The Enemies of Ancient Egypt

The Enemies of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The earliest depictions we have of Egyptian kings portray the motif of prostrate foreigners as a symbol of Egyptian supremacy over the rest of mankind. For example, the Narmer Palette shows the king in his efforts to rid the world of such aberrations as the "vile Asiatic". Here, we find the trampling of the "Nine Bows", as the Egyptian referred to their enemies, as a vivid embodiment of the king's supremacy over foreigners (and sometimes even other Egyptians). The figure "nine" represented three times three, which was the "plurality of Pluralities", thus designating the entirety of all enemies. And later, during the New Kingdom, the Sphinx Stele of Amenhotep II provides a striking textual description of the Egyptian King smiting his enemies:

Asiatic prisoners from a relief in the first courtyard of the temple of Medinet Habu

"He bound the heads of the Nine Bows... He has gathered them all into his fist, his mace has crashed upon their heads..."

Hence, the visual image of the king slaughtering foreigners was an important, as well as constantly repeated element of Egyptian iconography throughout the empires ancient history.

With the cane from the tomb of Tutankhamun now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, we find a very symbolic reference to Egypt's traditional enemies. Carved on its handle are the heads of a Nubian and an Asiatic, and indeed, these embody the Egyptian air of symmetry. Egyptians saw the Asiatics and the Nubians as the two opposite poles of a hostile world outside the Nile valley. In fact, they sometimes simply referred to these enemies as the North and the South. Actually, just about everyone outside the Nile Valley was considered enemies of Egypt, for those were the lands of chaos. The visual depiction of Egypt's enemies and their role became so prevalent that it is difficult to distinguish in the archaeological and textual sources between purely ritualistic and rhetorical references to foreigners and genuine historical records. Repeatedly, we find examples of battles, and king's smiting enemies that in fact, did not take place, but were mere copies of earlier scenes.

Tutankhamun's Cane

The Execration Texts, which dates from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, is one of the most important souses for information on the specific names of Egypt's enemies. They were discovered near tombs at Thebes and Saqqara, as well as in the "ritual site" at Mirgissa in Nubia. Those found in Nubia even included one example of such text inscribed on a human skull. Written in the hieratic script on small pottery vessels and clay figures of bound captives, these text listed the hostile foreigners, places, groups of people or individuals that the Egyptians wished thought to be inherently evil and wished to destroy. The objects were then deliberately broken and buried, inflicting a magical victory over these enemies. The names listed in these texts include deceased Egyptians, as well as foreign princes and peoples mostly in Nubia and Syria-Palestine. However, it is clear that these lists name both old and new enemies, which were mixed together, forming a powerful universal statement about the way in which Egypt viewed the outside world.

Foreigners from Ramesses III Temple at Medinet Habu

Foreigners from Ramesses III Temple at Medinet Habu

Factually, Egypt had two forms of enemies. The first type of enemy was held valuable resources that the Egyptians sought. Except for the Nubians, they were usually not a threat to Egypt as invaders. These enemies included the empires such as Mitanni, Hatti. Other enemies mostly possessed little that Egypt wished to have, but were a direct threat to Egypt as an invading force. These enemies included the Libyans and the Sea People.

The Nubians

During almost the entire Dynastic Period of Egypt's history, the Nubians (or Nehesyw) were considered by the Egyptians to be "vile" and "wretched". The official view of the Nubians was clear from a Middle Kingdom boundary stele of Senusret III from Smna which denounces them:

"They are not people one respects; they are wretches, craven hearted. My majesty has seen it, it is not an untruth. I have captured their women, I have carried off their dependents..."

A northern, or Asiatic captive with text specifying his region of origin, here, Kamaka.

Military campaigns and trading expeditions were sent to Nubia at regular intervals in order to sustain a regular supply of prisoners, herds of cattle and exotic products from the south such as ivory, ostrich feathers and ebony. And of course there were also the mining operations in Nubia, where the Egyptian's obtained much of their gold. Many of these expeditions were recorded in the tombs of the nobles at Elephantine (at modern Aswan). However, by the New Kingdom, Nubia had effectively become a province of Egypt, at least between Aswan and Napata, under the control of a viceroy known as "King's Son of Kush". Yet even then, the iconography of the Nubian as a defeated enemy never lost its popularity as a symbol of Egyptian supremacy. Even during the Meroitic Period, when the Nubian's controlled Egypt with A Nubian as Pharaoh, this motif of the defeated Nubian was still depicted in the royal regalia, with no apparent sense of contradiction.

The Libyans

The Libyans were known to the Egyptians as the Tjehenu or Tjemehu, though they may have been composed of more than one race of people. They were depicted by the Egyptians mostly as dark skinned and bearded, though occasionally with fair hair and blue eyes. A semi nomadic people, the Libyans occupied the lands to the northwest of the Nile Valley. Even during the predynastic period, temple reliefs frequently show them as a defeated enemy, and there are records from the reigns of the Old Kingdom pharaohs Snefru and Sahure of specific campaigns against them.

Ramesses II, armed with an axe, holds three foreign enemies by their hair. They include a Nubian, a Syrian and a Libyan.

The Libyans, like the Nubians, were by the time of the Old Kingdom, a symbol of the King's military prowess. The reliefs in the Old Kingdom mortuary temples of Sahure at Abusir and Pepi II at Saqqara, as well as the Late Period temple of Taharqa at Kawa, include stock scenes of a Libyan chief being smitten by the pharaoh, while the victim's wife and children beg for mercy. However, the personal names for the Libyans in all three scenes are repetitions and therefore suggest that these reliefs did not actually record historical events, but were rather an elaborate icon of Kingship. However, it is also clear that at intervals, the Egyptians had to undertake punitive campaigns against the Libyans. In fact, during the New Kingdom reigns of Merneptah and Ramesses III, the Egyptians had to stave off major invasions from Libyans.

However, the Libyans, as well as other foreign captives, were often being settled in military colonies by the late New Kingdom, and these people, known as Meshwesh, eventually became an influential group within Egyptian society. In fact, by the 22nd Dynasty, they even gained temporary control of Egypt.

The Hyksos

During the Old and Middle Kingdoms there seem to have been little military contact of any significance with Western Asia. However, after the Middle Kingdom, during the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was ruled by a dynasty of Asiatic kings known as the Hyksos. The term Hyksos really refers simply to the "rulers of foreign lands". They came to Egypt with horses, chariots and copper weapons, which the Egyptians would later adapt for their own armies.

The were expelled from Egypt by King Ahmose, but this interlude of foreign rule in Egypt resulted in a new, aggressive policy of imperialism in Syria-Palestine. This would eventually bring Egypt's New Kingdom pharaohs into direct confrontation with the great powers beyond the Levant, including first Mitanni and then Hatti and Assyria.

Archers of Ramesses III's army shoot the Libyan enemies, whose fallen bodies are shown sprawled on the ground

Mitanni, Hatti and Assyria

Most of Egypt's conflicts with the Asiatic enemies revolved around Egypt's attempted control the Syrian area of Canaan, and the various city states of that region along the Mediterranean coast north of the Sinai. At first, it would seem that the conflicts within Syria with these various enemies of Egypt were to provide a buffer zone for Egypt's defense. However, like Mitanni and Hittites, Egypt's prolonged interest in the region derived from their desire to dominate and exploit the economic resources and trade. During the New Kingdom, Syria was the crossroads of world commerce, with goods from the Aegean and beyond entering the Near East by way of ports such as Ugarit. When one considers the inherent fertility and richness in natural resources, Syria obviously offered much to the predatory powers who sought to use this wealth for their own purposes. Hence, some thirty-thee centuries ago, "world power" was synonymous with the control of Syria, so it is not surprising that for nearly two hundred years, the great powers of Egypt, Mitanni and Hatti expended much blood and treasure in wars designed to ensure their respective control of this vitally strategic region.

The Sea People

Even as Egypt was vying for a powerful position in Syria, there was apparently a disturbance along the Mediterranean coast that displaced whole nations of people. This disturbance was to effect all of the powers of the region, as these people moved about the lands. They became collectively known as the "People of the Sea", who today we simply call the Sea People. As they invaded the lands of the Levant, the bought with them their families, cattle and household possessions, with the clear intent to settle Some of these people have been identified as the Sherden, Sheklesh, Lukka, Tursha and Akawasha.

There were several waves of these people, invading Egypt. At first, they reached as far south as the Farafra Oasis and the Canopic branch of the Nile. They advanced on Egypt by both land and sea, and represented a desperate threat to the Egyptians and other powers of the region.

Persia and the End of the Dynastic Period

As Egypt's Dynastic Period drew to an end, it was not the traditional enemies that finally brought down this great empire, but rather a succession of new enemies. It was first the Persians, who were so offensive to the Egyptians that when Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt, he seems to have been welcomed as a liberator. While Egypt would carry on a dynastic tradition with the arrival of the Ptolomies, there would never again be a true Egyptian Pharaoh with his own enemies to smite.






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