Hyksos in Egypt


The Hyksos were foreign rulers of Egypt who seized power and ruled Lower (northern) Egypt. Contradictory dates and king lists, as well as gaps in the records, render their history elusive, but the Hyksos were most likely Palestinian. The combined efforts of Egyptian kings Seqenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose and their mothers forced out the last Hyksos ruler, Apepi, around 1530 b. c. e.

The Second Intermediate Period is the label given to the years of Hyksos power. At the end of the Middle Period of Egyptian history the breakdown of centralized authority and fragmentation of administrative control led to the neglect of Egypt’s borders. Areas may have fallen to the kingdom of Kush or to Nubia, and the eastern border also brought invaders. Immigrants called Aamu (usually translated as Asiatic) may have been entering for years, settling in the Nile Valley and assimilating into local villages. About 1650 b. c. e. a group of foreign chieftains with Semitic names took control of Egypt’s Delta and ruled from Memphis. Possibly, they simply took over existing posts and pushed out the local administrators. Egyptians referred to these kings as heka-kaswt (or hikkhase or hikau khausut), meaning “rulers of foreign lands.” Greek historians shortened that phrase to Hyksos.

A major source of our knowledge of the Hyksos is the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the first century c. e. Josephus quoted the Egyptian priest Manetho, whose book of Egyptian history—now lost—was composed around 270 b. c. e., 1,300 years after the Second Intermediate Period. According to Josephus, the Hyksos came from the east and seized power without striking a blow, and then destroyed temples and cities and enslaved or killed the inhabitants. Their appointed king was Salitis; Bnon and then Apachman succeeded him. Josephus listed six Hyksos kings, and their reigns averaged 43 years each.

Sextus Julius Africanus, who wrote in the third century c. e., also quoted Manetho. He listed six Hyksos kings of the Fifteenth Dynasty, whose reigns totaled 284 years, followed by 518 years given to the Sixteenth Dynasty, also Hyksos. The Seventeenth Dynasty combined Hyksos and Theban kings, who ruled a total of 151 years. Other king lists are equally confusing and the dates unreliable, but most scholars accept that during these dynasties, kings ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt.

The numbers are difficult to reconcile, but historians believe that the Hyksos rulers never tried to unseat the Egyptian kings in Upper Egypt. There, the Thirteenth Dynasty of Egyptian kings continued, probably paying taxes to the Hyksos. The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties were Egyptian and centered in Thebes. Concurrently, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Dynasties of Hyksos kings ruled from either Memphis or Avaris in the northeast Nile Delta.

The Hyksos may have brought unique weapons with them and possibly introduced horses, chariots, the vertical loom, the lyre, and other innovations to Egypt, but overall they adopted Egyptian ways and culture. The greatest Hyksos king, Apepi, employed many scribes during his long reign; their work indicated just how Egyptian the Hyksos had become. Apepi waged war with the Theban king Seqenenre Taa of the Seventeenth Dynasty. Seqenenre was killed in battle; his mummy has been identified and is riddled with brutal blows. Seqenenre’s nephew, Kamose, continued the fight, though he did not live long. Kamose’s younger brother Ahmose is credited with finally removing the Hyksos and its last king Khamudi, and uniting Upper and Lower Egypt again. Stele praise the mother of Kamose and Ahmose, Ahhotpe, who guarded Egypt and expelled the rebels, and Seqenenre’s mother Tetisheri is also given credit. The final conflict between Hyksos and Theban kings lasted for 30 years.

Further reading: Bourriau, Janine. “The Second Intermediate Period.” In Ian Shaw, ed. Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; Gardiner, Alan. Egypt of the Pharaohs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.


Hyksos chariotry vs. Middle Kingdom Egyptian infantry

A formation of Hyskos chariots falls upon a (Middle) Egyptian force patrolling the eastern frontier. The Egyptian army at this time was composed of infantry brigaded into units differentiated by their arms: spearmen, axemen and bowmen; there were no chariots in the army of the Middle Kingdom. Most of the infantry would be massed by unit into close order formations for battle. In the absence of rough terrain or somesuch to anchor their flanks, the Egyptian units are fully exposed in the open. The primary arm of the Hyksos army was the chariotry, comprised of 2-horse light chariots, bearing a driver and an archer, either or both of whom may be armoured; for simplicity’s sake, throughout the following text the chariot archer bears the designation, maryannu, which term is less generic than this use would imply.

The Hyksos would be expected to maneuver around the Egyptian battleline, focussing their attention on the flanks. One would observe squadrons of chariots setting up mere yards from the Egyptians, and methodically pumping aimed shots with their very powerful composite bows, at near point blank range, into targets of choice — file leaders, standard bearers and rank closers. The best Egyptian countertactics would be twofold: counterfire by massed bowmen, and ad hoc counterattacks (rushes) by groups of (elite) warriors. In the first case, success would be fleeting at best, primarily because (i) it is assumed the Egyptian bowmen were not trained to shoot as individual marksmen, and (ii) the Egyptian bowmen would be unable to bring volleys to bear upon their tormentors, who would be expected to utilize their mobility to maneuver out of, or better yet, under the firing arcs.

Once they had passed under the firing arc of the footbows, the Hyksos could quickly and ruthlessly outshoot the exposed fronk rankers still able to return fire and intrepid enough to do so. On a technical note, the phrase passing under the firing arc refers to the chariot warriors moving through the zone of optimal effectiveness of the footbow’s indirect, plunging fire and into the direct fire zone immediately in front of the foot; this direct fire zone is deep enough to give the chariots the 15+ yards they need to maneuver. Most of the footbows in a massed formation cannot fire directly at a target, rather they arch their shots over the heads of the comrades in the front rank(s); it is exceedingly difficult for a back-ranker to place a shot on a target 15 yards away via indirection. Wargamers have gotten used to the idea that bowfire is more effective at shorter range than long, but as noted wargamer and songmaster George Gershwin pointed out long ago, “it ain’t necessarily so”; for the direct fire of the heavily armoured Hyksos maryannu, peppering the unarmoured Egyptian foot bow at short range, it is; for the ineffective mixture of scattered direct and indirect volley fire returned by the latter, it ain’t.

There is a remote possibility that the Egyptian footbows could stand up to the maryannu, despite mounting casualties, and eventually bring their greater number of bows to bear, but the bet here is the Egyptian morale breaks as soon as the Hyksos move in for the kill.

As for rushing the chariots, one would expect no more than an occasional (isolated) success, provided the Hyksos were careful about rotating their squadrons and resting their horses; besides, mounting casualties to Egyptian officers would soon make any organized action unlikely. It may be safely argued that the Egyptian infantry, cowering behind their shields (those who had them), unable to bear so much pressure, would soon skedaddle.

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