Egypt has always had foreigners present owing to its location at the northeastern extremity of Africa, adjacent to Asia. Egypt acts as a land bridge to Asia and, in ancient times, was surrounded by the Libyans to the west and the Nubians to the south. Foreigners arrived or traveled through Egypt since before the unification, about 3050 BCE. The Egyptians saw themselves—along with the Nubians, Libyans, and Near Easterners—as one of the four peoples of the world.

The ancient Egyptians viewed Egypt as the dominant center of the world. All other countries and their gods were subservient to Egypt and its gods. “O King, you have enclosed every god within your arms, their lands and all their possessions.” This Old Kingdom Pyramid Text (Spell 455) is a reflection of a country that fought its neighbors well before its own unification. Execration Texts (ritual curses) mentioned a number of foreigners and foreign lands. During the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, the Egyptians also saw all foreigners as potentially defeated. Egypt, with its king, was the land of maat, containing the rightful order of the world, which countered the lands of Seth (foreign lands), with their disorder. New Kingdom Egypt occasionally had a more universal world view, as found in hymns to Amun-Re and the Aten. As well, earlier indications that foreigners were more than servants to the Egyptians were present, such as in the Story of Sinuhe, which described Near Eastern princes as “rulers of renown.” An apparent dichotomy of attitude toward foreigners existed throughout dynastic times.

There is a difference between the way foreigners were portrayed as groups and as individuals. As a member of an ethnic group, the foreigner was portrayed as an enemy of maat, like an animal, with strange habits and appearance. As an individual, however, the foreigner had a name and could have acted like an Egyptian. Inscriptions addressed to an internal audience portrayed the superiority of Egypt and the king over the exterior world. When addressed to an external audience, such as in the Amarna Letters or a Hittite peace treaty, the letters and treaties stressed the equality of the foreigners. Both were forms of propaganda but with different audiences and aims.

Throughout Egyptian history, foreigners occupied almost all social strata and occupations. From the Old Kingdom forward, many foreigners entered Egypt as prisoners of war. From the time of King Sneferu in the Old Kingdom, there were military expeditions to Nubia to take prisoners to work in Egypt. By the end of the Old Kingdom, slavery, the most extreme version of forced labor, was in operation. By the Middle Kingdom, foreigners represented the largest portion of slaves. Often acquired in military expeditions, prisoners were frequently given to Egyptians as property. The farmer Hekanakht, for example, gave Near Eastern slaves to his wife. Many foreign slaves, however, were destined for forced labor in temples and strongholds. Evidence that a foreign slave could be freed by an individual comes from administrative texts, such as one in which Sabastet, a royal barber, freed a slave that he had captured with his own hand in order for the slave to marry his blind niece. Slaves could also be freed by adoption by their owners, or by the edict of the king. During the New Kingdom, many foreigners were acquired as slaves from foreign slave markets as well as in foreign military expeditions, but foreigners also came to Egypt voluntarily for economic reasons.

Once established in Egypt, foreigners frequently attempted to assimilate Egyptian language and culture. Foreigners took Egyptian names for themselves or gave their children Egyptian names. As in this century, name changing was seen as a prerequisite for social climbing.

Mercenaries, Soldiers, and Foreign Rulers.

No later than the sixth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, there was a substantial number of Nubians and Libyans in the Egyptian army, including the Irtjet and the Medjay people of Nubia, based on the report of Uni. During the Old Kingdom, there were also a number of foreign interpreters who were used during military and trade expeditions. From the eleventh dynasty of the First Intermediate Period (2134–2061 BCE), there is evidence of Nubian Tjanenu mercenaries at Gebelein. The Medjay mercenaries were very important during the eleventh and twelfth dynasties of the Middle Kingdom (2061–1786 BCE). The term “Medjay,” from the thirteenth dynasty (1786–c.1665 BCE), was used to describe an internal police force. Ahmose (ruled c.1569–1545 BCE), first king of the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom, used his Medjay troops against allies of the Hyksos at Nefrusy near Beni Hasan.

