Greeks . The Aegean world can be defined as Greece, western Asia Minor, and the islands of the Aegean Sea, including Crete. It is still not clear how early the ancient Egyptians became aware of these areas. At a late date in Egyptian history, a peculiar term, Hau-nebu, is used for the islands of the Aegean. It is not completely clear how this term is to be explained; its literal meaning seems to be something such as, “Those who are behind the baskets,” and the most common explanation holds that “basket” in this context refers to the Aegean islands. The term Hau-nebu occurs quite early in Egyptian history, as early as the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.), but whether it refers to the Aegean at this early date is less clear and has been doubted by many. An early knowledge of the Aegean world has also been suggested by the finds of Predynastic Egyptian stone bowls on Crete; but it seems highly possible that these extremely fine bowls had been discovered by later grave robbers and found their way to Crete much later in the dynastic period of Egypt.
The Middle Kingdom . While the extent of Old Kingdom (and earlier) Egyptian knowledge of, and contact with, the Aegean remains problematic, it seems clear that by the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.), Egypt was certainly tied into trading networks that included the Aegean, and the Egyptians might have been acquiring more specific information about the north side of the Mediterranean. Minoan (referring to the ancient civilization of Crete, named by modern scholars after the legendary king Minos) seals were found in the “Treasure of Tod,” a horde of imported objects discovered buried under a temple of the Egyptian god Montu at a town near Thebes with the modern name of Tod. Egyptian objects from the Middle Kingdom have been found on Crete itself, and Minoan ceramics have been found in Egyptian tombs of Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.).
New Kingdom and Later . The great heyday of ancient Egyptian contact with the Aegean world, however, was during the New Kingdom Dynasties 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.), 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.), and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.). This time period is known to archaeologists and historians of the Mediterranean world as the Late Bronze Age. It is now known that as the kings of Dynasty 18 took over the old Hyksos capital at Avaris in the East Delta around 1539 b.c.e., the Egyptians imported Minoan artists to paint distinctive frescoes to decorate the new palace walls. These paintings include scenes of youths jumping over the horns of bulls, a non-Egyptian theme otherwise found only at the great royal palace at Knossos on Crete. As Dynasty 18 wore on, Egyptian tomb paintings showed Minoans in their distinctive garb bringing identifiably Aegean artifacts to Egypt as trade goods. Mainland Greeks were also in contact with Egypt during the Egyptian New Kingdom. At this time (between 1539 b.c.e. and around 1200 b.c.e.) the culture of mainland Greece is called “Mycenaean,” after the city of Mycenae, known in Greek legend and through archaeology as the most important Late Bronze Age city in Greece. Finely decorated Mycenaean pottery is known from tombs in Egypt. A fairly detailed Egyptian knowledge of Aegean geography is indicated by place-name lists from the time of Amenhotep III, which include names plausibly identified with Mycenae, Knossos, and even Troy.
Pirates, Mercenaries, and Raiders . As the Late Bronze Age/New Kingdom continued, trade with the Aegean became less peaceful than earlier royal contacts would suggest. Egyptian records detail encounters, often not peaceful, with certain groups of peoples who are associated with the Mediterranean Sea and who seem to have been raiders, pirates, and mercenaries. These people, known collectively as “Sea Peoples,” seem to have included Mycenaean Greeks as well as other groups, some of Mycenaean or Aegean culture but probably speaking non-Greek languages, from elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. The most important of these peoples were known to the Egyptians as the “Peleset” and are known from the Hebrew Bible as the Philistines.
After the Late Bronze Age . While communication with the Aegean world seems to have been at least temporarily disrupted after the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom, revival of shipping by the Phoenicians and Greeks in the Iron Age brought a renewal of contact between Egypt and the Aegean world. Greek legends have it that many Greek philosophers and scientists traveled to Egypt to learn the “wisdom of the Egyptians.” While no single example of this contact can be proved beyond doubt, cultural borrowing from Egypt by the Greeks is strongly indicated by, among other things, the development of large-scale Greek stone sculpture after the eighth century b.c.e., which is clearly based on Egyptian techniques and prototypes. The development of Greek military power led Egyptian pharaohs of Dynasty 26 (664-525 b.c.e.) to import Greek and Carian (non-Greeks from Asia Minor who used Greek military tactics) mercenaries to shore up their armies, and Greek traders were permitted to establish a trading colony called Naucratis in the western Delta. This colony, and the presence
of Greek and Carian mercenaries in military posts around Egypt, increased Egyptian knowledge of foreigners and increased the Aegean peoples’ understanding of Egypt. From the seventh century b.c.e. onward, commercial and cultural contacts between the two regions increased dramatically. Interest in things Egyptian on the part of the Greeks was greatly stimulated by Herodotus, who visited Egypt during the fifth century b.c.e. A large portion of his History of the Persian Wars is devoted to the history and anthropology of Egypt. All of this contact was instrumental in paving the way for the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, the subsequent importation of many Greek settlers, and the imposition of Greek as the ruling language of Egypt; ultimately, this triumph contributed to the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire (30 b.c.e.).
Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines (New York: Macmillan, 1992).
Alan Henderson Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 132.
Alan B. Lloyd, Herodotus, Book II (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), pp. 1–77.
N. K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean, 1250-1150 B.C. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978).
Shelley Wachsmann, Aegeans in the Theban Tombs (Leuven: Peeters, 1987).