Do not leave the path


Asia History

‘Invaders of Obscure Race?’ Understanding the Hyksos

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.

Egyptian Records

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 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 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).

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.

 Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).
Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

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.


Plague Began Infecting Humans Much Earlier Than Thought

A human skull from the Bronze Age

This skull is from an individual of the Yamnaya people, a group that moved into Central Asia in early Bronze Age (c. 5000 years ago). The group belonged to a culture that is one of the Bronze Age groups carrying Y. pestis.


by Charles Q. Choi, Live Science Contributor

The germ that causes the plague began infecting humans thousands of years earlier than scientists had previously thought.

Researchers analyzed teeth from the remains of 101 individuals that were collected from a variety of museums and archaeological excavations. They found DNA of the bacterium that causes plague, called Yersinia pestis, in seven of these people. The earliest sample that had plague DNA was from Bronze Age Siberia, and dated back to 2794 B.C., and the latest specimen with plague, from early Iron Age Armenia, dated back to 951 B.C.

Previously, the oldest direct molecular evidence that this bacterium infected humans was only about 1,500 years old.

“We were able to find genuine Yersinia pestisDNA in our samples 3,000 years earlier than what had previously been shown,” said Simon Rasmussen, a lead author of the study and a bioinformatician at the Technical University of Denmark.

The finding suggests that plague might be responsible for mysterious epidemics that helped end the Classical period of ancient Greece and undermined the Imperial Roman army, the researchers said. [7 Devastating Infectious Diseases]

The new study also sheds light on how plague bacteria have evolved over time, and on how it and other diseases might evolve in the future, the investigators added.

Plague is a lethal disease so infamous that it has become synonymous with any dangerous, widespread contagion. It was one of the first known biological weapons — for instance, in 1346, Mongols catapulted plague victims into the Crimean city of Caffa, according to a 14th-century Italian memoir. The germ is carried and spread by fleas, as well as person-to-person contact.

Yersinia pestis has been linked with at least two of the most devastating pandemics in recorded history. One, the Great Plague, which lasted from the 14th to 17th centuries, included the notorious epidemic known as the Black Death, which may have killed up to half of Europe’s population at the time.

Another, the Modern Plague, began in China in the mid-1800s and spread to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe and parts of Asia. Moreover, the Justinianic Plague of the 6th to 8th centuries, which killed more than 100 million people, may have helped to finish off the Roman Empire.


Pandemics that struck hundreds of years before those plagues are sometimes blamed on Yersinia pestis as well. These include the Plague of Athens, which occurred nearly 2,500 years ago and was linked with the decline of Classical Greece, and the Antonine Plague of the second century, which devastated the Imperial Roman army. However, it remains unclear whether plague bacteriacould have indeed caused these ancient epidemics, because scientists have not seen any direct molecular evidence of this germ from skeletons older than 1,500 years.

In the new study, researchers looked at DNA sequences in tooth samples from Bronze Age people from Europe and Asia. The finding that people were infected with plague about 4,800 years ago suggests that the disease could have influenced human history much earlier than previously thought, the researchers said.

The scientists also found that plague has changed in its deadly ways over time. For instance, plague genomes from the Bronze Age, which began around 3000 B.C., lacked a gene called the ymt gene. This gene is involved in protecting the bacterium when it is inside the guts of fleas, thus helping the insects spread the plague to humans.

However, this gene was found in the plague bacteria in the sample from the Iron Age, which began almost 2,000 years later. This finding suggests that plague bacteria became transmissible by fleas sometime during or after the Bronze Age, conflicting with previous research suggesting that the ymt gene emerged early in the evolution of plague due to its importance in the germ’s life cycle.

The researchers also learned more about how plague has evolved to stealthily evade human defenses. In mammals, the immune system can recognize and mount offensives against a protein called flagellin, which is the key ingredient of the flagellum, the whiplike appendage that helps bacteria move around. All previously known plague strains had a mutation that prevented them from producing flagellin. The two oldest Bronze Age individuals lacked this mutation, but it was seen in the youngest Bronze Age individual.

“We are able to investigate the early evolutionary steps of what developed into one of the deadliest bacteria ever encountered by humans,” Rasmussen told Live Science.

Together, these findings suggest that plague did not fully emerge as a highly virulent flea-borne germ until about 3,000 years ago. The genetic changes that plague underwent may have not only helped give rise to infamous epidemics, but also driven large migrations and resettlements by people living in both Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age.

“Perhaps people were migrating to get away from epidemics or recolonizing new areas where epidemics had decimated the local populations,” Morten Allentoft, another lead author of the study and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

The underlying mechanisms that helped plague evolve over time “are still present today, and learning from this will help us understand how future pathogens may arise or develop increased virulence,” Rasmussen said in a statement.

In the future, the researchers will look for evidence of plague and other germs in other places and times around the world to get a better grasp of the history of the diseases. [10 Deadly Diseases That Hopped Across Species]

“The underlying evolutionary mechanisms that facilitated the evolution of plague are still present today,” Rasmussen told Live Science. “By knowing which new genes and mutations lead to the development of plague, we may be better at predicting or identifying bacteria that could develop into new infectious diseases.

The researchers detailed their findings today (Oct. 22) in the journal Cell.

