The remains of the Great Temple of Amun lies beneath “The Pure Mountain” Jebel Barkal in northern Sudan. In the 8th Century BC it was a sacred place and it was were Pharaoh felt most at home. From his Palace at Napata he lived in the old ways, pious and respectful of the gods, he was a lover of ceremony, religion and horses.
His name was Piye, meaning “The Living One”, he was King of Kush, the most powerful state of Nubia, but he was also Pharaoh, the Lord of the Two Lands of Egypt.
He laid claim to the throne of Egypt through the auspices of the priesthood of Amun whose
cult had long ago been deposited in his country by the Pharaoh Thutmose III. Thutmose had gone to war with the “Vile” Kingdom of Kush and crushed it, seizing its people, cities and gold. In his destructive wake he left a legacy that would one day save his country. He built a Temple at the foot of a Nubian sacred mountain and integrated the Kushites with Egyptians. Young Nubian nobles travelled to Thebes to learn Egyptian writing, science and religion and brought it back home.
Thus imbued with the culture of a conqueror the Kings of Kush, once Egypt’s implacable enemy, slowly became the defender of its most ancient customs, and Piye would be the most ardent champion yet.
Already he had done more than even his father. Word had come that the cities of Upper Egypt (that is the south) was in danger of social and political collapse. The power of the Pharaoh’s had been dead in the two lands for many years now. In the north a host of Libyan Warlords had turned the Delta into a jigsaw of city states, and the south was not much better, held together by princes and priests. At least four Prince’s had claimed the name of Pharaoh, but had done nothing to earn it. There had been a fifth claimant however; Piye. Upon ascending the throne of Kush, he proclaimed himself Lord of Upper Egypt in Thebes, and left a garrison there before returning to Napata.
As impressive as this sounds it really achieved little more than reaffirming his claim to the throne and fixing a territorial boundary. Indeed Piye’s father Kashta had exercised a powerful influence in Thebes were he had managed to get Piye’s sister Amenirdis installed as gods wife of Amun, the highest priestess in the cult. With things so secure Piye was not at all bothered about going back to Nubia.
The Nubian Pharaoh is a faceless and ageless man. Nothing is known about whether he was old when he went to be judged by Osiris, nor is it known when he was born. However he is thought to have ascended the throne in 751 BC and died in 721, by my guess he would be in his late forties or fifties when his greatest challenge arose, but that’s just a guess.
Nubian “Spear” rattling was a good unifier and for more people than just the Egyptians. At least that’s what the Great Chief of the West Prince of Seis, Tefnakht thought. Possibly In 729 Piye’s regnal year 20, Tefnakht pulled together an alliance of the “Feather Wearing Chiefs” of the Delta who became like “Dogs at his Heels”, and determined to seize Upper Egypt. His large army swept across the west and as far south as Itj-tawy.
Bent on total conquest Tefnakht advanced down both sides of the Nile and laid siege to
Herakleopolis, the gateway to Thebes and Upper Egypt. One of his greatest coups was to entice Nimlot the ruler of Khmun to join his northern confederation, taking the gamble Nimlot tore up his treaty with Piye and went over to Tefnakht.
The Nubian Pharaoh didn’t need an extensive foreign office operation to find out something smelled fishy in the north. With southern Egypt in his thrall, and his priestess sister basically ruling Thebes, it didn’t take long to learn that the city of Amun was in danger.
His reaction could not have been calmer, when the message arrived he burst out laughing, a sound to have sent chills down every rebel’s spine no doubt. Messages were sent to his commanders in Egypt; Purem, and Lemersekeny, to mobilise. Piye’s victory stele has him giving explicit orders on what to do:
“Hasten into battle line, engage in battle, surround …. , capture its people, its cattle, its ships upon the river. Let not the peasants go forth to the field, let not the ploughmen plough, beset the frontier of the Hare nome, fight against it daily… “[Delay] not [day nor] night, as at a game of draughts; (but) fight ye on sight. Force battle upon him from afar. If he says to the infantry and chariotry of another city, ‘Hasten;’ (then) ye shall abide until his army comes, that ye may fight as he says. But if his allies be in another city, (then) let one hasten to them; these princes whom he has brought for his support: Libyans and favourite soldiers, force battle upon them [first[. Say, ‘We know not what he cries in mustering troops. Yoke the war horses, the best of thy stable; draw up the line of battle! Thou knowest that Amun is the god who has sent us.’ ”
Piye was also very clear that the army was to exemplify the piety of its master, and by extension glorify Amun. The army would muster at Thebes, their main goal; to defend it. Once there the troops went through purifying rituals in front of the temple of Amun at Karnak designed to show their noble cause as saviours and defenders by honouring the gods.
