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Taharqa Shrine Ram of Amun

Ram of Amun outside the shrine of Taharqa in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford, August 2008. Photo by smokeghost on Flickr.

Amun is perhaps the most pervasive and enigmatic of all Egyptian deities. His faces and Divine functions are manifold,  and have experienced a great deal of change over the course of many tumultuous centuries. It is generally held in the Modern mind that Amun was, and is, “King of the Gods” in Egyptian religion. However, this was not always so, and with the resurgence of Egyptian religion, also referred to as Kemeticism, has largely not remained so. Though His cult may have initially been one of an obscure Primordial God, in later periods of Ancient Egyptian History, His cult would rise to hold theological dominion over the totality of Egypt, and wrest political and religious power and prestige from all other cults, reducing the individual nature of once-powerful and prominent Gods to mere reflections of Himself.

Amun’s name means “The Hidden One” or “Secret One.” Watterson describes the Old Kingdom Period form of Amun at Khmun (Hermopolis) as “God of the Air;” and though They have the same name, it is unknown whether the Khmunian Amun is at all related to the later Wasetian (Theban) Amun. (8) What is known is that the Khmunian Amun is the oldest, and played a crucial though subordinate role among the Ogdoad, or the eight deities worshiped in Khmun during the Old Kingdom Period. This Amun was not the head of His Godly “tribe,” however, and no other deity by the name of Amun is to be found contemporaneously within the two other main cosmogonies, those of Men-nefer (Memphis) and Iunu/On (Heliopolis). (2) Djehuty, the ibis-headed or baboon-form Lunar God of heka, wisdom, and writing, for Whom the city was dubbed by the Greeks, presided over the eight Gods of the Ogdoad as chief deity in Khmun. (2) Jackson briefly maps-out the skeleton of Khmunian Theology, and Amun’s role within it:

Hermopolitan Theology focuses on the latent power of the Nun, or pre-Creation chaos. It is believed to date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. The Nun, which is the Primodrial Ocean, has a female aspect – the Nanuet, which is sometimes described as the celestial expanse above the abyss. This gives rise to the attributes of the Nun: Heh and Hauhet, Who represent the boundless and imperceptible expanses of the chaotic and formlessness; Kek and Kauket, Who represent its darkness and obscurity; Amun and Amaunet, Who represent the intangible secrets of the chaos and are likened to the wind. These four pairs of deities form the Ogdoad. They are usually shown as four frog-headed Gods and four snake-headed Goddesses. Another explanation for the Ogdoad is that [Djehuty] was an ancient God of the Delta region and these eight deities were His Souls.


In Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, R.T. Rundle-Clark submits that Amun might have alternatively been a Cosmic Serpent in Old Kingdom Period religion, thus having a slightly more important creative role than we would assume from the text of Khmunian cosmogony. Such a serpent is mentioned in paragraph 1146 of the Pyramid Texts, as a manifestation of the High God in His emergent form, describing Itself as “The Provider of Attributes serpent with many coils . . . which says what has been and effects what is yet to be.” Rundle-Clark describes this Cosmic Serpent as “the Creator of Multiplicity, God as the spirit Who assigns to everything its essence . . . [that] came into being in the midst of the dark waters of the Abyss . . . Whose coils delimit the Creation . . . [Whose] creative Word lays down the laws of what is to be made.” This image is of the Creator at the beginning, but the Creator is no longer manifest in this form, for the Cosmic Serpent form has since been superseded. According to Old Kingdom theologies, this serpent form exists at both the beginning and end of time, when Creation emerged from the Nun, and when Creation will eventually revert to the primary state of undifferentiated chaos, and the Creator will assume the serpent-form once more. Rundle-Clark goes on to say that, because the Cosmic Serpent came before the appearance of light, it was sometimes referred to as Amun, due to the meaning of His name. (7)

Incidentally, this serpent form of the Creator is considered to be a form which the Creator forsook once Order had been established, (7) and the “Amun-Serpent,” jealous of the form the Creator had assumed, sought to consume Him and all of Creation. Thus it could be construed that the discarded form of the Creator is related to the demon A/pep.

Hermopolis Khmun Standard

The standard of Khmun (Hermopolis), from Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt by R.T. Rundle-Clark. The coiled serpent may have represented Amun of Khmun as Kematef during the Old Kingdom Period. It could also be representative of Neheb-Kau, “The Provider of Attributes.” Whether this Cosmic Serpent is a shared primordial incarnation between Amun and Neheb-Kau, or indeed the Creator God Atum of Iunu (Heliopolis), in Old Kingdom Period Theology is subject to exhaustive debate.

