AMASIS, THE LAST GREAT EGYPTIAN PHARAOH
by Jimmy Dunn --
Amasis who was probably the 5th ruler of Egypt during the 26th Dynasty, has been called the last great Egyptian Pharaoh. This is because the rule of his
son, Psammetichus III, was very short lived, and in fact even in the last days of Amasis' life the Persians were already advancing on Egypt. They were
the overwhelming power of the region, and would control Egypt up until Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, and the ensuing Greek rulers. After his
son, never again would an Egyptian rule ancient Egypt.
Amasis was actually the king's Greek name. His birth name was Ahmose II, which means "The Moon is Born, Son of Neith". His throne name was Khnem-ib-re,
meaning "He who embraces the Heart of Re". We believe he ruled Egypt between 570 and 526 BC. We believe that Amasis was the son of a Lady
Takheredeneset, and married two women by the names of Tentheta and Nakhtsebastetru. He may have had a third wife named Khedebneithireretbeneret, who was
actually a daughter of his great nemesis, Apris. He had a number of children by the first two wives, including his successor, Psammetichus III. Another
child we specifically know of was General Ahmose, who, along with his mother Nakhtsebastetru, were buried in tomb LG 83 at Giza. A daughter, Nitokris
II, may have come to Thebes for adoption as prospective God's Wife.
If so, she was probably the daughter of Khedebneithirerebeneret, because the current God's Wife, Ankhesenneferibre, was a sister of Apries. From
Herodutus, we learn that he was a likeable, popular ruler who is said to have had such a strong inclination for drink that he sometimes delayed state
matters in order to indulge in a drinking bout.
However, he did not ascend the throne easily, nor was he in line to do so. We first know of Amasis as a general in Nubia under Psammetikhos I. It would
seem that his predecessor, Apries, undertook several military campaigns, but his last against the Greek city of Cyrene ended in disaster. Apries was
blamed for the failure, and so a revolt broke out.
In reality, the defeat at Cyrene was really only an excuse for this revolt by Egyptian troops. For some time, the Greek mercenaries within the Egyptian
army, who were probably treated better then the Egyptians themselves, were apparently the subject of jealously and contempt by the native Egyptian
Actually, Amasis, as a general in the Egyptian army, was sent to put down the revolt of the machimoi (the native Egyptian soldiers), but instead the
soldiers proclaimed him as Pharaoh.
When word reached Apries of Amasis' treason, he slaughtered the messenger and proceeded to advance on the forces of Amasis. By this late date in
Pharaonic history, Apries' army was mostly made up of of Aegean mercenaries. The two armies met somewhere in the north-west Egyptian Delta in about
January or February of 570 BC, and Apries was forced to retreat.
However, this did not give Amasis complete control of Egypt. Apries's apparent retreat was only as far south as Memphis and he continued to control
southern Egypt, while Amasis established himself at Sais in Northern Egypt. Yet Apries was not content with this, and aided by his Greek troops, once
again marched on Amasis in October of 570 BC, where he was once again defeated by his former general. With this defeat, Apries could only find safety
abroad, and he eventually turned up in the court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Now, Amasis took control of a united Egypt. This was complete when
sometime between October 19th and December 9th of 570 BC, Thebes submitted to his reign.
Yet poor Apries was not yet finished. In March of 567, he again marched on Egypt at the head of a Babylonian army, but once again, Amasis defeated him,
this time capturing the former king. It seem that Amasis allowed Apries to live for a short time, however, because we find Herodotus telling us that:
The Egyptians complained that he did wrong by maintaining a man who was the greatest enemy both to them and (Amasis), therefore he delivered Apries to
the people, who strangled him.
Apparently, Amasis still held some respect for his former ruler, because he buried Apries with kingly honors in the royal necropolis at Sais. This may
very well be explained if indeed Amasis was married to Apries' daughter. However, various sources differ somewhat on these events. For an alternative
version, see our section on Apries.
Now as the ruler of all Egypt, Amasis took on the traditional role of builder, and is attested to by quarry inscriptions at Tura and Elephantine, and
with building projects at Memphis, including two granite colossi and a temple of Isis, Philae, Elephantine, Edfu, Sohag, Abydos, Koptos, Karnak and any
number of Delta sites, including his tomb at Sais. While we have never discovered this tomb, again Herodotus steps in to describe it for us:
(It is) a great cloistered building of stone, decorated with pillars carved in the imitation of palm-trees, and other costly ornaments. Within the
cloister is a chamber with double doors, and behind the doors stands the sepulchre."
This was really a very prosperous time for Egypt. We are told that agriculture, always the backbone of Egypt, met a spectacular level of success, and
Herodotus again tells us that the number of inhabited cities in Egypt reached as high as 20,000.
After consolidating his power, Amasis was apparently somewhat weary of the Greeks, who had been around since the beginning of the Dynasty, and of course,
fought against him on the side of Apries. Psammetikhos I had encouraged the Greek merchants in the city of Naukratis, and Amasis consolidated them in
that area only. This made for easier control of these merchants, and created a lucrative income for the crown in the form of taxes.
Prior to Apries' defeat, the Greek mercenaries were established in camps between Babastis and the sea on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, where Herodotus
tells us they had remained for over a century. Apparently, he first moved them to Memphis, where he could keep an eye on things.
