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A History of Africa


664 B.C. to 641 A.D.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Egypt: The Late Period
The Persian Conquests
Alexander's Victory Tour
The Good Ptolemies
The Bad Ptolemies
The Queen of Kings
Kush: The Meroitic Phase
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Part II

The End of Pharaonic Egypt
Roman Africa
North African Christianity
The Vandal Kingdom
Meanwhile, Below the Sahara
Africa's Population In Ancient Times
Ancient African Explorers

Egypt: The Late Period

The Assyrian triumph was briefer than the Nubian one. After Ashurbanipal burned Thebes, a clever and lucky Egyptian prince named Psammetich, the son of Necho I, persuaded the king of Assyria to put him in charge of Egypt. He argued that since they were so far from home, the Assyrians could not run Egypt effectively, so they should let a native do it for them. Ashurbanipal accepted, after getting a promise from Psammetich to send soldiers for future Assyrian campaigns. Once the Assyrians were out of Egypt, they never came back. Psammetich kept his part of the bargain, too. The most important campaign involving the Egyptians was a twenty-nine-year siege of Ashdod, a rebellious Philistine city in modern-day Israel (664?-635? B.C.). We also hear of Egyptian troops fighting in northern Syria in 616 and 610 B.C. But in the long run, Egyptian help could not keep the Assyrian Empire from crumbling. Back home, Egypt began an age of prosperity that lasted just over a century, which we call the XXVI dynasty, the Saite period (after Sais, the current capital) or simply the Late Period.

The reason for this success was that Psammetich understood, perhaps better than any pharaoh before him, that trade with foreigners brings wealth, and wealth brings power. He invited Syrians, Jews, Ionian Greeks, and other foreigners to move to Egypt and help him with whatever tasks they excelled at. Phoenicians sailed Egypt's ships; Syrians and Greeks conducted her overseas business; Jews built a thriving colony on Elephantine, an island at the first cataract(1); Greeks made crafts from bronze and iron, and fought as mercenaries. Near Sais, a Greek city named Naukratis was founded as a home for these useful immigrants. At the same time Egypt became the Mediterranean basin's leading exporter of grain, causing future emperors (Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs) to make the conquest of Egypt their key to ruling the known world.

Another Greek colony was founded at Cyrene in Libya, on a spot with good farmland, something which was always in short supply back in Greece. The initial colonists came from the overcrowded island of Thera, around 630 B.C., and were later joined by colonists from other parts of Greece. The Egyptian pharaoh Amasis (see below) married the daughter of Cyrene's King Battus III, and for most of the classical era, whoever ruled Egypt held Cyrene as well. Even after the Persians took over, Greek colonists continued coming to Libya, and eventually they founded four more cities: Apollonia, Euesperides (modern Benghazi), Taucheira (Tocra), and Barca. The presence of these five cities explains why scholars sometimes call Cyrenaica by another name, the Libyan Pentapolis. In a similar fashion, the name we use for western Libya, Tripolitania, comes from Tri-polis, a reference to the three Phoenician colonies planted there (Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabrata). In neither case did the newcomers settle the hinterland or attempt to civilize the scattered nomads who roamed in Libya's third district, the Fezzan. This split between cities and farmers along the coast and indigenous "barbarian" pastoralists in the interior has been a feature of North Africa west of Egypt, right to this day.

The Greek and Phoenician settlement of Libya caused the Egyptians to look at their western desert in a new way. There are seven oases in the desert west of the Nile; the Egyptians knew the oases existed, but previously they had left them to the nomads, even after the Libyans grew numerous enough to covet the Nile valley. That attitude changed because the Egyptians now had two civilized rivals in that direction; the XXVI dynasty saw Egyptians settle sites like Bahariya, Dakhla, and Kharga, as advance bases for Egypt.

The most distant oasis is Siwa, located about 348 miles west of modern Cairo and about 30 miles from today's Egyptian-Libyan border. Here, at some point in the XXVI dynasty, Egyptians established an oracle to the god Amen-Ra. Perhaps they were attracted by the remote location, the same way that the Himalayas have long attracted spiritually-minded folks who want to "get away from it all." Anyway, we have reports from previous eras of Egyptian priests revealing the will of the gods with statues that moved and spoke; however, we don't know how such mechanical devices worked, or how the priests kept the people from thinking it was a trick. This time, however, they employed a Greek-style oracle, where a priest or priestess answered questions directed to the god of the temple. Siwa soon replaced Thebes as the holiest place in Egypt, and its oracle rivaled the one at Delphi for its fame and accuracy.

Psammetich ruled for 54 years, and was succeeded by an equally ambitious son, Necho II (610-595). Necho shared his father's interest in making Egypt rich--he started digging a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, and sponsored the first expedition to sail around Africa (more about that at the end of this chapter). He also was open-minded enough to try some un-Egyptian innovations. After he won the battle of Megiddo in 609 B.C., Necho donated his breastplate to a temple of Apollo, near the Greek city of Miletus; he introduced cavalry to the Egyptian army, replacing the New Kingdom-era chariots; he built a navy in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, with the main ships being Greek-style triremes. Despite all this, he could not restore Egypt's status as the greatest nation of the bronze age. When Assyria fell, Necho marched into the Levant and claimed all the Asian territory that had once been held by the XVIII and XIX dynasties. At the Syrian city of Carchemish, he met the new king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, and in the battle that followed, Nebuchadnezzar crushed the Egyptian army (605 B.C.). After that, all of Syria, Lebanon and Israel went to the Babylonians by default, and Necho was lucky to keep them from conquering Egypt itself.

One interesting trend from the XXVI dynasty is called "archaizing" by scholars; XXVI dynasty Egyptians deliberately imitated their culture from previous eras. Even in a society as conservative as Egypt, changes had been made over the ages to their art, language, etc. Two examples mentioned previously were the squinting statues of the XII dynasty, and the strange-looking images of Akhenaten. Now in the XXVI dynasty, Egyptian art, architecture and literature looked so much like what they produced in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, that Egyptologists have trouble telling the difference. The trend started under Psammetich I, and he may have done it for propaganda purposes; it told the people that because Egypt was under a native ruler again, the "good old days" had returned. It looks like they even spoke using archaic expressions, which must have resembled what you get when a modern-day American talks like a character in one of Shakespeare's plays. No doubt Egyptian nostalgia was encouraged again, after Necho II lost at Carchemish.

After Necho II came Psammetich II (595-589), who faced a threat from the Nubians. The current king of Kush, Anlamani, moved an army between the First and Second Cataracts; Psammetich waited until a new king, Aspelta (593-568) succeeded Anlamani, and then sent an expedition up the Nile in 590 that sacked Napata.(2) As a result, Aspelta moved his capital to Meroë, beyond the fifth cataract, and there it stayed for the rest of Kush's history. Meroë proved to be out of the reach of all empires based in the Middle East or the Mediterranean basin, but the supply lines worked both ways; the new capital also meant that the Nubians wouldn't conquer Egypt again.

The next pharaoh after Psammetich II was known by several names: Wahibre Haaibre by the Egyptians, Apries by the Greeks, and Hophra in the Bible (Jeremiah 44:30). Like Necho II, he intervened in Middle Eastern affairs, but failed to keep Jerusalem from being captured and destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Later on he marched against Cyrene, to stop the invasion of Libya by Greeks, only to see his forces go down in defeat against the better-armed Greek soldiers. When the army returned, fighting broke out between the native Egyptian troops and foreign mercenaries in the Egyptian army. An Egyptian general named Amasis (see footnote #2) became the champion of the natives and seized the throne. The Greek historian Herodotus thought that Apries was killed in the mutiny, but we know from other sources that Apries fled the country, came back two years later with Babylonian support, and was captured (567 B.C.). Amasis let him live at first, until the people complained about him keeping their greatest enemy, whereupon he handed over Apries to them, and they strangled him. However, Amasis gave Apries a proper proper royal burial, because that was always so important in ancient Egypt, and it appears that a daughter of Apries became his third wife.

As pharaoh, Amasis proved to be another Horemheb, an ex-general who gave Egypt a long period of peace and prosperity (568-525 B.C.). Herodotus tells us that up until his time, the farms of Egypt never produced as much food as they did under Amasis. He also reported that unlike most pharaohs, Amasis was definitely a man of the people, who liked to drink and tell dirty jokes, and he made sure his subjects never forgot his humble origins. Most important, Amasis knew better than to break off relations with the Greeks, though he had seized power by leading an anti-foreign faction. When the temple to Apollo at Delphi burned down in the mid-sixth century B.C., he even contributed toward its rebuilding. And we mentioned above how he gained control over Cyrenaica through marriage, succeeding where Apries had failed. In 560 B.C. Cyprus also became a vassal state. By this time Nebuchadnezzar had died, so Amasis could claim that Egypt was the dominant nation of the Mediterranean basin, though he knew better than to challenge the Babylonian Empire with anything besides words.

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The Persian Conquests

The Babylonian Empire was eventually absorbed into the even larger Persian Empire, which at its peak held everything between Greece, Nubia and India. Amasis expected trouble, when he saw how easily the Persians conquered the whole Middle East, and prepared for the inevitable clash, but it didn't come during his lifetime. Then in 525 B.C., six months after the death of Amasis, Egypt's flickering flame was snuffed out, as the Persians arrived, defeated the Egyptians in a single battle, captured Psammetich III, the last king of the XXVI dynasty, and conquered the Nile valley. In most history texts listing Egyptian kings, you will see the Persian rulers called the XXVII dynasty.

