A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By ILAN BEN ZION
Tuesday, August 07, 2018
Nearly 1,500 years ago, a Byzantine merchant ship swung perilously close to the Sicilian coastline, its heavy stone cargo doing little to help keep it on course. The ship’s crewmen were probably still clinging to the hope that they could reach a safe harbor such as Syracuse, 25 miles to the north, when a wave lifted the vessel’s 100-foot hull and dashed it on a reef, sending as much as 150 tons of stone to the seafloor. The doomed ship was carrying a large assemblage of prefabricated church decorations—columns, capitals, bases, and even an ornate ambo, or pulpit. These stone pieces lay on the seafloor for 14 centuries until a fisherman spotted some in 1959 while hunting for cuttlefish.
Covering an area a bit smaller than a football field and lying under 25 feet of water nearly a mile offshore of the fishing village of Marzamemi, the site was first studied in the 1960s by Gerhard Kapitän, a pioneering German underwater archaeologist. He believed the Marzamemi shipwreck played an important role in a massive state-led building campaign ordered by Justinian I, the great Byzantine emperor known as the “Last Roman,” whose name is synonymous with a resurgence in the fortunes of the Roman Empire in the Late Antique period. Based on several design details on the decorations, Kapitän concluded that not only had the ship sunk during Justinian’s reign, but that it had probably taken on its cargo—the decorative elements of a church’s nave—near Constantinople before heading west. He wrote that the marble blocks pointed to “the existence of a large organization clearly directed by a central administration” that dispatched the decorations for a new state-built church. Kapitän felt the Marzamemi marbles constituted “an almost complete set of elements for a Byzantine basilica with the certainty that all the parts are original and of the same period.”
Now, Stanford University archaeologist Justin Leidwanger and Sicily’s regional assessor for cultural heritage, Sebastiano Tusa, have returned to the Marzamemi shipwreck at the head of a team of archaeologists who are conducting a methodical underwater excavation amid the site’s boulders and reefs. Among the questions Leidwanger and Tusa want to answer are how the marble cargo got there and who was responsible for dispatching this consignment of expensive goods. “Somehow, the narrative of the shipwreck has been stuck since the 1960s in this notion that it’s Justinian’s church in a box,” Leidwanger says. “We have tended to assume that this is Justinian and his personal imperial circle shipping out churches to the corners of the Mediterranean.” But the team’s initial results point to a more complicated reality, a world where Justinian may have been emperor, but where commerce, including the shipment of large stone cargos, flourished because of the decisions of people whose names are lost to history.
Merchants had been shipping high-end decorative stone across the Mediterranean since at least the Bronze Age. While no shipwrecks carrying stone have been found dating to this period, it is evident that marble was shipped from ancient quarries on Aegean islands such as Paros and Naxos to sites that didn’t have their own sources. Shipwrecks carrying finished stone statuary dating to the later Archaic and Classical periods have been found off the coasts of Italy and Greece. But the shipment of stone for construction at an industrial level didn’t begin until the advent of the Roman Empire. “It really takes off then on a distinctly Roman scale,” says Benjamin Russell, a University of Edinburgh archaeologist who has studied Roman shipwrecks bearing stone cargoes. “You see a growth in administrative systems for shipping decorative stone throughout the empire.” Based on the number of shipwrecks found carrying stone bound for temples and other important buildings, the trade peaked in the third century A.D., when 24 ships bearing stone cargo are known to have sunk.
Then, in the fifth century, the Roman Empire was torn asunder. Its western provinces fell to the Germanic Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, and long-distance trade networks collapsed. By the time Justinian I took power in 527, a Roman state encompassing the entire Mediterranean was a bygone reality. From Constantinople, Justinian began to pursue an imperial policy of restoring the empire by reconquering territories that had fallen to the Germanic kingdoms. His armies captured North Africa, Italy, part of Spain, and the main Mediterranean islands in the 530s. Justinian then set out to renovate and build fortifications and churches in an effort to reconsolidate the empire and promote his vision of Christianity.
