Kushite Period, or Dynasty 25 (ca. 712–664 B.C.)
From ca. 728 to 656 B.C., the Nubian kings of Dynasty 25 dominated Egypt. Like the Libyans before them, they governed as Egyptian pharaohs. Their control was strongest in the south. In the north, Tefnakht’s successor, Bakenrenef, ruled for four years (ca. 717–713 B.C.) at Sais until Piankhy’s successor, Shabaqo (ca. 712–698 B.C.), overthrew him and established Nubian control over the entire country. The accession of Shabaqo can be considered the end of the Third Intermediate Period and the beginning of the Late Period in Egypt.
Nubian rule, which viewed itself as restoring the true traditions of Egypt, benefited Egypt economically and was accompanied by a revival in temple building and the arts that continued throughout the Late Period. At the same time, however, the country faced a growing threat from the Assyrian empire to its east. After forty years of relative security, Nubian control—and Egypt’s peace—were broken by an Assyrian invasion in ca. 671 B.C. The current pharaoh, Taharqo (ca. 690–664 B.C.), retreated south and the Assyrians established a number of local vassals to rule in their stead in the Delta. One of them, Necho I of Sais (ca. 672–664 B.C.), is recognized as the founder of the separate Dynasty 26. For the next eight years, Egypt was the battleground between Nubia and Assyria. A brutal Assyrian invasion in 663 B.C. finally ended Nubian control of the country. The last pharaoh of Dynasty 25, Tanutamani (664–653 B.C.), retreated to Napata. There, in relative isolation, he and his descendants continued to rule Nubia, eventually becoming the Meroitic civilization, which flourished in Nubia until the fourth century A.D.
Saite Period, or Dynasty 26 (664–525 B.C.)
When the Assyrians withdrew after their final invasion, Egypt was left in the hands of the Saite kings, though it was actually only in 656 B.C. that the Saite king Psamtik I was able to reassert control over the southern area of the country dominated by Thebes. For the next 130 years, Egypt was able to enjoy the benefits of rule by a single strong, native family, Dynasty 26. Elevated to power by the invading Assyrians, Dynasty 26 faced a world in which Egypt was no longer concerned with its role in international power politics but with its sheer survival as a nation. The Egyptians, however, still chose to think of their land as self-contained and free from external influence, unchanged from the days of the pyramid builders 2,000 years earlier. In deference to this ideal, the Saite pharaohs deliberately adopted much from the culture of earlier periods, particularly the Old Kingdom, as the model for their own. Later generations would remember this dynasty as the last truly Egyptian period and would, in turn, recapitulate Saite forms.
Under Saite rule, Egypt grew from a vassal of Assyria to an independent ally. There were even echoes of the bygone might of Egypt’s New Kingdom in Saite military campaigns into Asia Minor (after the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C.) and Nubia. In pursuit of these goals, however, the Saite pharaohs had to rely on foreign mercenaries—Carian (from southwestern Asia Minor, modern Turkey), Phoenician, and Greek—as well as Egyptian soldiers. These different ethnic groups lived in their own quarters of the capital city, Memphis. The Greeks were also allowed to establish a trading settlement at Naukratis in the western Delta. This served as a conduit for cultural influences traveling from Egypt to Greece.
After the fall of Assyria in 612 B.C., the major foreign threat to Egypt came from the Babylonians. Although Babylonia had invaded Egypt in 568 B.C. during a brief civil war, both countries formed a mutual alliance in 547 B.C. against the rising threat of a third power, the Persian empire—but to no avail. The Persians conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. and Egypt in 525 B.C., bringing an end to the Saite dynasty and native control of Egypt.
Persian Period, or Dynasty 27 (525–404 B.C.)
Egypt’s new Persian overlords adopted the traditional title of pharaoh, but unlike the Libyans and Nubians, they ruled as foreigners rather than Egyptians. For the first time in its 2,500-year history as a nation, Egypt was no longer independent. Though recognized as an Egyptian dynasty, Dynasty 27, the Persians ruled through a resident governor, called a satrap, helped by local native chiefs. Persian domination actually benefited Egypt under Darius I (521–486 B.C.), who built temples and public works, reformed the legal system, and strengthened the economy. The military defeat of Persia by the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C., however, inspired resistance in Egypt; and for nearly a century thereafter, Persian control was challenged by a series of local Egyptian kings, primarily in the Delta.
Dynasties 28–30 (404–343 B.C.)
In 404 B.C., a coalition of these rulers succeeded in overthrowing their Persian masters. From 404 to 399 B.C., Egypt seems to have been ruled by Amyrtaios II of Sais, who is traditionally recognized as the only pharaoh of Dynasty 28. Control then passed for twenty years (399–380 B.C.) to Dynasty 29, in the eastern Delta city of Mendes, and finally to Dynasty 30, in the mid-Delta city of Sebennytos.
The first king of Dynasty 30, Nectanebo I (380–362 B.C.), managed to repel a Persian attack shortly after he ascended the throne. The remaining years of his reign were fairly peaceful and were marked by an ambitious program of temple construction, which was continued on an even grander scale by Nectanebo II (360–343 B.C.). The latter king managed to hold off another Persian attack in 351 B.C., but in 343 B.C. a third attack succeeded, and Egypt fell once again to the Persians, who were defeated in turn by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. These final invasions were the death blow to Egyptian control of their own country. Nectanebo’s dynasty is recognized as the last in ancient Egyptian history, and Nectanebo II became the last Egyptian to rule in Egypt for the next 2,500 years.
Art and Culture
During the Late Period, the reemergence of a centralized royal tradition that interacted with the relatively decentralized network inherited from the Third Intermediate Period created a rich artistic atmosphere.
Particularly among royal artworks, it is possible to speak of marked affinities for models from certain anterior periods: Kushite kings admired Old Kingdom models, Saite kings those of the Old and New Kingdoms, and later kings of Dynasty 30 looked back beyond the Persian interlud to the kings of late Dynasty 26. Viewed from the perspective of metal statuary produced in temples or of nonroyal artworks, however, stylistic patterns suggest a complex interplay of influences less hierarchically determined by the temporal power of the king than in previous periods, with the result that the choices of patrons and artists are more recognizable.
A taste for realistic modeling of features of nonroyal persons emerges, while attention to the naturalistic modeling of flesh and bone in human and animal sculpture reaches new heights.
While precious metal and bronze statuary and equipment had long associations with temple cult and ritual, by the first millennium B.C. changes in beliefs and practices had come about. A broad range of individuals made temple offerings, including relatively valuable bronze statuettes and equipment. While the king made offerings in his role as mediator between the gods and mankind, for private donors the goal was attainment of eternal life, for which the personal favor of or physical proximity to a deity was now believed to be as or even more efficacious than tombs and mortuary cult provisions. Osiris and the flourishing cults of animal avatars of certain gods were particular beneficiaries of these new offering practices.
Following the period of Persian rule, the kings of Dynasties 28 through 30 brought a new focus to their role as maintainers of a long tradition. Prodigious temple building and major production of statuary enacted an impressive reformulation and promulgation of the concept of divine kingship and formalized many other aspects of Egypt’s ancient artistic and religious traditions in the face of threatening outside powers.
Allen, James, and Marsha Hill. “Egypt in the Late Period (ca. 712–332 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lapd/hd_lapd.htm (October 2004)
Lloyd, Alan B. "The Late Period (664–332 B.C.)." In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, pp. 369–94. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Russmann, Edna R., et al. Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum. Exhibition catalogue. New York: American Federation of Arts, 2001.