Saturday, July 9, 2011

Page 27: A Glorious Decline and Alexander the Great

Carved block from the sanctuary of Isis
at Behbeit el-Hagar, which flourished
in the north-central Delta in the
30th Dynasty and Ptolemaic Period

<<page 26...
During much of the Late Period, however, ancient Egypt was ruled successively by a number of outside powers. Beginning with the 25th Dynasty, Nubian or 'Kushite' kings controlled most of the country - and constructed many fine monuments. This period of rule by ancient Egypt's southern neighbor was cut short by Assyrian invasion, followed eventually by the force of Achaemenid Persia, which threatened or controlled ancient Egypt to some extent for the best part of 200 years. Some of the earlier Achaemenid emperor adopted the pharaonic style of rule and built or elaborated upon a number of ancient Egyptian temples. Darius I, for example, built the impressive temple of Hibis in the Kharga Oasis and repaired others from Burisis in the Delta to el-Kab in southern Upper Egypt. Persian rule was never popular, however, and revolts and other problems had led to the Persian destruction of a number of ancient Egyptian temples during this period.

Unfortunately, comparatively little evidence survives of the temples built during the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, and in many cases less is known of them than the structures built both before and after this this epoch. It seems clear, however, that it was towards the end of the Late Period, in the 30th Dynasty, that the architectural style usually considered typical to the Graeco-Roman era in fact developed.

After Alexander the Great: The Ptolemaic Period

When Alexander the Great entered Egypt in 332 BC he was hailed as a savious from the hated Persians. On his orders, repairs were carried out to temples damaged in the Persian devastation of 343, and his legacy to Egypt was prove to both extensive and lasting. After Alexander's death and the dissolution of his empire, rule of ancient Egypt fell to Ptolemy I, one of Alexander's generals; and with Ptolemy began the dynasty of naturalized foreigners which would rule for almost 300 years.

The pious construction of temples to Egyptian deities was an obvious method for these foreign kings to legitimize their rule, and one which they exercised to the full. Following the architectural styles of the temples only recently established in the preceding period, the Ptolemaic rulers constructed temples throughout ancient Egypt. Many of these are today among the best preserved of all Egypt's religious structures.

The relative smoothness of the transition from the Late Period temples to those of the Graeco-Roman era may be clearly seen in the ruined temple of Behbeit el-Hagar in the Delta (Page 104). Dedicated to Isis, and functioning as a nothern center for her worship, the temple was begun in the latter part of the 30th Dynasty but completed by Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III in a manner which shows a clear continuity of decoration and design. As the kings who preceded them had done, the Ptolemies built on a large scale using great quantities of granite and other hard stones which were often decorated with reliefs of particularly fine quality. The representations and inscriptions utilized in the decorative programmes of these Ptolemaic temples became increasingly obscure, however, as the details of the ancient relition became the special domain of a diminishing priestly elite. Eventually, obscurity became a goal in itself, and the inwardly focused and exclusive nature of the later Ptolemaic and Roman period temples would have much to do with the ultimate demise of ancient Egyptian religion.
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