Persia's half-mad king, Cambyses, tried to follow this up with a sea expedition to conquer Carthage, but the crew of the Persian navy, being Phoenicians, refused to attack the city of their cousins. When the navy went on strike, he sent the army west without it. The army's objective was the Siwa oasis, because it had not yet submitted to Persian rule; a sandstorm engulfed the army before it got there. In our own time a report surfaces every few years about somebody claiming to have found bones and weapons from the "lost army of Cambyses," but it hasn't been convincing enough for anyone to attempt a major archaeological expedition in the desert. Finally Cambyses tried to conquer Nubia, but this army ran out of supplies before it got there and was forced to turn back. In the end, Persia's only positive accomplishment in Africa was that the second king after Cambyses, Darius I, completed Necho's canal.

A civil war in the Libyan Pentapolis allowed Darius I to take over Cyrenaica. Those cities had been poorly managed in the mid-sixth century, to the point that when Battus III (ca. 550-530, also called Battus the Lame) came to power in Cyrene, his subjects sent representatives to the greatest advice-giver in Greece, the Oracle at Delphi, to ask how they could get a better government. The Oracle told them to hire a professional administrator, and the one they brought in, Demonax of Mantinea, divided Cyrene's population into three groups for easier management purposes, and gave back to the people some special lands and jobs that the kings had kept for themselves. Upon the death of Battus, however, his son Arcesilaus tried to take back the offices and privileges his ancestors had enjoyed, and the population rose up in revolt, forcing him and his mother Pheretima to flee. Arcesilaus went to the island of Samos, to recruit mercenaries to regain his throne. Pheretima tried to do the same thing on Cyprus, but the Cypriot ruler would give her anything but soldiers; when she insisted, he gave her a golden spindle and distaff with wool on it, saying that these were more appropriate gifts for a woman.

Once Arcesilaus had his army, he went to the Oracle at Delphi to find out if his counter-coup would be successful. He was told by the Oracle to be merciful, and if he doesn't show mercy, he must not go into any city with a view of the sea, or he will die. Instead, he captured and killed some opponents on the journey home, and back in Cyrene, when some more members of the political opposition shut themselves in a tower, he had the tower burned down. Then he realized his mistake, and ran away to Barca, which was an inland city, but too late; he was killed there.

Pheretima was back in Cyrene by this time, and when she heard of her son's death, she fled again, this time to Egypt, to remind the Persian satrap (governor) that Arcesilaus had been a friend of Persia. The satrap was happy to help, but before he committed his forces, he sent a herald to Barca to ask who had murdered Arcesilaus. The people of Barca defiantly answered that they all killed him, for all felt they had been wronged by him. That did it, and the satrap sent all the troops and ships he could spare for the march west. Cyrene surrendered without a fight, and the Persians went on to Barca, besieging it for nine months, until some sneaky diplomacy on the part of the Persians got the city to surrender (514 B.C.). Pheretima had a number of prominent Barcans impaled on stakes, with the breasts of their wives, and let the Persians enslave the rest of the survivors. Then she retired to Egypt, but according to Herodotus, the gods didn't let her rest easy; in one of the most horrible deaths on record, her body bred worms and they literally ate her alive.

Egypt was the Persian Empire's most unruly province, for reasons covered in Chapter 5 of my Near Eastern history. Rebellions occurred frequently; one under a leader named Inaros lasted for six years and engulfed all of Lower Egypt (460-454 B.C.). Though he was a Libyan, Inaros also claimed to be the grandson of Psammetich III; his rebellion lasted for as long as it did because he had the support of Athens, the leading city-state in Greece.

In 404 B.C., the Persian king Darius II died. In ancient times, the death of a king was often a signal for subjugated peoples to revolt, and the next king, Artaxerxes II, prepared for an Egyptian revolt by assembling an army in Lebanon. However, he also faced a revolt that was far more dangerous, from his brother Cyrus the Younger. Because of that, the Persian troops did not go to Egypt, and Artaxerxes instead summoned a unit of Egyptian soldiers, which was used to defend Babylon. Thus, the next Egyptian rebel, Amyrtaeus of Sais, faced little opposition when he proclaimed himself the first (and only pharaoh) of the XXVIII dynasty. Like Inaros, Amyrtaeus started in Lower Egypt, and we have papyri from Elephantine which state that in 400 B.C., Upper Egypt switched its loyalty from Persia to Amyrtaeus as well. By this time the Peloponnesian War was over, and Amyrtaeus tried to keep the Persians from coming back by proposing an alliance with Sparta, promising to send the Spartans Egyptian grain if they would invade the Persian Empire. It didn't happen, though, because Amyrtaeus had a rival, Nepherites of Mendes (another Lower Egyptian city), and Nepherites defeated and killed him in 397 B.C. Nepherites, also called Nefaarud I, went on to found the XXIX dynasty. One year later, the king of Sparta, Agesilaus, invaded the neareast Persian province (Ionia), and Nepherites tried to back him up with grain and other supplies, but his ships only got as far as the island of Rhodes; they didn't know that Rhodes had gone over to the Persians, so the fleet and its shipment were lost there.

The XXIX dynasty produced four short-lived kings, and then it was overthrown by Nectanebo I, the founder of the XXX dynasty. His hometown and capital was Sebennytus, located right in the center of the Nile delta. Under the XXX dynasty, Egypt was run for the last time like it had been in its glorious past., with the pharaoh, the priesthood, and the army working together to establish law and order and keep foreign enemies out.

When Artaxerxes II heard that Nectanebo had seized power, he prepared an army to recover Egypt. The Persian general Pharnabazus assembled his army and navy at Acre (modern Akko, Israel). and hired Greek mercenaries. They sailed to Egypt in 374 B.C., failed to take Pelusium, Egypt's easternmost town (modern Port Said), entered the Nile delta by another route, and in the heart of Lower Egypt, Pharnabazus and the mercenary commander, an Athenian named Iphicrates, argued over which city they should try to take next. It looks like neither of them considered what nature would do; the Nile's summertime flood turned the delta into a swamp, and forced the invaders to withdraw. More trouble at home (the "revolt of the satraps") kept the Persians from coming back until 351 B.C., whereupon the current king, Nectanebo II, defeated them in the delta again. Finally in 343-342 B.C., the Persians were able to regain control. In a campaign that involved Greek mercenaries fighting on both sides, the Persians captured first Pelusium, then Memphis; this time no inundation saved the day for the Egyptians. Nectanebo II fled to Upper Egypt, rested a bit because the Persians went home at the end of the campaigning season, and when the Persians returned in the following year, they came after Nectanebo and he fled again, this time to Kush.

The second period of Persian rule was much shorter than the first, because time was running out for the Persian Empire. Only ten years after the reconquest, Egypt fell to Alexander the Great. Ancient Egyptian civilization lingered on through the Greek and into the Roman era, but Egypt would be a pawn, under foreign rulers, for the next 2,300 years.

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Alexander's Victory Tour

Alexander the Great took Egypt without a battle and stayed there for the winter of 332-331. Since the Egyptians welcomed him wholeheartedly, his trip through Egypt resembled a vacation, rather than a military campaign. While there he marked out the site for a great new capital, Alexandria, accepted the crown of the pharaohs, and made a pilgrimage to the oracle of Zeus-Ammon (the Greek name for Amen-Ra), at the Siwa oasis in the western desert. The god of Siwa greeted him as a son, confirming what Alexander already thought about himself. Then he departed to finish off the Persians.

Alexandria was probably Alexander's biggest success. On his march to India and back, he founded several cities named Alexandria, but most of them failed after a few years, because they were not founded on trade routes or near valuable resources. In the time of the pharaohs, the Alexandria in Egypt probably would have withered away, too, because no Egyptian city had ever been built on the Nile Delta's western corner. The trading partners of ancient Egypt were located either to the north (Crete and Greece), or to the east (Asia). When Alexander arrived on the site for his city, only a fishing village named Rakote was there. However, rich cities were growing to the west of Egypt: Carthage, Syracuse, and Rome. In Alexander's day their influence was beginning to be felt, guaranteeing that a port convenient for westbound traffic would prosper.

Legends spring up around larger-than-life characters, and objects that cannot be associated with anyone else may be linked to such a person. Both of those things happened to Alexander. A few years later, a story called "The Romance of Alexander" started circulating, which claimed that Nectanebo II fled to Macedonia instead of Nubia, and he disguised himself as an Egyptian magician. While in Macedonia, Nectanebo had an affair with King Philip's wife, Olympias, and thus was he the real father of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, the story is completely false, and you can disprove it by comparing the dates of Nectanebo and Alexander. If it was true, Alexander would have been a small child, no more than nine years old, when he visited Egypt. No doubt somebody made it up to claim that Alexander was really an Egyptian, and related to the last native pharaoh.

Regarding artifacts, the black basalt sarcophagus of Nectanebo II found its way to an Alexandria church, then to a mosque, and finally to the British Museum, where you can see it today. Over the ages, the sarcophagus was converted into a bathtub or baptismal font; twelve holes were drilled into it, to drain the water after use. Because nobody in the Middle Ages could read the hieroglyphics on it, people got the idea that it belonged to Alexander, and they called it "Alexander's Bath." Nectanebo probably had the sarcophagus made while he was king, and because he ran away from Egypt, it is unlikely he was ever buried in it.

Anyway, upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his generals divided the empire between themselves. The African portion of it went to another Macedonian, Ptolemy Lagus Soter (Ptolemy I after this). Forty years of war between the generals began when Ptolemy went to Syria, supposedly to pay homage to the corpse of Alexander as it was transported to Macedonia for burial. Actually he planned more than that; his army seized control of the gleaming carriage and coffin and brought them back to Egypt. According to legend, Alexander's body was sealed in a sarcophagus full of honey and buried in Alexandria; his tomb was a tourist attraction until the days of the Roman Empire, then the location was lost, so nobody knows where it is now.(3)

Alexander's heirs were a mentally retarded half brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, and an infant son, Alexander IV. Ptolemy got to be a general because he had been a friend of Alexander the Great since childhood. As a military leader he was only fair -- we have no record of him winning any big battles -- but when it came to economics and politics, he was smarter than his rivals (that's why he chose Egypt, the empire's richest and most stable province, for his home base). He also had plenty of respect for Alexander's legacy, enough to keep him from claiming any crown for himself while Alexander's ineffective brother and son were alive. Instead, he waited until 305 B.C.; by then Alexander's family had been killed off by multiple assassinations, and his rivals had crowned themselves, too. Because he had two major ethnic groups in his realm, Ptolemy had two coronations; first he crowned himself king in front of the Greeks, and later was proclaimed pharaoh in front of the Egyptians. He also took the daughter of Nectanebo II as his second wife, to make himself heir of the last pharaoh before Alexander.

In 301 B.C. Ptolemy's most dangerous opponent, Antigonus I, was killed at the battle of Ipsus, and Ptolemy used the occasion to annex Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus. After that, Ptolemy wisely chose to sit out the rest of the wars, building up Egypt's strength and becoming one of the few leaders during this time who died peacefully. When the fighting ended, around 280 B.C., more than half of Alexander's empire was in the hands of another general, Seleucus. Both Seleucus and Ptolemy founded dynasties that lasted more than two hundred years, much of which was spent in ineffective battles over the land between them, now that Seleucus was based in Syria.

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The Good Ptolemies

Before we continue, I will point out that the history of Egypt under the family of Ptolemy can be easy and confusing at the same time, because of an incredible lack of imagination with names. All the men in the dynasty had the same name--Ptolemy. We use their nicknames as well as numbers to tell the men apart. The women don't do much better, having just three names between them: Arsinoe, Berenice, and Cleopatra. Sometimes even two brothers would be named Ptolemy, or two sisters would be named Cleopatra; at the moment I cannot think of any other culture that allowed someone to give siblings the same name. To help keep track of them, here is a table listing the Ptolemaic rulers:

KingNicknameDates of Reign
Ptolemy ILagus Soter305-283
Ptolemy IIPhiladelphus285-246
Ptolemy IIIEuergetes I246-222
Ptolemy IVPhilopator I222-204
Ptolemy VEpiphanes204-181
Ptolemy VIPhilometor181-145
Ptolemy VIIPhilopator Neos145
Ptolemy VIIIEuergetes II or Physcon163-116
Ptolemy IXSoter II or Lathyrus116-80
Ptolemy XAlexander I116-88
Ptolemy XIAlexander II80
Ptolemy XIIAuletes88-58 and 55-51
Berenice IVPhilopator II58-55
Cleopatra VIIsee footnote #1751-30
Ptolemy XIIITheos Philopator I51-47
Ptolemy XIVTheos Philopator II47-44
Ptolemy XVCaesarion44-30

Now back to the narrative. Egypt's new rulers were hardheaded businessmen who ran it like a corporation.(4) Except for the priestly class, few natives had the skills they needed, so the Ptolemies brought in more Greeks to help run the land: soldiers to maintain order, land experts to increase agricultural production, and civil servants to staff the administration. Eventually the Greek population in Egypt reached 300,000, compared with 7 million Egyptians. To get more revenue from the land, the Ptolemies claimed a large portion of it for themselves, launched a reclamation project to bring more acres under the plow, and dragged the native farmers into the Iron Age (they had only used stone and bronze tools previously). For example, the "Archimedes screw" was invented as a more efficient way to raise water, replacing the shadoofs that had been used for irrigation from time immemorial. In the end the Ptolemies succeeded in producing greater harvests than the pharaohs ever had. Gold and low-grade emeralds were mined in the eastern desert. To handle commerce on the Indian Ocean, Ptolemy II built Berenice (modern Barnis), a seaport on the Red Sea coast at the same latitude as Aswan. As trade routes to India and Arabia opened up, merchants came to prefer going between those places and the Mediterranean basin via Berenice, since sea travel was more cost-effective than land travel. In fact, during the Middle Ages, when spices from the Far East entered the trade, the Red Sea traffic brought in profits rivaling those of the more famous Silk Road in Central Asia, and this replaced local industries as Egypt's main source of income.

All this activity required tight supervision, so the Ptolemies also set up the most far-reaching bureaucracy that the world had seen so far. Here they were able to enlist the help of Egyptian priests, who were already educated and could keep other Egyptians in line. As long as the Ptolemies built and maintained the temples, the priests were kept employed and cooperative, and the country ran efficiently. In one of the surviving documents from this era, an official declared that "no one has the right to do what he wants to do, but everything is regulated for the best."(5) Government workers kept enough records to know what most of their subjects were doing, and how wealthy they were, until they got swamped in their own statistics.

In 288 Ptolemy I bribed the Macedonian fleet to join him; that gave him a decided military advantage over his rivals as well. Henceforth, whenever there was trouble with Macedonia, he could send gold-laden diplomats to stir up rebellion in Greece; whenever there was trouble with the Seleucids, he could send his navy to threaten their communications. Consequently, during the third century B.C. the Ptolemaic fleet dominated the eastern Mediterranean and occupied the Cyclades islands in the Aegean; the cities of Ionia and Cilicia (in Asia Minor) also fell under Egyptian rule. In the century following Alexander, three wars (274-271, 260-255, and 246-241 B.C., called the Syrian Wars) were fought between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and the Ptolemies usually came out best.

Though their main interest was economics, the Ptolemies, being good Greeks, felt they had to sponsor activities for the mind. They enlarged Alexandria until it held about 500,000 people, making it the action center of the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) world. Ptolemy I also started construction on the famous Alexandria Library, the largest of the ancient world. Estimates of the size of the Alexandria Library range from 120,000 to 700,000 books. We're not sure how the ancients came up with these numbers; multiple copies of the same book may have counted as more than one book, and if a book's text required more than one scroll, it might have counted as more than one book as well. Callimachus of Cyrene, the librarian in 245 B.C., composed the first library catalog, the Pinakes, and it took up 120 volumes.(6)

Two years before his death, Ptolemy I revived the custom of co-regencies by crowning his son, Ptolemy II. This was his second son, and the eldest son, Ptolemy Keraunos ("Thunderbolt"), was forced into exile; Keraunos then tried unsuccessfully to take the European portion of Alexander's empire for himself. Ptolemy II proved to be a chip off the old block, making Egypt both richer and stronger. Abroad, he won the First Syrian War, even landing on the doorstep of the Seleucid capital by capturing coastal Syria.(7) The Second Syrian War did not go as well, because Macedonia and the Seleucids ganged up against Egypt, but Ptolemy managed to end that war by giving his daughter, Berenice, in marriage to the Seleucid king; although he lost some Asian territory, he still came out ahead. At home, Ptolemy II built the Pharos, the world's largest lighthouse, one of the famous "seven wonders." Its height has been estimated at anywhere from 393 to 600 feet high (450 feet is the most likely figure), and at night, the beacon on top could be seen from thirty miles away. This had been one of his father's projects, and Ptolemy II finished another one, by completing the Alexandria Library. As was hoped, the world's leading scholars, scientists, poets and artists gathered here; the government encouraged this by paying for their food and domitories.

Ptolemy II wanted the Library to contain all of the world's knowledge. We hear of the Ptolemies collecting books for the Library by sending buyers to the book fairs held at Athens and Rhodes. We also hear, though it sounds like an exaggeration, that whenever a ship arrived in Alexandria's harbor, officials boarded the ship and confiscated any books that they found. The books were sent to the Library to be copied, and the copies were given to the previous owner, while they kept the originals. At some point, because Alexandria attracted a large Jewish community, Ptolemy also became interested in the Jews' sacred literature. However, just copying a Torah scroll wouldn't do him any good, because he couldn't read Hebrew. Many Jews couldn't read it either, because after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C., the Jews stopped using Hebrew outside of their synagogues; the Jews of Alexandria had already switched to Greek. The solution was to hire rabbis as scribes and have them translate the Old Testament into Greek; we call this text the Septuagint ("seventy") because tradition states that seventy-two rabbis did the job, and they completed the Torah portion (the first five books) in seventy-two days.

