The Battle of Pelusium was the first major battle between the Achaemenid Empire and Egypt. This decisive battle transferred the throne of the Pharaohs to Cambyses II of Persia, marking the beginning of the Achaemenid Twenty-seventh Dynasty of Egypt. It was fought in 525 BC near Pelusium, an important city in the eastern extremes of Egypt’s Nile Delta, 30 km to the south-east of the modern Port Said. The battle was preceded and followed by sieges at Gaza and Memphis.

Background The most common recounting of the events leading to the battle of Pelusium is from Greek historians, particularly Herodotus. According to Herodotus, the conflict between the Pharaoh Amasis II of Egypt and Cambyses II of Persia was a gradual process involving multiple personalities, mostly Egyptians. According to Herodotus, an Egyptian physician was requested by Cambyses from Amasis on good terms, to which Amasis complied. The physician (most likely an ancient ophthalmologist) resented the forced labour that Amasis had imposed on him, and in retaliation, persuaded Cambyses to ask of Amasis a daughter in marriage, knowing how Amasis would dislike losing his daughter to a Persian. Cambyses complied, requesting the hand of the daughter of Amasis in marriage.

The battle the decisive military conflict happened at Pelusium. As Herodotus describes a sea of skulls at the Nile basin, upon the remnants of which he remarks on the differences between the Persian and the Egyptian heads. According to Ctesias, fifty thousand Egyptians fell, whereas the entire loss on the Persian side was only seven thousand. After this short struggle, the troops of Psamtik fled, and soon the retreat became a complete rout. Disoriented, and fleeing, the Egyptians took shelter in Memphis. The Egyptians were now besieged in their stronghold of Memphis.

Aftermath According to Herodotus, Cambyses, in a last attempt to bring an end to the struggle, sent a Persian herald in a ship to exhort the Egyptians to give up before further bloodshed. Upon sighting the Persian vessel at the port of Memphis, the Egyptians ran out, attacking the ship and killing every man in it, carrying their torn limbs with them back to the city. As Cambyses advanced to Memphis, it is said that for every Mytilenian killed during the siege of Memphis, ten Egyptians died, which makes the number of dead Egyptians two thousand, who may have been executed at the time or after the siege, because two hundred Mytileneans were killed. Pelusium probably surrendered itself immediately after the battle. The pharaoh was captured after the fall of Memphis and allowed to live under Persian watch. He later committed suicide after attempting a revolt against the Persians.