During the end of the Middle Kingdom and into the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt experienced a shift in political domination in the Delta area with the infiltration of an Asiatic group known as the Hyksos.These ‘rulers of foreign lands,’ as called by the Egyptians, gradually migrated from Western Asia, conquering most of Lower Egypt and settling a kingdom by the end of the Fourteenth Dynasty.The Hyksos reign lasted for over 100 years, adapting to as well as influencing the Egyptian culture.
The definite origin of this Asiatic group is unknown, but it seems logical
that the Hyksos rulers were a West-Semitic people who were descendents
of Egyptian immigrants from Canaan, Syria, Palestine, and the surrounding
areas. Both Canaanite and Syrian influences exist in archaeological remains
determined to be of the Hyksos period, and Pre-Hyksos “Egyptians” were
also found to have practiced traditions from the Palestinian culture (Hyksos,
184).However, the term Hyksos does not designate a specific ethnic group
or even the Hyksos’ followers.Instead, it identifies the actual Asiatic
rulers who obtained political power in Egypt during the Hyksos period (xxi).The
invaders themselves were most likely high-ranking bureaucrats arriving
from Syria-Palestine, as remaining textual inscriptions describe some of
these rulers as "king's sons" (Redford, 117).It is clear these kings came
from a variety of West-Semitic backgrounds with the common purpose of dominating
Egypt, and briefly doing so as
the Egyptian’s 15th dynasty.
The weakening political authority in Upper Egypt during the Middle Kingdom allowed for gaps in defense, as strongholds along the country’s border were left empty and nomadic people allowed to enter.Paintings in the tomb of Khnum Hotep at Beni Hassan depict Asian nomads traveling through Sinai into Egypt.As one of the only material remains which can be dated to the Hyksos period, it proves Asiatic occupation occurred as early as 1875 BC (Hyksos, 294).
Because an established Asiatic population already existed in Egypt, the Hyksos were able to ease their way into Egypt's society and achieve high political positions (Redford, 101).With a strong backing from the local Asiatics, the newly arrived rulers took advantage of the already weakened political structure of Egypt and set up their own kingdoms in the Eastern Delta area.
Some scholars theorize that the Hyksos ran a successful campaign into Southern Egypt, taking over Thebes for a time, or even ruling there throughout their occupation.It is very unlikely, however, that residence of the Hyksos in Upper Egypt consisted of more than small camps to ensure trade.Because of the obvious power of the Hyksos, the kings of Upper Egypt were most likely only vassals, dependent on the political levy of the foreign rulers.Manetho wrote of heavy Asiatic taxation and Khamose also complained of “being milched by the taxes of the Asiatics” (Redford, 115).The Asiatics appeared to maintain a peaceful relationship with Upper Egypt, though the Egyptians obviously detested their presence.The Hyksos were content to choose Lower Egypt for their kingdom, coinciding with the Seventeenth Dynasty which continued to rule from Thebes.
According to the Four Hundred Years Stela of Ramesses II, Avaris was settled by the Hyksos as a solid center of power by 1720 BC (Dynasties, 6).The rule does not appear to have been overly oppressive, as the invaders did not force their own culture onto their followers but instead enhanced it with Asiatic influences.In fact, prior to the arrival of the Hyksos, Egypt was unaware of exterior advances in technology and had few ties to the neighboring countries.With the Hyksos came new religions, philosophies, artistic styles, and practical tools and inventions.In essence, the Hyksos gave Egyptians the initial start into the expansion of world affairs and relations, contradicting the claims of later historians that the Hyksos occupation was nothing but destructive and unprogressive (Hayes, 4).
The Hyksos allowed Egyptian to remain the official language of the régime,
and Hyksos and natives alike held
administrative offices (Dynasties, 7).The Ba’al cult of the Asiatics was established in Avaris around 1700 BC (Hyksos, 330).The Hyksos in turn paid homage to the Egyptian gods, and excerpts from the story of the Fifteenth Dynasty king Apophis and his vassal Sequenenre describe Apophis as serving “…no other god in this entire land except Seth” (Redford, 117).
The Hyksos reign coincided with the Middle Bronze Era, and with the arrival
of the Hyksos, bronze and copper, among other things, were introduced for
making tools and weapons (Ancient, 3).The intensive trading with Middle
Bronze countries aided in the economic expansion and growth of such cities
as Avaris.The Hyksos contributed more than a successful trade industry
to the Egyptian culture.They introduced weapons such as the compound crossbow,
creating a new revolution in weaponry.The duckbill ax replaced the primitive
battle-axes used previously.A new method for building citadels employed
by the Hyksos involved packing dirt into large rectangular fortifications.Similar
mounds have been excavated in Canaan (Dynasties, 7).An innovative contribution,
which aided the Egyptians, was the horse-drawn chariot.Before in Ancient
history, Egyptians had relied solely on the Nile for traveling and communications,
having no knowledge of the wheel; even horses were new to this region.The
allowed for easier maneuvering, which may have aided the Hyksos in their victory over Lower Egypt.Ironically, it was the Egyptians who ultimately mastered the chariot, along with the Asiatic crossbow to become feared in battle (Redford, 214).
