How Did the Libyans Impact Ancient Egypt?

Modern Recreation of an Ancient Egyptian Relief Depicting the Races of Man Known to the Egyptians – From Right to Left: Egyptian, Canaanite/Asiatic, Nubian, and Four Different Libyan Chieftains

The ancient Egyptians were quite conscious of the cultural differences between them and their three closest neighbors – the Canaanites, Nubians, and Libyans. Although the Egyptians, for the most part, were xenophobic toward these peoples and almost always depicted them negatively in art and texts, there is little doubt that they influenced the course of pharaonic history.

For their oases settlements and camps in the Western/Sahara Desert, the Libyans were in contact with the Egyptians from the start of the Egyptian state around 3,100 BC and continued to be well into the period of Greek and Roman domination. The relationship between the Libyans and Egyptian was usually acrimonious, with warfare being endemic, especially during Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1075 BC). With that said, there were periods of peaceful interaction and trade between the two peoples, and since there was never any unified Libyan state, warfare and trade were at the time simultaneous. Eventually, due to largescale Libyan migration into the Egyptian Delta for reasons that are still unclear, the Libyans became rulers over parts of Egypt with their kings adopting the styles and nomenclature of legitimate Egyptian pharaohs. For these reasons, the Libyans probably had more impact, and certainly the most enduring, on ancient Egypt than any other foreign people.

Ancient Libyan Ethnicity and Geography

As stated above, the ancient Libyans never had a central government, and instead of being one homogenous group they were a collection of various tribes who shared many cultural features. The ancient Egyptians had many different names for them and modern scholars define them simply as the ancient people of the Western Desert. [1] Culturally, the ancient Libyans were pastoral people who herded their cattle from oasis to oasis and sometimes to the coast. In their art, the Egyptians usually depicted the Libyans with light complexions and sometimes with blue eyes, but almost always with dark hair and often with their herds. It may be the Libyans’ herding background that played a role in their often negative representations in Egyptian art, as the Egyptians were a sedentary people who viewed desert-dwelling nomads as chaotic. [2]

It is unknown today actually how many Libyan tribes there were in ancient times, but Egyptian texts identify four major groups. The Tjehenu and Tjemehu were the most important tribes during ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca. 2575-1640 BC), but they were, for the most part, eclipsed and replaced by the Libu and Meshwesh tribes just before the New Kingdom. Overall, the Egyptians’ representation of the Libyans varied slightly between the Old and New Kingdoms, although the basics were usually similar. It was almost always only men who were depicted, usually with long hair, light complexions, and wearing phallus sheaths. [3] By the New Kingdom, the Egyptians portrayed the Libyans with some light complexions but wearing full beards and elaborate gowns and headdresses. [4]

Libyan and Egyptian Trade

Egypt’s New Kingdom was a period of imperial power and great material wealth, and it was also the time when the Egyptians and Libyans engaged in more regular contact with each other. Two new Libyan tribes came to prominence during this period, who would leave the most enduring impacts on Egypt. The first of the new Libyan tribes to enter the historical record during the New Kingdom was known as the Meshwesh or Ma. This tribe was first mentioned in Egyptian texts during the rule of the pharaoh Amenhotep III (ruled ca. 1403-1364 BC). [5] Not long after the Meshwesh appeared, they were joined by another Libyan tribe known as the Libu, which is where it is believed the modern name of Libya is derived. [6] The bellicose Libu, who were usually depicted with their hair cut at the nape and often tattooed, probably entered the scene a little later than the Meshwesh but left an equally deep impact on Egypt. [7]

Both the Meshwesh and Libu were more culturally sophisticated than the other Libyan tribes to the point where they sometimes traded with the Egyptians as somewhat equal partners. [8] Although the Libyans had no real cities and had far less material wealth than the Egyptians, a system of trade developed between the two peoples. When Ramesses II (reigned ca. 1290-1224 BC) built a series of forts on Egypt’s border on the Western Desert, the initial purpose was to keep the invading Meshwesh and Libu tribes from entering Egypt, but some of these forts became trading posts. Just like the Egyptian forts in Nubia, some of the forts in the Western Desert, such as the fort near the modern town of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakkam, became centers where friendly Libyans offered their wares for Egyptian goods. [9] Archaeological evidence also indicates that the Libyan settlement near the modern coastal city of Mars Matruh was a point of sometimes peaceful contact between Libyans and Egyptians. [10]

