Who gets remembered from history and what they are remembered for doesn’t always have a lot to do with what that person or their peers would expect. Look at Tutankhamun, now the most famous Pharaoh but relatively minor in his own time and altogether missed out of later king lists because he was too contaminated by Akhenaten’s religious changes. Or how about Taharqo? Who isn’t really a household name any more, but in the Victorian era he was interesting and exciting because he is mentioned in the Bible. And if you could go and tell Taharqo this I imagine he’d be rather startled and perhaps a bit annoyed – the incident in question is relatively minor albeit full of foreshadowing, happened before he was Pharaoh, and didn’t go well for him (or Judah). Probably he’d be even more nonplussed by the idea that his importance to modern Egyptology is that his accession to the throne is the earliest definite date in Egyptian history!
So who actually was Taharqo? He was the fourth Pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty, who are either the last rulers of the Third Intermediate Period or the first rulers of the Late Period depending on where you like to draw your boundaries. His family line originated in Nubia to the south of Egypt, and their history follows a pattern common to (re-)unifiers of Egypt – first they consolidate power in their local area before sweeping north to conquer the whole of Egypt. There are two significant differences to the pattern, however – firstly they weren’t Egyptian, they were Nubian, and thus outsiders conquering the country rather than insiders unifying it. This might not’ve mattered in the long run as they were very keen to assimilate and be more Egyptian than the Egyptians. Perhaps more critically they also did not really impose a centralised government across Egypt. In particular their control of Lower Egypt was more in the nature of an overlord to whom the local rulers deferred rather than a directly ruling king.
Taharqo’s relationship to his predecessors and their relationships to each other are a bit murky, and there’s even some controversy over the order of the kings. It’s pretty clear that Piye was the first of the dynasty to claim Egypt as well as Nubia, although it was his successor who finished off the job of conquering Lower Egypt. Inheritance of the throne does not appear to’ve followed a straightforward patrilineal scheme, and there are some indications that matrilineal descent may’ve been important in deciding who ruled (but that’s neither clear nor generally accepted amongst Egyptologists). Between Piye and Taharqo were two other Pharaohs – Shabaqo and Shabitqo. Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton reconstruct the family as follows: Shabaqo is the brother and son-in-law of Piye, Shabitqo might be the son of Shabaqo and is the son-in-law of Piye, Taharqo is the son of Piye, and Taharqo’s successor Tanutamani is the son of Shabaqo. Clear as mud, right? And other schemes are available! For a long time the accepted order of succession was Piye, then Shabaqo, then Shabitqo, then Taharqo and finally Tanutamani. But an inscription discovered relatively recently has thrown the ordering of Shabaqo & Shabitqo into doubt – although I went to a talk by Robert Morkot and he was pretty scathing about the idea that one might want to re-write anything on the basis of one inscription. Particularly as the names of the two kings are so similar (especially when written in cuneiform as this inscription is) that it could just be the carver’s version of a typo.
The books I looked at don’t talk much about Taharqo’s life before he took the throne, but one incident does come up because it’s the one that’s mentioned in the Bible. The two great powers facing off across the Levant at this point were Egypt and Assyria – both on the rise again after a period of decline. At first contact between the two was relatively cordial, but as Assyria’s might continued to grow relations soured and Egypt felt her interests were best served by propping up Levantine polities as Assyria flexed her muscles in the region. So when Hezekiah of Judah asked for Egyptian aid against Assyria the 20 year old Prince Taharqo was dispatched with an army to help. It didn’t work out well, and Taharqo was soundly defeated (sadly for him, not for the last time!). Taharqo’s aid to Judah is memorialised in 2 Kings 19:8-13 and Isaiah 37, and as I said above I suspect Taharqo would rather they’d not written that little piece of humiliation down.
Taharqo took the throne in 690 BCE at the age of 32. This date is the first fixed point in Egyptian history which is pretty late considering how far back that history extends. The Egyptians themselves dated events to regnal years for each monarch, and the vagaries of survival of records & inscriptions means that we often only have a lower limit for the length of a king’s reign and errors quite quickly build up. I don’t know the details of how the date of Taharqo’s accession was worked out, but the essence is that it’s from working backwards from Greek & Roman dates and sideways from other cultures (like the Assyrians, I assume).
Despite the ominously unsuccessful little skirmish with the Assyrians some ten years earlier Taharqo’s reign was the peak of the 25th Dynasty. And it is for the first 20 or so years that I think Taharqo would prefer to be remembered. He built widely across his country, both in Egypt and in Nubia – in fact I was a little disingenuous with my opening paragraph, as these building works are also part of what we remember about Taharqo. If you’ve been to the Karnak temple complex you will’ve seen some – the First Pylon was built by Taharqo, as well as other structures within the complex (not all of which survive). Taharqo was the first to adorn the pinnacle of the sacred mountain at Gebel Barkal (thought by the Nubians to be the birthplace of the god Amun) – he had an inscription carved high up on the cliff face and covered with gold so that it would gleam in the sun. The art style during Taharqo’s reign (and that of the rest of the 25th Dynasty) was strongly influenced by earlier art, in particular that of the Old Kingdom. But this wasn’t slavish copying, features from different eras of Egyptian art and from Nubian art were combined to generate a new aesthetic. Taharqo’s tomb at Nuri (in Nubia) illustrates this quite well. As with other members of his Dynasty he was buried beneath a pyramid, but this pyramid was proportioned differently to those of the Old & Middle Kingdoms – a smaller base & steeper sides for the Nubian ones. The burial chamber was underground, and based on the Osireion at Abydos, a New Kingdom structure. There was also a chapel decorated in an Egyptian style for Egyptian rituals. However, despite the Egyptian styling details of the layout of structures also hark back to the tummuli tombs of his ancestors before they started building pyramids.
Sadly this new golden age of Egypt was shortly to unravel, as I’ve been foreshadowing throughout the article. The Assyrians continued to expand, and to look westward. Under their king Esarhaddon an invasion of Egypt was launched in 674 BCE, and Taharqo managed to fight off this initial force. He hadn’t been resting on his laurels during the first part of his reign – military prowess was a key feature of 25th Dynasty ideas of kingship, and Taharqo did not neglect this aspect. There is a stela that records a training exercise for his army involving running from Memphis to the Faiyum and back – a round trip of about 60 miles, which they apparently covered in 9 hours plus a 2 hour break in the middle. Which sounds … not implausible? Still likely to be an exaggeration but I know people who could run that sort of distance in that sort of time (though perhaps not in the heat of the desert wearing army gear, even overnight, but you never know). The stela even says that Taharqo joined them for an hour of running. I imagine this was some sort of unusual exercise, because it was worth recording on a stela. Nonetheless it shows that Taharqo regarded the army and the fitness of his army as important concerns.
Military training and readiness didn’t help Taharqo much. The Assyrians came back only 3 years later, this time with Esarhaddon leading them in person. This time they got as far as Memphis, sacking the city – forcing Taharqo to flee, leaving his wife & son (and heir) to be captured and taken back to Assyria as booty. There’s a fair amount of back & forth and Taharqo and then Tanutamani do manage to regain control of Egypt at various points. But in the end Esarhaddon’s successor Ashurbanipal definitively crushes the Egyptians and drives the 25th Dynasty rulers out of Egypt and back to their Nubian homeland. Taharqo didn’t live to see the coup de grace, but as he died during one of the upswings for the Assyrians it must’ve been clear to him that the writing was on the wall. Taharqo died in 664 BCE in Nubia, and was buried under his pyramid at Nuri having ruled the Egyptian and Nubian kingdoms for 26 years.
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile” ed. Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Kings from Kush: Egypt’s 25th Dynasty” Robert Morkot (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson