Cartouche of Ahmose


There was a king of ours whose name was Tutimaois, in whose reign it came to pass, I know not why, that God was displeased with us, and there came unexpectedly men of obscure birth out of the eastern parts, who had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and easily subdued it by force without a battle. And when they had overpowered our rulers, they afterward savagely burnt down our cities and razed the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants in a cruelly hostile manner, for they slew some and led the children and wives of others into slavery…. All this nation was styled Hyksos, that is, Shepherd Kings; for “hyk” in the sacred language denotes a king, and “sos” in the vulgar tongue signifies a shepherd.

This is one of the few surviving quotations from Manetho; it was copied by Josephus, for reasons of his own. I may have given the impression that Manetho is not to be trusted, and, in fact, I don’t think he is. (Neither is Josephus.) Three statements in the account given above are partially correct. Egypt was invaded by people who took over part of the country, the invaders came from “eastern parts,” and some of them—not all—were styled Hyksos.

Obviously, the fact that we are able to sneer at Manetho means that we have other sources of information. Contemporary inscriptional evidence, mostly isolated monuments and scarabs, is spotty. The Turin Papyrus or King List, one of the basic chronological sources, is also spotty. In fact, it’s in pieces. People have been trying to put it back together for years. Certain Egyptian texts mention the great humiliation inflicted by the Hyksos—whom they call “Aamu,” or “Asiatics”—but all of them were written long after the event. The Egyptians suffered from a sort of official amnesia with regard to unpleasant facts; one has the feeling that the conquest would never have been mentioned at all if there had been a reasonable way of glorifying a king for liberating his country without referring to what he was liberating it from.

Manetho’s etymology, among other matters, is inaccurate. The word Hyksos does not mean “Shepherd Kings”; it is derived from two Egyptian words that mean “Rulers of Foreign Countries.” It seems to have been a title and was applied not to the invaders as a group, but to their rulers; however, for the sake of convenience, we will refer to the whole lot by that name. The foreign countries were probably the lands of southwest Asia. Asiatics were always seeping down into Egypt; they came as immigrants, traders, and, in later periods, slaves, and some seem to have settled down quite peacefully in various parts of the Delta. During the period of internal weakness after the Old Kingdom, greater numbers of immigrants entered the country, just as the Hyksos seem to have done after the fall of the Middle Kingdom. There was considerable restlessness in Asia during this period, and great movements of tribes and ethnic groups. New faces and names appear in other areas of the Near East, and it may be that the Hyksos were part of the wide Völkerwanderung, which originated, perhaps, in the steppes of the Caucasus and picked up additional components as it wandered.

The conquest was not so bloody nor so destructive as the melodramatic Egyptian writers claimed. The Hyksos rulers became Egyptianized, using the hieroglyphic writing, assuming the Egyptian royal titulary, and worshiping the old gods. They particularly honored Set, the enemy of Osiris. This may be explained by Set’s resemblance to one of their own gods. It was not the affront to Egyptian sensibilities that one might think, for as we have said elsewhere, Set was a perfectly good god in his own time and place, and that place was the northeast Delta, where the Hyksos entered Egypt.

One little mystery about the Hyksos has been cleared up in recent years. We knew the name of their capital, Avaris, from Egyptian records. But where was Avaris? The favored contender was Tanis, the site that became the capital under the late dynasties. However, an Austrian expedition under Manfred Bietak has established, beyond doubt, that the modern Tell el Dab’a is the right place. Working under the difficult conditions that prevail in the Delta area, Beitak found several layers of occupation, with characteristic non-Egyptian pottery.

The major contributions of the Hyksos to Egyptian life were in the realm of warfare. They probably introduced the horse and chariot and the compound bow. As yet we cannot add much more to our picture of the mysterious people called the Hyksos, except for one small fact. Some of these people had Semitic names.

Asiatics—men of Semitic speech—in ancient Egypt; here biblical scholars pricked up their ears. The connection of the Hebrews with Egypt has been the subject of long and wearisome discussion among historians. There is no Egyptian reference to Moses, nor to Joseph; no textcontains even a faint echo of the long captivity or the Exodus. Israel is mentioned only once, in a list of conquered territories. It is no wonder that the theories about the Hebrews in Egypt vary considerably. One school of thought would place the Exodus in the fifteenth century B.C., another in the thirteenth; a third version contends that there was no single, large exodus of enslaved peoples, but a series of small exodi, so to speak, which were coalesced by Jewish tradition and historians into a single event. More on this later; what we are concerned with now is how the Hyksos can be fitted into the story.

