“THE MISERABLE ASIATIC”
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS HAD A NATURAL SUPERIORITY COMPLEX. They liked to think of themselves as a civilization apart, their beloved country uniquely blessed and protected from less fortunate neighbors by its natural borders of sea and desert. This self-image could not have been further from the truth. Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean, Egypt was always a melting pot of peoples and cultural influences. From time immemorial, the fertile fields of the Nile Valley and delta were a magnet for migrants from the harsher, arid lands to the west, east, and south. In turn, the industry, technology, and customs of successive waves of immigrants enriched and renewed Egyptian civilization. On occasions, however, peoples from neighboring lands came to Egypt with less benevolent intentions, bringing notions of conquest along with cultural innovations. Such invasions were rare, and generally repulsed or kept at bay by a strong centralized state. But at times of political weakness, Egypt was more vulnerable, especially along its porous northeastern border. The exhaustion of the Middle Kingdom state at the end of the Twelfth Dynasty offered just such an opportunity to Egypt’s envious and ambitious neighbors. The result was very nearly catastrophic for the survival of pharaonic culture.
Obsessive about internal security and border defenses, the Twelfth Dynasty monarchs had taken considerable steps to fortify the frontier along the northeastern delta. Sealing it completely, as had been done at Semna, in Nubia, was impossible because of the nature of the terrain. But the Walls of the Ruler, built by Amenemhat I and strengthened by his successors, established a forbidding line of fortifications to deter foreign aggressors. In addition, the forts themselves supported a regular system of patrols to monitor, intercept, and regulate the movement of peoples across the border. Tjaru (modern Tell el-Hebua) was the linchpin of Egypt’s northeastern defenses, and was as impressive a fortress as any in conquered Wawat. Yet despite this iron curtain, migration into the delta by Semitic-speaking peoples from the Near East not only continued but accelerated during the course of the Twelfth Dynasty. Some of the settlers may have been prisoners of war, captured and brought back from the campaigns of Amenemhat II and Senusret III. Others were undoubtedly legal migrants, employed by the Egyptian state to assist the state-sponsored mining expeditions to the Sinai; to work on major construction projects in the Fayum; or to act as guides, desert trackers, and police on the country’s desert fringes. By the late Twelfth Dynasty, “the miserable Asiatic” (as one Twelfth Dynasty text put it) formed a significant element in the population, and immigrants from the Near East began to rise through the ranks of Egyptian society, even winning promotion to government positions. In the northeastern delta, where many of these migrants had originally settled, what started life as a small community of foreign workers soon became a magnet for much larger waves of immigration, as people fleeing the harsher climatic and economic conditions of their homelands sought sanctuary and opportunities for betterment with their relatives and compatriots in Egypt.
One site in particular was the focus of this sustained influx. The town of Hutwaret (modern Tell el-Dab‘a), on the eastern bank of the Nile’s Pelusiac Branch, had been established as a small border settlement by the Herakleopolitan dynasty and had been refounded by Amenemhat I as part of his frontier defenses. However, under the weak rule of his descendants Amenemhat IV and Sobekneferu, the system of surveillance must have broken down, allowing a steady stream of immigrants to cross the border. Once settled at Hutwaret, they built houses in their own tradition and maintained their own way of life. Yet these immigrants were not entirely ignorant of Egyptian customs. Quite the reverse. Many of them were already highly Egyptianized before settling at Hutwaret, suggesting that they had come from the Lebanese port city of Kebny, with its long-standing cultural and political ties to Egypt. Others may have come from Cyprus. Among these long-distance migrants were bedouin tribespeople from southern Palestine, swept up in the great tide of human migration pouring into the Nile delta. It was a heady mix of languages, peoples, and traditions that rapidly transformed Hutwaret into a multicultural town, unlike anywhere else in Egypt.
Since people of Asiatic origin had already attained high office elsewhere in Egypt, it is not surprising that the opportunities for advancement were even greater at Hutwaret. One prominent dignitary chose to express his social standing in quintessentially Egyptian form, by means of a large stone statue for his tomb chapel. But he also emphasized his non-Egyptian background by the style of his portrait—his large, red, mushroom-shaped coiffure marking him out as an immigrant from Kebny, his yellow skin color conforming to the traditional Egyptian convention for depicting Asiatics. The curved throw stick that he held in one hand served as both a symbol of office and an ethnic identifier, since this peculiar object was the very hieroglyph used to write the word “Asiatic.” Here was a man proud of his foreign ancestry and willing, it seems, to flaunt it in defiance of Egyptian xenophobia.
After little more than a generation, the Asiatic population of Hutwaret had grown confident in its distinctive hybrid culture, prosperous from Mediterranean trade, and increasingly willing to flex its political muscles. An imposing mansion was built as the official residence for the town governor, the equal of anything at Kahun or Wah-sut; indeed, it was a palace of royal pretensions. In its grounds, high-ranking officials were interred in lavish tombs, each marked according to Asiatic custom by a pair of donkeys buried at the entrance. One of these high-status tombs belonged to a man calling himself the overseer of Retjenu, a title usually borne by the Egyptian official in charge of relations with Syria-Palestine. Another tomb belonged to a chief steward and treasurer. Although these titles seem to demonstrate the continued reach of the central government, it is debatable to what extent the elite of Hutwaret still considered themselves answerable to the king in Itj-tawy. In any case, the royal court had its mind on other problems.
MONARCHY WITHOUT MAJESTY
AFTER TWO CENTURIES OF RULE BY A SINGLE FAMILY, THE GOVERNMENT machine found itself singularly ill-prepared for the succession crisis that followed the brief reign of Sobekneferu. It is as if the elite had simply forgotten how earlier generations had coped when faced with the extinction of the royal line. The result was a rapid turnover in the office of kingship to mirror the chaos at the end of the Old Kingdom. Kings came and went with bewildering rapidity, reigning for periods of mere months or even days as the throne passed from claimant to claimant. Over the course of 150 years, Egypt had no fewer than fifty kings (the so-called Thirteenth Dynasty), compared to just eight in the preceding two centuries. In all likelihood, the most powerful families in the land, unable to agree on a single candidate, opted for the mechanism of a rotating succession. Since the elderly members of each rival lineage were the most likely to command respect at court, Egypt effectively became a gerontocracy, with one aged king after another attempting to make his mark. Despite this travesty of traditional monarchy, the administration continued as before with a surprising degree of efficiency—a reminder, perhaps, that the real business of government fell to viziers and treasurers rather than their royal masters. In official documents, leading bureaucrats were content to pay lip service to the age-old custom of the royal prerogative, even if officials were now appointing the king, rather than the other way around.
In the country at large, it was harder to paper over the cracks. Private individuals stopped invoking the king or the royal residence on their funerary monuments, no longer convinced that it would make any difference to their chances of an afterlife. Now, it seemed, the king was barely around long enough to make provision for his own. Pyramid building all but stalled, many kings making do with a shaft tomb cut inside the pyramid enclosure of one of their Twelfth Dynasty forebears. Expeditions to the Sinai ceased altogether. All the outward trappings of might and majesty disappeared from a beleaguered monarchy. The accession of Sobekhotep III (circa 1680), perhaps the twenty-sixth king of the Thirteenth Dynasty, provides a stark illustration of the changes that had overtaken Egypt in a mere half century. In sharp contrast to many of his predecessors, Sobekhotep openly flaunted his nonroyal origins, making a virtue of the fact that he had no royal blood in his veins. He lauded his nonroyal parents in a series of commemorative inscriptions and confidently publicized his commoner relatives. It all suggests a deep-seated malaise in the very institution of monarchy.
Sobekhotep III’s background in the military, with some time in the king’s personal bodyguard, would certainly have given him an intimate knowledge of court politics. As king, he turned this to his advantage, increasing the number of key government officials and restarting royal building projects to restore some measure of stability to the administration. But it was not to last. The heartbeat of royal government was faltering; even the odd burst of activity could not mask that reality.
The crisis was felt particularly acutely at Egypt’s distant outposts, the fortresses of occupied Wawat. An emasculated administration found itself unable to maintain the system of rotating garrisons that had staffed the forts during their heyday in the Twelfth Dynasty. One by one, the Nubian forts were relinquished by the Egyptian government, which was now incapable of extending its writ beyond the traditional borders of the Two Lands. The forts of the Semna Gorge were the last to be abandoned, as the Thirteenth Dynasty did its feeble best to uphold Senusret III’s frontier. Eventually, even Semna itself was handed over to its small resident population as the remaining government envoys packed their bags and departed for the last time. Left to their own devices, and increasingly uncertain of receiving logistical support or provisions from the capital, some of the fortress communities started to think the unthinkable and look southward to another potential sponsor. The kingdom of Kush might have been Egypt’s sworn enemy, but at least it had the gold to pay those in its employ.
A similar fate awaited the fortresses of the northeastern delta. With their patrols discontinued and their garrisons recalled home, central control of Egypt’s most vulnerable frontier effectively ceased. It did not take long for an ambitious leader to fill the power vacuum. A man named Nehesy not only took charge of the fortresses, but he promptly declared himself king of an independent delta state, with its capital at Hutwaret—in direct challenge to the government at Itj-tawy. Safe within his power base, Nehesy knew exactly what was expected of a legitimate Egyptian king. He upheld the traditional system of administration and put himself under the patronage of his local deity, Seth, lord of Hutwaret. An Egyptian temple founded in the town at this time may have been the concrete manifestation of Nehesy’s public piety, although it was dwarfed by an adjacent temple of Asiatic style, indicative of the mixed culture prevalent throughout Hutwaret. With oak trees shading its forecourt and a vivid blue painted exterior, this Asiatic temple on Egyptian soil was one of the largest anywhere in the Near East. It amply demonstrates the confidence and prosperity of Nehesy’s royal foundation.
Yet, despite its initial stability, his newly established dynasty was not without difficulties. The deliberate vandalism of earlier tombs (the statue with the mushroom-shaped coiffure was smashed to pieces and its inlaid eyes gouged out) hints at civil unrest, and society was heavily militarized. Soldiers were buried with their weapons at the ready, and the town echoed to the sounds of metalworkers making new armaments.
In earlier times, the secession of a province would have been met with a swift and ruthless response from the center. But the government at Itj-tawy was hardly in a fit state to win back Hutwaret by force. Indeed, Nehesy’s declaration of independence dealt the Thirteenth Dynasty regime a body blow, cutting the dynasty’s remaining links with the Near East and starving it of trade income. The dynasty limped on, retaining the vestigial trappings of state power, but with little conviction. The end was not long in coming.
Within a few decades, the government at Itj-tawy and the breakaway delta dynasty were both brought down by a combination of natural and man-made disasters. At Hutwaret, famine and plague devastated the population. Whole families of adults and children were buried together, hugger-mugger, without the usual careful preparations. A series of extremely short reigns at the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty suggests a similar calamity farther south. Weakened by disease, the whole of Lower Egypt became easy prey to an outside aggressor. From over the border, a force of well-equipped invaders, armed with the latest military technology—horse-drawn chariots—stormed Egypt, taking beleagured Hutwaret and sweeping on southward to conquer the ancient capital of Memphis. The Hyksos had arrived.
RULERS OF FOREIGN LANDS
THE HYKSOS WERE A UNIQUE PHENOMENON IN THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT Egypt. For more than a century (1630–1520), a Semitic-speaking elite from coastal Lebanon ruled northern Egypt and were recognized as overlords in the rest of the country. They transformed their capital at Hutwaret into a town wholly Asiatic in culture, worshipped a foreign god (Baal), and were buried following foreign rites. Their very names were alien, and their conquest seemed to later generations, and perhaps to some at the time, to represent the destruction of created order itself. For the century of their rule, their heartland in the northeastern delta prospered as never before, thanks to vibrant trade with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean and more distant lands. Hutwaret expanded to two or three times its previous size, and became the nerve center of a mini-empire that encompassed parts of southern Palestine and the Lebanese coast.