A room full of shelves containing scrolls
A room in the Alexandria Library.

Alexandria grew rapidly because the Ptolemies concentrated their creative energy within its city limits.(8) Except for the port of Berenice, and Ptolemais (modern El-Manshah), an administrative center for managing Upper Egypt, they built no other Greek cities. Most native Egyptians were treated as second-class citizens. The fellahin (peasants) had to work harder than their ancestors did, and the dynasty taxed them as meticulously as possible. By 217 B.C. a series of peasant strikes forced the Ptolemies to make concessions, but the passive cooperation of the fellahin in most cases was the regime's greatest asset. The policy of the Ptolemies toward their non-Greek subjects was the opposite of that followed by the Seleucids; instead of trying to make them become Greeks, the dynasty practiced a form of apartheid, to keep the Egyptians away from the influence of Greek ideas like freedom. Greeks often spoke of traveling from "the City (Alexandria) to Egypt", and the Egyptians insisted on calling Alexandria Rakote, as if it was still their fishing village. While Alexandria's university and library became the ultimate symbol of Greek learning, in the rest of the country the most important new buildings were Egyptian-style temples. We have a papyrus from the time of Ptolemy III that expressed the prejudice of that era; a Greek stayed in a priest's home and the priest complained about his guest looking down on him "because he is an Egyptian." A new god named Serapis appeared, but more often the Ptolemies built temples for the gods of a simpler past.(9)

"'What a mob!' [the Greek poet Theocritus has a Greek woman in Alexandria say to her friend], 'They're like ants, no one can count them. Ptolemy, you've done many good things . . . No more hoods creep up on you nowadays and do you in--an old Egyptian habit. The tricks those scoundrels used to play! They're all alike--dirty, lazy, good-for-nothings!'"(10)

Ptolemy III's nickname, Euergetes, means "Benefactor," and he earned that name more than once. To start with, he won a splendid victory in the Third Syrian War, and brought back the statues of Egyptian gods that the Persian king Cambyses had taken away, nearly three centuries earlier.(11) In the ancient Middle East, when one nation conquered another, the victorious king might carry off the idols of his opponent, and this was seen as a sign that one god had defeated another god. For example, when they first conquered Babylon, the Assyrians took away the most important image of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. Therefore, bringing back the Egyptian gods made Ptolemy a big hero with the Egyptians, especially the priests. Later on he further showed his patronage of the ancient deities by building a nice temple to Horus, at Edfu in Upper Egypt. Finally, during a year when the Nile did not have its usual summertime flood, Ptolemy stopped collecting taxes and bought enough grain, expensive as it was, to keep the people from starving; the famous Canopus Decree is an inscription praising him for this good work and others.

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The Bad Ptolemies

The Ptolemaic bureaucratic system only worked while better than average men, possessed with exceptional drive, occupied the throne. That ended with the death of Ptolemy III. After him, the Ptolemies went downhill; the story of the middle and latter Ptolemies was one of constant bickerings and murders among the ruling family. Inbreeding may be one of the reasons for this. Ptolemy II brought back the pharaonic custom of incest by marrying Arsinoe II; he could claim he was doing it for political reasons, because she was the widow of Lysimachus, the king of Thrace, but she was also his full sister! A generation later, Ptolemy III married his first cousin, Berenice II (see footnote #11), and such marriages now became official for this dynasty, too. However, inbreeding didn't affect the sexes the same way; the women kept their intelligence over the generations, but the men grew repulsive and stupid. In fact, today we would call the Ptolemies a "dysfunctional family"; if they were alive now, I would expect to see them on a TV program like "The Jerry Springer Show."

When the crown passed to Ptolemy IV, he faced a young Seleucid king, Antiochus III. Things must have looked bad for Antiochus at first; he controlled little besides the interior of Syria, because his governors in Asia Minor, Media and Persia were in revolt. Even more humiliating, his second largest city, Seleucia on the Tigris River, was in the hands of the governor of Media, while his main Syrian port, also named Seleucia, had been held by the Ptolemies since the last war. Nevertheless, he was the most energetic warrior of the Seleucid dynasty, and because Ptolemy IV was an unpopular ruler, for reasons explained below, Antiochus saw opportunities to the south. First he put down the rebellions in Iran and Iraq; then in 219 B.C. he launched the Fourth Syrian War. The war began with Antiochus uprooting Ptolemaic strongholds in Syria, followed by him charging down the Mediterranean coast towards Egypt. At this point, the army of Antiochus had more soldiers, horses and elephants, so the commander of Ptolemy's army made up for the difference by recruiting 20,000 Egyptians, training them as infantry. This was a fateful decision, because previously, Ptolemaic armies had consisted of just Greeks and European mercenaries. Still, it saved the day in the short run. Ptolemy saw his situation as so precarious that he and even his sister-wife, Arsinoe III, went with the army to fight in the upcoming battle. They met the army of Antiochus at Raphia (a town just south of Gaza), in 217 B.C. Though the larger Indian elephants of Antiochus swept the African elephants of Ptolemy off the battlefield in the first charge, Ptolemy used his cavalry and phalanx to strike back, preventing a rout on his side. Thus, Ptolemy won the battle and could claim he won the war, but still, in the peace treaty afterwards, Antiochus got to keep Seleucia.(12)

Ptolemy IV called himself Philopator, meaning "Father-lover," and because his father was a nice guy, you might expect this Ptolemy to act the same. Instead, he poisoned his mother, and had his brother scalded to death. His friends let him indulge in any vice that caught his fancy, and he let them run the government for him. Outside of Alexandria, the Egyptians may not have liked paying the taxes of their rulers, but they liked fighting in their rulers' wars even less, so the decision to use Egyptian soldiers caused serious unrest for the rest of Ptolemy's reign. When Ptolemy died at the age of forty-one (ancient accounts simply say he died of "excess living"), two of his favorites had Arsinoe III poisoned, because they feared she would take over the government as regent if she heard of Ptolemy's death.

Antiochus meddled in Egyptian affairs again in 200, when he allied himself with Macedonia's Philip V against Ptolemy V. This was almost too easy, because Ptolemy was only a child, and thus could not lead an army. Moreover, he faced trouble in his backyard, because the unrest of the previous generation had grown into a fullscale revolt; two Egyptians, Harwennefer and Ankhwennefer, ruled all of Upper Egypt from 207 to 187, with some help from the Nubians. Consequently, Fifth Syrian War was a total victory for the allies. While Philip captured Ptolemy's landholdings in Thrace and Caria, Antiochus won the battle of Panias (198), which turned the Holy Land into a province of the northern kingdom. The next year saw Antiochus march along Asia minor's south coast, receiving the surrender of the remaining towns that had previously been under Egyptian rule. Thus, he proved that the Seleucid policy of assimilation was better than the Ptolemaic policy of separation.(13) The Ptolemies ran out of Greek manpower before the Seleucids did; except at Raphia, the Egyptians recruited to fill out the army were no match for Antiochus' Greeks.

As part of the treaty ending the Fifth Syrian War, Antiochus gave his daughter, Cleopatra I, in marriage to Ptolemy. She was the first of several queens by that name who would play a major role in politics, culminating with the Cleopatra you've all heard of. Also worth noting is that Ptolemy V was the first king of the dynasty to have himself crowned pharaoh in Memphis. Eventually he put down the rebellion in Upper Egypt, and savage repression followed. His death by poison left another child on the throne, six-year-old Ptolemy VI, with Cleopatra "the Syrian" ruling as regent. This is probably why Ptolemy VI is also called Philometor, "Mother-lover."

By this time the Greek kingdoms were all in decline, and one by one they were swallowed up by the great new power of the Mediterranean--Rome. Egypt was the last to go, holding out until 30 B.C., because it submitted to Rome, rather than fight the western republic. In fact, Ptolemy VI probably would have been the last king if Egypt had not become a Roman protectorate. In 170 his ministers made a move to recover the lost Asian territories. Retaliation was quick; Antiochus IV, the new Seleucid king, invaded Egypt and had himself crowned king of the Nile valley at Memphis, but troubles at home forced him to leave before he finished the job. In 168 he returned, captured Ptolemy VI, and was about to take Alexandria when a Roman ambassador, Popillius Laenas, ordered him to stop. Just the threat was enough; the Romans had beaten the Seleucids and Macedonians in previous wars, so Antiochus gave Egypt back.

After this the Ptolemies were under Roman domination, and whenever a new one got the throne he would seek Rome's approval. While Ptolemy VI was a prisoner of Antiochus, Alexandria crowned his brother, Ptolemy Physcon ("Potbelly"). Afterwards Physcon refused to step down quietly, causing a long feud between the brothers. In 164 B.C. Ptolemy VI moved to Rome; as he expected, Physcon's sole rule became intolerable and soon the people of Alexandria begged him to come back. The Roman Senate resolved this by putting Philometor on the throne and giving Cyrenaica to Physcon. This worked until Philometor went off to Syria to fight on the side of the current Seleucid king, Demetrius II, and was killed in battle (145 B.C.). When he learned his brother wasn't coming back, Physcon returned to Egypt, agreed to share the throne with his nephew (Ptolemy VII), proposed marriage to Cleopatra II (his sister, the daughter of Cleo One, the widow of Ptolemy VI, and the mother of Ptolemy VII), had Ptolemy VII murdered at the wedding feast, and became King Ptolemy VIII.

Contemporary sources describe Physcon as a cruel, self-indulgent monster, and the people hated him, hence the nickname. By this time, the Romans viewed the older, richer nations of the East as soft and decadent, and Ptolemy VIII did much to confirm that prejudice. Around 140 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who had destroyed Carthage, paid a visit to Alexandria, and brought along his friend Panaetius of Rhodes, a Stoic philosopher. Both of the Romans were physically fit, while Physcon, by contrast, was a bloated mountain of flesh, whose see-through robe showed that he had no shame. Physcon came to greet them at their ship, and Scipio decided to walk to the palace, with the king acting as their guide through the city. It was a hot summer day, and this was more exertion than Physcon was used to. When Physcon nearly fainted in the street, Scipio turned to Panaetius and remarked, "The Alexandrines owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!"

With Potbelly the family tree really got tangled. He had a son with Cleopatra II, Ptolemy Memphites, but then in 142 B.C. he seduced and married Cleopatra III (his niece and Cleopatra II's daughter) without divorcing Cleo Two; needless to say Cleo Two was outraged. She didn't get a chance to retaliate until 132, when a major riot in Alexandria burned the royal palace. Physcon fled to Cyprus with Cleopatra III and their children, and while they were away, Cleopatra II crowned twelve-year-old Ptolemy Memphites as the next king. However, Physcon had returned from exile before, so this couldn't keep him away; he captured their son, had him killed and dismembered, and sent the pieces to his mother as a birthday present. A civil war followed, with Alexandria on the side of Cleopatra and the rest of Egypt on the side of Physcon. At one point, Cleopatra offered the Ptolemaic throne to the Seleucid king, Demetrius II, but the closest he got to Alexandria was Pelusium, on the other end of the Nile delta. In 127 Cleopatra escaped to Syria, and Alexandria surrendered to Physcon a year later. Cleopatra returned in 124, when a public reconciliation of the family was declared; the country was now ruled jointly by Physcon and the two Cleopatras. Surprisingly, this arrangement lasted until 116, when both Physcon and Cleopatra II died of natural causes.

While the Ptolemies were fighting, Egypt's social and economic problems got worse. Rounds of inflation caused everyone to suffer, and now that Egyptian workers realized that they couldn't get better treatment through strikes and revolts, many of them ran away, making it harder for farms to produce a harvest. Ptolemy VIII responded with a decree in 118 that ordered amnesties, lighter burdens, tax exemptions, and called for officials to act with moderation. Unfortunately it did not stop the state's collapse, but only postponed it. Moreover, the Romans did nothing to help; their protection of Egypt did not mean they would let it get strong enough to become a future rival.

Three sons outlasted Ptolemy VIII: Ptolemy Apion, Ptolemy IX Soter Lathyrus ("Chickpea"), and Ptolemy X Alexander. In his will, Physcon bequeathed Cyrenaica to Ptolemy Apion, and Egypt to Cleopatra III and whichever of her sons she liked best. She preferred Alexander, but the Alexandrians wanted Chickpea, so Ptolemy IX took the throne, while Alexander became governor of Cyprus. The two didn't get along well at all. First Cleopatra annulled the marriage between Ptolemy IX and his sister, Cleopatra IV; the younger Cleopatra went to Cyprus and raised an army, hoping to marry Alexander. When this failed, she defected to Syria and married the current Seleucid king, Antiochus IX, with her army as a dowry. Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra III accused Chickpea of trying to murder her and ran him out of town (107 B.C.). Ptolemy X moved in to take his place. As for Ptolemy Apion, he was childless, so he followed the example of the last king of Pergamun, bequeathing Cyrenaica to Rome (96 B.C.).(14)

By crowning and marrying her other son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III went from bad to worse. Whereas some of the previous Ptolemies had been fat, this one was so obese he could not walk without help. Before long Cleopatra got tired of him as well, but he outsmarted her and had her assassinated (101 B.C.). Some time after that he sold the gold coffin of Alexander the Great to raise money, and the people forced him to flee Egypt. With the help of some moneylenders in Rome, Ptolemy X raised a fleet, returned in in 88 B.C., and was killed in a battle off Cyprus. His absence from Egypt allowed Chickpea to resume his reign, ruling until his death in 80 B.C.

Berenice III (also called Cleopatra Berenice), the middle-aged daughter of Ptolemy IX, briefly ruled until word arrived that the Romans wanted Ptolemy XI, the son of Ptolemy X, on the throne. She was very popular, and did not want to give up power after sharing it with the two previous kings, so she married the boy-king. It was a fatal mistake; just nineteen days later Ptolemy XI killed her, and the mob of Alexandria tore him to pieces.

At this point, the dynasty was nearly extinct; the Ptolemies had done such a thorough job of killing each other off that the only legitimate family member left was Cleopatra Selene I, a daughter of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III. Over the past generation she had been married four times, first to Ptolemy IX, then to three different Seleucid kings. She wanted the throne of Egypt to pass to one of her sons, but the people of Alexandria wouldn't have them (they probably saw this Cleopatra and her sons as Seleucid agents, because they had spent so much time abroad). Instead they chose Ptolemy XII, an illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX. Another illegitimate son, also named Ptolemy, took charge of Cyprus and declared that island an independent kingdom. Meanwhile, a document appeared that purported to be the last will & testament of Ptolemy XI; it announced that the entire kingdom had been bequeathed to Rome. The Roman Senate ignored it (they probably thought it was a forgery), but they waited until 75 B.C. to declare that Ptolemy XII was their man, and then they did it because Cleopatra Selene's sons were in Rome at the time, trying to get their claim recognized.

Ptolemy XII had too many names. Officially he was Ptolemy Theos Philopator Philadelphus, but he called himself Neo-Dionysus ("The New Bacchus") after his favorite god. The people, on the other hand, called him Nothos ("The Bastard") or Auletes ("Flute Player"). Auletes is the name you'll see in most history texts, and while he did play the flute acceptably, the nickname was meant as an insult, letting us know he was more interested in music than in running the state. Sure enough, all the records of his reign describe him as a character fond of orgies, and a puppet of the Roman dictator Sulla. His queen was yet another Cleopatra, Cleopatra V, and he had six children: Cleopatra VI(15) & VII, Berenice IV, Arsinoe IV, and Ptolemy XIII & XIV. Consequently, for us Auletes' main claim to fame is that he was the father of the Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII.

In 65 B.C. the issue of Ptolemy XI's will came up again, when the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, called for Egypt's annexation (probably for his own gain). Two years later, it looked like another general, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) would become the top man in Rome, because he had just conquered Syria and Israel. To make his position more secure, Auletes sent Pompey rich gifts and an invitation to visit Alexandria; Pompey accepted the gifts but not the invitation. Then Pompey and Crassus got together with Julius Caesar to form the First Triumvirate, which took over the Roman government. Auletes tried to curry favor again, this time by giving a huge bribe of six thousand talents to Caesar. Caesar responded by giving him the title of "friend and ally" of Rome, but this did not endear Auletes to his own people, because he had to raise taxes to pay for the bribe.(16) One year later the Romans annexed Cyprus (58 B.C.), using the questionable will of Ptolemy XI to justify the act, and Auletes did nothing to stop it. The Alexandrians threw him out; his wife Cleopatra V and his eldest daughter Berenice IV ruled in his place. Cleopatra died a year later, so Berenice, who was single and twenty years old at this point, needed help to keep on ruling. This meant a husband, and her government picked a cousin for her to marry, Seleucus Kybiosaktes (a son of Cleopatra Selene), but he was so boorish that Berenice had him strangled a few days after the wedding. Then she married a friend named Archelaus, who was either a son of Mithradates VI, the king who challenged the Romans in Asia Minor, or the son of a general of Mithradates. Because Archelaus was not a relative, he was not allowed to share the throne with Berenice, but otherwise this marriage worked much better.

Meanwhile, because he was so dependent on the Romans, Ptolemy XII had fled to Rome. Pompey provided a place for him to stay (the future Queen Cleopatra was probably with him at this point), and Ptolemy told both Pompey and Caesar that if they want the money he promised them, they'd better help him get his throne back. That argument, combined with an even more massive bribe of ten thousand talents, persuaded the Romans to send him back in 55 B.C. with a large military unit, led by Aulus Gabinius (the governor of Syria) and Mark Antony. In Egypt, Archelaus met them in battle and was killed. Auletes wanted to leave the corpse of his opponent on the battlefield to rot, but Mark Antony insisted on giving him a royal burial. Since most ancient cultures believed it was important to give everyone a proper funeral, Mark Antony made a good first impression on both the Greeks and Egyptians, which must have helped him later on. As for Berenice, Auletes had his upstart daughter put to death.

Auletes was now able to keep the Egyptian throne, because he had a Roman legion backing him up. The unpopular taxes were collected, too, though it meant debasing the coinage until it was worth only half of what it had been before his reign. Even So, Auletes was in his fifties, meaning he was an old man in an age when most people didn't live past the age of forty; he died in 51 B.C., four years after his return. He must have sensed that his second reign would be his last; when he wrote his will, he had two copies of it made, one for Alexandria and one for Rome. Obviously he knew his successors would not be able to rule without the power of Rome. Because Cleopatra VII was his eldest surviving child, the will stated that she would marry Ptolemy XIII, and they would rule Egypt jointly.

