The Foreigner as Scapegoat: Lessons from Ancient Egypt and Today

By Chris Stantis and Anna-Latifa Mourad

The human story is replete with people migrating. 

For some, the pull to move across borders was driven by such prospects as economic riches or social ideals. For many others, they felt the push of persecution, violence, war, poverty, and environmental disasters. These stories continue to play out today, and entangled within the movement are all the narratives and feelings associated with migration: hope, adventure, fear, intolerance. Those feelings too are not new to the human story. 

Recreation of tomb painting from Egypt. Many of the people have colorfully patterned clothing, with the men sporting full beards. These are clues that they are foreign. Two Egyptian men are in the upper right, wearing plain white clothes with the goatees typical of Egyptian men.
Tomb painting of Asiatics from the ancient Near East. Note their colorful clothing and different hairstyles relative to the Egyptians in the top right corner. From the tomb of 12th dynasty official Khnumhotep II (No. 3), reign of Senwosret II, Beni Hassan.

As scholars researching migration and cultural interactions in ancient Egypt, we see much of the same reflected in the past. Our focus has been the period leading to and including the Hyksos Dynasty (ca. 1950-1550 BCE), the first time in recorded history that those of ‘foreign lands’ ruled Egypt. 

The migrant story, re-written

For many years, the Hyksos Dynasty (Dynasty 15) was defined by the accounts of a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest, Manetho, as preserved in Josephus’s Contra Apionem of the 1st century. In this History of Egypt, the rise of the dynasty happened when “invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land [i.e., Egypt]. By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow”. This ‘race’ called Hyksos, or ‘king-shepherds’, then went on to destroy cities and temples. They massacred many and forced others into submission, demanding tribute from the Egyptians. Their ruler then built their citadel at the city of Avaris on the Nile Delta, establishing the first foreign dynasty of Egypt.

Seemingly corroborating this narrative of an invasion from the East are contemporary and near-contemporary ancient Egyptian accounts, including those dating to the reigns of Kamose, Ahmose, and Hatshepsut. Kamose and Ahmose fought against the Hyksos at Avaris, with Ahmose emerging as victor and founder of the New Kingdom and the Eighteenth Dynasty. Around seventy years later, Queen Hatshepsut mentions how she restored what lay in ruin since foreigners were at Avaris. She removed the footprints of those who ‘ruled without Ra’, likely referring to the Hyksos.

Stela of Kamose, recording his victory against the Hyksos. Luxor Museum.

In approaching these texts, Egyptologists, Biblical historians, and many others pondered on the origins of this enigmatic dynasty that evidently rose and fell in calamitous and violent upheavals, on the conquering migrants from the East and the Thebans who fought to re-establish Egyptian hegemony. The Hyksos were identified with various groups from the Near East. Some argued they were militaristically and technologically superior peoples who, because of their advanced weaponry and horse-drawn chariotry, were able to conquer Egypt.

Beyond trusting Manetho’s account without criticism, the story of the Hyksos’s rise to rule through an invasion from the East agreed with imperialist and Orientalist narratives of several western scholars. For some, it fit with a ‘unilinear narrative of world history’, wherein progress marched forward from ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures as direct antecedents of the ‘glory’ of European civilization. These clichéd worldviews are still carried on by a few modern academics, although some institutions are trying to move forward.

Who tells the tale?

Just as it becomes clear that migration, cultural contact and change is much more complex, a few scholars have also started to question the narrative of an invading group of Eastern foreigners

It became increasingly clear that Manetho was writing in a time when an invasion from the East was a common trope in the Egyptian literary tradition, especially after the Persian conquests of Egypt as well as Alexander’s invasion. His most detailed account of the Hyksos in Josephus’s Contra Apionem was part of a text that argues for the antiquity of Judaism and, in describing the rulers of Avaris, links their expulsion from Egypt with the founding of Jerusalem.

Who writes the narrative, and why, is important. The Egyptian accounts regarding the wars against the Hyksos rulers were written from the conquerors’ perspective. Queen Hatshepsut’s erasure of Hyksos’ legacy emphasised her special connection with Ra and justified her own legitimacy to rule Egypt. The Hyksos rulers were represented as foreign, illegitimate kings. Foreigners were to blame for the calamities in Egypt and expelling them would return the land to its former glory. 

