By: Anna-Latifa Mourad
From the time of the first pharaoh, ancient Egyptian civilization saw over a thousand years of unbroken development, with dynasty after dynasty of divine kings building pyramids and overseeing the growth of a rich culture. But after this ‘classical age’ of the Old Kingdom, toward the end of the third millennium BCE, Egypt faltered and splintered into separate realms. Then, in the early second millennium, it experienced something unprecedented: foreign rule by the ‘Hyksos.’ Their origins and impact on Egypt are deeply controversial issues, clouded by the bitterness of Egypt’s own memories.
The term ‘Hyksos’ has its origins in the works of third-century BCE Egyptian priest, Manetho, quoted by later writers like Josephus. Despite their late date, these Greek works formed the basis of inquiry into the Hyksos for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries CE. Thus, we learn that
… unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow… Their race as a whole was called Hyksos, that is ‘king-shepherds’…
Manetho, Aegyptiaca, frag. 42, 1.75-83
The Hyksos apparently destroyed cities and temples, massacred locals, and placed one of their own as king and founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty. Tribute was levied from the Egyptians, and the citadel of Avaris, fortified with both men and high walls, was built in the Delta. The Hyksos became associated with ruthless invaders who forced control over Egypt.
Agreeing with Manetho’s perception are texts from the Seventeenth Dynasty (contemporary with the Fifteenth, dating ca. 1650-1550 BCE), and from the subsequent Eighteenth Dynasty. A leader from the southern city of Thebes, Kamose, evidently mounted a campaign to expel the foreigners from Egypt. He designates the Hyksos king and his people as an ‘Aam’ group who had desecrated the land. Their king was titled ‘heqa ny Retjenu’, ‘ruler of Retjenu’, and his city, Avaris, was described with high walls and harbours docked with 300 cedar ships filled with a plethora of goods including gold, silver and ‘all the fine products of Retjenu’. Around a century later, Queen Hatshepsut is quoted as having restored what was destroyed during the Hyksos period when the Nile Delta was occupied by the abominable ‘Aam’ people.
Such texts link the Hyksos with (1) the ‘Aam’, (2) Retjenu, and (3) a fortified city, known as Avaris, in the Delta. But who were these Aam? Where was Retjenu? And is there truly a city by the name of Avaris?
The term ‘Aam’ is a well-attested ethnonym that labels individuals from the Levant, the area that currently incorporates Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Translated by Egyptologists as ‘Asiatic’, the term first appears in the late Old Kingdom, becoming more frequent from the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1900 BCE) in texts naming newly migrated northeasterners as well as those of mixed Egyptian-Levantine origin (see Figures 1-3).
Figure 1. ‘Aam’ men in a procession of Asiatics. The first on the right is labelled ‘heqa khaset’, ‘ruler of a foreign land’. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).
Figure 2. ‘Aam’ people in a procession of Asiatics. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).
Figure 3. A ‘Aamet’ woman with the Egyptian name Senebheqa. Stela of the Egyptian ‘overseer of the treasury’, Senebsuma, Dynasty 13. After H. de Meulenaere, ‘Les monuments d’un haut dignitaire de la 13e dynastie’, CdE 40 (1985), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).
The Aam are also recorded to have come from Retjenu, a toponym which remains unidentified. Egyptian texts do, however, suggest that it is located in the Levant, possibly north of modern Israel. So, if Kamose’s stela refers to a ‘ruler of Retjenu’, how is this associated with the Hyksos and Manetho’s ‘king-shepherds’? Here, Manetho’s translation can be explained as a garbled reading of an Egyptian title used for foreign lords, ‘heqa khasut’, or literally ‘ruler of foreign lands.’ The title was not only used for the Hyksos but it is also attested for a range of individuals from the Levant as well as Nubia (see Figure 1). What distinguishes the Hyksos is that they used this title while ruling parts of Egypt. In other words, they defined themselves as both rulers of Egypt, as well as rulers of a foreign realm. But how were they able to do so? What led them to become such powerful rulers?
