Egypt suffered intrusions from abroad many times during its long history, from the Hyksos, the Sea Peoples, and the Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Most of these times of trouble occurred in the second half of the pharaonic period, from the seventeenth century BCE onward. Although Egypt's sea and desert frontiers gave it a degree of isolation that was sufficient to deter the small and unorganized neighbors it had during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, they did not provide enough defense to keep out the migrations of the Late Bronze Age, or the imperial armies that attacked from the Near East during the first millennium BCE. The effects of these incursions were minor in some cases, profound in others.
Before discussing their impact, we must consider the limitations of the contexts in which foreigners appear in the official Egyptian record—which is what tends to survive because it was created to last. During the formative stages of Egyptian iconography, rules for expressing the country's relationship with foreign lands were established. These centered on the pharaoh and were underpinned by a single concept: his responsibility for maintaining maat, or cosmic order. At the heart of this was the protection of Egypt, and it is significant in this context that Seth, god of confusion and opponent of the king in his aspect as Horus, was closely associated with foreign lands. The potential enemies of the king were divided into four groups: Near Easterners, Nubians, Libyans, and Egyptians. The inclusion of the last may seem surprising, but they too were a potential source of disorder.
The earliest and most characteristic expression of this idea is the smiting motif, in which the king raises a mace or other weapon to strike an enemy figure or figures whom he grasps by the hair. A crudely depicted prototype occurs in the predynastic painted tomb at Hierakonpolis, but the first canonical example is found on the Narmer Palette, on which the king is also shown as larger than his opponent. In early examples such as these, or on an ivory label from the tomb of the first dynasty king Den at Abydos, the act takes place in isolation. In its standard later form on temple walls, it is enacted in the presence of a deity, and may be regarded as symbolizing the sacrifice of prisoners as an act of thanksgiving on return from a successful campaign. The central position of this motif in Egyptian thought can be gauged by its continuation on pylons well into Roman times, as at Esna.
In New Kingdom and later examples, such as on the pylon of Ramesses III's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, a “geographical list” often appears beneath the feet of the king and god. This takes the form of a series of registers in which busts of human figures with their arms bound behind them emerge from ovals with projecting buttresses. These ovals represent aerial views of fortified settlements. Inside each, the name of the place depicted is inscribed in hieroglyphs, and the figure on top is given skin coloring, hair and beard style, and costume appropriate to the locality in question. These lists are a continuation of a tradition represented by the Execration Texts of the Old to Middle Kingdoms: small plaques or model figures inscribed with a place name, then broken, burnt, and buried. The process of sympathetic magic was thought to deprive the place so treated of the ability to harm the king, and thus it protected Egypt. The temple wall lists achieve the same effect by binding the enemy figures and by placing them “beneath the king's feet,” a phrase repeatedly encountered in royal texts. The same principle is exemplified by what may be the three-dimensional prototype of the geographical list—the placing of statues of captives with their arms tied behind their backs in Old Kingdom mortuary temples—or by the painting of a palace floor at Amarna with bound Near Easterners and Nubians for the king to walk on as he went about his daily business.
While these scenes and lists may sometimes form part of a particular campaign narrative, as in Sety I's decoration of the north wall of the hypostyle hall at Karnak, their purpose was not primarily historical. Their function, rather, was to show that a particular king was effectively protecting Egypt. The location of these scenes in temples shows that the intended audience was partly divine, while the frequent placing of them on pylons or exterior wall surfaces shows that they were intended to impress the people as well. Their nonhistorical nature is well illustrated by a further variant: a statue of Amenhotpe III from his mortuary temple on the west bank at Luxor has a miniature geographical list of Aegean toponyms carved on the base or podium on which the king's feet rest. Egypt certainly never exercised any suzerainty over the very distant places named, and relations at the time the statue was carved seem to have been good; it simply served to ensure that any hostile potential was nullified.
Where an actual historical event is depicted or described, Egypt is always represented as comprehensively victorious, even when the actual outcome was indecisive or a defeat. Ramesses II's transformation of his narrow escape at Qadesh into the triumphal celebration of victory encountered on the walls of the Ramesseum, or his temples of Abydos and Abu Simbel, is a case in point. Military failure was only recorded in quite extraordinary circumstances. Thus, Tutankhamun described obliquely the lack of success achieved by Akhenaten's armies in order to exemplify divine displeasure at events in Egypt itself. There is no place in Egypt's formal presentation of its foreign relations for any account that is not tendentious. Only rarely do other categories of text allow a different perspective and one closer to the diplomatic realities of foreign relations. The best example is the archive of clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform known as the Amarna Letters, which include personal correspondence between the rulers of the major kingdoms of the Near East in the fourteenth century BCE.
The second most common context in which foreigners are depicted is the “tribute scene.” This is a New Kingdom motif, perhaps inspired by the greater intensity of contact with foreign lands which characterized the period. Rows of figures, usually Near Easterners or Nubians but occasionally Libyans or people from the Aegean, are shown bringing gifts of precious metal vessels, captives, cattle, or rarer animals such as giraffes, bears, or elephants, to the pharaoh or a high official acting on his behalf. Allowing for a concentration on the exotic at the expense of the mundane, such scenes provide some idea of imports into Egypt; but the scene type was devised in order to demonstrate the prestige of the king, and there is no corresponding context in which exports could be depicted. Foreigners are occasionally shown coming to Egypt for trading purposes, from the boatload of Syrians in Sahure's mortuary temple to the individual merchant setting out his stall at Thebes in the tomb of Nebamun; and it is here that we come closest to reality, which is that foreigners moved to and from Egypt with comparative ease.
The idea of a prehistoric invasion by a “dynastic race” is now discounted, as are the studies in physical anthropology that formed part of the basis for the theory. The Mesopotamian cultural elements discernible in Egypt in the late fourth millennium BCE are regarded by most as having been transmitted through trading contacts. There may well have been significant stimulus and an acceleration of development within Egypt, but there is no reason to assume that the influence came about through invasion. The first serious foreign incursions are probably to be dated to the First Intermediate Period. Firm historical evidence is lacking for the events, let alone the consequences, but the didactic and philosophical composition, the Instructions for Merikare, clearly refers to Near Easterners in the Nile Delta, as does the propagandist Prophecy of Neferti. The early Middle Kingdom rulers took the danger of renewed encroachments seriously enough to fortify the eastern Delta. It was the Middle Kingdom, too, that established the “Asiatics [Near Easterners] in Egypt” motif—the breaching of the integrity of the frontiers—as one of the standard metaphors of disorder, a sign of the world-turned-upside-down and a portent of divine anger. “Foreigners have become people (i.e., Egyptians) everywhere,” laments Ipuwer. Here foreign incursions are turned to literary advantage, but this seems to be a phenomenon peculiar to the Middle Kingdom, although in later periods such events could figure in apocalyptic literature.
In the official record, then, there is no place for reference to invasions except to describe how they were defeated, just as there is no place for mention of another recurrent disaster, famine, except to explain how it was overcome. Other sources are essential if any balanced interpretation is to be obtained. It is therefore instructive to consider two cases where accounts of incursions have come down to us from ostensibly nonofficial sources, and to compare them with other evidence, including that of archaeology. These are the Hyksos and the Persians, just over a thousand years apart. In both cases, the intruders were from societies at least as advanced materially as Egypt, but their aims differed. The Hyksos were expanding a kingdom based in the Palestine region southward into Egypt, to which they transferred their center of power. The Persians sought to add Egypt to the large number of provinces they controlled through local governors, while themselves remaining in Persia.
In the second millennium BCE, a group from the Levant—known to us as the Hyksos—seized power in the north of Egypt, built a capital at Avaris in the eastern Delta, and were recognized as overlords by kings in Upper Egypt and probably also by the kings of Kush. Their dominion lasted for perhaps a century before they were expelled by the resurgent Theban kings. The Hyksos are best known from Manetho's account as preserved by Josephus. This was written in Greek, but by an Egyptian priest of the third century BCE who had access to temple archives as well as to folk memories. It presents the Hyksos as barbarian “Asiatics,” hostile to Egyptian religion, who seized Egypt through invasion and made it pay tribute. This is the tail end of a tradition that goes back to contemporary opponents of the Hyksos and is best exemplified in the stelae of Kamose. In those texts, the Hyksos king Apophis is characterized as a foreigner, an “Asiatic,” and one who conspires with another foreigner, the Nubian king of Kush. He is accused of falsely arrogating royal titles to himself and denying them to a legitimate ruler such as Kamose. The Theban tradition of hostility was continued by Hatshepsut and was undoubtedly responsible for the exclusion of the Hyksos kings from all the king lists, except for the Turin Canon and that of Manetho himself. The history of these foreign kings was thus written by their victorious Egyptian opponents.
