Ancient Egypt Under the Rule of the Hyksos

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

With the kings of Dynasty XIII and Dynasty XIV both claiming to be pharaohs, Egypt was weakening and the Second Intermediate Period had begun. It was also the start of Egypt being under the rule of foreigners – Dynasty XV. Who were these foreign rulers? Where did they come from?

An Olive orchard can be seen in the foreground, with undulating hills extending up to the horizon in the background.
The Hyksos were Semites who came to Egypt from Canaan in present-day Palestine, and their name is made up of two Egyptian words which translates to ‘foreign kings’. (Image: YakupC/Public domain)

Hyksos, the Foreign Kings

‘Hyksos’ is a word made up of two Egyptian words, and it was mistranslated often in the past. It used to be said that these people were ‘shepherd kings’. The idea was that they were nomadic wanderers who came into Egypt and somehow took over, but now the correct translation is ‘foreign kings’.

One of the difficulties about figuring out who these people were is that the Egyptians had a very special sense of history. They never kept records of the bad days. In other words, the battle accounts of ancient Egyptian wars never lost a battle. You’ll get accounts of pharaohs who won every single battle. They just kept winning them closer to home, you know, as they retreated.

So the Egyptians didn’t have a sense of history like we do where one has to be accurate. So we don’t have a lot of records of these people, but in general, we call them the foreign kings, the Hyksos.

We’re pretty sure that they’re Semites coming from what might be the Palestine area, Canaan, somewhere around there. They may not have even just conquered. They may not have just come in and conquered. It could be they lived in Egypt for quite a while and then sort of somehow just took over.

A reasoning can be that the tombs of Beni Hassan were very grand during the Dynasty XII, during the Middle Kingdom. Well, the tombs of Beni Hassan show Semites in Egypt. We can tell they’re Semites. They have little beards. They wear different clothes. They have a kind of colored cloth like a caftan with lots of fancy designs. They’re bringing tribute, they’re bringing trade goods, things like that. So Semites were living in Egypt before this period. So there may have been a lot of Semites there, and they just take over, or perhaps they come in and conquer. We don’t know for sure.

Learn more about the Second Intermediate Period.

Hyksos Artifacts

What we do know is that these Hyksos set up shop in the Delta in the north and they establish a capital called Avaris. Now, again, remember it’s moist in the Delta. We don’t have very much in the way of artifacts from these people. They are a mystery.

There’s an excavation going on right now. Manfred Bietak is doing it right now. It’s at Tell el-Dab’a, which is the modern name of where Avaris was. He’s from the University of Vienna. But it’s a hard excavation. The water table is fairly high.

He’s found some interesting things. One is that these Hyksos were somehow interacting with other foreigners. One of the big surprises of Bietak’s excavation is that he found frescoes, paintings from walls at Avaris, the Hyksos capital, damaged but big enough fragments, say, bigger than your fist, bigger than your hand, that shows that they had paintings like Minoan artists had done them from Crete.

They probably had Cretan artists, maybe, who were doing them, or they’d seen these, but there’s this exchange somehow of Minoan art with the Hyksos. It’s very curious. The Egyptians never had this. So they’re doing foreign things.

There’s even a jar with a Hyksos cartouche, you know, the oval, found at Knossos on Crete in the palace. So maybe the Hyksos sent some sort of presents there and got artists back. The Hyksos are not just staying put in the Delta.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Gods of the Hyksos

A human male figure standing in profile with a head that looks sort of like a goat with long horns, he is bare feet and is   wearing the traditional Egyptian headgear and holding a war sceptre in his hand.
The Hyksos worshiped strange gods such as Seth, who is represented by an animal whose head looks sort of like a goat, with ram-shaped horns going back, its body has a feline or canine shape, and it has a tail that’s forked at the end. (Image: Jeff Dahl/CC BY-SA 4.0/Shutterstock)

They worshipped strange gods, these Hyksos, strange. One is Seth. Now, remember from our mythology lecture that Seth was the evil god. He’s the one who hacked Osiris into 13 pieces and then tried to destroy him. These guys worshipped Seth.

Now, in some sense, it sounds like they were devil worshippers. In some sense. It’s not right because, believe it or not, there were some Egyptians who were mainstream establishment who worshipped Seth. We don’t understand how you can do this, but what may be the case is that sometimes in a later period Seth becomes a good guy. But there’s a strange thing about worshipping what seems to be the bad god.

Seth was represented by an animal, and the animal is called the Seth animal because it’s like no animal we’ve ever seen. Its head looks a little bit like a goat almost with kind of ram-shaped horns going back, and then it has a tail. It has a body more like a feline or canine, and it has a tail that’s forked at the end that goes up into the air. It’s almost like an animal that’s decided by the committee.

It’s interesting that this evil one has a forked tail, like the kind the devil always has. But that’s the animal that usually represents Seth. It’s very strange that he was so prominent in Egyptian mythology and worshipped by these Hyksos.

They also brought in their god. They have a god, Reshep, who was a god of storms, kind of interesting, also war—war and storms.

Learn more about the history of ancient Egypt.

The Hyksos Remained in the Delta

The Hyksos don’t seem to have integrated. One of the things about the Hyksos that I think is important is they were illiterate. They seemed to be illiterate. At least we don’t have carvings on walls that they’ve left, and the reason I’m pretty sure they were close to illiterate is they carved scarabs, those little beetles that were carved out of stone to be amulets.

Often, if you were an Egyptian and carved a scarab, you would do it with your name on the bottom and maybe a sort of a magical prayer. You know, some scarabs say ‘Happy New Year’, for example, or ‘Good health to you’.

The scarabs that these Hyksos carved are just kind of mainly scrollwork designs, geometrics, not like they were into the language at all, and scarabs are important to us because scarabs travel easily. They’re small. They’re trade objects. You can give one away. Scarabs travel like beads.

Ask any archaeologist. Beads get around. You find beads from this civilization and another civilization. You don’t find many Hyksos scarabs in the south. It looks like they stayed put in the Delta. They may have gone north to Crete. They may have, but they didn’t go south.

Some people think—and it’s just a possibility—that the Hyksos is Joseph and his brothers. In the Bible, the Israelites go into Egypt. Joseph goes into Egypt, and eventually, his brothers go into Egypt. Some people think that the Hyksos may have been Joseph and his brothers, but we’ll talk about that later. That’s an interesting question.

But these Hyksos seem to be happy ruling from the north, staying in the Delta. We have very few monuments theirs. The excavation hasn’t revealed as much as we’d like. We don’t know if they mummified their dead, because we don’t have bodies yet of Hyksos. All we have are these little scarabs with scroll-like designs.

Common Questions about the Hyksos

Q: Which invaders took control of Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period?

The foreigners who took control of Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period were not necessarily invaders. They’re Semites coming from what might be the Palestine area, Canaan. They may not have just come in and conquered. It could be that they lived in Egypt for quite a while and then sort of somehow just took over. One indication of Semites living in Egypt before this period is the tombs of Beni Hassan.

Q: Who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period?

The Hyksos ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, which began just after the end of Dynasty XIII.

Q: Who is Seth?

The Hyksos worshiped strange gods. One is Seth. Seth was the evil god. He’s the one who hacked Osiris into 13 pieces and then tried to destroy him. Seth was represented by an animal, and the animal is called the Seth animal because it’s like no animal we’ve ever seen. Its head looks a little bit like a goat, with kind of ram-shaped horns going back. It has a body more like a feline or canine, and it has a tail that’s forked at the end that goes up into the air.

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