Khonsu

We talk an awful lot about Egyptian sun deities, but not so often about moon ones. Well, one of them does come up quite often but not in the context of his association with the moon – and anyway, he’s not the deity I was planning to talk about today. But it is the case that at first Thoth was the primary deity associated with the moon, but he became a more general god of knowledge and time, and so Khonsu took over his role as the god of the moon. Much later, in the Late Period, Iah takes on this role – as the concept of Khonsu too has shifted away from association with the moon.

Before I move on to talk more about Khonsu, let’s just back up a moment and I’ll point out something I learnt while reading for this article that I had never really considered before. The names of the “cosmological” gods of Ancient Egypt generally bear little to no relationship to the name of the element of the cosmos that they are associated with. For instance the word for moon is jʿḥ – yes, the Late Period moon god called Iah is the same (accounting for anglicisation of the transliteration), but neither Thoth nor Khonsu are very similar at all. And Erik Hornung cautions that one should therefore avoid a simplistic assignment of a deity as “the moon god” or whatever it might be – the relationship between deity and element of the cosmos is clearly more complex than a straightforward personification.

One of the two proposed etymologies for Khonsu’s name does fit in well with his being a moon god, however – which is that it derives from the verb khenes which means “to cross over or traverse”. Khonsu therefore means “the wanderer” or “he who traverses [the sky]”. The other possible etymology is dismissed by Richard Wilkinson as outdated, although at least one author I read prefers it – this explanation splits the name into kh (meaning placenta) and nesu (meaning king), and sees Khonsu as also being a personification of the king’s placenta. In his book “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby Wilkinson prefers this explanation as it makes sense of a piece of kingly regalia – early depictions of the king show him accompanied by standards topped by various objects which are perhaps each an aspect of kingship. One of these is a bag-like object later associated with Khonsu. There are a few suggestions for what this might be but Toby Wilkinson’s preferred explanation is that it represents a placenta. He also says that the royal placenta may’ve been associated with the royal ka – the spirit that conveys divine kingship on the mortal king – and cites parallels for the deification of the placenta in other related African cultures. However he also says that the royal placenta may’ve been thought to be the king’s stillborn twin, which I’m afraid I completely boggle at – the Egyptians must surely’ve been able to tell the difference between the afterbirth and a dead baby!

Khonsu, as well as Thoth, was involved in the reckoning of time – an appropriate activity for a god associated with the moon. He’s the god associated with Hour 8 of the day, but I didn’t find any discussion of why particular gods had particular hours in my books. His more general involvement in the reckoning of time included influencing the gestation of humans and animals (which again fits well with an association with the placenta). And both he & Thoth were believed to assign a fixed lifespan not only to people but to the gods as well.

Khonsu’s roles change over the length of the Egyptian civilisation. In the Pyramid Texts he is a bloodthirsty deity who helps the king catch and slay the gods, so that the king can eat them and absorb their powers (as described in the Cannibal Hymn with hotly debated levels of symbolism vs. realism). Later he is associated with childbirth, which again ties into the association with the placenta and with an influence on the time of gestation. From the New Kingdom and afterwards he’s most often thought of as part of the Theban Triad, the child of Amun & Mut and worshipped with them in the vast temple complex at Karnak. And as so often the Egyptians didn’t feel the need for strict consistency in their religious thought: he’s also the child in another more minor triad – Sobek, Hathor and Khonsu, who were worshipped at Kom Ombo.

By Ptolemaic times he’s part of a complicated rebirth story for Amun as well – during this time period the Egyptians believed that when Amun died he took the form of Osiris and entered the body of Osiris’s mother Opet-Nut, he was then reborn as Khonsu – and there was a temple for Opet-Nut next to the temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex where this rebirth was supposed to’ve taken place. Khonsu was also linked to Osiris at Edfu temple (a Ptolemaic structure) and called the “son of the leg” (which was the body part of Osiris that was believed to’ve been found there when Osiris’s body was scattered by Seth). And also by this period of Egyptian history Khonsu’s role had morphed once more and he (or at least one form of him, see below) was seen as a healing god. Ptolemy IV believed that Khonsu had personally healed him, and used the epithet “beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits”.

Khonsu in front of offerings

Khonsu is generally depicted as a mummiform human figure or wearing a tight-fitting garment. He might have a hawk head, and is sometimes represented by the same sort of baboon as Thoth (the cynocephalus baboon portrayed in a squatting position). If he has a human head he generally wears the sidelock of youth, and may wear the curved beard of the gods. His arms may be partially or completely unrestricted by his tight clothing or mummy wrappings. And if that sounds a lot like Ptah then Richard Wilkinson provides a handy diagnostic – generally Khonsu wears a necklace with a crescent shaped pectoral and a keyhole shaped counterpoise, Ptah’s necklace will not have that shape of counterpoise. In his hawk headed form to distinguish him from other such gods you need to look for his headdress – he wears a full moon sitting inside a horizontal crescent moon on his head. In his hands he may carry a crook & flail – the sceptres associated with Osiris or Horus, and with the king – and he may carry a was and/or djed sceptre as well or instead of those.