In the absence of any pro-Hyksos tradition, modification of this view of these Near Eastern rulers has had to come from archaeology, and mainly from the excavations at Tell ed-Dabʿa, the site that is beyond reasonable doubt Avaris, the Hyksos capital. These have shown that, despite their occasional attempts to present themselves through hieroglyphic inscriptions as legitimate pharaohs, the material culture of the Hyksos was very much that of the Middle Bronze II period in the eastern Mediterranean. The town layout, the religious buildings, the tombs and burial practices (including horse interments and sacrificial servant burials) all remained steadfastly un-Egyptian. Coming from a sophisticated urban background, they were certainly not barbarians, but their maintenance of their own cultural traditions must have helped Kamose to demonize them as outsiders. Although scholars today incline to the view that they seized power by gradual infiltration of the eastern Delta in the late Middle Kingdom rather than by invasion, it remains possible that an invasion was the final stage in a drawn-out process which took advantage of internal divisions in Egypt. As far as their attitude to Egyptian religion is concerned, there is little evidence that they built or supported Egyptian-style temples, but neither is there good evidence for any destruction of existing structures. They chose for their capital a site sacred to the Egyptian god Seth, whom they equated with their own deity Baal. Unless this had been accompanied by veneration for other gods, however, the association of Seth with foreigners would merely have strengthened the hostile characterization of them.
The Hyksos left no written justification of themselves, and nowhere in the ancient textual record is there anything to suggest that their rule had any positive consequences. Yet they are today credited with the introduction to Egypt of the horse and chariot, and of a stronger bow and other improvements in weaponry. The superior military technology that enabled them to impose themselves on the Delta became the means of their expulsion and had a galvanizing effect, creating a desire to prevent a repetition of the humiliation and leading to the Egyptian empire of the New Kingdom. This allowed Kamose to foster a renewed sense of Egyptian identity, from which the memory of the Hyksos could only suffer. The transformation of Egyptian society included the creation of a standing army and a new military elite, but it also entailed a much greater awareness of the outside world and a more cosmopolitan culture in Egypt. It is likely that some of the cults of Near Eastern deities worshiped by Egyptians in the New Kingdom came with the Hyksos, and it is possible that the greater variety of musical instruments found in the New Kingdom should be attributed to them rather than to Egyptian soldiers returning from campaign. In both cases, however, exposure to new possibilities led to internal change. Sadly, cultural innovations were never the subject of the kinds of Egyptian texts that have come down to us.
The case of the Persians is rather different. They were the third of three great imperial powers that tried to seize control of Egypt in the mid-first millennium BCE. The Assyrians in the seventh century had marched as far south as Thebes and carried off great quantities of booty. They installed garrisons but were unable to maintain any sort of control for more than twenty years. The Babylonians at the very end of the seventh century and in the early part of the sixth were kept out on the very frontier on at least two occasions. The Persians, in contrast, conquered Egypt in 525 BCE and succeeded in keeping it as a province of their empire for nearly 125 years. The most detailed source for this invasion and its consequences, and also the purveyor of a hostile tradition, is an outsider. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote, after a visit to Egypt in the mid-fifth century BCE, some seventy-five years after the conquest and while the Persians were still in control of Egypt—fairly close in time to the events that form the subject of his narrative. He focuses particularly on the figure of the king who ordered the invasion, Cambyses, whom he presents as attacking Egyptian religious practices and institutions, but also as mad and in his derangement murdering the sacred Apis bull. He also describes the Persian's savage treatment of the body of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis, who died six months before the invasion, on a visit to the royal necropolis at Sais. Herodotus cannot be said to be an impartial witness. He was a Greek at a time when Greek cities were in alliance with Egyptian princes against Persia. He claims to have derived much of his information from Egyptians, and especially from priests who might be expected to foster a tradition hostile to the memory of a foreign ruler who had not respected them as they felt they deserved. As a result, although he is not wholly anti-Persian—his treatment of the next ruler, Darius I, is much more sympathetic—it is currently fashionable to explain away his testimony or to minimize its value.
