Researchers Reveal True Story of Hyksos Dynasty in Ancient Egypt
Researchers have revealed the truth behind the rise of the first “foreign” rulers of Ancient Egypt. It was long held that the Hyksos, the first non-native dynasty to rule Egypt, were invaders. A study has shown that this was, in fact, fake news and that they had been living in the land of the Pharaohs for years before they seized power.
The Hyksos ruled much of Egypt from 1638 BC to 1530 BC. They are believed to have been from the Levant, possibly Canaanites who conquered the last Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom. Hyksos’ rule is known as the Second Intermediate period and their invasion was relatively peaceful, possibly because they overawed the Egyptians with their chariots and composite bows. We know the names of several Hyksos rulers, but the extent of their power has never been fully established. They were overthrown by an Egyptian Pharaoh, who was based in Thebes and this led to the rise of the New Kingdom, a golden age in Egyptian history.
Relief from the Ramesseum, the memorial temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II, showing a chariot in a battle fighting back the Hyksos from Egypt. (Roland Unger / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Is Traditional Narrative Based on Fact or Fiction?
This version of history was based on a much later Hellenistic source, written by the historian Matheo, and there is little archaeological evidence to show that the Hyksos invaded and conquered Ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs did not reveal much about the invaders and Live Science reports that “Egyptian rulers frequently destroyed records or spread propaganda about their predecessors.” In recent years, experts have increasingly questioned the idea that the Hyksos were foreign invaders.
Procession of foreign delegation visiting Egypt found at the tomb of Khnumhotep I, including “Abisha the Hyksos”, one of the first known uses of the term Hyksos. (Public domain) Below is drawing of the same. (NebMaatRa / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Hyksos capital was Avaris in the Nile Delta. In the 19 th century, archaeologists found a burial site called Tell el-Dab'a. Here they found evidence of the Hyksos and their unique culture. Chris Stantis, a researcher at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science that “the tombs with non-Egyptian burial customs were especially intriguing — typically males buried with bronze weaponry in constructed tombs.” There was also evidence of some horse burials at the location.
Depiction found on an axe of Pharaoh Ahmose I slaying a Hyksos. (Public domain)
How Can Teeth Answer the Mystery of Hyksos Invasion
To solve the mystery of the Hyksos, Chris Stantis and her colleagues examined the teeth of 75 elite individuals from three sites in Tell el-Dab'a. The sites contain non-Egyptian burials, from a variety of periods before the Hyksos alleged invasion. The researchers wrote in PLOS that the “largest isotopic studies of ancient Egypt to date, this study is the first to use archaeological chemistry to directly address the origins of the enigmatic Hyksos Dynasty.” To better understand the Hyksos, the team examined the strontium which carries signatures of the geology of the area where they once lived. When the stratum values were graphed it was established that over half had spent their early years outside the Nile Delta.
Map showing location of Tell el-Dab’a in Egypt’s eastern Delta. (Chris Stantis et. al. / PLOS)
This would strongly suggest that many of those buried at the site came from outside, not only the Nile Delta, but Egypt as well, even before the supposed invasion. Stantis is quoted in a statement by Court House News as saying: “Archaeological chemistry, specifically isotopic analysis shows us first-generation migration during a time of major cultural transformations in ancient Egypt.” The findings suggest that migrants had lived in Egypt long before the purported Hyksos invasion. Sadly, the team was not able to establish the exact origin of the migrants.
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Challenging the Classic Hyksos Narrative
The results would seem to “challenge the classic narrative of the Hyksos as an invading force,” explain the researchers in PLOS. This has led them to theorize that the group were actually migrants who had long lived in the Delta and seized power after an internal power struggle, possibly in a coup. This conclusion is aligned with the archaeological evidence which indicates that the transition to Hyksos rule was not accompanied by destruction at Avaris and elsewhere. Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser “thinks most of the immigrants probably traveled to Egypt in peace,” reports Science Magazine, and that their rise to power was a result of internal collapse.
The classic narrative related to the Hyksos dynasty, tells a tale of foreigners who invaded Egypt and seized power to rule from Avaris in the Nile delta, before being expelled to the Levant. This artwork by Patrick Grey depicts the Explusion of the Hyksos. (Patrick Grey / CC BY 2.0)
When the results of the study were correlated to the gender of the deceased, the researchers found something interesting. The majority of the females appears to have come from outside the Nile Delta. According to Stantis, in Court House News, “it is possible that these women are coming to the region for marriages cementing alliances with powerful families from beyond the Nile.”
The Hyksos Brought Wives From Their Homeland
It appears that a long-established immigrant community brought wives from their homeland to Egypt. If the Hyksos had invaded one would have expected more males than females, given the nature of armies at the time. “The fact that there's more women than men changes a lot of interpretations,” explains Stantis in Live Science.
Based on the findings of the study it now appears that the Hyksos were not probably a unified group. The researchers wrote in PLOS that they were possibly “Western Asiatics whose ancestors moved into Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, lived there for centuries, and then rose to rule the north of Egypt.” While the group had similar customs based on the archaeological record, this may have been a synthesis of different cultures.
Research is continuing and it is hoped that the team can learn how the immigrants adapted to their new environment and how they managed to maintain a separate cultural identity over many centuries. The latest study is refuting the traditional narratives about the Second Intermediate period. Moreover, it also demonstrates that fake news and misinformation are not just modern phenomena.
Top image: Painting of foreign delegation found at the tomb of Khnumhotep II. This contains a man described a “Abisha the Hyksos”, one of the earliest known uses of the term Hyksos. Source: Public domain
By Ed Whelan