Now, many scholars understand that the rise of the Hyksos was influenced by a growing number of migrants from the Near East and their descendants who had grown up in Egypt. From the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom, and indeed earlier, are clues supporting the movement of various peoples into Egypt. Recent research suggests that the site of Tell el-Dab’a in the northeastern Nile Delta, identified with Avaris, the Hyksos capital, was an international hub at least by the late Twelfth Dynasty, prior to Hyksos rule. It was a destination for many of diverse backgrounds who travelled there temporarily, and permanently. 

So far, no evidence of a sudden, wide-sweeping invasion of Egypt has been discovered. Instead, recent studies suggest that the Hyksos’s rise to power was more likely linked to complex processes that transpired over a long period of time. These were not only tied to an increase in the number of individuals of Near Eastern origin, or influenced by Near Eastern cultural elements. They were also related to their interactions with other groups among and around them at Tell el-Dab’a, in the Eastern Delta, across Egypt, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean. The rise of the Hyksos Dynasty was intertwined with the destabilising political situation in Egypt, and the growing regionalisation that helped the leaders of a diverse population in the Eastern Delta to establish independence.

An idealist might think that cultural diversity and integration go hand-in-hand, but modern sociological studies are finding this is not always the case. Foreigners are often representations of external threats as well as the cause of all things wrong with society. Despite the Theban portrayal of the inhabitants to their north, the Manethonian tradition, and the decades of scholarly works influenced by these accounts, research is now starting to shift to incorporate the complexities of migration, cultural encounters, and cultural transformations. It has become necessary to not only question invasion but also how different groups at Tell el-Dab’a, and across Egypt, reacted, adapted, and negotiated their identities following political and social shifts that saw several dynasties come and go. Accordingly, the introduction of ‘advanced’ weaponry and technology as commonly attributed to the Hyksos invasion must also be reassessed. While the influx of migrants into ancient Tell el-Dab’a helped introduce new and different ideas into Egypt, their adoption was not so simple nor guaranteed. In fact, the mechanisms of transmission are far more complex, the foreigners not only to ‘blame’. Certainly, however, their interactions with local inhabitants across time and space together with those of their descendants, their allies, their enemies, other waves of migrants, and so on and so forth, were all influential in transforming Egypt into what became the New Kingdom. 

It is interesting, then, how the story of the Hyksos and those under their rule, has been retold across the centuries, each account offering some glimpses into how the Dynasty rose and fell, but much about contemporaneous approaches to foreigners and migrants. It is thus our aim to sift through these layers, to edge closer to the history of the people who lived during the Hyksos Dynasty.

Reflections

We, the authors, have tasted the migrant experience. One is a first generation immigrant, raised between two cultures and in two lands. Both of us have lived part of our lives as skilled migrants outside our own home countries, a privileged position where we were welcomed for the ‘value’ we bring but expected to follow a prescribed set of rules to be perceived as ‘good immigrants’.

We believe looking to the past informs the present, offering vital insight into the dynamic complexities of a recurring phenomenon that we will continue to face in the future. At a time when borders are more pronounced, it is interesting that identity has once again become a prevalent topic. A quick browse through recent news headlines clearly shows how migration continues to be a major topic of discussion around the world. As we all continue to (re-)define who we are, maybe the unraveling history of the inhabitants of Tell el-Dab’a can offer us lessons how, across time, migration can shape identities and, in many and varying ways, some very obvious, others more subtle and complex, it will lead to transformation. Also, perhaps unfortunately, it is revealing how the story of migrants can often be hidden or molded according to the motivations of history’s writers.

Chris Stantis (Bournemouth University) is a bioarchaeologist with a wider research background in archaeological chemistry, migration, and diet. Anna-Latifa Mourad (Macquarie University) is a historian and archaeologist exploring the links between cultural encounters and socio-cultural transformations. Follow them on Twitter – @ChrisStantis and @anna_latifa.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 668640)

Editor’s note: I’m really pleased to be able to publish this post by Drs Chris Stantis and Anna-Latifa Mourad. Their investigations into the origins of the ‘Hyksos’ people and their influence on Egypt is a great example of how scientific research can cause us to revise our understanding of events in the past but also, perhaps more importantly, to challenge pre-existing narratives of those events. What’s so striking here is that the movement of people from one place to another and the resulting interactions between different groups was a part of life for many people in the ancient past, just as it is today. And by understanding how the story of the events of the past has been told, we can begin to think more critically about how the events are present are told to us too, and how some of the subtleties and complexities of the interactions between different groups, can be overlooked. Many thanks to the authors! – CN

 

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