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Hyksos People of Ancient Egypt

Hyksos People of Ancient Egypt

The Hyksos People remain largely enigmatic to this day. Their ethnic origins of the Hyksos are still unknown as is their fate once Ahmose I (c. 1570-1544 BCE) expelled them from Lower Egypt and ushered in the rise of Egypt’s New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE).  The Hyksos are thought to have been a Semitic people who successfully invaded Egypt around c. 1782 BCE where they established their capital at Avaris in Lower Egypt.

The Hyksos emergence as a political and military force in Egypt triggered the fall of the 13th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) and gave rise to Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 – c. 1570 BCE).

While their name, Heqau-khasut, or the Greek Hyksos, translates as “Rulers of Foreign Lands,” historians believe the Hyksos were most likely traders who after prospering in Avaris, eventually grew to exert political and followed by military power.

Later Egyptian New Kingdom scribes (c. 1570-1069 BCE) portrayed the Hyksos as an occupying army who having conquered Lower Egypt, destroyed its temples and slaughtered its citizens. However, there is no archaeological evidence supporting these claims. The Hyksos quickly assimilated into Egyptian cultural norms, adopted Egyptian art, fashion and in modified form Egyptian religious observances.

Facts About The Hyksos People

  • Historians believe the Hyksos were an amalgam of ethnicities who were predominantly traders, sailors, merchants, artisans and craftsmen
  • Hyksos rulers were confined to northern Egypt and they never penetrated south to subjugate Abydos, Thebes and Thinis
  • Hyksos kings absorbed Egyptian culture and assimilated themselves into the prevailing Egyptian way of life and customs
  • The Hyksos are believed to have introduced new skills to Egypt including brewing, working semi-precious stones and domesticated grain
  • Based in their capital city Avaris, the Hyksos kings negotiated a series of alliances spanning Anatolia, Cyprus and Crete
  • The Hyksos worshipped the Egyptian god Seth

The Hyksos Arrival

For the greater part of Egypt’s history, the country was insular despite the frequent arrival of foreigners to serve as mercenaries, or as slaves in Egypt’s gold mines. Even early Egyptian military campaigns rarely ventured far beyond Egypt’s borders. So, when the Hyksos initially arrived, they would not have been perceived as a threat to Egyptian security simply because to the conservative Egyptian worldview, any external threat to the integrity of the country was unthinkable.

At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was a strong, unified nation. Egypt’s 12th Dynasty is considered by many Egyptologists to represent the high point of Egyptian culture. This then was Egypt’s “classical age.” Egypt’s 13th Dynasty, however, lacked a strong and effective ruler. During this time, Egypt’s capital was relocated from Iti-tawi to Thebes in Upper Egypt. This move created a power vacuum in Lower Egypt. At this time, the port town of Avaris was enjoying rapid expansion thanks to a boom in trade and commerce. As Avaris flourished, so too did the population of non-Egyptians. Eventually, the Hyksos gained commercial control of Egypt’s eastern Nile Delta region. They then expanded their reach northwards by forging treaties and trading contracts with Lower Egypt’s nomarchs or regional governors until they enjoyed command of a sizeable swath of the land, which they translated into political power.

The Hyksos Egyptian Rule

The Hyksos influence only extended only as far south as Abydos, and throughout Lower Egypt. Numerous independent cities such as Xois retained their autonomy and regularly traded with both the Hyksos and the main Egyptian government in Thebes.

Once established in Avaris, the Hyksos promoted Egyptians to influential roles, adopted Egyptian customs and fashion and absorbed the worship of Egyptian gods into their own rituals. Their main gods were Baal and Anat, originally of Phoenician and Canaanite origins. The Hyksos came to associate Baal with Egypt’s Set.

After the Hyksos rulers were ejected, all traces of them were erased by their Theban conquerors. Only a few Hyksos kings are known to Egyptologists, Apepi, the most well known, Sakir-Har, Khyan, Khamudi. Apepi was also known by the Egyptian name of Apophis, the great serpent and enemy of the Egyptian sun god Ra in a possible allusion to darkness and danger.

Trade flourished during the Hyksos rule. Local governors of Lower Egypt’s cities agreed to treaties with the Hyksos and engaged in a profitable trading relationship. Even Thebes maintained friendly relations as well as a profitable trade with the Hyskos, even if Thebes paid tribute to Avaris.

War Between Thebes And Avaris

While the Hyksos were cementing their power in northern Egypt, the Nubians were encroaching in the south. Thebes remained the capital of Upper Egypt but, found itself caught between the Hyksos to the north and the Nubians to the south. Trade between the Kush the Nubian capital, Thebes and Avaris until the Hyksos king allegedly gravely insulted Thebes’ king.

According to ancient sources, Apepi king of the Hyksos sent a message to the Theban king Ta’O (c. 1580 BCE). “Do away with the hippopotamus pool which is on the east of the city, for they prevent me sleeping day and night.”

Rather than complying, Ta’O interpreted it as a challenge to his authority and attacked Avaris. His mummy shows signs he was killed fighting suggesting the Thebans were defeated. Ta’O’s son and heir Kamose took up Ta’O’s cause. He launched a major assault on Avaris. Kamose’s brother Ahmose succeeded him. Kamose expelled the Hyksos from Lower Egypt and decimated Avaris. For six years Ahmose besieged the city until the Hyksos finally fled to Syria. What happened to the Hyksos after that remains unknown.

The Hyksos’ Egyptian Legacy

The Hyksos experience prompted Ahmose I to develop a professional Egyptian army. Ahmose I and his successors wanted to ensure no foreign power would ever exercise power in their lands again.

Ahmose and Egypt’s New Kingdom kings created a buffer zone around Egypt. Having stabilised their borders, Egypt’s kings then sought to conquer fresh territory beyond their own traditional lands.

Technologically, if not for the Hyksos, the Egyptian army would have been without two major military innovations, which helped them build and maintain their empire, the horse-drawn chariot and the composite bow. Prior to the rise of the Hyksos, the Egyptians had no knowledge of the chariot. Similarly, until the Hyksos introduced the composite bow into their army, it did not feature in Egyptian arsenals. The composite bow conveyed such an advance in range and accuracy that it quickly replaced the Egyptian longbow that had served for centuries. Other military weapons introduced to the battlefield by the Hyksos were short swords and bronze daggers.

The Hyksos introduced metalworking in bronze together with new approaches to crop irrigation and vegetable and fruit cultivation to Egypt. An improved potter’s wheel pioneered by the Hyksos’ produced higher quality and more durable ceramics, while the Hyksos also introduced a vertical loom capable of weaving superior quality linen also emerged. Moreover, under the direction of the Hyksos king Apepi, old papyrus scrolls were copied and archived. Many of these are the only copies to have survived the ravages of time.

Reflecting On The Past

The Hyskos People stimulated innovations in Egyptian arts, ceramics, weaponry and metalworking, while perhaps their largest impact was on spurring the unification of Egypt and the forging of their empire.

Header image courtesy: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons