If you study “fake news” from ancient Egypt, you would consider the Hyksos a band of nasty, marauding outsiders who invaded and then brutally ruled the Nile Delta until heroic kings expelled them. In fact, the Hyksos had a more diplomatic impact, contributing to progress in culture, language, military affairs and even the introduction of the iconic horse and chariot. The story of these two competing explanations reveals much about ancient Egypt and this mysterious group.
As a word, Hyksos is simply the Greek version of an Egyptian title, Heka Khasut, meaning “rulers of foreign lands/hill countries.” While much is misunderstood, we know the Hyksos comprised a small group of West Asian individuals who ruled Northern Egypt, especially the Delta, during the Second Intermediate Period. These rulers were recorded as Egypt’s 15th dynasty in the Turin Royal Canon, the only known king’s list that documents their existence.
For decades, the writings of the Ptolemaic Egyptian historian, Manetho, influenced the popular and scholarly interpretations of the Hyksos. Preserved in Josephus’s Contra Apionem I, Manetho presented the Hyksos as a barbaric horde, “invaders of an obscure race” who conquered Egypt by force, causing destruction and murdering or enslaving Egyptians. This account continued in Egyptian texts from the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom. As Egyptology developed, years of debate over the extent of destruction and the ethnicity of the “Hyksos people” transpired. Only in more recent decades have the Hyksos been revealed as a small group of rulers (we know of six) and not a population or ethnic group.
The research that led to this new image began in 1966 when the Austrian Academy of Sciences opened the still-ongoing excavations at Tell el Dab’a, (ancient Avaris or Hwt-Waret) and identified the site as the Hyksos capital. Along with nearby archaeological investigations, it became apparent that no sound evidence supported the invasion tale. Instead, the excavations at Tell el Dab’a demonstrated that immigrants from Southwest Asia (the Levant) had been relocating to the Eastern Nile Delta for centuries, with this immigration peaking in the mid-12th dynasty through the early Second Intermediate Period. Examination of religious architecture, deities, burial practices, food and artifacts such as weapons and toggle pins all indicated a large population of West Asian individuals. In fact, many of these elements combined Egyptian practices with that of the immigrants, suggesting Tell el Dab’a was a culturally blended community featuring intermarriage and peaceful coexistence. Several West Asian individuals were even officials for Middle Kingdom kings, overseeing trade in the Near East and lucrative mining expeditions to the Sinai Peninsula. Rather than an “invasion,” it appears that as the centralized authority of Egyptian kings declined, elites at Tell el Dab’a increased their local power until, by a coup or simply a slow, peaceful process, they took the Heka Khasut title and became kings in their own right.
During their rule, Hyksos kings were constantly renegotiating their identities as the context demanded, emphasizing Egyptian traditions or their West Asian origins. They adopted elements of Egyptian kingship, including royal titles, throne names, hieroglyphic inscriptions, scribal activity and worshipping the Egyptian pantheon. Yet they maintained the unusual Heka Khasut title with their Semitic/Amorite personal names, and the major monuments of their capital city were unmistakably Near Eastern in architectural style. They also melded Egyptian administrative structures with tribal approaches of Amorite groups like those at the Middle Bronze Age sites of Mari and Qatna. The recent discovery of a fragment of a cuneiform tablet in the palace at Avaris indicates the Hyksos remained in diplomatic contact with the highest Amorite networks, in this case the Old Babylonian Dynasty of Hammurabi.
Later in the Second Intermediate Period, the native Egyptian kings ruling the south from Thebes (the 17th dynasty) began a campaign to expel the Hyksos. The mummy of Seqenenre Taa was discovered riddled with battle wounds, including a fatal axe strike on the forehead that forensically matches a West Asian style axe. The next Theban king, Kamose, erected multiple stelae at Karnak Temple recording his own campaign, further vilifying the Hyksos with propagandistic rhetoric. These stelae reference the Egyptian conquest of several cities, including the protracted siege of Avaris itself. Records of Kamose cease after his third regnal year, and his brother (or son) Ahmose took up the campaign. The Autobiography of Ahmose, son of Ibana, a soldier under Ahmose and later kings, records a destruction of Avaris and expulsion of the Hyksos. But no solid evidence supports such destruction. Instead, archaeological material at Tell el Dab’a indicates a West Asian population continued to live there into the New Kingdom, raising questions about how many people were actually expelled. Regardless, later Egyptian texts (Speos Artemidos Inscription of Hatshepsut) continued to malign the Hyksos. They were also mocked in literary tales like the Tale of Apepi and Seqenenre. The goal of these tales seems to be the legitimization of less secure Egyptian reigns.
Despite these conflicts between reality and the official record, the rule of the Hyksos and the immigrants from which they arose affected New Kingdom culture, language, military and even conceptions of what it meant to be an Egyptian king. This notable period was marked by the influx of new technologies into Egypt, from the horse and chariot to glass manufacturing. The Hyksos influence also set precedents for the international diplomacy that was followed in the Amarna Letters, and many believe the Hyksos spurred New Kingdom imperial expansion. Further research on the Hyksos and their important contributions will illuminate the broader history of the civilization of ancient Egypt.
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