Before we continue, I'd like to point out a curious fact of human nature; evil people can make beautiful things. For example, Ivan the Terrible built St. Basil's Cathedral, the most famous church in Russia. Likewise, the bad Ptolemies built many attractive temples. One of the best-preserved is the temple of Hathor at Dendera. Although older temples had been built on the same spot as far back as the Old Kingdom, most of what you'll see there today is the work of Ptolemies VIII and XII. Ptolemy VI started an unusual double temple at Kom Ombo, which had one set of sanctuaries dedicated to Horus, and another set dedicated to Sebek, the crocodile god; the Ptolemies after him added to this structure.

However, it was Philae, a small island located in the Nile at the First Cataract, that got the most attention. Around 370 B.C., Nectanebo I built a small temple to Isis. Then when the Ptolemies came along, they treated Philae like another Karnak; each of them, especially Ptolemies II, V, and VI, felt compelled to add to what was already there. By the time they finished, the complex contained temples and shrines to Horus and Hathor as well as to Isis. Despite the fact that many hands built it, over many generations, there is a strong sense of harmony in the Philae complex; more than one visitor has called Philae the most beautiful place in Egypt.

In modern times, Philae also got special treatment. After the first Aswan Dam was completed, in 1902, the temples were flooded for part of every year; e.g., the paint on the walls and ceilings was washed off. Sixty years later, the Aswan High Dam was built, and it threatened to drown Philae forever. At first a cofferdam was built to keep the rising Nile waters away, before UNESCO resorted to the same solution that had been done with Abu Simbel; they took the buildings apart, moved the blocks, and reassembled them on a safer island.

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The Queen of Kings

We are now up to the last story of ancient Egypt, that of its most famous queen. Before we continue, let us clear up some common misconceptions concerning Cleopatra.

1. She was not an Egyptian but a full-blooded Greek, as you have probably realized by now. And from an inbred, Greek family at that.
2. Everybody likes to think of her as stunningly attractive, but the truth is that we don't know for sure. In fact, historians have argued about the color of her hair and the length of her nose, ridiculous as it may sound. She looks rather plain on the coins we have from her reign, and her statues show the generic Egyptian female type; change the name on them, and the sculptures could represent any other queen or goddess. I suspect that the rulers of Rome were more interested in her intelligence, her diplomatic skills, and most of all her wealth. For example, she spoke seven languages, and was probably the only person in the whole dynasty who knew how to speak Egyptian.

Six opinions on Cleopatra's appearance.

3. I doubt that her life was one long orgy. Most of those stories of her wicked and lustful behavior were spread after her death; history is written by the winners, after all. There is no evidence that she was involved with any men besides Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The unfaithful people in those relationships were the men; e.g., Caesar's soldiers called him "the bald adulterer."
4. I don't believe that she ever dissolved a pearl the size of an olive in vinegar, and drank it in front of Mark Antony to show how much money she could waste. Pearls do not dissolve in vinegar, but the ancients seemed to think it was a powerful corrosive agent; Livy claimed that Hannibal used vinegar to split a path through the Alps for his elephants.

Anyway, Ptolemy XII's will was carried out, with a brother-sister marriage between Cleopatra VII(17) and Ptolemy XIII; she was eighteen years old, he was ten. Because of Ptolemy's tender age, a eunuch named Pothinus became regent. True to family tradition, instead of settling down the new rulers tried to kill each other. Pothinius probably caused the falling out, because he couldn't get along with Cleopatra for obvious reasons. With the support of Pothinus, Ptolemy won the first round, forcing Cleopatra to flee to Syria. She got her chance to return, though, when the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey spilled into Egypt. Pompey fled there in 48 B.C., after Caesar defeated his army in Greece; anxious to be on the side of the winner, Pothinus and Ptolemy had Pompey murdered, and when Caesar arrived, they presented him with Pompey's head. However, Caesar just found that disgusting, and he ordered that the rest of Pompey be recovered and buried respectably.

Cleopatra showed up next, and got an audience with Caesar by having herself rolled up in a carpet and carried to him by a rug merchant. That made a much better impression, and Cleopatra's enemies, led by Pothinus, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe, raised an army to stop her. Caesar and his legion were besieged in Alexandria for five months, but it wasn't a total blockade, because ships carrying supplies could still get in. Then reinforcements arrived from Asia Minor, led by one Mithradates of Pergamun, giving Caesar an army the same size as the Greco-Egyptian one. Once numbers were no longer a factor, the pikes of the Ptolemaic force proved to be no match for the heavy shields, javelins and shortswords of the Romans. After the battle Caesar ordered Pothinus executed; Ptolemy drowned when he tried to escape and his ship capsized.

Now Cleopatra could rule alone at last. She was forced by custom to marry her youngest brother, eleven-year-old Ptolemy XIV, but she also became Caesar's mistress, and soon had a son by him, Ptolemy XV Caesarion ("Little Caesar"). Before Caesarion arrived, Caesar had to leave to deal with revolts from allies of Pompey. When peace finally came, Cleopatra and Caesarion moved to Rome so they could share Caesar's triumph.(18) Arsinoe was paraded in chains there, but instead of killing her, which was the fate of most captured enemy leaders, Caesar sent her to Ephesus, where she was placed under elegant house arrest, confined in Diana's Temple. However, many Romans thought having Cleopatra around was a scandal; they resented Caesar putting a statue of her in a temple, as if she was a goddess (remember, that was the fashion in Egypt). They also didn't like the other favors Caesar was giving to this foreigner, when he had a perfectly good Roman wife, and feared that because of all his accomplishments, Caesar was starting to see himself as more than just a general or a consul. Twenty months after Cleopatra and Caesarion came to Rome, Caesar was assassinated (44 B.C.). You can read more about Caesar and Cleopatra in Chapter 3 of my European history.

If there was any talk about little Caesarion inheriting both the Roman and Egyptian states, it ended abruptly now. Realizing that the vacation was over, Cleopatra returned to Egypt, and the boy-king Ptolemy XIV died at this point. We don't know if Cleopatra had him killed, but most historians believe she did, because she was a Ptolemy, after all. In Ptolemy's place, Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent. A new power struggle broke out in Rome, and Cleopatra watched on the sidelines at first, until Mark Antony, the new Roman ruler of the east, summoned her to explain her conduct. She went to meet him at Tarsus with a splendid fleet, decorated with gold, jewels, slaves and horses. It definitely was one of the grandest introductions of all time, and as planned, it convinced Antony that Egypt was a wealthy and useful ally. However, he also fell in love with Cleopatra, followed her back to Alexandria, and obligingly put her rival sister Arsinoe to death. After living with Cleopatra for some time, Antony was compelled by politics to return to Rome, where he married Octavia, a sister of Caesar's heir Octavian. While Antony was away, Cleopatra bore him twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Antony came back to the east in 36 B.C., after being away for nearly four years. This time he was leading an expedition against the Parthians, the semi-civilized rulers of Iran and Iraq who had invaded Syria and Israel a few years earlier. Cleopatra came to meet him at Antioch, and extracted from him an agreement to return to Egypt all the Roman provinces that Egypt had ruled in the past. Then they got married, and a third child was born, Ptolemy XVI. The war with the Parthians was a disaster, though, and Cleopatra's forces had to rescue those Roman soldiers who were lucky enough to make it back to the Syrian coast. After that, Antony started drinking heavily, and Cleopatra had to talk him out of going back to the Parthians for a rematch--Octavian was a more dangerous enemy now.

Around this time, Antony announced a major reorganization of the east, handing over most of it to Cleopatra and her children. According to his proposal, Caesarion would be crowned pharaoh of Egypt; Cleopatra and Caesarion would become the joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus; Alexander Helios would have Armenia, Media and Parthia (territories Antony did not rule, mind you); Cleopatra Selene would get all of Libya; Ptolemy XVI would receive Syria and Cilicia. This arrangement would have transformed Egypt from a desperately weak kingdom into an empire more powerful than it had been during the peak years of the Ptolemies.

However, it never went into effect. In 32 B.C. Antony divorced Octavia, and Octavian declared war. The fleets of both sides met at Actium, near Greece. Today we have a lot of unanswered questions about this crucial battle: why Antony chose to use his navy, when he had a larger army than Octavian; why Cleopatra and her sixty ships returned to Egypt before the battle was decided, thereby making sure Octavian would win; or why Antony sailed away with Cleopatra, leaving his legions behind. Octavian followed, and captured them in Alexandria; Antony fell on his sword to avoid a humiliating execution. According to romantic legend, he died in Cleopatra's arms, and after a meeting with Octavian got nowhere, she committed suicide with an asp (Egyptian cobra) smuggled in a basket of figs (30 B.C.). Egypt now fell to Octavian, soon to be renamed Augustus, and he treated the Nile valley as his conquered estate, forbidding even senators to visit there without his permission.