The main temple for Khonsu was inside the Amun precinct at the Karnak temple complex, as I mentioned above. It’s well worth a visit if you’re at Karnak as it still has a roof so a lot of colour has survived and it has recently been cleaned (within the last decade) – I remember the decoration as very striking with a white background and lots of reds & golds. This particular temple building was started in the 20th Dynasty by Ramesses III, and finished by later kings. It’s not unusual for multiple gods to have temple buildings or shrines within one larger complex, but I did find it noticeable that (with one exception) all of Khonsu’s shrines are within other larger complexes. The exception is at Tanis where there is a temple to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu-Neferhotep. At Tanis there is also a temple to the Theban Triad as well as a temple that has shrines for Mut, Khonsu and Astarte. These are all Late Period (and later temples), mostly built when the 21st Dynasty moved the capital north to Tanis.

As part of the Theban Triad Khonsu took part in two major annual festivals in the Theban region. These were the Beautiful Festival of the Valley and the Opet Festival. Both were processional festivals where the cult images of the triad were taken in their sacred barques to visit other parts of the area – Khonsu’s barque had falcon heads at stern & prow. The Beautiful Festival of the Valley had begun in the Middle Kingdom, when it was just Amun who was taken from Karnak to Deir el Bahri. It became more elaborate during the New Kingdom – cult images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu plus statues of dead kings and queens were carried first to Deir el Bahri and then along the West Bank to visit each king’s mortuary temple (such as Medinet Habu) as it was built and added to the route. The Opet Festival was a similar occasion, the three cult statues of the Theban Triad were taken in procession from Karnak to Luxor temple. It’s not documented before the 18th Dynasty and when it began the gods travelled by land on the way to Luxor and by river on the way back, but later in the New Kingdom they travelled by river in both directions (being towed along in their sacred barques). It too became more elaborate over time, and by the time of Ramesses III it lasted for month. The central moment of this festival didn’t directly involve the Theban Triad at all – while they rested in their shrines at Luxor the king entered the most sacred part of the temple where he performed a ritual that merged his mortal self with the royal ka, thus renewing his divinity. None of the books I read that talked about Opet Festival mentioned the possibly outdated link between Khonsu and the royal ka that Toby Wilkinson discusses in the context of Early Dynastic Egypt, but it seems suggestive to me for Khonsu (and family) to be involved in this ritual.

As well as temples, festivals and the trappings of state religion there are also amulets of Khonsu dating to later Egyptian history. And small plaques depicting Khonsu are also found. There are two types of these – the first depicts Khonsu with his Theban parents. The second ties into the healing aspects of Khonsu’s later role – they are cippi, which normally depict Horus the Child standing on a crocodile and are intended to have healing properties. These cippi, however, replace Horus with Khonsu but presumably have a similar function.

Khonsu comes in at least three forms (which don’t seem to correlate with the various roles I talk about above), and one of the only stories about him that we have involves one of them sending another to perform a miracle (essentially). This is a lovely piece of propaganda we call the Bentresh Stela which is now in the Louvre – the story purports to be set in the time of Ramesses II but was almost certainly written in Ptolemaic times. In the story Ramesses II is married to a foreign woman, whose sister (called Bentresh) back home in her native land (somewhere in modern day Syria) falls ill. Pharaoh is asked for help, and after consulting with Khonsu of Thebes (the most important form of Khonsu) agrees to send a statue of Khonsu the Provider (a junior form of Khonsu particularly adept at driving out evil spirits) to take the god to this princess to heal her. On arrival of the statue the evil spirits leave the princess and admit the superiority of even this junior form of Khonsu. Bentresh’s father was supposed to send the statue back, but he was so impressed by its ability to heal that he neglects to do so – until Khonsu the Provider appears to him in a dream where the god flies back to Egypt as a golden falcon. Realising he cannot force a god to stay, the statue is returned.

This story is clearly based in some sense on history in that Ramesses II did exist, as did a foreign queen with almost the same name as on the stela (Nefru-Re on the stela, Maat-nefru-Re in history). But its primary purpose is to assert the hierarchy of the different forms of Khonsu – it was found in Karnak, so unsurprisingly the senior form is Khonsu of Thebes who is worshipped there. And of course it makes a point about the innate superiority of even junior Egyptian gods over these foreign spirits and peoples – asserting a sense of national pride during a time when Egypt was ruled by Greek outsiders. Yet another role, for a god who turns out to be a rather more complex concept than just a “moon god”.


