The First Greeks in Egypt

When upon the death of Necho Assurbanipal reconquered Egypt he re-established the system of numerous vice-kings, who “came to meet me and kissed my feet.”

We are informed by Assurbanipal that this governmental organization was discontinued a few years later, when one of the vice-kings took all the power to himself, accomplishing this with the help of the soldiers who arrived in Egypt from Sardis on the Aegean shore of Asia Minor. Gyges was at that time king of Sardis in Lydia.

At first Gyges sent messengers to Assurbanipal: “Guggu (Gyges), king of Lydia, a district of the other side of the sea, a distant place, whose name the kings, my fathers, had not heard, he dispatched his messengers to bring greetings to me.”(1)

But after a few years, Gyges ceased to ally himself with Assurbanipal. “His messengers, whom he kept sending to me to bring greetings, he discontinued.” According to Assurbanipal, Gyges sent his forces to the aid of the king of Egypt,(2) “who had thrown off the yoke of my sovereignty.”

Herodotus wrote that Psammetichos, one of the twelve vice-kings, deposed his eleven co-rulers, and he did it with the help of Ionian and Carian mercenaries. According to Herodotus, the Greek and Carian mercenaries arrived in Egypt in the days of Psammetichos, brought by a gale.

. . . Certain lonians and Carians, voyaging for plunder, were forced to put in on the coast of Egypt, where they disembarked in their mail of bronze.

. . . Psammetichos made friends with the lonians and Carians and promised them great rewards if they would join him.(3)

The Egyptian sovereign placed them in two camps on opposite shores of the Pelusian branch of the Nile and “paid them all that he had promised."

Moreover he put Egyptian boys in their hands to be taught the Greek tongue; these, learning Greek, were the ancestors of the Egyptian interpreters.

The lonians and Carians dwelt a long time in these places, which are near the sea, on the arm of the Nile called the Pelusian, a little way below the town of Bubastis.

Herodotus states they “were the first men of alien speech to settle in that country” (II, 154).

A glance at a historical map of the western shore of Asia Minor reveals that the tiny maritime states of lonia and Caria jutted well into the border of Lydia, whose capital was Sardis. Gyges was able to provide Egypt with Ionian mercenaries because he had recently occupied Colophon in Ionia.(4) Thus it appears that lonians and Carians arrived at the shores of Egypt in mail of bronze, not because of a gale, but because of an agreement with King Gyges of Sardis, as stated by Assurbanipal.

Diodorus of Sicily, too, wrote about the first meeting of the Egyptians with the Greeks on the soil of Egypt, when lonians and Carians arrived and were hired as mercenaries.

He [Psammetichos] was the first Egyptian king to open to other nations the trading places throughout the rest of Egypt. . . . For his predecessors in power had consistently closed Egypt to strangers.(5)

Diodorus also said that Psammetichos was a great admirer of the Hellenes and gave his son Necho (the future Ramses II), a Greek education.

Greek arms, utensils and vases, and the very bones of the Greek mercenaries in their peculiar sarcophagi, have been found in and near the Delta, often together with objects of the Nineteenth Dynasty.(6)

Formations of mercenaries from Sardis, called Shardana or Sar-an, were in the service of Seti the Great.

The time of Seti is, in the conventional scheme, the end of the fourteenth century; of Psammetichos, the seventh century. Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century, wrote that in the days of Psammetichos, only two hundred years before, Greeks for the first time came to live in Egypt. He must have been well informed, for not merely the history of Egypt was involved but that of his own people likewise: his birthplace was Halicarnassus in Ionia-Caria. Also, in Beth-Shan in Palestine, where the excavators were able to determine the successive layers of the tell (mound), tombs of mercenaries from the Aegean-Anatolian region have been unearthed. “Doubtless among all these troops [of Seti] were many Mediterranean (Aegean-Anatolian) mercenaries, including the redoubtable Sherdenen [Shardana]; these must have formed the major part of the garrison left at Beth-shan by Seti. “(7) Thus wrote the archaeologist of that place.

Does this mean that Lydians and Ionians were present in Egypt when the Israelites were there in bondage? If, as many scholars believe, Ramses II was the Pharaoh of Oppression, the presence of soldiers from the Aegean-Anatolian region in the Delta in his days in the days of his father Seti would signify a meeting of Greek and Israelite peoples in pre-Exodus Egypt. The problem thus stated will not appeal to those same historians.

The explanation of the presence of Greek mercenaries in the army of Seti, seven hundred years before Psammetichos, is simple: Seti was the Psammetichos of Herodotus and other Greek writers, and he lived seven hundred years after the time assigned to him by modern historians.


  1. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II, Sec. 784.

  2. Ibid., Sec. 785. Assurbanipal called the Egyptian king who received military support from Gyges, Tusharniiki. It is known that at that time Psammetichos became the sole king of Egypt. The Assyrian kings occasionally gave Egyptian cities and Egyptian kings Assyrian names. Assurbanipal called Sais Kar-bel-matate.

  3. Herodotus, II, 152 ff.

  4. Herodotus, 1, 14. See E.M. Smith, Naukratis (Vienna, 1926), p. 14, n. 16.

  5. Diodorus (trans. C.H. Oldfather, 1933), 1, 66-67.

  6. See Naville, The Mound of the Jew (London, 1893), Plate 13; cf. A. Rowe, The Topography and History of Beth-shan (Philadelphia, 1930), pp. 2, 26, 39.

  7. Rowe, Topography and History of Beth-shan, p. 26.