Archaeological discoveries

Egypt:the Late Period and the Ptolemaic Period

Last updated:2022-07-25

Assyrians, Persians then Greeks… The invaders swept over a weakened Egypt whose culture remained vibrant. The successors of Alexander the Great would adopt some local traditions, forging a Hellenistic culture around Alexandria, the new capital.

Cat mummy, Egyptian antiquity, Late period. Preserved at the Louvre Museum (Paris).

This article is from the Special Issue of Sciences et Avenir n°197 dated April-May 2019.



XXI e dynasty - XXV th Sudanese dynasty (c. 1069 - 664)

Pharaoh Smendès puts an end to the troubles which swept away the New Empire. He founded the XXI th dynasty, chooses for capital a new city, Tanis, in the north of Per-Ramses. But Egypt, divided into multiple principalities, suffered a succession of invasions.


XXVI e Saite Dynasty - XXXI th Persian dynasty (664 - 332)

The Assyrians sacked Thebes in 664 but pushed the Sudanese back into Nubia. They place on the throne Psammetichus I st of Sais (son of a prince of the Delta of Libyan origin) who reunified the country (656). But in 525, Pharaoh Psammetichus III surrendered to Persian King Cambyses II, whose armies had invaded the country:Egypt became a province of the Achaemenid Empire for just under two centuries.


In 332, the troops of Alexander, king of Macedonia, took control of Egypt. When Alexander died in 323, one of his generals, Ptolemy, ascended the throne. He founded the Ptolemaic dynasty (305 to 30) which would dominate the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries.

Politics and religion

Political and cultural instability marked the period. Under the XXI th dynasty (kings of Tanis), the center of power is located in Lower Egypt, while Upper and Middle Egypt (Asyut region) are administered by the priests of Amun, who have family ties with the pharaohs. Their temple, in Thebes, dominates local political and economic life. The royal tombs of Tanis bear witness to the prosperity of Egypt (until the XXII th dynasty). They contain pieces of a quality comparable to those found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

Animal worship takes the I st millennium of unprecedented proportions. The Ptolemies, although of Greek cultural identity, built temples, took up the attributes of the Egyptian kings and, even after the end of the kingship (332), perpetuated the memory of them by having themselves represented as pharaohs on the reliefs of the sanctuaries. .

Iconic figures

Nectanebo II is the last pharaoh (358 - 341). He is the third and last king of the XXX e dynasty, the last line ruled by properly Egyptian pharaohs. King builder, he built in Dendera (Upper Egypt) the oldest mammisi known. He pushes back the Persian armies in 351 but cannot resist the invasion of the troops of Artaxerxes III in 343.

Cleopatra VII (51-30) from a Greek dynasty, of Greco-Macedonian culture (but speaking Egyptian), became queen at the age of 18. She is less known for her political sense which enabled her to restore the greatness of Egypt than for her legendary charm to which Julius Caesar and then Marc Antoine succumbed. In 30, she committed suicide when Octave - future Emperor Augustus - landed in Alexandria, seized his treasure and looted his palace. Much more than an heir to the Egypt of the pharaohs, Cleopatra is a figure in Hellenistic political history.

Funeral art


From the end of prehistory (c. 4000), the Egyptians venerated their gods in the form of animals. After the unification (c. 3100), they gave the deities human features, without however concealing their animal characteristics. The protective deity of each city is associated with a sacred animal, to which the Egyptians worship in the form of a statue and sometimes of a real animal, which is until its death the living image of the god. At I st millennial, this worship of the sacred animal of the local god extends to the whole of the species:it becomes forbidden to eat these animals or to attack them. In the temples, however, the priests raise cats, ibises, fish or dogs, considered as messengers dispatched to the gods to ask them for a favor or to thank them for a granted wish. The devotees buy them to have them immolated, mummified and buried. Necropolises like that of Saqqara contain more than a million mummies of these animals.

Sites and monuments

Some of the best preserved temples in Upper Egypt were erected at this time. Edfu south of Luxor, dedicated to Horus), Dendera (north of Luxor, dedicated to Hathor) or Philae (on the island of the first cataract of the Nile, dedicated to Isis) are the most representative of temple architecture Greco-Roman, with their monumental entrance (or "pylon"), their colonnades, their walls engraved with numerous hieroglyphs and their mammisi , a small chapel located near the main temple (from the XXX th dynasty).

Egypt and its neighbors

The Saite monarchy inaugurates a period of prosperity. Around 600, eager to develop trade with the Mediterranean and East Africa, Nékao II (son of Psammetichus I st - XXVI th dynasty) undertakes the digging of a canal intended to connect the Nile to the Red Sea. Its territory is however cut off from the rich Nubia, Palestine and Phoenicia. With the conquest of Alexander (332) which added Egypt to his vast empire, the center of power moved to the new capital, Alexandria, which became a cultural and artistic hub. A city no longer Egyptian but Hellenistic, facing the Mediterranean.

Arts and techniques


During the Third Intermediate Period, the refinement of embalming techniques begun in the New Kingdom continued. From the XXII th dynasty, simplified processes are offered to the middle classes who wish to preserve their bodies; then to the popular classes, in the Late Period. Expedited practices, for a sometimes poor quality result. In the Ptolemaic era, by gradually adopting mummification, the Greeks themselves contributed to the increase in demand.

Ptolemy I built the most famous monuments of Alexandria, marvels that no longer exist today:its lighthouse, its library and the temple of Serapis. This revered god is inspired by Osiris, Apis… Zeus and Hades. A syncretism desired by the king to unite Egyptians and Greeks in the same cult.

By Laureen Bouyssou