According to Watterson, the soul of Amun was represented by a coiled serpent, the Cosmic Serpent, and went by the name of Kematef, or “He Who has Finished His Moment.” The standard of Khmun may have been, or at the very least incorporated, the God’s original fetish. (8) In like kind, Pinch supplements this view of the Primordial Amun as Cosmic Serpent with her description of the naissance of the Ogdoad. The Ogdoad came together to form a Cosmic Egg (an invisible one, no less, since light had not yet come into being), which Amun as Cosmic Serpent fertilized, setting the stage for Creation. (4) Alternatively, the Cosmic Egg was laid in the waters of the Abyss by Amun in the form of a goose, Gengen-Wer, or “The Great Cackler.” (3) Whatever the form, the acts that Amun carries out in these manifestations implies a greater Divine role and a higher station in the Divine hierarchy than is typically attributed to Amun of Khmun, by both primary religious sources and Modern scholars. Ptah, Atum, and Djehuty were most often bestowed the title of “High God” in the dominant Old Kingdom theologies.

The Amun of Whom most of us are aware did not rise to prominence from the waters of Old Kingdom Khmun, however. It wasn’t until the first Intermediate and Middle Kingdom Periods, in the 4th or Scepter Nome of Upper Egypt, that the cult of Amun the Ram God and King-Maker emerged as a serious contender for religious and political supremacy in Egypt. As mentioned previously, it is unknown whether or not the God Amun of Khmun is in any way related to the Ram God called Amun, Whose cult had so assiduously annexed the 4th Nome, and eventually all of Egypt as Supreme God. What is known is that the cult of Amun appeared during the First Intermediate Period in Waset (Thebes), and within a matter of a century and a half, would eventually displace and subordinate its reigning Solar War God, Montu. (5, 8) The Amun Who came to rule the 4th Nome also did not have Amaunet as His consort, as the Amun of Khmun had. Rather, the Goddess Mut held that position.


Tatenen. Art by Jeff Dahl.

It is surmised that the Amun Who came to power in Waset had overtaken an unknown God even older than Montu — Who quite possibly may have been an alternate form of Amun similar to that of Khmun, rather than an entirely separate deity — Whose chief symbol was the ram. (5) It is unknown what species of ram represented the God Whom Montu had displaced, though it can be assumed due to the presumed age of the deity that it was Ovis longipes paleoaegyptiacus, the first species of ram to be cultivated in Egypt, which had a heavier build, long, shaggy coat, and spiraling horizontal horns. Amun came to be represented by the lean, short-haired, curved-horned Ovis platrya, which supplanted Ovis longipes paleoaegyptiacus(9) It is strangely fitting that the species of ram representing Gods such as Herishef, Banebdjedet, Khnum, Tatenen, and Wesir (Osiris), Who had previously asserted some semblance of cultic individuality, would be subordinated by the ram identified with Amun. Indeed, even at so early a date as the latter decades of the First Intermediate Period, Amun possessed “optimized” superfluid and comprehensive qualities that made the assimilation of other Gods and Their cults, including but not limited to the aforementioned, veritably seamless. (5) By the Middle Kingdom, the ram became His chief symbol (though not His chief depiction), namely for its virility and pugnacity. Historian Donald B. Redford expounds upon the theological reasoning behind the adoption of the ram as the symbol of Amun. Though he is speaking of it in the context of the Ram God Banebdjedet of Djedet (Mendes), this God was later absorbed by Amun(-Ra), and still applies:

A comparable proximity of traits and functions was postulated of other ovine cults . . . A universal purview, moreover, attaches itself to the Ram . . . He becomes Father of the Gods, Ram of Rams, the King of the Gods, the Manifestation (bai) of every God, the Heir of Tatenen (the primordial Earth God), the Unique God with overwhelming awfulness. The nuance of the Absolute inherent in these epithets leads to the perceptions of the God’s power and person being unrestricted in the Universe, no matter what superficial manifestation may intervene. Besides His essence as earth, He is also water “Who comes as the Inundation that He may bring life to the Two Lands.” As the Living One of Ra, He becomes the source of light and heat “that brightens Heaven and Earth with His rays”; as the air “He is breath for all people.”


