A Time to Try Men’s Souls: Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period

If ever there were a time when things seemed hopeless for men who loved their country, Ancient Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period was such a time. It was truly a time that tried men’s souls, a time when Egyptian nationhood stood poised at the brink of extinction. Egyptian patriots, squashed between two hostile powers to north and south, found themselves in an almost hopeless situation.

If Egypt were to prevail and survive its Second Intermediate Period, it would need courageous leadership, competent soldiers, and an unshakable will to continue in the face of flagging morale.

Background:

In 1802 B.C., the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt, and the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, ended abruptly with the death of the childless Queen Sobekneferu. The “Thirteenth Dynasty” which replaced it wasn’t able to exercise sole control over Egyptian territory. The rise of the secessionist Fourteenth Dynasty in the north proved that central control was at an end once again, just as it had been after the collapse of the Old Kingdom.

The Fourteenth Dynasty wasn’t Egyptian in origin, but rather Semitic. It was a sign of things to come. The Middle Bronze Age saw a great deal of migrations in western Asia. Although the Twelfth Dynasty built a series of fortifications to secure Egypt’s borders, some unauthorized migrants made it through anyway, and this trickle became a flood as the Dynasty collapsed. It was this first trickle which congregated and eventually gave rise to the Fourteenth Dynasty, based in Avaris.

But the real flood came later. Possibly at the invitation of the Fourteenth Dynasty, a new group of people from the north came into Egypt’s Nile Delta. The origins of these people are still shrouded in mystery, but they (or rather, their rulers) came to be called the Hyksos (“rulers of foreign countries”), and they would drive Egypt to the brink.

Blitzkrieg

The Hyksos quickly took over the territories of both the Fourteenth and Thirteenth Dynasties. Their war machine seems to have been far more advanced than anything seen in Egypt before. Most notably, the Hyksos introduced chariot warfare (and the wheel with it) to Egypt. This obviously gave them a huge advantage over their plodding enemies and amounted to the first Blitzkrieg type of war in history.

The Hyksos also introduced two other important instruments of war into Egypt – bronze weapons and armor, and the composite bow, which could shoot far further with a much greater punch than the simple wooden bows the Egyptians had used since Narmer’s time, if not earlier.

Riding in their chariots with their superior tools of war, the Hyksos quickly conquered most of the country, forcing a holdout Egyptian polity to retreat to the ancient stronghold of Thebes. A dynasty from Thebes (the Eleventh) was able to unify the country after the civil wars of the First Intermediate Period. Now, a new dynasty, the Sixteenth, hoped to do the same. Still, this time was different. The Egyptians were completely outmatched. This was no mere sibling rivalry from fellow Egyptian potentates. The Second Intermediate Period was a humiliation at the hands of overpowering foreigners, which was a huge psychological blow in addition to everything else.

Even though the Hyksos had adapted to the Egyptian culture and language, they were never accepted by the Egyptians themselves. These were the dreaded “Aamu,” or Asiatics. In the age of Snefru and well beyond, they were frequent targets for jokes. Oh, how the tables had now turned!

Fortunately for the Egyptians, the Hyksos did not advance south of Abydos, at least at first. They instead consolidated themselves at their capital, Avaris, in the northeast. There, they ruled as Egypt’s Fifteenth Dynasty.

This didn’t mean that the struggling Egyptian polity was safe. Egypt’s fortunes sank even further as another secessionist polity, the so-called “Abydos Dynasty,” arose. This dynasty was conquered, too. Nothing appeared capable of withstanding the Hyksos onslaught.

Egypt Second Intermediate Period Map
Map from “Egypt’s Golden Empire” (2001).

Theban territory was raided constantly and whittled down by conquest. Finally, Thebes itself was conquered by Khyan, who established his domination over all of Egypt, ending the Sixteenth Dynasty.

Fortunately for Egypt, this conquest was not durable. Khyan may have died without an heir. The dynastic succession appears to have had problems. The distraction allowed Thebes to regain its independence, and the Seventeenth Dynasty to come to power with some breathing room.

Yet, Egypt was still far from safe. The Hyksos could strike again at any time, and the Nubian Kingdom of Kush to the south represented a major threat to their rear. At all costs, