose to prominence under the leadership of Artaxerxes III. After the king’s murder via poison and a series of subsequent poisonings of successors, Darius came to the throne around 336 BCE. Not too long after Alexander the Great began his conquest of the Persian Empire. Before seizing their capital and surrounding territories, Alexander went after Egypt. In 332 BCE he ran the Persians out and established his own rule over the area. With this move the Late Period finished, and with it came the end of native Egyptian kingship.



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By Ariadne ArgyrosMA Egyptology, BA Anthropology & ClassicsAriadne is a contributing writer who graduated with her MA degree in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 2020, and holds BAs in Anthropology and Classics from the University of Vermont. She is passionate about ancient Egypt, especially topics of funerary rituals and culture, magic, animals, gender, and modern reception, archaeology, museum work, and public outreach. In her spare time, Ariadne travels the world by participating in both terrestrial and underwater excavations, and volunteers for museum education and outreach programs for children. She also enjoys soccer, watching TV, and spending time with her bearded dragon, Gaius.