Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Egyptians, part 2

Nectanebo II secured his throne with the help of the famous Spartan king Agesilaus II, and when Agesilaus died of illness on his way home, the pharaoh paid him the honor of having his body royally embalmed.  Nectanebo's reign was characterized by the building and restoration of even more temples.  When the Persians tried to invade again in 351, he repelled them via Greek mercenaries under Lamias of Sparta and Diophantes of Athens.  When Artaxerxes III began assembling a naval force at Sidon, Nectanebo encouraged the Sidonians to revolt and sent Greek mercenaries under the famous Mentor of Rhodes to help them.  The rebellion began to spread through Phoenicia and Cyprus, before finally being put down in or around 346.

Artaxerxes took Mentor (who had defected), Bagoas and an imperial army into the Nile Delta in 343, and Nectanebo first tried to hold Memphis, then Thebes, and finally to Nubia, where he died a year or two later.  Egypt was now returned to Achaemenid hands.  Greek sources allege that Artaxerxes desecrated temples and killed the Apis bull, as Cambyses had done, though Lendering throws doubt on such rash behavior.

Although the Egyptians resented Persian rule, it appears that Egyptians were still taken into the imperial army, as a stele records how the noble Somtutefnekhet of Heracleopolis (Hwt-nen-nesu) fought at and survived the Battle of Issus.  The last two Achaemenid satraps are recorded in (Latinized) Greek as Sabaces, who died at Issus, and Mazaces, his successor.  As Sabaces' garrison accompanied him to Issus, Mazaces was left with no army and was forced to hand over Egypt to Alexander the Great without a fight when he arrived in 332.

Alexander was received warmly in Egypt.  At the Oracle of Amun in the Siwa Oasis, he was declared the son of Amun (Zeus-Ammon) and rightful pharaoh of Egypt.  It was after this that he began to openly speak of himself as having divine lineage and his portraits to include horns alluding to the ram that symbolized Amun.  Alexander founded Alexandria (modern Iskandariyah) and appointed Cleomenes of Naucratis as nomarch of Egypt's Arabian district and collector of the country's taxes.

With Alexander's death in 323, Perdiccas, regent of the infant Alexander IV, appointed Macedonian general Ptolemy as satrap of Egypt.  Cleomenes was retained as his deputy, but Ptolemy executed him on suspicion of spying for Perdiccas.  In 321, Perdiccas tried to bring Ptolemy to heel with an invasion, but was defeated on the Nile and assassinated by frustrated officers including Seleucus.  Ptolemy held Egypt throughout the Wars of the Diadochi, establishing the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, which remained independent until falling to the Romans under Octavian Caesar in 30 BC.

For more than six centuries Egypt remained in Roman hands.  For a few years, the Sassanid Persians wrested control from the Eastern Roman empire, then lost it again, and then in 641 the country fell to the first Muslim caliphate.  Thereafter, Egypt underwent a process of Arabization, though still recognized as the selfsame historical region of the pharaohs.  A series of native dynasties interspersed with foreign occupation ended with the Revolution of 1952, when army officers under Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser established the current republic.

Egyptian was an Afroasiatic language.  It is thus distantly related to the Semitic, Cushitic and many other subfamilies in the area, but, like Greek in the Indo-European family, formed its own branch.  The phase of the language used in Achaemenid times was Early Demotic Egyptian, which also refers to its writing system, a consonantal alphabet.  The Early Demotic script was used for administrative and commercial purposes while literature and religious texts were written in older scripts (hieroglyphs and hieratic).

From around the turn of the 5th century, the writing system entered the Middle Demotic phase, while the spoken language moved on, evolving into something a bit closer to Coptic.  Coptic itself gradually gave way to Arabic after the Islamic Conquest in the 7th century, but hung on as a daily language for some even after the Middle Ages.  Today it's mostly restricted to liturgical use among the Christian Copts.

Due to its long history, Egyptian polytheism had had plenty of time to develop and change.  As it stood in the late period, the wind god of Thebes, Amun, had long since merged wtih the sun god Re or Ra and assumed the role of supreme god.  Other major deities included Maat, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Ptah, and Bes, who was popularly worshipped on Cyprus.