Amun would also later adopt the Ram quadrifrons of Banebdjedet, which represented the four hypostases of the abstract qualities of the Abyss, each with a nuance of the Infinite: Absolute Darkness (Kkw), Infinity (Hhw), Fluidity (Nw), and Directionlessness (Tnmw). As the Complete One (‘Itm), the Lord of Heaven, and the Living One of Ra, the Ram quadrifrons also represented Light/Flame (Ra), Air (Shu), Earth (Geb), and Flood (Wesir). (6) The comprehensive theological completeness of this representation made Banebdjedet’s Ram quadrifrons an attractive candidate for cultic assimilation by Amun’s priesthood.

The Ram quadrifrons of Banebdjedet. Image source.

The Ram quadrifrons of Banebdjedet. Image source.

After Amun’s cult had achieved preeminence in Waset, and had a temple erected for Him in Iuny (Armant), Waset grew in wealth and geopolitical importance like never before. (8) His cult continued to expand consonantly.

The watershed between the Montu Supremacy and the Amun Supremacy within the 4th Nome occurred roughly a century after Amun’s cult entrenched itself in Waset. The rulers of the 11th Dynasty, who were native to the Nome and adherents of the cult of Montu, made Waset/Iuny the capital of the Two Lands, a privilege it held for some fifty years. Then, in 1999 BCE, the last ruler of the 11th Dynasty, Montuhotep IV, was usurped by his chief minister, who was a follower of Amun. (8) It is apparent that the change in local religion was almost purely political; it was altered to explain and justify the new leadership, and the demotion of Montu as High God within the Scepter Nome. For a time, Montu was relegated to the status of the warlike manifestation of Amun, then to Amun’s son. And then, finally, to relative obscurity, having once again been replaced — this time by the Lunar God Khonsu as Amun’s son.

Set, giving the king Amenemhat I years, that he might lead a successful, lengthy reign over the Two Lands. XII Dynasty, Middle Kingdom.

The Upper Egyptian God Set (upper right) giving Amenemhat I (seated left) years, represented by the bundle of renpet (M4) or palm branch hieroglyphs, that he might lead a long, prosperous reign over the Two Lands. The anthropomorphized rekhyt (lapwing) birds in the lowermost register symbolize the assured obedience of the king’s subjects. (9) XII Dynasty, Middle Kingdom. Image source.

The founding ruler of the 12th Dynasty seized power in 1991 BCE, and proclaimed himself Amenemhat, or “Amun is Supreme,” a naming tradition that would be maintained by three of his successors. (5) Amenemhat I not only honored Amun in name, but also began construction on what would be one of the largest temple complexes in World History —  second only to the size of the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat, in fact — for the glory of Amun: Ipet-sut, “The Most Secret of Places” — Karnak. (8) It would come to serve as an architectural kings list of sorts, to which most of the Dynastic rulers following him would leave their mark, in the form of new additions and renovations to the temple.

During Amenemhat I’s reign (1991 – 1962 BCE), the cult of Amun absolutely flourished, and Amun’s identification with Ra became pronounced. (5) This was likely facilitated by the movement of the capital from Waset to Itjtawy, “The Seizer of the Two Lands,” located on the boundary between Lower and Upper Egypt about 30 kilometers south of Men-nefer (Memphis). (8) Amenemhat I moved his capital there, as he did not believe his growing Empire could be effectively managed from Waset, though Waset remained the administrative center of Upper Egypt. Ra’s and Amun’s strongholds were thus placed in closer proximity, and the joining of the two cults was very astute and agreeable for both parties, both theologically and politically. The joining of the cult of Ra with the cult of Amun was an expression of the unity of the Gods’ — and Their worldly officials’ — authority, and marked the entry of Amun as a significant deity presiding over the royal cult. (5)

During the 13th Dynasty, the capital was again shifted to Men-nefer, though it fell to invading Hyksos in 1674 BCE, an Asiatic people known by the Egyptians as heqa khasewet, or “foreign rulers.” (8) They may have been a Mesopotamian group known by Modern scholars as the Hurrians, or were perhaps more likely a Levantine people. Waset, which had fallen into relative obscurity over the years, became a marshaling point for the Egyptian resistance. The leaders of this resistance to Hyksos rule were designated as the 17th Dynasty, despite the nation’s unity having been interrupted by foreign occupation.