Resources used:

Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. London: British Museum Press, 1990.
Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2008.
Teeter, Emily. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Weeks, Kent R. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2005.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
———. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.

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The Judgement of the Dead

My bonus article for June is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the Ancient Egyptian idea of the Judgement of the Dead.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

The Way Things Ought To Be

The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.

Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.

Maat at the Weighing of the Heart Greeting the Deceased, from the Book of the Dead of Tasnakht

The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.

Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.

The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.

Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.

*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French

The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.

And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.

There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.

This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.


Resources used:

“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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The Man She Was Made For

Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale from days gone by, of Bata the strong and his unfaithful wife, made for him by the gods but torn from him by her own wicked heart!

And in those days Bata lived alone in the Valley of the Cedars, having fled from the household of his brother, from the treachery of his brother’s wife. His heart he had placed for safe keeping in the top of the tallest tree of the forest, and he built his house at its roots. By day he was successful at his hunting in the desert, by night he slept deeply in the comfort of his bed. And in all things ma’at was upheld.

For all his good fortune Bata grew lonely, and the Great God, Re-Horakhty himself, took pity upon him. He called Khnum to him and commanded him to fashion a wife for Bata, a beautiful wife, a fragrant wife, a wife suitable for Bata the best amongst men! And this Khnum did, and Re-Horakhty brought her to Bata and they lived in Bata’s house as husband and wife in all ways but one. For the loss of his member to the catfish of the Nile meant that Bata the strong was no longer Bata the virile, he could not lie with her as a man does with a woman. And this left his wife, the beautiful one, the fragrant one, unsatisfied with the life for which she was made, and her heart grew heavy with the weight of isfet.

Husband and Wife

Of this Bata knew nothing, and his heart filled with love & joy at his life and fear & anxiety that it might chance to change. From love he told her of the secret place of his heart, that she might revive him should anything go amiss. From fear he forbade his wife to walk by the shores of the Great Green Sea, for if it were to carry her away he should not be able to rescue her. But his wife, his fragrant wife, his treacherous wife, went out to walk on the shore, for she could not bear to be shut up in the house under the cedar tree all her days.

And the sea saw her and her beauty and surged forth to claim her!
She turned and she fled and she returned to the house,
leaving only a lock of her hair caught in the trees for the sea to seize.

Far far away the sea carried this fragrant, beautiful lock of hair until at last the waters deposited it in the Nile where the clothes of the king were washed. The scent of her hair was so strong and so beautiful that anything that touched the waters was drenched with perfume! And Pharaoh was vexed for his clothes returned without the clean scent of freshly washed linen ready for his own perfume. He commanded the chief of the washermen to search for the source of the perfume and bring it to him so that he could destroy it. But when it was brought before him the lustrous and fragrant lock of hair was so enticing and seductive that Pharaoh instead resolved to make this woman his own!

He sent forth his troops to search for the girl whose hair shone forth the scent of her beauty! But Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, slaughtered those who would take his wife from him. Saving only one to carry the tale back to Pharaoh of the woman’s protector. And so Pharaoh resorted to guile and to trickery, and sent forth a woman from his household laden with gifts fit for a princess or a queen. The heart of Bata’s wife grew covetous at the sight, and filled with desire for trinkets and baubles she stepped away from the path of ma’at.

Out of her house, away from her husband.
Out of the Valley of Cedars, away to the Two Lands of the Nile.
Out and away, and she was gone from Bata and the life she was made for!

Entranced by the girl, her beauty and her scent, Pharaoh made her his Great Royal Wife and first amongst all of the women of his household. And so completely did she forget her duty to the man she was made for that she told Pharaoh of the secret of Bata’s heart. For she feared that Bata, Bata the strong, Bata her husband, would come and take back that which was his. So Pharaoh sent forth his troops to the great cedar tree and they made haste to cut it down. And when the heart of Bata reached the floor, he fell like the tree and lay like Osiris in death.

And Pharaoh and his queen, the false wife of Bata, rejoiced for they believed she was safe from the man she was made for. They did not know that this was not to be, for they had not reckoned with the loyalty between brothers, the elder went to the younger’s aid and Bata would rise again like Osiris himself!

But that, my friends, is a story for another day!


Resources used:

“Egyptian Myths” George Hart
“Red Land, Black Land” Barbara Mertz
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley

This is the second part of a story called The Tale of the Two Brothers, which is known from a 19th Dynasty papyrus written by a scribe called Inena (or Ennana) – the first part is here: Weaving with Her Words a Cloth of Deceit, and the third part will be coming later! I have taken the plot from the sources above, and retold it in my own words.