If we suppose that it was during this period that Joseph was brought down into Egypt by the slavers to whom his wicked brothers had sold him, we find it easier to understand the speed with which he, a slave, rose to power. He was a man of Semitic speech and customs serving a king from the same sort of ethnic background. If this sounds plausible, let us not forget that the ancients were not so conscious as we about the ties of “blood and birth”; social distinctions were very important, and a slave was a slave wherever he came from. We can hardly envision the Egyptianized Hyksos king taking a slave to his bosom just because the fellow came from his hometown. Still and all, it may be more likely that Joseph could have overcome the handicap of his servitude under a non-Egyptian ruling class. The position he came to hold was equivalent to that of vizier, the highest nonhereditary post in the land and the most powerful under the king. The people who made up the Hyksos consisted of many different tribes and ethnic groups. One of these groups, say some biblical scholars, could have been the Hebrews. Later, when an Egyptian royal family expelled the Hyksos, the men and groups which had been favored by the invaders would have been in disrepute, and so new kings might indeed be called “kings who knew not Joseph.” So, the advocates of this theory claim, the servitude of the Hebrews began.

It all makes perfect sense, but so do the plots of good historical novels.

At first the Hyksos occupation was limited to the Delta region, at whose eastern end the Asiatics had entered Egypt. The Thirteenth Dynasty continued to rule most of Egypt, except for an area near Xois, whose princes belong to Manetho’s Fourteenth Dynasty. Then, about 1675B.C., a new impetus, perhaps in the form of a more energetic Asiatic prince, prompted further Hyksos expansion, which ended in the conquest of a larger part of Egypt. Manetho called the second period the Fifteenth Dynasty, and its rulers he termed the “Great Hyksos.” He lists six of them, and they ruled for over a century. Each is given the title “Ruler of Foreign Countries” in one of the Egyptian king lists, which makes the etymology of Manetho’s “Hyksos” certain. Their power extended at least through Middle Egypt. A Sixteenth Dynasty, centered in Thebes, was probably contemporaneous with the Fifteenth; the Seventeenth Theban Dynasty also overlapped with the end of the Fifteenth.

The next to last Hyksos king was named Apopi (Apophis). During his reign a well-known pattern repeated itself. There must have been a peculiar quality in the air of the southland, centering around the city of Thebes, which rendered the men of the south disinclined to share power. As at the end of the First Time of Troubles, the standard of rebellion was raised in Thebes.

Now it happened that King Sekenenre was ruler of the southern city [Thebes]. The chieftain Apophis was in Avaris, and the whole land was tributary to him. Now a messenger of King Apophis reached the prince of the southern city, saying: “King Apophis sends to you, saying: ‘The hippopotamus pool which is in Thebes must be done away with. For they permit me no sleep by day or by night; and the noise of them is in my ears!’” Then the prince of the southern city was struck dumb, for he did not know how to answer the messenger of King Apophis.

The end of this particular text is missing, but the intent of the preposterous message is obvious. Apophis, three hundred miles from Thebes and the bellowing hippopotami, was trying to pick a fight. He succeeded—or someone succeeded, for it is quite possible that the ambitious princes of Thebes actually began hostilities.

The Seventeenth Dynasty began with a king named Rahotep. He was followed by three Intefs, who are given the numbers VI, VII, and VIII, since they were preceded by other Intefs who didn’t rate the kingly title. If you find this confusing, just wait. The next to last king of this dynasty was Senakhtenre or Sekenenre, also known as Taa (the Brave). Or, according to some scholars, he-they were two people, Sekenenre II being the son of Senakhtenre, aka Sekenenre I. I refuse to take a stand on this matter. Let us get back to the interesting part.

Our Sekenenre died a violent death; his mummy is a ghastly sight, with several gaping holes still visible in the skull, and the face contorted in a frightful grimace of pain. The wounds were inflicted in battle, by an ax or a club. The first, on the jaw, would have been sufficient to send the warrior-king reeling to the ground; his adversary finished him off with at least four crashing blows that split his skull wide open. The king’s death threw his men into confusion and probably lost that particular battle for Thebes; for several days the royal corpse lay untended where it had fallen. At last it was recovered and given a proper, if hasty, burial. The dead and withered face still seems to hold the emotions that were the last to animate the dying brain—fury and pain and the knowledge of defeat.

Not all Egyptologists agree on this version of the tragedy—and tragedy it was, for Sekenenre the king, if not for Thebes. Certainly the king died violently, they say, but these were troubled times; perhaps Sekenenre fell to the assassin rather than in battle. But this theory is fairly unconvincing. The ferocity of the wounds, the nature of the weapons, the evidence of the beginning of decomposition in the body tissues—all this, added to the folktale about the hippopotami, suggests that Sekenenre fell on the field of battle with the ax of a Hyksos warrior in his skull, after he had decided to answer the insulting demand of Apophis with war instead of words. Folktales may contain a true fact buried among yards of embroidery, and popular memory would long preserve the name of the first prince of Thebes to take up arms against the barbarians.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!