New research is shedding some light on an ancient mystery: the origins of the Hyksos, an enigmatic nomadic people from the Levant that purportedly invaded Egypt more than 3,600 years ago and ruled the north of the Nile Valley for more than a century.
A scientific study of human remains from the Hyksos capital has now confirmed something that archaeologists have suspected for a while. These feared aggressors were in fact not a unified people that hailed from a single homeland somewhere in the Levant, nor were they a horde of barbaric invaders, as some ancient historians claimed. The Hyksos were more likely a new elite that emerged locally from a melting pot of immigrants who had moved to the Nile Delta centuries earlier from different parts of the Middle East. It was the descendants of these immigrants who, during a time of unrest known as the Second Intermediary Period, rose to rule over northern Egypt, concludes the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
The story of the Hyksos has captivated scholars for the better part of the last two millennia: who were these mysterious invaders who broke the might of the pharaohs and carved out a kingdom for themselves in the heart of ancient Egypt? Where did they come from? And why did they seemingly disappear from the stage of history as abruptly as they had appeared, after being supposedly expelled from Egypt by a resurgent dynasty of “native” pharaohs?
Further compounding this fascination is the fact that some scholars, going back at least to the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, have suggested a link between the Hyksos and the ancient Israelites. These theories have mostly been based on the supposed common origins of the two peoples in Canaan and on parallels between the accounts of the rise to power and subsequent expulsion of the Hyksos and the biblical stories in Genesis and Exodus about the Israelites moving to Egypt and finding initial prosperity there, only to be enslaved and forced to flee.
Recently though, excavations in the Nile Delta have led archaeologists to doubt that the Hyksos were invaders, or, for that matter, that they had any direct link to the Israelites.
For one thing, four decades of digs led by Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak at Tell el-Dab’a, the ancient northern Egyptian city of Avaris about 100 kilometers from Cairo that served as the Hyksos capital, have not turned up any signs of destruction that could have been connected to the rise of these rulers, who controlled the region from around 1638 B.C.E. to 1530 B.C.E.
What archaeologists found instead was that already centuries earlier, from the turn of the second millennium B.C.E., strong Levantine influences become apparent in northern Egypt. Semitic names, burial customs, architecture, weapons and other artifacts attest to a large presence of Levantine people in the region already in the heyday of the Middle Kingdom, long before the infighting and division that characterized the Second Intermediary Period.
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Perhaps the most visible and famous example of this phenomenon is the nearly 4,000-year-old mural found in the tomb of an Egyptian official, Khnumhotep II, which depicts a procession of Levantine nomads bringing offerings to the dead.
Influx of foreign women
The new research published in PLOS ONE adds to this evidence by studying not the material culture of the Nile Delta residents, but their actual bones. Specifically, the team led by Chris Stantis, a bioarchaeologist from Britain’s Bournemouth University, focused on the teeth of 75 people who were buried at Tell el-Dab’a during the Hyksos period and in the preceding three centuries.
The study analyzed the abundance of isotopes of strontium found in the dental enamel of the skeletons and compared it to the isotope ratios of this element found in the bones of local animals. Small amounts of this metal, which is not harmful, are mainly absorbed through the food we eat and replace some of the calcium in our bodies, Stantis tells Haaretz. The clincher is that the isotope ratios found in nature vary from place to place, and since dental enamel forms between ages three and eight, researchers can figure out whether a person spent their childhood in a particular region or not.
In the case of the Tell el-Dab’a skeletons, just over half of the individuals had spent their childhood outside the Nile Valley.
But this influx of foreigners did not correspond with the beginning of the Hyksos period in the mid 17th century B.C.E., it was instead a constant trickle that went as far back as 4,000 years ago. In fact, when the Hyksos were ruling Lower Egypt, that is the Nile Delta region, the amount of locally-born individuals increased.
Additionally, in this period, most of the skeletons of foreign-born people belonged to women, which again does not match the scenario of a military invasion. The preponderance of females at Tell el-Dab’a during the time of the Hyksos rulers suggests that the members of the new elite, while locally rooted, married women from the Levant, possibly to cement alliances or for the sake of maintaining ties with their ancestral lands and extended families.
The long-term immigration trends and the gender imbalance revealed by the isotope analysis are further strong indication that the rise of the Hyksos was an internal takeover of Lower Egypt by the elites of Tell el-Dab’a, says Deborah Sweeney, an Egyptologist at Tel Aviv University. Bietak’s excavations at the site have shown that the opportunities offered by this prosperous trading hub and harbor, located on one of the river branches of the Nile Delta, had enriched these descendants of immigrants and allowed them to take advantage of the vacuum left by the declining centralized power of the pharaohs at the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period, says Sweeney, who was not involved in the study.
“It is fascinating to see corroborating evidence from a new direction which demonstrates that men from the Levant did not settle at Tell el-Dab’a in large numbers at the start of the Hyksos period – which is what one might expect to see in the wake of a huge military invasion,” she tells Haaretz.
Kings are not a people
What the new study doesn’t do is pinpoint the exact area from which the Hyksos came from. Did they hail from Syria, or the Lebanese coast, or Canaan?
The answer may be more complicated than that. The strontium isotopes among the non-locals from Tell el-Dab’a display a wide variability, showing that these immigrants likely came not from one place, but from multiple regions across the Levant. These migrants were likely attracted by the more stable, drought-free living conditions offered by the Nile Valley, and came to the Delta to be employed as seafarers, merchants and soldiers, Stantis says.
This melting pot of people of different origins cannot be identified as a single ethnic group, and the very term Hyksos should only be applied to the rulers of the breakaway kingdom of Lower Egypt, rather than to its people, Stantis and colleagues argue.
After all, the word Hyksos is a Hellenized version of the Egyptian term “hekah khasut,” which means “rulers of foreign lands” and was commonly used already in the Middle Kingdom to describe the kings of Levantine city states, explains Daphna Ben-Tor, former curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
So how did these foreign rulers morph into an entire nation of warlike invaders in the eyes of ancient chroniclers?
‘Men of ignoble birth’
Until the recent archaeological discoveries, the Jewish historian Josephus was our main source for all things Hyksos. In one of his books, Against Apion, the first-century historian quotes an earlier account of the purported Hyksos invasion by Manetho, an Egyptian priest from the Hellenistic period.
According to Manetho’s history (as quoted by Josephus) these “men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts,” swept into northern Egypt and “burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner.” After long oppressing the Delta region, the invaders were vanquished by an insurrection led by a native dynasty of pharaohs, which had continued to rule over Upper Egypt (the southern part of the Nile Valley) from Thebes. The Hyksos were then expelled from Egypt and wandered back to the Levant, ending up in Judea, where they founded the city of Jerusalem, Josephus’ retelling of Manetho concludes.
It bears reminding that Manetho, whose work only survives in extracts by Josephus and a few other authors, lived in the third century B.C.E., some 1,300 years after the Hyksos disappeared from history, and his own story was likely colored by the ideology and propaganda of those who came before him.
According to recorded Egyptian history, the Hyksos kings were indeed defeated by the resurgent Theban rulers of Upper Egypt under the pharaoh Ahmose, who reunited the country and founded the New Kingdom. This power struggle between Upper and Lower Egypt was styled by the victors as a war of national liberation and the Hyksos began to be presented as foreign invaders, Ben-Tor explains.
This representation would fuel the expansionism of the New Kingdom, which, under famed pharaohs like Tuthmosis III and Ramses II, conquered Canaan and most of the Levant – the purported homeland of the despised aggressors – and brought the Egyptian Empire to its greatest extension.
“The Hyksos invasion was presented as a shame that had to be prevented from repeating itself by controlling these lands,” Ben-Tor tells Haaretz. “The Hyksos were the devil incarnate, while the Egyptian king was the savior of the world.”
Hate the Hyksos, hate the Jews
The fear and loathing of the Hyksos bogeyman permeated ancient Egyptian culture for centuries to come. By Manetho’s time, Ben-Tor notes, there was also another kind of hatred circulating in the country: antisemitism. Tensions between Hellenized Egyptians and the Jewish communities in Egypt were often high, particularly in Alexandria, so much so that some scholars consider it as the birthplace of antisemitism.
So it is plausible that Manetho’s retelling of the expulsion of the Hyksos as an Exodus-like origin myth for the Israelites had little to do with history and was more of an attempt to smear the Jews by conflating them with Egypt’s legendary archenemy.
Most scholars today do not believe there is any direct connection between the breakaway rulers of Lower Egypt and the Israelites, aside from the fact that they both broadly hailed from the same region of the world. At the very least, there is a gap of more than 300 years between the fall of the Hyksos and the first appearance of a people named Israel in a stele by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah at the end of the 13th century B.C.E. – and there is nothing in between that shows any link or continuity between the two groups.
Some, like Egyptologist Donald Redford, have suggested that the biblical story of the Exodus may contain distant Canaanite memories of the expulsion of the Hyksos.
That is possible but very difficult to prove, says Ben-Tor. To date, there is no archaeological evidence to show that the story of the Exodus reflects a specific historical event – whether involving the Hyksos or the Israelites.
What seems more likely is that the majestic biblical narratives of the children of Israel moving to-and-fro between Egypt and Canaan are a reflection of the same phenomenon that is attested by the study of the human remains from Tell el-Dab’a: a centuries-long or even millennia-long history of migration, conflict, interdependency and cultural exchange between two regions that housed some of the earliest human civilizations.