Procopius, Justinian’s court chronicler, wrote a book cataloging Justinian’s extensive building projects, lavishing praise on the emperor for securing and beautifying restored Roman lands. Though Justinian is best known for building Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, he also ordered the construction of churches, fortifications, castles, baths, aqueducts, cisterns, and monasteries across the empire—from Jerusalem in the east to Spain in the west. Marzamemi lay at an important crossroads of the newly invigorated empire, where the two halves of the Mediterranean meet, an intersection of the trade routes crisscrossing the sea separating Europe and Africa.
Together with Brock University archaeologist Elizabeth S. Greene, Leidwanger has returned to the underwater landscape at Marzamemi each summer since 2014. The relatively shallow water allows long workdays so that two teams of underwater archaeologists can carry out dozens of dives each day to gently sweep away and suction up silt while searching for artifacts.
Unlike Kapitän’s, Leidwanger’s focus isn’t primarily on the monumental hunks of marble, which are now pitted by constant exposure to salt water. Instead, he and his team have the arduous task of scouring the seafloor for the small artifacts hiding in crevices and under rocks: ceramics, bits of pigment and raw glass, metal nails and fasteners, and fragments of the vessel itself. Their work is resulting in a much more comprehensive picture of what other goods went down with the ship.
Meanwhile, ashore, the Stanford team works with specialists led by architect Leopoldo Repola of Suor Orsola Benincasa University in Naples to create 3-D reconstructions of the architectural elements and conserve the artifacts hauled out of the sea in a winery-turned-museum. The 3-D reconstructions allow for close study of the marble remains and are giving the team a new look at the Marzamemi shipwreck’s ecclesiastical cargo. They have also recovered several more capitals besides the 28 capitals and 28 bases identified by Kapitän. And while they have also recovered hundreds of pieces of additional columns, they have located no further bases. These discoveries challenge Kapitän’s belief that the Marzamemi shipwreck was carrying a single, uniform set of church decorations. Leidwanger also notes that the ship’s fluted columns are “not as standardized as one would think.” The reconstructions show that the capitals may not all have been at the same stage of completion, and have revealed that some of their ornamentation is of an antiquated fashion for Justinian’s time. The team has found some bits of polished marble that Leidwanger likens to modern countertop samples, perhaps for showing to potential clients in antiquity. All this suggests that the merchant vessel that sank at Marzamemi could have been involved in trans-Mediterranean marble trade for a clientele outside the emperor’s circle.
A profusion of amphoras and other big storage vessels also helps create a picture of a ship that wasn’t just hauling imperial construction material on orders from Constantinople. Instead, it may have been an ordinary merchant ship traveling around the Mediterranean that took on a large shipment of marble. “In fact, much of what we find,” says Leidwanger, “whether it’s the sort of secondary cargo of wine, oil, and the like—tells us about a crew that’s routinely engaged in commerce.”
Procopius wrote that he documented Justinian’s profligate building “so that it may not come to pass in the future that those who see them refuse, by reason of their great number and magnitude, to believe that they are in truth the works of one man.” But Leidwanger and other modern scholars see room for local initiative in church building during Justinian’s revival. Not everything had to be micromanaged by Constantinople. “I think we really should be questioning the extent to which we need somebody like Justinian involved in this,” Leidwanger says of the Marzamemi church wreck.
Although monumental edifices such as Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale, whose gilt mosaic preserves Justinian’s likeness, were probably built and designed by the imperial court, churches of lesser magnitude were likely financed and designed by provincial patrons, says Joseph Alchermes, an expert on early Byzantine art at Connecticut College. “For certain kinds of imperial projects, I really can’t imagine anything but a pretty centralized administration,” he says. But he notes that probably wasn’t always the case. While Constantinople was pushing its style of architecture as a means of asserting authority, local officials would have tried to assimilate by adopting the fashion of the time. Alchermes says, “It’s a two-way street.”
