To Egypt, the land west of the Nile Valley was the least interesting of its neighbors. Already part of the Sahara by the early historic period, it did not have the mineral deposits that made Nubia, the Eastern Desert, and even the Sinai worth the effort of exploring and revisiting. The borders of Egypt are effectively defined by the sea to the north and east, and by a succession of cataracts on the Nile to the south, but the expanse of desert to the west, beyond the Western Desert, must have seemed endless. Especially in the earlier period of ancient Egyptian history, the term “Libyans” was often used to refer to people (“Tjemehu,” “Tjehenu”) who lived within the boundaries of what is now Egypt. It is, however, likely that the chain of oases that runs from north to south, more or less parallel to the Nile Valley, provided an informal natural frontier beyond which few Egyptians ever ventured. [See WESTERN DESERT.]

These oases, from Bahariya via Farafra and Dakhla to Kharga, are the most important feature of the Western Desert. They served as an alternative to the Nile as a trade route and as a means of communication from north to south, and they offered the possibility of uncontrolled access to the valley at various latitudes. Several episodes testify explicitly to such uses, but the danger of attack from the west was apparently not regarded by the Egyptians as sufficiently serious to warrant the installation and maintenance of permanent garrisons. Indeed, there is little archaeological trace of occupation of the oases between prehistoric times and the period after the New Kingdom. An interesting exception is the Dakhla Oasis, which was extensively settled in the Old Kingdom, perhaps with a view to exploiting its agricultural potential as well as controlling trade. The largest site seems to have been Balat, at the eastern end of the oasis, where a governor's palace and fortress of the sixth dynasty have been identified. Harkhuf, an official on mission to Nubia in precisely that period, used the oasis route to avoid hostile Nubians in the region between the First and Second Cataracts, traveling south from Kharga via the desert road known as the Darb el-Arbain, which brought him back to the Nile by way of the Selima Oasis. During this expedition he showed his concern for stability in the region by trying to restore peace between the Nubian ruler of Yam and the leader of the Tjemehu Libyans. Apart from strategic considerations, one of the most valued features of the oases seems to have been the wine they produced, which in the New Kingdom was probably second only to the vineyards of the Nile Delta in its importance to the Egyptian court.

There is no evidence that any of the different ethnic groups who made up the Libyan population in the pharaonic period were literate. Before the fifth century BCE, when the Greek author Herodotus included an account of the country and its peoples in his Histories, our knowledge depends on Egyptian sources. These are mostly official records which have no interest in presenting the Libyans as anything more than rebels to be crushed or as bearers of tribute. To date, virtually no archaeological evidence that might help to balance the picture has emerged from Libya itself before the foundation of Cyrene by Greek colonists in about 630 BCE. Disappointing as this is, it does suggest that the population of Libya before that turning point was largely nomadic, since nonsedentary societies rarely leave much of an imprint on the archaeological record.

Until the eighteenth dynasty, and to some extent also later, the words Tjehenu and Tjemehu were used to designate both particular regions west of Egypt and their occupants. Tjehenu referred to the area west of the Nile Delta as far south as the Faiyum, and these people, although always portrayed as foreign, may originally have been related to the Egyptians of the Delta. Tjemehu denoted an area that stretched south into Nubia, certainly as far as Wadi el-Sebua and perhaps as far as the Third Cataract. This clear distinction, formulated during early contacts, soon gave way to less precise usage, to the point where the two words became interchangeable. Control of these people and access to their animals seem to have been the Egyptians' main concern, and most of the evidence for this period consists of records of Egyptian aggression.

The earliest of these records are two ceremonial palettes of the Protodynastic period, votive objects used to notify the gods of signal royal achievements. The Libyan Palette, one of the earliest inscribed examples, takes its name from a single hieroglyph representing the word “Tjehenu.” On one side there are symbolic depictions of royal conquests of settlements, and on the other appear registers of animals and fruit- or oil-bearing trees, presumably some of the booty acquired. The Battlefield Palette shows the bodies of the slain below a bound and yoked figure being led away. Although the object is uninscribed, the captive has been identified as Libyan because he wears the penis sheath often associated with these people in Egyptian iconography. From the Old Kingdom, a notable scene showing a conquered Libyan chieftain has survived in the mortuary temple of the fifth dynasty king Sahure. It also includes his family and registers of animal booty or tribute which expand on the theme encountered on the Libyan Palette. The reuse of the same scene—without acknowledgement—by Pepy I about 150 years later, and again by Taharqa 1,600 years after that, is a salutary reminder that such records owe more to general conceptions of kingship and its portrayal than to historical reality. For the Middle Kingdom, the introductory setting to the fictional Story of Sinuhe makes reference to the return from Libya of an expedition with captives and cattle.

