Greece and Egypt Before the Ptolemies

Most people are probably aware that, beginning in the fourth century b.c.e. with the rise to power of the Makedonian dynasty founded by Ptolemy, son of Lagos, there were extensive contacts between Greece and Egypt, resulting in a fusion of cultures which produced the wildly popular cult of Isis and Serapis that proved a worthy competitor to Christianity for the mind and soul of the Roman Empire. What often isn’t as well known is the extent to which these contacts existed for centuries, and even millenia before then.

In fact, Egypt’s presence can be felt on Greek soil even before there were proper Greek-speaking people there. The Keftiu, whom archaeologists believe to be the Minoans, participated in the raids of the Sea Peoples that harried Egypt’s borders in the 2nd millennium bce. (Merneptah Stele 52) Many historians see in Plato’s account of the mythical Atlantis a memory of these excursions:

“…the island of Atlantis…had subjugated the parts of Libya within the Pillars of Hercules as far as Egypt, and Europe as far Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavored to subdue at a blow our country [Egypt] and yours [Greece], and the whole of the region within the straits…”(Timaeus 24d)

When they weren’t involved in piracy, the Minoans seem to have had extensive trade relations with Egypt, unsurprising since Crete is centrally located between Egypt, Cyprus, and the Levant. Numerous archaeological remains attest to these early contacts: an obsidian vessel rim fragment dating from the early Dynastic period, a worked hippopotamus tusk, and Egyptian stone vases were found in Early Minoan IIA domestic contexts at Knossos (Jacke Phillips, Aegypto-Aegean relations up to the 2nd millennium B.C. in: Interregional Contacts in the Later Prehistory of Northeastern Africa, 1986, pg. 459). Cretan goods have even been found in Egypt. Professor Flinders Petrie discovered in the lowest levels of the temple at Abydos black pottery which he concluded came from Crete on account of its close resemblance to fragments discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in the Late Neolithic deposits of Knossos. (Abydos, Vol. II, p. 38)

There are clear Egyptian influences in Cretan and Mycenean art, society, and cult practice. The earliest Minoan written language, as seen on the Phaistos disk, bears striking resemblances to Egyptian hieroglyphs, though it has yet to be deciphered in its entirety. And, as the Australian philologist Gordon Childe observed, “At least on the Mesara, the great plain of southern Crete facing Africa, Minoan Crete’s indebtedness to the Nile is disclosed in the most intimate aspects of its culture. Not only do the forms of early Minoan stone vases, the precision of the lapidaries’ technique and the aesthetic selection of variegated stones as his materials carry on the the pre-dynastic tradition, Nilotic religious customs such as the use of the sistrum, the wearing of amulets in the forms of legs, mummies and monkeys, and statuettes plainly derived from Gerzean ‘block figures’, and personal habits revealed by depilatory tweezers of the Egyptian shape and stone unguent palettes from the early tombs and, later, details of costumes such as the penis-sheath and loin-cloth betoken something deeper than the external relations of commerce.”

The Minoans apparetly learned how to work with faience from the Egyptians, and created lovely figurines of snake-handling goddesses adorned with a crown upon which rises a serpent like the Uraeus of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The Uraeus Crown was connected with the goddess Wadjyt, which makes Sir Arthur Evans’ discovery on the site of the lower part of diorite statue of a seated Egyptian figure identified from the hieroglyphic inscriptions as a priest of Wadjyt all the more striking. (The Palace of Minos, 4 vols., London: Macmillan, 1921-1935) Another statue of an Egyptian goddess, this time the hippopotamus-formed Taweret, patroness of childbirth, was also found on Knossos.

