Nitocris (c. 660–584 BCE)

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Nitocris (c. 660–584 bce)

Reigned as Thebes' high-priestess for 70 years, linking upper Egypt with lower Egypt. Born around 660 bce; died in 584 bce; daughter of Nabu-Shezibanni, known as Psammetichus or Psametik; adopted by Shepenupet II, in 656.

Nitocris was born around 660 bce, the daughter of Nabu-Shezibanni, known as Psammetichus, a noble from the Egyptian city of Sais. Nitocris, which means "Neith is victorious" (Neith was a warrior goddess of Sais), was a popular name during the period when Egypt was ruled by pharaohs from Sais. When the last great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 bce) conquered Egypt in 663 bce, he was helped by Psammetichus, an ambitious aspirant to the Egyptian throne who was in part motivated to cooperate with the Assyrians by the desire to rid Egypt of the declining Nubian dynasty which controlled much of upper (southern) Egypt. When Ashurbanipal left Egypt to devote himself to pressing problems elsewhere, he put Psammetichus in charge of the ancient land as his client-king. Psammetichus assumed the status of pharaoh in 663 bce, thus founding Egypt's 26th ruling dynasty since the unification of upper and lower Egypt around 3000 bce. Psammetichus paid tribute to Ashurbanipal until 651 bce, when it became clear that an accumulation of problems elsewhere made it unlikely that the Assyrian king would ever return to Egypt. Even before this statement of independence, Psammetichus did everything he could to consolidate his control of Egypt as far south as the First Cataract. This he had trouble doing, especially in the extreme south, for Ashurbanipal in the midst of his conquest had flattened the ancient royal city of Thebes, then a stronghold of Nubian rule.

Despite Ashurbanipal's military success, he had not completely eradicated the Nubian influence in Thebes because, at least technically, the local source of political authority was the high-priestess of the area's most important god—the solar deity, Amun. This priestess drew her influence from the fact that she was believed by the local population to be the "wife of Amun." The holder of this office when Psammetichus came to power was Shepenupet II , a woman with Nubian ties. Thus, to assert his authority in the south and effectively reunify Egypt after a period when its traditional northern and southern regions had been politically split, Psammetichus had his daughter Nitocris adopted by Shepenupet II in 656 bce, so that when the latter died, Nitocris became "Amun's wife."

Nitocris was introduced to Thebes with a show of might, although Psammetichus made sure that the local population's religious beliefs were respected. Thus, when Shepenupet II died, Nitocris inherited her priesthood, a position which she held—linking upper Egypt with lower Egypt—until her death in 584 bce, a period of almost 70 years. Her assumption of the religious duties associated with her status as "Amun's wife" anchored her dynasty's political control over Thebes and the south. The link worked so successfully that it became the policy by which the 26th dynasty secured the loyalty of its southern subjects, for in turn, Nitocris adopted Ankhnesneferibre in 595 bce as her daughter and heir. Ankhnesneferibre, the daughter of the reigning pharaoh Psammeticus II, later adopted Nitocris II , the daughter of Amasis, in 570 bce. Nitocris II was the last of her dynasty to reign as Thebes' high-priestess, for she held the post when the Persians dethroned her father and added Egypt to their empire in 526 bce.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California