The history of Ancient Egypt, enormous as it is, can also be neatly subdivided. From the unifying efforts of the first semi-mythical kings there emerged a series of dynasties which ran through three golden eras of a united Egypt, with two periods of infighting and discord in between.
These two “intermediate” periods show us Egypt at its most divided. The glories and famous monumental architecture come almost exclusively from the settled Old, Middle and New “Kingdom” periods of relative peace, but it is the “intermediate” periods that show us something of the character of these people.
Let me show you what I mean.
Apophis Picks a Fight
Pharaoh Apophis was a powerful man, the ruler of Lower Egypt (confusingly, northern Egypt and the Nile delta) of the 15th dynasty. Unfortunately for Apophis, his rule was not absolute, as he ruled during the Second Intermediate Period of internal strife in Egyptian history, around 1550 BC.
So, there were other, rival Pharaohs. There was, most obviously, Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao, ruler of Thebes to your immediate south. He looked like easy pickings, but there was one problem.
Seqenenre Tao was a peaceful neighbor of Apophis, a rival it is true, but not one with whom Apophis was actively at war. If he was to be taken on in battle, Apophis needed to pick a quarrel.
This wasn’t some relic of chivalric nicety, some formality to go through; Apophis and Seqenenre Tao were both aware of the world they lived in. It was more a diplomatic offer that Seqenenre Tao surrender, couched in sniggering.
Apophis therefore dispatched a message from his capital in Avaris to Seqenenre Tao in distant Thebes, with a very specific complaint. The hippopotami of Thebes, Apophis claimed, could be heard at night all the way over in Avaris: would Seqenenre Tao kindly drain his hippopotamus pond.
Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao was offered a choice. He could submit to the will of his northern neighbor, however arbitrary that will may be, or refuse the request, and give Apophis the diplomatic slap in the face he was looking for.
Apophis technically had suzerainty, but this was an interesting test of independence for Seqenenre Tao. History, sadly, does not record the end of this diplomatic crisis. The end of the scroll is missing.
The fact that the narrative comes from a scribe of the much later 19th dynasty may suggest that a portion of the tale may be allegorical, or otherwise fictionalized. If that is the case we could expect a solution along the lines of “Seqenenre Tao consulted a wise man and was given a clever solution to avoid war.”
However, there are a couple of fragmentary clues in the archaeological record which point to another possibility. What if the Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre Tao actually happened, just as it was written?
You see, we have the mummified remains of Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao, and they tell us a couple of things about the situation in which he died. Firstly, the mummification is surprisingly imperfect for the body of the ruler of Thebes. Were his priests embalming him in a sudden rush, under some outside pressure?
Secondly, the skull and face of Seqenenre Tao have been punctured and destroyed by entry wounds from multiple sharp edges. Any of these wounds would likely be mortal by themselves, and they make it clear that this Pharaoh, or his recently deceased body, was not to be treated with respect.
Did Seqenenre Tao take Apophis’s bait, rise to the challenge and ride out of Thebes with his army to meet Apophis in battle? Did he die over an insult to his hippopotami?
Top Image: One of the “Hyksos Sphinxes” originally made for Amenemhat III before being later stolen by Pharoah Apophis, Source: E A Wallis Budge / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green