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Naucratis: The First Ancient Greek Colony in Egypt

Naucratis: The first Greek colony in Egypt
Plate showing a seated Sphinx found in Naucratis, the first ancient Greek colony in Egypt. Public Domain

The city of Naucratis was the earliest ancient Greek colony in Egypt that served as the connecting and trading post between the Greek and Egyptian civilizations.

Naucratis (or Naukratis, meaning naval command in Greek) was a trading station in which Greece had exclusive trading rights. It was established by traders from Miletus, an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Anatolia. Soon Greeks from other parts of Greece settled there.

For centuries, Naucratis was an important point of contact and exchange between the civilizations of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean world in a key period of history.

The city had a pan-Hellenic character, meaning it was not founded by one Greek city-state, as Greek colonies normally were. The Hellenion sanctuary of the city was built by representatives of all three Greek tribes (Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians). Herodotus mentioned nine cities as sponsors.

map of Ancient Egypt Depicting Naucratos, the ancient Greek colony
Map indicating location of Naucratis, the ancient Greek colony in Egypt that became a Mediterranean trade hub.

History of Naucratis

The Greek settlement was established at the time of the Egyptian 26th Dynasty. It was  close to the Dynasty’s capital, Sais. The precise date of foundation is debated. Herodotus reports in his book Histories ΙΙ that Amasis II gave Naucratis to Greek mercenaries in the 6th century BC (570 BC, specifically), but there is some evidence that it was already founded under Psamtek I.

Specifically, Amasis was a rebel general who fought against Pharaoh Apries. The pharaoh led an army of mostly Greek mercenaries who fought valiantly but eventually lost. Amasis therefore took control and became pharaoh.

Herodotus wrote in Histories II: “Amasis was partial to the Greeks, and among other favors which he granted them, gave to such as liked to settle in Egypt the city of Naucratis for their residence.” In return, the Greeks would protect him in case of an upheaval. The mercenaries served the pharaohs and later the Persian governors when Egypt was under Persian rule.

Strabo, on the other hand, claimed the establishment of Naucratis as a Greek colony took place in the 7th century BC. Naucratis was located on the Canopic branch of the Nile in the western Delta.

The Canopic tributary was one of the major waterways connecting the Nile valley with the Mediterranean Sea. The early settlement then developed into a busy trading port and became a city. The Egyptians exchanged goods with the Greeks and other Mediterranean states.

A Mediterranean Trade Hub

The colony comprised of Greek merchants and mercenaries soon became a major trade hub for both the Greeks and Egyptians. The ancient Greeks always coveted an exclusive trading opportunity in Egypt. Ancient Egyptians saw Naucratis as the connecting point of the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean world, and the trade cooperation created a political alliance with Greece as well. Naucratis was the only naval port in Egypt that the Greeks had the right to utilize until the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 BC.

Herodotus has recorded twelve Greek seafaring and trading cities that were affiliated with Naucratis in his book. Among these are the Ionians from Samos, Miletus, Chios, Teos, Phocaea and Clazomenae. There were also the Dorians from Rhodes, Knidos, Halicarnassus, and Phaselis as well as the Aeolians from Mytilene on Lesvos and the people of Aegina, the island near Athens.

Trading through Naucratis was not limited to Egypt and Greece. According to archaeologists, trade was extended to the Levant, Cyprus, Cyrenaika, Italy, and Phoenicia.

Naucratis flourished through the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Its prosperity tempted more Greeks to immigrate to Egypt in the hope of becoming wealthy through trade. Many of the Greeks who arrived at the colony were seamen and merchants who stayed for only a short period of time. Others immigrated to the port city and remained there permanently.

Ancient Greeks in the Egyptian city maintained their cultural identity but, at the same time, they intermarried with Egyptians and became acculturated in Egyptian society. Generations of Greeks had coexisted with Carians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians at Naucratis by the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC.

The city continued to be utilized as a trading port through the Ptolemaic Dynasty and then in Roman Egypt. It remained important well into the Byzantine Period as a trade and cultural contact between Greece and Egypt at least until the 7th century AD.

Naucratis was a multi-ethnic trading post for almost 1,200 years and played an important role in the histories of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Persia, and Rome.

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