There was also undoubtedly a steady trade in cattle and other goods, although the extent of this is difficult to ascertain because of the limitations of the evidence. Distinctive oasis wares, which might have been used in the manufacture of vessels to transport wine or other liquid or dry commodities, are only just beginning to be identified by ceramic studies. Libyans also appear as bringers of “tribute” in Theban tombs of the mid-eighteenth dynasty, and an inscription from the reign of Hatshepsut, according to which the Libyans supplied ivory and leopard skins, suggests that they also acted as middlemen, using the oasis route to bring these exotic products from much farther south. The continuing potential of this route for communications hostile to Egypt is evident at the end of the Second Intermediate Period. A stela set up at Karnak by King Kamose describes an alliance between the Hyksos in the Delta and the kingdom of the Kush in Nubia. Since Kamose himself controlled Upper Egypt, this alliance could only have come into being through correspondence conducted by another route, and the stela does indeed record the capture of a messenger in one of the oases.

Until the eighteenth dynasty, the extant evidence offers no hint of a serious threat to Egypt from the west. That changed with the arrival of new ethnic groups, of which the most important were the Libu—whose name has given us, through Greek, the modern word “Libya”—and the Meshwesh. The latter people are generally regarded as ancestors of those inhabitants of Libya whom Herodotus calls “Maxyes.” Egyptian depictions of these new Libyans are perhaps best observed in a scene from the Book of Gates preserved in the tomb of Sety I, where they appear with a Nubian, a Near Easterner, and an Egyptian as one of the four races of mankind. Their characteristic features are pale skin, plaited hairstyle, long pointed beard, and extensive body painting or tattooing. They wore long, open, brightly colored cloaks with geometric patterns. They also have in common with earlier depictions of Libyans the penis sheath, and feathers were worn in the hair to indicate chieftain status.

Like their predecessors, the Libu and the Meshwesh seem to have been nomadic and pastoral peoples, depending largely on cattle, sheep and goats for their subsistence. There is evidence from Mersa Matruh to suggest that they possessed a primitive ceramic technology, but the bronze weapons they used in battle against the Egyptians were almost certainly acquired through trade rather than locally produced. These groups seem to have moved east through Tjehenu country from Cyrenaica (in present-day Libya), where they could have been resident for a considerable period, beyond the cognizance of the Egyptians, until disturbed by the arrival in North Africa of the Sea Peoples. The exact ethnic and cultural relationship between the latter and the Libu and Meshwesh is uncertain. On at least one occasion, in the reign of Merenptah, they joined forces to attack Egypt. The relevant distinction ultimately is that the Sea Peoples were mostly deflected away from Egypt, whereas many Libyans settled there.

Until the mid-1980s, serious hostilities between Egypt and the newcomers to Libya were regarded as having begun in the nineteenth dynasty. The extant record is patchy, however, and the publication of a fragment of painted papyrus from Tell el-Amarna, which shows a Libyan warrior killing an Egyptian, may indicate that there was conflict in the time of Akhenaten. Some Libyans, perhaps prisoners of war, had already been enrolled in the Egyptian army by this time, since they appear in tomb reliefs at Amarna as part of the king's bodyguard. Following a preemptive strike into Libya by Sety I, recognition of real danger from the west is implied by the construction, under Ramesses II, of a network of forts along the western Delta and the Mediterranean littoral as far as Mersa Matruh, 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Alexandria, to protect the vulnerable coastal route into Egypt. No major clashes are known during his sixty-seven-year reign, but inscriptions at Karnak and elsewhere record that his successor, Merenptah, was confronted in his fifth year of reign by a coalition made up of approximately two-thirds Libyans and one-third Sea Peoples. The presence of women, children, and cattle shows that this was a whole population on the move, not merely an attempt at military conquest. An interesting detail to emerge is that the Libyans, unlike the Egyptians, did not practice circumcision. Some Libyans had already occupied the Farafra Oasis, and the importance of the oasis route for communications is again apparent, since their attack on the Delta was launched in concert with a prearranged Nubian rebellion in the South of Egypt. Both were crushed.

