Manetho states “during the reign of Tutimaos 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. He had his seat in Memphis, levying tribute from upper Egypt.. In the Saite nome he founded a city.. and called it Auaris”.

He named these invaders the “Hyksos” which he translated as “shepherd kings” although now the term is often translated as “foreign rulers” or “desert princes”.

Contrary to the impression given by Manetho, the Hyksos (“heqa khasut” in Ancient Egyptian) were not in fact a distinct racial grouping, but rather the term used to refer to the rulers of the area around Avaris and Sharuhen during the Second Intermediate Period (Asiatics were more generally known as “Aamu”). Their subjects comprised of a number of Semitic peoples driven from Western Asia into Africa by instability and famine during the Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties Thirteen to Seventeen) and native Egyptians.

Depiction of Aamu in the tomb of Khnumhotep II featuring the first reference to "hyksos"
Depiction of Aamu (Asiatics) in the Tomb of Khnumhotep II, NebMaatRa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Detail with hieroglyphs reading "Hyksos"
Detail with hieroglyphs reading “Hyksos”

The Hyksos appear to have established themselves in Lower Egypt where they ruled from the city of Avaris for about two hundred years. Their occupation was later described as a highly traumatic event for the Egyptian people but it is not clear whether this was the view of contemporary Egyptians who lived under their control.

Thutimaos is generally thought to be the obscure Thirteenth Dynasty king Dudimose (the other kings with a similar reign are too late to be contenders) who reigned shortly before or concurrently with the Hyksos Dynasty at Avaris. The passage is ambiguous, but it may refer to two events; the smiting by God (which some have chosen to see as a reference to the events surrounding the Exodus), and the invasion of the Hyksos. It was previously thought that one reason for their ease in conquering upper Egypt was that they had chariots (unlike the Egyptians) and were exceptional archers. There is some evidence that the Egyptians already had chariots, but they may well have been less experienced in their use. More speculatively, you could argue that the smiting by god left Egypt undefended, allowing the Hyksos to take control “without striking a blow”.

The Hyksos did indeed sack Memphis, but the description of their attitude to the gods could be anti-Hyksos propaganda, after all they took Seth as their main god while retaining their worship of Astarte (the Phonecian mother-goddess) and Reshep (a Phoenician storm god). Furthermore, the Hyksos adopted Egyptian customs and even preserved Egyptian culture.

Hyksos scarab with the name of King Seshi
Scarab of Hyksos King Seshi
Seal Amulet of Hyksos King Apophis
Seal Amulet of Hyksos King Apophis
Scarab of Hyksos King Khayan
Scarab of Hyksos King Khayan

Apophis, the fifth Hyksos king, instructed scribes to copy Egyptian texts so they would not be lost. Because of his foresight we have recovered priceless documents such as the “Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus” (the oldest known surgical handbook), the “Westcar Papyrus” and “the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus” (the most important document describing Egyptian mathematical theory).

Sphinx of Amenemhat III usurped by Apophis and much later by Psusennes I
Sphinx of Amenemhat III usurped by Apophis and much later by Psusennes I

Some of the Hyksos may have been Hurrian or Hittite, but no firm evidence has been discovered to confirm their origins fully. They were by no means the first Asiatics to settle in Egypt, prompting some to suggest that there was no major battle, just a steady influx of settlers who worked themselves into positions of power while retaining their own cultural differences. Evidence from the excavation at Tell el-Dab’a, confirms that the settlement was constantly evolving and changing as the new cultures adapted to the Egyptian way of life. Settlements discovered in Tell el-Ajjul (southern Palestinian), Ebla (Syrian) and Byblos (Lebanon) share many characteristics with the settlement at Tell el Dab’a.

The Hyksos brought with them knowledge of bronze weapons, chariots and composite bows. But it is not clear that they were required to use this military know-how to take control of upper Egypt. Certainly they had to fight to keep power, but Manetho may be right to infer that there was no initial battle for dominance. This supports the suggestion that immigration and the political weakness of the Egyptian kings of the time had set up the environment to allow a group to seize power relatively easily.

Asiatic head with characteristic mushroom shaped hair from Avaris

Given this slow advance by the Hyksos rulers into southern Egypt, it seems reasonable to infer that the superior military technology of the Hyksos was only an element of their strength. Their success may also have relied upon their exploitation of the political weakness of the late Middle Kingdom. Another intriguing possibility exists. It is possible that the whole area was blighted by plague (was this god smiting?) and that the Hyksos were badly affected by this too. Perhaps they took over during a time of crisis and were unable to push further into Egypt because they too were suffering the effects of the plague.

A stele placed by the Seventeenth Dynasty king Kamose marks Hermopolis as the southern boundary of the Hyksos kingdom, but it is thought that at times their rule may even have extended to Thebes and Nubia.

Although they did not directly control all of Lower Egypt, the other rulers there were reduced to the status of vassals. Upper Egypt also seems to have been reduced to a vassaldom until the Thebans raised a rebellion against them. Therefore, they could be regarded as the legitimate rulers of the whole country during parts of the Second Intermediate Period.

Seqenenre Tao was the first Theban ruler to offer a serious challenge to their rule and they were finally driven from Egypt by his grandson Ahmose I, the founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty.

  • J Baines and J Malek (2000) Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt
  • Kathryn Bard (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • C Booth (2005) he Hyksos period in Egypt
  • J Bourriau (2003) “The Second Intermediate Period” in Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Edited by I Shaw
  • E Hornung (1999) History of Ancient Egypt
  • B Manley (1996) The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt
  • Steele (2003) “Who were the Hyksos” from 70 Mysteries of Ancient Egypt Ed B Manley
  • M Van de Mieroop (2010) A History of Ancient Egypt

Copyright J Hill 2010