The great revolt of the Egyptians (205–186 BC)
Although the Ptolemies were officially recognized as pharaohs by the temples and even crowned by the high priest of Memphis, [and] they supported Egyptian religion by subsidizing the cults and building great temples ... they remained fundamentally a foreign dynasty. Starting from 246 BC there are several native uprisings. During the most successful of these, all Upper Egypt revolted against Alexandria for almost twenty years (206–186 BC) under the leadership of two native pharaohs, called Hyrgonaphor (Haronnophris) and Chaonnophris.
The war against the Egyptians is one of the first historically documented guerilla wars, but at the same time it is a forgotten war because Greek historians, in the footsteps of Thucydides, considered it unfit for history; they needed clear–cut military and political turning points and this war apparently did not give these.
The Rosetta stone, dated 196 BC, is contemporary with the great revolt. It is an honorary decree, in the Greek tradition, dressed up by the Egyptian priests for king Ptolemy V after his victory of another native revolt, in the Delta. The young king is honored as a savior, a victor and a god. The text shows that in the early second century BC the Ptolemies had not only lost control in the South, but even in part of the Delta, close to Alexandria. The royal victory is brought about by a long and difficult siege of the city, contradicting Polybius' statement above that there were no pitched battles nor sieges. Again this is a forgotten war: the Rosetta stone duly celebrates the royal victory in the North, but does not even mention that at this very moment the whole South was in the hands of other rebels.
Second decree of Philae: demotic and hieroglyphic text on the outside wall of the mammisi (temple of royal birth) at Philae.
The best edition is that of W.M. Müller, Egyptological Researches III. The bilingual decrees of Philae
(Washington 1920), pp. 59–88.
- The rebel against the gods, Hr–wnf, he who had made war in Egypt, gathering insolent people from all districts on account of their crimes, they did terrible things to the governors of the nomes, they desecrated (?) the temples, they damaged (?) the divine statues, they molested (?) the priests and suppressed (?) the offerings on the altars and in the shrines. They sacked (?) the towns and their population, women and children included, committing all kinds of crimes in the time of anarchy. They stole the taxes of the nomes, they damaged the irrigation works.
The king of Upper and Lower Egypt Ptolemy, loved by Ptah, has given many orders and showed considerable care for protecting the temples. He stationed Greek troops and soldiers of people who had come to Egypt, who obeyed his orders, being joined with him and being like people born with him. They did not allow the rebels, who had instigated war against him and against his father, to approach (?). His Majesty caused that great quantities of silver and gold came to the land to bring troops to Egypt, money from the taxes of the nomes, in order to protect the temples of Egypt against the impious men who violated them.
The Rosetta stone and the Philae decree are written by Egyptian priests and stress that the rebels destroyed the temples
. The reality of this is confirmed by the fact that no temple building by the native pharaohs is attested and by some papyri, which explicitly mention that temples have been robbed. Let us not forget that the major temples played a role in the administration of the land both before and after the revolt: they were simply part of the system. Where the Ptolemies ruled, the temples participated in the royal cult of the Ptolemaic family. The temples received their land, the priests received their privileges and wages from the government. Therefore the large temples automatically collaborated with the Ptolemaic regime.
Ancient nationalism did exist, but it is usually colored by a religious inspiration. In our opinion the names of the Egyptian pharaohs were well–chosen to present a messianic message to the native population
"Hor" (which becomes Har– in compounds and receives a nominative ending Hor–os in Greek) is the archetypical royal god. He is often represented with the white and red crown as king of the whole of Egypt. Of the five official names of the traditional pharaoh, the very first one identifies him with the god Hor. In the first dynasties this was in fact the only name of the king. In mythology Horos is the son of Osiris, the last god–on–earth, who was killed by his wicked brother Seth. Seth cut up his brother's body into pieces and buried these all over Egypt, but Isis succeeded in puzzling together the body of her husband Osiris and to receive a son from her dead husband. This son, Har–po–chrates, or "Horos–the–child", was hidden in the Delta marshes and threatened by Seth, but in the end he vanquished his bad uncle and inherited the kingdom of his father Osiris, succeeding his divine father as the first human king on earth. Osiris himself became king of the underworld.
The story is well–known but one important detail should be added: when Osiris is presented as the divine king on earth, he is often addressed with his second name Wn–nfr, "the good being," rendered in Greek as Onnophris. In the Late Period, when Persians and Greeks have taken over the throne of pharaoh, the nameWn–nfr is often written in a royal cartouche, as if the priests wanted to say: our real king is not Xerxes, Alexander or Ptolemy, but it is the divine king Osiris. It is this divine name that the rebel pharaohs used as their throne name: Hor–onnophris is at the same time Horos and Osiris , Cha–onnophris renders Egyptian Ankh–wen–nefer "Onnophris is (still) alive" or "(long) live Onnophris". In short, the names of the rebel pharaohs contained a Messianic program of a return to the golden age, at the same time when other peoples in the Mediterranean were also expecting their delivery through a Messiah: not only the Jews, who eagerly waited for a king, but also the Romans, as is clear from Vergil's fourth Eclogue, celebrating the birth of a child and the Saturnia aetas, the golden era. Egypt belonged to the same world, where nationalistic feelings were expressed through religious imagery.
Temples are not only religious institutions for the cult of the gods, but also economic organizations and wheels in the administrative machine … the temples were part of the organization of the state. In the South of Egypt the king collects his taxes through the temples: a large part of the land in Upper Egypt nominally belongs to the gods. The farmers who cultivate this land pay part of the produce to the local temple. Here it is used for the cult of the gods (and for the wages of the priests) but the temple itself cedes part of its produce, in grain, papyrus, fine linen etc. to the king. After the revolt things change and now a "modern" Greek administration is set up, also in the South ie. taxes are collected directly through the tax administration, not indirectly through the temples. But even then the temples preserve most of the land they used to have. The public auctions do not take away the land from the temples, but sell the long–term right to cultivate it to the highest bidder. The farmers cultivating temple land felt as if they were still owners of the land, under the general supervision of the temple. But in the new system they pay their rent/tax no longer to the temple administration, but to the royal administration. The king then passes on part of what he receives to the temples, which therefore lose part of their power in the process.