Even after the decline of Minoan civilization, contacts between Egypt and Greece flourished. There was extensive trade between the two cultures, with Egyptian goods showing up in the mound tombs of the Mycenean royalty, and Egyptian influence evident in the golden face-masks of the deceased kings, a part of the funeral arrangement that Homer appears to be ignorant of. Trading ports at Cypros, Pylos, and Myceneae arose during this period, and their wares have been found in several sites at Egypt. (Marianne Nichols, Man, Myth and Monument, William Morris, 1975)

The Roman author Flavius Josephus speaks of how these trading ventures came to influence Greek culture:

“Since, therefore, besides what we have already taken notice of, we Jews have had a peculiar way of living of our own, there was no occasion offered us in ancient ages for intermixing among the Greeks, as they had for mixing among the Egyptians, by their intercourse of exporting and importing their several goods; as they also mixed with the Phoenicians, who lived by the sea-side, by means of their love of lucre in trade and merchandise. Nor did our forefathers betake themselves, as did some others, to robbery; nor did they, in order to gain more wealth, fall into foreign wars, although our country contained many ten thousands of men of courage sufficient for that purpose. For this reason it was that the Phoenicians themselves came soon by trading and navigation to be known to the Grecians, and by their means the Egyptians became known to the Grecians also, as did all those people whence the Phoenicians in long voyages over the seas carried wares to the Grecians.” (Against Apion 1.12)

It wasn’t just by way of trading, however, that Egypt came to influence Greek culture on the mainland. Several of the royal houses of Greece claimed descent from Egypt. For instance, the Argives traced their lineage back to Danaus, the twin-brother of Aigyptos, who gave his name to the land of Egypt. While in that country the brothers had a falling out and the younger fled to Greece with his fifty daughters. (Aeschylus’ Suppliants) This was a homecoming of sorts, as the brothers were descendents of Epaphos, the first king of Egypt, whose mother Io had originally been a Greek princess whom Zeus had taken a liking to, and as a consequence of that was transformed into a heifer by Hera and driven across the ocean, where she eventually ended up in Egypt. (Apollodorus 2.5-9) Additionally, both the the Spartan royal household and the sons of Acrisius claimed descent from Egypt (Herodotus 6.53-54).

Another Greek dynasty, that of the Theban city founded by Kadmos, could also look back to Egypt for its roots. In antiquity there was disagreement about Kadmos’ origins. According to the standard account, he was the son of the Phoenician king Agenor, who came to Greece while looking for his sister Europa and decided to settle there instead of returning home. He was credited with the invention of the alphabet, called phoinikeia grammata by Herodotus (5.58) However, there was also a variant tradition that claimed that he was originally of Egyptian extraction and expelled at the time of the Hyksos:

“Now that we are about to record the war against the Jews, we consider it appropriate to give first a summary account of the establishment of the nation, from its origins, and of the practices observed among them. When in ancient times a pestilence arose in Egypt, the common people ascribed their troubles to the workings of a divine agency; for indeed with many strangers of all sorts dwelling in their midst and practicing different rites of religion and sacrifice, their own traditional observances in honour of the gods had fallen into disuse. Hence the natives of the land surmised that unless they removed the foreigners, their troubles would never be resolved. At once, therefore, the aliens were driven from the country, and the most outstanding and active among them banded together and, as some say, were cast ashore in Greece and certain other regions; their leaders were notable men, chief among them being Danaus and Cadmus. But the greater number were driven into what is now called Judaea, which is not far distant from Egypt and was at that time utterly uninhabited.” (Diodorus Siculus, 40.3.279-283)

Interestingly, fragments of Minoan fresco have been found in the Egyptian site of Avaris during the Hyksos period (1674-1566 b.c.e.) which may have been the basis for such a variant tradition.

Other important figures from Greek legend who have connections to Egypt include Herakles (Diodorus 4.18, 27), the Argonauts (Hecataeus frag. 18a), and according to Herodotos, Helen, who as the story goes was never even at Troy, but spent the whole war in Egypt (2.116).

While she may have been in Egypt at the time, one of Egypt’s neighbors was at Troy, Memnon, the beautiful and shining son of the dawn, who was one of the greatest warriors to have ever lived, and fought alongside Priam defending the city walls against the invading Greeks, according to Homer (Odyssey 11.522).