By an accident of survival, it is possible to compare Herodotus's account of the invasion with an Egyptian source who was actually an eyewitness and who preserves a more favorable view of Cambyses. Udjahorresne was a native of Sais, the capital at the time of the conquest, and dedicated in one of its temples a naophorous statue of himself inscribed with a long autobiographical text. It emerges from this that he had been commander of the navy under the last kings of the twenty-sixth dynasty. He must thus have had an important role in the unsuccessful defense of the country, but he says nothing of that. Instead, he begins with a discreet reference to the “great turmoil” that occurred when the great ruler of foreign lands, Cambyses, came to Egypt. Udjahorresne succeeded in getting the new king's ear and in becoming a cultural adviser to him. In that capacity, he legitimized Cambyses in Egyptian eyes by creating a proper royal titulary for him in the Egyptian format. He describes how he persuaded the king to clear the temple at Sais of squatters who were defiling it, to purify it, and to come himself to the venerable city to do obeisance to its goddess, Neith. Udjahorresne's principal motive in commemorating himself was to stress what he had done for his city and its deity, not to provide a full account of his life nor an assessment of Cambyses. It was nonetheless in his interest to make Cambyses appear to advantage and to distance him from any destruction that may have accompanied the invasion. In describing Cambyses' visit to Sais, there is no reason for him to mention the destruction of Amasis' corpse, but that does not make Herodotus' version of the visit false. Indeed, a posthumous attack on the memory of Amasis is apparent from a number of defaced statues and inscriptions with his name hacked out.
In the wider context, it is clear that Egypt was quite adversely affected, even impoverished, by the Persian invasion. The occupation of the temple at Sais, presumably by Cambyses' soldiers, is likely to have been duplicated in other towns that did not have such a powerful protector as Udjahorresne and that could not reclaim their shrines so easily. The evidence of destruction and burning at a number of temples cannot be dismissed as fortuitous. With the curious exception of the Kharga Oasis, evidence for temple-building in Egypt under the Persians is conspicuously lacking. Temple taxes seem to have been increased. Offices such as the God's Wife of Amun and perhaps the high priest of Amun were allowed to fall into abeyance at Thebes, where the sequence of decorated private tombs for high officials came to an end. Commemoration of the Apis bull burials in the Serapeum ceased after the thirty-fourth year of the reign of Darius I. Above all, little of the typically Egyptian votive and funerary equipment—statues, stelae, and sarcophagi—can be assigned to the Persian period after the very early years. This is best explained by extreme impoverishment and cultural disruption. It was certainly not, as has sometimes been argued, a period of dynamic innovation in Egyptian workshops, and the deportation of craftsmen to Persia may have played a part in this. Instead, Egyptian culture turned in on itself, emphasizing through the increasingly popular votive offering of mummified sacred animals aspects of its tradition that set it apart from its overlords and the outside world in general. There is little sign of Egyptian artisans being influenced by the art of their new rulers, although some stelae show the development of an interesting hybrid idiom. Items of clothing and a gesture of grasping one wrist with the other hand have both been called “Persian,” but both seem to have developed within Egypt and without reference to foreign models. The canal stelae of Darius I and the headless statue of him found at Susa, however, show clear signs of his adoption of distinctly Egyptian elements, such as the unification motif and the geographical list, which would be consistent with a desire to legitimize himself to his Egyptian subjects. Later kings did not follow his example, and rebellion broke out with increasing frequency. It was probably this that breathed new life into the production in Egypt of texts prophesying the end of foreign rule, or otherwise hostile to it.