New Kingdom MapThe greatly celebrated and long-awaited expulsion of the Hyksos by King Ahmose in 1550 BCE marked the beginning of the 18th Dynasty and the New Kingdom Period, and with it, a wave of monumental building projects commemorating Amun(-Ra), to Whose power and beneficence victory over foreign dominion was largely attributed. Waset/Iuny once again became the capital of Egypt — this time, the seat of a true Empire — and as she grew, so did the might and prestige of Amun.

It was during the 18th and 19th Dynasties (excluding the interrupting Amarna Period) that Amun achieved His greatest religious importance and became the emblematic State God, acquiring the title of Amun-Ra-Nesu-Netjeru, or “Amun-Ra, King of the Gods.” (3) Amun’s theological development was reaching its climax. The power of His cult, and the interest the royal office had in seeing it expand as such, transformed Egyptian State religion into a henotheistic system. Amun(-Ra) was swift in becoming Supreme God, of Whom all Gods were self-manifestations, and not merely on a regional basis. His association with the air as an invisible, “hidden” force facilitated His growth into the theological station of Transcendent Creator par excellence. (5) According to this new theology, Amun(-Ra) was not immanent within Creation, and Creation was not an extension of Himself. In fact, He remained apart from His Creation, totally independent of it. Amun(-Ra) carried out Creative acts by virtue of His supreme power; He did not physically engender the Creation, as had occurred in Heliopolitan cosmology with Re-Atum. (5) Egyptian religion was becoming quite abstract indeed.

All the while — particularly during the 18th – 20th Dynasties — the priesthood of Amun(-Ra) was at pains to paint this inaccessible, conquering, Kingly, virtually inaccessible God as a compassionate, relatable deity to Whom everyman could turn to in times of need. Thus Amun(-Ra) experienced a “public relations overhaul,” and was revolutionarily portrayed by His clergy as a God of the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden, as well as sailors. A vestibule was created by the gate at Karnak temple, where Egyptian subjects of all walks of life could leave stelae to Amun, as well as the other members of His triad in Waset, Mut and Khonsu. (8)

Amun-Ra, I love You!
My heart has been filled by You.
I have placed You in my heart,
for I know Your Name.

Ostracon British Museum (5656a), XIXth Dynasty.

You are Amun, Lord of the Silent,
Who answers the cry of the humble.
I cry unto You because I am afflicted,
and already You come and save me.
You Who gives breath to he who lacks it!
Save me, I, who am in distress.
You are Amun-Ra, Lord of Waset,
Who even saves the one who is in the netherworld.

Prayer of Nebre, Stela 23.077, Berlin Museum, XIXth Dynasty.

Though a number of beautiful devotions were produced in the name of Amun, such as the examples above, showing that some were truly moved by the national God, the efforts on the part of the priesthood were largely “foredoomed to failure.” (10)

The cult of Amun enjoyed a great deal of prosperity and embellishment under the Thutmoside and Ramesside Pharaohs. Thutmose III was an especial devotee of Amun. At Karnak, several years after he ascended the throne, he had a story from his youth inscribed upon its walls. When he was a mere child serving as an acolyte in the Temple of Amun at Iuny, his father the Pharaoh came to make offerings to the God. Thutmose was standing in the hall outside the sanctuary as his father’s procession passed by. And the God (the cult’s icon, or perhaps a living ram-avatar, processed by a team of priests) “began to search for him” :

On recognizing me, lo, He halted . . . I threw myself on the pavement, I prostrated myself in His presence. He set me before Him and I was placed at the station of the King [i.e., the place usually occupied by the Pharaoh].


Thus, by means of Divine oracle, or perhaps by the prophetic vision attributed to Ram Gods and Their cultic animal avatars (6), the young boy was chosen to be crown prince, and succeed his father. The oracle very likely had been staged by the priests of Amun, who had their sights set on backing the boy’s claim to the throne, grooming him to be favorable toward and supportive of Amun’s cult. Indeed, when Thutmose III came into his throne undisputed, he was visibly eager to show his gratitude to the God. The Thutmoside Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty attributed their successes at home and abroad to the greatness of Amun(-Ra). (8) Each of them called himself the son of “his Father, Amun,” and claimed their right to rule through the God. The Pharaohs made princely donations to the cult, and the religio-political claims of the Pharaohs were in turn legitimized by the religious institution through the vehicle of public religious propaganda, through the building of monuments displaying the victories of the Pharaoh, and the sponsorship of said victories by the God Amun and His cult.