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Pepi II

The Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi (aka Pepi II) was the fifth king of the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom, and he reigned for a very long time around about the 23rd Century BCE. Manetho (a 3rd Century BCE historian in Egypt) credits him with 94 years on the throne, a king list dating to around the 13th Century BCE (or perhaps later) now in the Turin Egyptian Museum agrees with more than 90 years. I think modern scholars are fairly sure that he reigned for over 62 years but after that there are no attested dates (so far?). Unsurprisingly he took the throne as a young boy, somewhere between ages 6 & 10 (with most books I read following Manetho and making him 6 years old on accession). His immediate predecessor was Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and before that there was Meryre Pepi (aka Pepi I).

Pepi II seated on Queen Ankhenespepi II’s Lap

Who his father was is not entirely clear, so let’s start with his mother. She was a woman called Ankhenespepi or sometimes Ankhenesmeryre, one of three or four of that name living around that time. The name means “Pepi/Meryre lives for her”, and was taken by her on her marriage to Pepi I – in modern literature she is known as Ankhenespepi II to distinguish her from Ankhenespepi I (also married to Pepi I) and Ankhenespepi III & IV who were both married to Pepi II. As well as the identical names for multiple people this family is also one of those terribly convoluted Egyptian royal families where everyone seems to have at least two different relationships with every other person. Ankhenespepi I and Ankhenespepi II were sisters, and were both married to Pepi I. Both were the mothers of kings: Ankhenespepi I was the mother of Merenre Nemtyemsaf, and Ankhenespepi II was the mother of Pepi II. A relatively recently discovered inscription (within the last 25 years) tells us that Ankhenespepi II was also the wife of Merenre Nemtyemsaf (her step-son/nephew) after Pepi I’s death. And so you see where the uncertainty about Pepi II’s father comes in – it’s definitely one of his two immediate predecessors, but which one it is depends on how long you think Merenre Nemtyemsaf reigned for. More than a decade, and Pepi II must be his son, significantly less and he can’t be. I think the current consensus is that Pepi II is the son of Merenre Nemtyemsaf and the grandson of Pepi I, and the son & great-nephew of Ankhenespepi II and the grandson & nephew of Ankhenespepi I.

As he was so young when he took the throne Pepi II had regents who acted on his behalf – these were his mother, Ankhenespepi II, and her brother, Djau, who had held high office in the reign of Pepi I. It’s from this early part of his reign that we have one of the few glimpses into an Egyptian king’s personality as recorded by the Egyptians of the time. It’s rather a charming anecdote, a combination of childish joy and absolute power. We know the story from a letter written by Pepi II to a courtier called Harkhuf – who was so proud of the fact that he had personal correspondence from the king that he had the letter copied out onto the walls of his tomb to be remembered for eternity. Over his life Harkhuf had been sent on four expeditions to lands south of Egypt – the last of which was in Year 2 of Pepi II’s reign. As he returned he wrote to his king to tell him about the riches he was bringing back – including a dancing pygmy from the land called Yam. And Pepi II was so taken with the idea of this pygmy that he wrote quite a long letter back to Harkhuf, most of which is enthusing about this pygmy. It’s too long to quote the whole thing, so I shall excerpt a few bits of it (following Miriam Lichtheim’s translation):

“[…] You have said in this dispatch of yours that you have brought a pygmy of the god’s dances from the lands of the horizon-dwellers […] Truly you know how to do what your lord loves and praises. Truly you spend day and night planning to do what your lord loves, praises, and commands […] Come north to the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you brought from the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hale and healthy, for the dances of the god, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever! When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him on deck, lest he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to lie around him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see this pygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land [Sinai] and of Punt! When you arrive at the residence with and this pygmy is with you live, hale, and healthy, my majesty will do great things for you […]”

It’s formal, and full of repetition (as I think is standard for Ancient Egyptian letters) – but even with the stylised prose we clearly hear the voice of a gleeful little boy who’s just been promised the Best. Present. Ever!

This little humanising anecdote, charming as it is, does cause a few problems for my mental image of the king – it’s easy to remember the excited little boy, but obviously that’s one brief part of a long life and probably something he rarely thought about once the novelty wore off. Information about Pepi II as an adult seems rather scarcer. He had at least five wives, some of whom were his sisters or aunts – Neith, Iput, Ankhenespepi III and Ankhenespepi IV were all King’s Daughters. Another wife was Wedjebten, whose relationship is less clear. And of course he had children, though I’m not sure if it’s known how many or who predeceased him and who survived.

