The Reign of Libyans: How Did King Sheshonq I Unite Egypt?


By Bob Brier, Long Island University

The Libyans ruled in Bubastis, a town in the Delta. Their first ruler was king Sheshonq I; a poor boy from Libya. He married the right woman, the lady with the royal blood in her veins: the daughter of a Psusennes II. That’s how he managed to become king of Egypt.

Bubastis Portal at Karnak Temple
Sheshonq built the Bubastis Portal to boast about his war booty. (Image: Olaf Tausch/Public domain)

Great Chief of the Meshwesh

But how did Sheshonq I get chosen to marry the royal woman? Well, He’s a military man. He is the “Great Chief of the Meshwesh.” The Meshwesh were Libyan mercenaries. They were hired by the Egyptians as a kind of police force. 

The Libyans were a military body. And they had been hired by the Egyptians previously. So this is a military commander who simply takes over and marries the right woman, and becomes king of Egypt. And as the previous dynasty ended with Egypt divided, this Libyan became king of Egypt.

Sheshonq is probably the descendant of the Libyans that Ramses brought back as captives, branded, and now he’s the king of Egypt. He knows Egyptian history. He’s integrated. He thinks back to the time of Sneferu, who was the great pyramid builder, and he’s the one who wanted to keep all the power in his family. So he appointed his son as vizier of Egypt. Other sons are architects of the pyramid, overseers of the works.

Libya on Herodotus world map
Sheshonq was the first king of Egypt from a Libyan descendant. (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol/Public domain)

From a Poor Libyan to the King of Egypt

Sheshonq does the same thing. He takes his sons and places them strategically throughout Egypt. Iuput, his first son, is the governor of Upper Egypt, which means he’s the vizier of Southern Egypt. But that’s not his only title. He’s also the high priest of Amun. So he is also covering his religious and economic base with his son. Iuput is also commander-in-chief of the army. 

So this one son is covering three bases. We’ve got religion, with high priests of Amun, and economics also. We’ve got politics, and we’ve got the military. He’s got it all covered with one son. But that’s not his only son.

He’s got another son, Djedptahaufankh, who is a religious person. He’s the Third Prophet of Amun. So he has a religious title, also. Prophet means he’s the third order of priests. Very, very high, by the way. So another son, covering things.

And then there’s a third son, Nimlot, a military kid. Nimlot is put in charge, commander at Herakleopolis. Herakleopolis is a city in middle Egypt. If somebody’s going to give you trouble coming from the south, you’ve got the commander of the army there. So these three sons have Egypt pretty well covered. 

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Achievements of King Sheshonq I

Now, what does he do? He launches military campaigns. He was chief of the Meshwesh; he’s a military man. That’s what he knows how to do best. And he sees the right time for a foreign campaign in 930 B.C. Solomon dies. And he sees that Palestine is ripe for picking. Palestine is now really two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. And one of the kings is dead. 

Sheshonq marches north. Now, roughly, we can reconstruct what happens. He goes to Jerusalem. Surrounds the city. He is going to take it. He’s got his military. Palestine is in disarray. And he’s bought off. They give him the treasures of Jerusalem.

Now, what else does he do besides beat up people? He builds. And he builds on a grand scale. He erects the largest pylon at Karnak Temple. It’s right near the river. What’s most interesting about it is when you go in, you can still see how it was built. It’s unfinished. And as you go into the temple, look on the inside wall, and you will see the remains of a mud-brick ramp still in place that the workmen used to get to the top where they were building the top. 

Bubastite Portal

He also built a gateway, a separate gateway. It’s called the “Bubastite Portal”. And on it, he’s got lists of all the cities he took in the Palestinian campaign, 156 of them. So he’s bragging about his exploits, and he’s doing just fine. 

He was buried at Tanis, but his tomb was robbed, so very little has been found. His son takes over as the next king, Osorkon I. He is going to follow the family pattern of putting your sons in good positions. He makes his son the high priest of Amun in the south. Not only that, he makes his co-regent. But the son never really takes over. He dies before he can become king on his own. And he is succeeded by a king about whom we know hardly anything, except that his name was Takelot.

Common Questions about the Reign of Libyans and King Sheshonq I

Q: How did king Sheshonq I become the king of Egypt?

King Sheshonq I was a military man titled the “Great Chief of the Meshwesh.” His background in the military, along with his marriage to the daughter of Psusennes II, allowed him to become the first Libyan king of Egypt.

Q: How did king Sheshonq I use his sons to stabilize his reign?

Taking lessons from history, King Sheshonq I kept the power within his family. He gave his sons power and titles to stabilize his empire. One of his sons, Iuput, becomes the governor of Upper Egypt, high priest of Amun, and commander-in-chief of the army. His second son, Djedptahaufankh, becomes the third prophet of Amun. His third son, Nimlot, becomes the commander at Herakleopolis.

Q: What are some of king Sheshonq I’s achievements?

King Sheshonq I did a lot during his reign. He ran several military campaigns, one of which helped him gain the treasures of Jerusalem. He also built the largest pylon at Karnak Temple, as well as a gateway called the “Bubastite Portal.”

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