A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The Man in the Middle
How an ingenious royal official transformed Persian conquerors into proper Egyptian pharaohs
The rulers of Egypt's 26th Dynasty contended with the prospect of foreign invasion from the start. The initial threat came from the Assyrians to the northeast, but the dynasty’s founder, Psamtik I, made a strategic alliance with them. While playing the part of the loyal vassal, the pharaoh expanded from his power center in the Nile Delta to control all of Egypt, fortifying his armed forces with Greek mercenaries. Next on the horizon were the Babylonians, local rivals to the Assyrians, whom the Egyptians helped keep at bay by sending reinforcements. From the south, the Nubians, who had ruled Egypt as the 25th Dynasty, attempted to reclaim control, but were rebuffed. During the rule of the pharaoh Amasis, the Babylonians continued to pose a problem, though a manageable one.
Meanwhile, an empire the likes of which had never been seen before was amassing power and expanding from its core in present-day Iran. By 530 B.C., the Persian Achaemenid Empire controlled territory from the Aegean Sea to the Hindu Kush mountains. Amasis hired more Greek mercenaries and built up his naval forces, but when he died in 526 B.C. and was succeeded by his untried son, Psamtik III, the Persian king Cambyses struck quickly and added Egypt to the empire’s holdings.
Although the Persian conquest of Egypt was undoubtedly a traumatic, destabilizing event, many Egyptian officials made their peace with the new rulers. Most notable among these was Udjahorresnet, a high-ranking courtier during the reigns of both the final two 26th Dynasty pharaohs, Amasis and Psamtik III, and the first two Persian pharaohs, Cambyses and Darius I. Udjahorresnet is believed to have belonged to a powerful family based in the Nile Delta city of Sais, the capital of the 26th, or Saite, Dynasty. Under Amasis and Psamtik III, Udjahorresnet held a lengthy list of titles, including prince, count, royal seal bearer, sole companion of the pharaoh, true beloved king’s friend, scribe, inspector of council scribes, chief scribe of the great outer hall, administrator of the palace, and overseer of the royal kbnwt vessels. After the Persians seized power, he retained all these titles except the last one and assumed the new position of chief physician.
Udjahorresnet is one of the few known high officials of the 26th Dynasty to retain his rank under the Persians. His resilience has led some past scholars to label him a collaborator—or even a traitor—who sold out his country to maintain his elevated position. But some now argue that, far from being a turncoat, Udjahorresnet parlayed his closeness to the Persian kings to help preserve Egypt’s traditions of religion and rulership in a time of foreign domination. “On a military level, there was no chance to withstand the Persian invasion, so he was faced with the question of how to go on, how to deal with a very challenging political situation,” says Melanie Wasmuth, an Egyptologist at the University of Helsinki. “It seems that Udjahorresnet made the deliberate decision to convince at least some of his colleagues that the least problematic choice was to come to an agreement with the Persian rulers and fight for a kind of semiautonomy to make sure that as much of Egyptian culture as possible would survive.”
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