How Did the Hyksos Conquer the Egyptian Delta?

An Ancient Egyptian Depiction of a Hyksos Farmer. The Egyptian Word for Hyksos, “Heqa-Khasut,” Is Inscribed in the Upper Right Corner

During ancient Egypt’s long and illustrious history, many foreign groups attempted to invade the Nile Valley, but few were successful and most of those only happened in the Late Period. An enigmatic group known as the Hyksos, though, was the first foreign group to successfully invade and conquer part of Egypt, taking the Delta region around the year 1648 BC and then ruling it for about 100 years. In later centuries, this foreign dynasty became known as the Fifteenth Dynasty.

Very little is known about the Hyksos from the historical or archaeological records. The Fifteenth Dynasty is mentioned in the ancient Egyptian king-list known as the “Turin King-List,” which is dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. It is believed that the Turin King-List was the source of Manetho’s inclusion of the Fifteenth Dynasty in his third century BC chronology of ancient Egypt. The first century AD Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, offered more commentary of the Hyksos in his transmission of Manetho’s work, but little else is mentioned of them in the historical record. Also, due to the fact that the Egyptian Delta is so densely populated and has a high water table, much of their archaeological have been destroyed or are underwater or fields. Because of these reasons, the process by which the Hyksos were able to conquer the Delta remains a source of debate.

Two primary theories have been advanced to explain the Hyksos conquest. The “gradual” theory posits that the Hyksos assumed control after a period of gradual but intense immigration from the Levant. Once the foreigners’ numbers were high enough, they simply proclaimed their own dynasty in the Delta. The other major theory is that the Hyksos conquered the Delta in one fell swoop. An examination of both theories reveals that there is evidence to support both and that they do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Ultimately, though, the Hyksos conquest of the Egyptian Delta would not have been possible without the collapse of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC). Once the Middle Kingdom collapsed and central authority vanished, the door was open for any powerful group, even foreigners, to install competing dynasties.

Who Were the Hyksos?

Map Detailing the Hyksos Invasion and Conquest of the Delta

The question who the Hyksos were, ethnically, and where they came from has plagued Egyptologists since the nineteenth century. Like many of the modern terms used to describe pharaonic culture, the term “Hyksos” is actually an ancient Greek approximation of an ancient Egyptian term. The word Hyksos was actually based on two Egyptian words: Heqa for “ruler” and Khasut for “foreign lands,” to mean “ruler of foreign land.” [1] The name indicates that the Hyksos were foreign, but it does little to illuminate their geographic or ethnic origins.

A formerly popular theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that the Hyksos were either Indo-European or Hurrian in ethnicity. Egyptologists reasoned that since the Hittites and the Hurrians were among the first people in the Near East to utilize war chariots, then the Hyksos must have been related to one of those two groups. [2] In the decades just before and after World War II, though, thanks to archaeological advances in the Levant, consensus among Egyptologists and Biblical scholars shifted to the Hyksos having Canaanite-Semitic origins.

The Canaanite ethnic origins of the Hyksos are at least partially supported by the transmissions of the third century BC Hellenized Egyptian priest Manetho. Although recorded much later than the Hyksos invasions, the transmissions of Manetho mention the Hyksos in some detail in more than one passage. In a passage from Syncellus according to Africanus, the Hyksos were described as shepherds from the Levant.

“The Fifteenth Dynasty consisted of Shepherd Kings. There were six foreign kings from Phoenicia, who seized Memphis: in the Sethroite nome they founded a town, from which as a base they subdued Egypt. The first of these kings, Saites, reigned for 19 years: the Saite nome is called after him. . . Total, 284 years.” [3]

In more recent years, archaeologists have compared Hyksos material remains from Egypt with those from the Levant, determining that they were descended from a Middle Bronze Age (c. 2,100-1600 BC) Canaanite group. [4] The names of the known Fifteenth Dynasty kings also point to a Semitic origin, which would further indicate a Levantine source for the enigmatic people. So then the questions are, how, why, and when did the Hyksos migrate to Egypt?

Migrations of large numbers of human populations have been common throughout human history. The Germanic invasions that precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth through sixth centuries and the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century are two of the better known examples, but there are several more from all periods of history and on nearly every continent. There was a major wave of migrations throughout the Near East in the eighteenth century BC that eventually brought the Kassites into Babylonia and the Hurrians into northern Mesoptomia/Assyria. [5] As these groups were migrating through the Near East, the big and more powerful groups displaced others, creating a domino effect of displaced peoples. Groups such as the Hurrians had the early advantage of the chariot, which the Hyksos possibly learned in their defeat and brought with them to Egypt. Once in Egypt, the Hyksos were able to use their new military technology to take advantage of the political situation.

