The Hyksos: Mysterious Semitic Conquerors of the Nile Delta

hyksos-nomad-warriors (Image: via Wikipedia)

History abounds with the rise and fall of entire civilizations. Some, we learn about in school, or discover via college textbooks and television documentaries. Others, however, are more obscure, but that doesn’t mean that they’re entirely forgotten. The Hyksos, who ruled in ancient Egypt’s Nile Delta almost 4,000 years ago, were a fascinating culture that have become a strange mix of mythical, historical and Biblical. Though the evidence of their tenure is patchy today, they have been described as both hated conquerors and brilliant technological innovators. Fierce warriors and highly advanced for their time, they changed the face of Egypt, forever. Before they fell.

10. Who They Were

Most of what we know about the Hyksos comes from indirect sources, like the excavation of their cities and the writings of the ancient Egyptians. According to the historians Josephus, Manetho and Africanus, they ruled for several hundred years beginning around 1700 B.C. Just how they came to power is up for debate, though, as Josephus’s history (quoted from Manetho, an earlier source) states they were a people who invaded from outside Egypt, taking control of the country with minimal bloodshed, and burning everything to the ground in order to build their own cities.

Hyksos-Scarab (Image: Ashley Van Haeften; an ancient Hyksos scarab)

Actual evidence doesn’t support the history, but it does speak to what contemporaries saw in these invading outsiders, whose name means ‘rulers of foreign countries’. (Originally, ‘Hyksos’ was translated as ‘shepherd kings’.) Archaeological evidence suggests that much of Egypt as they found it remained intact.

It’s not known for sure where exactly they came from, but they’re understood to have been a Semitic people with origins somewhere in Western Asia. Travelers had been moving to Egypt from areas like Palestine, Cyprus and Syria for generations, and it’s thought that the arrival of the Hyksos may even have been encouraged by the native Egyptians. They brought their advanced technology with them, after all, and from their style of governing to their religion, it seems as though they didn’t entirely take over Egyptian culture so much as absorbed it.

9. Avaris

The site of the capital city of the Hyksos was first discovered in 1885, but excavations didn’t begin until 1928, when the city was thought to be Piramesse, the Biblical city of Ramses. It wasn’t until later that it was discovered to be Avaris (modern day Tell el-Daba), and ongoing excavations were in full force from 1966 to 1969, and again from 1975 to the present day.

avaris-hyksos (Image: Jeff Dahl)

Some of the settlement was built on mounds that would remain above water when the Nile rose; that also meant it was surrounded by incredibly fertile agricultural lands. The regular building pattern shows it was planned from start to finish, and it still hasn’t been excavated completely.

What has been excavated offers a number intriguing insights into life not only in the capital, but in Egypt. Tombs have led archaeologists to believe that most of the men in the city were also soldiers. Many have been found buried with bronze weapons – and many more tombs have been robbed. Some of the imagery found seems to indicate the presence of the worship of Syrian gods, particularly the snake-god of storms. Other pieces are Minoan, proof that the civilization had contact with others a long way off.

abydos-ancient-egypt (Image: Steve F-E-Cameron)

By the time of the 13th Dynasty, Avaris – which had been settled and resettled, expanded and grown – shows signs of tragedy. While most earlier graves included the likes of bronze weapons, pottery and animal sacrifices, those dating to this period are without ritual or offering. Researchers suspect the burial sites offer tantalising and sinister clues as to what happened in Avaris to help bring about its downfall – plague.

It’s unclear how many other cities came under the control of the Hyksos during their reign, but it’s thought that their rule might have extended as far south as Abydos, and certainly to Heliopolis.

8. The Right Hand

Excavations of Avaris have also yielded grisly proof of a practice that, until then, was only known through writings.

right-hand-bones (Image: University of Liverpool HLS)

Found buried before what had been, at the time, a throne room, were 16 human hands. Buried in three different pits, the hands alone are a grisly discovery. But in light of tomb inscriptions like the one in the final resting place of Ahmose, son of Ebana, (which reads, “Then I fought hand to hand. I brought away a hand. It was reported to the royal herald.”) it’s clear that the idea of hand-to-hand combat was a literal one.

The taking of right hands was, in a way, a practical measure that both the Hyksos and the Egyptians did. It was a way to count their dead, but it was also a symbolic practice. With a missing hand, they would go to their eternal rest with no way to fight, not only defeated in life but in death. In an ancient civilisation that buried its dead with weapons for the afterlife, taking their hand was a clear message designed to last for all of eternity.

Ahmose-son-of-Ebana (Image: Olaf Tausch)

No one’s quite sure when the practice began, but thus far no records have been uncovered of such hand severing in the Hyksos’ likely places of origin. It’s possible that they took the idea from the Egyptians, who have a number of tomb paintings and murals depicting the savagery with which prisoners and conquered peoples were dealt with.

7. Donkey Burials

Excavated Hyksos tombs and those of the era directly preceding them have something strange in common – the presence of donkeys. While many cultures have been found to include horses in burial rites, usually in preparation to pull a chariot or carry the dead in the afterlife, the Hyksos practiced rather odd donkey burials.

donkey (Image: Mätes II.)

Archaeologists aren’t sure of the significance of the donkey burials, but they’re so frequent that it’s clearly a widespread, cultural practice. Donkey burials are attributed to a Canaanite practice, although they differ geographically. Also practiced in Palestine, burials there included only partial animals, driving the theory that they were eaten as part of a funerary feast. But in the Hyksos tombs of Avaris, donkeys were buried whole, and usually in pairs. Some excavated tombs have been found to contain up to five donkeys, suggesting the beasts were status symbols of sorts.

Another theory suggests the donkeys buried were the ones that also pulled the funeral carriage, and delivered the dead to their final resting place. In at least one tomb, archaeologists found not only donkeys, but a servant as well. Not only were they found to have been buried at the same time, but the servant’s corpse was positioned facing that of his dead master, suggesting they were sacrificed to serve their master even in death.

6. Seqenenre Tao II

In 1886, Egyptologist Gaston Maspero discovered what’s still one of the most intriguing finds in Hyksos history – the mummy of the Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II.

hyksos-warrior-deaths (Image: G. Elliot Smith; Seqenenre’s mummified head)

A ruler of Egypt, Seqenenre’s reign was toward the end of the Hyksos dynasty, and what we learned from him not only hints at what was going on at the time, but leaves a lot of questions. His death was a violent one, with his mummy showing considerable overkill in the form of five head wounds that include three blows from an axe, a puncture from either a sword or a spear, and a blow from a crushing weapon. Based on the positioning of the wounds, it’s thought that he was laying down at the time he was killed – likely the victim of assassins who attacked him while he was sleeping.

But it’s also possible that he was killed in battle. A look at the weapons that belonged to both him and his son, Kamose, suggest that they were far from the decorative or ceremonial weapons that we tend to associate with royalty. One of the weapons studied during the excavation was a long, bronze dagger that was likely passed to father and son, and grooves on the blade seem to confirm that it had been used in battle.

Hippopotamus (Image: Kabacchi)

Later stories, true or not, indicate the dissolution of whatever friendly terms the two groups might have been on. Apopis was ruling the Hyksos while Seqenenre ruled the Egyptians, and the story says that the Hyksos king was complaining that the hippopotamuses at Thebes were becoming something of a nuisance, their noise keeping him from getting a good night’s sleep. The full facts remain elusive, but tales of conflict and evidence of violent deaths likely shed some light on the fall of the Hyksos.

5. Advanced Technologies

When the Hyksos moved into the Nile Delta, they brought with them advanced technologies that made them very powerful. They had long known the secrets of creating bronze, which they used for not only making weapons, but tools as well. Wars might be won on the battlefield, but control is often held with the food supply. Hyksos control of the Nile Delta, coupled with their highly efficient bronze tools, meant that they were poised for success.

hyskos-egyptian-chariot (Image: Jorge Elías)

The Hyksos were also the first to use the composite bow. Make of wood, sinew and horn, the bows had a greater range (by about 200 yards) and were far more effective than their contemporaries. They were also using an improved axe design – the Hyksos, like the Sumerians before them, made the blade and the socket out of one solid piece. It was known as a socket penetrating axe, and for good reason – it was absolutely devastating when it came to close combat.

They also introduced one of Egypt’s most iconic weapons – the chariot. The chariot had first been developed a couple of hundred years earlier by the Indo-Iranians. Hyksos chariots were designed for speed and maneuverability, drawn by two horses with room for two men – one to drive, and the other to shoot. Combined with the lightweight strength of the composite bow, the Hyksos’ impact on the Egyptian military has been likened to the development of the tank on modern warfare. Even with these weapons, though, the conflict wasn’t over quickly – it took about 50 years for the Hyksos to establish their dominance.

4. The Gods of the Hyksos

The conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos is shrouded in mystery, in large part because of their ‘impure’ nature. Manetho talks about a people who didn’t worship Ra, and as non-believers in the sun god, they were subject to obliteration from the written record. He also links their invasion with a prolonged dry spell throughout the area, suggesting that they were, in some way, responsible for the blight that descended on the land.

ra-sungod-egypt (Image: Hotepibre; Ra)

The Hyksos seem to have had a fascinating mix of deities. At the head of their pantheon was the Hittite god of war and the god of storms. The father god of the Hittites, Pappas (or Attis), was identified by the Egyptians as Sutekh, or Set, living high on a cliff and looking appropriately fatherly with a long beard. As the sky god, he was responsible for controlling storms, and as the war god, he was also in charge of everything governed by the male, including fertility.