During the thirteenth dynasty (the Second Intermediate Period), two succeeding kings, Ammenemes VI and Hornedjheritef, were each called “the Asiatic” (which may or may not refer to their Near Eastern origins), and a later king of the same dynasty, apparently a Syrian mercenary who seized the throne, was named Khendjer, the “wild boar.” The Hyksos (“rulers of foreign lands”) were Near Easterners from the Levant who, after gradually settling and infiltrating the northeastern Delta, took over Avaris, Memphis, and the rest of northern Egypt for more than a century. In ruling, the Hyksos adopted the Egyptian style of government rather than imposing their own. At the end of the seventeenth dynasty, just before the reunification of Egypt by Ahmose, Kamose stated that he shared Egypt with a Near Eastern ruler on one side and a Nubian on the other.

After reunification (c.1569 BCE), the Egyptian army continued to absorb an increasing number of foreign mercenaries, including Nubians, Libyans, and Mediterranean “Sea Peoples” during the New Kingdom. A fragmentary papyrus from Amarna depicted what may have been Mycenaean mercenaries. After the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period (in 1081 BCE), with the decline of the twenty-first Egyptian dynasty, the kingship was occupied by a succession of Libyans and later Nubians. Sheshonq I, a descendant of an old clan of military colonists from Herakleopolis (called the “chiefs of Ma [Meshwesh],” though he was from Bubastis in the Delta) became commander-in-chief of the armies of Egypt. He was also an advisor and was related by marriage to Psusennes II of the twenty-first dynasty before he became the first king of the twenty-second dynasty. The first king of the twenty-fourth dynasty, Tefnakhte of Sais, was also from a clan of the “chiefs of the Ma.” He called himself “great chief of the Libyans and prince of the west,” and he united the four great chiefs of the Ma before ascending the throne, although he ruled over only part of the Delta. The Nubian leader Piya, of Napata, invaded Egypt during the Late period and gained control over all of Egypt, thus becoming the first sub-Saharan African to rule Egypt. He and his successors of the twenty-fifth dynasty attempted to repel the increasing power of the Assyrians.

With the Assyrian conquest of Egypt, an Egyptian prince named Psamtik, who had been brought to Assyria to be educated and returned to Egypt, rid Egypt of Assyrian rule with the help of Ionian and Carian mercenaries from Asia Minor. He became the first king of the twenty-sixth dynasty of the Saite period. During this time, Egypt was a mecca for Greek mercenaries who settled there. As well, a Jewish military colony was functioning in Elephantine during this period, and Syrian and Phoenician mercenaries were available to Egypt after being uprooted by Assyrian conquests. From graffiti at Abu Simbel, it is clear that Psamtik II's army included Greeks, Carians, and Phoenicians. When Cambyses conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, Egypt was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire (the First Persian Occupation), and was later included in the Alexandrian Empire in 332 BCE. With the end of Macedonian rule, Egypt was under Ptolemaic control and later under Roman control. During the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt had become increasingly multilingual and multiethnic.

Other Vocations of Foreigners.

Over the course of Egyptian history, foreigners have acted in almost all occupations. From farmers and laborers, to bureaucrats and priests, foreigners acculturated themselves to Egypt and its mores. Frequently, they discarded their foreign names and, presumably, their foreign attire as well, although some foreigners in the military kept some of their distinguishing attire and/or body adornment. The large number of prisoners captured by the Egyptians were put to work in the palaces, temples, and funerary complexes. Captured prisoners were also used as mercenaries.

Large numbers of foreign men and women were absorbed into Egypt's social structure. In the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, a Nubian seal-bearer, Seneb, and a Nubian attendent, Meri, worked in a noble's estate. During the Middle Kingdom, men and women from Punt, in Africa, worked as servants in the king's palace in the Faiyum, while Near Easterners worked at Illahun and elsewhere. During the New Kingdom, in the eighteenth dynasty, Thutmose III decided that captured foreigners should weave fine linen and thick cloth, trap animals, and work in the fields belonging to the Temple of Amun. Nubians attached to the funerary temple of Thutmose IV at Qurna worked as cooks and bakers, while captured Syrians worked as wine makers. A letter of the nineteenth dynasty tells of the Syrian Naqady, who worked as a farmer in the temple of Thoth. Near Easterners also labored at construction sites or worked in granaries. Throughout Egyptian history, large numbers of bedouin crossed into the northeastern Delta and the Wadi Tumilat to pasture their animals. Such crossings were controlled by the Egyptians.