Unlike the Nubians, who possessed rich gold deposits in their land, the Libyans had few resources the Egyptians desired. Cattle was the lifeblood of the Libyan people, but there is little evidence that they ever traded their livestock to the Egyptians. Instead, the Libyans probably traded more exotic goods to their more refined neighbors, such as ostrich feathers and eggs and the eatable plant silphium. [11] Although there was some peaceful trade between the Libyans and Egyptians, their relationship was mainly defined by war and invasion.

The Libyans Bring Invasion and War to Egypt

Relief of Captured Nubian, Libyan, and Canaanite Prisoners from Ramesses II’s Temple at Abu Simbel

During ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, from 1300 to 1170 BC, the Libyans invaded Egypt five times. But before, during, and after those invasions, the Libyans had already begun migrating to Egypt en masse as tribes and family units, usually to the Delta region. The reason, or reasons, for the migration remain unclear, but some modern scholars believe it may have been precipitated by a severe drought in Libya that affected the Libyans ability to live as they had for centuries. [12] Whatever the causes, when the Libyans migrated into Egypt they came as both settlers and warriors.

The first significant clashes between the Libyans and Egyptians took place during the reigns of kings Seti I (reigned ca. 1305-1290 BC) and Ramesses II (ruled ca. 1290-1224 BC) in the Nineteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. Inscriptions from the Karnak Temple in Thebes relate details of Seti I’s two wars with the Libyans, which took place sometime after his second year on the throne. [13] Seti’s efforts to stem the Libyan tide were only partially successful, though, as his son and successor, Ramesses II, continued to deal with the threat from the west. In response, as noted earlier, Ramesses II erected a series of border forts to deal with the Libyans. The actions of Seti I and Ramesses II only proved to be a band-aid on a hemorrhage because their successors continued to deal with the Libyan threat, which proved to be existential.

Ramesses II’s successor, Merenptah (reigned ca. 1224-1204 BC), and the second king of the Twentieth Dynasty, Ramesses III (ruled 1184-1152 BC), bore the brunt of the New Kingdom Libyan invasions. During Merenptah’s fifth year of rule, the Libyans invaded Egypt and were joined by a coalition of the Sea Peoples. The Libyans were led by a chieftain named Merye, who organized the alliance because the Egyptian texts state he sent out messengers to the Sea Peoples to join. [14] Merenptah and the Egyptians routed the Libyans and their Sea Peoples allies, which was then commemorated on a stela, now known as the “Merenptah Stela.” Part of the inscription reads:

“The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded, has fallen upon the country of Tjehenu with his bowmen . . . Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Luka, Teresh, taking the best of every warrior and every man of war of his country. He has brought his wife and his children . . . leaders of the camp and he has reached the western boundary in the fields of Perire.” [15]

The Libyans returned in force, though, during the reign of Ramesses III. The Egyptian king was saddled with a similar problem that Merenptah faced – invasions from both the Libyans and Sea Peoples. During Ramesses III’s fifth year of rule, a Libyan chieftain named Themer led a coalition of Meshwesh and Tjemehu Libyans in an unsuccessful attack into the Nile Valley. [16] Another Libyan army returned in Ramesses III’s eleventh year but was repulsed when the Meshwesh turned and attacked the Libyan Tjehenu tribe. [17] Although Ramesses III successfully repulsed both the Sea Peoples and Libyans, the damage had already been done. The Libyans had been migrating to Egypt for generations and would soon change the political complexion of the land.

