Origins of the Hyksos

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The Hyksos, a people that constituted the fifteenth dynasty of Egypt were of non-Egyptian origin.

Most archaeologists describe the Hyksos as a mixed, West Asian people. While the term "Asiatic", is often used of the Hyksos, in the context of Ancient Egypt, it refers to any people native to areas east of Egypt. West Asian origins are suggested, in particular, by the names of individuals such as Khyan and Sakir-Har, and pottery finds that resemble pottery found in archaeological excavations in the area of modern Israel. The name Hyksos was used by the Egyptian historian Manetho (ca. 300 BC), who, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (1st century AD), translated the word as "king-shepherds" or "captive shepherds". Josephus himself identified the Hyksos with the Hebrews of the Bible. However, the word Hyksos probably originated as an Egyptian term meaning "rulers of foreign lands" (heqa-khaset), and it almost certainly designated the foreign dynasts rather than a whole nation.

An area centered on the eastern Nile Delta and Middle Egypt was the heartland of the Hyksos kingdom, which was limited in size. Except for Thebes's port city of Elim at modern Quasir, the Hyksos never controlled Upper Egypt, which was under the control of Theban-based rulers. Hyksos relations with the south seem to have been mainly of a commercial nature, although Theban princes appear to have recognized the Hyksos rulers and may possibly have provided them with tribute for a period. The Hyksos Fifteenth Dynasty rulers established their capital and seat of government at Memphis and their summer residence at Avaris.

Hyksos 15th dynasty[edit]

S38 N29 N25
X1 Z1
in hieroglyphs

The rule of these Hyksos kings overlaps with those of the native Egyptian pharaohs of the 16th and 17th dynasties of Egypt, better known as the Second Intermediate Period. The first pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Ahmose I, finally expelled the Hyksos from their last holdout at Sharuhen in Gaza by the 16th year of his reign.[1][2] Scholars have taken the increasing use of scarabs and the adoption of some Egyptian forms of art by the Fifteenth Dynasty Hyksos kings and their wide distribution as an indication of their becoming progressively Egyptianized.[3] The Hyksos used Egyptian titles associated with traditional Egyptian kingship, and took Egyptian god Seth to represent their own titular deity.[4]

Scarab bearing the name of the Hyksos King Apophis, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It would appear as though Hyksos administration was accepted in most quarters, if not actually supported by many of their northern Egyptian subjects. The flip side is that, in spite of the prosperity that the stable political situation brought to the land, the native Egyptians continued to view the Hyksos as non-Egyptian "invaders". When they eventually were driven out of Egypt, all traces of their occupation were erased. There are no surviving accounts that record the history of the period from the Hyksos perspective, only that of the native Egyptians who evicted the occupiers, in this case the rulers of Eighteenth Dynasty, who were the direct successors of the Theban Seventeenth Dynasty. It was the latter that started and led a sustained war against the Hyksos. Some think that the native kings from Thebes had an incentive to demonize the Asiatic rulers in the North, thus accounting for the destruction of their monuments. From this viewpoint, the Hyksos dynasties represent superficially Egyptianized foreigners who were tolerated, but not truly accepted, by their Egyptian subjects. In contrast, scholars such as John A. Wilson found that the description of the Hyksos as overpowering, irreligious foreign rulers had support from other sources.[5]

The origin of the term Hyksos derives from the Egyptian expression heka khasewet ("rulers of foreign lands"), used in Egyptian texts, such as the Turin King List, to describe the rulers of neighbouring lands. This expression begins to appear as early as the late Old Kingdom[citation needed] in Egypt, referring to various Nubian chieftains, and as early as the Middle Kingdom, referring to the Semitic chieftains of Syria and Canaan.

The names, the order, and even the total number of the Fifteenth Dynasty rulers are not known with full certainty. The names appear in hieroglyphs on monuments and small objects such as jar lids and scarabs. In those instances in which Prenomen and Nomen do not occur together on the same object, there is no certainty that the names belong together as the two names of a single person. The Danish Egyptologist Kim Ryholt sums up the complex situation by stating that "there are only vague indications of the origin of the Fifteenth Dynasty" and concurring that the small number of surviving names of the Fifteenth Dynasty are "too few to allow for general conclusions" about the Hyksos' background in his 1997 study of the Second Intermediate Period.[6] Furthermore, Ryholt stresses that

we also lack positive indications that any of the rulers of the Fifteenth Dynasty were related by blood, and, accordingly we could be dealing with a dynasty of mixed ethnic origin.[7]

Manetho's history of Egypt is known only through the works of others, such as Against Apion by Flavius Josephus. These sources do not list the names of the six rulers in the same order. To complicate matters further, the spellings are so distorted that they are useless for chronological purposes; there is no close or obvious connection between the bulk of these names—Salitis, Beon or Bnon, Apachnan or Pachnan, Annas or Staan, Apophis, Assis or Archles—and the Egyptian names that appear on scarabs and other objects. The Turin king list affirms there were six Hyksos rulers, but only four of them are clearly attested as Hyksos kings from the surviving archaeological or textual records: 1. Sakir-Har, 2. Khyan, 3. Apophis and 4. Khamudi.

