How Did Psamtek I Save Ancient Egypt?

Bust of Psamtek I in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Psamtek I (ruled 664-610 BC), often referred by his Greek name Psammetichus, is considered one of ancient Egypt’s greatest kings because he saved the civilization from centuries of cultural decline and foreign rule. Beginning in the middle of the Twentieth Dynasty, around 1150 BC, Egypt began a long yet steady decline where it first lost its imperial possessions and then was overcome by a series of Libyan invasions and migrations.

Egypt eventually entered into what is termed the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1095-664 BC), where the country was fragmented into several autonomous zones, many of which were ruled by Libyans or Egyptians of Libyan descent. The lowest point was when the Assyrians conquered and decimated Egypt in the seventh century. But out of the ashes of Assyrian dominance came Psamtek I, perhaps somewhat ironically because he was of Libyan descent.

Psamtek helped save Egypt by unifying the country once more and establishing a new politically stable dynasty, the Twenty-Sixth, in the Delta city of Sais. From Sais, Psamtek I consolidated his power through a number of different methods. Although he made Egypt independent from Assyria, he maintained diplomatically beneficially ties with the Near Eastern Empire. Psamtek I then modernized the Egyptian army, defeated a major Libyan rebellion in the Western Desert, and patronized two important religious cults that were vital for him to secure his power base outside of the Delta.

The Saite Dynasty

Political Map of Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period: Sais Was Ruled by the Libyan “Chiefs of the West”

Psamtek I is generally considered to be the father of Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, which is often referred to as the “Saite Dynasty” and the kings as “Saites” because they hailed from the Delta city of Sau – Greek “Sais.” In a somewhat ironic turn of history, the Saites were descended from Libyan tribes known as the Libu, who infiltrated the western Delta in the ninth century BC. By the early eighth century, the tribal leaders established a power base in Sais and began referring to themselves as the “Great Chiefs of the West” and the “Great Chiefs of the Libu,” but not as Egyptian kings. [1] But the Libu gradually became Egyptianized and their leaders began assuming Egyptian royal titles and prerogatives.

Shortly after the Nubian King Piye/Piankhy (reigned 744-714 BC) defeated all of the many Libyan descended potentates in Egypt and established the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty in 728 BC, the ruler of Sais, Bakenrenef (ruled 720-715 BC), took power over the Delta and claimed to be pharaoh, but was killed by the Nubian King Shabaqa (reigned 715-702 BC). Although Bakenrenef was killed, the Nubians’ rule over Egypt was tenuous and the noble family continued to operate in Sais. [2]

Nekau and the Assyrians

The Saites played the long game as the Nubians ruled Egypt, feigning fealty but also considering all potential options. When the Assyrians under Esarhaddon (reigned 680-669 BC) took control of Egypt in 671 BC, Nekau, the prince of Sais, was willing to work with the new overlords. As part of Assyrian tradition, Nekau and the other Egyptian princes had to give loyalty oaths to Esarhaddon and then Ashurbanipal (ruled 668-663 BC), which if broken could result in death. The Assyrian sources indicate that Nekau broke his oath to Ashurbanipal by conspiring with the Nubian King Taharqa (reigned 690-664 BC), possibly to get even more power over the Delta region. Although Ashurbanipal put down the plot and executed some of the rebellious princes, he not only spared Nekau for some reason, but also made his son, Psamtek I, prince of the city of Arthribis. An Assyrian language text relates how Psamtek (Nabushezibanni) was a hostage in the Assyrian capital city of Ashur before he was elevated to the prince of Arthribis.

“From all of them, I had mercy upon Necho and granted him life. I made a (treaty) with him (protected by) oaths which greatly surpassed (those of the former treaty). I clad him in a garment with multicolored trimmings, placed a golden chain on him (as the) insigne of his kingship, put golden rings on his hands . . . I returned him to Sais as residence (the place) where my own father had appointed him king. Nabushezibanni, his son, I appointed for Arthribis (thus) treating him with more friendliness and favor than my own father did.” [3]

The Saites were still the vassals of the Assyrians, but they were essentially rulers of Egypt. The Nubians, though, under Tantamani (reigned 664 BC) made one last play for the Egyptian throne. According to the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, Tantamani killed Nekau in an attempt to become king of Egypt. The passage states: “Psammetichus” Nekau’s heir, “fled the country to escape Sabacos, the Ethiopian, who had killed Necos his father.” [4]

The account is anachronistic with some of the details, but is primarily accurate. Sabacos/Shabaqa was still well-known in Herodotus’ in Egypt due to the monuments with his name inscribed on them, while Tantamani left little record of his rule, which is probably why the former is anachronistically listed as assailant. For his part, Nekau disappeared from the historical record, his son Psamtek took the reins of power, and Ashurbanipal responded with a major campaign deep into Egypt, which would all suggest that Nekau was in fact killed by Tantamani.

