In ancient Egypt (or Kemet) existed the great reverence for life in
all its forms. This was based on the belief that life had been given by the
gods and reverence for it extended beyond human beings to encompass all living creatures.
Although they occasionally eat meat and their royalty certainly
engaged in the hunt, the Egyptian diet
was primarily vegetarian or pescatarian, in a way that reflected their understanding
of the sacred nature of all existence. On occasions when animal life was taken
or eaten, thanks were given for the sacrifice. Also, the Egyptians took good
care of pets, and wildlife in nature was well respected.
While this value for nature is visible everywhere throughout their
culture from the Kemetian religion to
their art, it was most essentially epitomized at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE.
This engagement was the decisive clash between the Persian king Cambyses II (525-522 BCE) and Pharaoh Psametik III (526-525
BCE) of Egypt, and culminated in the first Persian conquest of Egypt.
It has been suggested by many scholars that the battle would have been
won by the Persians regardless of the tactics used since Cambyses II was
far more experienced in war than the young Psametik III. Writer Joshua
J. Mark in his ‘The Battle of Pelusium: A
Victory Decided by Cats’ notes, however, that
“the victory, however, was due far more to Cambyses II's knowledge of Egyptian culture than his record
as a field commander”. Hence, the battle was won through a very unusual
strategy orchestrated by Cambyses. This involved preying on the Egyptians’
beliefs with the use of cats in the ensuing battle. For the Egyptians, their
love for the feline have cost them a war.
The Egyptians and Cats
The Battle of Pelusium remains a subject
for discourse. Beyond grand strategies and sea-borne armies, few ancient
writers note, it is in fact cats that oddly acted as the deciding factor in the
Battle of Pelusium. To that end, Dattatreya Mandal notes in The Battle of Pelusium: ‘Cats’ and
psychological edge lead Persians to victory, “the native Egyptian mythology
and religion popularized the worship of Bastet (or Bast)”.
The goddess of the home, love, women, fertility,
joy, dance, and secrets, Bastet with her cat-like head and woman’s
body was considered as a benevolent deity. In Upper Egypt, however, she was
also worshiped in the form of her ‘alter-ego’ Sekhmet―the warrior lioness
seen as the protector of the pharaohs who symbolically led them in warfare.
Given such tendency for feline symbolization among Kemetians, cats were
uniquely sacred in Egypt―so much so that death by stabbing stood as the punishment
for killing a cat.
According to Herodotus, Egyptians was so
fond of cats that in a case when trapped inside a burning building, they
preferred to save their cats instead of themselves. Also, cats were also known
to often be mummified in a ceremonious manner with jewelry―as was the case
with many noble people.
Motives, Women, and Preparation of War
Despite the crucial
nature of the conflict,not much is known of
the account of the Battle of Pelusium except sources written by Greek
historians such as Herodotus and Polyaenus.
As written by Herodotus, hostilities began after a mistake made by Pharaoh
Pharaoh Amasis (or
Ahmose II, 570-526 BCE) of the 26th Dynasty was among the greatest rulers of his
period. Establishing Egypt, Amasis restored some of Egypt's former glory and
military prestige. He is also believed by scholars to be among, if not, the
last of the effective kings in Egypt's history. However, it was him―as
Herodotus postulates―who initiated the problem which led to the Persian
According to Herodotus, the Persian emperor Cambyses II invaded
Egypt after being insulted by Amasis. In his account, Cambyses II had requested
for one of Amasa’s daughters as a wife. Amasis, not wishing to comply (as he feared that his own daughter would live out her life
as a concubine), instead sent his predecessor’s (Apries) daughter Nitetis. Feeling insulted by this decision―especially since it was against tradition
that Egyptian women be given to foreign kings, the young woman revealed her
true identity upon arrival at Cambyses II's court. This led Cambyses II to
accuse Amasis of sending him a 'fake wife' and mobilize his troops for war.
account is true or not, the Persians would have eventually attacked Egypt
anyway during their expansionist era. As the Egyptian army had proven itself no
match for the superior weapons and tactics of the Mesopotamian forces, the
Assyrians had already conquered the country in the late 7th century BCE. The
Persians, who were expanding their empire, would have known of the earlier
conquest and Egypt's inability to defend itself, and so would have had little
hesitation in launching an invasion to capture the country.
In between the insult and the time the Persian expeditionary
forces reached the Egyptian borders, Pharaoh Amasis was already dead, leaving
his son Psametik III (or Psammenitus) to take charge of the country and to engage in the
impending confrontation. A young man, Psametik III had lived largely in
the shadow his father's great accomplishments and was hardly equipped to fend
off a hostile force. When word of the Persian mobilization reached him,
however, he did his best to mount a defence and prepare for battle. Counting on
the assistance of his Greek allies
(the Cypriot towns and the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, who possessed a
deserted him, the young Pharaoh was also without the military counsel of his
father's advisor (Phanes of Halicarnassus),
who had already gone over to the Persian side. Therefore, Psametik III was left
on his own to handle the crisis. He, according to information
obtained from ‘The History of Herodotus
(1737)’, in a violent act of revenge prior to the confrontation with the
Persian army, arrested all the sons of Phanes and stood them between two bowls.
