Who Were the Hyksos

Who Were the Hyksos?

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The archaeological site of ancient Avaris

The Hyksos were an important influence on Egyptian history, particularly at the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. Most of what we know of the nature of the Hyksos depends upon written sources (of the Egyptians), such as the Rhind Papyrus. Also of considerable importance is the systematic excavation of their capital, Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a).

Aamu was the contemporary term used to distinguish the people of Avaris, the Hyksos capital in Egypt, from Egyptians. Egyptologists conventionally translate aamu as "asiatics" The Jewish historian, Josephus, in his Contra Apionem, claims that Manetho was the first to use the Greek term, Hyksos, incorrectly translated as "shepherd-kings". Contemporary Egyptians during the Hyksos invasion designated them as hikau khausut, which meant "rulers of foreign countries", a term that originally only referred to the ruling caste of the invaders. However, today the term Hyksos has come to refer to the whole of these people who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt's ancient history, and had to be driven out of the land by the last ruler of the 17th Dynasty and the earliest ruler of Egypt's New Kingdom.

Josephus claims to quote directly from Manetho, who's original history is lost to us, when he describes the conquest and occupation of Egypt by the Hyksos:

"By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow; and having overpowered the rulers of the land, they hen burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods...Finally, they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis."

Some of this rings true, while other parts seem not to be. It appears that the Hyksos left much of Egypt alone. It is clear that Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a) was occupied by a people who exhibited specifically non-Egyptian cultural traits. We find this in the layout of the town itself, the houses, and particularly the burials, which were intermixed with the living community, unlike those of the Egyptians. While we know that the Hyksos established centers, as their influenced gradually moved towards Memphis along the eastern edge of the Delta, at Farasha, Tell el-Sahaba, Bubastis, Inshas and Tell el-Yahudiyas, very little of this particular culture has been found at other Egyptian sites. At the same time, the Hyksos living in Egypt have been described as "Peculiarly Egyptian".

A rare wooden Hyksos statue of a woman carrying a child

They were great builders and artisans. And little seems to have changed between the Egyptian style of governing, and that of the Hyksos. While the Hyksos imported some of their own gods, they also appear to have honored the Egyptian deities as well, such as Seth, who became assimilated with some Hyksos deities. Of course, we must also recall that Egypt already had somewhat of a history with the "Asiatics", including wars and considerable trade, so it would not be surprising to find some mix of cultures even among the Egyptians of the Delta.

The Hyksos were basically a Semitic people who were able to wrestle control of Egypt from the early Second Intermediate rulers of the 13th Dynasty, inaugurating the 15th Dynasty. Their names mostly come from the West Semitic languages, and earlier suggestions that some of these people were Hurrian or even Hittite have not been confirmed. However, it is not easy to determine their origins within that Asiatic region, and at Tell el-Dab'a, the culture of the people was not static, but rapidly developed new traits and discarded old ones. Yet the reason for, and method of the cultural mixing and rapid development of Asiatics at Tell el-Dab'a remains unclear.

One hypothesis is that the basic population of Egyptians allowed, from time to time, a new influx of settlers, first from the region of Lebanon and Syria, and subsequently from Palestine and Cyprus. The leaders of these people eventually married into the local Egyptian families, a theory that is somewhat supported by preliminary studies of human remains at Tell el-Dab'a. Indeed, parallels for the foreign traits of the Hyksos at Tell el-Dab'a have been found at southern Palestinian sites such as Tell el-Ajjul, at the Syrian site of Ebla and at Byblos in modern Lebanon.

Hence, the Hyksos rule of Egypt was probably the climax of waves of Asiatic immigration and infiltration into the northeastern Delta of the Nile. This process was perhaps aided by the Egyptians themselves. For example, Amenemhat II records, in unmistakable language, a campaign by sea to the Lebanese coast that resulted in a list of booty comprising 1,554 Asiatics, and considering that Egypt's eastern border was fortified and probably patrolled by soldiers, it is difficult to understand how massive numbers of foreign people could have simply migrated into northern Egypt. These people migrated, or otherwise moved to the region from the 12th Dynasty onward, and by the 13th Dynasty, this migration became widespread.

Scarabs belonging to three Hyksos kings, from left to right, Sheshi, Khyan and Apepi I

The Hyksos did eventually utilize superior bronze weapons, chariots and composite bows to help them take control of Egypt, though in reality, the relative slowness of their advance southwards from the Delta seems to support the argument that the process was gradual and did not ultimately turn on the possession of overwhelming military superiority. Hence, by about 1720 BC, they had grown strong enough, at the expense of the Middle Kingdom kings, to gain control of Avaris in the northeastern Delta. This site eventually became the capital of the Hyksos kings, but within 50 years, they had also managed to take control of the important Egyptian city of Memphis.

Given this slow advance by the Hyksos rulers into southern Egypt, it seems reasonable to infer that the superior military technology of the Hyksos was but an adjunct to their exploitation of the political weakness of the late Middle Kingdom.

However, the Hyksos never really ruled Egypt completely. Their expansion southwards was eventually checked. In fact, at least early on, this may have been the result of a massive plague, for at Tell el-Dab'a we find mass graves with little attention to the burials. Though the ruler of Avaris claimed to be King of Upper and Lower Egypt, we know from a stelae dating to the 17th Dynasty king Kamose, that Hermopolis marked the Avaris' king's theoretical southern boundary, while Cusae, a little further south, was actually the specific boarder point. Yet Southern, or Upper Egypt was reduced to a vassaldom, probably as a result of the effectiveness, eventually, of the Hyksos military forces, at least until the reign of Kamose. Therefore, we do regard them as the legitimate rulers of the whole country during parts of the Second Intermediate Period, considered a chaotic time which the Hyksos at least partially helped to create in Egypt.

Eventually, the Hyksos tolerance of rival claimants to the land beginning in the 15th Dynasty would spell their expulsion by the end of the 17th Dynasty, beginning with the reign of Kamose. By now, the baleful experience of foreign rule had done much to shatter the traditional Egyptian mindset of superiority in both culture and the security of the Egyptian state in the face of external threats.

Yet, Egypt would eventually benefit considerably from their experience of foreign rule, and it has been suggested that the Hyksos rule of Egypt was far less damaging then later 18th Dynasty records would lead us to believe. It would make Egypt a stronger country, with a much more viable military. Because of Egypt's strength and ability to isolate herself from the outside world, cultural and technological growth was often stagnant. Until the Hyksos invasion, the history of Egypt and Asia were mostly isolated, while afterwards, they would be permanently entwined. The Hyksos brought more than weapons to Egypt. It was due to the Hyksos that the hump backed Zebu cattle made their appearance in Egypt. Also, we find new vegetable and fruit crops that were cultivated, along with improvements in pottery and linen arising from the introduction of improved potter's wheels and the vertical loom.

Perhaps one of 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. 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.

But it was the diffusion of innovations with more obvious military applications, such as bronze-working, which went far to compensate for the technological backwardness of Middle Kingdom Egypt, and it was these advantages that eventually allowed the kingdom at Thebes to gain back control of the Two Lands.

See also:






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