BMCR 2020.09.07

Archaeology of empire in Achaemenid Egypt

, Archaeology of empire in Achaemenid Egypt. Edinburgh studies in ancient Persia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019. xix, 318 p.. ISBN 9781474452366. £85.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This is said to be the first study of the material culture of Egypt during the period of Achaemenid Persian rule, and its goal is to challenge the common idea that Achaemenid rule of Egypt was either ephemeral and weak or oppressive and harsh. To achieve his goal, Colburn focuses on three main tasks, (1) to describe the intellectual foundations of our knowledge of the archaeology of the 27th dynasty; (2) to assemble a corpus of visual and material records from Egypt that can be dated with confidence to the 27th dynasty; (3) to use this corpus to characterize Achaemenid rule in Egypt.

After a detailed historical and methodological introduction to the subject (1-26) Colburn directs his attention to the city of Memphis (27-94) and two oases in the western desert, Kharga and Dakhla (95-130), the one being a prominent urban center (many times Egypt’s capital, during the Achaemenid period the seat of the Persian satrap), and the other rural outposts (which Colburn notes greatly benefitted from the introduction during the 27th dynasty of the qanat, an irrigation technique originating in Iran). These sites “offer the two greatest concentrations of archaeological material and related evidence that can be securely dated to the 27th Dynasty. In this respect they provide an invaluable baseline for the studies … where the material evidence is often not as clearly fixed in time and space” (130)

The studies to which Colburn alludes are discussed in his chapters 4-6. In chapter 4 (131-188), Colburn first extensively (and quite convincingly, by showing that the collections serving as the foundation of the modern study of Egyptian statuary were largely derived from the objects selected by the Romans to be taken to Italy and as such therefore primarily based upon Roman taste and Roman needs) challenges the idea of the “artistic poverty of the 27th Dynasty” (133). In modern literature, Bosse has been the first to suggest such a status of “artistic poverty of the 27th Dynasty” as regards Egyptian culture.[1] Secondly Colburn presents several studies of elements as viewed in sculptural representations such as, the ‘Persian gesture’ (136-40) and the ‘Persian garment’ (140-3). Obviously, the statue of Udjahorresnet (now in the Vatican Egyptian museum) features in this discussion, but Colburn especially pays attention to the statue of Darius (commemorating the canal he ordered to be dug to connect the Nile river and the Red Sea) found at Susa in 1972 (and currently housed in the Tehran museum), since both—even though in different ways—are emblematic for Achaemenid Persian rule in Egypt. Colburn’s skilful deconstruction of the picture of Udjahorresnet as a ‘turncoat’ I only can welcome as an excellent starting point for a more detached investigation of Egyptian officials serving Achaemenid Persian rulers.

Chapter 5 (189-220) is dedicated to social practices, specifically “the decisions people made about identity on a daily basis. … how to dress, how to behave, how to speak, … and what to eat and drink” (189). A prominent place in Colburn’s treatment of the matter is reserved for ‘Persian’ drinking vessels, i.e. the Achaemenid phiales, rhyta, and bowls found in Egypt—as well as the (Egyptian) production of such vessels in faience and ceramic as emulated objects of status. Rightly, in my view, as they form an important part of the evidence Colburn adduces to illustrate his point about Persian influence on Egypt.

In chapter 6 Colburn discusses “the impact of Achaemenid rule on the Egyptian economy” (221). We may presume it is generally known that Achaemenid rule saw the introduction of coins in Egypt, which were primarily imported from the Greek world (notably Athens), if only to pay the empire’s tribute demands, in exchange for grain and other products like papyrus, natron and linen.[2] Even if the introduction of the use of (Greek!) coinage in Egypt was, according to Colburn (244), not the Achaemenids’ intent, it certainly turned out to be the result of their policy. It had a deep impact on the nature of Egyptian economy (not at all entirely for the worse, in spite of what Colburn refers to as the “tired notion that Achaemenid rule brought economic hardship on Egypt” (245)), which was still furthered due to the fact that the Ptolemies (equally relying on a monetary-driven system) succeeded the Achaemenids and went to great lengths to make coins the standard method of payment.[3]

