Ancient Egypt’s first “foreign” takeover may actually have been an inside job. About 3600 years ago, the pharaohs briefly lost control of northern Egypt to the Hyksos, rulers who looked and behaved like people from an area stretching from present-day Syria in the north to Israel in the south. The traditional explanation is that the Hyksos were an invading force. But a fresh analysis of skeletons from the ancient Hyksos capital suggests an alternative: The Hyksos were Egyptian-born members of an immigrant community that rose up and grabbed power.
The pharaohs ruled Egypt from about 3100 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E., but they weren’t always in complete command of their territory. One period of vulnerability began around 1800 B.C.E., with a succession of ineffectual pharaohs who struggled to maintain order. The Hyksos took advantage of the power vacuum by seizing control of northern Egypt, according to ancient texts, leaving the pharaohs in charge of only a tiny strip of land to the south.
Archaeologists know the Hyksos were unlike typical Egyptians: They had names like those of people from the neighboring region of southwest Asia. Ancient artwork depicts them wearing long, multicolored clothes, unlike normal Egyptian white attire. But exactly who they were has been unclear.
The pharaohs later claimed the Hyksos were foreign invaders who took northern Egypt by force and brought disorder and chaos. But some historians say this was simply ancient Egyptian propaganda.
In the 1940s, researchers identified the ancient Hyksos capital city, Avaris, at a site in the Nile delta about 120 kilometers northeast of Cairo. In the new study, archaeologist Chris Stantis at Bournemouth University and her colleagues analyzed teeth taken from skeletons buried at Avaris to get a clearer picture of who the Hyksos really were.
As teeth form in childhood, tiny quantities of strontium metal in food are incorporated into the enamel. By comparing the balance of strontium isotopes in enamel with those in the region’s soil, researchers can judge where an individual grew up.
When Stantis and her colleagues examined teeth from 36 skeletons buried at Avaris during the 350 years before the Hyksos seized power, they discovered that 24 of the individuals—both male and female—were foreign-born. They couldn’t tell where the foreigners hailed from, but the researchers say their findings show Egypt had welcomed immigrants for hundreds of years before the Hyksos rose to power. Data from the teeth of a further 35 people buried at Avaris during the Hyksos period show a similar pattern of immigration continued after they rose to power.
As such, Stantis suggests the Hyksos rulers were not necessarily foreign-born invaders, but might instead have emerged from a centuries-old immigrant community living in Avaris, her team reports today in PLOS ONE.
Historian and archaeologist Anna-Latifa Mourad at Macquarie University thinks this conclusion makes sense. Archaeologists have found little evidence for the fighting and destruction that should have occurred at Avaris if the city had been captured by foreign invaders.
Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thinks most of the immigrants probably traveled to Egypt in peace. They may even have invented the alphabet once they arrived, according to her research.
Their rise to power is probably explained by the failings of the pharaohs to control the area, says Egyptologist John Darnell at Yale University.
The Hyksos ruled for 100 years, and then the pharaohs recaptured their territory. Researchers have speculated that the pharaonic forces banished the Hyksos rulers to southwest Asia—and that the punishment may have helped inspire Exodus, the biblical story in which the Israelites left Egypt and, eventually, reached the promised land in southwest Asia.
Ultimately, even though the Hyksos may only have ruled for about 100 years, they appear to have left their mark on world culture.