The Mysterious "Hyksos" and the Hebrews
The Semitic Influence in Ancient Egypt
Outstanding archaeologists (James Henry Breasted, Sir Flinders Petrie among them) took note early on of the profound impact the Semitic peoples had on the evolution of Egyptian civilization.
The region of the Nile delta (Biblical Goshen) was contiguous to Asia. Until the conquest of the area of the Lower Nile by an Egyptian chieftain of the Upper Nile and the establishment of the First Egyptian Dynasty, it was populated by peoples whose culture and technologies derived from the Canaanite and Mesopotamian milieu. The pictographic writings of the pre-dynastic Egyptians seems to have come in from Sumer, namely, from Nimrod's kingdom.
Since the earliest Egyptian history, Asiatic settlements were established further up the Nile in enclaves along the river which were periodically flooded. Sun-dried bricks, a characteristic Mesopotamian building material, were first employed in Egypt during this period; the use of the distinctly Mesopotamian cylinder seal was introduced, and traces of writing appeared; they bore a marked resemblance to those of the Land of the Twin Rivers (Mesopotamia).
During this period it is evident that Asiatic traders had already threaded their way past the indigenous Egyptians of Upper Egypt by boat and donkey to trade with the Nubians. The donkey was alien to Egypt. The Egyptians, in fact, had no pack animals during the entire Pre-dynastic period. The earliest remains of donkeys were found in various communities of Asiatic origins in the Delta. Donkeys were conspicuously present in Ma'adi, a village of Asiatic people which was established south of present-day Cairo. Significant evidence of trade both with Asia and Nubia was found among the artefacts recovered from its ruins.
The Ma'adians were not only expert in husbandry but were accomplished metallurgists and craftsmen. A copper axe-head spoiled in casting and masses of copper ore indicate that copper was being processed at Ma'adi. Ma'adi is the oldest site in Northern Egypt in which copper artefacts have been found.
The people of Ma'adi were among the many communities of Asiatic peoples who had been active in Northern Egypt for centuries at the time it was invaded and destroyed by the kings of the First Dynasty.
For many centuries, Egyptians had a fluent trade and peaceful relationships with the Asiatic. In this time the Biblical accounts of Avraham and Yoseph took place. After this period Egypt was ruled successively by Semitic kings. These Semitic kings were referred to by the Egyptians as the "Hekau-Khasut", the "Shepherd kings", or also "Hyk-Khase", the "Rulers from a foreign hill country". These terms are commonly transformed into "Hyksos," a word which is not confined to the chieftains but is mistakenly applied to the Semitic people (termed the Aamu by the Egyptians) from which they stemmed. Although the hegemony of these "Asiatic" included all Egypt, Canaan and extended into a major portion of Mesopotamia, they established no dynasties. They were elected by the village chieftains (the Hyk-Khase) of the Aamu villages, and therefore can be properly designated as the chief-of-chiefs.
The Hyk-Khase worshipped a single God and made no statues of Him. Many archaeologists, disappointed by the lack of gigantic monuments, self-glorifying statuary and self-serving temples such as those which so often drained Egypt, dismally stated that during this period art declined. Museums petulantly concur, for lack of imposing mausoleums, mummies and exotic statuary of beastly idols to display. The lack of such artefacts cause museums to pass by the vibrant, prosperous and progressive two centuries of Egyptian history with scarcely a mention.
During the rule of the Semitic chieftains Egypt leaped forward into a new era, advancing enormously in every field of knowledge and endeavour. Wise men came and taught astronomy, and medicine, and mathematics. The great mathematical Rhind papyrus, now in the British Museum, was produced during this period. Thus, although the chieftains sculpted no great statues of themselves, nor fashioned idols of fabulous gods, the arts they infused into Egyptian culture were of a rather subtle nature, more durable than the stone of which the statues were carved, and benefited all Egyptians.
The Egyptians had been sailing the Nile in feluccas, simple boats which were handled adeptly on the river. These boats, however, could not be managed easily on the high seas, for they had no keel. The Aamu (Hyksos) had long incorporated a keel, which stabilized their ships and made them easier to manoeuvre, safer and seaworthy. They probably learnt from Canaanites, better known in history as Phoenicians. Consequently, trade with the islands of the Mediterranean blossomed, and Egypt became a more essential factor in the region's economy.
A most important impact upon Egyptian economy and life was the engineering by the Semites of an effective control of water resources. Accounts, both Hebraic and Arabic, have it that it was indeed Yoseph who was responsible for this great and everlasting contribution to Egypt. A canal was dug parallel to the Nile creating a twin to the Nile for half its Egyptian length. A network of canals branch off to irrigate the desert west of the Nile. The canal finally flowed into the El-Fayoum, a basin cradled in a vast depression whose level lay below that of the Nile. The canal has always been, and is still today named the Bahr Yousef, the "Canal of Joseph". It is so designated on contemporary maps of Mitzrayim, the land which we call Egypt.
Wheels and wheeled vehicles, and the horses and oxen to draw them, were unknown in Egypt until the time of the rule of the Semitic chieftains. Wheeled chariots, hitched to teams of Asiatic horses, were introduced for hunting and for war, and the potters of Egypt began to throw their ware upon swiftly whirling wheels with newly won ease.
The Semites cultivated new fruits in Egypt - pomegranates, figs, olives, new grains and vegetables. Even the cornflower, a common Canaanite flower, became the favourite of Egyptian noblemen, and their tomb painters employed them lavishly.
Tools were refined and perfected. The Semites taught the people of Egypt how to set the helve, or handle, into a socket instead of tying the head crudely onto it. The simple bows the Egyptians used were no more than bent branch. They were replaced by the superior bows of the Aamus, cunningly constructed of bone and wood laminated into a composite curve. The shape and composition of scimitars, swords and daggers were modified to make them more effective and durable.
More important than weapons was the introduction of abiding inventions of peaceful use: new spinning devices and the upright loom; new fibres and new fast dyes made fabrics more durable and colourful; and added another dimension to the quality of life. The introduction of gently arts likewise contributed to a richer Egyptian culture. A variety of new musical instruments, the harp, the lute, the lyre, the oboe and the tambourine, long played in the Mesopotamian milieu, now appear in Egypt. With the new music came new forms of dance, and its graceful images became forever inscribed into the graffiti of the nobles, princes and pharaohs of Egypt since that time.
The Semitic rule over Egypt endured about two centuries. How did the Hyksos become kings of Egypt is still an unsolved question. It is unlikely that they invaded and took Egypt by force, and seems more probable that they were legitimated as successors of Yoseph... In such case, the Hyksos are to be identified with the Israelites! Such hypothesis would be supported by the Scriptures, in Sh'mot (Exodus) 1:6-8 - "And Yoseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. And the children of Yisrael bore fruit and increased very much, multiplied and became very strong, and the land was filled with them. Then a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yoseph". - These three verses may resume two centuries of Israelite rule over Egypt ("became very strong"), until an Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose I, "who did not know Yoseph" overthrew the Semitic rule. The Hyksos were enslaved, and progress came to a halt.
The island of Yeb, commonly known as Elephantine Island, is located in the Nile near Aswan. It is close to Egypt's border with the Biblical land of Kush (Nubia, or contemporary Sudan). It had a serviceable harbour, and was very active following the time of Yoseph.
Semitic peoples, called the Aamu or "Asiatic" by the Egyptians, established a colony on Yeb and on the Eastern Nile bank at Syene (now Aswan) to trade with the Nubians in the same period. Artefacts excavated on the island by members of the German and Swiss Archaeological Institutes include uniquely Canaanite earthenware, which, together with other characteristic materials, clearly establish the ethnicity of the settlers. The pottery from Yeb proved to be a virtual replica of those recovered from the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit and elsewhere in Canaan.
Glass beads, rings, and perfume vials, were also recovered from the site, and are now on display in the Elephantine Island Museum on Yeb. The Egyptians of the time were incapable of producing glass; their pyrotechnics was then limited to melting gold or copper on an open fire. In Akkadian Mesopotamia, however, reverberatory furnaces had already been in use for centuries and the technology and art of glassmaking had been known since 2400 BCE. The presence of glassware of this period on Yeb is definitive; it testifies to the presence of Semitic traders on the island at the time.
During the period of Hyksos rule, trade with Nubian Kush attained an unprecedented importance. Under the stimulation of peaceful trade, Kush emerged as a prominent and flourishing kingdom with close ties to Asia to the north. The Kush town of Kerma, for example, consisting largely of brick houses spread out along the river, was the seat of a court near the third Nile cataract. The houses and accoutrements testify to a considerable affluence and taste for luxury goods. A great assortment of seal impressions on pots, baskets and various other receptacles were extracted from the debris. The seals eloquently attest to the close and amicable relationship which existed between the Nubians and the Asiatic. The only names which appear on these seal impressions are those of Aamu officials: Among them are those of their chiefs Yaakov-her (Yakov!), Sheshi, Maatibra, and that of a queen, Ineni. Other seals are predominately those of the Asiatic administrators or chieftains.
