The Battle Of Pelusium: How Egypts Beliefs In Cats Led Them To Lose A War With Persians
December 13, 2020 1105
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.
Background: 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 Amasis.
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 invasion.
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.
Whether Herodotus’ 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 large fleet) who 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.
Polyaenus, 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 impressive.”
In 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 . 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.
commented on the difference between the Persian and the Egyptian skulls.
Written by: Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo