How Hungry, Hungry Hippos Started a War in Ancient Egypt
In the 17th century BC, a group of Semitic origin took advantage of political divisions to seize power in Egypt. These Levantine lords were called the “Hyksos” and were longtime residents of ancient Egypt, had spawned several dynasties, and ruled the northern Delta. They also ticked off some native Egyptian rulers, who established their own mini-fiefdoms in the south. But it took a Hyksos ruler complaining about noisy hippos to both start a war in ancient Egypt and then unify it once again.
Rebelling Against the Hyksos
In opposition to the Hyksos (a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian “Heqa-khasut” or “rulers of foreign lands”) in the north, native Egyptians kicked off the so-called Seventeenth Dynasty in Thebes, headed by a king named Senakhtenre Ahmose. Scholars can’t be sure whether or not he was of royal ancestry, but it’s possible he was a descendant of a local noble family.
‘Einfall der Hyksos ’ by Hermann Vogel. The Hyksos invaders are depicted just after a victorious battle against the Egyptians. ( Public Domain )
Senakhtenre married a commoner named Tetisheri, whose descendants held her in great esteem. Once he ascended the throne of a united Egypt, her grandson Ahmose included her in a commemorative stele depicting the royal family and called her “the wife of the king, the mother of the king, Tetisheri, living forever.” Ahmose recalled that Tetisheri performed “great deeds” for Egypt by organizing soldiers and “dealing with the country’s domestic affairs” while he was away at war.
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Tetisheri and Senakhtenre had a son named Seqenenre Tao (“the Brave”), who grew into a formidable authority. As a regional ruler based in the southern city of Thebes, he fought with the land’s purported overlord, the Hyksos pharaoh Apepa (Apophis), reigning from his seat of Avaris in the northern Delta. A conflict was poised to erupt, but its catalyst was a surprising one…hippos?
Rishi coffin of pharaoh Seqenenre of the 17th Dynasty, Second Intermediate Period. Found in Deir el Bahari cachette (DB320). ( Public Domain )
Apophis and Seqenenre Square Off
Cue “The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre,” a tale about a dispute between the two monarchs. Dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty - several hundred years later - it details a fabulously fictional conflict between Apophis and Seqenenre. The story goes as follows: Egypt was “in misery,” since it was a land divided. Contrary to the ways of Egyptians, who promoted Amun and Re as lords of their pantheon, “barbarian” Apophis “adopted Seth [god of chaos and the desert, the inversion of the Egyptian desire for harmony and order] for himself as lord, and he refused to serve any god that was in the entire land ex[cept] Seth.”
He was a bad king who upset the land not because he worshipped Seth, but because he worshipped only Seth and none of the other gods, unbalancing the divine balance as personified in the ideal pharaoh.
Apophis was irritated by his arch-rival in the south and decided to rile up Seqenenre further by sending him an “inflammatory message.” Apophis complained that a bunch of hippos in the Thebes area moaned so loudly that he couldn’t sleep at night. The kicker was that Thebes and Avaris are more than 700 miles (1126.54 km) apart; Apophis likely couldn’t hear the hippos - although their roars can reach 115 decibels - this was just a prod to Seqenenre.
A carved relief of a hippopotamus attacking a crocodile from the tomb of Vizier Mereruka in Saqqara, Egypt. Mereruka served as Vizier during king Teti's reign in the beginning of the 6th dynasty of Egypt. (Flop Eared Mule/ CC BY 2.0 )
Were They Symbolic Hippos?
What else might the hippos have symbolized? Perhaps, by allowing hippos to roam free, Seqenenre was failing to complete his royal duty; instead, he was permitting chaos (represented by both the hippos and the Hyksos) to linger. Moreover, he was co-existing with his arch-rival rather than fighting and ousting him.
Wall relief of fight between Seth and Horus where Horus, helped by Isis, kill Seth (hippopotamus), temple of Edfu, Egypt. (Rémih/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Alternatively, the myth was all about Apophis and his failure to worship Seth properly. As a worshipper of Seth, Apophis shouldn’t have tried to muzzle the hippos, who were creatures of Seth; moreover, Apophis shared a name with a bad, bad snake of the Underworld and enemy of Seth. So Apophis couldn’t even worship his own deity properly!
Set killing the demon snake Apep. ( Public Domain )
The theory went that the hippos were rebelling against Apophis because he was a foreigner ruling in place of a rightful pharaoh, an offense to Seth.
Welcome to the Next Episode
Seqenenre agreed to obey Apophis, but how exactly was he supposed to implement the order? He was reportedly “stupefied for a long time” over whether he should actually act on this order—and how to do so. He summoned his courtiers and repeated the letter’s contents to them; everyone was equally flummoxed. Unfortunately, the rest of the story is lost.
Historically, we do know that Seqenenre eventually went to war, perhaps against the Hyksos, and likely died in battle. In fact, his mummy contains five different head wounds which may have been inflicted by the axes of his enemies. After Seqenenre’s death, a man named Kamose, either his brother or son, took up his royal mantle. Kamose erected a fascinating stele at the temple site of Karnaka and used it to describe his efforts to reunify Egypt
Mummified head of Seqenenre depicting his battle wounds. ( Public Domain )
In the text, he complained to his officials that Egypt was divided and he, the rightful king, was forced to co-exist with a monarch to his north in Avaris and another to the south in Kush. Kamose ranted, “No one can be at ease when they are milked by the taxes of the Asiatics. I shall grapple with him that I might crush his belly, (for) my desire is to rescue Egypt which the Asiatics have destroyed.”
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An earlier group of Asiatic peoples depicted entering Egypt c. 1900 BC, from the tomb of a Twelfth Dynasty official Khnumhotep II under pharaoh Senusret II at Beni Hasan. ( free license )
War, Propaganda, and Death
His officials tried to mollify Kamose’s warlike spirit, but it didn’t work. In a propagandistic effort to boost his martial reputation, Kamose detailed how he reportedly destroyed Hyksos cities and pushed farther south to conquer parts of Nubia. He boasted,
“Avaris on the Two Rivers, I laid it waste without inhabitants; I destroyed their towns and burned their homes to reddened ruin-heaps forever, because of the destruction they had wrought in the midst of Egypt: they who had allowed themselves to hearken to the call of the Asiatics, had forsaken Egypt their mistress! ”
Kamose's second stela which records his victory against the Hyksos (Luxor Museum). (Kurohito/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Kamose seemingly died during the conflict before he could solidify his conquests, a few of which slipped from Theban hands. Thankfully for him, his nephew or younger brother, Ahmose—son of Seqenenre Tao—ascended the throne. He consolidated power, retook some of the lands Kamose took and then lost, and ousted the last of the Hyksos - fulfilling his father’s vision: hippos or no hippos.
Top image: Standing hippopotamus figurine. From Egypt, Middle Egypt, Meir, Tomb B3 of the nomarch Senbi II, pit 1 (steward Senbi), Khashaba excavations, 1910. ( CC0) Background: Members of Hatshepsut's trading expedition to the mysterious 'Land of Punt' from this pharaoh's elegant mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahri. In this scene, Egyptian soldiers bear tree branches and axes. (Σταύρος/ CC BY 2.0 )
By Carly Silver
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