Some of the sealed receptacles bear marks which identify them as being produced locally; it can reasonably be assumed, therefore, that a significant community of the seal owners or their representatives, were resident in the Nubian city of Kerma as well as on Yeb to oversee the business being conducted.
Substantial evidence of a close and amicable trade relationship between the Semites and the Nubians has been recovered from many other Nubian sites. Almost 4500 impressions of seals and scarabs were recovered from the ruins of Uronarti, one of which bore the name of the Aamu king Maatibra, the same as those appeared on the above-cited Kerma seals. Finds of a type identified with the Aamu city of El-Yehudiya (an evidently Hebrew name!), further north along the Nile, were found not only at Yeb, but also from the harbour cities of Aniba and Buhen. The fortress of the latter city also yielded a series of stelae whose style, epigraphy and content are characteristic of the northern Hyksos chieftains.
Peaceful relationships between Nubian Kush and Semitic Canaan broke down after the seizure of power by Ahmose I. Yeb continued intermittently to serve as a Semitic trading post with the waxing and waning of Egyptian aggression, and with other exigencies that affected the relationship of Egypt with Southwest Asia. Trade virtually disappeared as the 18th Dynasty "Warrior Pharaohs" substituted loot and enslavement for benign commercial intercourse.
Mysteriously, a Judaic community existed on Yeb sometime during the latter part of the ensuing dark period. It is clear that an already ancient, vibrant Judaic colony, among whose functions was to serve as a military outpost, had long been established on Yeb at the time of the Persian conquest of Egypt in the sixth century BCE.
For four thousand years prior to the Common Era the Israelites and their progenitors, the Akkadians and Canaanites, brought civilization to Egypt. Virtually every technological and cultural advance can be attributed to the presence of these peoples in Egypt, or to the passage and activities of Semitic traders from Southwest Asia.
The most remarkable transformation of Egypt from a primitive society to a Bronze Age culture took place during the two centuries of the so-called Second Intermediate Period under the rule of the Semitic chief-of-all-chiefs, elected by the chieftains of the numerous Aamu villages that existed in Lower Egypt from the time of the Biblical Yoseph forward.
With harder, more durable metal for their arms and tools, with wheeled chariots, and with draft animals for cultivation and transportation of new agricultural products, Egypt became the equal of the nations to the north and east. Yet, of all the events that took place in the time of the Asiatic chieftains, the most important was one that did not occur: there was no war of any consequence throughout the period of the Hyksos rule, the rule of the Semitic chieftains!
This fact has been misunderstood, or deliberately distorted, for it is said in our histories that during this time the power and influence of Egypt declined. These Hyksos rulers did not build statues of mythical gods, nor self-aggrandizing monuments of themselves, nor fill massive tombs with the rich accoutrements for the next life. Thus it is said that, during this period, art likewise declined.
How did it happen that modern historians consistently overlook the contribution of the Semitic Asiatic to Egyptian civilization? It is painfully evident that plunder was too often the prime objective not only of collectors and greedy tomb-robbers but of museums. The accumulation of artefacts rather than facts was too often the driving motivation of scientific institutions. The destructive tomb-robbing of natives for personal gain became the prerogative of archaeologists, museums, private collectors, and even governments. It is not surprising, therefore, that insofar as few grandiose monuments or rich royal accoutrements were gathered from the period of the tenure of the Semitic chiefs, that the modern plunderers were ready to blithely pronounce that nothing of value was contributed by them, and that, consequently, Egyptian civilization suffered a decline. How sad it is that power is measured by what can be enforced by arms, and not by what can be furthered by influence; that richness is measured by the quantity of loot wrested from one's neighbours, not by the wealth created through increased productivity. How absurd it is to gauge the wealth of a country by how many golden artefacts can be plucked from its ruler's tombs rather than by the adequate diet of the dwellers in the land; how blind is judgment when the welfare of a country like Egypt is assessed according to the profligacy of its kings rather than by the prosperity of its people.
Historical obtuseness cannot be attributed merely to an obsessive interest in accumulating the emoluments from noble tombs and buildings. Anti-Semitism fostered a willingness to adopt tendentious precepts uncritically, and led to ignore or deny gains by Egypt under Semitic rule.
What is unjustifiable is that historians continue to confuse conquest with progress, an historical distortion which is not confined to the history of Egypt. Finding satisfaction over artefacts scavenged from the grandiose tombs and palaces of ambitious conquerors, historians are inclined to assert that these worthies were instrumental in promoting their societies to new heights of cultural and economic development. They skip lightly over the tens or hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the process of conquest. It seems beside the point to mention the cities decimated, the countryside ravaged, the peoples enslaved. It seems of little importance that under the despotic rule that usually follows bloody conquest, people are grievously taxed, forced into slavery, and that a great proportion of their labour is consumed not in promoting the general welfare but in touting the glory of the conquerors by the creation of those very works that fill museums.
Then, much of history is taken from what the conquerors had inscribed on these works. Herodotus put it briefly: "Such as think the tales told by the Egyptians credible are free to accept them for history. As for me, I keep to the plan of this book, which is to record the traditions of the various nations just as I heard them related to me".
Must we continue to judge a civilization by the size of its palaces and monuments? By the numbers of people subjugated? By how dissolute are its rulers? Or do we measure a civilization by its dedication to peaceful pursuits? By the economic well-being of its people? By its technological and cultural achievements? By the freedoms its citizens enjoy?
All this evidence does still not definitely solve the enigma of the Hyksos' identity; nevertheless, it sheds enough light regarding their close relationship with the Hebrew (or even the "Habiru") peoples, and the possibility that they were either the Israelites or other Avrahamic people, like Midyanites or Kenites, or even the Edomites, that in their early period were quite similar to the Israelites.
Different theories about the Hyksos
Here some of the suggested identities of the Hyksos will be presented, with comments concerning the feasibility as well as the objections to each of them:
In the preceding section, "The Semitic Influence in Ancient Egypt", we have briefly exposed the reasons by which the Hyksos may be identified with the Israelites, that may have ruled over Egypt after Yosef was appointed as the Vice-Pharaoh. Besides them, some other hypotheses may be suggested:
· The name "Hyksos": referred to by the Egyptians as "Hekau-Khasut", the "Shepherd kings", or also "Hyk-Khase", the "Rulers from a foreign hill country", both definitions fit well with the Israelites, as they were shepherds and came from the "hill country", Canaan. Notwithstanding, these titles might convey also another meaning:
Many scholars have suggested that the Hyksos came from the north, probably Mesopotamia or Anatolia. If they were descendants of Yakov, Canaan was still not their own land: Where did Hebrews actually came from, in the early period, just some years before they entered Egypt? Where did Yitzhak and Yakov get their wives from? Haran (the land of Hurrians). And where did their father Avraham come from? Ur of the Chaldees, that is, "Ur ha-Kasdim" The Chaldees are indeed the Sumerians in the Bible, not those arbitrarily labelled as Chaldees by conventional nomenclature. Therefore, "Hekau-Khasut", "Hyk-Khase" may have any relationship with "Kasdim/Kasdu"? So, as the Hebrews were still foreigners in Canaan, would have they not been considered Canaanites but Kasdim? Probably. The Sumerians had also a tradition of shepherd-kings, therefore, the second term of the name, Khasut/Khase may have had a double meaning, in reference to Kasdu, the land of Sumer. The Egyptians may have remembered the visit of Avraham, the "shepherd king" from Sumer/Kasdu, as the first of the "Hekau-Khasut".
· Probably the title "Hyksos" was applied to the rulers, while the people were commonly called "Aamu". This may be identical with the Hebrew word "'Am", that means "people", as they called themselves "'Am Yisrael".
· The Hyksos took Egypt without battle. This means that they may have been appointed as rulers (or the first of them was), and the only account of such an event is the one of Yosef placed as Vice-Pharaoh.
The main objection to the identification of the Hyksos with the Israelites is that after having expelled their former rulers, the Egyptians pursued the Hyksos up to Sharuhen, where they took refuge, and the Egyptians put the city under siege for three years until they achieved a complete success over them. Such an event is not recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and would imply that some Israelites indeed left Egypt before the Exodus - not all the Hyksos left Egypt, as it is very likely that only the leaders and warriors did so while the mass of the people remained and were enslaved as reprisal. The Israelites did not meet any pre-Exodus brother on their way to Canaan, which may be explained - in case that the Hyksos were indeed Israelites - that the siege of Sharuhen was followed by a complete annihilation of everyone, so that no Israelite remained outside Egypt.
A second element that may be regarded as an objection is that the Israelites are called "'Apiru" in the Amarna Letters, that record their entrance in Canaan, apparently not being recognized as the former Hyksos.
The early Midyanites were also Hebrews, descending from Avraham and Qeturah. They settled by the eastern shore of the Red Sea, and their chiefs were "shepherd-kings". The Midyanites established trade with Egypt since old, and they were those who carried Yosef into Egypt. These same traders may have been inspecting the land in view of a future takeover. Let us see other factors that qualify the Midyanites as possible identity of the Hyksos:
· They were regarded as "Asiatic", the way that Egyptians called the Semitic peoples.
· They were as well considered Arabians.
· Once they lost control of Egypt, they retreated up to Sharuhen, that may be comprised also within the land of the Midyanites since they were nomadic tribes, they had not a defined territory, so any land between the eastern side of the Jordan and the northern half of the eastern shore of the Red Sea was suitable to be regarded as their homeland.
· When Mosheh was expelled from Egypt, he took shelter by the Midyanites, which may imply that there was a previous friendly relationship in Egypt between Israelites and Midyanites. Yethro was a kind of tribe chief and probably was descendant of Iyov, as Mosheh probably wrote that book during his sojourn by his father-in-law having learnt the story directly from him.
· Yethro was a "Kenite", a Midyanite tribe regarded as particularly dear and helpful towards the Israelites, which may date back to a shared sojourn in Egypt.
· The Kenites were "tinkers", "blacksmiths", "metal-forgers", which implies that they knew how to make iron-weapons.
· The denomination "Aamu" is valid also for them, as they spoke the same language (Hebrew/Aramaic).3) Edom:
There are no relevant objections to the theory that Midyanites may be the Hyksos, except that they are well-known as people that used camels rather than horses. Nevertheless, the picture of the Midyanites with camels refers to caravan traders, not warriors, and it is known that they also engaged several battles, which may easily have involved horses.
There is an interesting and very accurate explanation about the identification of the Hyksos with Edom in "The Hyksos, Kings of Egypt and the land of Edom" in the Nabataea.net website, so it is not necessary to expose here that extensive research but only a brief outline:
· They were a mixed Hebrew-Hurrian people, likely bilingual - hence the difficulty for scholars to define whether the Hyksos were Semitic or Indo-European, as the Hurrians spoke the oldest form of Sanskrit.
· They established a sort of empire but had not any particular attachment to their cities and had not any true capital, having no difficulty in settling their centre of power outside their homeland.
· They had friendly relationships with the Hittites and the Hurrian tribes of Canaan (Hivvites), and before the Exodus, also with the Israelites.
· They likely used horses and knew iron forging, having also Hurrian and Hittite origins mixed with Hebrew.
· The remaining characteristics are roughly the same of the Midyanites.
There is one main difficulty that hinders this theory from being thoroughly accepted: Egypt and Israel were in good relationship during the reigns of King David and mainly King Shlomoh, who even married the Pharaoh's daughter. David fought Edom making a great slaughtering, and one of the descendants of the ancient kings of Edom, Hadad, fled to Egypt and found great favour in the sight of the Pharaoh, who even gave him his sister-in-law as wife. By the end of Shlomoh's rule, this Hadad arose as his enemy. The question is: Would the Pharaohs give refuge to a descendant of the hated Hyksos rulers? In the case of the Kings of Israel, they were not related to any eventual dynasty ruling over Egypt, but this Hadad belonged to the royal line of Edom that according to this hypothesis should be identified with the Hyksos kings.
As it has been said before, the Egyptian terms "Hekau-Khasut", "Hyk-Khase" may have any relationship with "Kasdim/Kasdu", that indicates the peoples of Southern Mesopotamia. It is a curious fact that in the same period that the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt, another mysterious people arose in Babylonia: the Kassites (Kasu). They also came from an unknown place and after they lost control of Babylon apparently had not any further history. Very likely, they were direct descendants of the Sumerians, the authentic Kasdim. So here it comes the hazardous hypothesis: the Kassites that took the rule of Babylon may have been the already dethroned Hyksos! Also the Kassites were said to come from the "hill country", and that is why it was thought that such country was somewhere in the Zagros region, but it is not thoroughly proven and the question about the origin of the Kassites is still open. As well as for the Hyksos, the Kassite period is considered to be a "dark age"; another coincident fact is that both peoples were regarded as excellent horsemen. Their language was likely Sumerian, which was in some way related with Hurrian, though it was definitely different. Indeed, both peoples shared many common features, and even though this seems to be a rather unlikely identity, it is interesting the parallelism between Hyksos and Kassites.
Another theory suggests the Amalekites as possible identity of the Hyksos, but it is mainly based on inconsistent elements like the apparent resemblance between the terms "Aamu" and "Amalek", and an alternative chronology suggested by Velikovsky which pretends to solve problems with the "dark" periods making changes that lead to absurd identifications and parallelisms. Therefore, this theory will not be discussed here as it lacks of any conclusive proof.
Perhaps there are still other peoples that might be considered, yet the three first hypotheses seem to be the most creditable of all those suggested until now.