His long reign was relatively peaceful, in fact none of the books had very much to say about it. Outside Egypt the political landscape was changing – the lands to the south were coming together in a coalition of states and Egypt’s influence wasn’t as strong as it had been. But that doesn’t seem to’ve led to any particular problems during his reign. However there are other indications that Egypt was no longer in as healthy a state as it had been. Pepi II built a pyramid complex for his tomb, as his predecessors had done – but despite having at least 62 years to do this in it’s just a standard 6th Dynasty pyramid. No signs of embellishment or additions or new ideas. Perhaps just that there was now “a standard” so he didn’t deviate from the proper way to do things. But he also copied the decoration scheme for the pyramid temple pretty much entirely from the 5th Dynasty king Sahure’s pyramid temple. Again, there could be positive reasons that he did this that we just don’t know – but it’s not really an indication of a vibrant and creative culture. And there are signs of an economic downturn as well. There may’ve been a period of prolonged low floods, leading to reduced tax revenue and the population not thriving – and no sign of a robust response from the king. Perhaps there was no way Pepi II’s administration could’ve responded effectively, perhaps the devolution of power to local governors had left the central authority too weak, perhaps we just don’t have the evidence.

Whether or not Egyptian culture had become stagnant and the government ineffective during Pepi II’s reign, it is clear that things don’t go terribly well immediately afterwards. Just like for planets there is a Goldilocks zone for the length of reign of a monarch. Too few years, and the changes at the top lead to instability. Too many, and chances are the king outlived his heirs. But a small handful of decades – that’s just right, neither too long nor too short. Sadly for Old Kingdom Egypt the reign of the Dual King Neferkare, the Son of Re Pepi fell outside this zone and into the range where your average Egyptian might believe that his divine ruler was in fact immortal. Ten viziers had come and gone while he ruled, countless courtiers must’ve lived their entire lives while he ruled. He did still have a living son to inherit, but Nemtyemsaf II didn’t long outlive his father – and his successor was also fairly ephemeral (so much so that for millennia he was thought to be a woman, but is now thought to’ve been a man, a fairly basic detail to be unclear on). And after that we’re into the revolving door of the next dynasty none of whom lasted long on the throne.

The Egyptians themselves did not remember Pepi II fondly – the other anecdote from his life is posthumous, much less charming and much less likely to be true. In it Pepi II is portrayed as a man distracted from the business of kingship by a torrid affair with one of his generals. He’s described as sneaking out of the palace at night to climb up a ladder into this general’s bedroom, then once he had “done what he desired” with him he sneaks back to the palace in the hopes that no-one would notice. This is unlikely to mean that Pepi II is history’s first recorded gay ruler – it has the flavour of a story to explain “what went wrong” at the end of the dynasty. It reminds me of the way that all Chinese imperial dynasties are traditionally said to start with a wise, brave, honourable ruler and end with a cruel, out-of-touch, perverted tyrant. Not necessarily true but it’s the narrative they use to explain historical events.

As always with figures from the deep past like this we have tantalisingly few facts to build our own narrative on top of. And so Pepi II is probably always going to be that over-excited boy anticipating the arrival of his pygmy in my head, despite how unrepresentative that must’ve been.


Resources used:

“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The Complete Pyramids” Mark Lehner
“Ancient Egyptian Literature: Vol I The Old and Middle Kingdoms” Miriam Lichtheim
“A History of Ancient Egypt: Vol 2 From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom” John Romer
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“Texts from the Pyramid Age” Nigel C. Strudwick
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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The Harem Conspiracy

My bonus article for May is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the end of Ramesses III: The Harem Conspiracy.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

Medinet Habu

It’s easy to visit Medinet Habu and think of it as just the one temple, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, standing in proud almost-isolation with only a brief mention of the palace next door and something something harem conspiracy. A bit like a great medieval cathedral, self-contained and singular. But that’s really not true of Medinet Habu (nor necessarily of cathedrals, but that’s a story for someone else’s blog entirely!).

The temple the name Medinet Habu conjures up in the mind isn’t even the earliest remaining temple on the site – that is what is now referred to as the Small Temple, which was founded by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. And beneath that are the remains of a Middle Kingdom structure. This temple was built to house the primeval mound the creator god Amun-Re Kamutef rose from and returned to to be rejuvenated – referred to as “The Mound of Djeme” or “The Genuine Mound of the West”. Every 10 days a festival procession came to the temple bringing the image of Amun from Luxor Temple to be rejuvenated at the mound, before returning to Luxor. This didn’t stop when Ramesses III built his much bigger temple just next door some 300 years later. It is a measure of its continuing relevance that the Small Temple was still the occasional recipient of royal building works well into the Roman Period. The last structure here is an unfinished court & portico begun by Antoninus Pius in the 2nd Century CE.