Nor was this Homer’s only reference to Egypt and her neighboring lands.

In the Ninth nook of the Iliad, Homer praises the wealth of the Egyptians. “He may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses.” In the Third book of the Odyssey, he speaks of how in Egypt “Menelaus gathered much gold and substance among people of an alien speech.” In the Fourth book of the Odyssey, we learn that the Egyptians are skilled in magical drugs. “Helen drugged the wine with an herb that banishes all care, sorrow, and ill humour. Whoever drinks wine thus drugged cannot shed a single tear all the rest of the day, not even though his father and mother both of them drop down dead, or he sees a brother or a son hewn in pieces before his very eyes. This drug, of such sovereign power and virtue, had been given to Helen by Polydamna wife of Thon, a woman of Egypt, where there grow all sorts of herbs, some good to put into the mixing-bowl and others poisonous. Moreover, every one in the whole country is a skilled physician, for they are of the race of Paeeon.” Also in the Fourth book, Menelaus recounts the time that he was detained in Egypt: “I was trying to come on here, but the gods detained me in Egypt, for my hecatombs had not given them full satisfaction, and the gods are very strict about having their dues. Now off Egypt, about as far as a ship can sail in a day with a good stiff breeze behind her, there is an island called Pharos- it has a good harbour from which vessels can get out into open sea when they have taken in water- and the gods becalmed me twenty days without so much as a breath of fair wind to help me forward.” Alexander the Great used this passage in determining where to found his first city, the famous Alexandria, which would become the capital of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt.

In the first book of the Iliad, Homer has Thetis tell her son that Zeus and the other gods went to Okeanos to feast with the Ethiopians. In the opening of the Odyssey, he locates the Ethiopians at the world’s end, and says that Poseidon was among them, receiving a hecatomb in sacrifice when the other gods met in council to discuss the aftermath of Troy.

Homer would not be the last to locate the Greek gods also among the Egyptians. Herodotos even went so far as to claim that they originated there:

“In fact, the names of nearly all the gods came to Hellas from Egypt. For I am convinced by inquiry that they have come from foreign parts, and I believe that they came chiefly from Egypt. Except the names of Poseidon and the Dioscuri, as I have already said, and Hera, and Hestia, and Themis, and the Graces, and the Nereids, the names of all the gods have always existed in Egypt. I only say what the Egyptians themselves say. The gods whose names they say they do not know were, as I think, named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, the knowledge of whom they learned from the Libyans.” (2.50.1-2)

Hekataios of Abdera, however, claimed that it was the other way around, and that the Egyptians actually derived their culture and religion from Greek colonizers!

Of course, both men were mistaken since each culture had developed its religion independent of the other, but numerous ancient authors saw striking similarities between them. For instance, Herodotos who actually traveled through large parts of Egypt during the Persian period, observed:

“Furthermore, it was the Egyptians who first made it a matter of religious observance not to have intercourse with women in temples or to enter a temple after such intercourse without washing. Nearly all other peoples are less careful in this matter than are the Egyptians and Greeks, and consider a man to be like any other animal; for beasts and birds (they say) are seen to mate both in the temples and in the sacred precincts; now were this displeasing to the god, the beasts would not do so. This is the reason given by others for practices which I, for my part, dislike” (2.64.1)

And he also noted the similarity between the worship of Dionysos and Osiris:

