Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070–664 B.C.)


At the death of Ramesses XI in the early eleventh century B.C., the throne passed to Smendes, a northern relative of the High Priest of Amun. Smendes’ reign initiated some 400 years of politically divided rule and diffused power, known as the Third Intermediate Period. The Third Intermediate Period laid the foundation for many changes that are observable in art and culture throughout the first millennium. Though its details are still not fully clear, and many questions remain to be answered, this period of Egyptian history can be divided into four general stages. During the first of these, Dynasty 21 (conventionally ca. 1070–945 B.C.), Egypt was governed by pharaohs ruling from Tanis in the eastern Delta and by the High Priests of Amun ruling from Thebes. Relations between the two centers of power were generally good. The second phase began, conventionally, in 945 B.C., when the throne passed to a powerful family of Libyan descent, ruling in the eastern Delta. Egypt’s erstwhile western enemies now became its rulers (Dynasty 22). Despite their Libyan origin, these pharaohs ruled as native Egyptians. The first of them, Sheshonq I, appears in the Bible under the name Shishak, the Egyptian ruler who sacked Jerusalem in Year 5 of the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

In the last third of the ninth century B.C., control of Dynasty 22 began to weaken. Collateral rulers arose, traditionally referred to as Dynasty 23, although scholars now tend to believe the power base of these rulers was not so consistent or cohesive as to constitute a dynasty. In any event, it is clear that rival individuals or factions in Thebes and elsewhere asserted control, while Dynasty 22 continued to rule parts of the Delta. This situation, which obtained for approximately ninety years, constitutes the third phase of the Third Intermediate Period. By the end of the eighth century B.C., Egypt had fragmented further, particularly in the north, where a host of small local rulers held sway: in the eastern Delta, Osorkon IV of Dynasty 22 and Iuput II; in the western Delta and Memphis, Tefnakht of Dynasty 24, ruling from Sais; in Hermopolis, a local kinglet named Namlot; and at Herakleopolis, another local ruler, named Peftjaubast.

Preoccupied with internal rivalries during the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt gradually lost its traditional control of Nubia, located to its south. In the mid-eighth century B.C., an independent native dynasty began to rule Nubia, or Kush, from Napata in what is now the Sudan, and extended its influence into southern Egypt. In about 730 B.C., the Egyptian rulers Namlot and Tefnakht joined forces to extend their control farther into Upper Egypt. The Nubian king Piankhy Piye perceived this as a threat to his independence and moved against the Egyptian coalition. His invasion proved successful, and the various Egyptian rulers known from the later eighth century submitted to his leadership at Memphis about a year later. From this point, Nubian rulers dominated Egypt.

Kushite control was strongest in the south. In the north, Tefnakht’s successor, Bakenrenef, ruled at Sais until Piye’s successor, either Shabaqo or Shebitqo, overthrew him and established rule over all of Egypt. This begins Dynasty 25, or the Kushite Period, the fourth phase of the Third Intermediate Period. Like the Libyans before them, the Kushites governed as Egyptian pharaohs, although elements highlighting Nubian heritage were incorporated in royal representations and iconography and sometimes in nonroyal depictions too (1989.281.98). They further enhanced the role of God’s Wife of Amun, which had been given new importance by their predecessors, making the Divine Wife a virtual surrogate of the pharaoh in the Thebaid.

Nubian rule, which viewed itself as restoring the true traditions of Egypt, benefited Egypt economically and was accompanied by a revival in temple building and the arts that continued throughout the Late Period. At the same time, however, the country faced a growing threat from the Assyrian empire to its east. After fifty years of relative security, Nubian control—and Egypt’s peace —were broken by an Assyrian invasion in ca. 671 B.C. The current pharaoh, Taharqo, retreated south, and the Assyrians established a number of local vassals to rule in their stead in the Delta, including one Necho I of Sais. For the next eight years, Egypt was the battleground between Nubia and Assyria. A brutal Assyrian invasion involving the sack of Thebes, ending in 663 B.C., finally terminated Nubian control of the country. The last pharaoh of Dynasty 25, Tanutamani (664–653 B.C.), retreated to Napata. There, in relative isolation, he and his descendants continued to rule Nubia, becoming known eventually as the Meroitic kingdom, which flourished until the fourth century A.D.

