Rulers of the Wastelands
"Hekaw-haswt", i.e. the "rulers of the wastelands". This is how the Egyptian called the people that usurped the throne of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period for almost 200 years. Today we call them the Hyksos - after the Greek version of their original Egyptian name.
We don't know for sure who were these conquerors, where they came from, how they could subdue one of highest civilization of their age and where they disappeared after having been expelled from the Two Lands by the rulers of the 17th and 18th dynasty. They came from nowhere, they asked for role on the stage of history, then they disappeared to the same place they came from: nowhere. They left only bits and pieces for us, and the picture we can get after putting them carefully together is mysterious and dim.
Why do we know so little about them? First of all, because they were originally nomads, and as a non-settled ethnic group they left significantly fewer remains after them. Secondly even the Egyptians didn't know much about them, furthermore the imperial propaganda made efforts to erase even their memory from the collective consciousness, so even the information available for the contemporary was left to fall into oblivion (more of the later king-lists totally ignore the Hyksos rulers) Possibly the later pharaohs intentionally destroyed the remains commemorating the Hyksos supremacy but even the monuments that survived can not rival the Egyptian ones concerning neither their construction nor their durability.
Their role is significant in the history of the Two Lands, since beside their being the first foreign conquerors to oppose successfully the empire of the pharaohs, they brought the horse and the chariot to Egypt. The question stand to reason: how could a nomad people subdue an empire that represented the highest civilization of its age in the area?
We are in the Second Intermediate Period, in the second chaotic period of Egypt. The country is divided, the power is in the hands of parallel competing dynasties of the North and the South. The centralized power, the foundation of the empire's strength is in ruins. Kings alternate each other on the throne, the order of succession is irregular, Egyptologists suppose that the ruling kings were elected by military aristocracy. The institution of divine kingship faces a crisis, the sacral character of the kingship wavers. How could a kind elected by humans be the messenger of the gods, Horus' earthly manifestation?
Such circumstances described Egypt at the beginning of the 18th century B.C. when the Hyksos started to expand in from the Syro-Palestine region. They arrived as peaceful immigrants and settled down at the Eastern area of the Delta. They expanded from here both territorially and socially. They conquered Egypt not by a single attack. They sneaked into the highest and most powerful offices, more and more power concentrated in their hands until they took a firm stand in the eastern part of the country. Only the last move was violent but before we start examining the history of Hyksos domination let's take a look at the identity of these rulers of the wastelands.
Historians are uncertain about their origins. A Semitic origin could be concluded from the archaeological remains (weapons, house-traces) and the names of known Hyksos kings but the employment of horses and chariots - which were typical characteristics of an Indo-European ethnic group and totally unknown in Egypt - suggest and Indo-European derivation.
Their reign showed such features of early feudal society that confirms the Indo-European version. Besides the comparisons of the Near-Eastern history are worth considering. The beginning of the Hyksos reign coincides with the rise and consolidation of the great Indo-European dynasties (the Hittites in Anatolia, the Kassites in Babylon and the Hurrian Mitanni empire).
Their way of approaching and entering Egypt is equally uncertain. In case they truly are Indo-European, their migration could be a part of the general and large-scale Indo-European migration-wave of the period. If they are of Semitic origin, then this migration-wave may have pushed them to south, southeast. Maybe it was an Indo-European ethnic group that chased them out from their original homeland and forced them to run away.
It is not impossible that we face a people of Indo-European origin that during its migration met Semitic groups several times and assimilated and saved some foreign influence through cultural exchange (in which the Hyksos were more passive than active - just like in Egypt).
Their language is unknown so it can't be relied on in searching for the origin of the people. Both standpoints are easy to doubt, nevertheless Egyptologist are willing to accept the theory Semitic origin.
We have a violent, nomad ethnic group searching for a new homeland that more and more assimilates to the Egyptian society, founds a city in the Delta and has ruling ambitions. On the other hand we have a divided empire: Upper Egypt is in the hand of the 13th Theban dynasty, Lower-Egypt is ruled by the 14th Memphite dynasty.
The first violent move we know about is the military campaign of Salitis, Hyksos sovereign, during which he attacks and captures Memphis and progresses forward up to the city of Ity-tawy at the Fayyum-oasis. By this time the conquerors has laid down strong foundations in the Delta, their capitol, and Avaris rises as an impregnable fortress above the lowlands. With such a firm background it was easy to press forward in order to occupy the whole country. The pharaohs of Egypt could not combine forces against the foreign insult. The Hyksos king must have had no serious difficulties in putting Upper Egypt under his influence. In such a case - when the victory depends on battles - we have to take the advantage of the Hyksos concerning the mechanized aspects of warfare. As mentioned above, the Egyptian did not know either the horse or the chariot and besides they had to meet another "magical item" what we call composite bow. The Hyksos with such a warfare equipment in possession seemed to be not only a frightening enemy but represented an army supported by demonic forces in the superstitious eye of the Egyptian.
Let me leave the path of the facts and refer to the brilliant novel of Wilbur Smith titled "River God" in which the author excels in representing the defeat of the Egyptian army against the Hyksos. Of course the story must be a fiction (though the author refers to original Egyptian story written on papyrus rolls as sources) but the reaction of the soldiers to creatures and weapons of incredible range never seen before should have been similarly dramatic also in reality:
"I stared at the first wheel I had ever seen, and the simplicity and beauty of it burst in upon me like lightning flaring in my head. .It was genius of the highest order, and now I realized that we stood to be destroyed by this wonderful invention in the same way, as it must have annihilated the red usurper in the Lower Kingdom. . I knew then that we were doomed. How could we stand against these speeding chariots, and the recurved bows that so easily outranged the finest archer in our ranks. . For one thousand years our armies had been invincible and our swords had triumphed across the world. Here on the field of Abnub an age had come to an end."
So the Hyksos conquered Egypt and founded their dynasty, which according to the list of Manetho, was the 15th and then the 16th ruling house on the throne of the Two Lands. The absolute monarchy seemed to be unusual for a people of nomad traditions. Though the kings of the 15th dynasty ruled over the country, the sources suggest that the 16th dynasty ruled as local subordinate authorities in the regional centers of the countryside all over Egypt in the meantime. This authority held more power than a simple mayor. The political construction reminded more to an early feudal society than an absolute monarchy.
The Hyksos fully assimilated to the local cultural life. The tolerated the Egyptian religion. Surprisingly the most important religious cult was the one of Seth, who was the god of chaos, infertility, destruction, the deity of the desert and wild storms for the Egyptians. Though he is not fully evil (read more about him in our "Gods" section), by his mythical role - he is the assassin and the self-elected successor of Osiris - he is the opponent of the pharaoh, who is the representation of Osiris. This probably must have been intentional ideological confrontation against the pharaohs who were considered to be the manifestation of Horus in person and the traditional enemies for Seth. This opposition is proven by the name "Apophis" preferred among Hyksos kings which is another trace of the Seth-cult (Apophis is the celestial serpent who tries to prevent the bark of Ra from processing on the Western horizon but Seth defeats it night after night).
The circumstances around the reconquest of the power and beating off the Hyksos are not less unclear than the invasion that led to the foreign domination. It was a Theban noble family (17th dynasty in Manetho's list) that after being the vassal of the Hyksos, finally turned against the supremacy due to some sharpening confrontation about the nature of which we don't have a clue. Strangely the military conflict was provoked not by this family but the actual Hyksos ruler Auserre Apophis. As we can read on a contemporary papyrus this king sent a message to Sekenenre Djehewty-aa, Theban leader in which he complained about the roar of Theban hippopotami that deserved his rest (Avaris was about 600 km far from Thebes). Reading between the lines we can find another trace of the mentioned Seth-cult, using it as propaganda-weapon. Hippopotamus was the sacred animal of Seth and in the meantime the preferred prey of Egyptian pharaohs' hunt. Hunting down the hippopotami might have represented a part of ideological warfare, which gained aggressive reaction from Auserre Apophis.
The Theban house lost this first war. Sekenenre most possibly fell in battle. His mummy has been found. Its miserable condition shows that his broken body could not be perfectly put together by the professional skills of royal mummification experts. Upon the traces of damage on his skull and neck it is easy to identify the Hyksos weapons.
Sekenenre's son, Kahmose had more success. He confronts the conquerors against his advisors' opinion.
"I would like to know what my power is for. There is a foreign sovereign is Avaris, another in Nubia and I sit here being together with an Asian and a Negro; both has a part of Egypt and share the country with me."
Then later he says:
"My desire is to save Egypt and chase the Asians away."
"I will drink the wine of your grape-gardens, after the Asians I captured pressed it for me. I will ravage your residences, cut out your trees after loading your women to my ship and seizing your chariots."
Egyptologists have found some stelae, that tell us about the successful campaigns of Kahmose. We can be sure that he was the one that drove back the Hyksos from Upper Egypt to the Delta but did not brake down their dominance fully. He could take neither Avaris, nor Memphis, which was the key to the supremacy over the Delta. Apophis tried to involve the Nubians by a treaty but Kahmose's people captured his messengers on their way, so the alliance failed.
The events during the last years of the Hyksos reign are not clear but most possibly Kahmose could not live to see the retreat of the Hyksos. Nor did his opponent, Apophis. Though the details of the victory are mainly unknown, it is obvious that it was Kahmose's brother, Ahmose who forced to Hyksos to withdraw from the land of Egypt. He expelled them not only from the Delta but crossing the border he forced them back far to the deserts of Palestine.
Ahmose was respected all through the history as the third founder of the united country, his name was mentioned as the equal of Menes and Nebhepetra Mentuhetep. Manetho's list starts a new dynasty with his name, a new imperial period called the New Kingdom, which gave the Thutmosides, the Ramessides, the Amarna reform, the Valley of the Kings and the position and status of a powerful empire for Egypt.
The 200 year-long Hyksos supremacy did not leave much traces on the Black Land - except for the employment of horse and chariot - as already mentioned before. Neither did buildings remain after them. Their disappear is similarly mysterious as their arrival despite that ethnically they still composed serious percentage of the population for a long time. Historians' efforts to find out further details about their story and destiny after the Second Intermediate Period are all condemned to remain unsuccessful. Nothing tells us about their later history. The people of the Two Lands always remembered to them with fierce hatred - in case they wanted to remember at all - and history has been cruel enough to judge them only according to the Egyptian inscriptions. Not a single inscribed artefact of the Hyksos has come to surface to tell us a different story so this judgement is unfortunately but necessarily one-sided.
It is almost certain that the remained sources don't give us a reliable summary about the rulers of the wastelands; their role and age give the historians a wide range of interpretation.
To finish my composition let me quote the main hero of Wilbur Smith's novel again. These are the words of Taita beside his lady's deathbed. He releases his lady's soul with the following prophecy:
"I saw the vulture and cobra stand on either side of the river, divided by the waters. I saw the waters rise and fall one hundred seasons. I saw one hundred sheaths of corn, and one hundred birds fly over the river. Below them, I saw the dust of battle and the flash of swords. I saw the smoke of burning cities mingle with dust. At last I saw the cobra and vulture come together in congress. I saw them mating and entwined on a sheet of pure blue silk. There were blue banners on the city walls and banners of blue flew on the temple pylons. I saw the blue pennants on the chariots that drove out across the world. I saw monuments so tall and mighty that they would stand for ten thousand years. I saw the peoples of fifty different nations bow down before them."
The prophecy came true. The foreign rulers were driven out and Egypt entered the most glorious period of her history.
This composition couldn't have been
realized without the kind help of Miss Katrina Patricio.
Thank you, Kat, for your efforts from the bottom of our hearts.