“When ye arrive at Thebes, before Karnak, ye shall enter into the water, ye shall bathe in the river, ye shall dress in [fine linen]… Sprinkle yourselves with the water of his altars, sniff the ground…”
After bathing and dressing, the army bowed before its commanders and gave an oath to Piye by their proxy, then the war really began. Warfare in ancient Egypt was conducted on two planes, earth and water, with the gods playing unseen support backup as a third force. Now the troops had been instilled with the crusading zeal of their Pharaoh a two pronged attack was launched. A powerful flotilla sailed north down the Nile while the rest of the army marched alongside, carrying out the Pharaoh’s commands to ravage, capture and burn. These activities would have been carried out along the desert caravan routes. Not far from Thebes, (I’m guessing between Abydos and Dendera) the navy encountered the rebel fleet, which had probably chosen this point, were the Nile makes a short but sharp turn, to oppose the advance of Piye troops.
The battle was fierce but poorly recorded except to say that the Nubians crushed their opponents, who had come in many boats filled with soldiers, and killed a numberless amount. Leaving the corpses of the northerners bobbing against the Nile bank for the Crocodiles and carrion to gorge on. The advance continued, Hermopolis was besieged, the city of the traitor Nimlot, and bottling it up they moved on towards Herakleopolis, clamouring for a battle on land.
Piye’s pre campaign rituals appear to have fired up his troops, whose morale was at fever pitch, without even having seen Pharaoh amongst them. It was near the city the northerners made their stand, on the east bank near Per-Peg. Again the details are scarce, and perhaps this is because battles in those days tended to be as simple as both armies slamming into one another and one running away, but given the Kushite’s love of horses, it must have been a little more complicated than that. The northern army had gathered another fleet to guard their right flank, but their infantry could not stand before the elite Nubian shock troops who cut them down and pursued them with cavalry and chariots, slaughtering them up to the banks of the Nile. The survivors did not stay to fight Pharaoh’s fleet and crossed to the other side retreating towards Per-Peg.
Despite these remarkable victories, when the full report reached Piye he was displeased. Actually he uncharacteristically blew up, so that he was said to roar like a panther. He had hoped his generals would have massacred the enemy and done away with their leaders, but Nimlot had not been captured and a sizeable chunk of the rebel army had escaped. Pharaoh decided that if you want something done properly you have to do it yourself.
He travelled north stopping at Thebes to celebrate the feast of Opet, then swore to make the northern chiefs taste the taste of his fingers… (I suppose it was a terrifying thing to say back then).
As Piye sailed down the river to Thebes, word reached his army of the Kings fury. This worried the commanders who made a concerted effort to end the war before Pharaoh caught up. Through a superhuman effort they took, Oxyrhynchus, washing away it’s defenders like a flood, then they besieged Tetehen, a tougher nut to crack apparently as they had to build a battering ram to smash in its wall, a numberless amount of northerners were killed and if that was not enough they also broke into the citadel of Hatbenu. But like in the biblical plagues of Egypt, Piye would not soften his heart towards his army, even as word of their successes reached him his heart remained hard. Here was truly a hard taskmaster.
Pharaoh Piye King of Nubia, Lord of the two Lands beloved of Ra son of Amun etc etc, dressed in full pharaonic splendour disembarked from his barge at Hermopolis and entered his war chariot. He then drove among his troops, besieging the city, “Is the steadfastness of your fighting this slackness in my affairs?” he asked them, one can imagine them shouting back “No, never!”
“Has the year reached its end, when the fear of me has been inspired in the Northland? A great and evil blow shall be smitten them.” from the battlements of Hermopolis the defenders would be able to hear the cheers of the Nubians and southern Egyptians. As the days passed they saw first the King’s camp appear to the southwest, then the mud wall begin to rim their city, then they had to duck to avoid the thousands of missiles that were rained down on them day after day, until the unburied dead began to stink in the streets.
The odour carried to the Egyptian lines. Then in the custom of the times Nimlot sent for terms but was refused until he sent out his female relatives to beg for mercy from Pharaoh’s harem. He offered Piye a sistrum of gold and lapis lazuli, and a horse. Pharaoh’s women seem to have been persuaded and were no less so with their master, for Nimlot is next seen showing Piye around the palace and being reproved not for rebelling but for ignoring his horse’s during the siege.
