The Hyksos of Avaris is a term that has been given by modern Egyptologists for the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt, dating from approximately 1650 to 1550 BC. Their base of power was in the city of Avaris, hence the name, found in the Nile Delta.
Their power extended across lower and middle Egypt up to Cusae found in the Northern part of Egypt. In the history of Egypt written by Manetho, the Greco-Egyptian priest in the 3rd century BC, he uses the term Hyskos to designate people of West Semitic and Levantine origin. Manetho portrayed them as oppressors and invaders though this has been questioned by modern scholars.
The Hyskos period is the first time we know of that Egypt was ruled by foreign powers. Unfortunately, much of the details of their reign have been lost and thus remain uncertain.
What is known is that the Hyskos practiced many Canaanite customs and Levantine customs alongside Egyptian traditions. Scholars have attributed technological advancements to this dynasty such as the sickle sword, the composite bow, and the horse and chariot, although as with much about these enigmatic pharaohs this remains disputed.
Whilst they shared Egypt with the sixteenth and seventeenth dynasties who were based in Thebes, during what is known as the Second Intermediate Period of conflicting ruling houses, it was not long until they clashed. The Seventeenth Dynasty eventually defeated the Hyksos leading to the foundation of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the portrayal of the Hyksos as oppressive and violent foreigners. But where did they come from and how did their dynasty end?
A Strange Name and an Obscure Origin
The term “Hyksos” comes from the Egyptian expression for rulers of a foreign land. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian claims the term meant shepherd kings or captive kings.
He claimed that the Hyksos were Jews, but this is perhaps taken from Manetho. However, in Ancient Egypt, the term “Hyksos” was used to refer to the various Nubian and Asiatic rulers before and after the Fifteenth Dynasty.
The word was in common use since the sixth dynasty of Egyptian rulers, from the 3rd millennium BC, but it had never been used by Egypt to refer to her rulers before. Whoever the Hyksos were, they had come from somewhere else.
Some have seized upon this Hebrew connection in an attempt to match the Hyksos rulers to the Hebrews of the Bible, and specifically the Exodus story and the Egyptian connection. In truth it is very hard to make these two align, and what evidence we have seems to suggest the dates are out by centuries: although the origin of the Exodus story may come from a cultural memory it is highly unlikely to be an account grounded in reality.
- Herodotus and the Lost Labyrinth of Egypt: Found at Last?
- Egyptian Monotheism? Akhenaten, the Heretic King
Josephus, in his epitome of Manethos, created a connection with the Hyksos and the Jews. However, he unhelpfully also calls them Arabs. Other historians such as Sextus Julius Africanus and Eusebius claim that they came instead from Phoenicia. Until the archaeological evidence was found in 1966, all scholars had to go on was this evidence.
Modern historians have used the finds found in 1966 at Tell El-Dab’a to indicate that the Hyksos likely came from the Levant or the Middle East. Their names indicate that they may have spoken a Western Semitic language and they have been labelled Canaanites since, partially as a best guess, partially for convenience.
Kamose, the final king of the Seventeenth Dynasty, refers to Apepi, a ruler of the Hyksos, as the “chieftain of the Retjenu”. This was found in a stela that confirms the Levantine background of the Hyksos.
Recent work done by Manfred Bietak has found similarities in ceramics, architecture, and burial practices with those communities found in the North Levantine. He has based his conclusions mostly on temple architecture and has found particular similarities with the towns of Byblos, Ugarit, and Tell Brak.
Dental finds have indicated that 90 people from the Avaris region could be clearly separated into locals and non-locals. They were not however ancestrally different from each other. It has shown that Avaris was likely an important hub in the Middle Bronze Age, welcoming a variety of people from across the world.
History of the Hyksos Empire
The events that brought the Hyksos to power in lower Egypt are not particularly clear. The 13th and 14th dynasties faded and weakened around the 17th century BC. Scholars have suggested that a famine in the Delta region would have contributed to the decline and allowed for the Hyksos dynasty to step in and establish themselves.
They ruled for nearly a hundred years before coming into conflict with the seventeenth dynasty. This war would redefined Egypt and usher in a new era for this most ancient of kingdoms.
At the start it is important to note that the Hyksos and Thebes conflict is known only from the Theban sources. Thus, as with Carthage and the Roman sources we have for her, the Hyksos do not get a fair reading.
- (List) Eight Strange Ruins of Africa that aren’t Egyptian
- The Mysterious “Set”: An Ancient Egyptian Cryptid?
It is also very difficult to construct a cohesive chronology and narrative. The sources present the conflict as a war of liberation. It is likely that this is how the Theban population felt but it is unlikely that the Hyksos saw this conflict as more than an uprising.
The conflict began under the Theban King Seqenenra Taa. He was killed during a battle with the Hyksos, it is presumed, due to the multiple axe wounds found on his mummy.
It is not clear why the conflict started but it is attributed to border and land issues in a later source. In 1542 BC, three years after Seqenenra’s death, his successor Kamose launched a fresh campaign against the Hyksos. He targeted multiple cities.
An account of this was preserved on three stelae found in Karnak. Kamose had initial success capturing multiple cities, including Avaris, but returned to Thebes soon after. It was not until Ahmose I came to the throne that the conflict was resumed.
Ahmose was successful in his conflict and is said to have sacked Avaris, though the archaeological remains show no evidence of this (more historical revisionism, perhaps). It looks more likely that it was abandoned by the Hyksos.
Manetho, claims that the Hyksos were allowed to leave Avaris on the condition of surrender and upon signing a treaty. The treaty allowed for the evacuation of the Hyksos, but they had to leave Egypt and head to the desert in Syria. This may explain why no damaged buildings have been found.
The Legacy of the Shepherd Kings
There is little mention of the Hyksos dynasty in the historical record, and it is through fragmentary sources and a little archaeological evidence that conclusions can be drawn. Manetho and Josephus are largely to thank or blame for the record of the dynasty.
They left a written account of their reign, albeit created much after the Hyksos had gone. However, they are also responsible for the propaganda that the Hyksos have since faced as foreign oppressors inclined towards violence. If Hyksos sources survived and are ever found, they may tell a very different and illuminating story.
Top Image: Odd haircuts and odds practices: the Hyksos “Shepherd Kings” of Egypt are believed to be semitic in origin. Source: NebMaatRa / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Kurt Readman