Ancient Egypt


The prowess of the Egyptians had not yet been put to any severe proof. They had themselves shown little of an aggressive spirit. Attracted by the mineral wealth of the Sinaitic peninsula, they had indeed made settlements in that region, which had involved them in occasional wars with the natives, whom they spoke of as "Mena" or "Menti"; and they had had a contest of more importance with the tribes of the south, negro and Ethiopic, in which they had shown a decided superiority over those rude barbarians; but, as yet, they had attempted no important conquest, and had been subjected to no serious attack. The countries upon their borders were but sparsely peopled, and from neither the Berber tribes of the northern African coast, nor from the Sinaitic nomads, nor even from the negroes of the south, with their allies—the "miserable Cushites"—was any dangerous invasion to be apprehended. Egypt had been able to devote herself almost wholly to the cultivation of the arts of peace, and had not been subjected to the severe ordeal, which most nations pass through in their infancy, of a struggle for existence with warlike and powerful enemies.

The time was now come for a great change. Movements had begun among the populations of Asia which threatened a general disturbance of the peace of the world. Asshur had had to "go forth" out of the land of Shinar, and to make himself a habitation further to the northward, which must have pressed painfully upon other races. In Elam an aggressive spirit had sprung up, and military expeditions had been conducted by Elamitic kings, which started from the shores of the Persian Gulf and terminated in Southern Syria and Palestine. The migration of the tribes which moved with Terah and Abraham from Ur to Haran, and from Haran to Hebron, is but one of many indications of the restlessness of the period. The Hittites were growing in power, and required an enlarged territory for their free expansion. It was now probably that they descended from the hills of Cappadocia upon the region below Taurus and Amanus, where we find them dominant in later ages. Such a movement on their part would displace a large population in Upper Syria, and force it to migrate southwards. There are signs of a pressure upon the north-eastern frontier of Egypt on the part of Asiatics needing a home as early as the commencement of the twelfth dynasty; and it is probable that, while the dynasty lasted, the pressure was continually becoming greater. Asiatics were from time to time received within the barrier of Amenemhat I., some to sojourn and some to dwell. The eastern Delta was more or less Asiaticized; and a large portion of its inhabitants was inclined to welcome a further influx from Asia.

We have one account only of the circumstances of the great invasion by which Egypt fell under a foreign yoke. It purports to come from the native historian, Manetho; but it is delivered to us directly by Josephus, who, in his reports of what other writers had narrated, is not always to be implicitly trusted. Manetho, according to him, declared as follows: "There was once a king of Egypt named Timæus, in whose reign the gods being offended, for I know not what cause, with our nation, certain men of ignoble race, coming from the eastern regions, had the courage to invade the country, and falling upon it unawares, conquered it easily without a battle. After the submission of the princes, they conducted themselves in a most barbarous fashion towards the whole of the inhabitants, slaying some, and reducing to slavery the wives and the children of the others. Moreover they savagely set the cities on fire, and demolished the temples of the gods. At last, they took one of their number called Salatis, and made him king over them. Salatis resided at Memphis, where he received tribute both from Upper and Lower Egypt, while at the same time he placed garrisons in all the most suitable situations. He strongly fortified the frontier, especially on the side of the east, since he foresaw that the Assyrians, who were then exceedingly powerful, might desire to make themselves masters of his kingdom. Having found, moreover, in the Sethroïte nome, to the east of the Bubastite branch of the Nile, a city very favourably situated, and called, on account of an ancient theological tradition, Avaris, he rebuilt it and strengthened it with walls of great thickness, which he guarded with a body of two hundred and forty thousand men. Each summer he visited the place, to see their supplies of corn measured out for his soldiers and their pay delivered to them, as well as to superintend their military exercises, in order that foreigners might hold them in respect."

The king, Timæus, does not appear either in the lists of Manetho or upon the monuments, nor is it possible to determine the time of the invasion more precisely than this—that it fell into the interval between Manetho's twelfth and his eighteenth dynasties. The invaders are characterized by the Egyptians as Menti or Sati; but these terms are used so vaguely that nothing definite can be concluded from them. On the whole, it is perhaps most probable that the invading army, like that of Attila, consisted of a vast variety of races—"a collection of all the nomadic hordes of Syria and Arabia"—who made common cause against a foe known to be wealthy, and who all equally desired settlements in a land reputed the most productive in the East. An overwhelming flood of men—a quarter of a million, if we may believe Manetho—poured into the land, impetuous, irresistible. All at once, a danger had come beyond all possible previous calculation—a danger from which there was no escape. It was as when the northern barbarians swooped down in their countless thousands on the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire, or as when the hordes of Jingis Khan overran Kashgar and Kharesm—the contest was too unequal for anything that can be called a struggle to be made. Egypt collapsed before the invader. Manetho says that there was no battle; and we can readily understand that in the divided condition of the country, with two or three subordinate dynasties ruling in different parts of the Delta, and another dynasty at Thebes, no army could be levied which could dare to meet the enemy in the field. The inhabitants fled to their cities, and endeavoured to defend themselves behind walls; but it was in vain. The walls of the Egyptian cities were rather banks to keep out the inundation than ramparts to repel an enemy. In a short time the strongholds that resisted were taken, the male population put to the sword, the women and children enslaved, the houses burnt, the temples ruthlessly demolished. An iconoclastic spirit possessed the conquerors. The gods and worship of Egypt were hateful to them. Where-ever the flood passed, it swept away the existing civilization, deeply impregnated as it was with religion; it covered the ground with the débris of temples and shrines, with the fragments of statues and sphinxes; it crushed existing religious usages, and for a time, as it would seem, substituted nothing in their place. "A study of the monuments," says M. François Lenormant, "attests the reality of the frightful devastations which took place at the first moment of the invasion. With a solitary exception, all the temples anterior to the event have disappeared, and no traces can be found of them except scattered ruins which bear the marks of a destructive violence. To say what during these centuries Egypt had to endure in the way of upsetting of her past is impossible. The only fact which can be stated as certain is, that not a single monument of this desolate epoch has come down to our days to show us what became of the ancient splendour of Egypt under the Hyksôs. We witness under the fifteenth and sixteenth dynasties a fresh shipwreck of Egyptian civilization. Vigorous as it had been, the impulse given to it by the Usurtasens suddenly stops; the series of monuments is interrupted, and Egypt informs us by her very silence of the calamities with which she was smitten."[15]

It was, fortunately, not the entire country that was overrun. So far as appears, the actual occupation of Egypt by the Hyksôs was confined to the Delta, to the Lower Nile valley, and to the district of the Fayoum. Elephantine, Thebes, Abydos, escaped the destroyers, and though forced to certain formal acts of submission, to an acknowledgment of the Hyksôs suzerainty, and to the payment of an annual tribute, retained a qualified independence. The Theban monuments of the eleventh and twelfth dynasties were undisturbed. Even in Lower Egypt there were structures that suffered little or nothing at the conqueror's hands, being too humble to attract his attention or too massive to yield to the means of destruction known to him. Thus the pyramids scarcely suffered, though it is possible that at this time their sanctity was first violated and their contents rifled. The great obelisk of Usurtasen I., which still stands at Heliopolis, was not overthrown. The humbler tombs at Ghizeh, so precious to the antiquary, were for the most part untouched. Amenemhat's buildings in the Fayoum may have been damaged, but they were not demolished. Though Egyptian civilization received a rude shock from the invasion, it was not altogether swallowed up or destroyed; and when the deluge had passed it emerged once more, and soon reached, and even surpassed, its ancient glories.

