Sarcophagus of Wahibreemakhet

Step 17 of 17

A Greek in ancient Egypt?

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Fig. 1 - Bottom inscriptionFig. 2 - Side view - Photography Cees de Jonge

The bottom of the coffin contains two very large columns of hieroglyphic text. The parents of Wahibreemakhet are named here again. Their names, written in hieroglyphs, are Greek: Alexikles and Zenodote (in hieroglyphs ArkzkArz and Zntty). F. Griffith, ‘Notices of Recent Publications’, in JEA 3, no. 2/3 (1916).

The Late Period (664 – 332 BCE) was characterized by close contact and cultural exchange between the Egyptian world and other civilizations outside of Egypt, for example the Greek world. King Psamtek I, the first king of the 26th Dynasty (664 – 525 BCE) (under whose reign this sarcophagus was made), made use of Greek mercenaries to acquire the Egyptian throne from the Persians. Greek mercenaries were in high demand because they were known as powerful soldiers. A. Villing, ‘The Greeks in Egypt: Renewed Contact in the Iron Age’, in J. Spier, T. Potts, S. Cole (eds), Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the classical world (Los Angeles, 2018), 75. This demand for Greek soldiers caused large numbers of Greeks to live in Egypt for an extended amount of time. It could very well be that this was the reason that Wahibreemakhet ended up living and being buried in Egypt. Maybe his family consisted of those Greek mercenaries who were part of the Egyptian army. But, of course, we do not know for sure. A. Villing, ‘Wahibreemakhet at Saqqara: The Tomb of a Greek in Egypt’,Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 145-2 (2018), 178-179.

People with a non-Egyptian background were able to achieve high positions within Late Period Egypt. A nice example is, of course, Wahibreemakhet himself. Although the sarcophagus does not mention his titles, his canopic jars, currently in Stockholm, do. They call him the seal-bearer of the king, a well-known administrative title. A. Villing, ‘Wahibreemakhet at Saqqara: The Tomb of a Greek in Egypt’, Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 145-2 (2018), 175.

Both archaeological and textual evidence point to the fact that Greeks and Egyptians lived side by side from the Late Period onwards. This can make it difficult to differentiate between both communities. For example, in time it became common practice for people with non-Egyptian names to adopt an Egyptian name. There is a possibility that Wahibreemakhet had a Greek name, like his parents, but had decided to adopt an Egyptian one for his public career. His sarcophagus sadly doesn’t shed any light on this issue. A. Villing, ‘Greek-Egyptian Relations in the 7th to 6th centuries BC’.

As you may have noticed, a lot about the life of Wahibreemakhet remains unknown: why did he live in Egypt? Did his Greek parents also live in Egypt? If so, did they move here because of the demand for Greek mercenaries? Did Wahibreemakhet embrace Egyptian cultural norms and religious ideas?

One thing is very clear: the high quality of his sarcophagus and grave goods, in combination with his administrative title, shows that this Greek-Egyptian lived the life of the Egyptian elite. Wahibreemakhet was buried in the Egyptian way, resulting in this beautiful object that enables us to tell part of his story.