He then cut them one by one, draining their blood and mixing it with wine.
Psamtik then drank of it and made every other councilman drink their blood
before the battles.
The king fortified his position at Pelusium, near the mouth of
the River Nile where
he awaited the Persian attack while simultaneously preparing the capital city Memphis
to withstand a siege. Pelusium was a fortress very strong and well provisioned
for. So was the capital. The young pharaoh, only in his six months of rule at
the time, must have felt confident he could repel any attack. What Psametik III
did not take into account, however, was Cambyses II's cunning and the Persian’s
ability to wage psychological warfare.
the 2nd-century CE writer describes Cambyses II's approach in his Strategems (written in the hopes of
helping Marcus Aurelius and Verus in their campaigns). In his
recounting of events, Polynaenus tells of how the Egyptians were successfully
holding back the Persian advance when Cambyses II suddenly switched tactics. Knowing
the devotion the Egyptians held for cats, the Persian king instructed that
image of Bastet be painted on his soldiers' shields. Further, he “ranged before
his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises and whatever other animals the
Egyptians hold dear” (Polyaenus VII.9). The Egyptians under their king Psametik
III, on seeing their beloved goddess on the shields of the enemy, and fearing
to fight―for fear that they will injure the animals being driven before the
enemy, surrendered their position and took flight in a rout, leaving many massacred on the field. Ctesias states that fifty thousand Egyptians fell, whereas the
entire loss on the Persian side was only seven thousand. Disoriented, and
fleeing, the Egyptians took shelter in Memphis.
Aftermath, Facts and Fiction
Those Egyptians not killed at Pelusium
took refuge at Memphis with the Persian army in pursuit. Memphis was besieged,
falling after a relatively short interval. Psametik III was held prisoner, but
was treated fairly well by Cambyses II. He was, however, executed when he tried
to raise a revolt.
Egypt’s sovereignty came to an end as it
was annexed by Persia and, henceforth, changed hands―between empires―a
number of times before finally ending up as a province of Rome. Some
sources say that Cambyses II, after the battle, hurled cats at the defeated
Egyptians in scorn that they would surrender their country and their freedom
fearing for the safety of common animals.
It should be noted that Herodotus'
depiction of Cambyses II has been met with challenges. Often depicted by the
Greek writers as a brutal and careless monarch who had no love for the
Persians, Cambyses II is also said to have killed the sacred Apis bull,
thrown its carcass into the street, and also to have defiled and banned sacred
rites and traditions throughout Egypt. This claim is, however, contradicted not
just by the reports of other writers, but also by inscriptions, and artworks
that show Cambyses II's great appreciation for Egyptian culture
and religion. It was he who saw the rebuilding of Memphis and
its continuation as the capital of the Persian satrapy.According
to Joshua J. Mark, “the very fact that he used their values against them in
battle attests to this admiration; he knew the Egyptians would respond exactly
as they did because they could not do otherwise. They would have thought it
better to surrender than betray their beliefs.”
The Persians, after the Battle of
Pelusium would rule Egypt in the 27th and 31st Dynasties while posing as a
constant threat, even when they were driven out in the 28th - 30th. Egypt,
except for brief periods, ceased to be an autonomous nation following the
Persian victory. Alexander the Great would arrive with his armies in
331 BCE and conquered the land, causing Egypt to be ruled by a Greek monarchy
until annexed by Rome in 30 BCE.
As noted by Polyaenus, Cambyses II through
this trickery opened up the route into Egypt and the path to conquest. He
further notes that one must never trust in one's own strength or goodness in
battle but instead prepare for any contingency. “While this may be sound
advice,” Joshua J. Mark notes, “the refusal of the Egyptians to compromise
their beliefs - no matter the cost - is a telling detail in understanding what
made their culture so admirable and their civilization among the most
stating what is factual or not, it should be noted that when examined from the practical perspective, the use of real animals
by the Persians to disturb the composure of the Egyptians does seem a bit
far-fetched. Furthermore, there lies a huge probability that the Egyptians
(like their Persian counterparts) employed the services of foreign mercenaries,
including Greeks and Arabs―who were surely not that ‘fond’ of Bastet.Anyway,
as mentioned before, the Persians might have employed some form of
psychological demonstration which gave them a tactical advantage over their
enemies. In fact, the use of such psychologically-inspired battlefield ploys
was not unheard of during ancient times. This is evident, for example, from the
grand Macedonian phalanx demonstration (planned by Alexander the Great) which not
only impressed the rebelling Illyrians but also intimidated them.
As written in ‘History of War’, Herodotus had visited
the battlefield some seventy-five years later, when he reported seeing the
bones of the dead still lying in sands of the desert. Also, he claimed to have
examined the skulls and commented on the difference
between the Persian and the Egyptian skulls. According to him, the Persians
had thin, brittle bones and the Egyptians thick solid bones. He suggested that
this was because the Egyptians normally shaved their heads, and the sunlight
thickened their bones. This might suggest that the battle took place on the
edge of the desert, rather than on cultivated land, although it does seem a
long time for the bodies to have remained visible and unburied.