Neither goal was achieved: in the last years of the reign Ekhnaton, misunderstood even by the people who remained tied to the old traditions, seems to have tried to get closer to the Theban priesthood. At his death, in an atmosphere of restoration and of damnatio memoriae of the ‘heretic’ pharaoh, the ancient cults were restored, the new city was razed and, with Tutankhamen, the capital returned to Thebes. Meanwhile, under the pressure of the new Hittite power, the empire in Asia was crumbling.
The first important reign of the nineteenth dynasty, perhaps originating from Tanis, was that of Seti I (1317-1301). In the consciousness of the Egyptians the new era stood as the period in which imperial power was to be re-established. Seti I himself, defining his reign, used the expression ‘years of rebirth’. With logical coherence, he initiated a policy of reconquest in Asia, confronted the Hittites with some success and made the military road through the Sinai desert safer and more functional, making use of guard posts and the surveillance of water supply sites.
According to Healthvv, the successor Ramesses II found himself having to face the Hittites again. The battle, at Qadesh (1296), was of uncertain outcome, but the threat of Assyrian power led the rivals to conclude a treaty that placed the two empires on an absolutely equal footing, making an agreement that ensured nearly 50 years of peace in Orient. In this period, with a northward shift of the political center, Tanis, in the Nile Delta, assumed particular importance: not far from Asia and the Mediterranean, the site of the new administrative capital seemed preferable for Egypt’s international interests and for the reconquest of the empire. Thebes remained the religious center and the holiday residence of the sovereign.
Meanwhile, massive migrations, which began around 1400, had brought peoples of various origins from the remote northeastern Indo-European districts to the coastal regions of the Mediterranean: these were the ‘peoples of the sea’ who destroyed the existing equilibrium in the ancient East, giving rise to new civilization, including the Mycenaean. Although, during the twentieth dynasty, Ramesses III (1197-1165) managed to avoid the danger of an Indo-European invasion of Egypt, also consolidating in Palestine and Syria, the spread of the peoples of the sea in Anatolia, Cilicia and northern Syria, with the annihilation of the Hittite empire, constituted a serious threat for Egypt, as the ancient and safe procedure of the exchange of Egyptian wheat and gold against Anatolian silver entered into crisis, as well as the iron trade that came from the land of the Hittites. In a condition of general weakness, under the other pharaohs of the dynasty, from Ramesses IV to Ramesses XI, not very incisive figures and tools of the dominant oligarchy, Egypt lost authority outside its borders and well-being within. On the death of Ramesses XI the state was divided into two kingdoms, and only a compromise allowed the reunification. The political-economic crisis also had repercussions in art: an archaic approach took over from modernistic tendencies that were open to vulgarization. Between the twenty-first and twenty-fifth dynasty (1085-935) the process of decline was accentuated. Bands of Libyan mercenaries settled in Egypt, where religious and political authorities balanced each other, without being able to give any impulse to the country, which was no longer configured as an efficient state, but as a set of small states linked by commercial relations. Dominion was reduced to the government exercised in the Delta by the merchant princes of Tanis and to that exercised in Thebes by the priest princes of Amun, while a new power factor emerged with the growing influx of Libyan princes originating from the Fayyum. Egypt was attacked by the Assyrians who sacked Thebes twice (in 666 and 664 BC).
The crisis was followed by a period of rebirth with the Saite era (XXVI dynasty, 663-525), of which Psammetich I was the founder, who took advantage of the rebellion of Lydia against the Assyrians to get rid of their dominion and who with shrewd initiatives favored the commercial traffic in the Delta area, where colonies of Greek and Ionian merchants settled. Strong inside, Egypt returned to intervene in the Asian area with the aim of occupying Phenicia.
In the following century, however, the pharaohs were unable to resist the new power that emerged in Asia, that of the Persians. Psammeticus III was defeated in Pelusio and Memphis (525) and Egypt became a province of the Persian empire. Historically, the Persian invasion identifies the event that definitively put an end to Egyptian civilization. The new rulers, initially attentive to local customs and cults, over time manifested intentions more suited to a colonial power, causing rebellions to explode in favor of local dynasties.
The phase of the Persian domination ended, after two centuries, with the occupation of Egypt by Alexander the Great (332 BC). Although he was hailed as a liberator, Alexander did not reconstitute the old Egypt but founded a new kingdom, characterized by elements of the Hellenistic type and of which the protagonists were now Greeks and not Egyptians.