It is fair, however, to say that the mortuary temple of Ramesses III dominates the site. For a long time I thought mortuary temples were just sites where the king was worshipped after he died, a bit like the medieval practice of saying masses for the deceased in a chantry chapel. But, as seems to be the theme today, there’s more to them than that somewhat misleading name. The Egyptians called them Temples of Millions of Years and they were not solely concerned with the king (deceased or otherwise) nor were they solely religious in nature. I mustn’t downplay the mortuary function too much, though. The practice of making offerings to the deceased king goes back to at least Early Dynastic times if not before, with kings of the 1st & 2nd Dynasties constructing large enclosures within which their funerary cult was practised. Over time the forms and rituals evolved with changing beliefs, but the basic idea of ensuring a smooth (and permanent) transition into the afterlife for the king by means of a funerary cult remained the same. The decoration scheme of some of the innermost chambers of Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years reflects this. In one set of chambers he is shown partaking in the Osirian afterlife – ploughing and harvesting in the Field of Reeds. In chambers on the other side of the same hall he is shown travelling with Ra in his sacred boat. Both sets of scenes are intended to guarantee the successful rebirth of the king.

Medinet Habu

Other festivals not directly connected with Ramesses III’s afterlife were also celebrated at this temple, during the king’s life and beyond. There’s a calendar of these festivals on the outside of the south wall of the temple which gives details of the necessary offerings, and some of the major ones are shown on the walls of the second courtyard. There are daily offerings to be made, as well as much bigger annual festivals. One of these was the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, where the sacred boats of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu came across the Nile from Karnak Temple. Originally they visited the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, and then as each new Temple of Millions of Years was built it was added onto the processional route so the festival got longer with each Pharaoh’s reign. There was also a one day annual festival of Min and a several day festival of Sokar, both of which are shown on the walls of the second court of the temple.

The king visited the temple to take part in these ceremonies (the major ones, that is), and so he needed suitable accommodation. To the south side of the temple are the remains of a palace. Or rather remains of two palaces – the original buildings were pulled down and rebuilt during Ramesses III’s reign. The palace was attached to the south of the temple, with access into the first court as well as a window of appearances overlooking this court. From the window Ramesses III could view and participate in festivals, and be seen by his courtiers and priests – it makes me think of the Royal Box in the Royal Albert Hall (and other theatres). As well as providing access to the religious ceremonies the palace was also the seat of royal ceremony. There’s a throne room with a raised dais, where presumably Ramesses III would sit in state. And as almost every book and tour guide is keen to point out, the throne room also has an en-suite loo accessed via a door in one corner.

As well as the ceremonial rooms of the palace there was other accommodation provided for the king and/or his household. The whole of the site is surrounded by a double wall, through which there were two gates. One of these was small and at the back (west) of the site – the servants entrance, for minor officials, temple employees, delivery men and the like. At the front (east) of the site there is a much more impressive structure – modelled on a Near Eastern fortress called a migdol. And within this imposing gatehouse are other rooms for the royal household. Often these are referred to as the harem where the king’s women would stay, and the internal decoration is said to represent the king indulging in pastimes with his concubines. But Betsy M. Bryan (writing in “Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed. Kent Weeks) suggests that these might’ve been the more functional accommodation for the king, leisure rooms away from the formality and ceremony of the palace proper. And she then interprets the young women in the reliefs as Ramesses III’s daughters. A reminder that we don’t actually know for sure the purpose of these rooms, and that we are still working our way through the hangover from what 19th Century Europeans thought about “exotic eastern cultures”.

So, a couple of temples, some fortifications and palaces – is that it for Medinet Habu? It’s not even the end of what was built on the site during the time of Ramesses III! As I said there are two enclosure walls around the site – the outermost one is a real fortification, whereas the inner one is more symbolic and intended to protect the temple from the profane outer world. Between these two walls were the houses for the priestly and administrative staff necessary to keep the temple functioning. This is the equivalent of the rather more famous Middle Kingdom town next to the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun. And inside the inner enclosure wall around the back and north side of the temple were great storage magazines for grain. These are far far bigger than would be necessary for feeding the residents of the temple and the offerings presented in the temple – if full they would hold 56,972 sacks of grain, which would be enough to feed something on the order of 1,000 families for a whole year. Instead one must remember that grain was wealth in Ancient Egypt, and that people were paid with rations of grain. These magazines were the stored wealth of the king used to fund the wars he showed off about on the temple walls, as well as being a significant part of the local economy.