The Discovery of Avaris
In recent decades, significant data has emerged from excavations at a site located in Egypt’s northeastern Delta: Tell el-Dab’a (see Figure 5). Explorations by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna have revealed the remains of a harbour city dating from the First to Third Intermediate Period. Spanning an area of approximately 1200 hectares, the site features administrative districts, palatial complexes, cemeteries, temples and residential sectors that were occupied during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. These occupations included widespread cultural remains that are not wholly Egyptian. Due to the magnitude of this settlement as well as its remains, the city is now identified with Avaris, capital of the Hyksos.
The identification of Avaris has helped illuminate the nature and rule of the elusive Hyksos. Contrary to Manetho, the evidence from Tell el-Dab’a does not point to a sudden invading foreign force. Instead, it suggests that Egyptians founded the site but that foreigners were present from the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. By the late Twelfth Dynasty, the variety and number of foreign elements increased. Vessels imported from the Levant are found in Egyptian temples and tombs, burials began to include non-Egyptian, Levantine traditions, and houses were designed with Levantine features. The inhabitants practiced both Egyptian and Levantine customs, signifying that they were (a) a largely Egyptian populace heavily influenced by the Levant; (b) partly of Levantine origin but influenced by the Egyptian culture (‘Egyptianised’); or (c) a mixture of both.
This ‘heterogenous’ character evolved into the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Dynasties. The population grew, displaying both hybrid elements that merged Egyptian and Levantine features, as well as completely new and innovative creations. Pottery of Levantine style was locally made. Temples following Levantine architecture were built and utilised for non-Egyptian rituals. Trade flourished with the Levant, Cyprus and Nubia. By the Fifteenth Dynasty, Tell el-Dab’a was a thriving commercial hub that was controlled by an elite with close ties to the Levant, if not of Levantine origins. Inhabited by a multicultural populace, the metropolis progressed from a harbour town under Egyptian rule to an independent centre and capital of the Hyksos.
Understanding the Hyksos Period
Recent excavations and studies agree with the picture painted by the remains at Avaris. The Twelfth Dynasty itself was likely established and secured with the help of Levantine warriors. Trade and diplomacy ensued as Egypt imported a variety of goods from its northeastern neighbours, while Levantine sites, such as Byblos, Sidon, Ashkelon and Tell Ifshar, also received Egyptian commodities. The Levantine elite was even involved with the Egyptians in an expeditionary venture in Sinai that spanned over 20 years. Such demand for and persistence of Egyptian-Levantine relations led to the growth of Tell el-Dab’a’s commercial significance, its lords steadily gaining power and wealth.
These developments not only affected the elite. Finds throughout Egypt point to an increasing number of Asiatics and individuals of Asiatic origin working and residing across the land (see Figure 3). By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, many had already been in Egypt for over 100 years, occupying various positions within Egyptian institutions, industries, and households. Migrations into major sites as Tell el-Dab’a also continued as Levantines sought opportunities in the land of Egypt.
As such, the rise of the Hyksos can no longer be seen as an invasion by an ‘obscure race.’ There was no invasion; rather, people gradually and peacefully entered Egypt throughout the Middle Kingdom. By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, native Egyptian administration had weakened, control over the Delta was lost and Egypt became fragmented. In turn, this allowed Tell el-Dab’a’s increasingly rich and powerful lords to become independent, establishing the Fifteenth Dynasty. As they provided prosperity and security, the population of their capital increased, the settlement expanded, and additional sites in the Delta were developed, their inhabitants also bearing mixed Egyptian-Levantine traits. The Hyksos became a formidable force in the Mediterranean, managing both local and regional trade across land and sea.
It is, therefore, no surprise that such a force would come into conflict with other emerging powers in the fragmented land of Egypt, particularly one in the south at Thebes. Ultimately the Thebans were victorious, their succeeding rulers misrepresenting the defeated enemy. The Levantine-influenced Hyksos as well as their ‘Asiatic’ people became the scorn of Egypt: the first ‘foreigners’ in Egyptian memory to rule their land, and the first to evidently do so with the support of both locals and foreigners. Despite attempts to cloud their reign, archaeological and historical inquiry will continue to illuminate the true nature of the Fifteenth Dynasty and its cross-cultural attributes, enhancing our knowledge of Egyptian-Levantine affairs, and strengthening our understanding of the Hyksos.