“It is more painful to me that my horses should be hungry than every ill deed you have done!” he told the tremulous Nimlot pointing at the starving animals.
Though you wouldn’t think it Pharaoh’s presence with the army made it exceed its former achievements. Hearing of the invincible reputation of the Nubians cities flung open their gates, at the first summons Heracleopolis, Per-Sekhemkhperre, Meidum and Itjtawy fell to the persuasive argument that those who opposed him were as the living dead, until they reached Memphis that is, the old Capitol known as the balance of the two lands.
The greatest city in the north was not impressed by Piye threats of utter annihilation and laid down the gauntlet. Tefnakht knew that if Memphis fell then he would be in a bad way, the city harbour had not yet been blockaded so he slipped in with reinforcements and encouraged his the garrison now swelled to 8,000 men.
Memphis was a hard nut to crack, it had a new wall and was manned by a strong garrison. Piye’s generals were at a loss and suggested ideas of how to break in “Let us besiege [it] …. ; lo, its troops are numerous.” Others said: “Let a causeway be made against it, let us elevate the ground to its walls. Let us bind together a tower; let us erect masts and make the spars into a bridge to it. We will divide it on this (plan) on every side of it, on the high ground and ….. on the north of it, in order to elevate the ground at its walls, that we may find a way for our feet.” Piye was appalled at their indecision and flew into one of his “Panther” like rages and swore by Ra and Amun to take the city. How? It would be penetrated the way it had been reinforced, when Pharaoh had arrived he had seen that the river was high and had flooded most of the approaches but that would only make it easier to get his fleet inside. Piye gathered every boat and barge on that part of the Nile, crammed them with soldiers and massed his land forces for a two pronged assault. Joining his men in the boats he gave them their orders in a galvanising but characteristically practical speech,
“Forward against it! Mount the walls! Penetrate the houses over the river. If one of you gets through upon the wall, let him not halt before it, [so that] the (hostile) troops may not repulse you. It were vile that we should close up the South, should land [in] the North and lay siege in ‘Balances of the Two Lands’.”
Piye’s forces struck like an anvil, Piye lead the way into the harbour himself, crushed all opposition and seized the citadel in a dramatic assault. Once master of the ancient city the population quavered over their fate, they had refused surrender terms and were at Piankhi’s mercy. Piye’s panther rage had disappeared in the battle, and with his blood lust assuaged he realised he would win more cities if he was lenient and spared them. He reaffirmed his image as the righteous saviour pharaoh of old by offering thanks to the patron god Ptah, then marched on to complete the conquest of the north.
With the fall of Memphis the many feathered chiefs came to beg mercy. They asked Piye to let them go home in peace in return for complete loyalty and tribute in the form of gold, and the best horses of their studs. Horses, religion and gold were the ways to Piye’s heart and he happily granted them their terms.
Nevertheless Tefnakht was still at large and in control of the entire Weestern Delta. However now his teeth too were drawn, another halfhearted rebellion failed, but though he knew the end was nigh, Piye also knew he could afford to be generous when Tefnakht asked for a Kushite embassy to visit him in Sais instead of him coming to pay homage to the Nubian Pharaoh. A prolonged war against Tefnakht was not what Pharaoh wanted, though we would have been better investing in one.
Egypt was once more at peace, not a separated county of city states, but for the most part unified under the old order, under one king, one Pharaoh, who just happened to come and rule from Egypt’s old enemy Nubia that they had tried so hard to crush. The reign of Piye signals the last great period of classical Egyptian civilisation, carrying with it the hope of a return to the glory days, as he had wished he had lived up to his ancestors stalwart acceptance of their enemies religion, turning the tables on history by paradoxically being the instrument that allowed the Egyptians to once more unite. He returned to his Nubian Capitol at Napata after the campaign. He did not want to politically annex Egypt he wanted to free it and return it to it’s former religion and customs, even if Tefnakht did start trouble again when his back was turned he felt he had done what he was ordained to do. Having accomplished his life’s work, he had a victory stela put up in the Temple of Amun at Jebel Barkal in 728 the 21st year of his reign and died in 720 eight years later having saved Egypt and founded the 25th Dynasty, perhaps one of the most romantic of Pharaoh’s, and certainly one of the most mysterious.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: Toby Wilkinson.
Victory Stele of Piankhy (Piye).
Feb 2008 National Geographic, Black Pharaoh’s by Robert Draper. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/02/black-pharaohs/robert-draper-text.html
Qadesh 1300: Clash of the Warrior King’s, Mark Healy.
New Kingdom Egypt, Mark Healy