These administrative functions are probably the reason the site is so well preserved – each Temple of Millions of Years was set up like this, but as each Pharaoh built a new one it replaced his predecessor’s one as the administrative hub. Ramesses III built the last one, and so it continued to be the centre of the local economy. For instance this is where the workers at Deir el Medina get their rations (wages) from not only in the reign of Ramesses III but in those of his successors – and this is why when they go on strike over non-payment of wages it’s Medinet Habu they go to. During the 21st Dynasty they even move into Medinet Habu, safe behind the fortifications in the more unsettled times after the end of the New Kingdom.

And so the site continues to evolve and be built on even after Ramesses III is long gone. The neat rows of houses don’t long out last the New Kingdom, Barry Kemp positions this as a triumph of self-organisation rather than decline, however. The palace gets remodelled for senior priests, and may even have been occupied by the God’s Wife of Amun during the 25th & 26th Dynasties. At this time the role was occupied by a daughter of the king and she exercised his authority in Upper Egypt. Four of these priestess princesses were buried in the forecourt of Medinet Habu, Amenirdis of the 25th Dynasty and three more from the 26th Dynasty.

The town that Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years has evolved into continues to thrive into the Coptic era. There may’ve been a gap in occupation before the Roman Period – although it’s hard to tell if this is a real gap or if the Romans levelled out the site before they built on it and destroyed the traces of the immediately preceding houses. Later the Copts converted part of the mortuary temple in the second court into a church, as the Copts were prone to do. And even into very modern times the site retained some significance in the eyes of the local population – in Kent Weeks’s Illustrated Guide to Luxor he says that until the 1970s local women still came to pray for children or to avoid illness.

Not just a temple for the soul of a dead king, not just a religious centre for the state religion, a place of worship and separation from the world – instead a thriving hub for a widespread community, full of bustling bureaucrats and people living their everyday lives.


Resources used:

“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples and Museums” Kent R. Weeks
“Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed Kent R. Weeks
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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Some Sort of Canid

Most Egyptian deities are closely associated with an animal – depicted in art either with the head of the animal or as the animal itself. The animal chosen for a deity generally represents some important feature of the deity in question. The gods I’m writing about today are all represented by some sort of canid, a dog-type animal, and are gods that are associated with cemeteries and death (including Anubis, of course). There’s an obvious link between these types of animals and death: in Predynastic times, and throughout Egyptian history for poorer people, bodies were not buried in elaborate sealed tombs but were put in shallow graves in the desert sand. And so they were vulnerable to being dug up and destroyed by desert scavengers, like jackals and other canids.

“Some sort of canid” is a pretty mealy-mouthed way to put it, isn’t it? Surely everyone knows that Anubis’s animal is a jackal so why am I being so vague? Well, it turns out that there’s a fair amount of debate about which canid species is actually represented. The opinions I read while writing this article range from “of course it’s a jackal, I can even tell you the precise species” through to “a composite of canid features”, via “some sort of hybrid seen in the wild”. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that our neat categories (dog or jackal or wolf) don’t actually map terribly well onto either how the Egyptians thought or the real world. The Egyptians don’t seem to’ve separated jackals from dogs with quite such a hard line as we do. And when you look at populations of canids in North Africa there are signs of a large amount of interbreeding between nominal canid species, including with domestic dogs. So “some sort of canid” is probably the most accurate way to phrase it, and its at the jackal-y end of this spectrum.

Coffin Detail with Canid

This canid has large erect ears, a slender neck, long legs and a bushy tail. It is represented either standing (generally on a standard) or sitting (often on a shrine) with its tail hanging vertically down in both cases. It may wear a tie around its neck, and when it’s Anubis it often has some of Osiris’s regalia sticking out of its back (a sekhem sceptre or flail or both). It is often black, but generally that is not thought to be a feature of any real animal it’s based on but rather to be symbolic. As well as the usual associations with black – the fertile soil of the Nile and thus rebirth – it may also relate to the colour a corpse will go if you don’t embalm it, an example of protection by invocation of the thing you’re protecting against.

Canids of this sort are rare in Predynastic art but there are examples from funerary contexts. One of these is a rather fine figurine found in a Naqada III period (c. 3300-3100 BCE) burial, almost in the round – it’s carved from greywacke (usually used for palettes) so it’s fairly flat because of the nature of this stone but modelling of the body is apparent. The animal is portrayed standing up, and it was found propped up against some vessels in front of the face of the deceased woman – perhaps to protect her. Other examples in Predynastic art are amulets in the shape of recumbent canids, some dating to even earlier than the figurine. Obviously one can’t just assume that later beliefs apply in the Predynastic Period, but it seems plausible that these are a precursor to the later protective funerary deities like Anubis and Khentiamentiu.

