The Hyksos were a dynasty of kings who ruled over the northern part of Egypt during the 2 nd millennium BC. They were not native Egyptians, but came f
The Hyksos were a dynasty of kings who ruled over the northern part of Egypt during the 2 nd millennium BC. They were not native Egyptians, but came from the East, most likely Western Asia. Traditionally, the Hyksos are depicted negatively, and considered to be invaders who conquered Lower Egypt by force. In addition, they are said to have caused much destruction to the land, once they had conquered Egypt.
In more recent times, this preconception about the Hyksos is being challenged. For instance, some have pointed to the technological superiority of the Hyksos, and how these technologies were introduced by them to the ancient Egyptians, thereby advancing their civilization. Additionally, recent scientific evidence suggest that the Hyksos conquest occurred peacefully, and that it came from within, rather than from without. This is in opposition to the traditional narrative about the Hyksos.
Origins of ‘Hyksos’
The word ‘ Hyksos’ is the Greek version of the Egyptian title ‘Heqa Khasut’, which may be translated to mean ‘rulers of foreign (literally mountainous) lands’. The first usage of this word is found in the writings of Manetho, who is believed to have been an Egyptian priest who lived during the Ptolemaic period. It is from Manetho that the 1 st century AD Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, obtained his information about the Hyksos. Incidentally, Josephus (incorrectly) translates the word ‘Hyksos’ to mean ‘shepherd king’, ‘Hyc’ being ‘king’, and ‘Sos’ being ‘shepherd’. Alternatively, Josephus suggests that the word means ‘captive shepherd’. It may be added that Josephus identifies the Hyksos as an ethnic group, and even identifies them as the Hebrews, as he wished to demonstrate the great antiquity of the Jewish people. It is generally agreed today, however, that the term ‘Hyksos’ refers to a group of foreign rulers from West Asia, rather than to an ethnic group. Additionally, the word used by the ancient Egyptians to refer to the Asiatics was ‘Aamu’.
The Hyksos in Egypt: How it Came to Be
It is generally agreed that the Hyksos came to power around 1630 BC, and they ruled over the northern part of Egypt for about a century. This period of Hyksos dominance is also known as the 15 th Dynasty, and is considered to be part of the Second Intermediate Period . It may be mentioned that scholars are not entirely in agreement as to the onset of the Second Intermediate Period, some considering the 13 th Dynasty to be its starting point, whilst others argue that it only began sometime during the second half of the 13 th Dynasty. In any case, the Second Intermediate Period marked the end of the Middle Kingdom and is characterized by the political division of the country. The period right before the arrival of the Hyksos was one of political instability and decline. For instance, in just over a century, about 70 pharaohs occupied the throne of Egypt. Still, these rulers could claim to control the whole of Egypt.
Egypt during the Hyksos period. (Iry-Hor / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It is not entirely clear as to the sequence of events that brought the Hyksos to power. Josephus, who cites Manetho in his Against Apion , provides the following story:
“Now this Manetho, in the second book of his Egyptian history, writes concerning us in the following manner. I will set down his very words; as if I were to bring the very man himself into a court for a witness: “there was a King of ours whose name was Timaus. Under him, it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us; and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force; yet without our hazarding a battle with them. So, when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the Gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner. Nay some they slew; and led their children and their wives into slavery.”
From the text, it may be said that Manetho (according to Josephus) attributes the arrival of the Hyksos to the wrath of God, though he does not know the reason for it – “under him, it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us.” Some have pointed to the weakening political power of the native rulers as a factor for their downfall, whilst others suggest an economic factor, i.e. a famine in the Delta region contributing to the decline of the native pharaohs, and allowed the Hyksos to seize power in the region. Yet others attribute the success of the Hyksos to their superior weapons, including their composite bows, and chariots. Interestingly, Manetho notes that whilst the Hyksos subdued the country by force, there was no battle between them and the Egyptians, which means that the invasion was a relatively peaceful one. Indeed, up till today, there is no evidence of any battle between the Hyksos and the Egyptians during the former’s invasion.
Recent research takes a step further by casting doubt on the whole invasion story. Instead, it is suggested that the Hyksos came to power in northern Egypt through internal, rather than external means. It is known that during the late 12 th Dynasty, i.e. around the end of the 19 th century BC, Asiatic immigrants were already arriving in Egypt. This became more widespread in the succeeding 13 th Dynasty. These immigrants came from West Asia, most likely from Canaan, and retained their material culture. The Asiatic immigrants may have even established the 14 th Dynasty, which had its capital at Xois, in the north-central Delta. This dynasty, however, is only mentioned by Manetho, and might have only been a local power, and thus not very significant. In any case, there is evidence that there was a community living in Tell el-Dab’a (the modern name of Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos), in the Delta, as early as the early 13 th Dynasty.
A group of people labelled the Asiatics entering Egypt c.1900 BC. From the tomb of 12th-dynasty official Khnumhotep II, at Beni Hasan. (NebMaatRa / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Finding the Lost City of Avaris
It is from the site of Tell el-Dab’a that evidence challenging the Hyksos invasion story has been obtained. An article published earlier this year reports the results of a study conducted by Christina Stantis and Holger Schutkowsk, both from Bournemouth University in Poole, England. This study involves strontium isotope analysis of teeth from 71 individuals who were buried at the site. Strontium enters the food chain when geologic material, for instance, soil, is taken up by plants. By consuming these plants, or the animals who eat these plants, the strontium enters the human body, and is absorbed by the bones. Since the levels of strontium isotopes vary according to geographical location, this analysis, in theory, allows researchers to determine the places where a person has lived.
