The liberation of Egypt from Hyksos rule would be remembered by later generations as a moment of national renewal, of cultural renaissance, the dawn of a new age. The kings who led the fight for Egyptian independence would be regarded as founders and unifiers on a par with Menes, the first ruler of Egypt, and the great Mentuhotep, victor in the country’s protracted civil war. Egyptologists, too, share this view of the struggle between the indigenous Egyptians and their Asiatic overlords. The expulsion of the Hyksos signals the beginning of the New Kingdom, that most glorious of eras in the long history of ancient Egypt.
But that was not how it felt at the time. King Kamose’s lament on the state of his country was heartfelt. In 1541, hemmed in between the Hyksos in the north and the Kushites in the south, Egypt as an autonomous territory occupied barely a third of the area that the great kings of the Twelfth Dynasty had controlled. For many Egyptians, even within the Theban heartland, the status quo did not seem such a bad option. After all, collaboration with the Hyksos ruler in Hutwaret had its benefits: the Thebans were allowed to cultivate fields and to pasture herds in lands under Hyksos control, and receive supplies of animal fodder from the same region, in return for taxes paid to their foreign masters. Kamose’s own officials are reported to have told him that they were happy with this relationship. While this may be a classic piece of royal propaganda, designed to portray the king as a resolute and decisive leader in the face of cowardly and complacent officials, it probably contains more than a grain of truth. The Hyksos had brought technological innovations to Egypt (not least the horse and chariot), opened up the country to Mediterranean commerce on a grand scale, and shown themselves every bit as adept at administration as the native Egyptians. A policy of peaceful coexistence would certainly have been the easy option. But it held little attraction for a man and a dynasty with ambitions to recapture the glories of the past. For a proud Theban, foreign occupation of any part of the beloved land was anathema, and Kamose expressed his personal determination in the clearest possible terms: “My wish,” he told his closest lieutenants, “is to rescue Egypt.”
Before Egypt could be said to have been “rescued,” however, there were the small matters of continued Hyksos occupation and a growing Kushite menace to deal with. The ruler of Kush had built up a formidable army with a sizeable cavalry, and would lose no opportunity to extend his writ. The raids on Nekheb a generation earlier had taught the Thebans a valuable lesson: securing their southern frontier was an essential prerequisite to engaging the northern enemy. Outnumbered by the Hyksos forces and with inferior military technology, they could ill afford to fight on two fronts simultaneously. The threat from Kush would have to be neutralized first. So in 1540, in only his second year on the throne, and after months of preparation, Kamose led his forces southward. Their immediate mission was to retake Wawat and secure it against Kushite attack, thereby creating a buffer zone on the Thebans’ southern flank. Moving through the sparsely populated stretch of valley south of Abu, they seem to have encountered little if any resistance. As they reached the foot of the second cataract, their goal loomed into view: the fortress of Buhen. After serving as one of the main nerve centers of Egyptian military occupation throughout much of the Middle Kingdom, Buhen had fallen easily under Kushite control in the following decades. The fort’s Egyptian inhabitants had all too readily switched sides, serving their Nubian masters as dutifully as they had the great kings of the Twelfth Dynasty. But once they saw a new Egyptian army massed in force on the horizon, they appear to have capitulated without a fight, rediscovering their erstwhile allegiance to the lord of the Two Lands. Welcomed as a conquering hero, Kamose oversaw the restoration of Buhen’s defenses and its rearmament as a vital forward garrison.
Strategic commander that he was, his vision extended beyond immediate defensive needs. Looking to the future and the long-term occupation of Nubia, he also reestablished Egyptian administration in the region. No king could rely on the vacillating loyalties of fortress commanders. A different mechanism would have to be found to ensure direct royal control of the conquered territories. Kamose’s solution was an administrative innovation that would characterize Egyptian control of Nubia for centuries to come. He appointed a trusted official, Teti, to be the first “king’s son” of conquered Nubia, a viceroy who would act on the king’s behalf and answer directly to his royal master for all Nubian affairs. With Teti firmly installed in the viceregal headquarters at Faras, Kamose and his forces returned to Egypt to prepare for battle with the Hyksos, an altogether more difficult and dangerous proposition.
Kamose’s strategy for his northern front was as much psychological as military. His calculation was that a policy of shock and awe directed against the Hyksos-supporting towns of Middle Egypt would have a profound effect on his opponents’ morale and soften them up for a final assault. In his own words,
I sailed downstream as a victor to drive out the Asiatics according to the command of Amun … my brave army in front of me like a blast of fire.