“The rest of the festival of Dionysos is observed by the Egyptians much as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances; but in place of the phallus, they have invented the use of puppets two feet high moved by strings, the male member nodding and nearly as big as the rest of the body, which are carried about the villages by women; a flute-player goes ahead, the women follow behind singing of Dionysos. Why the male member is so large and is the only part of the body that moves, there is a sacred legend that explains. Now then, it seems to me that Melampos son of Amytheon was not ignorant of but was familiar with this sacrifice. For Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos and the way of sacrificing to him and the phallic procession; he did not exactly unveil the subject taking all its details into consideration, for the teachers who came after him made a fuller revelation; but it was from him that the Greeks learned to bear the phallus along in honor of Dionysos, and they got their present practice from his teaching. I say, then, that Melampos acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysos, altering few of them; for I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the god and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of an Hellenic character and not recently introduced. Nor again will I say that the Egyptians took either this or any other custom from the Greeks.” (2.47-49)

The Roman author Diodorus Siculus added the following to Herodotos’ observation:

“Orpheus, for instance, brought from Egypt most of his mystic ceremonies, the orgiastic rites that accompanied his wanderings, and his fabulous account of his experiences in Hades. For the rite of Osiris is the same as that of Dionysos, and that of Isis very similar to that of Demeter, the names alone having been interchanged; and the punishments in Hades of the unrighteous, the Fields of the Righteous, and the fantastic conceptions, current among the many, which are figments of the imagination – all these were introduced by Orpheus in imitation of Egyptian funeral customs.” (1.96)

There were many reasons why the Greeks might identify the Egyptian gods with their own.

They could have similar mythological stories told about them, as in the case of the wanderings, sorrows, purification of the child in fire, founding of mysteries, and reunion with their loved one which was recounted of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn and of Isis in assorted Egyptian texts and Plutarch’s prolongued account in On Isis and Osiris.

They could preside over similar realms, as in the case of Apollo and Horus, as Diodorus Siculus records:

“Moreover, they say that the name Horus, when translated, is Apollo, and that, having been instructed by his mother Isis in both medicine and divination, he is now a benefactor of the race of men through his oracular responses and his healings.” (1.25)

Or of Hermes and Thoth, as Diodorus again recounts:

“It was by Hermes, for instance, according to them, that the common language of mankind was first further articulated, and that many objects which were still nameless received an appellation, that the alphabet was invented, and that ordinances regarding the honours and offerings due to the gods were duly established; he was the first also to observe the orderly arrangement of the stars and the harmony of the musical sounds and their nature, to establish a wrestling school, and to give thought to the rhythmical movement of the human body and its proper development. He also made a lyre and gave it three strings, imitating the seasons of the year; for he adopted three tones, a high, a low, and a medium; the high from the summer, the low from the winter, and the medium from the spring. The Greeks also were taught by him how to expound (hermeneia) their thoughts, and it was for this reason that he was given the name Hermes. In a word, Osiris, taking him for his priestly scribe, communicated with him on every matter and used his counsel above that of all others. The olive tree also, they claim, was his discovery, not Athena’s, as Greeks say.” (1.16)

They could have similar festivals, as in the case of Athena and Neith:

“Next to the Makhlyes are the Auseans; these and the Makhlyes, separated by the Triton, live on the shores of Lake Tritonis. The Makhlyes wear their hair long behind, the Auseans in front. They celebrate a yearly festival of Athena, where their maidens are separated into two bands and fight each other with stones and sticks, thus, they say, honoring in the way of their ancestors that native goddess whom we call Athena. Maidens who die of their wounds are called false virgins. Before the girls are set fighting, the whole people choose the fairest maid, and arm her with a Korinthian helmet and Greek panoply, to be then mounted on a chariot and drawn all along the lake shore. With what armor they equipped their maidens before Greeks came to live near them, I cannot say; but I suppose the armor was Egyptian; for I maintain that the Greeks took their shield and helmet from Egypt..” (Herodotus 4.180)

And sometimes the prompting for this came from the Egyptian priests themselves, as Plato recounts:

“In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them.” (Timaeus 21e)

But this wasn’t the only way that Greek and Egyptian religion intersected. There were plenty of instances where the Greeks adopted Egyptian gods, precisely as Egyptian gods, without necessarily identifying them with their own.