The Invasion Scenarios

Both of the Hyksos invasion scenarios are logical, supported by some evidence, and are advocated by respected scholars. Those that support the gradual theory argue that the Hyksos came to power after a wave of unprecedent immigration during the Middle Kingdom. Many people from the Levant, or “Asiatics” as the Egyptians called them, were brought to Egypt as slaves, while others came freely for trade or other opportunities. Eventually, their numbers reached such a high level in the Delta where they were able to assert themselves politically by establishing their own dynasty. [6]

The gradual migration theory is not supported by any one text or piece of material culture, but more so by anecdotal evidence. There definitely was a tremendous increase in the number of inhabitants of Canaanite origin in the Delta during the late Middle Kingdom and there is little doubt that they would have wielded some influence. Based on their names, some of the kings of the Thirteenth Dynasty may have been of Asiatic origin, which indicates that the Canaanite influence had permeated the nobility by that point. [7]

Modern excavations in and around the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris provide much of the evidence in favor of the gradual invasion theory. According to work done at the site, the Delta had experienced a steady stream of Asiatic migrants beginning in the Thirteenth Dynasty. The evidence also appears to suggest that the Hyksos Fifteenth Dynasty was culturally similar to the Fourteenth Dynasty, which points toward a more gradual conquest of the Delta. [8]

Equally as logical, yet more dramatic is the theory that the Hyksos conquered the Delta in one fell swoop. Säve-Söderbergh and Redford are among the better known scholars who have advocated this theory, which dovetails off the idea of the general migrations that were taking place in the Middle Bronze Age Near East. Redford believes that the Hyksos were a branch of a larger, more well-known tribe, such as the Amorites, who simply wandered into the Delta in one large mass. [9] The only evidence to support this theory is one of Josephus’ transmissions of Manetho. It states:

“Tutimaeus. In his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and 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; and having overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others. Finally, they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis. . . In the Saite [Sethroïte] nome he found a city very favourably situated on the east of the Bubastite branch of the Nile, and called Auaris after an ancient religious tradition. This place he rebuilt and fortified with massive walls, planting there a garrison of as many as 240,000 heavy-armed men to guard his frontier. . . Their race as a whole was called Hyksos, that is ‘king-shepherds’.” [10]

Although both scenarios are logical, it is also possible that the Hyksos came to power through a combination of the two. Excessive Asiatic migration to the Delta may have precipitated and possibly facilitated to some degree a large invasion that placed the Hyksos in power in the region. But even if the Hyksos had the numerical advantage over the Egyptians in the Delta, which there is no evidence they did, they still needed some other factors in their favor to be successful.

The Keys to Hyksos Success

Bust of a Hyksos Ruler

Although the method by which the Hyksos came to power in the Delta remains somewhat of a mystery, the tools that helped them, along with the fortuitous course of historical events that allowed it, are well-known. As mentioned earlier, the Hyksos introduced the horse and the chariot to Egypt, which gave them an advantage over the Egyptians’ infantry. [11] The Hyksos may also have introduced the composite bow to Egypt, [12], which would have given them another advantage over the Egyptians, at least initially. The reality is that the greatest aid the Hyksos received, though, was the Egyptians’ own weakness.

No matter what type of technological advantage the Hyksos may have had, it would not have mattered if they attempted their invasion of Egypt during the height of the Middle Kingdom. Once the Middle Kingdom began to decline rapidly during the Thirteenth Dynasty, all central authority evaporated and along with it any will, or power, to stop a strong invader. Manetho lists sixty kings ruling from Thebes in the Thirteenth Dynasty. Modern scholars have estimated that the Thirteenth Dynasty lasted about 150 years for an average rule of only three years, which indicates extreme instability in the royal house that ultimately led to the collapse of the dynasty and the Middle Kingdom. [13] With native Egyptian power in decline and foreign elements already becoming dominant in the Delta, it was a small step for the Hyksos to assert hegemony over the Delta, establishing their own dynasty in the process.

Conclusion

The Hyksos were the first foreign invaders to rule at least part of Egypt, but details of their origins and how they were able to accomplish the feat remain somewhat enigmatic. Archaeological and textual evidence indicates that they were able to take power when the central authority of the Middle Kingdom collapsed and then large numbers of Asiatic immigrants already living in the Delta aligned with an invasion force to take control. Although new warfare technologies may have played a role in the Hyksos success, their victory can ultimately be ascribed to historical chance – they invaded Egypt at the right time.


References

  1. Faulkner, Richard O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1999), pgs. 178, 185
  2. Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 99
  3. Manetho. Aegyptiaca. Translated by W. G. Waddell. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Frgs. 43, 91
  4. Redmount, Carol A. “Pottery, and the Hyksos at Tell El-Maskuta in the Egyptian Delta.” Biblical Archaeologist 58 (1995) p. 183
  5. Säve-Söderbergh, T. “The Hyksos Rule in Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 37 (1956) p. 54
  6. Spalinger, Anthony. War in Ancient Egypt. (London: Blackwell, 2005), pgs. 22-23
  7. Kemp, Barry J. “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period c. 2686-1552 BC.” In Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Edited by Bruce G. Trigger, David O’Connor, and Alan B. Lloyd. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 156
  8. Bourriau, Janine. “The Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Ian Shaw. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pgs. 188-93
  9. Redford, p. 104
  10. Manetho, Fr. 42
  11. Spalinger, p. 8
  12. Spalinger, p. 15
  13. Grajetzki, Wolfram. The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. (London: Duckworth, 2009), p. 63