Of the 71 individuals studied by Stantis and Schutkowsk, about half of them were from the few centuries before the Hyksos rule, whilst the other half were from the Hyksos period. Of the 27 females from the elite graves, 21 of them were found to have come from outside the Nile Valley. On the other hand, only a few males from the elite graves were found to be foreigners. It is suggested that it was through such elites that the Hyksos gained power from within, and a scenario in which these foreign women married members of the Egyptian elite is not implausible. Nevertheless, further analysis is needed to determine where exactly these foreigners came from.
The Hyksos ruled over the northern part of Egypt, and a stele, erected by Kamose, a ruler of the 17 th Dynasty, marks Hermopolis as the southern boundary of the Hyksos rule. It is believed that, at times, the Hyksos may have even extended their rule further south into Thebes and Nubia. Even if the Hyksos did not control these regions directly, their rulers were reduced to the status of vassals.
As previously mentioned, the Hyksos established their capital at Avaris, in the Nile Delta. The location of the Hyksos capital was eventually lost to history, but efforts to rediscover this lost city began during the 1880s. It was only during the 1940s that Tell el-Dab’a was first identified as potentially being Avaris, based on the excavations conducted on the mound by Labib Habachi, an Egyptian archaeologist. In 1966, an Austrian archaeologist by the name of Manfred Bietak began excavating at Tell el-Dab’a, and the work continued until 2011, when it had to be halted due to security issues following the Arab Spring that broke out that year. The excavations at Tell el-Dab’a unearthed pottery and weapons from the Levant and Cyprus, as well as statues and seals similar to those found in Syria. The excavations also showed that it was not a sudden invasion, but migration over a period of time that brought the Hyksos to power in northern Egypt .
View of the Tell el-Dab’a / Avaris archaeological site. (M Bietak / ÖAI/OREA)
Innovative Advancements Made
Despite being portrayed as barbaric invaders by the ancient Egyptians, the Hyksos brought a number of positive changes to the land under their rule. For a start, the Hyksos introduced new technologies that were common in Western Asia but had not reached Egypt. The most notable of these is undoubtedly the chariot. Although there is some evidence that the Egyptians already had the chariot, it is possible that they were still not very experienced in its use. The chariot was not only an important weapon of war, but it was also an object that projected one’s prestige.
Ancient Egyptian chariot found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun ( Public domain )
Apart from the chariot, other innovations in warfare introduced by the Hyksos included the composite bow, improved metal weapons, and new types of daggers and scimitars. These innovations brought Egypt, which was technologically backward at the time, up to the level of the West Asian neighbors. Moreover, these military advances would contribute to the success of Egypt’s expansion into the Levant and Syria later on during the New Kingdom.
Apart from military technologies, the Hyksos also brought with them new breeds of animals and crops, new musical instruments and words, and made changes to age-old technologies, including pottery making and weaving. Moreover, the Hyksos set precedents for international diplomacy in Egypt, and instilled a sense of openness to the world in the Egyptians.
The End of The Hyksos in Egypt
The impact of the Hyksos on ancient Egypt is even more astounding considering the fact that this dynasty did not last for very long. Although Manetho claims that the Hyksos ruled over Egypt for almost 200 years, modern scholarship suggest that their rule in Egypt lasted just over a century. Manetho also provides a list of six Hyksos rulers – Salatis, Beon, Apachnas, Apophis, Jannas, and Asses. On the other hand, modern scholarship provides a list of four Hyksos rulers – Salitis / Sekerher, Khyan (Seuserenra), Apepi (Aauserra), and Khamudi.
In any case, the first serious opposition to Hyksos rule occurred during the reign of Apepi, considered to be the last great pharaoh of the 15 th Dynasty. Apepi was a contemporary of Seqenenre (known also as Seqenenre Tao), a ruler of the 17 th Dynasty, which is based in Thebes. Although the two dynasties seem to have co-existed peacefully for some time, war broke out between the two. It is likely that Seqenenre and Apepi were at war, as terrible head wounds are seen on the mummy of the former, indicating that the pharaoh died a violent death, perhaps on the field of battle.
Mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao showing head wounds. (G. Elliot Smith / Public domain )
Although the Thebans were defeated by the Hyksos, Seqenenre’s son, Kamose, carried on the war against the Hyksos. Apepi called on his allies, the Kushites, to attack the Thebans from the rear, but was unsuccessful, as his message was intercepted. Apepi is believed to have died not long after this, and the territory of the Hyksos was greatly reduced. The final defeat of the Hyksos occurred during the reign of Ahmose, the brother of Kamose, and the founder of the 18 th Dynasty, which re-unified Egypt.
Finally, it may be said that the story of the Hyksos ends with the establishment of the 18 th Dynasty. Nevertheless, Josephus provides a tale, which claims that the Hyksos were expelled after their defeat. He also makes a connection between them and the Hebrews:
“but that Thummosis, the son of Alisphragmuthosis, made an attempt to take them by force, and by siege; with four hundred and eighty thousand men to lie round about them: but that upon his despair of taking the place by that siege, they came to a composition with them: that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm to be done to them, whithersoever they would: and that, after this composition was made, they went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand; and took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria. But that as they were in fear of the Assyrians, who had then the dominion over Asia, they built a city in that country which is now called Judea: and that large enough to contain this great number of men, and called it Jerusalem.”
Top image: A depiction of Ahmose fighting back the Hyksos from Egypt. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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