The loss of Memphis to these invaders dealt the Thirteenth Dynasty a fatal blow, both psychological and practical. Egypt’s ancient capital symbolized the very concept of national unity, while its location at the junction of the Nile Valley and the delta was the key to controlling the internal movement of goods and people. The Hyksos takeover of such a strategic objective forced the royal court to abandon Itj-tawy and beat a hasty retreat southward. There was not even time, apparently, to gather up precious temple and state archives, with the result that the successors of the Thirteenth Dynasty would have to reinvent the canon of religious texts without reference to the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations. As for the court itself, it swiftly reestablished a government of sorts at Thebes, traditional heartland of Egyptian independence. But the court’s writ had collapsed and now extended over just the seven southernmost nomes of Egypt, the old “head of the south” from which the Middle Kingdom had been born six centuries earlier. For a short time, while the government in exile came to terms with the new political reality and consolidated its strictly limited authority, parts of the central Nile Valley experienced a power vacuum. At Abdju, cult center of Osiris, such an absence of divine kingship from the apex of society was particularly calamitous. So the local elite took matters into their own hands and established their own ruling dynasty. But without the usual accoutrements of skilled craftsmen and trained bureaucrats, these “kings” of Abdju presented a dejected picture of monarchy, their crudely fashioned monuments at odds with their royal pretensions. It was a valiant attempt to preserve Egypt’s most important institution at the country’s most important center of worship. But good intentions were no match for the well-organized and well-resourced Hyksos. After little more than twenty years, the Abdju dynasty was snuffed out, leaving barely a trace in the record.
Farther south, at Thebes, the refugees from Itj-tawy fared somewhat better. For many in Upper Egypt, they were still the only legitimate lords of the Two Lands, and they continued to receive loyal service from the same families who had held office under the old regime. Yet this apparent continuity was an illusion. In reality, the situation had changed utterly. In more settled times, Thebes had been a great city, favored by royal patronage and prosperous from its trade links with every part of Egypt and Nubia. Now, cut off from the Near East by the Hyksos presence in the north, and from southern lands by the loss of the oases and the Nubian forts, Thebes was a shadow of its former self—weak, impoverished, and vulnerable. The gods, too, seemed to have deserted the Egyptians in their hour of need, sending natural disasters to compound the people’s misery. Less than a decade after the abandonment of Itj-tawy, the native Egyptians faced a bitter blow when floodwaters overwhelmed the temple of Amun at Ipetsut, sacred epicenter of their Theban realm. The king decided the only course of action was to lead by example, wading into the temple’s submerged broad hall to inspect the damage, his bedraggled entourage in dejected attendance.
The next Egyptian monarch faced even worse: a combination of famine, flood, and attack. Neferhotep III claimed to have nourished Thebes during the worst of the food shortage, and to have “protected his city when it was sunk,”1 but when the weakened population found itself under attack from advancing Hyksos armies, the best Neferhotep could do was steel the resolve of the populace and “make it brave [in its dealings] with foreigners.”2 Stressing the ruler’s role as military leader was one way to rally the troops, but Neferhotep’s adoption of epithets such as “guide of mighty Thebes” smacks more of hope than expectation.
From the monarch to his humblest subject, there was the gnawing fear that Thebes, like Memphis before it, would fall to the invaders. The most telling royal inscription from the time is the commemorative stela erected at Ipetsut by King Mentuhotepi (a reassuringly old-fashioned Theban name, if written in a curiously provincial manner). In quintessential Egyptian fashion, the text is full of boast and bluster, Mentuhotepi comparing his army to “crocodiles on the flood.”3 Yet when it came to his own power, his choice of words betrayed the uncomfortable truth: “I am king within Thebes, this my city.”4 Trying to emphasize his legitimacy, Mentuhotepi called himself “one who acts as king.”5 Not even the most ephemeral ruler of the Thirteenth Dynasty would have needed to protest so cravenly about his royal credentials. The Egyptian monarchy was in a piteous state indeed.
Nothing underlined this decline more starkly than the fate of the Nubian fortresses. Abandoned by the central government in the dying days of the Thirteenth Dynasty, the Egyptian inhabitants left behind had looked elsewhere for employment. The kingdom of Kush—the dominant power on the upper Nile, a prosperous trading nation in its own right, Egypt’s sworn enemy, and the very reason behind the forts’ construction—needed no further bidding. Expanding its territory northward, it assimilated Wawat and took over control of the forts, meeting little if any resistance. During the period of Hyksos control in the north, the Egyptian expatriates living in Wawat, both civilian and military personnel, willingly served their new Nubian masters. At Buhen, a man named Ka boasted, “I was a brave servant of the ruler of Kush.”6 His colleague Soped-her, the fortress commandant, even helped rebuild the temple of Horus at Buhen “to the satisfaction of the ruler of Kush.”7 In the dedication of his commemorative inscription, Soped-her covered all eventualities, invoking the Egyptian funerary god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris; the local deity Horus, lord of Buhen; and even the deified Senusret III; but also the unnamed “gods that are in Wawat.” He was clearly hedging his bets. Senusret III would have turned in his grave. The tables were now turned on the Egyptians. It was they, not the Nubians, who had to pay taxes on trade shipments; they, not the Nubians, who could be told where, what, and when they could trade. The heyday of the Twelfth Dynasty must have seemed a distant memory.
The Hyksos Kingdom, by contrast, was flourishing. As existing networks of Asiatic immigrants absorbed more newcomers, settlements and their associated cemeteries sprung up throughout the eastern delta. A large fortified town was founded at Tell el-Yahudiya, complementing the defensive installations taken over by the Hyksos elsewhere in the frontier zone. Confident in their new homeland, the Hyksos rulers gave full expression to their distinctive cultural identity. At Hutwaret, altars blazed with burnt offerings in front of the main temple, which was dedicated to Baal-Zephon, the Syrian storm god, who had rapidly assimilated the cult of the Egyptians’ own storm god, Seth. Infants who died young had their remains interred, according to Asiatic custom, in imported Palestinian amphorae—even though Egyptian amphorae were stronger and would have offered better protection. In matters of trade, too, the Hyksos consciously turned their backs on Egypt, eschewing commerce with Middle Egypt or the south (although they continued to secure gold from Kush via the oasis route) in favor of dealings with Palestine and Cyprus. Wine, olive oil, timber, and copper flowed into the bustling harbor at Hutwaret, swelling its coffers and making it one of the greatest royal cities in the entire Near East. To proclaim their economic and political might, the Hyksos rulers built a great citadel on the banks of the Nile. Occupying more than half a million square feet of river frontage on reclaimed land, it was surrounded by a huge curtain wall twenty-five feet thick, fortified with buttresses. Inside the compound, the royal residence was a place of luxury and opulence. Gardens and vineyards provided fresh produce and offered shade from the Egyptian sun, while a carefully constructed stone-lined channel delivered fresh water from the river directly into the heart of the palace.
Surrounded by such affluence, a change came over the Hyksos rulers. The earlier kings had been content to describe themselves as “rulers of foreign lands” (in ancient Egyptian, “heqau-khasut,” the derivation of the term “Hyksos”), a moniker that had been used in the Middle Kingdom for the princes of Near Eastern city-states. The accession of King Khyan (circa 1610), however, brought a new outlook and marked the apogee of Hyksos power. Determined to be recognized as a proper Egyptian sovereign, commensurate with his exalted economic status, he sent a diplomatic gift to the Minoan ruler of Crete at Knossos, announcing his arrival on the world stage. For domestic consumption, he adopted a full royal titulary, headed by the Horus name “he who embraces the banks [of the Nile].” It was, as ever, a statement of political intent as much as ideology. Khyan’s objective was to break out of the Hyksos heartland and bring all of Egypt within his embrace. A military advance through Middle Egypt cowed the northern two-thirds of the country into submission. It is even possible that the Hyksos armies succeeded in conquering Thebes for a year or two before marching back to their delta base, laying waste to towns and temples as they retreated. Khyan’s successor, King Apepi (1570–1530), went one step further in his public pronouncements, taking the Horus name “pacifier of the Two Lands” (redolent of Amenemhat I at the outset of the Twelfth Dynasty) and describing himself on one of his monuments as “beloved of Seth, lord of Sumenu.” By claiming the divine sanction of a god within the Thebans’ own heartland (Sumenu was a town only a few miles from Thebes), Apepi was thereby claiming the crown of the entire country. Things had never looked darker for the survival of an independent Egyptian kingdom.
DOWN BUT NOT OUT
YET, SOMEHOW, DESPITE ALL THE SETBACKS, THE FLAME OF EGYPTIAN self-determination (or the ambition of the ancien régime to be restored to power) was never quite extinguished. The withdrawal of the Hyksos forces from Upper Egypt, back to their delta power base, offered a glimmer of hope to the Thebans, a chance to reconstruct and regroup. The new king of Thebes, Rahotep (who is identified as the first ruler of the Seventeenth Dynasty), began the program of repairs to shrines devastated by the Hyksos armies. At Gebtu, he ordered restoration work to commence at the temple of Min, noting that “its gates and doors are fallen into ruin.”8 At the holy site of Abdju, the cult of Osiris-Khentiamentiu was revived. Both acts were about symbolism as much as preservation of monuments. By beautifying the temples of the gods and reinstating ancient religious practices, Rahotep was clearly signaling his intention to be a legitimate Egyptian ruler, one who carried out the most important duties of kingship. His successors followed suit, repairing the temple at Abdju and making additions there and at Gebtu. Both sites, key players during Egypt’s first civil war, were again at the forefront of Theban strategy. This went beyond religious activity to encompass practical politics as well. Military garrisons were established at both Gebtu and Abdju as forward bridgeheads to be used in any fight against the Hyksos. The groundwork was being laid for a Theban resurgence.
The successors of King Rahotep also set about resuscitating another traditional royal prerogative, pyramid building. While the tombs of Neferhotep III and his ilk had been miserable affairs, little more than burial shafts sunk in the rock, the Seventeenth Dynasty rulers were intent upon recalling the glory days of the Middle Kingdom. So, on the steep hillside of Dra Abu el-Naga, in western Thebes, they founded a new royal necropolis. The tomb of Nubkheperra Intef, fourth king of the dynasty, is the best known. The burial chamber was hewn into the cliff face and was entered via a descending shaft, but this was only the private aspect of the tomb. Marking its location on the surface, for all to see, was a steep-sided pyramid, built against the hillside and contained within a rather shoddily built brick retaining wall. The pyramid was also made from mud bricks. These were early days in the Theban renaissance, and quarrying large amounts of stone was still beyond the means of the fledgling dynasty. But the tomb was plastered and whitewashed to give at least the vague appearance of a stone monument with a smooth casing. At forty-three feet in height, the pyramid barely registered next to the monuments of the Twelfth Dynasty, but the intention was there, even if the resources were not. In a similar vein, Intef had to make do with a reused statue, probably pilfered from the nearby mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.
Even if Nubkheperra Intef lacked the means to be a great king, he certainly had the resolve. On the obelisks erected in front of his tomb, he made another, highly significant public gesture of his determination to revive Egypt’s fortunes. In carefully cut hieroglyphs, he associated himself with some of the most important deities of Egypt: Osiris-Khentiamentiu, the god of Abdju, guarantor of a blessed resurrection and afterlife; Anubis, lord of the necropolis, the jackal god of mummification who presided over burials; and, perhaps curious in such funereal company, Sopdu, “lord of foreign lands.” But the inclusion of Sopdu was no mistake. This rather minor deity had two crucial attributes. He was the patron god of foreign lands, especially the hill country of the Sinai and southern Palestine, and his cult center was located in the eastern delta at Per-Sopdu, squarely inside the Hyksos Kingdom. It was a classic instance of theological tit for tat. If Khyan could claim the patronage of a Theban god to bolster his assertion of political hegemony, then Intef could do likewise and put himself under the protection of a delta god with special responsibility for foreign lands. With Sopdu’s blessing, the Theban Seventeenth Dynasty might hope to beat the foreigners at their own game and regain control of the lands lost to the invaders.
Divine support was one thing, but practical politics was quite another. Before Nubkheperra Intef could hope to start mobilizing his supporters in a fight against the Hyksos, he had to consolidate his dynasty’s grip on power in its own backyard. It was a case of united we stand, divided we fall. A remarkable document attesting to this realignment of power has been preserved at Gebtu. It is a royal decree by Nubkheperra Intef settling an internal dispute that had arisen within the powerful bureaucracy running the temple of Min. The details of the sorry affair are not recorded, but the king’s verdict on the perpetrator, Minhotep, was clear and unequivocal:
Have him cast out from the temple of my father, Min. Have him driven out of that temple office from son to son and generation to generation, and hurled to the ground. His provisions are to be taken away … so that his name is not remembered in this temple—as is done to one like him who rebels.9
We may suspect that Minhotep’s seditious behavior was not an act of sacrilege against the temple itself but a move against Intef’s loyal supporters—especially since the beneficiary of Minhotep’s excommunication was the mayor of Gebtu, Minemhat, a devoted servant of the Seventeenth Dynasty. By such means, throughout the temples and towns of Upper Egypt, the Theban kings steadily concentrated power in the hands of men they knew they could trust.
The result was a unified and close-knit administration, ready and eager to relearn and restore traditional protocols and modes of government. Nubkheperra Intef’s successor, Sobekemsaf II (circa 1560), showed his own aptitude for this program of renewal when he sent a quarrying expedition to the Wadi Hammamat, no doubt with logistical support from the regime’s new friends at Gebtu. It was the first such state-sponsored mission in 160 years. True, it may have comprised just 130 men, compared to the 19,000 who took part in an expedition under Senusret I, and the personnel may have been recruited somewhat haphazardly, but it was a start. Deeper in the Eastern Desert, at the mines of Gebel Zeit, work started up again, assisted by mercenaries recruited from the desert Medjay people. As well as procuring materials for a renaissance in the royal workshops, the Theban administration was beginning to stretch itself, flexing its muscles and honing its responses in readiness for war. In the clearest sign yet that battle plans were being drawn up, Sobekemsaf made a new donation of land to the local temple at Madu (modern Medamud), a few miles outside Thebes. The choice of recipient was no accident, for the god of Madu was none other than Montu, the Theban war god who had inspired the Eleventh Dynasty to victory in the struggle for reunification six centuries earlier. Perhaps Montu would assist a new generation of Theban warriors in their own battle for national salvation.
Just as everything looked ready, fate dealt the Seventeenth Dynasty a cruel blow. From the distant reaches of Nubia, via the Egyptian-built fortresses of Wawat, a great army raised by the ruler of Kush swept northward, attacking towns and villages in Upper Egypt, ransacking temples and tombs, and carrying off the spoils. What was alarming for the Egyptians was that the Kushites were not alone but had recruited allies to their cause: “Kush came … having agitated the tribes of Wawat, all the [peoples?] of upper Nubia, Punt, and the Medjay.”10 This was a formidable coalition, embracing the inhabitants of Nubia, who no doubt relished a chance to get even with their erstwhile oppressors, but also the people of the far-off land of Punt and the Eastern Desert Medjay, always ready to offer their services to the highest bidder. The doughty townspeople of Nekheb, at the center of the firestorm, put up stiff resistance under the brave leadership of their governor, repelling the invaders and forcing them back beyond the first cataract. Even so, the governor himself lost property to the pillaging horde, and the Theban side sustained casualties it could ill afford. The Kushite invasion came as a dreadful shock, but provided a salutory lesson to the Seventeenth Dynasty: before they could safely launch their campaign for national reunification (in which loyal soldiers from Nekheb would play a leading role), they would first have to secure their southern flank.