The Libyans are known to have tried again to enter Egypt in Years 5 and 11 of Ramesses III. The Egyptian victories in these battles are recorded in the king's mortuary temple at Medinet Habu and summarized in the posthumous account of his reign given in the Harris Papyrus. From the official Egyptian point of view, as it has come down to us, the story ends there, with the crushing defeat of the invaders and the settlement of captives in camps, followed by the beginning of a process of acculturation, which involved teaching them the Egyptian language. Yet the Harris Papyrus also records that Ramesses III built new enclosure walls to protect temples in Middle Egypt, and documents from the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina show that even Thebes suffered disruptive raids down to the end of the twentieth dynasty, despite its religious importance and southerly location. At least some of these raids involved Libyans, and it is clear from what followed after the New Kingdom that significant numbers had succeeded in settling in Egypt, especially in the Delta, and that their descendants gradually took control of parts of the country and eventually of the whole of Egypt.

The lack of archaeological evidence makes it impossible to suggest what effect Egyptian culture may have had on that of the Libyans prior to the late New Kingdom. Libyan captives brought to Egypt might serve in the army or on building projects, as in the case of the temple of Ramesses II at Wadi el-Sebua. Rising through the ranks of the army was one way in which individuals could better themselves, and the example of the army commander Herihor shows that some people of Libyan background had risen to positions of great power by the end of the twentieth dynasty. Herihor added the offices of “Viceroy of Kush” and high priest of Amun to that of army commander and went on to claim royal status. It is this development, rather than the accession of Sheshonq I at the start of the twenty-second dynasty, that marks the real beginning of the period of Libyan rule in Egypt. This lasted for some four hundred years, until the reunification of Egypt by Psamtik I, himself of Libyan descent, in 664 BCE. The New Kingdom had ended with the effective division of Egypt into two parts—the North ruled by the twenty-first dynasty successors of the Ramessid kings, and the South by the high priests of Amun—but recognition of the Libyan dimension is arguably more important to our understanding of developments.

One of the striking features is the retention of Libyan names, such as Sheshonq, Osorkon, and Takeloth, within the new military elite. Another is the survival throughout the period of Libyan tribal titles, as well as their feather symbols of authority, among the chiefs of the Meshwesh and the Libu in Egypt itself. A patchwork of small principalities developed in the Delta, each governed by a local ruler. Under strong kings they might be kept in check, but the tendency toward fragmentation is shown at its most extreme in a stela set up by the Nubian king Piya of the twenty-fifth dynasty, which lists five kings and a plethora of Libyan chiefs, each in control of his own small part of Egypt. It is hard not to see an echo of the tribal structure of Libyan society in this. A decline in the prestige of the kings, who were often no more than paramount chiefs, was inevitable.

The Libyans seem to have had no artistic or architectural tradition of their own, and the elite culture of the period remained wholly Egyptian. Nonetheless, some features of the period—such as lengthy genealogies and the increased importance of women within the priesthood and in the governing class generally—may owe something to a Libyan heritage. The same may be true of changes in burial customs, involving less advance preparation for the afterlife.

Little is known of contact between Egypt and Libya in this period, but the advent of the twenty-sixth dynasty and the suppression of the Libyan chiefdoms marked the end of an era in Egyptian history. Interest in the oases seems to have been renewed, with the construction of temples at Hibis in the Khargeh Oasis and more remotely at Siwa, where an Egyptian presence is visible for the first time. The Greek foundations of Cyrene in Libya and Naucratis in Egypt introduced a new element into the relationship between Egypt and its western neighbor.



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  • Bates, O. The Eastern Libyans. London, 1914. Dated but still classic anthropological study.
  • Giddy, Lisa. Egyptian Oases: Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafra and Kharga during Pharaonic Times. Warminster, 1987.
  • Hölscher, W. Libyer und Ägypter. Glückstadt, 1955. Detailed survey of textual and iconographic evidence.
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  • Leahy, A. “The Libyan Period in Egypt: An Essay in Interpretation.” Libyan Studies 16 (1985), 51–65. Argues that the Libyans in Egypt retained elements of their cultural background that had a significant impact on Egypt in the first millennium BCE.
  • O'Connor, D. “The Nature of Tjemhu (Libyan) Society in the Later New Kingdom.” In Libya and Egypt c. 1300–750 BC, edited by A. Leahy, pp. 29–113. London, 1990. Detailed analysis of the New Kingdom evidence.
  • Osing, J. 1980. “Libyen, Libyer.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 1015–1033. Wiesbaden, 1979. Very dense and informative review of the topic.
  • Ritner, Robert K. “The End of the Libyan Anarchy in Egypt: P. Rylands Cols. 11–12.” Enchoria 17 (1990), 101–108. Discusses the disappearance of Libyan titles.
  • Selincourt, A. de. Herodotus, The Histories: Book IV. Harmondsworth, 1954.
  • Spalinger, A. J. “Some Notes on the Libyans of the Old Kingdom and Later Historical Reflexes.” Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities Journal 9 (1979), 125–162.

Anthony Leahy