Khyan and Apophis are by far the best attested kings of this dynasty, whereas Sakir-Har is attested by only a single doorjamb from Avaris that bears his royal titulary. Khamudi is named as the last Hyksos king on a fragment from the Turin Canon. The hieroglyphic names of these Fifteenth Dynasty rulers exist on monuments, scarabs, and other objects.

Two Hyksos pharaohs remain unknown. Many scholars have suggested that they were Maaibre Sheshi, Aper-Anath, Samuqenu, Sekhaenre Yakbim or Meruserre Yaqub-Har (who are all attested by seals or scarabs in the Delta region) but, thus far, all that is certain is that they were Asiatic kings in the Egypt's Delta region. They could be either the remaining two Hyksos kings or were members of the previous Fourteenth Dynasty at Xois.

Origin hypotheses[edit]

Manetho and Josephus[edit]

In his Against Apion, the 1st-century AD historian Josephus Flavius debates the synchronism between the Biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and two Exodus-like events that the Egyptian historian Manetho apparently mentions. It is difficult to distinguish between what Manetho himself recounted, and how Josephus or Apion interpret him.

Josephus identifies the Israelite Exodus with the first exodus mentioned by Manetho, when some 480,000 Hyksos, wrongly interpreted as "shepherd kings" by Josephus (also referred to as just as shepherds, as kings and as captive shepherds in his discussion of Manetho), left Egypt for Jerusalem.[8] The mention of Hyksos identifies this first exodus with the Hyksos period (16th century BC).

Apion identifies a second exodus mentioned by Manetho when a renegade Egyptian priest called Osarseph led 80,000 "lepers" to rebel against Egypt. Then, Apion additionally conflates these with the Biblical Exodus, and contrary to Manetho, even alleges that this heretic priest changed his name to Moses.[9] Many scholars[10][11] do not interpret lepers and leprous priests as literally referring to a disease, but rather to a strange and unwelcome new belief system.

Josephus records the earliest account of the false but understandable etymology that the Greek phrase Hyksos stood for the Egyptian phrase Hekw Shasu meaning the Bedouin-like "Shepherd Kings", which scholars have only recently shown means "rulers of foreign lands".[12]

Modern scholarship[edit]

A group of people labelled Asiatics (the glyphs immediately above the head of the first animal) entering Egypt c.1900 BC. From the tomb of 12th-dynasty official Khnumhotep II, at Beni Hasan.

As to a Hyksos "conquest", some archaeologists depict the Hyksos as "northern hordes ... sweeping through Palestine and Egypt in swift chariots". Yet, others refer to a "creeping conquest", that is, a gradual infiltration of migrating nomadic or semi-nomadic people, who either slowly took over control of the country piecemeal, or, by a swift coup d’etat, put themselves at the head of the existing government. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes states:

It is no longer thought that the Hyksos rulers ... represent the invasion of a conquering horde of Asiatics ... they were wandering groups of Semites who had long come to Egypt for trade and other peaceful purposes.[13]

It is generally thought that the Hyksos were probably Semites who came from the Levant. Kamose's explicit statement about the Asiatic origins of Apophis is the strongest evidence for a Canaanite background for the majority of the Hyksos. However, other interpretations are possible.

Hurrians or Indo-Europeans[edit]

Contemporary with the Hyksos, there was a widespread Indo-Aryan expansion in central and south Asia. The Hyksos used the same horsedrawn chariot as the Indo-Aryans, and Egyptian sources mention a rapid conquest. The German Egyptologist Wolfgang Helck once argued that the Hyksos were part of massive Hurrian and Indo-Aryan migrations into the Near East. According to Helck, the Hyksos were Hurrians and part of a Hurrian empire that, he claimed, extended over much of Western Asia during that period. In a 1993 article, Helck admitted that there is no evidence of a grand-scale Hurrian invasion,[14] but noted the possibility of a sea invasion of Indo-European peoples, mainly from Anatolia. However, this hypothesis is not supported by most scholars.

Amorites or West Semites[edit]

Kamose, the last king of the Theban 17th Dynasty, refers to Apophis as a Chieftain of Retjenu (i.e., Canaan) in a stela that implies a Canaanite background for this Hyksos king. Khyan's name "has generally been interpreted as Amorite Hayanu (reading h-ya-a-n), which the Egyptian form represents perfectly, and this is in all likelihood the correct interpretation", says Ryholt.[15] Ryholt, furthermore observes that the Assyrian lists of kings record the name Hayanu for a "remote ancestor" of Shamshi-Adad I (c.1800 BC) of Assyria, which suggests that it had been used for centuries prior to Khyan's own reign.[16]

The etymology of the name of Sakir-Har, one of the three earliest 15th-Dynasty kings, also implies a West Semitic or Canaanite origin for the Hyksos rulers, if not the Hyksos peoples themselves. As Ryholt notes, the name Sakir-Har

is evidently a theophorous name compounded with hr, Canaanite harru, [meaning] "mountain". This sacred or deified mountain is attested in at least two other names which are both West Semitic (Ya'qub-Har and Anat-Har) and so there is reason to suspect that the present name also may be West Semitic. The element skr seems to be identical with śkr, "to hire, to reward", which occurs in several Amorite names. Assuming that śkr takes a nominal form as in the names sa-ki-ru-um and sa-ka-ŕu-um, the name should be transliterated as either Sakir-Har or Sakar-Har. The former two names presumably mean "the Reward". Accordingly, the name here under consideration would mean "Reward of Har".[17]

Phoenicia-Palestine in the MB II period[edit]

John Van Seters in his book, The Hyksos: A New Investigation, argues that the Ipuwer Papyrus does not belong to the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian History (c. 2300-2200 BCE), as previously thought, but rather to the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1700-1600 BCE).

On the basis of the archaeological investigation, the foreigners of Egypt are seen as a geographical extension of the corresponding culture of Phoenicia-Palestine in the MB II period, a culture with a highly advanced urban society. This civilization of the Levant has its roots in the Amurrite world of both Syria and Mesopotamia in the Old Babylonian period, and has a direct heir in the so-called Canaanite world of the Late Bronze Age.The MB II period began during the Middle Kingdom, and by the end of the Twelfth Dynasty the whole of Phoenicia-Palestine was under the influence of Egypt, with diplomatic ties and active cooperation between the rulers of the various city-states and the rulers of Egypt. During the early Thirteenth Dynasty, the foreigners had much freer access into Egypt. Many of them rose to places of high honor in the administration of the country.[18]


  1. ^ Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. p.193. Librairie Arthéme Fayard, 1988.
  2. ^ Redford, Donald B. History and Chronology of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt: Seven Studies, pp.46–49. University of Toronto Press, 1967.
  3. ^ Booth, Charlotte. The Hyksos Period in Egypt. p.15-18. Shire Egyptology. 2005. ISBN 0-7478-0638-1
  4. ^ Booth, Charlotte. The Hyksos Period in Egypt. p.29-31. Shire Egyptology. 2005. ISBN 0-7478-0638-1
  5. ^ "The culture of ancient Egypt", John Albert Wilson, p. 160, University of Chicago Press, org. pub 1956 -still in print 2009, ISBN 0-226-90152-1
  6. ^ Kim Ryholt, The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period c.1800-1550 B.C., Museum Tuscalanum Press, 1997. p.126
  7. ^ Ryholt, op. cit., p.126 An example given by Ryholt "is the family of the kings Warad-Sin and Rim-Sin of Larsa. Their father had been the ruler of two Amorite tribes, but both he and their grandfather had Elamite names, while they themselves had Akkadian names, and a sister of theirs had a Sumerian name.
  8. ^ Josephus, Flavius, Against Apion, 1:86–90.
  9. ^ Josephus, Flavius, Against Apion, 1:234–250.
  10. ^ Miriam - From Prophet to Leper
  11. ^ Egyptian Account of the Leper's Exodus
  12. ^ Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil AsherThe Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, 2001, The Free Press, New York City, ISBN 0-684-86912-8 p. 54
  13. ^ Jacquetta Hawkes. (1963). The World of the Past, p. 444
  14. ^ see W. Helck's Orientalia 62 (1993) Das Hyksosproblem pp.60–66 paper
  15. ^ Ryholt, Kim SB. The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period c.1800-1550 B.C. (1997) by Museum Tuscalanum Press, p.128
  16. ^ Ryholt, Ibid., p.128
  17. ^ Ryholt, op. cit., pp.127–128
  18. ^ Seters, John Van (1 April 2010). The Hyksos: A New Investigation. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 191. ISBN 978-1-60899-533-2.