The history of Achaemenid Egypt is divided into two eras: an initial period of Achaemenid Persian occupation when Egypt became a satrapy, followed by an interval of independence; and a second period of occupation, again under the Achaemenids.
The last pharaoh of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty, Psamtik III, was defeated by Cambyses II of Persia in the battle of Pelusium in the eastern Nile delta in 525 BC. Egypt was then joined with Cyprus and Phoenicia in the sixth satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire. Thus began the first period of Persian rule over Egypt (also known as the 27th Dynasty), which ended around 402 BC.
After an interval of independence, during which three indigenous dynasties reigned (the 28th, 29th, and 30th dynasty), Artaxerxes III (358–338 BC) reconquered the Nile valley for a brief second period (343–332 BC), which is called the thirty-first dynasty of Egypt.
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The first Egyptian satrapy
Cambyses led three unsuccessful military campaigns in Africa: against Carthage, the Siwa Oasis, and Nubia. He remained in Egypt until 522 BC and died on the way back to Persia. The Greek and Jewish sources, especially Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, present us a bleak portrait of Cambyses’ rule, describing the king as mad, ungodly, and cruel. It is impossible unfortunately to compare these texts with Egyptian sources, as all unofficial documents appear doing their best to ignore Cambyses’ existence.
Herodotus may have drawn on an indigenous tradition that reflected the Egyptians’ resentment, especially of the clergy, of Cambyses’ decree (known from a Demotic text on the back of papyrus no. 215 in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) curtailing royal grants made to Egyptian temples under Ahmose II.
In order to regain the support of the powerful priestly class, Darius I (522–486 BC) revoked Cambyses’ decree. Diodorus reported that Darius was the sixth and last lawmaker for Egypt; according to Demotic papyrus no. 215, in the third year of his reign he ordered his satrap in Egypt, Aryandes, to bring together wise men among the soldiers, priests, and scribes, in order to codify the legal system that had been in use until the year 44 of Ahmose II (c. 526 BC).
The laws were to be transcribed on papyrus in both Demotic and Aramaic, so that the satraps and their officials, mainly Persians and Babylonians, would have a legal guide in both the official language of the empire and the language of local administration. To facilitate commerce, Darius built a navigable waterway from the Nile to the Red Sea (from Bubastis [modern Zaqaziq] through the Wâdî Tûmelât and the Bitter Lakes); it was marked along the way by four great bilingual stelae, the so-called “canal stelae,” inscribed in both hieroglyphics and cuneiform scripts.
In 1972 archaeological excavations at Susa brought to light a stone statue of Darius I, standing and wearing a sumptuous Persian garment; it is inscribed in cuneiform (in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian) and in hieroglyphics. This can be interpreted as a recognition of the role of Egypt in the Empire.
Shortly before 486 BC, the year of Darius’ death, there was a revolt of the type that had occurred under Aryandes, that was definitively subdued by Xerxes I (486–464 BC) only in 484 BC. The province was subjected to harsh punishment for the revolt, and especially its satrap Achaemenes administered the country without regard for the opinion of his subjects.
A still more serious and extensive revolt took place in about 460 BC under Artaxerxes I. It was led by the Libyan Inaros, son of Psamtik III (Thucydides 1.104), who asked for help from Athens; a fleet of 200 ships sailed up the Nile as far as the ancient citadel of Memphis, two thirds of which was occupied by the insurgents. Achaemenes was killed in the course of the battle of Papremis in the western Delta.
The second Egyptian satrapy
It is not known who served as satrap after Artaxerxes III, but under Darius III (336–330 BC) there was Sabaces, who fought and died at Issus and was succeeded by Mazaces. Egyptians also fought at Issus, for example, the nobleman Somtutefnekhet of Heracleopolis, who described on the “Naples stele” how he escaped during the battle against the Greeks and how Arsaphes, the god of his city, protected him and allowed him to return home.
In 332 BC Mazaces handed over the country to Alexander the Great without a fight. The Achaemenid empire had ended, and for a while Egypt was a satrapy in Alexander’s empire. Later the Ptolemies and the Romans successively ruled the Nile valley.