One of the most popular Egyptian gods was Ammon. According to Herodotus (1.46) the sixth century Lydian king Kroisos “sent an embassy to Libya to consult the oracle of Ammon.” The worship of Ammon was introduced into Greece itself at an early period, probably through the medium of the Greek colony in Kyrene, which must have formed a connection with the great oracle of Ammon in the Oasis soon after its establishment. Ammon had a temple and a statue at Thebes, the gift of Pindar who wrote a famous hymn in his honor (Pausanias 9.16.1), and another at Sparta, the inhabitants of which, as Pausanias (3.18.2) says, consulted the oracle of Ammon in Libya from early times more than the other Greeks. At Aphytis, Ammon was worshipped, from the time of Lysander, as zealously as in Ammonium. At Megalopolis the god was represented with the head of a ram (Paus. 8.32.1), and the Greeks of Cyrenaica dedicated at Delphi a chariot with a statue of Ammon. (10.13.3)

Thoth was known to the Athens of Socrates:

“There is a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.” (Plato, Phaedrus 14.273)

And Socrates may even have reverenced Anoubis, for throughout the Republic Plato frequently has him swear “By the Dog of Egypt!”

And perhaps the most distinctly Egyptian of all the gods known to the Greeks was Neilos, the divinity of the river which gave life to the Black Land. He is found as early as the poet Hesiod who wrote, “Tethys bore to Okeanos the swirling Potamoi, Neilos, Alpheios, and deep-eddying Eridanos.” (Theogony 337) Pausanias noted that the Greeks normally made statues of the river-gods out of white stone, but for Neilos dark stone was preferred because “he flows down to the sea through Aithiopia.” (8.24.11)

Nor was this shared interest in religion entirely one-sided.

The Pharaoh Amasis (Ahmose II in Egyptian inscriptions) came to power when an uprising of soldiers removed his predecessor Apries from the throne. He established the 26th Dynasty, which governed from Sais, and was the last native ruler of Egypt before the Persian conquest. He was immensely popular with his subjects, and established friendly relations with a number of Greek states, earning him the title Philihellene or “Greek-lover”. Herodotos devotes a significant portion of Book II of his Histories to this fascinating Pharoah. He relates that under his prudent administration Egypt reached the highest pitch of prosperity; he adorned the temples of Lower Egypt especially with splendid monolithic shrines and other monuments (his activity here is proved by remains still existing).

“First in Sais he built and completed for Athene a temple-gateway which is a great marvel, and he far surpassed herein all who had done the like before, both in regard to height and greatness, so large are the stones and of such quality. Then secondly he dedicated great colossal statues and man-headed sphinxes very large, and for restoration he caused to be brought from the stone-quarries which are opposite Memphis, others of very great size from the city of Elephantine, distant a voyage of not less than twenty days from Sais: and of them all I marvel most at this, namely a monolith chamber which he brought from the city of Elephantine; and they were three years engaged in bringing this, and two thousand men were appointed to convey it, who all were of the class of boatmen. Of this house the length outside is one-and-twenty cubits, the breadth is fourteen cubits, and the height eight. These are the measures of the monolith house outside; but the length inside is eighteen cubits and five-sixths of a cubit, the breadth twelve cubits, and the height five cubits. This lies by the side of the entrance to the temple; for within the temple they did not draw it, because, as it is said, while the house was being drawn along, the chief artificer of it groaned aloud, seeing that much time had been spent and he was wearied by the work; and Amasis took it to heart as a warning and did not allow them to draw it further onwards. Some say on the other hand that a man was killed by it, of those who were heaving it with levers, and that it was not drawn in for that reason.

“Amasis also dedicated in all the other temples which were of repute, works which are worth seeing for their size, and among them also at Memphis the colossal statue which lies on its back in front of the temple of Hephaistos, whose length is five-and-seventy feet; and on the same base made of the same stone are set two colossal statues, each of twenty feet in length, one on this side and the other on that side of the large statue. There is also another of stone of the same size in Sais, lying in the same manner as that at Memphis. Moreover Amasis was he who built and finished for Isis her temple at Memphis, which is of great size and very worthy to be seen.”