His first target was the town of Nefrusi, which lay inside Hyksos territory just to the north of the regional administrative center of Khmun (modern el-Ashmunein). Nefrusi was governed by an Egyptian called Teti, son of Pepi. If Kamose’s forces could make an example of him, other collaborators might heed the message and desert to the Egyptian side. After maneuvering into position under cover of darkness, the Theban army struck Nefrusi at first light: “I was upon him like a hawk.… My army were like lions carrying off their prey.” Showing no mercy, Kamose watched while the town was ransacked, then ordered it to be razed to the ground. A similar fate was dealt the settlements of Hardai and Pershak a few days later. With towns throughout Middle Egypt lying in ruins, Hyksos hegemony in the region had been destroyed. Thebes was on the march.
Then an unexpected stroke of luck delivered Kamose a further propaganda coup. Building on the Thebans’ long experience and mastery of desert routes, honed in the days of civil war, Kamose had regular surveillance missions patrolling the tracks through the Western Desert, keeping a discreet watch over comings and goings, and reporting on any unusual movements. For their part, the Hyksos also relied on desert routes for trade with the kingdom of Kush. (Thebes might have been subject territory, but sending shipments of Nubian gold by river through the heartland of the resistance was simply too risky.) Hence the road between Sako (modern el-Qes) in Middle Egypt and the Kushite capital at Kerma via the Western Desert oases was a busy highway, carrying trade caravans and diplomatic messengers between north and south. One such envoy had the misfortune of being intercepted by Kamose’s patrol, just south of the oasis of Djesdjes (modern Bahariya). We can imagine the Thebans’ delight when they discovered that the messenger was carrying a letter from the Hyksos king to the new ruler of Kush. And the contents of the letter were nothing short of explosive:
From the hand of the ruler of Hutwaret. Aauserra, the son of Ra Apepi, greets the son of the ruler of Kush. Why do you ascend as ruler without letting me know? Have you noticed what Egypt has done against me? The ruler who is there, Kamose …, penetrates my territory even though I have not attacked him as he has you. He chooses these two lands in order to afflict them, my land and yours, and he has ravaged them. Come northward; do not flinch. Look, he is here in my grasp. There is no one who will stand up to you in Egypt. Look, I will not give him passage until you arrive. Then we shall divide up the towns of Egypt.
Despite his pique at not being kept informed about the Kushite succession, Apepi was making an extraordinary offer to his Nubian ally: in return for military support, he would be willing to share Egypt—a classic case of divide and rule. The Thebans’ worst fears were well-founded. If they did not act, and soon, Egypt risked utter annihilation.
Kamose’s response was immediate and intuitive. Instead of killing the unfortunate messenger, he sent him back to Hutwaret with a message of his own for Apepi: “I will not leave you alone; I will not let you walk the earth without my bearing down upon you.” To drive the point home, the messenger was also instructed to tell Apepi about Kamose’s recent attacks on towns in Middle Egypt. Not only were the Theban forces brave and determined, they were scoring victories in the Hyksos’s backyard. Apepi had fatally betrayed his own weakness by requesting Kushite support. Suddenly, the prospect of a Theban attack on Hutwaret itself seemed more plausible than ever.
If Kamose’s vivid personal account of the war is to be believed, he did indeed press home his advantage and attack the center of Hyksos rule. He boasted of reaching the outskirts of Hutwaret, drinking wine from Apepi’s vineyards, cutting down his trees, raping his women, and plundering his storeships full of produce from the Near East: “gold, lapis lazuli, silver, turquoise, bronze axes without number …, moringa oil, incense, fat, honey, willow, boxwood.” He claimed to have gotten within sight of the royal citadel itself—a building he contemptuously referred to as “the house of brave words”—where the Hyksos women “peeped out from the battlements … like baby mice inside their holes.” Lining up his naval forces in attack formation, Kamose launched an all-out assault on the Hyksos stronghold, but without apparent success. He made a brave face of this failed attempt, returning to Thebes in triumph at the head of his army. In time-honored fashion, he ordered that his heroic exploits be recorded for posterity on a series of great stelae, set up in the temple of Amun at Ipetsut. But Theban celebrations were short-lived, rudely curtailed by Kamose’s premature death a few months later in 1539. The cause of his untimely demise is not known. For all his bravery and bluster, his was not a victor’s burial. He was interred in a modest, ungilded coffin with two daggers by his side, his life’s work unfinished.
As if Kamose’s death were not devastating enough for the Egyptians, their sense of loss, frustration, and anxiety must have been compounded by the vagaries of the royal succession. Just three years earlier, Kamose had very likely been chosen as king in place of the heir apparent because he was of an age to carry on the fight that had claimed Seqenenra’s life. Now, with Kamose dead as well, the heir could not easily be passed over again … even though he was only a boy.
As Thebes waited for the new king, Ahmose, to come of age, ten long years passed in military stalemate. With Buhen in Egyptian hands, Kush was successfully held at bay. Apepi’s demoralized forces were in no position to launch an attack, but without a leader, neither were the Thebans. All they could do was sit tight and make preparations.