In the third century BCE, the Egyptian historian Manetho wrote chilling tales of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt more than a thousand years before. He wrote of hordes of foreign invaders who swept in from the northeast. They plundered all before them, put to the sword those who posed a threat, and enslaved everybody else. They were brutal and merciless. Three centuries later, the historian Josephus, relying heavily on the accounts of Manetho, referred to the Hyksos as Jews in one instance and Arabs in another. These sources proved dubious at best. Yet, until 1966, they remained the only source on the enigmatic Hyksos, whose appearance marked the so-called Second Intermediate Period of Egypt. We now know a lot more.
1. Before the Hyksos Arrived, Egypt Was Already in Turmoil
Before the Hyksos arrived in Egypt, the kingdom was already under heavy strain. The Middle Kingdom’s golden age had ended abruptly with the death of Queen Sobekneferu (1806–1802 BC), who left no heirs. Her reign was followed by a weak 13th dynasty which moved the capital of Egypt to the city of Thebes in the south (Upper Egypt). Unable to hold the kingdom together, the north of Egypt (Lower Egypt) broke away under the 14th Dynasty (ca. 1725 BCE – ca. 1650 BCE). As such, the 13th and 14th Dynasties ruled concurrently, a kingdom split in two. The decentralization of authority marked this period.
There is no consensus on the origin of the rulers of the 14th Dynasty. Some academics believe them to be Hyksos, while others propose that they were of provincial Egyptian stock. What is certain is that the 15th Dynasty ruling in Lower (northern) Egypt was Hyksos.
2. The Hyksos Were Probably Canaanites
Modern historians rely on evidence from the site of Tell El-Dab’a where Avaris — the Hyksos capital — was located. Material evidence strongly suggests that the Hyksos came from the Levant, and their names suggest that they spoke a Western Semitic language. Thus, it is commonly assumed that the Hyksos were Canaanites.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The Egyptians depicted the Hyksos as Asiatic and often as hunters or shepherds. In contrast, the Egyptians proudly depicted themselves as an agrarian people. It is possible that rearing cattle and hunting were seen as inferior cultural practices.
3. The Egyptians Used Propaganda and Claimed the Immigration was an Invasion
Until 1966, literary evidence of the Hyksos was derived from vehemently anti-Hyksos sources, summed up in the writings of Egyptian historian Manetho who lived 1200 years after the Hyksos period. Like Egyptians before him, his words painted the Hyksos in a terrible light.
“A people of ignoble origin from the east, whose coming was unforeseen, had the audacity to invade the country, which they mastered by main force without difficulty or even battle. Having overpowered the chiefs, they then savagely burnt the cities, razed the temples of the gods to the ground, and treated the whole native population with the utmost cruelty, massacring some, and carrying off the wives and children of others into slavery”
(from book two of Manetho’s History of Egypt)
This notion is wholly rejected by modern historians. Strontium isotope analysis of remains from the Hyksos capital of Avaris shows that there were, in fact, far more females than males (77%). This evidence challenges the idea of a violent invasion. Instead, a more peaceful transition of power also seems entirely possible. Besides, the Egyptians historically sourced people from the Levant who were known as shipbuilders and were in great demand. Avaris was situated perfectly for this trade, and the Egyptians would have used the skills that Asiatic people, such as the Hyksos, offered. Also, during this period, many Asiatic people served in Egypt as soldiers, servants, and other jobs throughout the Egyptian Kingdom.
Another interesting case of propaganda concerns the Hyksos king Apepi or Apophis. According to Egyptian sources, he was a spiteful and incompetent ruler. However, this description is almost certainly another instance of Egyptian propaganda.
4. “Hyksos” Is a Greek Name
The word “Hyksos” is a Hellenized version of the Egyptian Heka Khasut, meaning “rulers of foreign lands”. The term could have simply been used as a catchall phrase to describe any and all foreigners in Egypt outside the administrative jurisdiction of the 16th and 17th dynasties ruling from Thebes. In addition to the splintering of the kingdom, it was a time of confusion when roving bands of marauders and mercenaries took advantage of the situation. It would have been easy for the Egyptians to blame all these troubles on the Hyksos foreigners. Indeed, there is much evidence for this attitude throughout human civilization through the ages.
