Saite Period, or Dynasty 26 (664–525 B.C.)
When the Assyrians withdrew after their final invasion in 664 B.C., Egypt was left in the hands of the Saite kings, though it was actually only in 656 B.C. that the Saite ruler Psamtik I was able to reassert control over the southern area of the country, dominated by Thebes. For the next 130 years, Egypt enjoyed the benefits of rule by a single strong family, Dynasty 26. Elevated to power by the invading Assyrians, Dynasty 26 faced a world in which Egypt was no longer concerned with its role in international power politics but with its sheer survival as a nation. The long and rich traditions behind them, however, fortified the culture, which saw a new phase of artistic expression in stone monuments and statuary. Later generations would remember this dynasty as representative of Egyptian history, and would in turn recapitulate Saite forms.
Under Saite rule, Egypt grew from a vassal of Assyria to an independent ally. There were even echoes of the bygone might of Egypt’s New Kingdom in Saite military campaigns into Asia Minor (after the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C.) and Nubia. In pursuit of these goals, however, the Saite pharaohs had to rely on foreign mercenaries—Carian (from southwestern Asia Minor, modern Turkey), Phoenician, and Greek—as well as Egyptian soldiers. These different ethnic groups lived in their own quarters at Memphis, the capital city. The Greek city-states were also allowed to establish a trading settlement at Naukratis in the western Delta, which, with the mixed Greek-Egyptian settlement at Thonis/Heraklion, served as a direct conduit for cultural influences traveling from Egypt to Greece. Greeks also settled many other areas in the Delta.
After the fall of Assyria in 612 B.C., the major foreign threat to Egypt came from the Babylonians. Although Babylonia had invaded Egypt in 568 B.C. during a brief civil war, the countries formed an alliance in 547 B.C. against the rising threat of a third power, the Persian empire—but to no avail. The Persians conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. and Egypt in 525 B.C., bringing an end to the Saite dynasty and native control of Egypt.
Persian Period, or Dynasty 27 (525–404 B.C.)
Egypt’s new Persian overlords adopted the traditional title of pharaoh, but unlike the Libyans and Nubians before them, they ruled as foreigners rather than Egyptians. For the first time in its 2,500-year history as a nation, Egypt was no longer independent. Though recognized as an Egyptian dynasty, Dynasty 27, the Persians ruled through a resident governor, called a satrap, helped by local native chiefs. Persian domination actually benefited Egypt under Darius I (521–486 B.C.), who built temples and public works, reformed the legal system, and strengthened the economy. And the Persian dynasties introduced the qanat irrigation system from Iran to the Egyptian Western Desert, permitting water to be channeled through tunnels over long distances and without prohibitive evaporation. The military defeat of Persia by the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C., however, inspired resistance in Egypt, and for nearly a century thereafter, Persian control was challenged by a series of local Egyptian kings, primarily in the Delta.
Dynasties 28–30 (404–343 B.C.)
In 404 B.C., a coalition of these rulers succeeded in overthrowing their Persian masters. From 404 to 399 B.C., Egypt seems to have been ruled by Amyrtaios II of Sais, who is traditionally recognized as the only pharaoh of Dynasty 28. Control then passed for twenty years (399–380 B.C.) to Dynasty 29, in the eastern Delta city of Mendes, and finally to Dynasty 30, in the mid-Delta city of Sebennytos.
The first king of Dynasty 30, Nectanebo I (380–362 B.C.), managed to repel a Persian attack shortly after he ascended the throne. The remaining years of his reign were fairly peaceful and were marked by an ambitious program of temple construction, which was continued on an even grander scale by Nectanebo II (360–343 B.C.). The latter king managed to hold off another Persian attack in 351 B.C., but in 343 B.C. a third attack succeeded, and Egypt fell once again to the Persians, who were defeated in turn by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. These final invasions were the death blow to Egyptian control of their own country.
Art and Culture
During the Late Period, the reemergence of a centralized royal tradition that interacted with a relatively decentralized network of influences inherited from the Third Intermediate Period created a rich artistic atmosphere.
Particularly among royal artworks, it is possible to speak of marked affinities for models from certain anterior periods: Saite kings admired Old and New Kingdom models, and later kings of Dynasty 30 looked back beyond the Persian interlude to the kings of late Dynasty 26 (24.2.2; 1982.318; 09.183.1a1–23). Viewed from the perspective of metal statuary produced in temples, or of non-royal artworks, stylistic patterns suggest a complex interplay of influences. Styles were less hierarchically determined by the power of the king than in previous periods, with the result that the choices of patrons and artists are more recognizable. A taste for realistic modeling of features of non-royal persons emerged and grew, while attention to the naturalistic modeling of flesh and bone in human and animal sculpture reached new heights (1992.55; 1989.281.102).
Following the period of Persian rule, the kings of Dynasties 28 through 30 brought a new focus to their roles as maintainers of a long tradition. In the face of threatening outside powers, prodigious temple building and statuary production enacted an impressive reformulation and promulgation of the concept of divine kingship and formalized many other aspects of Egypt’s ancient artistic and religious traditions (2003.154; 34.2.1; 12.182.4c; 1996.91). Despite the construction of some major relief-decorated tombs for high officials at Thebes and in the Saqqara region (23.3.468; 07.229.1a,b), temples were the focus of funerary cults, and were the locale for the placement of statues. At the same time, cults associated with the god Osiris became cohabitants of almost every temple, and small objects associated with this god, such as metal statuary, dominate the material remains.
The Persian Period remains difficult to gauge because of a lack of monuments and statues. In addition, there are as problems in identifying particular features of the material culture of the period (1989.281.94). Specific groups of materials do paint a picture of certain communities and point to continuities that surely existed. For example, a remarkable fifth-century B.C. group of papyri documents the lives and concerns of the Jewish community at Elephantine, while the records of the local temple bureaucracy at Ayn Manawir in Kharga Oasis reveal a community actively maintaining religious practices and interactions with other oasis and Nile valley communities.
One notable feature of these periods is the diversity of religious practices manifest in inscriptions and material remains, including records of temple building, land donations to temples, provision of small divine statuary (17.190.62), animal mummy provision, “corn mummy” provision, public festivals, consultation of oracles, and “letters to gods.” At least the first four in this partial list seem to have involved participation by elites in meeting the requirements of temples, a role attributed to kings alone for many centuries, although the reality might not be so absolute. Festivals and oracles seem to have generated wide public interest, and associated with them are small artworks that might have served as talismans or offerings.