How Did the Ancient City of Sais Rise to Prominence?

Map of Ancient Egypt and Nubia: Sais Is in the Western Delta

Among all of ancient Egypt’s important cities, Sais, or Sau in the ancient Egyptian language, is perhaps the most overlooked. Memphis was the political capital for most of pharaonic history, Thebes was an important religious center in the Middle and New kingdoms, as well serving as a secondary political capital, and Alexandria became the urban focus of Egypt after the Greek Ptolemies conquered the land in the fourth century BC. But from 664 BC until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC Sais was among the most, if not the most important cities in Egypt. Unlike the other great Egyptian cities, though, Sais had a very different path to glory.

For most of pharaonic history, Sais was little more than an obscure religious outpost in the Western Delta. Although it probably was known for being the cult center of the goddess Neith from an early period, it was not notable for much else in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. In the Late Bronze Age, though, as waves of Libyan migrants and invaders entered the Delta, Sais became one of the centers of a new Libyo-Egyptian culture. Eventually, a Libyan descended political dynasty formed in Sais that ruled all of Egypt for more than 100 years, bringing immense political and religious influence to the formerly sleepy city. Even after the Saite Dynasty fell, Sais continued to be an important urban and religious center as documented by Greek historians and geographers such as Herodotus, Diodorus, and Strabo.

Early Sais

Early French Egyptologist, Jean-Francois Champollion’s 1828 Drawing of Sais’ Layout

Ancient Sais was located in the Western Delta on the Canopic branch of the Nile River, where it had easy access to the Mediterranean Sea to the north and Memphis and the rest of Egypt to the south. The modern village of Sa el-Hagar covers some of the ancient site, while the rest of it sits beneath either farmland or the water table, which has made excavating the city difficult since its modern discovery in the nineteenth century. It is not known how old the city is, but since Sais was the center of the goddess Neith’s cult, and her cult is known to have existed in the First Dynasty (c. 3100-2890 BC), the city may be as old as the cult. [1] Sais may have been settled at a relatively early date, but it remained an obscure location in the big picture until the Libyans upended the geopolitical picture in Egypt.

The Libyans were the people who occupied the Western Desert and the oases just to the west of the Nile River in ancient times. Although many different distinct tribes, the Libyans often formed alliances to challenge the Egyptians at different points in history. The Tjehenu were among the first Libyan tribes mentioned in Egyptian texts in the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-2345 BC), [2] although it was not until the New Kingdom, particularly the “Ramesside Period” (c. 1295-1153 BC), when the Libyans posed a serious threat to Egypt’s security. In order to combat the threat, Ramesses II (ruled c. 1279-1213 BC) erected a series of border forts in the Western Delta, which were intended to keep the Libyans out of Egypt, but eventually became mass migration points and trading centers where Libyans and Egyptians peacefully interacted. [3] By the beginning of the first millennium BC, the Libyans who had settled near those forts in the Western Delta had become “Egyptianized” to a certain extent, while keeping certain elements of their ancient tribal allegiances.

The most powerful Libyan tribe that emerged in the Western Delta in the early first millennium BC was known as the “Libu.” The Libu were known to the Egyptians in the New Kingdom but by 770 BC descendants of the tribe had established a political dynasty in Sais known as the “Great Chiefs of the Libu” and the “Great Chiefs of the Ma,” which was another prominent Libyan tribe in the New Kingdom. [4]

Sais as a political center is first documented in the late eighth century when the Nubian King Piye (ruled c. 747-716 BC; Egypt from 728 BC onward) embarked on a military campaign to wrest control of Egypt. Piy personally led his army north from Thebes into the Delta, where he encountered various Libyan chieftains, including Tefnakht, the Chief of the Ma and ruler of Sais. [5] Although Tefnakht was defeated, he kept a certain amount of autonomy and instituted the Egyptian Twenty-Fourth Dynasty.

Tefnakht’s successor at Sais was a man named Bakenrenef (ruled c. 720-715), who although only ruling the area of the Western Delta, was listed as the sole king of the Twenty-Fourth Dynasty by the third century BC Hellenized Egyptian historian and priest, Manetho. According to Manetho, Bakenrenef was burned alive by the Nubian King Shabaqa (ruled 716-702), who led an army into Egypt in order to reassert Nubian dominance over the Nile Valley. [6] Despite the regicide Sais’s most influential person, the city was by that time an important political center that the Nubians could not ignore.

In the early seventh century BC, a group of hereditary nobles was headquartered in Sais, who if not directly descended from Tefnakht and Bakenrenef, more than likely shared at least some familial connections. The counts of Sais walked a political tightrope between the Nubians and Assyrians, with Nekau, the count of Sais, ultimately choosing the Assyrians. According to the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus, the ephemeral Nubian King Tantamani (ruled 664 BC) assassinated Nekau, sending his heir Psammetichus (Psamtek I) fleeing to Assyria. [7] Psamtek I, though, played the political game better than his father, as he used the Assyrians to vanquish the Nubians from Egypt, place him on the Egyptian throne, and then ignore the commands of the weakened Assyrians who were by that time fighting for their lives against the Medes and Neo-Babylonians.