Ethnic unrest

New episodes of violence and repression have heightened tensions in Xinjiang

IN THE oasis town of Kashgar, in the far western region of Xinjiang, the authorities are keen to stop the spread of uncensored news about recent bloodshed in the area. On July 28th the deadliest outbreak of unrest in years involving Muslim Uighurs took place. By official accounts nearly 100 people were killed; Uighur exiles say many more than that died. Officials have blamed the incidents on “terrorists”. Uighurs blame government heavy-handedness. Inside a clothing shop near central Kashgar, a young Uighur says many members of his ethnic group have been taken away by police in recent months, some of them merely for talking to outsiders.

In May the authorities declared a “people’s war” on terrorism in Xinjiang. The recent violence suggests victory is far away. In the attacks near Kashgar, police say that a gang of Uighurs attacked government offices with knives and axes, killing 37 people, and that 59 of the attackers were gunned down in response. Two days later one of the government’s allies in the war, the chief imam of Kashgar’s largest mosque (pictured), was stabbed to death after morning prayers. His attackers were Uighurs. The government said they were “thugs influenced by religious extremist ideology”. Two of them were shot dead and a third arrested.

The government’s increasingly repressive security measures make it difficult to gain a clear account of the recent incidents in Xinjiang, where Turkic-speaking Uighurs once formed an overwhelming majority and now feel increasingly marginalised by Han Chinese immigrants. Police routinely stop foreign journalists from approaching trouble-spots. Social media are rigorously censored. Kashgar police stop motorists going into and out of Uighur sections of the city, checking identity cards and belongings. Crimes meriting detention can include carrying too much petrol; it could be used for bomb-making.

The nervousness of the man in the clothes shop is not mere paranoia. The government encourages neighbours and friends to inform on each other. In Kashgar officials have recruited households to monitor their blocks in an authoritarian version of neighbourhood watch. On August 1st, in an anti-terror operation near the city of Hotan, south-east of Kashgar, the authorities claimed to have recruited 30,000 volunteers to help encircle and hunt down ten terror suspects, nine of whom were killed. Officials announced financial rewards of 300m yuan ($49m) for “thousands” of locals who had helped.

The government has been spooked by militant Islam in neighbouring countries (the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan are less than 300km, or 185 miles, south of Kashgar). It worries that Uighur nationalists are using religion to assert a separate identity. At official “Project Beauty” checkpoints, Uighur women in traditional face-revealing dress reprimand passers-by wearing Islamic veils. In the north-western Xinjiang city of Karamay, a local newspaper said on August 4th that people wearing head scarves, veils or long beards were not allowed to board buses.

The authorities’ fears of terrorism are not fanciful. Random attacks on civilians are becoming more common and the violence is spreading beyond Xinjiang. In October last year Uighurs in Beijing rammed a car into a security barricade near Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. The vehicle exploded, killing six people, including three inside the car. In March as many as eight Uighurs with knives attacked passengers at the railway station in Kunming, killing 29 people. Some Chinese called the incident the country’s “September 11th”, suggesting the shock was similar to that experienced by America in 2001. In April and May two attacks using explosives in the provincial capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi—one at a railway station and the other at a busy market—killed at least 46 people and injured more than 200.

Relations between Han Chinese and Uighurs in the region have deteriorated sharply since 2009, when clashes erupted in Urumqi between Uighurs and Hans, leaving around 200 dead. The government has responded by pouring in money. Xinjiang is due to be connected to the rest of China by a bullet-train track later this year; Kashgar is soon to be connected by expressway to the north of Xinjiang, which officials say will boost the city’s economy. But Uighur grievances have been exacerbated by officials’ intolerance of Islamic traditions and their emphasis on Chinese instruction in schools. Kashgar itself, an historic Uighur market city on the old Silk Road, has demolished and rebuilt vast areas of ancient neighbourhoods, heedless of residents’ complaints.

Activists say the government has used more sticks than carrots with Uighurs since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in November 2012. In January police in Beijing detained Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur scholar who is widely considered a moderate advocate for better treatment of Uighurs. On July 30th Mr Tohti was charged with separatism. In Beijing in May, at a meeting of senior officials to discuss Xinjiang, Mr Xi called for “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to catch terrorists.

Mr Xi and the ruling Politburo also discussed improving economic opportunities for Uighurs through even more government spending. Many Uighurs have yet to benefit from rapid urbanisation. Ma Rong, a sociologist at Peking University, found that Uighurs were one of only two ethnic groups in China among whom the proportion of farmers had grown in the decade to 2010, from 80% to almost 83% (the other being Kazakhs, a much smaller ethnic group in Xinjiang). Officials have not pursued efforts to create urban jobs for Uighurs with the same diligence as they have cracked down on their customs.

A young Uighur woman training to be a civil servant, herself a daughter of two government workers, says that as a woman she is less likely to be hassled by security personnel at checkpoints. Last year, however, in her hometown in the southern Xinjiang city of Yecheng, she walked accidentally into a security cordon in a town square. She was confronted by seven or eight men who pointed guns at her. She felt lucky to be able to say, in Chinese, that she was sorry to be there. She says she once bristled at such security measures but now understands the need for them.

Few Uighurs, however, sympathise with the authorities’ controls on their religion. The latest violence erupted at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, during which officials put pressure on teachers, students and civil servants not to observe fasting rituals. Philip Potter of the University of Michigan argues that in the long run, Chinese leaders “have painted themselves into a corner”, deepening the divide between themselves and the Uighurs they govern. Worsening unrest seems certain.

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