Part of the conquest of the Hyksos – and the hate they generated from the Egyptians – was an attempt to introduce and force the worship of Sutekh. According to the writings of Queen Hatshepsut, they not only didn’t recognize Ra, but they destroyed temples dedicated to him also.

set-god (Image: Chipdawes; Set)

Forcing religion on a conquered people often presents problems. References to their ignorance of Ra, describing the Hyksos’ faith as ‘polluted’ and ‘impure’, leave no doubt as to what the Egyptians thought of this new god. Later, the Hyksos would also adopt Set into their own pantheon.

3. A Biblical Connection

Much of what we know about the Hyksos comes from the Egyptian historian Manetho; but his accounts are fragmentary at best. He does, however, offer some clues about what might have brought about their downfall, and his writings seem to be supported by the findings of a mass of emergency graves at Avaris.

exodus (Image: David Roberts)

According to Manetho, not only was the reign of the Hyksos marked by plague, it was also a direct result of their actions. Recorded as an act of God, the plague was visited on them because of their deeds, a curse on the land. There’s also a rather cryptic temple engraving that raises more questions than it answers.

Found amid the ruins of a remote temple (on the road from Egypt to Canaan and on to Mesopotamia), it tells of a civilisation in the Nile Delta controlled by a military leader who worshiped an unnamed god. After a prolonged battle and raging storms, the leader was killed, a new king took the throne, and slowly, life began to improve.

plagues-of-egypt (Image: John Martin)

Just how much of the story is rooted in truth as opposed to folklore is up for debate. The concept of death from the sky certainly isn’t a new one. Evidence of volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters abounds throughout the ancient texts, but this single, mysterious text is understood to be the only evidence of the Hyksos’ demise. And though it’s heavily debated, other Biblical verses have been linked to the civilisation – Exodus, which some scholars have linked to the Egyptians succeeding in driving their Semitic conquerors out of the Nile Delta.

2. The Fall of the Hyksos in Egypt

In the 16th century B.C., Ahmose I finally overthrew the Hyksos after laying siege to Avaris. Control of the city passed to Egypt, and the conquerors wasted no time in building fortifications around the city and across the eastern border. Even into the 2000s, discoveries – like the ancient site of Tjaru, the city that fell before Avaris – helped support the written histories that have survived.

exodus-2 (Image: Edward Poynter; the Exodus from Egypt)

Both Josephus and Manetho speak of those who left Avaris. Josephus says that 240,000 people left the capital and headed into the desert, and both state that the displaced Hyksos wandered back to the east, and when they approached territory which had already been claimed by the Assyrians, they founded a new city. Josephus wrote, “It was large enough to contain this great number of men and it was called Jerusalem.”

This is what connects the book of Exodus to the desert wandering of the Hyksos. But there are problems with the narrative, as the two events happened centuries apart. Others, meanwhile, point out that the Hyksos were defeated conquerors, not fleeing slaves.

the-Hyksos (Image: NebMaatRa)

More than one wave of Hyksos left Egypt, too – after the first defeat by Ahmose, some stayed on. Whether they were there voluntarily or were there as slaves is unclear, but several hundred years later, Queen Hatshepsut records the banishment of another group of Asiatic people from Avaris. Regardless of their impact on Biblical history, the Hyksos unarguably changed Egypt forever.

1. Problems with the Hyksos

Because there is so much conflicting information about the Hyksos, decided to cover the mysteries, legends, lore and blending of history in a whole entry.

nile-delta (Image: NASA)

In spite of the discovery of Avaris and some Hyksos remnants, much about them remains shrouded in mystery. Our current understanding stems from the fragmented sources highlighted in this article, and contemporary historians continue to debate the accuracy of this information. Manetho is understood to have written from a perspective of anti-Judaism, while Josephus based much of his writing on that of Manetho.

The information we do have is incomplete, and Josephus even acknowledged that Manetho’s writings were somewhat hostile. This alone makes the Hyksos a fascinating footnote – and perhaps more – of human history.

Seen as both nightmarish oppressors and bringers of innovative technologies and weapons, the Hyksos epitomise the mysteries of our past, and the vast wealth of history still waiting to be uncovered. They’re a reminder that even kings can be forgotten, erased from history and re-written, and that humankind’s greatest achievements can be shrouded in mystery. In the end, even those hell bent on leaving behind an everlasting legacy can – and often will – be forgotten.

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