He was also extremely fond of Oracles, as Herodotos relates:

“It is said however that Amasis, even when he was in a private station, was a lover of drinking and of jesting, and not at all seriously disposed; and whenever his means of livelihood failed him through his drinking and luxurious living, he would go about and steal; and they from whom he stole would charge him with having their property, and when he denied it would bring him before the judgment of an Oracle, whenever there was one in their place; and many times he was convicted by the Oracles and many times he was absolved: and then when finally he became king he did as follows:–as many of the gods as had absolved him and pronounced him not to be a thief, to their temples he paid no regard, nor gave anything for the further adornment of them, nor even visited them to offer sacrifice, considering them to be worth nothing and to possess lying Oracles; but as many as had convicted him of being a thief, to these he paid very great regard, considering them to be truly gods, and to present Oracles which did not lie.”

Amasis showed equal benefaction to the Greek temples and Oracles.

“Moreover when the Amphictyons had let out the contract for building the temple which now exists at Delphi, agreeing to pay a sum of three hundred talents (for the temple which formerly stood there had been burnt down of itself), it fell to the share of the people of Delphi to provide the fourth part of the payment; and accordingly the Delphians went about to various cities and collected contributions. And when they did this they got from Egypt as much as from any place, for Amasis gave them a thousand talents’ weight of alum, while the Hellenes who dwelt in Egypt gave them twenty pounds of silver.”

His other dedication in Greece were as follows:

“First at Kyrene an image of Athene covered over with gold and a figure of himself made like by painting; then in the temple of Athene at Lindos two images of stone and a corslet of linen worthy to be seen; and also at Samos two wooden figures of himself dedicated to Hera, which were standing even to my own time in the great temple, behind the doors. Now at Samos he dedicated offerings because of the guest-friendship between himself and Polycrates the son of Aiakes; at Lindos for no guest-friendship but because the temple of Athene at Lindos is said to have been founded by the daughters of Danaos, who had touched land there at the time when they were fleeing from the sons of Aigyptos. These offerings were dedicated by Amasis; and he was the first of men who conquered Cyprus and subdued it so that it paid him tribute.”

It was under Amasis’ reign that Thales, Solon, and Pythagoras visited Egypt. His love of all things Greek was so great that he even took a Greek woman as his wife.

“Also with the people of Kyrene Amasis made an agreement for friendship and alliance; and he resolved too to marry a wife from thence, whether because he desired to have a wife of Hellenic race, or, apart from that, on account of friendship for the people of Kyrene: however that may be, he married, some say the daughter of Battos, others of Arkesilaos, and others of Critobulos, a man of repute among the citizens; and her name was Ladike.

“Now whenever Amasis lay with her he found himself unable to have intercourse, but with his other wives he associated as he was wont; and as this happened repeatedly, Amasis said to his wife, whose name was Ladike: “Woman, thou hast given me drugs, and thou shall surely perish more miserably than any other.” Then Ladike, when by her denials Amasis was not at all appeased in his anger against her, made a vow in her soul to Aphrodite, that if Amasis on that night had intercourse with her (seeing that this was the remedy for her danger), she would send an image to be dedicated to her at Kyrene; and after the vow immediately Amasis had intercourse, and from thenceforth whenever Amasis came in to her he had intercourse with her; and after this he became very greatly attached to her. And Ladike paid the vow that she had made to the goddess; for she had an image made and sent it to Kyrene, and it is still preserved even to my own time, standing with its face turned away from the city of the Kyrenians. This Ladike Cambyses, having conquered Egypt and heard from her who she was, sent back unharmed to Kyrene.”

Another benefaction that he gave was the settlement of a Greek trading-port or emporium within the borders of Egypt.