But, Amasis was not willing to push the Greeks too far because he needed their alliance against the expanding threat of the Persians, as well as an
attempted invasion by the Chaldaeans. Apparently after this unsuccessful invasion, he formed an alliance with the Chaldaeans, Croesus of Lydia and
Unfortunately, the Persians destroyed the alliance by first capturing Lydia in 546 and then the Chaldaeans. So instead, he cultivated his relationship
with the Aegean world, extending his foreign relationships to include Cyprus. He is said to have even financed the rebuilding of the temple of Apollo at
Delphi after its destruction in 548 BC. According to archaeological records, he probably even allowed the Greek soldiers to return their old mercenary
camps. Regrettably, for all his efforts, the Persians would eventually prove too ambitious to stop.
By the time of Amasis' death after a long reign of some 44 years, the Persians had long ago conquered Babylon, and were already at the frontiers of
Egypt. His son was eventually captured by the Persians, and Herodotus tells us that the Persian ruler Cambyses had Amasis's mummy exhumed, and:
"subjected to every indignity, such as lashing with whips and the plucking of its hairs, until the executioners were weary. At last, as the corpse had
been embalmed and would not fall to pieces under the blows, Cambyses ordered it burnt"
Amasis II (also Ahmose II) was a pharaoh (570 BC - 526 BC) of the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt, the successor of Apries at Sais.
He was the last great ruler of Egypt before the Persian conquest.
Most of our information about him is derived from Herodotus (2.161ff) and can only be imperfectly verified by monumental
evidence. According to the Greek historian, he was of common origins. A revolt which broke out among native Egyptian soldiers
gave him his opportunity to seize the throne. These troops, returning home from a disastrous military expedition to Cyrene in
Libya, suspected that they had been betrayed in order that Apries, the reigning king, might rule more absolutely by means of his
Greek mercenaries; many Egyptians fully sympathized with them. General Amasis, sent to meet them and quell the revolt, was
proclaimed king by the rebels instead, and Apries, who had now to rely entirely on his mercenaries, was defeated. Apries was
either taken prisoner in the ensuing conflict at Memphis before being eventually strangled and buried in his ancestral tomb at
Sais, or fled to the Babylonians and was killed mounting an invasion of his native homeland in 567 BC with the aid of a
Babylonian army. An inscription confirms the struggle between the native Egyptian and the foreign soldiery, and proves that
Apries was killed and honourably buried in the third year of Amasis (c.567 BC). Amasis then married Chedebnitjerbone II, one of
the daughters of his predecessor Apries, in order to better legitimise his kingship.
Some information is known about the family origins of Amasis: his mother was a certain Tashereniset as a bust statue of this
lady, which is today located in the British Museum, shows. A stone block from Mehallet el-Kubra also establishes that his
maternal grandmother-Tashereniset's mother-was a certain Tjenmutetj.
Egypt's wealth -
Although Amasis thus appears first as champion of the disparaged native, he had the good sense to cultivate the friendship of the
Greek world, and brought Egypt into closer touch with it than ever before. Herodotus relates that under his prudent
administration, Egypt reached a new level of wealth; Amasis adorned the temples of Lower Egypt especially with splendid
monolithic shrines and other monuments (his activity here is proved by existing remains). Amasis assigned the commercial colony
of Naucratis on the Canopic branch of the Nile to the Greeks, and when the temple of Delphi was burnt, he contributed 1,000
talents to the rebuilding. He also married a Greek princess named Ladice daughter of King Battus III (see Battus) and made
alliances with Polycrates of Samos and Croesus of Lydia.
Under Amasis or Ahmose II, Egypt's agricultural based economy reached its zenith. Herodotus who visited Egypt less than a century
after Amasis II's death writes that:
It is said that it was during the reign of Ahmose II that Egypt attained its highest level of prosperity both in respect of what
the river gave the land and in respect of what the land yielded to men and that the number of inhabited cities at that time
reached in total 20,000
His kingdom consisted probably of Egypt only, as far as the First Cataract, but to this he added Cyprus, and his influence was
great in Cyrene. In his fourth year (c.567 BC), Amasis was able to defeat a Babylonian invasion of Egypt Nebuchadrezzar II;
henceforth, the Babylonians experienced sufficient difficulties controlling their empire that they were forced to abandon future
attacks against Amasis. However, Amasis was later faced with a more formidable enemy with the rise of Persia under Cyrus who
ascended to the throne in 559 BC; his final years were preoccupied by the threat of the impending Persian onslaught against
Egypt. With great strategic skill, Cyrus had destroyed Lydia in 546 BC and finally defeated the Babylonians in 538 BC which
left Amasis with no major Near Eastern allies to counter Persia's increasing military might. Amasis reacted by cultivating
closer ties with the Greek states to counter the future Persian invasion into Egypt but was fortunate to have died in 526 BC
shortly before the Persians attacked. The final assault instead fell upon his son Psamtik III, whom the Persians defeated in
525 BC after a reign of only six months.
Tomb and desecration -
Amasis II died in 526 BC. He was buried at the royal necropolis of Sais, and while his tomb was never discovered, Herodotus
describes it for us:
[It is] a great cloistered building of stone, decorated with pillars carved in the imitation of palm-trees, and other costly
ornaments. Within the cloister is a chamber with double doors, and behind the doors stands the sepulchre.
Herodotus also relates the desecration of Ahmose II/Amasis' mummy when the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt and thus ended
the 26th Saite dynasty:
[N]o sooner did [... Cambyses] enter the palace of Amasis that he gave orders for his [Amasis's] body to be taken from the tomb
where it lay. This done, he proceeded to have it treated with every possible indignity, such as beating it with whips, sticking
it with goads, and plucking its hairs. [... A]s the body had been embalmed and would not fall to pieces under the blows, Cambyses
had it burned.