© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated December 8, 1998 
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Sais

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City of Egypt on the Nile delta (area 5).
Saïs was the capital of Egypt during the XXVIth dynasty, that is from 664 to 525 B. C., a period of Renaissance (sometimes called the Saïtic Renaissance) after the rule of Nubian Pharaohs of the XXVth dynasty (coming from the countries south of Egypt, the region of modern days' Ethiopia) and invasions by Assyrian kings Sennacherib (705-681), Asharhaddon (681-669) and Ashurbanipal (669-626), culminating with the sack of Thebes of Egypt by the later in 663. The leadership of Nubian Pharaohs had indeed been loose, leaving room for a multiplicity of local kings in various parts of the delta, including Saïs, and some of the kings of Saïs had already tried to play a leading role against the dominion of Nubia over Egypt, leading to the short lived XXIVth dynasty (724-712).
The first Pharaoh of the XXVIth dynasty was Psammetichus I (664-610), who started, following in the footsteps of his father Necos I, in making alliance with Ashurbanipal against the Nubians, but then freed Egypt from Assyrian dominion (though he later unsuccessfully tried to help Assyria in the face of the growing power of Babylonia) and, with the help of Greek mercenaries from Ionia and Caria (who were at the origin of the colony of Naucratis founded during his reign), reunited Egypt under his own leadership (Herodotus' Histories, II, 151-154).
His son, Necos II (610-595), gave Egypt a fleet, with the help of the Greeks, commissioned a trip around Africa and started the building of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, which would be completed (or reopenend) by Darius the Great (Herodotus' Histories, II, 158-159). Necos is the Pharaoh who defeated and killed Josiah, the king of Judah, at the battle of Mediggo around 609 B. C. (2 Kings, 23, 29 ; 2 Chronicles, 35, 20-24). He was himself defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, the soon to become king of Babylonia (604-562), in 605, and from then on, Egypt no longer tried to interviene outside its borders, though it still had to repel outside invasions more or less successfully, especially from the Babylonians, and then from the Persians.
Necos was succeeded by Psammetichus II (595-589), who had to turn against the Nubians trying a comeback and, with the help of Greek mercenaries, put a definitive end to attempts by southern kings to invade Egypt. It is during the reign of his successor Apries (589-570) that Nebuchadnezzar took and razed Jerusalem and deported the Jews to Babylon (586). Apries also tried to help a Lybian king against Greeks settled in Cyrene, on his territory, but the army he sent there was defeated by the Greeks (Herodotus' Histories, IV, 159) and the general he sent to quench the rebellion in the Egyptian troops, Amasis, made alliance with the army and unseated and exiled Apries, proclaiming himself Pharaoh in his place (570-526). Apries tried to regain his throne, with the help of Greek mercenaries and a Babylonian army sent by Nebuchadnezzar, but he was defeated (567), captured and later killed (Herodotus' Histories, II, 161-163 ; 169). Amasis had friendly relations with the Greeks, making alliance with those of Cyrene (Herodotus' Histories, II, 181-182) and granting freedom to the colony of Naucratis (Herodotus' Histories, II, 178-19). Toward the end of his reign, Persia became the leading power in the Middle East, taking over the role assumed earlier by Babylonia, and, under the short reign of Amasis' successor, Psammetichus III (526-525), Cambyses conquered Egypt and proclaimed himself Pharaoh, starting the XXVIIth dynasty by Egyptian count.
This period of Egyptian history is important because it marks the beginning of relations between Egypt and Greece. Because the Saïtic pharaohs employed Greek mercenaries, they created a body of interpreters, and this made the reciprocal knowledge of the two cultures possible. Besides, it came at a time Egypt itself was rediscovering its own roots, rebuilding a lost unity and studying antique traditions. Many Greek thinkers of this time are said to have visited Egypt, including Solon (whose laws were proclaimed in 594), Thales (who may have died around 550), Pythagoras (who may have died around 490), and later Herodotus (who definitely visited the country, as his Histories make clear) and even Plato (though this is less sure).
In the Vth and IVth centuries, Saïs was no longer the capital of Egypt, which had become a vassal of Persia before being subjected by Alexander the Great (332). But the relations between the two peoples remained good and nearby Naucratis was a gateway for those Greeks wishing to visit the country.

Saïs was the center of the cult of the Egyptian goddess Neith, who was identified by the Greeks with Athena (see Herodotus' Histories, II, 59 and, for the identification of Neith with Athena, Plato's Timæus, 21e) : this probably explains why, in the Timæus, Plato chose the city of Saïs as the source of Critias' story of the fight between ancient Athens and Atlantis, supposedly brought back from there by Solon ; but, more generally speaking, the whole introduction by Critias of his story is reminiscent of Herodotus' fascination for Egypt (Histories, II, 35.1) and what he says about the Egyptian origin of most Greek gods and the relatively recent (to him) traditions ascribed to Homer and Hesiod (Histories, II, 49-53 ; see also his Egyptian version of the "true" story of Helen opposed to Homer's version, at Histories, II, 113-120).

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Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated December 8, 1998
© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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