“Moreover Amasis became a lover of the Hellenes; and besides other proofs of friendship which he gave to several among them, he also granted the city of Naukratis for those of them who came to Egypt to dwell in; and to those who did not desire to stay, but who made voyages thither, he granted portions of land to set up altars and make sacred enclosures for their gods. Their greatest enclosure and that one which has most name and is most frequented is called the Hellenion, and this was established by the following cities in common: –of the Ionians Chios, Teos, Phocaia, Clazomenai, of the Dorians Rhodes, Cnidos, Halicarnassos, Phaselis, and of the Aiolians Mytilene alone. To these belongs this enclosure and these are the cities which appoint superintendents of the port; and all other cities which claim a share in it, are making a claim without any right. Besides this the Eginetans established on their own account a sacred enclosure dedicated to Zeus, the Samians one to Hera, and the Milesians one to Apollo. Now in old times Naukratis alone was an open trading-place, and no other place in Egypt: and if any one came to any other of the Nile mouths, he was compelled to swear that he came not thither of his own free will, and when he had thus sworn his innocence he had to sail with his ship to the Canobic mouth, or if it were not possible to sail by reason of contrary winds, then he had to carry his cargo round the head of the Delta in boats to Naukratis: thus highly was Naukratis privileged.”

Naukratis continued as a settlement well into Ptolemiac times, where it was one of the three proper Greek poleis in the country, possessing a democratic constitution, a boule, a theater, a gymnasium, and all of the other features essential for Greek polity. However, as Alexandria grew in stature, Naukratis began to decline, until in the second century c.e. many of the citizens moved to the new foundation of Antinoopolis, which the Emperor Hadrian had founded on the same model as the city.

The early Egyptian archaeologist Flinders Petrie actually excevated the site of Naukratis, and described it as follows:

“These Greeks brought with them their national worship; and of the temples mentioned by Herodotos, those of Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hera, have been found, and also one to the Dioskouroi, not recorded in history. The temple of the Milesian Apollo appears to have been the oldest; it stood in the centre of town, outside of the fort, and was first built of mud-brick, plastered over, and later on, of white stone. The site had been nearly cleared out by the native diggers; and I only came in time to get fragments of the temple, and to open up the great rubbish trench, where all the temple refuse was thrown. Very precious this rubbish was to me, layer under layer of broken vases, from the innumerable small bowls to the great craters of noble size and design; and most precious of all were the hundreds of dedications inscribed on the pottery, some of them probably the oldest examples of Greek writing known. The temple of Aphrodite I found the next year and unearthed three successive buildings, one over the other. Though perhaps as old as that of Apollo, its inscriptions are not so primitive.” (Ten Years Digging in Egypt, Chapter 11)

But Greek activity in this period was not limited to the emporium of Naukratis. In fact, at various times Greeks held influential political and military positions in Egypt. The Egyptian priest and general Potasimto commanded a troop of Greek soldiers during the reign of Necho II. (Jean Yoyotte, “Potasimto de Pharbaithos et la titre grand combattantmaitre du triumphe” Chronique d’Egypte 28 (1953): 101-106) In the seventh century b.c.e. an unfortunately unnamed Egyptian city was governed by an Ionian Greek named Pedon. (Olivier Mason and Jean Yoyotte, “Une inscription ioienne mentionnant Psammatique ler” Epigraphica Anatolia I (1988): 171-179) And in a Demotic papyrus from Hermopolis we learn that a Greek named Ariston was an important Egyptian official circa 575 b.c.e. (El Hussein M. Zaghloul, “Frudemotische Urkunden aus Hermupolis”, Bulletin of the Center of Papyrological Studies 2, Cairo, 1985 23-31)

Additionally, many important Greeks came to visit Egypt, lured by its antiquity and reputation for mysterious wisdom.

