The Hyksos Seize Egypt


Between 1782 and 1630 BC, Western Semites capture the throne of Egypt, and the Middle Kingdom ends.

The prosperity of the Middle Kingdom lasted for a relatively short time. The rule of Senusret III’s son, Amenemhet III, was its high point. When he died, the power of the pharaoh to hold the country safe against invaders, and united with itself, began to fade.

Once again the Nile was lapping at the feet of the pharaoh. After reaching its highest point during the high noon of Amenemhet III’s reign, the flood began to decrease year by year. As always in Egypt, the dropping of the Nile and a diminishing of royal power went hand in hand.

Troubles with the succession probably had something to do with the slump as well. Amenemhet III ruled for forty-five years; by the time he died, his heir apparent was not only quite old, but also childless. Amenemhet IV, who had waited his whole life to ascend the throne, died almost as soon as he was crowned, and his wife, Queen Sobeknefru, took his place. Few details from the queen’s reign have survived; but in ancient Egypt, a woman on the throne was a sign of serious palace trouble.

Manetho begins a new dynasty after Queen Sobeknefru, since there was no male heir waiting in the wings. The king who does eventually ascend the throne to begin the Thirteenth Dynasty is a nonentity, a shadowy figure followed by a handful of even more obscure personalities.

Down in Nubia, the governors who watched over the southern lands for the crown began to act with more and more independence; the Nubian lands that Senusret III had trampled on with such ferocity during the Twelfth Dynasty were easing out of the crown’s grip. There was trouble in the north as well. Ruins show that the border fortresses on the eastern border between the Delta and the “land of the Asiatics” were crumbling. The border had once been so well protected that the courtier Sinuhe had trouble getting out of Egypt. Now the “Asiatics,” those wandering Western Semitic nomads, came into the Delta in increasing numbers. Some of them settled down to live side by side with the Egyptians. Others were less domesticated; around 1720, sixty years or so after the Thirteenth Dynasty began its ineffectual rule, a particularly aggressive band of nomads invaded and burned parts of Memphis, the old Egyptian capital. Unlike the Egyptians, they fought with horse and chariot, an advantage that offset their relatively small numbers.

Despite this humiliation, the Thirteenth Dynasty managed to keep temporary control of the country. But their hold on Egypt was so shaky that historians have traditionally considered the Thirteenth Dynasty the end of the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. Near the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, the pharaoh’s power had wilted so drastically that a second royal family appeared. We know almost nothing of this “Fourteenth Dynasty” except that it existed alongside the Thirteenth for some years. While the Thirteenth Dynasty pottered around in the Middle Kingdom capital Itj-taway, doing nothing useful, the so-called Fourteenth Dynasty claimed the right to rule the eastern reaches of the Nile Delta.

Some thirty or forty years later, yet another dynasty appeared alongside the waning Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties. This Fifteenth Dynasty had its headquarters at the city of Avaris, which lay in the desert just east of the Delta. The first Fifteenth Dynasty king, a man named Sheshi, organized his followers into an army and began to spread his rule to the west and the south by force. Some twenty years later, around 1663, the Fifteenth Dynasty had managed to destroy both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, and ruled supreme.

According to Manetho, Sheshi was a foreigner; he and his followers belonged to a race called the “Desert Princes,” or Hikau-khoswet: the “Hyksos.” Manetho describes the Hyksos takeover as a violent and sudden overwhelming of Egyptians by savage invasion:

For what cause I know not, a blast of the gods 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 overpowered the rulers of the land; they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others, and appointing as king one of their number.

Manetho, an Egyptian, can perhaps be excused for believing that his great ancestors could only have been overcome by a sudden and vigorous attack. But the traces left behind by these Fifteenth Dynasty rulers suggest that most of the Hyksos had actually been in Egypt for quite a while. Semitic names begin to appear in Middle Kingdom inscriptions and lists well before the 1663 takeover. So many Western Semites settled at the town of Avaris (the name means something like “Desert Mansion”) that, over time, it became almost entirely Semitic. When the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties divided the already weakened leadership of Egypt between them, the inhabitants of Avaris took the opportunity to claim their own piece of the pie. The invasion of Egypt by foreigners was real, but it was primarily an invasion from within.

Manetho’s hyperbole aside, the Hyksos—who, after all, had more likely been in Egypt for at least a generation or two—didn’t raze too many cities. Although their names are Semitic, they had already adopted Egyptian dress and Egyptian customs. Egyptian continued to be the official language of inscriptions and records; Egyptians served the Hyksos as administrators and priests.

Despite the destruction of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties, the Hyksos were never in sole possession of the country. A vassal line of kings ruled, probably with Hyksos permission, in the northwest; few names survive, but Manetho calls them the Sixteenth Dynasty. More serious was the announcement of the Egyptian governors of Thebes, to the south, that they would not submit to Hyksos rule and that true Egyptian authority was now centered in Thebes. This is the “Seventeenth Dynasty” of Manetho: the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Dynasties all existed side by side.

The Hyksos kings, aware of their own limitations, do not appear to have made a serious push to the south. The Egyptian rulers of Thebes controlled Egypt as far as Abydos; in this southern kingdom, the Middle Kingdom traditions carried on, free of foreign influence. But there was no peace between the two. Manetho writes, “The kings of Thebes and the other parts of Egypt made an insurrection against the foreign princes, and a terrible and long war was made between them.”

The long-distance hostility between the two dynasties is revealed by the determined attempt of the fifth Hyksos king, Apepi I, who probably ruled around 1630, to pick a fight with the king of Thebes. A papyrus in the British Museum preserves part of a letter sent by Apepi I all the way down to Thebes and addressed to Sequenere, the Seventeenth Dynasty king currently occupying the Theban palace. “Get rid of the hippopotami at Thebes,” the letter demands, imperiously. “They roar all night, I can hear them all the way up here at Avaris, and their noise is ruining my sleep.”

Sequenere, five hundred miles away, took these as fighting words. His body, now in the Cairo Museum, suggests that he went and rounded up an army and started to march north. When he encountered the Hyksos border guard, he led his soldiers into battle. During the fight, Sequenere fell, his skull crushed by a mace. While he lay on the ground, he was stabbed and hacked with dagger, spear, and axe. His body was embalmed in a hurry, after a fair amount of decomposition had already set in; apparently the Theban pharaoh lay on the battlefield for several days before the Hyksos backed off enough for the southern soldiers to gather it up.

The skirmish did not, quite, turn into a war. The Hyksos and Theban armies apparently retreated back to their home ground. Sequenere’s older son Kahmose took the throne in Thebes, and began to lay plans to avenge his father’s death.

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