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Hyksos was the preservation of famous Egyptian documents, both literary and scientific.During the reign of Apophis, the fifth king of the “Great Hyksos,” scribes were commissioned to recopy Egyptian texts so they would not be lost.One such text was the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus.This unique text, dating from about 3000 BC, gives a clear perspective of the human body as studied by the Egyptians, with details of specific clinical cases, examinations, and prognosis (Edwin, 1).The Westcar Papyrus preserved the only known version of an ancient Egyptian story that may have otherwise been lost.Other restored documents include the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, the most important mathematical exposition ever found in Egypt (Hyksos, 115).A significant discovery written out of context on the back of the Rhind papyri gives the account of an unknown scribe who details the Theban advance of Ahmose from the south in his campaign to eliminate the Hyksos (Redford, 128).
If the Hyksos kings had been allowed to continue their reign to the end of the Ancient Dynasties, the Egyptian culture may have disappeared under Asiatic rule, or most likely the identity of the Hyksos would have drowned in Egyptian society as they became recognized as Egyptian pharaohs.However, Hyksos rule did not survive into the Eighteenth Dynasty.The height of the Hyksos supremacy took place during the reign of king Apophis between c. 1615-1575 BC.Even the rival Khamose described the wealth of Apophis’ kingdom, referring to hundreds of ships in the harbor of Avaris “…filled with gold, lapis, silver…all the fine products of Syria!”Gifts of tribute from other countries and the scattered findings of Hyksos artifacts in such places as Canaan and Nubia indicate active diplomatic connections internationally (120).
It may have been the great prosperity of Apophis that finally encouraged the Egyptians to revolt and take back Lower Egypt.Ironically, some scholars attest that it was one of Apophis’ own subjects who initiated the destruction of the Hyksos kingdom.The conflict began with the Egyptian ruler Seqenenre, who directed his campaign from Thebes.An account recorded nearly 300 years later on the Papyrus Sallier gives the only explanation of the ensuing fight.In an act of spite, Apophis sent Seqenenre a letter claiming the hippopotami of Thebes were disgraceful, bellowing so loudly that he could not sleep.With the Egyptians already being on edge of civil unrest, this petty but effective insult managed to catapult Egypt into a revolution (Watterson, 58).
With the death of Seqenenre, his sons Khamose and Ahmose succeeded him with an equal hostility for the Asiatics (127).Apophis formed an alliance with Nubia against Thebes, but they were unable to aid the Hyksos from the south.Ahmose finished what his father had started, and the Hyksos were driven from Egypt (Dynasties, 8).For several years after Avaris was taken, Egyptian forces raided and conquered Asiatic settlements along the northeastern border.
In a span of over one hundred years, the Hyksos had assimilated into Egyptian society, adding to and adapting to the ancient culture of Egypt.Instead of restricting and impeding the freedom of the Egyptian people, the Hyksos added to it by contributing cultural diversity and new innovations, and creating a wealth of prosperity.The Hyksos set the foundation for foreign relations and an economy based largely on trade.They showed a deep respect for the Egyptian culture by first adapting to it then preserving it with the restoration of its artistic beauty.The introduction of Middle Bronze Era technology catapulted Egypt into the New Kingdom, accelerating the otherwise slow acclimatization to new ideas, tools, and techniques.
The shift in political domination of the Delta area to the Hyksos during
the Middle Kingdom and into the Second
Intermediate Period marks a significant time in Egypt’s Ancient history.The mystery of the Hyksos Period leaves a chasm of unanswered questions about these enigmatic people.Who were the ancient “rulers of foreign lands” that caused later historians to call them vile and ruthless, when their rule seems only progressive and indifferent to conflict?If not for a few material remains, such as the stelae of Ramesses II and Khamose, the tomb paintings at Beni Hassan, and the strata of Tell el-Daba knowledge of this era would be even more vague than the existing theories of modern scholars.That the Hyksos migrated from somewhere in Syria-Palestine is evident, but the nature of their political structure, relationship with Thebes and the extent of their dominion are yet to be uncovered.With new archaeological findings, researchers have been able to piece together gaps in the history of the Hyksos period, but it will still take many years of excavation and analysis of evidence to completely understand and distinguish the
precise identity of the Hyksos.
“The Ancient Egypt
Site: 2nd Intermediate Period.” 6 November 2000.
“Dynasties XII to XVII.” 6 November 2000. On-line:<http://nefertiti.freeyellow.com/egypt/history12-17.html>
“Edwin Smith Papyrus.”
Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Vers. 99.1. EncyclopediaBritannica. 6 November
Hayes, William C. The Scepter of Egypt: Part II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.
The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspective. Ed. Eliezer D. Oren. Ephrata: Science Press, 1997.
Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
The Egyptians. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Back to the Main Page.
Go to the Egyptian History Page.
Go to the Exodus Page.
Back to the Main Page.
Go to the Egyptian History Page.
Go to the Exodus Page.