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Enigmatic Hyksos did not invade Egypt, were not Israelites, scholars say
Around 1750 or 1700 BCE, the central royal government in Egypt was weak and Canaanites that had been infiltrating the country and settling in the north became stronger and were able to seize power.
A group of British and Austrian researchers offered new insights on the identity of the mysterious Hyksos, a foreign group that ruled over Egypt for a little over a century in the middle of the second millennium BCE and that a popular myth, as well as some historians over the centuries, has associated with the Israelites.
According to a paper published in the academic journal PLOS ONE last week, the Hyksos were not invaders, but rather Asiatic immigrants who settled in Egypt – specifically in the Nile Delta region – lived there for centuries and eventually managed to stage a takeover of power.
The authors from Bournemouth University and Durham University in the United Kingdom and the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna reached this conclusion by analyzing the remains of 75 individuals buried in Tell el-Dab’a, the Hyksos’ capital. Investigating the strontium isotope ratios of tooth enamel allowed them to differentiate between those who spent their childhood in the northeastern Nile Delta and those who grew up somewhere else and then moved to the region.
The study marks the first time that archaeological chemistry was used to investigate the issue of the Hyksos’ origin.
“Canaanite groups and individuals kept immigrating to Egypt for thousands of years,” Orly Goldwasser, head of the Department of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Jerusalem Post. “Egypt was the United States of the antiquity, full of water and rich, while Canaan was much poorer and drier. The Hyksos’ and the Israelites’ stories belong to this same pattern.”
As far as the Hyksos are concerned, it is known that around 1750 or 1700 BCE, the central royal government in Egypt was very weak, and groups of Canaanites that had been infiltrating the country and settling in the north became stronger and were able to seize power, she said.
The Egyptians resented foreign rule, and around 1530 BCE they managed to expel them. This experience left a deep mark in Egyptian culture, causing the Hyksos to receive a very bad reputation.
The Hyksos and their people were Canaanites who lived 500 years before the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan; therefore, they do not share the same ancestry, Goldwasser said. The tradition of the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, however, induced the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus to construct a connection between these two people.
The concept has been frozen in the Egyptian memory to the point that to this day, the average person in Egypt thinks the Hyksos were Jews and associates them with destruction and chaos. But this is not part of real history, the archaeologist said.
Long after the Hyksos’ domination ended, people from Canaan continued to reach Egypt, and among them may have been the Proto-Israelites. Some archaeologists think the story of the sojourn in Egypt was invented much later to create a unified historical framework for the Israelites.
Others look at different elements described in the Bible, such as the names and the geographical description of places, and are of the opinion that there is a core of truth behind it, even though the text is not to be taken literally, Goldwasser told the Post.
What is described fits a dynamic that is not unusual in the history of Egypt: A group of people from Canaan moved there, one of them became a leader and later fell from power, the group was recruited for massive public construction works and later ran away.
Even though the earliest written sources about the Hyksos known today were produced at a much later time, decades of excavations at Tell el-Dab’a have offered ample proof and insights into their life, leaving no doubt that the city was a Canaanite center, with burials and temples devoted to its gods, especially to Ba’al.
One of the rulers is even mentioned in a later Egyptian text as committing the sin of only worshiping Ba’al instead of a plurality of gods, in a de facto monotheism. In the 14th century BCE, the idea of an individual god was adopted by an Egyptian king, which was later shunned and considered a heretic.
Rather than reading these parallels between the Hyksos and the Israelites as a sign that they might have indeed been the same people, they should be analyzed as a phenomenon of different fragments of memories conflating in the narrative of the ancient Egyptians and from there in the following millennia, Goldwasser said.
The paper published in PLOS ONE has not brought new information, but rather confirmed what was already known about the Canaanite identity of the Hyksos and that it would have been beneficial to analyze more individuals, she said.