THE FIGHT BACK BEGINS
IN THE HYKSOS CAPITAL AT HUTWARET, KING APEPI MUST HAVE sensed the impending outbreak of hostilities. He took the precaution of strengthening the fortified enclosure wall of the royal citadel, and of forming a strategic military alliance with Kush. Using the desert route via the oases, which the Hyksos had controlled since the early days of their rule, his messengers could communicate with the ruler of Kush without having to pass through Theban territory. Apepi might have to offer Kush a share of the spoils, but carving up Egypt between the two powers would be an acceptable compromise if it meant the end of Egyptian independence for good. Without a hint of irony, Apepi used an age-old Egyptian trick to rally his supporters for the fight ahead. In a barrage of propaganda, the Asiatic king proclaimed his power with new and ever more elaborate epithets: “strong-willed on the day of battle, with a greater name than any [other] king, protector of distant lands who have never glimpsed him.”11 To sum up, he claimed, “There is not his like in any land!”12
The new Theban ruler, Seqenenra Taa, was supremely unfazed by this fighting talk. Instead of indulging in a war of words, he made preparations for the real conflict. His first move was to establish a forward campaign headquarters, from which the assault on Memphis and Hutwaret could be planned and directed. The chosen location was Deir el-Ballas, on the west bank of the Nile opposite Gebtu. There he built a fortified palace compound to accommodate the royal family. It was served by a bakery complex and surrounded by a substantial settlement for members of the king’s entourage. Overlooking the entire site, atop a high hill, there was a lookout post with commanding views of the Nile Valley. All in all, it was the perfect defensive location.
With his strategic command and control center up and running, Taa launched the first wave of attacks against Hyksos forces. And he was no armchair general: he led from the front, his tall frame, muscular body, and large head topped by thick, curly black hair making him every inch the war hero. Drawing strength from his own sense of destiny, and stiffened by the resolve of his feisty sister-wife, Ahhotep, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. Then … disaster. In the thick of battle, the king fell—perhaps struck from behind—while riding his chariot. Unprotected, he was set upon by his attackers with daggers, axes, and spears. An Asiatic axe penetrated his skull, causing a massive head injury and killing Taa outright. In the chaos and confusion, it was impossible to prepare the corpse properly for burial. Instead, the dead king was hastily embalmed, without even his limbs being straightened, and taken back to Thebes. There, before a grieving family and a stunned populace, “Taa the Brave,” as the inscription on his coffin called him, was laid to rest, his designated successor, Kamose, leading the mourners.
Mummified head of King Taa, showing the fatal wound inflicted by an Asiatic axe blade G. ELLIOT SMITH, THE ROYAL MUMMIES
Taa had been cut down in his prime, after a reign of barely four years (1545–1541). The mantle of office, and the hopes of the Egyptians, now rested on Kamose’s shoulders. Inexperienced and unsure how to proceed, the new monarch summoned his war council. In heartfelt and anguished tones, he bemoaned his and his country’s fate: “Why do I ponder my strength while there is one prince in Hutwaret and another in Kush, and I sit joined with an Asiatic and a Nubian, each man holding his portion of Egypt and sharing the land with me?”13 Never before in the fourteen hundred years since the foundation of the state had Egypt’s fortunes sunk to such a low ebb. The country had experienced disunity and insurgency in the past, but this was different. With Egypt threatened and occupied by foreign powers to the north and south, the very existence of an independent Egypt, ruled by Egyptians, looked precarious. In order for the Two Lands to survive, let alone prosper again, it would require further toil, sacrifice, and bloodshed—and an unshakeable resolve to prevail.