All of the three or four major canine deities are attested in the Early Dynastic Period. Anubis is the one who is most familiar to us as he remains prominent throughout Pharaonic Egypt. Before the rise of the cult of Osiris he was the most important funerary deity and he continues to play a key role after Osiris takes over. Anubis is the deity who oversees the embalming process and protects the tent where this takes place as well as the burial chamber. He also watches over the necropolis to keep it safe. Mythologically speaking he gets hooked into the Osirian family in a variety of ways (depending on the telling) – often a son of Osiris, perhaps with Nephthys as his mother – and he performs the mummification process on Osiris when Seth has killed him.

As well as Anubis there was another early protector of the necropolis & the dead, mentioned above – this was Khentiamentiu, the canine deity who was worshipped at Abydos. The first temple at Abydos was founded in the Predynastic Period, and was probably dedicated to Khentiamentiu at that point. It’s definitely dedicated to him through the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom, and is still referenced as his temple during Pepi II’s reign (the very last king of the 6th Dynasty and the Old Kingdom). After that the temple is dedicated to Osiris, and from then on Osiris is the primary deity worshipped at Abydos. This doesn’t seem to’ve been a hostile takeover. Khentiamentiu means “Foremost of the Westerners” which is a title or epithet that Osiris later uses – so the two gods may have merged, or it’s even possible that they were always the same deity. In his book on Early Dynastic Egypt Toby Wilkinson speculates that they may always have been the same god, that “Khentiamentiu” was a way to (perhaps euphemistically) refer to Osiris.

There are also another one or two major canine deities who are represented by a canid in Egyptian art. A motif that is seen from at least the 1st Dynasty onwards is of a canid standing still on a standard, with his legs together rather than in motion (like Anubis normally is). This can be Anubis or Khentiamentiu but more often it’s Sed (in very early periods) or Wepwawet from the 3rd Dynasty onwards. It’s not clear if these are two separate deities or if Sed first gained the epithet Wepwawet and then changed his name to Wepwawet. The name Sed may live on after this change or replacement in the sed festival. This festival is generally celebrated by the king in his 30th year of reigning (if he gets that far!) and every few years after that, and is intended to prove his continued fitness to rule. None of the authors I read was willing to 100% commit to the god Sed being the reason the festival is called that – not least, I think, because we can’t be absolutely sure it really was the same word for both. The Egyptian script only records the consonants of the word, so for all both are written “sd” it’s possible they had different vowels. The similar name is not the only link, however – the canid standing on a standard shows up in depictions of the sed festival.

Wepwawet is how this god is known for most of Pharaonic Egypt. His name means Opener of the Ways, which has a variety of interpretations (not so much as alternatives, rather they are all aspects of this deity). The canine association here is not from their habit of eating the dead, but from the fact that they live on the peripheries of human settlement – at the boundary between the cultivation (the living) and the desert (the dead). And who better to lead you from one place to another than one who dwells in the space between? And so one facet of Wepwawet’s opening of ways is that he leads the deceased through the underworld, and the king to ascension. He is also involved in the magical opening of the deceased’s mouth and eyes after mummification – the “adze of Wepwawet” is one of the tools used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But he is not purely involved in death – in the Memphite Theology he’s called “the opener of the body” which may refer to him opening the way out of the womb as a first born. And in a similar vein the Pyramid Texts refer to him opening the way for the sun to rise in the sky. Death, birth, and also during life – Wepwawet’s standard was often carried in front of the king or deity in a procession, opening the way for him. And his frequently attested warlike character sees him opening the way to military conquest for the king. All of which is a rather significant set of characteristics for a god that a lot of us (me included) think of as “the one that looks like Anubis, but isn’t”!

The theme that kept coming up over and over while I was reading for this article was blurry boundaries – in the modern day we tend to want to put things, events, ideas into neat little categories with no overlap but the world doesn’t always co-operate. “Some sort of canid” because we can’t even divide the real animals up into neat non-overlapping groups or species, let alone match the consistent yet ambiguous way that this canid is depicted in Egyptian art to one of those groups. It’s also difficult to tell which god is meant by a given canid depiction, unless there is an accompanying label. Even the gods are not entirely clearly defined. Appropriate, I think, for a collection of deities whose roles straddle the boundaries between this world and the next to be neither clearly the one thing, nor clearly the other.


Resources used:

“Animals in the Ritual Landscape at Abydos: A Synopsis” Salima Ikram
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris” David O’Connor
“Dawn of Egyptian Art” ed. Diana Craig Patch
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Wepwawet in Context: A Reconsideration of the Jackal Deity and Its Role in the Spatial Organization of the North Abydos Landscape” Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Reading Egyptian Art” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

Ahmose II

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

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.

She of Nekheb

My bonus article for November is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about Nekhbet: She of Nekheb.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!