What became of Cleopatra's children? Her child with Caesar, seventeen years old at this point, was the first to go. Before the end came, she sent Caesarion and his tutor off with a large sum of money, the idea being that they would escape to India and keep the dynasty alive there. That plan failed because of a betrayal; they got as far as the Red Sea before the tutor persuaded Caesarion to turn around, telling him that everything would be all right if they give themselves up. Instead, Octavian simply said, "There can be too many Caesars," and had Caesarion strangled. Playing the part of a faithful wife, Octavia raised the children of Antony and Cleopatra as her own. Alexander Helios and Ptolemy XVI didn't amount to much, and in 17 B.C. they mysteriously disappeared. This happened about the time that Israel's King Herod, an old enemy of the Ptolemies, visited Rome, and Cleopatra Selene wrote letters to her friends accusing Herod of ordering the deaths of her brothers; because of Herod's bloody record, there is little doubt that he would have tried to commit such an act. Cleopatra Selene was the luckiest; we'll hear more from her in the section on Roman Africa.

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Kush: The Meroitic Phase

The sacking of Napata in 590 B.C. ended whatever claim the Kushite kings had on Egypt, but this was by no means the end of the Nubian story. In fact, it was just beginning; the next eight hundred years saw the Nubians develop a culture that was distinctly their own, now that they were no longer under pressure from the Egyptians. They continued to carve hieroglyphics on their temples, for example, but under Nastasen (335-310 B.C.), the Nubians also developed a 23-letter alphabet. Today we know which sound each letter represented, but the grammar and vocabulary of the ancient Nubian language is not yet understood. Hopefully translation is only a matter of time; excavations since the 1960s at Qasr Ibrim, a Roman fort between the first and second cataracts, have revealed a number of texts, including some bilingual ones.

Meroe pyramids
The pyramids of Meroë.

Security may have been the reason why the capital was moved from Napata to Meroë, but economics helped make sure the capital stayed there. Unlike Napata, Meroë was rich in iron deposits and timber; archaeologists found so many slag heaps there that one of them, A. H. Sayce, called Meroë "the Birmingham of ancient Africa." In addition, overgrazing was beginning to affect the Dongola Reach, so the fields around the sixth cataract were becoming a better place to grow crops and herd cattle. However, the new capital was off the beaten path for foreigners, so very few visitors from other civilizations got to see it. Herodotus, for example, never came any closer than Aswan, though he had more to say about the land he called "Ethiopia" than anyone else did for the next two thousand years. To him Kush was the most marvelous country on earth, a land where people lived to be as old as 120, where the tallest man became king, where the poor were fed daily in a field called the "Table of the Sun," and where the dead were covered with plaster, painted to look like they did in life, and encased in tubes of hollowed-out crystal. Of course most of this was merely hearsay, but while the "Ethiopians" themselves were a fairly common sight in the Greco-Roman world, they don't seem to have done anything to dispel the myths about their homeland. Elsewhere they also traveled widely; they traded with Arabia and India, and evidence of their presence has been found as far away as the borders of Uganda to the south, and Lake Chad to the west.(19)

Despite the government's relocation, Napata continued to serve as the main religious center. Up until Nastasen, all Kushite kings were buried in pyramids at Napata's cemetery. Nearby, Gebel Barkal was regarded as the birthplace of the god Amen, possibly because a 320-foot-high butte, jutting out from the main mountain at the site, resembled a cobra wearing a crown (the cobra was a royal symbol in Egypt). Whenever the time came to choose a new king, all eligible candidates were taken to a temple at the foot of the butte and displayed before an image of the god. Somehow, the statue spoke to express the god's choice and the chosen one was crowned on the spot, but according to Diodorus Siculus, a Roman historian, the statue could also order the death of the king, who was expected to commit suicide when he received the command. Eventually the clergy of Amen became too overbearing, because Diodorus tells us that Ergamenes (270-260 B.C.) ordered the priests put to the sword and "thereafter ordered affairs after his own will."

Around this time, perhaps because of the clean sweep done by Ergamenes, another god became nearly as important as Amen. This was Apedemak, a composite figure with the head of a lion, the torso of a man, and the tail of a serpent. However, Apedemak's temples were much smaller, with a only a single chamber inside an imposing pylon gate. Like other Africans, the Nubians gave animals an important role in their religion, since they played such an important role in everyday life. The temple at Musawwarat es-Sufra, located south of Meroë, was apparently in the middle of cattle country, since its walls were covered with relief sculptures showing cattle, and an enormous walled structure at the site, one of the largest Kushite buildings found to date, may have been a corral for the training and breeding of elephants.(20)

Another unique feature of the Kushite kingdom was the strength of its queens; often they governed in their own right, and could act as militant as any male leader. The queen's official title was kandake; foreign authors incorrectly thought that was the queen's name, and thus called her "Candace."(21) Two of them, Amanishakheto and Amanitore, had reliefs portraying them in the same heroic pose that the pharaohs once used, grasping a bunch of enemies by the hair with one muscular hand, and raising a weapon with the other. They also had ritual scars on their faces, still a common practice in some parts of present-day Africa; these weren't the delicate beauties that one sees so often in Egyptian art!

One kandake, Amanirenas, was bold enough to challenge the Roman Empire for control of Egypt. The Greek geographer at the time, Strabo, described her as "a very masculine sort of woman, and blind in one eye." In 25 B.C., five years after the Romans conquered Egypt, Aelius Gallus, the prefect of Egypt, launched an attack on Arabia Felix, the wealthy part of the Arabian peninsula we now call Yemen. It failed, because a country that hard to reach can't be taken with poor planning. Amanirenas saw the Roman distraction as an opportunity, and in the following year she sent an army north, occupied Lower Nubia and Aswan, and pillaged Philae, because its temples contained statues of the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. However, the Romans were experienced in dealing with such intruders, and the next prefect, Caius Petronius, sent a punitive expedition up the Nile to Napata and sacked it. Soon after, Rome and Kush signed a permanent peace treaty that put the new border in Lower Nubia, and the Romans patrolled it with a 400-man garrison based at the aforementioned Qasr Ibrim.

Rome and Kush got along well after that, and both sides earned a profit from the trade that passed between them. Luxuries from the Roman Empire, such as metalwork, ceramics, glass and jewelry, were often buried with wealthy Nubians in the first and second century A.D. After 200 A.D., however, the imports stopped, and the tombs grew smaller and less sturdy, telling us that the people had become impoverished. Likewise, the kingdom as a whole suffered a definite decline; no more great temples or monuments were built. The main reason for this was nomad incursions. Two warrior tribes had taken Lower Nubia for themselves, the Nobades on the west bank and the Blemmyes(22) on the east bank, and their raids on Egypt and Kush persuaded merchants to steer clear of Nubia if their goods were destined for a market somewhere else. During the reign of the Roman emperor Probus (276-282), the Blemmyes even supported an anti-Roman rebellion in the Upper Egyptian cities of Ptolemais and Coptos. Another revolt, under Domitius Domitianus and his lieutenant, Aurelius Achilleus, engulfed Egypt for much of 295 and 296. This persuaded the emperor at this time, Diocletian, that he would have to get out of Nubia to hold onto Egypt, so in 298 he abandoned Qasr Ibrim, pulling its troops back to Aswan. Then he invited the Nobades to settle the rest of Lower Nubia on condition that they keep the Blemmyes out, and paid a subsidy to the Blemmyes. When Rome and Ethiopia (in this case the real Ethiopia, not Nubia) converted to Christianity, the Nobades and Blemmyes responded by embracing the ancient Egyptian religion more strongly, so the Romans kept the peace on this frontier by letting the tribesmen make pilgrimages to Philae.

The last royal tomb built at Meroë dates to 320 A.D., though the kingdom itself lasted a few years longer, to 355. The end apparently came when Ezana, the king of Axum, got involved, attacking the nomads because they were giving his merchants and agents too much trouble. We don't know, however, who finished off Meroë. By 375 the Nobades had established a kingdom of their own, called Nobatia, with its two main communities, Ballana and Qustul, facing one another across the Nile near the second cataract. Archaeologists excavating these sites noted some similarities to the pre-Kushite cultures of Nubia, and call this culture the X-Group. In the fifth century, two more kingdoms were set up where Kush used to be, Makuria in the Dongola Reach, and Alodia in the neighborhood of Meroë. Both of them were apparently populated by a combination of ex-nomads and descendants of Kushites.


A map of Nubia, from the TourEgypt site. Meroë is not shown, being just off the bottom edge of the map.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. Those Jews were refugees, who fled to Egypt after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. Later on many of them moved upstream, where they intermarried and made converts among the Nubians, creating the Falasha community of black Ethiopian Jews.

2. A Greek officer stopped at Abu Simbel and carved the names of the expedition's commanders on a leg of one of Ramses II's colossal statues. This is one of the oldest examples of a disrespectful custom still practiced today--graffiti. The message reads as follows:
"When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine (Aswan), those who sailed with Psamatichos son of Theocles wrote these words, and they came above Kerkis as far as the river permits. Those who spoke foreign tongues (Greeks and Carians) were led by Potasimto, the Egyptians by Amasis. Archon the son of Amoibichos and Pelops son of Eudamos wrote this."