During the New Kingdom, more specialized occupations were filled by foreigners. Near Easterners worked as shipbuilders, ship captains, coppersmiths, and goldsmiths. Perunefer, a shipyard near Memphis, had many such immigrants among its labor force. The Saint Petersburg Papyrus 1116 lists two Near Eastern naval carpenters, Aarusu and Bania. Kefia, a goldsmith and portrait sculptor, had a tomb in the Theban necropolis (tomb 140). Near Easterners were also architects: Pasbaal became chief architect in the Temple of Amun during the reign of Thutmose III (r. 1504–1452 BCE) and Tutu, whose tomb was built at Akhetaten, was labeled “overseer of all the works of the king” and “overseer of all public works”—therefore, a chief architect, as well as a treasurer, to Akhenaten. Near Eastern scribes were common, especially with regard to the treasury. At Amarna, the need for translation of texts from cuneiform to Hieratic created work for bilingual scribes.

With the advent of the Ramessid period (the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties), Near Easterners played an increasingly important role in Egyptian bureaucratic life; they were approximately half of the cup bearers to the king during this time. At the end of the nineteenth dynasty, a cup bearer named Bay was elevated to chancellor (a powerful position) through the possible cooperation of Queen Tausret. Foreign cup bearers were also involved in the palace conspiracy against Ramesses III during the twentieth dynasty. Foreigners or descendants of foreigners even reached the vizierate. Late in the reign of Amenhotpe III of the eighteenth dynasty, the Near Eastern nobleman Aperel became a vizier. Paser, a vizier to Sety I and Ramesses II, had a grandfather of Hurrian origin, while the vizier Neferronpet had a Near Eastern mother.

Sons of captured or dependent foreign princes were often brought to Egypt to be educated and indoctrinated in Egyptian culture. Part nursery, part fraternity, the kap functioned to cement friendships between noble Egyptians and foreigners: first, Nubians during the Middle Kingdom and during the New Kingdom, Near Easterners. Some of those foreign boys would later have a career in Egypt in the army, palace, or administration. Others would be returned to their own lands to rule, while maintaining emotional and political ties to Egypt.

Other foreigners became priests, or acted as magicians or doctors. During the eighteenth dynasty, Sarbaina was a priest of Amun, as well as Baal and Astarte, in Perunefer near Memphis. Most of the foreign magicians were Nubians, including four Nubian magicians brought back from a military expedition by Horemheb, however, a Leiden papyrus mentions Palestinian magicians who spoke with serpents. The Ebers Medical Papyrus, dated to the eighteenth dynasty, noted a cure for an eye disease known through a resident of Byblos, presumably a doctor. A chief physician named Benanath, from the House of Life, is also known to be Near Eastern.

Foreign women became weavers, maids, dancers, and singers. Some of these foreign women may have woven non-Egyptian designs for the kings. Nubian and Libyan dancers, and Nubian and Near Eastern singers have been identified on reliefs from Thebes and Tell el-Amarna. Diplomatic marriages between foreign princesses and Egyptian kings were prevalent during the New Kingdom, but also occurred during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Tourists, Traders, and Tributaries.

While there have always been foreign visitors to the Nile Valley, the evidence for them became common during the Late period when foreign graffiti were made. By Greco-Roman times, foreign graffiti covered many monuments, such as the Colossi of Memnon, and are even found inside Theban royal tombs. The Great Pyramid, before being stripped of its casing stones, contained foreign graffiti that dated to earlier than the Greco-Roman period. Greek and Roman historians also gave evidence for foreign visitors in their written accounts.

The earliest pictorial evidence for foreign trade came from the Old Kingdom Abu Sir temple reliefs of Sahure that depict foreign families, perhaps from Byblos, greeting the king from a ship. During the Middle Kingdom, Near Eastern merchants were at Tell ed-Dabʿa and other Delta sites, as is known from the archaeological record. A Middle Kingdom tomb scene showing the foreign chieftain Abishai and a group of Near Easterners bearing eye paint, may represent trade, while the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Kenamun (tomb 162) depicts freight ships with Near Easterners disembarking with produce.