The Egyptian kingship, like the Persian, rested on a principle encompassing order, truth, righteousness and the universal binding force.  However, unlike aša or arta, Maat could also be personified as a goddess who personally judged the dead.  Both king and commoner had to uphold maat through proper behavior, including charity and maintaining tradition.  Impiousness and injustice could upset the natural order and cause misfortune.  Upholders of maat would be rewarded in the afterlife.  Thus the Egyptian statue of Darius the Great declares in hieroglyphs that the king is "the perfect god who rejoices in maat," along with Persian cuneiform expressing his accustomed veneration of Ahura Mazda.

The struggle of maat versus isfet (evil and untruth) is expressed via the myth of Osiris, the ancient god-king and lifeforce of the land, who was killed by his brother and usurper Set, god of chaos.  In the late period, Set was portrayed negatively though still worshipped in certain religious centers.  He was said to have cut Osiris' body into 42 pieces and scattered them around the country, their landing places corresponding with the 42 nomes.  Thus the resurrection of Osiris by his wife Isis (earlier regarded as the wife of the sky god Horus, now reidentified as his mother) is tied to the unification of Egypt.  Horus became the next king, and Isis' association with the throne (the literal meaning of her name, is.t) may mean that the throne was metaphorically regarded as the king's mother.

Although the pharaoh retained a kind of divine status (to my knowledge, it is only in Egyptian-language documents that the Achaemenids claimed divinity rather than mere divine favor) his role as intercessor between gods and humanity became less important as direct personal devotions on the part of commoners became more so.  The gods were now seen as less distant, more involved in day-to-day human affairs, and individuals sought out divine favor on their own.  Concurrent is the spread of funerary texts like the Book of the Dead among commoners to ensure that they, like the king, would be protected and guided in the afterlife.

The Egyptian at Naqš-e Rostam is clad simply in an ankle-length tunic with long fitted sleeves and a keyhole neckline, worn unbelted (in my estimation it would probably be bloused over a belt for combat, like the ancient Gaels, who wore a similar tunic).  Unfortunately, the Persepolis relief is badly damaged, showing only the Egyptians' lower legs, though they also wear garments with a long hem; a wide embroidered border (or perhaps a fringe) is also visible.  The sculpture, or at least the quality and lighting of the photo, is too indistinct even to tell what kind of footwear they have.  As for women's clothing, Fashion-Era has a guide on wrapping a shawl-type dress Egyptian-style from a rectangular length of fabric.  Ancient Egypt was famed for its production of linen and this is therefore an even more appropriate fabric here than for peoples from elsewhere in the empire, but wool is also fine.  Cotton was not yet grown in Egypt and would have to be regarded as an imported luxury good from India.

Herodotus lists Egyptian arms as "woven helmets," "hollow shields with broad rims, and spears for sea-warfare, and great battle-axes.  Most of them wore cuirasses and carried long swords (machairas)."

The woven helmets may have very ancient precedent.  Headgear resembling woven rope helmets are said to be worn in paintings in the tomb of Ramses III.  However it's equally true that over the centuries between then and the Graeco-Persian wars there is likely to have been changes in style and technology.

The Cyropaedia (VI.2 and VII.1) describes Egyptian shields as very large, covering the body down to the feet, being pushed forward with one shoulder, and used with very large spears.  New Kingdom Egyptian troops had often been portrayed carrying shields with flat bottoms, arched tops and blotchy patterns perhaps indicating that they were covered in hair-on animal hide, and these late period shields are likely an enlargement of those.  If equipped with a telamon they could be used in conjunction with large spears in the same manner as early Mycenaean warriors.

Swords were quite long by 5th century standards, straight, made of iron and with U-shaped pommels.  A few fragments may be seen here.  If Persian art is to be trusted, the Egyptians and many other peoples wore long sword scabbards on slings like rifles, rather than belts or baldrics.

Egyptian cuirasses are believed to have been made of linen; Herodotus mentions that Amasis sent such a one to a temple of Athena on Rhodes.  Although you can still find a lot of sources claiming that linen armor was glued, the people whom I trust most on this (such as Dan Howard, author of Bronze Age Military Equipment) have said unequivocally that linen armor should be quilted, not glued.

A footnote:  Yes, it really is pure coincidence that the "Peoples of the empire" series reached Egypt just as Egypt is dominating international news.  It's things like this that are why I'm not 100 percent atheist.

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