3. Because bacteria cannot survive in honey, it is the longest-lasting foodstuff; edible samples more than 2,500 years old have turned up in Egyptian tombs. The Egyptians seem to have known about this property; according to the book, The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, by Dr. Guido Majno (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1975), honey was an ingredient in more than 500 Egyptian remedies. We also have at least one report of them putting a corpse in a large jar of honey, but this form of preservation never replaced mummification. To find out why, Dr. Majno experimented by immersing pieces of rodent meat in honey. He wrote: "Very small pieces might be preserved indefinitely, but with larger pieces, deep down where the honey cannot reach, putrefaction is rampant, gas develops, and the result is a terrible waste of work." Those embalmers knew what they were doing, all right.

4. We have one report which asserts that under Ptolemy II, Egypt had an annual income of 14,800 talents, not counting the grain. If this is a true statistic, the Ptolemaic government had even more money than the Persian Empire did, under Darius I!

5. B.P. Grenfell, A.S. Hunt, etc. (editors), Tebtunis Papyri, III, 703, 230.

6. The Library was definitely a Greek idea; the Egyptians did not believe in sharing knowledge with everybody. We saw in Chapter 2 that about the only people who could read in ancient Egypt were priests and scribes, so it made sense to keep written records in the temples, and because clergy often make their rituals look mysterious, it was natural for them to restrict access to their books. Thus, one of the priest's jobs was to be a guardian of secrets. By contrast, the Library included not only books, but also an institution to promote learning, called the Musaeum. Dedicated to the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus that were seen as goddesses of the arts and academic subjects, this was a concept that had been developed in Greece a century earlier, at Plato's Academy. Besides the exhibits you would expect to find in today's museums, scholars were encouraged to come here, work together, and stimulate each other's minds to make new discoveries. This was truly revolutionary, because up until this time, all scientists and philosophers had worked on their own. In that sense, you can call the Musaeum the first university. It was here that Euclid wrote his masterpiece on geometry, the Elements, that Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, and that Herophilus began his study of anatomy.

7. While Ptolemy II was concentrating his attention on Asia, his half-brother Magas declared independence for Cyrenaica, with himself as king, and when the First Syrian War broke out, he marched on Egypt. The invasion failed, but Ptolemy could not regain control over his western province until Magas died in 250 B.C. However, the daughter of Magas became the next queen (see footnote #11 below). Incidentally, Asoka, India's greatest king, carved an inscription claiming that Magas was converted to Buddhism by one of his missionaries, but we have no records elsewhere to testify that such a conversion actually happened.

8. In Chapter 2 we noted that the pharaohs used to routinely travel around Egypt. The Ptolemies did not adopt this custom; on the contrary, almost nothing could persuade them to leave Alexandria; because everything they wanted was right there. Nor did they maintain order by appointing relatives to fill important jobs in other cities, as the pharaohs did. One day in the first century B.C., Ptolemy XII traveled to Memphis and took his whole family with him. Not a long or difficult journey by any means, but it had been so long since a king visited Memphis, that it was considered a big deal, and a stone stela was carved to commemorate the family trip.

9. The Egyptian gods, with their animal faces, definitely looked odd to the Greeks. The cult of Serapis was an attempt to bridge the differences between Egyptian and Greek religion. The name of Serapis combines the names of two older Egyptian gods, Osiris and Apis, but he was portrayed as a man with a long beard, so he looked a lot like Zeus. In addition, Serapis carried a basket to show he was a harvest/fertility god, a good quality to have in a land so dependent on agriculture. I doubt if many Egyptians bought into this syncretism, because the old gods remained popular.

10. Theocritus, Idyl 15, trans. Nels Bailkey.

11. A delightful story has come to us from the Third Syrian War. This conflict took Ptolemy III all the way to Babylon, and his queen, Berenice II, was so concerned for his safety that she cut off her long blond hair, and presented it as an offering to the temple of Aphrodite. Her prayers were answered and Ptolemy came home, but when the reunited couple visited the temple, the hair was missing. A clever astronomer saved the day by pointing to a star cluster; he said that the hair had not been stolen, and the gods appreciated the offering so much that they put it in the sky as a new constellation. The constellation in question, now called Coma Berenices, is one of the dimmest in the spring sky, so it must have been a really good night for stargazing.

12. Ptolemy IV had a passion for grandeur that drove him to improve his elite navy by building two enormous ships. The first was a royal barge, 300 feet long and 45 feet wide. Rising 50 feet above the deck was a two-story colonnade that contained a lavish banquet hall, decorated with gold, ivory, cedar, and statues of the gods (which by Egyptian definition included Ptolemy himself). The whole structure was so huge that it couldn't maneuver by itself; it drifted with the current unless dozens of regular sized galleys towed it. The other was a colossal warship that stretched 420 feet from its seven rams to a 79-foot-high stern. This leviathan could transport catapult crews and 2,850 soldiers, and its 150 oars required 4,000 oarsmen. Unfortunately, it was also dangerously unbalanced, making it unseaworthy, so like the barge, it was only useful for showing off. It never was used in a battle, and probably never even left Alexandria's harbor.

One of Ptolemy IV's capital ships.
If your name was Ptolemy, this was your idea of a cruise.

13. Because of the policy of separation, the Jews were allowed to practice their ancient monotheism while the Ptolemies ruled Jerusalem. That changed just a few years after the Seleucids took over, as described in Chapter 6 of my Near Eastern history.
According to Josephus (Wars of the Jews, Book 7, Chapter 10, 2-4), when the Seleucids started persecuting the Jews, Onias, the former Jewish high priest, fled to Egypt, and Ptolemy VI granted him a plot of land in Heliopolis for a new place of worship. There Onias built a fortress, and tried to pass it off as a substitute for the Temple in Jerusalem, claiming he had fulfilled a prophecy that Egypt would some day have an altar to the Lord (Isaiah 19:19). However, a few years later the Maccabees liberated the Jerusalem Temple, eliminating the need for a replacement. Still, the Egyptian fortress/temple remained in business until right after the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 A.D.), when the Roman governor of Alexandria closed it.

14. The Romans did not assume direct rule over Cyrenaica right away. For twenty-two years the cities of the Pentapolis were allowed to manage local affairs; Rome only claimed the property that had formerly belonged to the rulers of those cities, and a tax on silphium (see

footnote #30). Finally in 74 B.C., they converted Cyrenaica into a Roman province.

15. The only Cleopatra you need to remember from this generation is the younger one. Cleo Six is not mentioned again after Ptolemy XII went into exile in 58 B.C., leading us to believe that Berenice IV had her killed, in true Ptolemaic fashion.

16. Today we think of ancient Rome as the political, cultural and economic center of classical civilization. While this is true, we must keep in mind that in the first century B.C., Rome was a city of brick; most of the marble ruins you'll see in Rome today were built later on, after the Republic became the Empire. Athens and Alexandria were more impressive cities at this time; to the Greeks, Romans were brutes, not much better than barbarians. The Romans may have gotten most of their civilization from the Greeks, but still the Greeks strongly disliked it when the Romans bossed them around, as they were now doing to the Ptolemies.
The Romans were interested in Egypt because Egypt was the breadbasket of the known world. In the days before the industrial revolution, food was the biggest source of both energy and wealth. Since the fourth century B.C., Rome had required more food than the local farms could supply, so hunger was one of the reasons why the Romans had gone forth to conquer the rest of Italy, Sicily, and the Carthaginian Empire. Later we'll see Egypt's grain supply become an issue of national security for the Romans.

17. For you trivia buffs, Cleopatra's full name was Cleopatra VII Philadelphus Philopator Philopatris.

18. The triumph featured some animals brought back from Africa. Among them was a giraffe, which the Romans had never seen before. They called it a "cameleopard," because it had a body shaped like a camel, but spots like a leopard. At the beginning of Chapter 6, we will see another giraffe make a similar impression on the Chinese.

19. The Chadic peoples have a legend that asserts they learned the secrets of metallurgy from a race of tall wise men, who settled in their land. Presumably these were Kushites, 1,200 miles from Meroë. They cast bronze using the lost-wax method, a process already known in the Nile valley.
The "lost-wax" process involves making a wax model of the object you want to cast, and encasing it in clay. When this lump is heated by fire, the clay hardens and the wax melts; the clay thus becomes a perfect mold. Then the wax is poured out through a hole in the mold, and molten metal is poured in. After the metal cools, the mold is struck away, revealing the finished work. Very intricate metal pieces, like the Igbo pot pictured in the next chapter, can be made this way.

20. The Western world discovered war elephants when Alexander the Great encountered them in two battles, at Gaugamela in Iraq and at the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River in India. He defeated them both times, but his Hellenistic successors felt that their armies wouldn't be complete without a few elephants to awe the masses. The Ptolemies got their elephants from Nubia and Eritrea; they did not employ elephants from central and southern Africa, because those were too large to tame. The Seleucids always used Indian elephants, while Hannibal's famous alp-climbing pachyderms came from a North African breed that was later hunted to extinction by the Romans.

21. We see Amanitore called by that name in the New Testament, when the Apostle Philip met and converted a Kushite official: "And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship . . ."--Acts 8:27

22. The Blemmyes are descended from the Medjay who lived in the time of the pharaohs; their Arabic name is Beja. Some texts refer to the Nobades as simply the Noba.

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