Sais under the Saites

Grantie Stela of Psamtek I (ruled 664-610 BC)
King Apries II (589-570 BC)

Beyond the limited observations done at Sais in the early nineteenth century, most of what is known about the city comes from a combination of statues and stelae recovered in other cities, a few Egyptian inscriptions, and some classical Greek accounts. The accounts mention that among the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty kings – often referred to as the “Saite Dynasty” – who built in the city, Psamtek I, Apries, and Ahmose/Amasis II (reigned 570-526 BC) were the most active. A general description by Herodotus states that the city was the home of the royal necropolis of the Saite kings, which was part of the goddess Neith’s temple complex, whom the Greeks referred to as “Athena.”

“The people of Sais buried all the kings who came from the province inside this precinct – the tomb of Amasis, too, though further from the shrine than that of Apries and his ancestors, is in the temple court, a great cloistered building of stone, decorated with pillars carved in imitation of palm-trees, and other costly ornaments. Within the cloister is a chamber with double doors, and behind the doors stands the sepulcher. Here too, in Athene’s precinct at Sais, is the tomb of one whose name I prefer not to mention in such a connexion; it stands behind the shrine and occupies the whole length of the wall. Great stone obelisks stand in the enclosure, and there is a stone-bordered lake nearby, circular in shape and about the size, I should say, of the lake called the Wheel on the island of Delos. It is on this lake that the Egyptians act by night in what they call their Mysteries the Passion of that being whose name I will not speak.” [8]

Like the better preserved temples in Upper Egypt, the Temple of Neith was probably massive and added to by successive kings. It is difficult to say for sure when construction of the temple began, but Amasis II was still adding to it in his reign.

“His first work was the marvelous gateway for the temple of Athene at Sais. He left everyone else far behind him by the size and height of this building, and by the size and quality of the blocks of stone which it was constructed. He then presented to the temple some large statues and immense men-sphinxes, and brought for its repair other enormous blocks of stone, some from the quarries near Memphis, and the biggest of all from Elephantine, which is twenty days’ voyage by river from Sais. But what caused me more astonishment than anything else was a room hollowed from a single block of stone; this block also came from Elephantine, and took three years to bring to Sais, two thousand men, all of the pilot-class, having the task of conveying it.” [9]

Sais after the Saites

Statue of the Priest, Udjahorresnet

Saite rule in Egypt was abruptly ended when Achaemenid Persian King Cambyses (ruled Egypt 525-522 BC) conquered Egypt. The evidence indicates that the Persians were largely tolerant of and even observed some Egyptian religious and cultural traditions, although Sais and the Neith Temple may have incurred some damage in the initial invasion. According to an inscription on the statue of an Egyptian priest, doctor, and high official named Udjahorresnet, who served under the Persians, Cambyses restored the temple, and presumably the city, to its former greatness.

“The Chief doctor Udjahorresnet, born from Atumirdis, he said: I petitioned to the majesty fo the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cambyses, concerning all the foreigners who dwell in the Neith Temple. I asked Cambyses to drive out the foreigners from the Neith Temple and restore it to its former greatness. His majesty ordered the expulsion of all foreigners who were residing in the confines of the Neith Temple by throwing out their beds and any other offensive items they left behind.” [10]

Sais was undoubtedly still important when the Persians came to Egypt, although its role in the country was quickly fading. Sais would never again be Egypt’s political capital, although the Neith Temple was still important when the Greeks and Romans ruled the Nile Valley. Herodotus, who visited Egypt personally, noted that a large festival known as the “Festival of Lamps” was still held there in his time,[11] while the first century BC Greek geographer, Strabo, stopped in Sais when he visited Egypt, noting the Neith Temple and the tomb of Psamtek I. [12]


The ancient city of Sais may not have the name recognition of some of Egypt’s other notable cities, but for a relatively brief period in history it was the most important site in the kingdom. Sais’s rise to prominence did not take place overnight as it did for Alexandria, or even Memphis to a certain degree, but appears to have been very gradual. For centuries Sais was little more than an obscure Delta outpost that was the cult center of the goddess Neith, but in the early first millennium it rose to political prominence when Libyan descended chieftains established a political dynasty in the city. Sais then became Egypt’s political capital for more than 100 years, and even after the Saite Dynasty was overthrown the city continued to be important due to the immense size and influence of the Neith Temple.


  1. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 250
  2. Wainwright, G.A. “The Meshwesh.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 48 (1962) p. 89
  3. Snape, Steven. “The Emergence of Libya on the Horizon of Egypt.” In Mysterious Lands. Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London: University College London Press, 2003), pgs. 100-104
  4. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 628
  5. Morkot, Robert. The Black Pharaohs: Egypt’s Nubian Rulers. (London: The Rubicon Press, 2000), p. 195
  6. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Frgs. 66-67
  7. Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (London: Penguin, 2003), Book II, 152
  8. Herodotus, Book II, 169-70
  9. Herodotus, Book II, 175
  10. Posener, Georges, trans. and ed. La première domination Perse en Égypte: Recueil d’inscriptions hieroglyphs. (Cairo: L’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1936), pgs. 14-15
  11. Herodotus, Book II, 62
  12. Strabo. Geography. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001), Book XVII, I, 18-19