“But now that we have examined these matters we must enumerate what Greeks, who have won fame for their wisdom and learning, visited Egypt in ancient times in order to become acquainted with its customs and learning. For the priests of Egypt recount from the records of their sacred books that they were visited in early times by Orpheus, Musaeus, Melampus, and Daedalus, also by the poet Homer and Lycurgus of Sparta, later by Solon of Athens and the philosopher Plato, and that there came also Pythagoras of Samos and the mathematician Eudoxus, as well as Democritus of Abdera and Oenopides of Chios. As evidence for the visits of all these men they point in some cases to their statues and in others to places or buildings which bear their names, and they offer proofs from the branch of learning which each one of these men pursued, arguing that all the things for which they were admired among the Greeks were borrowed from Egypt.” (Diodorus Siculus 1.96)

Plato (Timaeus 21-22) described the visit of Solon to Egypt in the following way:

“Solon said that, when he traveled to Sais, he was received with much honor; and further that, when he inquired about ancient times from the priests who knew most of such matters, he discovered that neither he nor any other Greek had any knowledge of antiquity worth speaking of. Once, wishing to lead them on to talk about ancient times, he set about telling them the most venerable of our legends, about Phoroneus the reputed first man and Niobe, and the story how Deucalion and Pyrrha survived the deluge. He traced the pedigree of their descendents, and tried, by reckoning the generations, to compute how many years had passed since those events.

‘Ah, Solon, Solon,’ said one of the priests, a very old man, ‘you Greeks are always children; in Greece there is no such thing as an old man.’

‘What do you mean?’ Solon asked.

‘You are all young in your minds,’ said the priest, ‘which hold no store of old belief based on long tradition, no knowledge hoary with age,'”

Plato’s own sojourn in Egypt was recorded by the geographer Strabo (17.1.29):

“At Heliopolis the houses of the priests and the schools of Plato and Eudoxus were pointed out to us; for Eudoxus went up to that place with Plato and they both passed thirteen years with the priests, as is stated by some writers; for since these priests excelled in their knowledge of the heavenly bodies, albeit secretive and slow to impart it, Plato and Eudoxus prevailed upon them in time by courting their favor to let them learn some of the principles of their doctrines; but the barbarians concealed most things.”

Diogenes Laertius (1.43, 24) records that Thales of Miletos, the famous physical scientist who predicted an eclipse in 584 b.c.e., visited “Egypt to confer with the priests and astronomers” and that he “seems to have learned geometry from them as well.”

Thales’ contemporary Pythagoras came there for a similar reason, though he found the Egyptian priests less than obliging.

“Having been received by Amasis, he obtained from him letters of recommendation to the priests of Heliopolis, who sent him to those of Memphis, since they were older – which was, at heart, only a pretext. Then, for the same reasons, he was again sent from Memphis to the priests of Diospolis. The latter, fearing the king and not daring to find false excuses to exclude the newcomer from their sanctuary, thought they would rid themselves of him by forcing him to undergo very bad treatment and to carry out very difficult orders quite foreign to a Hellenic education. All that was calculated to drive him to despair so that he would give up his mission. But since he zealously executed all that was demanded of him, the priests ended by conceiving a great admiration for him, treating him respectfully and even allowing him to sacrifice to their deities, which until then had never been permitted to a foreigner.” (Porphyry Life of Pythagoras, 7)

And so we bring our review of the contacts between Greece and Egypt before Alexander and the Ptolemies to a close. As you can see, the splendid multicultural society that they created had ample precedent and very firm foundations. For several millenia these two cultures had met, mingled, and jointly inspired each other. They would continue to do so even through Roman domination (in fact, their mutual hatred for the Romans actually solidified the bonds between Greek and Egyptian far more solidly than any Ptolemaic policy could) and through to the triumph of Christianity which saw, under Theodosius, the closing of the Egyptian temples and their destruction by rabid mobs of religious zealots.

3 thoughts on “Greece and Egypt Before the Ptolemies

  1. Ahhh here’s an old chestnut! I still have my copy of “The Balance of the Two Lands” that I have been reading again recently.


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