As discussed by Colburn in chapter seven, the end of effective Achaemenid rule in Egypt (save for its brief revival in the 330s BC) started with the revolt by Amyrtaios in 404 BC, which was finally completed about 401 BC and possibly largely successful due to external circumstances (the death of King Darius II, the succession by Artaxerxes II followed by the challenge for the throne by Cyrus the Younger in 401). It was, however, “not the end of the Achaemenid presence on the conceptual landscape of Egypt” (247), if only due to a continuing threat of another Achaemenid expedition against Egypt. Moreover, many of the structures (physical and political) established by the Achaemenids remained mostly intact. The impact of lasting Achaemenid influences is, according to Colburn (219), probably best seen in the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el Gebel, near ancient Hermopolis Magna, modern Al Minya, discussed by Colburn on 219-20 and again at 256-7. In life, Petosiris was a high priest of the Egyptian god Thoth and his tomb is usually dated to the last quarter of the fourth century BC, in the years following the death of Alexander the Great and the accession to power of Ptolemy. The texts found in the tomb show Petosiris entirely in Egyptian manner, but the decorations show, inter alia, “the production of metal vessels, including phialae, rhyta and Achaemenid bowls” (256-7), Achaemenid markers of status adopted in Egypt. As such, the tomb thereby suggests more than a brief and passing influence of Achaemenid Persian rule.

Colburn adduces sufficient evidence to make clear that views of scholars like Bosse certainly should be amended. However, the material evidence he adduces, in my view, no matter how convincing and convincingly presented, is ultimately insufficient to make clear that Colburn’s basic premise is absolutely right: to clinch the case the ample textual evidence is needed as well. A starting point therefore might be the so-called Petition of Petiese (III) of 513 BC, documented in P. Ryl. Dem. 9.[4] We are in the luxurious position of having both textual and material evidence at our disposal and, certainly to right such a historical wrong as suppressing evidence for Achaemenid Persian influences in Egypt, should use both to do so.

Colburn’s book ends with an ample bibliography (259-312) and a (relatively) succinct index. Finally, though the book is written lucidly to make it (theoretically, at least) accessible for a relatively wide audience, I think it is quite specialized, likely narrowing the audience primarily to Egyptologists and scholars of Achaemenid studies, though others involved in the study of antiquity may find welcome information in it.

Table of Contents

Series Editor’s Preface (xviii-xix)
Ch. 1. The Study of Achaemenid Egypt (1-26)
Ch. 2. Urban Experiences: Memphis (27-94)
Ch. 3. Rural Experiences: The Western Desert (95-130)
Ch. 4. Representation and Identity (131-188)
Ch. 5. Social Practices: Drinking Like a Persian (189-220)
Ch. 6. Coinage and the Egyptian Economy (221-245)
Ch. 7. Experiencing Achaemenid Egypt (246-258))
Bibliography (259-312)
Index (313-318).


[1] Bosse, K., Die menschliche Figur in der Rundplastik der ägyptischen Spätzeit von der XXII. bis zur XXX. Dynastie, Darmstadt: J.J. Augustin, 1936. Her view was notably challenged by Bernard V. Bothmer, whose studies on this subject culminated in his Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 B.C. to A.D. 100, Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1960, but many scholars continued to follow Bosse’s lead as yet.

[2] At least from the fourteenth century BC, though, Egyptians had been familiar with the use of silver bullion (e.g. the so-called “Hacksilber”), inter alia acquired as tribute from Egypt’s vassals in the Levant or through trade, be it on relatively modest scale (cf. 227).

[3] See: Von Reden, S., Money in Ptolemaic Egypt: From the Macedonian Conquest to the End of the Third Century BC, Cambridge: CUP, 2007.

[4] Cf., e.g., Traunecker, C., Les deux enfants du temple de Teudjoï (à propos du P. Rylands IX), in: L. Gabolde (ed.), Hommages à Jean-Claude Goyon offerts pour son 70e anniversaire. Textes réunis et édités par –, Cairo: IFAO, vol. 143, 2008, 381-96; Vittmann, G., Der demotische Papyrus Rylands 9, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998. Colburn (10) does refer to this text. We may also think of the correspondence of the Persian satrap Arshama: cf. Tuplin, C. and J. Ma (eds.), The Arshama Letters from the Bodleian Library, 2013 (see via the Wayback Archive:  as well as several texts on stelae (cf. Colburn, 16-7), the text of Udjahorresnet’s statue and the texts on Cambyses as rendered by Kuhrt, A., The Persian Empire. A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, 2 vols. London: Routledge, 2007, vol. I: 122-4.