5. The Hyksos Ruled Lower Egypt While the Egyptians Ruled Upper Egypt
From their capital of Avaris, east of the Nile Delta, the Hyksos held political sway over Northern Egypt. The Native Egyptian dynasties ruled Southern Egypt from their capital in Thebes. As such, the 14th and 15th (Hyksos) dynasties ruled concurrently with the 16th and 17th (native Egyptian) dynasties.
While the notion of an invasion was popular among the native Egyptians, it’s possible the Hyksos simply took control of Northern Egypt due to a power vacuum left by a decentralized Egyptian government that had already plunged the kingdom into chaos. The Hyksos likely restored some semblance of order to a people desperate for safety.
6. The Hyksos Adopted Egyptian Culture to a Degree
From an archeological perspective, evidence of Hyksos culture is linked to their sphere of influence. The direct reach of the Hyksos’ rule appears to have been limited to the East Nile Delta. Elements of their administration could have also existed outside of this area as well.
Although certain Levantine cultural practices were kept, the Hyksos apparently tried to adopt Egyptian culture and practices wherever possible. This is evident in their administrative principles, which show a marked influence of Egyptian practices that are unseen in the archeological record of the Levant.
There is no archeological evidence of the Hyksos having produced any court art. Instead, they appropriated Egyptian statues and inscribed their own names on them. The Hyksos also did not leave a legacy of grand buildings or monuments. They appear to have seen it as unnecessary, in direct contrast to Egyptians, who placed emphasis on leaving monuments as a testament. The royal palace in Avaris was the only significant monumental structure left behind by the Hyksos.
A possible wedge between Hyksos and the natives was religion. While the Egyptians worshipped their pantheon of deities, the Hyksos retained their worship of their god Baal. And as history has shown, religious differences are a significant catalyst for animosity between groups of people.
7. The Hyksos Brought New Technologies to Egypt
The Hyksos added some valuable inventions to Egyptian culture. It has been proposed that they introduced the war chariot. However, this is debated among academics. More credible is the introduction of superior bronze working, weaving, the compound bow, and bronze armor. Until the New Kingdom, Egyptian soldiers did not wear armor. The Hyksos also introduced a sickle-shaped sword called a khopesh, which has come to represent ancient Egyptian culture. In addition, the Hyksos introduced new musical instruments to Egypt, as well as the cultivation of grapes.
8. The Native Egyptians Went to War with the Hyksos to Reunite Egypt
Little is known about the war between the Hyksos and the Thebans (native Egyptians), and what we do know comes from pro-Theban sources. The war began during the Theban 17th Dynasty under the rule of Seqenenre Taa II, whose mummy shows that he died from several blows to the head from an axe of Hyksos design.
Later texts claim that the war started when the Hyksos King Apepi in Avaris demanded that the Theban pharaoh remove a pool of hippopotamuses in Thebes as their noise was keeping him up at night. This text was obviously meant as a parody and should not be taken as serious evidence for the reasons of the conflict.
Nevertheless, the conflict was presented as a war of national liberation from the Hyksos usurpers. Seqenenre Taa’s successor Kamose initiated a campaign against the Hyksos, which reportedly lasted for two decades. Kamose’s successor, Ahmose, continued the war. Eventually, Avaris was besieged, and the Hyksos king had to sign a peace treaty.
While Manetho claims that the Hyksos were all driven out of Egypt, archeological evidence points to an integration of Hyksos people into the native Egyptian population.
9. The Hyksos Remain an Enigmatic People
Knowledge of the Hyksos is drawn from many fragmentary records, the literary side of which is dubious at best. The Hyksos did not make a point of leaving behind grand, long-lasting buildings and relics for archeologists to find. As such, the Hyksos represent an enigmatic place in the exceptionally long history of Egypt. The Hyksos period lasted only one to two centuries, and in the thousands of years of Egyptian pharaohs, this seems like a blink of an eye. Nevertheless, the Hyksos did leave an indelible mark on Egyptian culture and psyche.
From one perspective, the Egyptians liberated their country from illegal occupants (perhaps brutal invaders). From the other perspective, the Hyksos were targets of xenophobic resentment and antagonism. For hundreds of years following the Second Intermediate Period, the Hyksos continued to be condemned in the written records from Egypt.