Despite its own rhetoric Egypt has never existed in splendid isolation untouched by the outside world. There’s evidence of trade and cultural contact with the Middle East, for instance, way back before there was even really an Egypt. But it is possible to talk about the life of a lot of kings without really mentioning the outside world much – other than a brief nod to trade with here, or a conquest of there, or a letter to the king of somewhere else. By the Late Period, however, this really doesn’t hold true, the outside world can’t be ignored or glossed over. Take Ahmose II whose reign is shaped by the wider politics of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and even a lot of our information on him and his reign comes not from an Egyptian source but from Herodotus.

Ahmose II reigned from 570 BCE to 526 BCE and is the penultimate king of the 26th Dynasty, although we might as well call him the last one as his son only manages about 6 months on the throne. The boundaries of this dynasty are defined politically rather than by all the kings being the same family – Ahmose II is a usurper and in no way related to the previous kings. His mother is named on a statue of herself (pictured) and another inscription as Tashereniset. His father may have been called Taperu, but this is more shaky as it depends on a libation bowl inscribed for an Ahmose-sineith-Wahibre who may or may not be the same Ahmose as eventually takes the throne.

The King’s Mother Tashereniset

The first time our Ahmose definitely appears in the historical record is in the act of usurping the throne. It’s possible there’s an earlier reference to him in a graffito at Abu Simbel, which names an Ahmose as being in command of the Egyptian soldiers of an army sent to Nubia by Psamtik II in 592 BCE. If this is our Ahmose then he must surely have been in at least his late teens or early 20s when he was commanding troops in 592 BCE, and thus in his 80s when he died. Not outwith the bounds of possibility for sure and our Ahmose was definitely a military man, but there’s no hint of “living to a great age” in the books I read and I’d’ve thought that would be noteworthy.

So possibly a commander in 592 BCE, but definitely a general in 570 BCE. At this time Ahmose II’s predecessor (Apries) had sent his army on campaign against the Greek city of Cyrene in Libya where they suffered a disastrous defeat. This was the final straw for the Egyptian soldiers in the army, who were already unhappy with perceived privileges for the Greek mercenaries they fought alongside. Ahmose II was sent to quash the rebellion but instead joined it and was proclaimed Pharaoh. He defeated Apries in battle in 570 BCE, then again in 567 BCE when Apries returned at the head of a Babylonian army. This second time was final – Apries was either killed in battle or captured and then later killed, it’s not clear which. So you can see how right from the beginning outside forces drive events: Ahmose II takes advantage of Apries’s foreign policy stumbles, and sees off the subsequent foreign invasion as he consolidates his power.

Ahmose II reigned for 44 years, and Herodotus’s remark is: “in all of which time nothing very unusual had happened”. But he also takes the time to tell us stories of Ahmose II the heavy drinker and country bumpkin. In actuality the evidence suggests that Ahmose II was a rather good Pharaoh, and that Herodotus’s stories are probably the result of Greek annoyance with his taxation of their traders and a helping of snobbishness about his non-royal origin. Domestically this was a time of prosperity, and Ahmose II undertook an extensive building programme – including one of the early buildings dedicated to Isis on Philae. He also boosted the country’s economy by confining Greek trade to single city (Naukratis) where he could tax it more effectively – presenting it to the Greeks as giving them a city of their own as a base, and to the Egyptians as keeping the Greeks out of everyone’s way.

But in many ways this domestic prosperity didn’t matter much for Ahmose II’s legacy – it was the successes of other kings that shaped the second half of Ahmose II’s reign. Ahmose II cultivated close ties with the Greeks, initially as allies against the Babylonians who had form for military expeditions against Egypt (witness the Babylonian army that came with Apries). But the Babylonians themselves were soon more concerned with matters to their east as Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire began to steamroll its way across the Middle East. Egypt then entered into an alliance with the Babylonians and the Lydians against this new threat, but when they were conquered Egypt still had her Greek friends to fall back on. Ahmose II did succeed in keeping the wolf from his gates for the rest of his life, but only just.

In terms of dynastic stability, if it had only been Egypt’s internal affairs that mattered then Ahmose II had done a pretty good job with that too – especially for a usurper. He had at least two wives: Nakhtubasterau (whose grave has been found) and Tentkheta (the mother of his heir, Psamtik III). And Herodotus also reports a wife of Greek origin from the city of Cyrene (although she’s mostly the subject of one of Herodotus’s colourful stories so I’m not clear if she really existed). He had an heir (Psamtik) plus a couple of spares (Ahmose, Pasenenkhonsu). He also probably had a couple of daughters – definitely Nitokris and possibly Tashereniset. The first of these was destined to fill the other major power role of Egypt of the time – she was the designated heir to the God’s Wife of Amun in Thebes.

Sadly once again Egypt’s internal affairs were not the most important events, and Ahmose II’s best-laid plans went agley (as Robert Burns would put it). Ahmose II died in 525 BCE, about 5 years after Cyrus the Great, and was buried as planned in his prepared tomb in the court of the temple of Neith in his capital at Sais. This tomb was still visible in the time of Herodotus, but nowadays it is completely destroyed and there is a small lake where the temple once was. Psamtik III took the throne, as planned, but at this point the Persians invaded – Cyrus the Great’s successor Cambyses II had had 5 years to get himself sorted out and ready to take the first opportunity to continue what his father had started. A transition of leadership was just what he was looking for, and the less experienced Psamtik III barely lasted 6 months on the throne. As part of digesting Egypt and fitting it into the Persian Empire Cambyses II abolished the role of God’s Wife of Amun, and so Niktokris didn’t go on to fulfil her intended destiny either. And Herodotus would have us believe that Ahmose II didn’t get the afterlife he was hoping for – he tells a story of Cambyses II having Ahmose II’s mummy exhumed, tortured(!) and burnt.

In another era Ahmose II might’ve ushered in a new golden age for Egypt, and a couple of the books I read did refer to this period as a final “renaissance” for the Egyptian state. But equally, in another era Ahmose II probably wouldn’t’ve managed to take the throne. He came to power via the failure of his predecessor to balance domestic and foreign policies, he kept the economy strong and the country independent through his trade and alliances with foreign powers, and after his death his dynasty and country fell to the enemy from the East that he’d kept at bay for so long.

Resources used:

“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories” trans. Andrea L. Purvis, ed. Robert B. Strassler
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson

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