The incursions of the Hyksos and the Persians were certainly the most significant in their effects on Egypt before the arrival of Alexander. The invasions of the Sea Peoples and Libyans were of a rather different order, although after the Egyptian military successes of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties they must have come as a great shock. The Ramessid kings were confronted by large numbers of people of uncertain background—certainly more “barbarian” than the Hyksos—seeking to force their way into the lush pastures of the Nile Delta, as Near Easterners had long been accustomed to do. None of these groups had any very strong tradition of high culture that might have been influential. The captives taken in the battles under Merenptah and Ramesses III brought an immediate benefit to Egypt in additional manpower for the army, new weapons, and new methods of fighting. The Sherden warriors would seem to have proved a particularly valuable addition to the already remarkably mixed army. The Egyptian strategy was to absorb the most useful while repelling the masses.
From the end of the New Kingdom, some Libyans became rulers of Egypt from within; but, unlike the Hyksos before them, they slowly became acculturated and were never expelled. In that sense, they were the most successful of the infiltrators. They gradually became part of the ethnic fabric of Egyptian society, adapting themselves to its artistic and architectural traditions, while retaining distinctive elements of their own political and social structures for many centuries.
Both the Hyksos conquest and that of the Libyans reversed the traditional relationship of earlier times in which the Egyptians had dominated their smaller and less well-organized neighbors. The same is true of the Nubians or Kushites, who, alone of all the invaders, came regarding and presenting themselves as legitimate heirs to the great pharaohs of the past. In the second half of the eighth century BCE they successfully established a hegemony over Egypt, especially Upper Egypt, which lasted for about seventy years and was recognized by Manetho as his twenty-fifth dynasty. Their own society was transformed by the experience. Within a generation, Egyptian-style pyramids were introduced as superstructures for the tombs of the Nubian kings in their homeland and Egyptian burial practices including mummification and ushabtis were adopted, as was the hieroglyphic script. The result, after their expulsion from Egypt, was the new Meroitic civilization in the south of Nubia. Their impact on Egypt was less than is sometimes suggested and was essentially transient. They continued the archaizing tendencies already in vogue, stimulated a revival in temple construction in the south of Egypt and in Nubia, and, most distinctively, developed a new royal iconography. They made no attempt to end the political fragmentation within Egypt, and it was left to the twenty-sixth dynasty to revitalize the country in that respect.
Each of these foreign incursions will have contributed new blood and fresh ideas to ancient Egyptian society, although these may be difficult to recognize except where they influenced religious culture. Dramatic as such episodes are, it is important to remember that Egyptian society was affected just as much by nonhostile infiltration, such as that of the Greek traders and mercenaries from the seventh century BCE onward. It is also true that the daily movements of merchants and envoys ensured continuous contact with the outside world, and that there were always “foreigners” in ancient Egypt, in various stages of acculturation. Countless lives, into which we gain only the occasional glimpse, testify to the possibility of rising from humble origins to a position of authority without suffering prejudice on the grounds of being foreign.
- Adams, William Y. Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London, 1977.
- Bietak, M. Avaris, the Capital of the Hyksos: Recent Excavations at Tell ed-Dabʿa. London, 1996.
- Boardman, J. The Greeks Overseas. Rev. ed. London, 1980.
- Bresciani, Edda. “The Persian Occupation of Egypt.” In Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, pp. 502–528. London, 1986.
- Davies, W. Vivian, and Louise Schofield. Egypt, the Aeagean and the Levant. London, 1995.
- Hornung, E. Idea into Image. New York, 1992.
- Kuhrt, A., and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg. Achaemenid History Workshop. 1987–1994.
- Lloyd, Alan B. “The Inscription of Udjahorresnet, a Collaborator's Testament.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68 (1982), 166–180.
- Mark, Samuel. From Egypt to Mesopotamia: A Study of Predynastic Trade Routes. Austin, 1997.
- Moran, William L. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore and London, 1992.
- Oren, Eliezer D., ed. The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. Philadelphia, 1997.
- Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992.
- Russmann, Edna R. The Representation of the King in the XXVth Dynasty. Brussels and Brooklyn, 1974.
- Sandars, N. K. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean. Rev. ed. London, 1985.
- Waddell, W. G. Manetho. London, 1940.