While some of the Marzamemi shipwreck marbles resemble the architecture in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Leidwanger has found that the marbles don’t comprise a complete church. Most religious buildings of the time would have been built of local material and only embellished with luxurious appointments. “These are the highlights, both visually and liturgically, in the church decoration,” says Alchermes. “These are the things that people really focus their attention on.”
Looking beyond the top-down imperial hypothesis may also help solve the question of where the Marzamemi marbles were bound. “Justinian is not sending some massive, beautiful, high-end church to some Podunk town. That’s not how it works,” says Leidwanger. Instead, the cargo could well have been ordered by local authorities furnishing their churches with prefabricated decorations. This begins to suggest a number of options for where the cargo could have been going. Some candidates for destinations include northern Italy, the Adriatic coast, or North Africa.
“The picture at Marzamemi is nowhere near as neat as was originally assumed,” says Russell. “What they’ve shown is that rather than one church, the cargo could have contained multiple elements intended for several buildings, and that changes the way we think about who was responsible for the cargo.” Russell points out that since the Marzamemi wreck was discovered, at least nine other shipwrecks bearing some stonework dating to the sixth century have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean, and that probably many more still wait to be found. “Marzamemi isn’t an outlier,” says Russell. “It fits into this context of resurgence in trade in the Late Antique period.”
Meanwhile, work at the site continues, and the study of the shipwreck’s more humble items promises to help flesh out the vessel’s story. Recently the team subjected iron concretions found on the shipwreck to X-rays and CT scanning. They found that while many are square nails used for the construction of the ship’s hull, others seem to represent a more diverse range of materials that may include tools such as chisels and hammer heads. These could have simply been basic shipboard tools for the repair and maintenance of the vessel or could have belonged to specialists in marble carving who accompanied the cargo in order to finish the stone decorations once they reached their final destinations. In the future, 3-D casts of the scans of these objects may help resolve such questions. Another promising area of research lies in further analysis of ordinary pottery found amid the boulders of the Marzamemi reef. Identification of the provenance of these ceramic wares could help reconstruct a logbook of the ship’s route. That itinerary would provide Leidwanger with valuable information about how the merchants of the Byzantine world took advantage of Justinian’s restoration of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean—a restoration that was short-lived.
The pan-Mediterranean empire Justinian forged gradually disintegrated after his death in 565, and the economic connections that bound that world together once again fractured. As a result, the stone trade fell off. Only two Byzantine wrecks dating to the seventh century bearing stone have been found, and none at all dating to the centuries following. In fact, the trade in major stone consignments represented by the Marzamemi shipwreck would not resume on the same scale in the Mediterranean for almost a thousand years after the vessel went down.
Ilan Ben Zion is a journalist in Jerusalem.
By ANDREW CURRY
Tuesday, August 07, 2018
Egypt’s carefully recorded lists of rulers run pharaoh after pharaoh for almost 3,000 years. Except, that is, for a century or so around 1640 B.C. when a new group came to dominate the kingdom on the Nile, throwing the region into turmoil and ushering in a new era in Egyptian history.
“For what cause I know not, a blast of the gods smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land,” writes Manetho, a priest and the author of a history of Egypt called Aegyptiaca likely written in the third century B.C. Despite the fact that he is describing events at a remove of almost 1,500 years, and although his writings survive only because they are quoted in even later works, such as the first-century A.D. author Josephus’ “Against Apion,” the account is no less evocative. “By main force, they easily overpowered the rulers of the land; they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others, and appointing as king one of their number.”
When it came to the story of the rise and short-lived rule of these “invaders of obscure race,” for centuries scholars took for granted Manetho’s account of invasion and disruption as reproduced by Josephus. The tale was supported by other historical accounts, from tables of dynasties, rulers, and reigns found in Egyptian temples to papyrus lists of Egypt’s dynasties. Egyptologists tended to treat the period as a ripple in an otherwise unbroken stream that soon smoothed and vanished, a curious footnote in the three-millennia-long sweep of Egyptian history.
More recently, however, archaeological evidence has shifted the way Egyptologists view these invaders—the Hyksos—and their influence at a pivotal moment. The Hyksos appeared in a chaotic time after the collapse of the so-called Middle Kingdom period but before the blossoming of the New Kingdom, the five centuries of prosperity and territorial expansion familiar to many from the reigns of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. New discoveries suggest that these developments may have, at least partially, been a result of this invasion. No longer thought of by some scholars as a brief intrusion, the Hyksos may, instead, have been a force for change, pushing Egyptian civilization forward into a new era.
Hyksos, meaning “rulers of foreign lands,” stems from the manner in which the short-lived dynasty of Hyksos kings referred to itself. Their origins were unknown, and archaeologists had little to go on apart from scattered historical mentions. The Hyksos rulers seem to have written nothing down.
Egyptian histories refer to a Hyksos capital called Avaris. Egyptologists, tantalized by the possibility of learning what “foreign lands” the storied invaders hailed from, began looking for the city in the 1880s. But none of the sites they identified as possibilities, including nearby Tanis, a large settlement in the Nile Delta, and Pelusium, another Delta site, were a match. Some were too late to line up with the Hyksos period. Others were too small to plausibly be the capital of a dynasty that ruled all of Egypt. In the 1940s, Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi began digging on a mound in the Nile Delta about 40 miles northeast of Cairo called Tell el-Dab’a. Based on his initial finds, Habachi argued the site was a potential match for Avaris.
Later, Tell el-Dab’a proved to be of interest to a young Austrian archaeologist named Manfred Bietak, who started excavating there in 1966. Year after year, he returned to the site, uncovering more and more evidence of a major Egyptian metropolis that had far-ranging connections to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. He found pottery and weaponry from the Levant and Cyprus, and statues and seals similar to those from what is now Syria. Bietak spent nearly 50 years digging at Tell el-Dab’a, until security problems following the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt forced the Austrian Archaeological Institute to halt its excavations there.
Today, Bietak is a professor at the University of Vienna and a researcher at the Austrian Academy. He works together with his team to sort through the decades of data from Tell el-Dab’a as part of an ERC Advanced Research Grant called The Enigma of the Hyksos. He is not alone in his interest in this period of Egyptian history. Also on board are researchers looking at the impact of the Hyksos on later Egyptian culture, their identity as immigrants, how they came to power, and the reasons for their eventual downfall. Another group headed by bioarchaeologist Holger Schutkowski, based at the University of Bournemouth in the United Kingdom, plans to begin analyzing human remains from around the region and hopes to create a data set that will show where the people of Avaris came from and whether they migrated during their lifetime. What Bietak has found has convinced him that Tell el-Dab’a was, indeed, Avaris—and that the ancient accounts and generations of Egyptologists alike had it wrong.
Rather than a tale of foreign imperialism, Bietak thinks the Hyksos rule was a more homegrown phenomenon, a tale of movement for economic and political reasons that would be familiar today. Immigrants from the Levant, not invaders, briefly elevated fellow immigrants, or perhaps a sympathetic elite from abroad—the Hyksos—to rule over all of Egypt. “The histories say they moved into Egypt by force and were very cruel, and led people away into slavery,” says Bietak. “But it wasn’t an invasion. After our excavations, we have no doubt it was a gradual infiltration.” Furthermore, Bietak believes this was done, at least at first, with the cooperation of the pharaohs.
And while Manetho’s bleak account of razed cities and enslaved children paints the Hyksos as a purely destructive force Egypt managed to overcome, evidence from Avaris and elsewhere suggests that they brought important innovations to the kingdom on the Nile, from the horse and chariot to new gods and an openness to the world. “In many ways, the Hyksos period is a groundbreaking period in Egyptian history,” says Kim Ryholt, an Egyptologist at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s the first time you have foreign people with foreign habits ruling in Egypt.”
Understanding the Hyksos phenomenon requires a long view of Egyptian history. The tale, Bietak argues, begins almost 600 years before they took power. Climate records show that around 2200 B.C., the world was gripped by a little ice age. In Egypt, the two centuries that followed were marked by persistent droughts. The prolonged dry spell may have led to political instability that resulted in the fragmentation of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom.
But Egypt wasn’t the only place affected by the change in climate. Drought also hit the desert regions to Egypt’s north and west, causing famines that may have spurred migrants from the Levant and the Libyan desert to pick up and head for the relative stability of Egypt’s annual Nilotic floods. This was the beginning of a period of intensive immigration, one the pharaohs tried to control with planned settlements and fortresses. The newcomers probably also brought their own language, which Bietak says was likely a western Semitic tongue related to Canaanite. “From the beginning, the 12th Dynasty [around 1981–1802 B.C.] employed mercenaries from western Asia,” says Bietak. “They moved into Egypt and offered their services to the local ruler in exchange for something to eat.”
Avaris, perched between the Nile’s northernmost tributaries, provided year-round access to the Mediterranean and was perfectly placed to attract these new immigrants. Evidence shows that long before the Hyksos made it their capital, Avaris was a multicultural town that served as one of ancient Egypt’s main military and commercial harbors. Over time, the port city also attracted shipbuilders, sailors, and other immigrants. “It was a local population hub mainly of people from the Levant,” Bietak says. “It blossomed with the blessing of the pharaohs during the late 12th Dynasty. During the 13th Dynasty [1802–1640 B.C.] it became more and more independent.”
Egyptian reliefs from the period depict these new arrivals as an exotic presence. They have mushroom-shaped hairstyles and wield slings and distinctive duckbill-shaped battleaxes, unlike their lance- and shield-wielding Egyptian counterparts. Nevertheless, evidence from Bietak’s excavations suggests that these immigrants played a central role in shaping the city, including importing pottery styles, ceremonial architecture, dress codes, and non-Egyptian burial customs and religious practices such as interment in the walls of buildings and donkey sacrifices found in tombs and the courtyards of palaces and temples.
Egypt, at this time, was extending its reach to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. Avaris’ year-round harbor played a key role. Serving as the first port of call for imported trade goods—oils from Cyprus, cedar from the mountains of Lebanon, wine from the Levant—turned Avaris into a boomtown. Cemeteries there dating from the 12th and 13th Dynasties were filled with gold, statuary, and other valuable grave goods, a sign of increasing wealth. Archaeologists have also found evidence of Egyptian influence in other cities around the Near East, perhaps left by trading colonies, embassies, or even political refugees fleeing internal conflicts in Egypt.
The religious landscape of Avaris also provides strong indications of foreign influence. Temples dedicated to storm gods from present-day Syria displaying a distinctive architecture that has little in common with typical Egyptian places of worship were constructed in Avaris beginning around 1800 B.C. For Bietak, it’s clear that the people running the show were from overseas. “The elite decide what kind of temples were constructed, so this shows us where the elite in Avaris come from,” he says. “And this type of temple comes from far, far away.” Meanwhile the city’s population established it as a rival to traditional Egyptian power centers such as Thebes, more than 300 miles to the south along the Nile, and Avaris began attracting people from elsewhere in Egypt. The stage was set for the Hyksos’ ascendance.
What exactly happened next in Avaris is still unclear, but hastily dug mass graves at the site Bietak’s team has excavated suggest that an epidemic swept through the city, perhaps a plague carried aboard one of the many ships that sailed in and out of the harbor. Later Egyptian writers called bubonic plague “the Asiatic disease,” a possible clue that the epidemic may have been introduced by arrivals from the Levant. Bietak’s excavations also show that the local palace burned to the ground toward the end of the 14th Dynasty, around 1640 B.C. It was then that the first Hyksos kings made their appearance in the historical record.
Bietak believes that a small group of foreigners used Avaris and its sympathetic, culturally similar population as a staging ground for a takeover. “There was no conquest, but rather an encroachment and concentration of people from west Asia that had already created a power base for a foreign elite,” Bietak says. From Avaris, the Hyksos rapidly expanded their rule. For a brief period, in the 15th Dynasty (around 1630–1523 B.C.), the Hyksos dominion stretched to envelop central Egypt. The Hyksos’ rise was reflected in Avaris, too. The city’s footprint nearly tripled, and at its height, the city was home to an estimated 25,000 people, spread out over a square mile of bustling, crowded, stinking cityscape. (Archaeologists have found neither plumbing nor toilets there.) “It was one of the largest cities in the ancient Near East, not just Egypt,” says Irene Forstner-Müller, an Austrian Institute of Archaeology researcher who took over the Tell el-Dab’a excavations in 2009 and used remote sensing to map Avaris’ unexcavated stretches. “The size of the town is amazing,” says Bietak.
The Hyksos’ adversaries in Thebes weren’t content with their vassal status for long. The Thebans fought back fiercely, freeing themselves and cutting Avaris off from the rest of Egypt. Fighting between Avaris and Thebes plunged Egypt into a state of civil war. According to contemporary inscriptions and Nubian pottery found in Avaris, the Hyksos seem to have forged an alliance with the Nubians, far to the south in what is now Sudan, in a vain attempt to crush Thebes from two sides. There’s even evidence of Hyksos axes in action. Bietak says the skull injuries on the remains of the Theban king Seqenenre, who ruled during the era of conflict with the Hyksos, are consistent with the duckbilled ax blades wielded by Hyksos warriors.
During one of his last excavation seasons, Bietak made a grisly discovery that dates to this violent moment in Egyptian history. In a series of pits dug near the forecourt of a Hyksos-era palace in Avaris, just in front of the throne room, Bietak found 16 severed right hands. He suggests that the amputated appendages were trophies taken by Hyksos soldiers in battle and redeemed later for a cash reward, a tradition their Egyptian opponents may have adopted as well. Severed hands exchanged for so-called “gold of valor” are a frequent feature on the walls of post-Hyksos Egyptian tombs and victory scenes on temple walls.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Hyksos’ rise to power was actually the beginning of a long decline for Avaris. Bietak suggests that the city was gradually cut off from the trade networks Egypt offered. Without gold, ivory, and precious woods from Nubia or flint from Upper Egypt, the people of Avaris had nothing to offer their trading partners around the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, the population grew so desperate they looted elite cemeteries in nearby Memphis. “The Thebans closed the connection between the Hyksos and Sudan. There were none of the coveted commodities from Africa that had put Egypt in a strong commercial position,” Bietak says. “That explains why the Hyksos started looting cemeteries.”
To Bietak, the archaeological evidence of Avaris’ decline provides further proof that the Hyksos were locally based. If they were invaders from the Levant, his reasoning goes, they would have continued to trade with their base back home. Instead, they were soon isolated and grew increasingly impoverished. Project ceramics specialist Sarah Vilain says at this time there was a decline in the amount of imported pottery. As if in response, local potters began producing knockoffs. “You have Levantine shapes with Cypriot decoration, but local materials and craftsmanship,” she explains. Even the weaponry used during the Hyksos period was of lower quality. After the city could no longer afford tin imported from the Levant, weapons were made of pure copper, rather than bronze.
In about 1550 B.C., the Theban pharaoh Ahmose (r. 1550–1525 B.C.) launched a campaign to seize Avaris and crush the Hyksos once and for all. Manetho, the same source who had described the Hyksos as invaders, claims Ahmose, the first New Kingdom pharaoh, marched on Avaris at the head of an army 480,000 men strong—yet still failed to take the city. Finally, however, Avaris was captured. According to Manetho, the Hyksos agreed to leave Egypt willingly. According to reliefs celebrating the pharaoh’s victory, though, the dynasty’s end was bloodier. In Ahmose’s temple at Abydos, for example, there are scenes of battles and severed hands. Excavations show Avaris’ central palace was burned again. The defeated city never recovered. “Avaris was conquered and partly abandoned by the 18th Dynasty,” around 1550 B.C., Bietak says. “Its people were not expelled, but distributed all over the country as slaves and soldiers.” Pottery uncovered at Avaris suggests some also stayed behind.
