Divided Rule. During the Second Intermediate Period (circa 1630-1539/1523 b.c.e.) Egypt was divided into two spheres of influence. While native Egyptian princes ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes, foreign kings called the Hyksos (Egyptian Heka-Hasut, “Rulers of Foreign Lands”) controlled the Delta from Avaris (modern Tell el Daba). The near absence of contemporary written documents and the conflict between the rulers inferred from archaeological evidence combined with subsequent Egyptian descriptions of the Hyksos have hindered modern understanding of this period. Though scholars have now established who the Hyksos were, debate continues over how they gained power.
Origins. The Egyptian expression Heka-Hasut was used as early as the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) to describe rulers of foreign lands from both Nubia and the Levant. The term in Egyptian carried no racial or national designation. In the Second Intermediate Period, however, the specific foreign rulers were Semites from Syria-Palestine. Their personal names, such as Yaqob-har (compare Hebrew Yaqub = Jacob) certainly represented a
Semitic dialect and were sometimes compounded with the Semitic deities Baal or Anat. The non-Egyptian artifacts found in their settlements include typically Levantine and Canaanite jugs, juglets, weapons, and toggle pins. The plans of their god’s temples followed a Canaanite model while their characteristic burials with donkeys were paralleled in Canaan, the Levant, and Mesopotamia but not found in Egypt outside Hyksos-controlled areas. They made Egyptian-style scarabs but their typical spiral design was more commonly found in Canaan than in Egypt. Earlier scholars attempted to equate the Hyksos with Hebrews, Arabs, Aryans, and Hurrians. Most scholars now believe that the Semitic names, deities, and archaeological assemblage indicate a west Semitic group known as Amorites were most likely the foreign kings who ruled in Egypt.
War or Infiltration? Though most historians agree today that the Hyksos were Amorites, they remain divided on the question of how these foreigners came to power in Egypt. Some argue—based on texts written after King Ahmose of Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.) expelled the Hyksos—that a military invasion resulted in Hyksos conquest. In an inscription describing the reconstruction of a temple, Hatshepsut (circa 1478/1472-1458 b.c.e.) remarked:
I have raised up what was dismembered from the first time when the Asiatics [i.e. Hyksos] were in Avaris of the North Land (with) roving hordes in the midst of them overthrowing what had been made; they ruled without Re and he acted not by divine command…. I have raised up what was.
Other scholars reconstruct from the archaeological evidence a peaceful infiltration of foreigners who gradually became the majority in the eastern delta and filled a power vacuum left by the decline of the kings of Dynasty 13 (circa 1759-1630 b.c.e.). Austrian archaeologists working at Avaris since the 1960s have revealed evidence for Canaanites in increasing numbers starting in Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.). A papyrus in The Brooklyn Museum attests large numbers of Semites in Egypt during Dynasty 13. The Hyksos rulers who emerged from this group formed Dynasty 15 (circa 1630-1523 b.c.e.), concurrent with the last twenty-seven kings of Dynasty 13. The roles played by the Hyksos Dynasties 14 (dates uncertain) and 16 (circa 1630-1523 b.c.e.) remain disputed by scholars.
Upper Egypt. In Thebes, Dynasty 13 and its successor Dynasty 17 (circa 1630-1539 b.c.e.) continued the traditions of the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.). Though the known monuments are relatively modest in scale, the central administration, the army, and the priesthood continued to function efficiently in Upper Egypt.
Threat. Thebes benefited from trade between Kush and the Hyksos, but the last kings of Dynasty 17 felt militarily and economically threatened. Archaeological evidence seems to confirm a Nubian military threat to Thebes while it seems logical that Upper Egypt was marginalized economically. King Kamose, one of the leaders of the war that expelled the Hyksos must have believed that his enemy would unite with Kush against him. In fact, during the war Kamose intercepted a Hyksos messenger to the Kushite ruler carrying the message:
Come North! Do not hold back! See he (Kamose) is here with me: There is none who will stand up to you in Egypt. See, I will not give him a way out until you arrive! Then we shall divide the towns of Egypt.…
Kamose’s brother Ahmose finally succeeded in driving the Hyksos from Egypt, leading to the founding of Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.) and the reconquest of Nubia.
Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, translated by Ian Shaw (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993).
Eliezer D. Oren, ed., The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1997).