Ancient Greeks Left Their Mark in Egypt in 591 BC — in Graffiti

The Temple of Rameses at Abu Simbel, Egypt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Graffiti is usually viewed nowadays as a modern scourge, a blight on the buildings and highway overpasses in our cities that should be eradicated. But the urge to leave your mark for posterity is nothing new, as ancient Greek graffiti carved into the Temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt clearly shows.

Ancient Greece and ancient Egypt were intertwined in many ways, starting millennia ago as  Greek mercenaries were hired to fight for the pharaohs, culminating in the installation of Macedonia’s Ptolemaic dynasty on the throne of Egypt.

And many Greeks of that time were clearly literate, even including the soldiers of fortune who traveled to Egypt, since they left their names and historical descriptions of their campaigns on temples and other buildings.

On the imposing statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, Greek words and names can be seen clearly even today — millennia after they were left there.

The statue for the great Egyptian leader, who was also known as the “Governor of the Two Lands,” bears clear graffiti referring to the military campaign fought by Egyptian King Pesmatik II in 593 BC in Nubia. His fighting forces consisted of both Egyptian and Greek soldiers, which were led by commanders from each of these lands.

Closeup of the leg of Rameses II, Abu Simbel, bearing graffiti in several different languages, carved into it over the millennia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Egyptian soldiers were led by an officer named Ahmose, who the Greeks called “Amasis,” while the Greek soldiers were led by an officer called “Botasimto” — but this name appears to be a Greek distortion of the Egyptian name “Ba-de-Sema-Tawy,” meaning “The gift of the two lands.”

Greek graffiti on statue of Rameses II at the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It should come as no surprise that the two great civilizations had a large amount of interaction even from the earliest times. There is a great deal of evidence that even as far back as the Bronze Age, there was significant contact between Minoan Crete and Egypt.

It seems, however, that beginning in the 600s BC, a new era dawned, in which much closer ties developed between the two Mediterranean powers, as Egypt began to reopen its kingdom to contact with the wider world.

Egyptian pharaohs from the Saite dynasty, which was established by the reign of Psamtek (Psammetichos) I (664–610 BC), began this metamorphosis in Egyptian political culture — and its markings have survived to this day.

Map of the Eastern Mediterranean by Kate Morton. Credit: Greece High Definition

Egypt would never be the same after this contact led to profound change in its society, which would in later centuries lead to the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty — of which Cleopatra was the last ruler — in this ancient land.

It has been shown by historians that Greek city-states and islands, including Aigina, Athens, Sparta, Miletos, Samos, Phokaia and cities on the island of Rhodes – figured heavily into this cultural exchange.

Egyptian products and objects, including amulets, are known to have been used and traded in Greece as far back as the ninth century BC.

More importantly, there were “diplomatic” gifts bestowed by Egyptian pharaohs including Necho II (610–595 BC) and Amasis (570–526 BC) to major the Greek religious sanctuaries at Miletos/Didyma, Rhodes, Samos and Sparta as early as the 6th century BC.

In Egypt itself, traces of Greek culture can be found in the numerous wine amphorae found throughout the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt, from the mid to late 7th century onward. In fact, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus recorded that both Greek and Phoenician traders had been working in Egypt since the time of Psammetichos.

Greek graffiti is seen in closeup of leg of Rameses II, the Temple of Abu Simbel. Credit: Ross Thomas/Greece High Definition

But wars brought a great many individuals from East Greece to Egypt, and these mercenaries actually formed a significant part of the Egyptian army of the 26th Dynasty, particularly after the establishment of the alliance between Psammetichos I and the Lydian king Gyges in 662/1 BC.

A few of these Greek warriors occupied high ranks in the Egyptian army’s foreign battalions, including a man called Pedon, who recorded the rewards he received from Pharaoh Psammetichos on an Egyptian statue, dedicated most likely in the early 6th century BC in an Ionian sanctuary.

Translation of Greek graffiti at Abu Simbel. Credit: Ross Thomas/Greece High Definition

But perhaps the most striking recorded example of Greeks in Egypt is that of Psammetichos, the son of Theokles, who was most likely a second-generation mercenary, since his name appears to have been inspired by that of Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichos (Psamtek) I.

His name is preserved forever in the graffiti carved into the leg of Ramses II at Abu Simbel left in 593 BC by Greeks in the army of Psammetichos (Psamtek) II

Other finds dating back to the sixth century BC, including grave stelae of both Greeks and Carians from Saqqara, the necropolis of the city of Memphis, clearly show motifs from both the Greek and the Carian traditions.

The historian Herodotus himself mentions the presence of Greek traders in Egypt, and it is known that foreigners already at that time occupied posts in the administrative and religious life of the kingdom. Clearly, long before the Ptolemies gained power over the ancient realm of Egypt, Greeks had made their mark in this remarkable place — as they have throughout the world ever since that time.