Bietak’s analysis of Avaris isn’t without controversy. His careful dating of the site is based on evidence including cylinder seals, architectural styles, pottery, and papyrus scraps. But when researchers tested grass seeds preserved at the site using radiocarbon dating techniques, the results were off by nearly a century—a significant gap, given the relatively short reign of the Hyksos kings. Bietak is convinced the radiocarbon dates are incorrect, whether because of the samples that were used, the influence of geography on the site’s chemistry, or atmospheric changes. “In historical periods, historical-archaeological methods are more reliable tools,” he says. Ryholt says the dating remains an open question, and that not all Egyptologists share Bietak’s confidence. “Since the site is so pivotal, if we have to redate it, palaces we thought were Hyksos may turn out to be pre-Hyksos,” Ryholt says. “There’s still a lot of research to be done, and some of the questions may be difficult to answer. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked.”
Centuries after their rise and fall, the Hyksos were still a bitter memory for the Egyptians. Hatshepsut, a woman who ruled as pharaoh from 1473 to 1458 B.C., boasted in inscriptions that she restored temples neglected under the Hyksos and reinvigorated disrupted trade routes. “The anti-Hyksos propaganda doesn’t begin immediately,” Forstner-Müller says. “It starts under Hatshepsut, almost 80 years later.” Their names were removed from or left off the king lists that feature in many ancient Egyptian temples. Fifteen centuries later, historians such as Manetho and Josephus still fixated on the episode. “The Hyksos came to represent a trauma for the Egyptians, a trauma so heartfelt the Egyptians were still writing about this in the third century B.C.,” Ryholt says. “It would be interesting to know why.”
And yet, as Bietak and his team continue their work, they are discovering evidence that the Hyksos played a pivotal role in linking Egypt to cultural phenomena in the rest of the Mediterranean and in a number of innovations that came to define Egyptian culture in later periods. “The Hyksos had a lasting influence on Egyptian culture and ideology,” says Anna-Latifa Mourad, a researcher who is part of the Enigma of the Hyksos project.
Some of the changes the Hyksos introduced were obvious and dramatic. The earliest horse skeleton ever found in Egypt belongs to a mare buried within a Hyksos-era palace in Avaris, in a corridor directly behind the throne room. “With the horse comes the iconography of the horse, deities, and technology related to the horse, like the composite bow and the chariot,” says Mourad. “Things we initially assumed to be Egyptian innovations might actually have been inspired by interactions in the Delta.”
Other Hyksos influences were subtler than horses and chariots, but nonetheless reached deep into Egyptian culture, politics, religion, and economics. For example, the Hyksos seem to have introduced long-distance diplomacy. Excavations have uncovered Akkadian seal impressions and a letter in a southern Mesopotamian script. And the temples and gods imported from the Near East to Egypt in the centuries leading up to the Hyksos period did not disappear when the “rulers of foreign lands” were toppled. Mourad says clay seals found at Avaris show that the Hyksos introduced gods such as Baal, a deity common in the Near East. Baal’s attributes were combined with the Egyptian god of the desert, Set. “Baal was chosen for his links to trade, kingship, and the sea,” Mourad says. “The evidence strongly suggests the Hyksos looked at him as a patron deity.”
But more than that, the effort it took to defeat Avaris gave the rest of Egypt a strong push toward a new era of openness and assertiveness. The city’s fall marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, considered the peak of ancient Egyptian prosperity and power. Ryholt suggests that the century of fighting between the Hyksos and people from other parts of Egypt also created a new military culture. Before the Hyksos, Egyptian pharaohs had no standing army. “After two or three generations of war, they developed a hierarchy of soldiers and officers and a standing fleet, chariotry, and infantry,” Ryholt says. Once the Hyksos were defeated, Egypt’s rulers began using their newly acquired military might to launch regular, and often successful, invasions of their neighbors. Says Ryholt, “The Hyksos had a big impact. Indirectly, they laid the foundations for the Egyptian Empire.”
Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
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