The New Kingdom Amarna Letters, as well as tomb and temple scenes and texts from this period present a complex of interactions that included gift-giving, trade, and tribute. The Amarna Letters reveal an international etiquette where obligation and self interest combined to form a web of relationships in which trade or tribute obligations could also include gift-giving or bribery. A number of important scenes and texts from the tombs at western Thebes portray foreigners presenting valuable items, such as vases, ivory, and metals to the king and/or his officials. Scholars are unsure whether those scenes represented trade or tribute, gift-giving or bribery. The ancient Egyptians appear to have portrayed foreigners—encompassing Nubians, Minoans, and eastern Mediterraneans, including chiefs of Mitanni, the Hittites, Lebanon, Kadesh, and Tunip—bringing “tribute” before the king or his officials, but the scenes probably represent mostly trade or gift-giving, only a few scenes actually depict obligatory deliveries. The temple walls, however, contain a number of examples of foreigners bringing tribute, especially after conquest, in which giving tribute appears to be the true act. Egyptian self-interest determined what transactions were portrayed and how they were depicted. More than one economic transaction could be portrayed at one time and the economic transactions portrayed could be more complex than what is traditionally called trade or tribute.

During the Late period, following the influx of Greek mercenaries brought in by Psamtik to defeat the Assyrians, the Greeks established trading colonies, such as Naucratis, in the Delta. An earlier trading colony at the Canopic mouth of the Nile was abandoned due to Egyptian intolerance of foreigners.

Throughout their history, the ancient Egyptians maintained an ambivalent, although primarily negative, attitude toward foreigners. The presumption that foreigners were inherently inferior and fit only to serve Egypt, and the generally negative description of foreigners, contrasts with the fact that many foreigners were able to rise to high levels in Egyptian society and government. While the Egyptians appeared to dislike foreigners as groups, they were apparently willing to enjoy or at least tolerate foreigners as individuals.


  • Barns, J.W.B. Egyptians and Greeks. Papyrologica Bruxellensia, 14. Brussels, 1978. Reprint of an Inaugural Lecture delivered at Oxford in 1966.
  • Bresciani, Edda. “Foreigners”. In The Egyptians, edited by Sergio Donadoni, pp. 221–253. Chicago and London, 1997. The best general overview of foreigners in Egypt. Originally published as L'Uomo egiziano, 1990, translated into English by Robert Bianchi.
  • Davies, Norman de G., and R. O. Faulkner. “A Syrian Trading Venture to Egypt”. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 33 (1947), 40–46.
  • Davies, W. Vivian, and Louise Schofield, eds. Egypt, the Aegean and the Levant: Interconnections in the Second Millennium BC. London, 1995. Presents new information with excellent biographies.
  • Fischer, Henry George. “The Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein during the First Intermediate Period.” Kush 9 (1961), 44–80.
  • Haring, Ben J. J. “Libyans in the Theban region, 20th dynasty.” In Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia. Atti, 2, pp. 159–165. Turin, 1993.
  • Johnson, Janet H., ed. Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 51. Chicago, 1995. Informative articles on Egyptian relations with foreigners living in Egypt.
  • Liverani, Mario. Prestige and Interest: International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600–1100 B.C. History of the Ancient Near East/Studies, 1. Padua, 1990. Discusses the complexities of trade and tribute, and the difference between documents intended for an internal or external audience.
  • Loprieno, Antonio. “Slaves.” In The Egyptians, edited by Sergio Donadoni, pp. 185–219. Chicago and London, 1997.
  • Loprieno, Antonio. Topos und Mimesis. Zum Ausländer in der ägyptischen Litteratur. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 48. Wiesbaden, 1988. Discusses dual Egyptian attitude toward foreigners, as groups and individuals.
  • Manniche, Lise. Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt. London, 1991. Discusses the evidence for foreign musicians in Egypt during the New Kingdom.
  • Redford, Donald. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992. Impressively detailed account of the relations between Egypt and Western Asia for three thousand years.
  • Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, 1993. Discusses diplomatic marriages in the New Kingdom.
  • Ward, William A. “Foreigners Living in the Village.” In Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina, edited by Leonard H. Lesko, pp. 61–85. Ithaca and London, 1994. Discusses the difficulty of determining foreigners by their names; extensive notes with excellent bibliography.

Andrew Gordon