The Assyrian Conquest of Egypt

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First, what are the sources for reconstructing the history of this period? Second, when and how did the Assyrian conquest of Egypt occur and what was the context of this event.  What consequences did this have? Egyptians began to record their history after 3000BCE.  There are “king lists, royal annals, and biographic treatises” (Knapp 1988: 9).  Many of these ancient sources were used by the Egyptian historian, Manetho who wrote in Greek during the 3rd century BCE under the Ptolemies.  It was Manetho who divided Egyptian history into 30 dynasties. There are also annals of the kings of Assyria from “about 1300” BCE which have been described as “the first truly historiographic documents” jeopardizing “Herodotus’s claim to be the ‘father of history’” (Knapp: 269).  Concerning the Assyrian conquest of Egypt, there is an account written by King Assurbanipal dating from soon after 664 (Van de Mieroop: 239).

The Assyrian conquest of Egypt took place between 676 and 667 BCE ending the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, which was Nubian and considered non-Egyptian. The Nubians had taken control of Egypt in the mide-eighth century” (Van de Mieroop: 238). The Twenty-Fifth dynasty had three rulers, the first of whom, Shebaka pursued a conciliatory policy toward the ever expanding Assyrian empire but this was abandoned by the second ruler, Shebitku who assisted several rebellions against Assyria, supporting “syro-Palestinian rebels” (Van de Mieroop: 238).  Assyria was at this point at the zenith of her power and Egypt presented her “final rival”.  The Nubians control of Egypt was thought to be weak.  It was “probably indirect” with “local Egyptians … mostly in charge of the administration” (Van de Mieroop: 238). The idea “of conquering Egypt” suggests Van de Mieroop “must have been tempting to Esarhaddon”, King of Assyria from 681 to 669 and he invaded in 676.  The ruler of Egypt was then Taharqa, the third pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty.  First, Esarhaddon “consolidated his hold on Southern Palestine through a system of local vassals” then he invaded Egypt (Van de Mieroop: 238). Although “already advanced in years he organized three campaigns.” Defeating Taharqa, he conquered “the northern capital of Memphis” in 671, captured a Nubian prince and “an enormous quantity of spoils” (Van de Mieroop: 239).

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Under Esarhaddon, Assyria did not succeed in exerting strong control over Egypt, which allowed Taharqa to regain rule.  Esarhaddon’s son and successor, Assurbanipal (reigned 668 to 627) set out to reassert control over Egypt. Assurbanipal was “one of the longest reigning kings of Assyria” (250). In 667 he defeated Taharqa, assisted by armies recruited from “Syro-Palestinian” vassals although he also had to deal with a rebellion in the Delta (Van de Mieroop: 239). Almost immediately, the “new Nubian king, Tantamani” returned” to Egypt and “forced a major attack by Assurbanipal in 664 and 663” and finally ended “Nubian influence in the country” (239).  Assurbanipal’s account describes “Tarqu” as the “godless” who by trying to take Egypt, had forgotten “about the power of Assur” and sent an army against Assyria to “kill, destroy and plunder.” He went on to described Tarqu’s defeat, which drove him insane: to escape, he “boarded a ship” and fled.

Assyrian set up a vassal-system to govern Egypt.  This, however, did not last very long.  One of the vassals appointed by Assurbanipal, Necho, who had been “educated in Syria” declared himself King of Egypt in 656, establishing the 26th Dynasty.  The 26th Dynasty restored an Egyptian to the throne but was destined to be the last native dynasty. Van de Mieroop suggests that it was rivalry at this time between Nubia and Syria that enabled a local ruler to gain “enough strength to become independent” (241).  Assurbanipal’s account speaks of “Nikku” his “servant” plotting revolt but being spared then bound by “a loyalty oath even stricter than what existed before” (240).  He describes himself as “broad-minded” and as seeking goodness.  He showed Nikku “great kindness.”  Other texts described him as “king of the universe” (245).

Now, Assyria’s power was under threat from Babylonia. 640 had seen Assyria “at the height of its power”. “Thirty years later” says Van de Mieroop it was finished (250). Instead of fighting each other, the Assyrians and the Egyptians under the 26th Dynasty began to cooperate against the common “threat from the East” (Van de Mieroop: 241). Necho became a staunch ally of the Assyrians and “marched victoriously through Palestine and Syria in support of the Assyrians, who meanwhile fought a losing battle against the Babylonians and Medes” (Knapp 241). The Assyrian capital, Ninevah was sacked in 612. It was the Persians under Cambyses II who ended the rule of the last native Egyptian dynasty, founding the 27th Dynasty in 525.  Apart from a brief “interlude of freedom” from 404-346 when native princes of the “twenty-eighth through the Thirtieth-dynasties” gained power, the “native history of Egypt effectively ends at this point as first Greek then Roman administration regulated the land” (Knapp: 242).

The Assyrian invasion and conquest of Egypt took place when Assyrian power was strongest yet when signs of weakness and of eventual decline were also present.  The ability of Taharqa to regain control and of Necho to assert quasi- independence shows that “the empire was not fully dominant and could be successfully opposed” (Van de Mieroop: 241). The Assyrians claimed that certain territories were subservient to them but since some also aided “ant-Assyrian rebellions” this “claim is doubtful” (241). Assurbanipal own long reign may have contributed to Assyria’s fall.  The Assyrian system concentrated power in the hands of the king.  As long as the king was able, this worked well.  However, “the task of governance could easily exceed an individual’s capabilities” (251). Assyria also exploited subjugated territory.  Populations were often deported, people were taxed heavily all of which fueled rebellion. Even in the heartland, many subjects had little loyalty to the empire since they were deportees.  Assyria actually needed the cooperation of others to sustain the empire since “Assyrians by themselves could not continue to exercise the control needed to preserve their empire” (251). Having subdued the rest of the Near East, Egypt had been the remaining rival.  In defeating Egypt, over which they never established solid control, the Assyrians may have stretched their resources and capabilities too far.  The conquest of Egypt was seen as the crown of Assyrian achievements but it may also have hastened the fall of the Assyrian empire.


Knapp, Arthur Bernard. The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt. Chicago, Ill: Dorsey Press, 1988.

Van de Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, Ca. 3000-323 B.C. Blackwell history of the ancient world. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.

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