The Hyksôs king who led the invasion, or who, at any rate, was brought to the front in its course, bore, we are told, either the name of Salatis, or that of Saites. Of these two forms the second is undoubtedly to be preferred, since the first has in its favour only the single authority of Josephus, while the second is supported by Africanus, Eusebius, George the Syncellus, and to a certain extent by the monuments. The "tablet of four hundred years" contains the name of Sut-Aapehti as that of a king of Egypt who must have belonged to the Middle Empire, and this name may fairly be regarded as represented in an abbreviated form by the Greek "Saïtes." Saïtes, having made himself absolute master of the Lower Country, and forced the king of the Upper Country to become his tributary, fixed his residence at Memphis, at the same time strongly fortifying and garrisoning various other towns in important positions. Of these the most considerable was the city, called Auaris, or Avaris, in the Sethroïte nome, which lay east of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, and was probably not far from Pelusium itself, if indeed it was not identical with that city. Another strong fort, by means of which the Delta was held and overawed, seems to have been Zan or Tanis, now San, situated on what was called the Tanitic branch of the Nile, the next most easterly branch to the Pelusiac. A third was in the Fayoum, on the site now called Mit-Fares. A large body of troops must also have been maintained at Memphis, if the king, as we are told, ordinarily held his court there.

How long the Egyptians groaned under the tyranny of the "Shepherds," it is difficult to say. The epitomists of Manetho are hopelessly at variance on the subject, and the monuments are silent, or nearly so. Moderns vary in the time, which they assign to the period between two centuries and five. On the whole, criticism seems to incline towards the shorter term, though why Manetho, or his epitomists, should have enlarged it, remains an insoluble problem. There is but one dynasty of "Shepherd Kings" that has any distinct historical substance, or to which we can assign any names. This is a dynasty of six kings only, whose united reigns are not likely to have exceeded two centuries. Nor does it seem possible that, if the duration of the foreign oppression had been much longer, Egypt could have returned, so nearly as she did, to the same manners and customs, the same religious usages, the same rules of art, the same system of government, even the very same proper names, at the end of the period, as had been in use at its beginning. One cannot but think that the bouleversement which Egypt underwent has been somewhat exaggerated by the native historian for the sake of rhetorical effect, to enhance by contrast the splendour of the New Empire.

In another respect, too, if he has not misrepresented the rule of the "Shepherd Kings," he has failed to do it justice. He has painted in lurid colours the advent of the foreign race, the war of extermination in which they engaged, the cruel usage to which they subjected the conquered people; he has represented the invaders as rude, savage, barbarous, bent on destruction, careless of art, the enemies of progress and civilization. He has neglected to point out, that, as time went on, there was a sensible change. The period of constant bitter hostilities came to an end. Peace succeeded to war. In Lower Egypt the "Shepherds" reigned over quiet and unresisting subjects; in Upper Egypt they bore rule over submissive tributaries. Under these circumstances a perceptible softening of their manners and general character took place. As the Mongols and the Mandchus in China suffered themselves by degrees to be conquered by the superior civilization of the people whom they had overrun and subdued, so the Hyksôs yielded little by little to the influences which surrounded them, and insensibly assimilated themselves to their Egyptian subjects. They adopted the Egyptian dress, titles, official language, art, mode of writing, architecture. In Tanis, especially, temples were built and sculptures set up under the later "Shepherd Kings," differing little in their general character from those of purely Egyptian periods. The foreign monarchs erected their effigies at this site, which were sculptured by native artists according to the customary rules of Egyptian glyptic art, and only differ from those of the earlier native Pharaohs in the head-dress, the expression of the countenance, and a peculiar arrangement of the beard. A friendly intercourse took place during this period between the kings of the North, established at Tanis and Memphis, and those of the South, resident at Thebes; frequent embassies were interchanged; and blocks of granite and syenite were continually floated down the Nile, past Thebes, to be employed by the "Shepherds" in their erections at the southern capitals.


The "Shepherds" brought with them into Egypt the worship of a deity, whom they called Sut or Sutekh, and apparently identified with the sun. He was described as "the great ruler of heaven," and identified with Baal in later times. The kings regarded themselves as especially under his protection. At the time of the invasion, they do not seem to have considered this deity as having any special connection with any of the Egyptian gods, and they consequently made war indiscriminately against the entire Egyptian Pantheon, plundering and demolishing all the temples alike. But when the first burst of savage hostility was gone by, when more settled times followed, and the manners and temper of the conquerors grew softened by pacific intercourse with their subjects, a likeness came to be seen between Sutekh, their own ancestral god, and the "Set" of the Egyptians. Set in the old Egyptian mythology was recognized as "the patron of foreigners, the power which swept the children of the desert like a sand-storm over the fertile land." He was a representative of physical, but not of moral, evil; a strong and powerful deity, worthy of reverence and worship, but less an object of love than of fear. The "Shepherds" acknowledged in this god their Sutekh; and as they acquired settled habits, and assimilated themselves to their subjects, they began to build temples to him, after the Egyptian model, in their principal towns. After the dynasty had borne rule for five reigns, covering the space perhaps of one hundred and fifty years, a king came to the throne named Apepi, who has left several monuments, and is the only one of the "Shepherds" that stands out for us in definite historical consistency as a living and breathing person. Apepi built a great temple to Sutekh at Zoan, or Tanis, his principal capital, composed of blocks of red granite, and adorned it with obelisks and sphinxes. The obelisks are said to have been fourteen in number, and must have been dispersed about the courts, and not, as usual, placed only at the entrance. The sphinxes, which differed from the ordinary Egyptian sphinx in having a mane like a lion and also wings, seem to have formed an avenue or vista leading up to the temple from the town. They are in diorite, and have the name of Apepi engraved upon them.

The pacific rule of Apepi and his predecessors allowed Thebes to increase in power, and her monuments now recommence. Three kings who bore the family name of Taa, and the throne name of Ra-Sekenen, bore rule in succession at the southern capital. The third of these, Taa-ken, or "Taa the Victorious," was contemporary with Apepi, and paid his tribute punctually, year by year, to his lawful suzerain. He does not seem to have had any desire to provoke war; but Apepi probably thought that he was becoming too powerful, and would, if unmolested, shortly make an effort to throw off the Hyksôs yoke. He therefore determined to pick a quarrel with him, and proceeded to send to Thebes a succession of embassies with continually increasing demands. First of all he required Taa-ken to relinquish the worship of all the Egyptian gods except Amen-Ra, the chief god of Thebes, whom he probably identified with his own Sutekh. It is not quite clear whether Taa-ken consented to this demand, or politely evaded it. At any rate, a second embassy soon followed the first, with a fresh requirement; and a third followed the second. The policy was successful, and at last Taa-ken took up arms. It would seem that he was successful, or was at any rate able to hold his own; for he maintained the war till his death, and left it to his successor, Aahmes.

There was an ancient tradition, that the king who made Joseph his prime minister, and committed into his hands the entire administration of Egypt, was Apepi. George the Syncellus says that the synchronism was accepted by all. It is clear that Joseph's arrival did not fall, like Abraham's, into the period of the Old Empire, since under Joseph horses and chariots are in use, as well as wagons or carts, all of which were unknown till after the Hyksôs invasion. It is also more natural that Joseph, a foreigner, should have been advanced by a foreign king than by a native one, and the favour shown to his brethren, who were shepherds (Gen. xlvi. 32), is consonant at any rate with the tradition that it was a "Shepherd King" who held the throne at the time of their arrival. A priest of Heliopolis, moreover, would scarcely have given Joseph his daughter in marriage unless at a time when the priesthood was in a state of depression. Add to this that the Pharaoh of Joseph is evidently resident in Lower Egypt, not at Thebes, which was the seat of government for many hundred years both before and after the Hyksôs rule.

If, however, we are to place Joseph under one of the "Shepherd Kings," there can be no reason why we should not accept the tradition which connects him with Apepi. Apepi was dominant over the whole of Egypt, as Joseph's Pharaoh seems to have been. He acknowledged a single god, as did that monarch (Gen. xli. 38, 39). He was a thoroughly Egyptianized king. He had a council of learned scribes, a magnificent court, and a peaceful reign until towards its close. His residence was in the Delta, either at Tanis or Auaris. He was a prince of a strong will, firm and determined; one who did not shrink from initiating great changes, and who carried out his resolves in a somewhat arbitrary way. The arguments in favour of his identity with Joseph's master are, perhaps, not wholly conclusive; but they raise a presumption, which may well incline us, with most modern historians of Egypt, to assign the touching story of Joseph to the reign of the last of the Shepherds.