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The Hyksos Period of Ancient Egypt

The Hyksos Period was a time of foreign dominance in Egypt. It has been arousing the curiosity and interest of Egyptologists for several decades because while resources have been invested into researching other periods of Egyptian history, this age stayed largely neglected. When the Middle Kingdom fell in 1782 BC, Social Intermediate Period started. The dawn of this period was marked by the splitting of Egyptian lands into different regions, each placed under the rule of a chieftain. There were five dynasties reigning contemporaneously. According to Manetho, “invaders entered our regions unexpectedly from the eastern regions. The people of obscure race marched boldly in victory against Egyptians. With a great force, they managed to seize our lands without fighting hard. As a result of collapse of the Middle Kingdom, caused by several years of famine and disease, the country was rendered in a state of economic and political upheaval”. The Hyksos brought along with them numerous technical innovations and cultural infusions such as foreign loan-words, art and musical instruments. Some of the innovations included the techniques of pottery, bronze working, new crops and breeds of animals. They also introduced the use of chariots and horses in warfare, the composite bow, advanced techniques for fortification and new battle-axes. Due to the above cultural improvements, this foreign rule in Egypt was vital for the thriving of the later Egyptian empire in the Middle East. The Hyksos period of the ancient Egypt shaped numerous aspects of the Egyptian way of life; hence it is important to give characteristics to the royalty and government, religion, monuments, souvenirs and styles among other things that differentiate this period of history from the others. 

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Royalty and Government

The Hyksos established their rule in Egypt by transforming Avaris at Tell el-Dab’a into the capital where they initiated contracts and forged alliances. Those included Anatolia, Crete and Cyprus. At the end of the Middle Kingdom period, Egypt was very fragile politically, which made it a potential target of invasion from several foreign groups operating internally and externally. The Hyksos took advantage of the instability in the government and overthrew the Egyptian leader, laying claim to the sovereignty of lands in many areas. The Hyksos established their kingdom in the Middle Egypt and Nile Delta. Its size was limited since it never reached the South to extend into Upper Egypt, which during that period was ruled by Theban. 

The government was headed by the Pharaoh who received assistance from advisors, administrators, priests and officials. They were in charge of the state affairs as well as people’s welfare. Viziers were the most powerful officials after pharaoh, followed by high priests and royal administrators who implemented pharaoh’s orders in the districts. At the bottom of the leadership structure were farmers, scribes, artisans and laborers. Images of the Hyksos were created but later destroyed after they were overthrown by natives.  

The first king of the XVI dynasty was Salitis. He was referred to as “Sultan” in Arabic to mean ‘powerful king.’ During his reign, he captured Memphis and instituted his authority above any other rank in the royal families that existed in the Capital. According to Manetho, he conquered Egypt at the time when it was ruled by pharaoh Tutimaios. He was the one credited with founding the real Hyksos dynasty, since before that the people along the delta lived as nomads. Salitis lived in Memphis and was the one who made Avaris into a fortified stronghold and the new capital. Apachanan is told to have been the 3rd Hyksos king. He exhibited a lot of power and managed to extend his rulership to parts of Northern Egypt in his quest to control other parts of the country. Archeologists discovered some seals and scarabs containing his name on Mediterranean islands off the coast of Southern and Northern Egypt. 

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Apepy I is believed to have had one of the longest reigns compared to other Hyksos kings. His name was borrowed from one of the Egyptian gods known as Apep, and the name embedded on his throne means “Great and Powerful.” Apepy I is described as a well educated and ambitious man. He is said to have sent a provocative letter to Egyptian king Tao II with a really odd complaint. In the letter, he noted that the noises resulting from King Tao’s roaring and snoring caused him such a great disturbance that he could not sleep, despite the king being 800km away to the South in Thebes. The message earned a strong reaction from king Tao and a war broke out. It is suspected that the letter was concocted by people attempting to seize Apepy’s throne and not the king himself. Therefore, the creation of a strong government was the reason Hyksos retained their power for as long as they did. 

The rule of Hyksos kings overlapped with the reign of native Pharaohs of the XVI and XVII Dynasties of Egypt. They were expelled by the first pharaoh who reigned in the 18th century B.C., known as Ahmose I. He ended the foreign dominance by expelling the Hyksos from their main holdout in Gaza, the place known as Sharuhen by the sixteenth year of his rule. Many scholars consider the adoption of a number of Egyptian forms of art by the kings of Hyksos as the evidence of the Hyksos progressively adopting Egyptian culture. They incorporated the use of Egyptian titles linked with native Egyptian kingship to cement their dominance and even accepted one of the Egyptian gods, Seth, to show their spirituality. The natives, however, saw the Hyksos as foreign invaders. When the native king finally managed to drive them out of the country, all evidence of their rulership was erased. 

The last king of the Hyksos reign was Khamudy. Manetho, Egyptian priest who recorded events from the Egyptian history in Greek, gave an account of his rule lasting for forty nine years. In today’s history, his reign is approximated to ten-twelve years between 1558 and 1547 B.C. King Ahmose I, the ruler of Thebes, launched a strong attack on him in the eleventh year of his reign and captured Heliopolis, one of the biggest towns. During that period of the war, Khamudy engaged in negotiations with Egyptians kings on the subject of withdrawing the Hyksos army from parts of the delta and Avaris. However, unrelenting Egyptians continued their attacks and captured his main capital, Avaris. Khamudy suffered a military defeat, had to surrender and withdraw his troops from Egypt. The Egyptians continued raids on the same area for many years to curb any possibility of the Hyksos coming back in the future. 

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The Egyptian art at the time was meant for magical and religious purposes. The Hyksos adopted Egyptian art they found in the land. The functions and symbols used in art during The Second Intermediate Period gives insights on the belief system of Egyptians. In social context, the practical role of art was straightforward physicality. For instance, images on temple walls depicted the king making libations to the gods or smiting enemies. It also relays the notion that the king was fulfilling his key duties of maintaining order. The Hyksos also believed that images of this kind were important in ensuring that their power was real. The statues that were placed on temples and tombs were seen as physical representations of the material and spirit of venerable individuals. The statues were constructed of durable materials such as metal, hardwood and stones. Their poses and physical features were idealized. This means that they were portrayed in accordance to the Egyptian general standards of conduct. The identity of a statue was only established in special cases by incorporating personal features. The identification was made by inscribing the name of the individual. Therefore, writing was an important part of Hyksos art; featuring pictorial signs, it was an art work in its own way. Superb workmanship, aesthetic beauty and choice of materials ensured the potency of the work of art. 

The sources of influence for the artistic styles were nature and religion. Artists were mainly inspired by the river Nile, hence most painting featured the river in the background. Religion played an important role for the Hyksos. Consequently, they painted pictures of gods and the dead to foster their belief systems, especially the existence of afterlife. They painted on the tombs all the resources they believed the deceased needed in the afterlife. Unfortunately, Hyksos painting styles have not been revised because Egyptians did not want to keep memories of the time of foreign dominance in their land.


Hyksos kings also embraced the use of symbolism in art. It played the vital role in ensuring a sense of order. Colors used to decorate the portraits of kings were more expressive. Red meant that the king was hard working, while yellow skin symbolized women who were working indoors. Use of hierarchical proportions was a common thing during this period of time. The size of the figure drawn or carved showed their importance in the society. For instance, the divine pharaoh was normally depicted larger compared to other figures, especially high officials or owners of the tomb. The smallest scales were used for servants, animals, entertainers, architectural details and trees. 

Today, when one can admire the glittering treasures found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the great beauty of the statuary in the Old Kingdom and Tombs of the new Kingdom, it is imperative to remember that most of the Hyksos art in Egypt was not meant to be seen. The images were designed for the benefit of a divine recipient. Statuary ensured that the recipient had a place to manifest and benefit from a ritual performed. Many statues are depicted at formal frontality, thus proving that they were strategically made to face the ritual that was performed in their honor. Most statues were also placed in architectural setting contexts that ensured that frontality was their natural mode. Statuary, of any kind, provided a conduit for the spirit of the deceased to reach the terrestrial realm. Divine cult statues were the main subject of anointing and the daily rituals of clothing and perfuming with incense. They were carried by processions during festivals for the people to see. Statuary for the elite and royals were meant to serve as intermediaries between the gods and the people. Family chapels containing statuary of the dead forefathers served as family temples. Therefore, the Hyksos used works of art to serve many purposes. Despite the Hyksos raiding Egypt and controlling certain regions, the importance of art works hardly diminished during their rule. 

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Text and Images

Almost all images were accompanied by text in Hyksos arts. In statuary, texts appeared at the base or the back. Pillars and relief had longer texts and captions that elaborated on the scenes. Hieroglyphs were occasionally rendered as small works of art. A number of them are phonetic sounds while other are logographic, meaning that they symbolized a concept. There was always a blur between images and texts in most pieces. For example, on a statue, the name of the figure constantly left out the determinative. 


Faience was used to produce small portable objects such as jewelry during the Hyksos period. It was made of cheaply produced chemicals and sand. Glass was another luxury material of the period. Later it was used for decorating small jars for liquids and perfumes. Steatites, referred to as soapstone, were used to curve small pieces of amulets, animals, images of deities and animals among other objects. Egyptian artists also covered pottery and other stone works with enamel. Various stones were imported and then colored blue. 

Just like Egyptians, Hyksos deposited various types of pottery items in the tombs. Some of these pottery items depicted interior body organs such as the liver, the lungs and smaller intestines. These parts were always removed prior to embalming the body. Several objects in enamel pottery were left with the dead. It was a custom to depict those objects on the walls of the tombs, approximately 6-10 inches tall. The cones normally had impression of the names of the deceased, offices and titles they held, and some served funeral purposes. 

The Hyksos started occupying the delta area during Middle Kingdom from 1800 to 1640 BCE. The recovered art work suggests they had come from the territory of modern-day Palestine and Syria. They settled in Egypt as merchants, traders, sailors, wine makers, artisans, craft workers and doctors. Pieces of art traced to Middle Kingdom depict them having beards and wearing varied clothing. They are shown wearing colored cloths with a range of fancy designs, bringing goods for trade and tributes. The Hyksos traders and merchants came with semi-precious stones and timber from Afghanistan and Byblos respectively. They exported beer and grain from Egypt to Greece. The archaeological sites located in the eastern Delta at the time when the Hyksos inhabited those regions contained many artifacts which characterized the culture during Syro-Palestinian Middle Bronze Age II. 

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Hyksos rulers, during their reign, commissioned sculptures with similar iconography and style as Middle Kingdom rulers. The Hyksos period led to the development of great numbers of refined and delicate small works. They used sunk relief as a distinctive technique because of its suitability for bright sunlight. The key figures in the relief normally followed similar pattern as on the paintings, with parted legs and head carved in profile, and the torso depicted from the front. The standard set of proportions meant eighteen fists from the ground to the hairline. Most large sculptures managed to survive in Egyptian tombs or temples, while massive statues representing pharaohs, gods and queens usually stood on open areas outside temples. 

The tombs of the Hyksos kings contained models of animals, slaves, buildings and objects such as boats due to the assumption that the deceased was continuing with his life style in the afterworld. Nevertheless, most of the wooden sculptures were lost over time to decay or perhaps used as fuel. It was also common to see small figures of deities or animals made of clay. There existed large numbers of small carved objects: from carved utensils to figures of gods to toys. Alabaster was occasionally used as expensive material, while painted wood was the most common material. In crafting the statues, strict conventions were observed and certain rules governed the appearance of each god. For example, Horus, the sky god, was portrayed having the head of a falcon, while Anubis was normally portrayed with a jackal’s head. During the Hyksos period, artistic works were ranked in relation to compliance with conventions. After more than 3,000 years, the form of the statues changed to some extent. The above conventions were meant to render the non-aging and timeless quality of the gods. 

The purpose of the monuments was to commemorate the kings who transcended in the afterlife to being gods. They worshipped the statues and viewed them as sacred in nature. Over the years, the statues of Seth remained while monuments built for the Hyksos kings were destroyed. This was because Seth was an Egyptian god who was worshipped by the Hyksos. The Hyksos and natives had similar religious beliefs, that was why the monuments of Seth built in the past were treated as sacred rather than destroyed. It is important to note that the Hyksos only ruled portions of Egypt hence never destroyed monuments in other places. 

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The Hyksos had a strong belief system. They worshipped Seth, one of the Egyptian gods. According to earlier Egyptian mythology, Seth was the one who cut Osiris into thirteen pieces and attempted to annihilate him. This means that Seth was not necessarily viewed as a good deity. A number of Egyptians also continued their worship of Seth and depicted him as evil. Seth was portrayed having the body of a canine and a forked tail. Besides the adopted Egyptian god, they had a god known as Reshep. He was the god of war and storms. While it seems that the Hyksos incorporated Egyptian culture into their way of life, they hardly seem to have mastered the Egyptian style of writing. The natives had carved small beetles out of stones to make amulets referred to as scarabs and further carved their magical prayers and names on them. 

The King was viewed by the people of Egypt as the servant of gods on earth. He had the mandate of appeasing the gods on people’s behalf. If there was a breakdown in his relationship with the gods, a disaster could strike Egypt. Consequently, political unrest could break out, accompanied by the desire to replace the king with one able to re-build the cosmic order. It is important to note that the events mentioned above are thought to have contributed to the fall of central government during the 1st Intermediate Period, hence also applicable to the onset of 2nd Intermediate Period.


This paper provided information on the Hyksos period in relation to the role arts played in the government, trade, religion, monuments, souvenirs and styles during their rule. To present day, the Hyksos still play a crucial role in Egyptian literature. Considering the slow spread of Hyksos influence to Southern Egypt, it is reasonable to infer that the Hyksos were only superior in strength because of their military technology. After settling in Egypt, the Hyksos adopted a number of elements of the Egyptian culture, especially Egyptian artwork. Therefore, it can be considered to have been a period of time when a number of new elements were was added to Egyptian culture such as the use of horses in combat and new weapons of warfare.

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