Psamtek I in Power

After Ashurbanipal vanquished the Nubians from Egypt, he was too weakened to maintain a hold over the country so Psamtek I took over sole rule of Egypt in 664 BC. Although the Assyrians were gone, Psamtek I walked a careful geo-political line and kept an alliance with them. [5] With Egypt’s flank protected with the Assyrian alliance, Psamtek I was able to focus on domestic issues, such as modernizing the Egyptian military. Psamtek I began a trend of close diplomatic, military, and economic relations with the Greeks. Later Saite kings would allow Greeks to establish military and trade colonies in the Delta cities of Naucratis and Daphne, but it all began when Psamtek I hired and allowed Ionian and Carian mercenaries to settle in Egypt. Herodotus wrote:

“To the Ionians and Carians who helped him to gain the throne Psammetichus granted two pieces of land, opposite one another on each side of the Nile . . . The tracts of land where the Ionians and Carians settled, and where they lived for many years, lie a little distance seaward form Bubastis, on the Pelusian mouth of the Nile.” [6]

Because Psamtek I established a new dynasty during a period of relative instability, he primarily used his new army to consolidate his power close to home. A stela discovered near Saqqara documents a major military campaign conducted by Psamtek I during the eleventh year of his rule. The badly damaged text describes a Libyan uprising in the Western Desert that Psamtek I responded to by ordering a military draft, which was conducted by local mayors. [7] There were no more problems with the Libyans recorded after the eleventh year.

Psamtek I and Egyptian Religious Cults

Relief of Psamtek I Offering to the Gods

Perhaps the most important policies Psamtek I enacted were in regards to the maintenance and patronage of two ancient Egypt’s most important religious institutions in the Late Period – the Apis cult and the God’s Wife of Amun. Apis was the name of a living, sacred bull that the Egyptians believed was the living incarnation of Osiris, the god of the dead. The bull was provided with luxurious living quarters while it was alive and after it died it was mummified and interred with previous Apis bulls in a subterranean burial chamber known as the Serapeum. [8] The cult probably dated back as far as the Second Dynasty, but it was not until the New Kingdom when the Serapeum began being used. Psamtek I patronized the cult and began construction of the “Great Burial Chamber” of the Serapeum, which would continue to be used for centuries by later dynasties. [9]

The other major religious institution that the Psamtek I patronized was known as the God’s Wife of Amun. As the name indicates, it was a female led organization that worshipped the god Amun and was based in his cult center of Thebes. There was one woman who held the title at a time and with it came a great amount of power and wealth as well as responsibilities. The office dates back to the early New Kingdom, but it was later politicized by the Nubians. The Nubian kings appointed women from the royal family to consolidate their power in the Thebes region. [10] Although the Nubians were the mortal enemies of his family, Psamtek I was politically astute enough to know a good political policy when he saw one. In his desire to strengthen his hold over Upper Egypt, particularly the important Thebes region and the Amun cult, he installed his daughter, Nitoqris, as the God’s Wife of Amun. He then memorialized the move in a decree that detailed her powers and how much wealth she would have. The Saite King Psamtek II (ruled 595-589 BC) followed suite by both installing his daughter, Ankhesneferibre, in the office and by publishing the choice in a decree. [11] By using the God’s Wife of Amun politically, Psamtek I was able to gain control over Thebes, ensuring that it never rebelled against him or his successors.


When Egypt’s New Kingdom collapsed around 1075 BC, it entered a period of decline and chaos that lasted for centuries. First Libyan rule, then Nubian and Assyrian rule marked this period, which finally ended when Psamtek I came to power in 664 BC and unified Egypt once more. Through his efforts to maintain important diplomatic ties, modernize the Egyptian military, and patronize important Egyptian religious institutions, Psamtek I was not only able to consolidate his power, but also to ensure that his dynasty would be fairly long and relatively stable. Because of his policies, Psamtek I saved Egypt from an abyss and became perhaps the most effective pharaoh of the Late Period.


  1. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 628
  2. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Fragments 68-69
  3. Lukenbill, Daniel David, ed. and trans. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. Two Volumes. (London: Histories of Man, 2004), p. 2:295
  4. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2003), Book II, 152
  5. Luckenbill, p. 2:299
  6. Herodotus, Book II, 154
  7. Manuelian, Peter D. Studies in Archaism of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. (London: Keegan Paul International, 1994), p. 628
  8. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (London: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 36
  9. Gomaà, Farouk. Chaemwese Sohn Ramses II und Hoherpriester von Memphis. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1973), p. 39
  10. Ayad, Mariam F. God’s Wife, God’s Servant: The God’s Wife of Amun (c. 740-525 BC). (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 118
  11. Ayad, p. 120