Art and Culture

Significant temple construction or decoration was limited during the Third Intermediate Period, although there were exceptions. Egypt’s monumental built environment remained largely that which had been visible during the New Kingdom, a period that witnessed extensive building and decoration campaigns. These circumstances help explain the overall close stylistic adherence to New Kingdom prototypes of the Thutmoside and early Ramesside Periods for much of the period until the eighth century B.C.

Moreover, locale is a particularly notable factor in style particularly in this period because of the different building histories that distinguish sites or regions. This is most striking in the eighth century B.C., when there was an inclination to look to much earlier monuments as models: for example, Memphis and sites in the Delta had access to Old Kingdom examples that were not as available at Thebes. In figural images, this affinity for earlier styles was manifest particularly in broader shoulders, narrow waists, and emphasized knee and leg musculature. During Dynasty 25, these directions were expressed consistently and with new energy, generating a large body of royal and private works of very high quality (2002.8).

While certain kings of Dynasty 22 were buried at Tanis with famously rich coffins and equipment, elaborately decorated private tombs—well known from the New Kingdom—recurred only in Dynasty 25. Burial practices shifted toward a close concentration on the body rather than elaborate tombs: remarkable painted coffins (25.3.182–184), papyri (22.3.33), and wooden stelae (30.3.31) constituted most of the imagery associated with ritual provision for the afterlife.

In terms of the evolution of the religious landscape and beliefs, small artworks of the Third Intermediate Period are the most reliable indicators. The diffusion and diversity that now characterized Egypt’s political geography extended to religious imagery, especially in Lower Egypt, where the ramified mythologies and imagery of local temples became increasingly apparent alongside those of the great temples and their gods, which had occupied the foreground in the New Kingdom and continued to do so. A proliferation of small royal, nonroyal, and divine statuary, preserved particularly in metal, is probably one result of a new attention to these numerous local temples as arenas for political aspirations, social identification, and artistic production (26.7.1412; 2009.175).

Simultaneously, royal imagery, unleashed from its association with a single ruler, appears much more widely, from relief chalices to jewelry (26.7.971; 26.7.979; 41.160.104; 26.7.1030). The perceived fragility of kingship, or at least its earthly manifestations, may have contributed to the increasing prominence of mythologies associating the king with the divine infant of a pair of gods and, by extension, with the rising sun, a concept most concisely represented in the figure of a divine child squatting atop a lotus blossom. One scholar has aptly termed these aspects of Egyptian religion “mammisiac” after the mammisi (birth house) temples devoted to a divine child that are found alongside first-millennium B.C. goddesses’ temples, although they have earlier origins. The pairing of the goddess Isis and the divine child Horus is one example of this structure and, indeed, the one that ultimately prevailed. Small faience spacers, necklace counterpoises, and rings depict the essential elements of the story, in which Isis protects Horus in the marshes of Khemmis (30.8.239). The image of Isis nursing Horus that eventually became dominant is formulated at this time as an extension of the image of goddesses nursing the young king.

A related development was the increasing importance of certain great goddesses, in particular those designated “Eye of Re,” including Hathor, Mut-Sakhmet-Bastet, Tefnut, Wadjet, and even Isis. The designation refers to the fact that these volatile goddesses are agents of, and counterparts to, the sun god Re. Their importance is exemplified in various mythological stories, one of which, called the Tale of the Faraway Goddess, recounts the wrathful departure of the Eye of Re goddess to faraway Nubia, leaving Egypt in dire straits. Efforts ensue on the part of the gods Thoth and Bes to lure her back, their ultimate success representing the return of normalcy and prosperity (2015.11). These violent but powerful goddesses, when appeased, were forceful protectors and benefactors of the king and humankind. Although it is only recorded in texts much later, reference to the Tale of the Faraway Goddess in the Third Intermediate Period is frequently perceptible in small faience objects.