The Libyans and Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period

Map Detailing the Political Fragmentation of Egypt during the Libyan Dominated Third Intermediate Period

The Libyan migrations and invasions were one of the major reasons for the collapse of Egypt’s New Kingdom. The native Egyptians lost control over the Delta and most of Lower (northern) Egypt but held onto power around the city of Thebes in the south. The Libyans eventually came to dominate the Delta region so much that they established their regional dynasties throughout much of Egypt outside of Thebes: The Twenty-Second, Twenty-Third, and Twenty-Fourth Dynasties were all descended from Libyan tribes, namely the Meshwesh/Ma, and were connected culturally. Unlike earlier periods in Egyptian history where one dynasty would rule the entire land, the Libyan dynasties often ruled only portions of the country simultaneously. It was truly a period of political fragmentation in ancient Egypt. [18]

Perhaps the fascinating aspect of Libyan rule in Egypt was that if one were to give a cursory view of the monuments they left, they would be nearly indistinguishable from the native Egyptians. The Libyan dynasties were based in and around the Delta cities of Bubastis and Tanis, which is where nearly all of the monuments and texts from the period have been discovered. Although the artistic, linguistic, and theological styles the Libyans used in their monuments and texts were purely Egyptian, they retained their very Libyan sounding names. From the Twenty-Second through the Twenty-Sixth Dynasties, several Egyptian kings were named Osorkon, Shoshenq, Psamtek, and Nekau among others, which betrayed their Libyan origins. Despite keeping their Libyan names, these kings never referred to themselves as Libyans and only rarely as descended from Libyan tribes. [19]

The Libyan kings of the Twenty-Second Dynasty, in particular, paved the way for the later Libyans to be accepted as Egyptians by marrying into the native Egyptian Twenty-First Dynasty, which led to them being reluctantly accepted by the powerful priests of Thebes. [20] The kings of the Twenty-Second Dynasty would renew trade with the Phoenician city of Byblos and were the contemporaries of King Solomon of Israel (reigned ca. 971-931), is mentioned in 1 Kings: 11-12. [21] Although the Twenty-Second Dynasty collapsed and the Libyans were toppled from power by the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, descendants of the Libyans made their impact felt one last in Egypt when the Libyan descended Twenty-Sixth Dynasty came to power in the Delta city of Sais.


The ancient Libyans had a long and complicated relationship with the Egyptians. For most of their history, they were one of Egypt’s traditional enemies, but during that time they occasionally engaged in peaceful trade with their more powerful and advanced neighbor. Over time, as waves of Libyans began migrating into the Nile Valley and Delta, the Libyans were able to affect the political structure of Egypt, eventually installing their dynasties throughout the country. Because of these reasons, one can argue that the Libyans impacted ancient Egyptian history more than any other non-Egyptian people.


  1. Snape, Steven. “The Emergence of Libya on the Horizon of Egypt.” In Mysterious Lands. Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London, University College London Press, 2003), pgs. 94-95
  2. David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. “Introduction: Mapping the Unknown in Ancient Egypt.” In Mysterious Lands. Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London, University College London Press, 2003), p. 17
  3. Wainwright, G. A. “The Meshwesh.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 48 (1962) p. 91
  4. O’Connor and Quirke, p. 17
  5. Snape, p. 98
  6. Redford, Donald. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 247
  7. Leahy, Anthony. “The Libyan Period in Egypt: An Essay in Interpretation.” Libyan Studies. 16 (1985) p. 55
  8. Snape, p.98
  9. Snape, p. 103
  10. Richardson, Seth. “Libya Domestica: Libyan trade and Society on the Eve of the Invasion of Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 48 (1962) p. 91
  11. Richardson, pgs. 151-3
  12. Leahy, p. 53
  13. Breasted, Henry, ed. and trans. Ancient Records of Egypt. Volume 3, The Nineteenth Dynasty (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 58
  14. Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 216
  15. Breasted, p. 243
  16. Breasted, Volume 4, The Twentieth through the Twenty-sixth Dynasties, pgs. 23-24
  17. Breasted, Volume 4, p. 52
  18. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 623
  19. Leahy, pgs. 54-56
  20. Kitchen, Kenneth. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt: (1100 to 650 BC). Second Edition. (Warminster, United Kingdom: Aris and Phillips, 1995), p. 288
  21. Kitchen, p. 292


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