Such interdependence of State and religion were underscored by the official doctrines of the emergent Egyptian Empire which designated Amun-Ra as the literal, physical Father of the Pharaoh. (5) According to the royal theology of the New Kingdom Period, namely under the reign of Hatshepsut (though predating it), Amun-Ra would take the form of the ruling monarch to join in sexual congress with the chief royal wife, who also became known as the “Divine Wife of Amun,” in order to impregnate her with his successor. (3, 10) In this way, the successor/ruler was not only Divinely appointed, but the son of a God, through whom Amun-Ra ruled all of Egypt. This is perhaps one of the first applications of a “true” Divine Right of Kings concept in World History. By this time, Imperial Egyptian government had been transformed into a theocracy by the sheer magnitude of the spiritual and political power wielded by the cult of Amun(-Ra), and the mutual influences the State-sponsored priesthood and monarchy had over one-another. (1)

This expansion of power and wealth between that of the Pharaoh and the cult of Amun(-Ra) proved quite oppressive, and many likely felt outraged — not the least of whom Amenhotep IV of the 18th Dynasty Pharaohs, who changed his name to Akenaten. He usurped the traditional religion, along with the cult of Amun(-Ra), by instating the cult of the Sun, of the omnipresent Aten rather than Ra, as the only cult in Egypt. (Before Akenaten came into power, under the Amun Supremacy, Egyptians could worship any God they wished, though often in relation to Amun, Ra, or Amun-Ra. Under Akenaten’s rule, this practice was abolished, though the people had saved some of the cult icons of their favored Gods, maintaining them in their homes.) The constant pouring of foreign acquisitions/”spoils of war” into Amun’s coffers rather than the Pharaoh’s treasury — one of the Thutmoside Pharaohs’ legacies — weakened the authority of the monarchy, and while Akhenaten’s motivations are difficult to discern, it is likely that Akenaten did not wish to compete with Amun and His priests for absolute power. The eclipse of Amun was to be very short-lived and much-despised by the Egyptian people and their spurned priests of the former regime, however. (8) The cult of Amun(-Ra) was reinstated within a matter of years, back to its full power by the 19th Dynasty, and its expansion and former relationship with the Throne of Egypt would continue as ever. It was as if Akenaten and his blasphemies had never existed at all. Amun was once again victorious.

Amun aiding in the smiting of a Pharaoh's enemies. From a collection of reproductions of the frescoes in Abu Simbel temple by J. F. Champollion, first published under the title "Monuments de l'Egypte et de la Nubie d'apres les dessins executes sur les lieux." (1835-1845)

Amun presiding over the smiting of Ramses III’s enemies. From a collection of reproductions of the frescoes in Abu Simbel temple by J. F. Champollion, first published under the title “Monuments de l’Egypte et de la Nubie d’apres les dessins executes sur les lieux.” (1835-1845)

The benefit of the relationship for the cult of Amun(-Ra) with the royal office is well-attested in Ancient Egyptian documents. In the Great Harris Papyrus, the 20th Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses IV records that, during the reign of his father Ramses III, the practice of flooding the coffers of the cult of Amun was still alive and well, as it had been under the Thutmoside rulers of the 18th Dynasty. The estate of the God included but was not limited to :

  • 86,486 serfs
  • 421,362 heads of cattle
  • 433 gardens and orchards
  • 691,334 acres of land
  • 83 ships
  • 46 workshops
  • 65 cities and towns
  • Unmeasured values of gold, silver, incense, unguents, and other precious items. (8)

By the end of Ramses III’s reign, roughly one-fifth of all the inhabitants of Egypt and one-third of all arable land belonged to temples, three-quarters of which belonged to Amun and His cult. (8) Waset/Iuny became the capital yet again, after the dissolution of the Amarna Period, and Amun’s temples at Karnak and Luxor were enlarged year by year.

The Pharaohs of the 20th Dynasty, founded by the mighty general Setnakht, were swiftly bankrupting themselves, spelling their own ruin. The last kings of this Dynasty were exceptionally weak, in part due to their exorbitant spending, a sizable portion of those expenditures having been funneled into the coffers of the cult of Amun. Enticed by the growing inequality of their relationship with the royal office, and perceiving the weakness of Ramses XI, (6) the more wealthy and powerful priesthood of Amun took power in Upper Egypt in a civil war, claiming the cash cow of Waset/Iuny for themselves. During this time, an officer of the Egyptian army named Herihor became High Priest of Amun. He founded his own “Dynasty” to rival the legitimate Pharaoh in the Northeast Delta, at Djanet, “Storm-Town,” also known as Tanis, where the Gods Set and Anat were traditionally worshiped. (6, 8) Surprisingly, relations between Djanet and Waset were friendly, though Djanet seems to have deferred to the might of Waset in the South. The worship of Set and Anat in Djanet were largely abandoned in favor of the triad of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and princesses were sent from Djanet to Waset/Iuny to become the wives of the High Priests of Amun. (8) However, it was the last Pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty, Hor-Pasebakhaenniut II (Pseusennes II), who claimed his right to rule through descent from these esteemed princesses, that united Djanet and the Southern capital. His death ended both the line of the rulers of Djanet and the High Priests of Amun in Waset/Iuny. Waset/Iuny would never again be capital of Egypt.

The first ruler of the Libyan 22nd Dynasty, Hedjkheperre Setepenre Shoshenq I, ruled from Per-Bast (Bubastis). However, Egypt was swiftly developing into a political vacuum, and the new Dynasty was nothing more than a primus inter pares. In the words of Redford, “intestine feuding abounded” between various Egyptian, and some foreign, city-states. (6) Though Shoshenq I invested his son as High Priest of Amun, the Nome of Waset would not succumb to the new yoke, and it would be some three centuries before that region would be re-subsumed into a unified Egypt. (8) The God Amun had twice from His Upper Egyptian redoubt championed successful rebellions, which resulted in the reunification of a divided land. The third retaliation against undesired lordship had failed, though His religious stature, at least, remained undiminished. The same could not be said of His estate, which had been drained of political might by the abortive rebellion. (6) Still, the rulers from Djanet, Per-Bast, Sais, and the Nubian Pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty from what is now Sudan, all sent their daughters to Waset/Iuny, that one of them might become the heiress of the God’s Wife of Amun — a virgin priestess who held especial titles, a court, and influence within the priesthood, and adopted a “daughter” to succeed her. (8) It was “ceremonial” by the 22nd Dynasty, of course, but all royal pretenders engaged in the pomp and circumstance of attempting to ally themselves politically with the cult by having a daughter made God’s Wife of Amun. That “ceremony” was not entirely devoid of power and benefit.

Though Waset and her territory would not accept the rulers of the Northern city-states as her political masters, among them Tefnakhte, she formally accepted the Nubian regime under Piankhy beyond the Southern borders of Egypt around 740 BCE, who were working their way North along the Nile, expanding their fledgling Empire. (6) Unlike the Libyans who eked out holdings to the North and remained resistant to “thorough Egyptianization,” the Kushite Nubians had adopted Egyptian culture, modeling its nascent monarchy after Egypt’s, and even revered Amun as their State God.

Now when you arrive within Iuny, before Karnak, enter ye the water and purify yourselves in the river, and clothe yourselves on the bank. Loose the bow, and release the arrow: do not boast as one all-powerful — the strong have no power without Amun, and He makes a broken-armed out of a strong-armed — for a multitude can turn tail before a few, and one man can seize a thousand men! Sprinkle yourselves with water from His altars, kiss ye the earth before Him and say ye to Him: “Grant us a way that we may fight in the shadow of Thy mighty arm; for the lads whom Thou sendest, they gain the victory, and multitudes tremble before them!”

Piankhy to his expeditionary force, about to leave for Egypt: Piankhy stela lines 12-14: N-C. Grimal, La stele triomphale de Piankhy au musee du Caire (Cairo, 1981)

The Egyptians and the Kushite Nubians also possessed a mutual hatred for the “uncouth Libyans,” and this may have had a hand in Waset’s acceptance of foreign rule. (6) In any event, the leaders of this region surely knew that, since the geopolitical thrust of the Kushites was Northward down the Nile, it would only be a matter of time before Tefnakhte and Piankhy would be locked in a struggle for control over Egypt. The Nome sided with Piankhy, and Nubian garrisons were sent to occupy the territory around Waset. Piankhy confronted Tefnakhte at Henen-nesu (Herakleopolis Magna), and then again at Men-nefer, the latter of those confrontations being a great victory for Piankhy. The chiefs of the Delta had apparently changed their minds, and proffered presents, while Tefnakhte retreated to Sais. (6) However, Piankhy, for whatever reason, did not pursue Tefnakhte; the latter was left to his own devices, and the Kushite forces withdrew, rather than secure the victory. Tefnakhte’s successor Bocchoris was executed by Piankhy’s brother and successor Shabaka in a second invasion of Egypt, and united Egypt and Kush under one crown and administration, but was “unable or unwilling to change the political configuration of the North,” and so once again, the Delta and its “Chiefs of the Meshwesh” were largely left to their own devices. (6) But for all intents and purposes, in what was by that time the Late Period and the 25th Dynasty, Egypt became the seat of the Nubian State.

Despite the military and spiritual victories over the native Egyptian North — such as they were — there was still a geopolitical struggle over Northeast Africa, and Waset/Iuny and the cult of Amun would suffer greatly as a result of it.

For approximately 50 years prior to Shabaka’s conquest, another foreign power had been “pursuing the political goal of Imperial aggrandizement” in a sort of Drang nach Westen (6) — (Neo-)Assyria. Tiglath-pileser III (745 – 727 BCE) had undertaken a major offensive into the Eastern coastal regions of the Mediterranean, subsuming Levantine territories. With the annexation of Damascus and the reduction of the kingdom of Israel in 732 BCE, the Assyrian forces inched closer and closer to Egypto-Nubian territory.

A decade later, under Sargon II (722 – 705 BCE), what remained of Israel-Judah was annexed, and their borders now boldly stretched across the Sinai Plain. Shabaka recognized that something had to be done to dissuade the ever-hungering beast that was the Neo-Assyrian war machine from setting its sights on his Empire. While Sargon II had built a trading post near Gaza for the purpose of trade with Egypt, outright acquisition was both more profitable and within the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s capabilities. The Delta suffered from “parochialism inimical to united resistance,” (6) and the State that lorded over Egypt, Kush, lay one thousand miles to the South — much too far to respond in time to Neo-Assyrian aggressions. Additionally, Shabaka had offered political asylum to a rebel from Ashdod fleeing the Neo-Assyrian advance, which was all the justification the Neo-Assyrians needed.

But it was Shabaka who struck first, and Sargon II’s death shortly thereafter precluded any retaliation — for a time. The ensuing confusion of the first years of Sargon II’s successor Sennacherib’s reign allowed Hezekiah of the Kingdom of Judah to marshal an anti-Assyrian coalition, which included Shabaka and his army. When in 701 BCE Sennacherib and his forces marched down the coast to put down the rebellion, they were surprised at Eltekeh by both the Chiefs of the Meshwesh and “the archers, chariotry, and cavalry of the king of Kush, an army beyond counting.” (6) After this unexpected victory, in the 7th century BCE Shabaka’s nephew Shebitku’s successor Taharqa (690 – 664 BCE) was able to bring war to the Neo-Assyrians a bit closer to their own doorstep, and wrest control over the Eastern Mediterranean from them — namely, Gaza, Ashkelon, and the Levantine coast as far North as Tyre and Sidon. (6) While Sennacherib’s weakness and ineffectiveness in the waning years of his reign must have contributed to the Egyptian victories, the Egypto-Nubian forces under Taharqa were not to be scoffed at. Their speed, fearlessness, and impressive skill on the battlefield were legendary — particularly noted was the deadly accuracy of Kushite archers — and Taharqa himself was described as being “like Montu, having no equal among his troops . . . intelligent and strong in every activity, a second Djehuty!” (6) They represented a military force to be reckoned with, the like of which had not been seen in Egypt for many centuries. Amun seemed to be with them.

The inept Sennacherib was assassinated and his son Esarhaddon, after a bloody but brief civil war, ascended the throne of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He was obsessed with subduing Egypt and her Nubian masters. By 674 BCE, he had renewed hostilities in full confidence, but was soundly defeated. Yet three years later, Esarhaddon returned. The Levantine allies of Taharqa were annihilated, stores laid in for the desert march, and Bedouin tribes convinced to supply the expeditionary force. (6) They took Taharqa and his army completely by surprise, Men-nefer fell in a single day, and he fled South, abandoning his family and court to the Neo-Assyrian invaders. By the autumn of 671 BCE, the Delta region and Middle Egypt were in Neo-Assyrian hands. Any thought of permanent control that Esarhaddon may have had would prove to be a delusion of grandeur, however. The Nubian Empire was too strong and Neo-Assyrian provincial administration too weak to prevent a Nubian riposte. Taharqa assembled a defense force to repel the return of Esarhaddon and his army in 669 BCE, but the king died en route. Any plans for the invasion of Egypt still on the Assyrian table were shelved, until the mighty Ashurbanipal came to power. Three years later, the the expeditionary force was on the move once more. Taharqa beat a retreat from Men-nefer to Waset, attempting to entice the Neo-Assyrian army to follow him into a tactical morass. The Neo-Assyrian army did as he predicted, and the whole of the Delta erupted in revolt behind them. However, Taharqa did not foresee that these revolts would be successfully repressed, and, in spite of continued attempts to retake Egypt, Taharqa and his army could not return.

Ashurbanipal was known for his bloody reprisals, even among Mesopotamian peoples. Entire cities were put to the sword, particularly those of the Delta region, but in 663 BCE, Waset/Iuny suffered butchery and rape as well. (6) Vast amounts of treasure were carried off to Nineveh looted from Amun’s temples. Waset and the cult center at Iuny would never recover from this swift and exacting blow. Amun survived and continued to be revered, even through the bitter brutality of Neo-Assyrian and (at least, alleged) Achaemenid oppression. But His cult and His stronghold of Waset-Iuny were greatly diminished and defiled. Never again would they enjoy the princely political and theological power and outrageous wealth they knew during the Thutmoside and Ramesside Periods.

The direction of the winds began to change somewhat for both Egypt and Amun when in October of 332 BCE the nearly-invincible Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great annexed Egypt without having to strike a single blow. He was hailed by the Egyptians as their deliverer from their hated Persian overlords, who had ruled them intermittently since 525 BCE. About three months after his arrival in Egypt, Alexander went to the trouble to make a three-week journey across the inhospitable Libyan desert to visit the temple of Amun at the Siwa Oasis and consult the oracle of Zeus-Ammon, the form of Amun adopted by the Hellenes.  When he emerged from his consultation with the oracle, all he disclosed was “I have been told what my heart desires.” (8) We are led to believe he was more or less accepted with open arms by the Egyptian people, but more importantly, by the priesthood of Amun, as a chosen son of Amun, ergo rightful ruler of Egypt. From then on, Alexander the Great was depicted on coins wearing the distinctive curved horns of the Ovis platrya ram of Amun.

Amun continued to be worshiped in various forms: Zeus-Ammon by the Hellenes, Jupiter-Ammon by Roman syncretists, and He naturally still enjoyed the worship of some of His Egyptian children. But He was not the humble, amorphous primaeval God He may have emerged as in the Old Kingdom, and certainly was not the same God as He had been in the First Intermediate and Middle Kingdom Period, when Montu still towered above Him as chief God of the Scepter Nome. And Amun and His cult were certainly, visibly humbled in later centuries by the abasement suffered at the hands of various foreign oppressors. For all the regional theologies Amun’s cult had altered in order to advance its own agendas and enhance its own power and prestige — sometimes at the expense of other deities’ images and cults, and sometimes at the expense of human lives — Amun would not remain nearly so supreme as He was during the Thutmoside and Ramesside Periods.

While He no longer enjoys a formal, organized cult to rival the power and extravagant riches of even the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, many Modern Kemetics still revere Amun, whether as the numinous “Hidden One,” Cosmic Serpent, Primordial Goose, or Heavenly Ram, among other manifestations. Some view Him henotheistically as the Supreme God of Whom all other Gods are but “Names,” and some see Him through a more  “equitable” polytheistic lens. How His worship will evolve from here, or if He will eventually fade into total obscurity before mankind’s end, only time will tell. Given His history, Amun seems patient and entirely capable of riding out the ages gracefully.

W O R K S   C I T E D

(1) Assmann, Jan. The Mind of Egypt. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2002. Print.

(2) Jackson, Lesley. Thoth – The History of the Ancient Egyptian God of Wisdom. Glastonbury : Avalonia, 2011. Print.

(3) Oakes, Lorna, and Lucia Gahlin. Ancient Egypt : An Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids, and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs. London : Hermes House, 2002. Print.

(4) Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. 2006 Revised Ed. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2006. Print.

(5) Redford, Donald B. et al. The Ancient Gods Speak – A Guide to Egyptian Religion. New York : Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

(6) Redford, Donald B. City of the Ram-Man : The Story of Ancient Mendes. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

(7) Rundle-Clark, R. T. Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt. London : Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London, 1978. Print.

(8) Watterson, Barbara. The Gods of Ancient Egypt. Oxford : Facts on File Publications, 1988. Print.

(9) Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art – A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London : Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1992. Print.

(10) Woldering, Irmgard. The Art of Egypt – The Time of the Pharaohs. New York : Greystone Press, 1963. Print.