Friday, May 29, 2009

The Size of the Hyksos "Empire" (Part I)

Early Egyptologists believed that the Hyksos ruled an empire stretching from Syria to Nubia[1], but this notion seems completely wrong to me. First of all, let us look at the evidence for Hyksos rule in the Levant.

Early archaeologists linked the presence of the so-called “Tell-el-Yahudieh” pottery (first found in Egypt and later discovered throughout the Levant) to the presence of the Hyksos. In the early part of the twentieth century there was some reason to accept this as no example of this type of pottery had been found which pre-dated the Second Intermediate Period. Furthermore, the pottery seemed to have no known antecedents and appeared suddenly in excavations much as if it had been introduced by foreign invaders. There are some problems with this idea however. First of all, it is possible to explain the distribution of the pottery as a result of commerce between Egypt and the Levant, rather than as the result of the existence of a Hyksos empire. Second of all, some examples of this ware have been found in Dynasty Twelve contexts at Buhen (in Nubia), el-Lisht, and tombs number one and two at Byblos (which are clearly datable to the reigns of the Dynasty Twelve kings Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV)[2].

Another often cited “proof” of the existence of a Hyksos empire is the presence of a series of massive earth-work “fortifications” in several places in the Levant and in two places in Egypt. Recent scholars have suggested that the “fortifications” at Heliopolis and Tell-el-Yahudieh are actually temple foundations[3]. This leads to the rather odd situation of having Hyksos fortifications in the Levant (where we are not completely certain that they ever ruled) and having no Hyksos fortifications in Egypt (which is the only place we are certain that they ever ruled).

Further “proof” of the existence of a Hyksos “empire” includes a basalt lion bought by the British Museum in Baghdad, an alabaster jar lid found at Knossos[4] and a fragment of an obsidian vase found at Boghazkoi (all of which are inscribed with the name of Khian)[5]. All of these are better explained as indications of foreign commerce rather than the existence of a far flung Hyksos empire as the chronologies of Crete and Turkey are too well know to admit the possibility of Hyksos rule in either place.

The last piece of evidence which is usually cited as proof of the existence of a Hyksos empire is the numerous scarabs found throughout the Levant. It must be pointed out that all of these scarabs are small and very portable and their distribution is quite possibly explainable as the result of foreign commerce, rather than as evidence of a vast Hyksos empire. Using scarabs as evidence for anything is further complicated by the fact that the Egyptians often carved scarabs with the name of kings who were long dead. For instance, scarabs have been found bearing the names of Fourth and Fifth Dynasty kings; but these scarabs clearly were clearly carved after the kings named on them were dead[6] as it is known that the first scarabs were carved during the First Intermediate Period[7]. There are also Hyksos scarabs in Nubia, when it seems clear that the Hyksos never ruled there (see the discussion in the next post). If Hyksos scarabs are found in Nubia in spite of the fact that they never ruled there, it would seem that the scarabs found in the Levant do not prove Hyksos rule there either.

[1] Breasted, J. Geschichte Aegyptens (Vienna: Phaidon-Verlag, 1936), p. 149 and Save-Soderbergh, T. JEA 37, p. 62-3, and Albright, W. Archaeology of Palestine (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited, 1949), pp. 86-7 to cite only three examples.

[2] Enberg, R. “Hyksos Reconsidered”, pp. 26-8. See also Hayes’ comments in Scepter, vol. II, p. 12 where he agrees with the present author that Tell-el-Yahudieh ware does not indicate the presence of the Hyksos.

[3] Steindorff, G. and Kieth Seele. When Egypt Ruled the East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 25 and Save-Soderbergh, T. JEA, 37, p. 60 as well as Trigger, B., et al. Ancient Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 157

[4] Save-Soderbergh, T. JEA, 37, p. 63.

[5] Trigger, B. Ancient Egypt, p. 159.

[6] Newberry, P. Ancient Egyptian Scarabs (Chicago:Aries Publishers, 1979), p. 118.

[7] Newberry, P. Scarabs, p. 70 and Ward, W. Studies on Scarab Seals, vol 1, (Warminster: Aris & Phillips limited, 1978), p. 4.

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