World History 1 53 - 4.2.1 The Hyksos in Egypt

As centralized power in Egypt declined during the late Middle Kingdom, Egyptians were less able to enforce their borders and preserve their state’s integrity. The result was that Semitic-speaking immigrants from Canaan flowed into the Nile delta. It is not entirely clear to historians what prompted these Hyksos to leave Canaan, but some suspect they were driven into Egypt by foreign invasion of their land. Others suggest the early Hyksos may have been traders who settled in Egypt and later brought their extended families and others. However it happened, by about 1720 BCE, they were so numerous in Lower Egypt that some of their chieftains began to assert control over many local areas. This transformation coincided with the onset of the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1720–1540 BCE) and the general collapse of centralized Egyptian rule.

Over the next several decades, many more Canaanite migrants made their way across the Sinai and into Lower Egypt. During this period, several Egyptian princes held onto power despite the changes occurring around them. Then, around 1650 BCE, one group of recently arrived Canaanites challenged the remaining princes, overthrew them, and assumed control of the entire delta, inaugurating an important new period in Egyptian history.

These Canaanites are often referred to as the Hyksos. While that name is a much later Greek corruption of the Egyptian hekau khasut, meaning “chieftains of foreign lands,” it has stuck. The Hyksos ruled the delta for more than a century, from approximately 1650 to 1540 BCE. After they had been defeated, Egyptian tradition described their rule as one of wanton destruction, including the enslavement of Egyptians, the burning of cities, and the desecration of shrines. However, these descriptions are almost certainly rooted more in later New Kingdom propaganda than in reality. Like many others who came to Egypt, the Hyksos readily adopted Egyptian culture, art, language, writing, and religion. They established their own dynasty but relied on Egyptian patterns of rule and even included Egyptians in their bureaucracies.

Hyksos rule appears to have benefited Egypt in a number of ways. It was likely the Hyksos who brought sophisticated bronze-making technology into Egypt from Canaan, for example. The advantages of bronze over softer materials like copper were obvious to Egyptians, and the metal soon became the material of choice for weapons, armor, and other tools where hardness was desired. The Hyksos also introduced composite-bow technology (which made archery faster and more accurate), new types of protective armor, and most importantly, the horse-drawn, lighter-weight chariot with spoked wheels. They may have brought the horse itself to Egypt in this period, but we do not know for sure. The chariot, however, was an especially important arrival. By the 1500s BCE, horse-drawn chariots with riders armed with powerful and highly accurate composite bows had become a staple of Egyptian militaries, just as they were across all the powerful empires and kingdoms of the Near East.

During this Second Intermediate Period, the once-vast domains of Middle Kingdom Egypt were effectively divided into three parts: the Hyksos kingdom in Lower Egypt (nearest the Mediterranean), the kingdom of Kush far upriver beyond the first cataract (an area of shallow rapids), and the Theban kingdom of Upper Egypt (Figure 4.18). Occupying all of Lower Egypt, the Hyksos kingdom had access to Canaan and by extension to the rest of the Near East. Inscriptions and archaeological evidence attest to a considerable flow of trade between Lower Egypt and the Canaanites in Palestine and Syria, though the extent of the Hyksos’ political power beyond Egypt was likely limited to a few city-states in Palestine, if that.

Two maps are shown. The map on the right shows the Middle East, southeast Europe, southwest Asia, and northeast Africa along with the Black Sea, the east corner of the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. The countries within these areas are labeled as well as the capital of each country. A rectangular area in northeast Egypt including the Red Sea and northwest Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and part of Iraq and Syria is shown with a red border and enlarged in the second map on the left. This map shows a circular area in northeast Egypt, western Jordan, and Western Saudi Arabia highlighted in green and labeled “Hyksos Kingdom.” Within this area the cities of Avaris, Memphis, Ity-Tawy, Abydos, Huw, Thebes and Edfa are labeled along the Nile River. A small circular area in the lower portion of the green circle is colored pink and labeled “Theban Kingdom.” The cities of Huw, Thebes, and Edfa are located in this dotted area. South of the green area is a circular area highlighted orange and labeled “Kingdom of Kush.” Within this area are the cities of Buhen and Kerma. Along the Nile River there are labels with 1° Cataract, 2° Cataract, 3° Cataract, 4° Cataract, and 5° Cataract starting south of the city of Elefantina and ending far south of the city of Kerma. The city of Elefantina is labeled in between the green and orange areas on the Nile River.
Figure 4.18 During the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was effectively divided into three kingdoms, those of the Hyksos, the Kush, and the Thebans. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In the Theban kingdom, centered on the city of Thebes, indigenous Egyptian rulers still held sway. It is possible that in the early years of their rule in Lower Egypt, the Hyksos were able to exert some indirect control over Thebes, but distance made direct rule nearly impossible. Still, the connections between the two kingdoms continued, perhaps with some intermarrying.

The Theban kings resisted Hyksos control of Lower Egypt. However, an alliance between the Hyksos and the kingdom of Kush in the far south made any effort to oust the Hyksos extremely risky. It was only beginning in the 1550s BCE that a string of Theban Egyptian rulers were able to go on the offensive against the Hyksos. After multiple failed attempts, these rulers eventually succeeded in capturing large portions of Hyksos territory and bringing the fight to the edges of Avaris, the capital of Hyksos Egypt. By approximately 1540 BCE, Pharaoh Ahmose I had broken the defenses around Avaris, destroyed the Hyksos kingdom, and reasserted Egyptian power in Lower Egypt (Figure 4.19). He then turned his attention south to Kush and east to Palestine, extending Egyptian control over these regions as well. His reign ushered in a new period of Egyptian greatness called the New Kingdom.

A gold image on a black background is shown. In the image, a figure on the left is standing with legs spread wearing a decorative headdress with a projection coming out of the front. He wears a cloth around his waist, bracelets and decorative arm and neck bands. His left hand is fisted and placed atop another figure that is almost kneeling on one knee facing him. The standing figure’s other hand is clasping the elbow of the kneeling figure. The partially kneeling figure is wearing a simple round headdress and a cloth around his waist as well as arm, neck, and wrist bands.
Figure 4.19 This colorized image of a decorative feature on the blade of a ceremonial Egyptian axe shows Pharaoh Ahmose I killing a Hyksos. Ahmose’s military victories ushered in Egypt’s New Kingdom period. (credit: “Pharaoh Ahmose I slaying a Hyksos (axe of Ahmose I, from the Treasure of Queen Aahhotep II) Colorized per source” by Georges Émile Jules Daressy/Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte /Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax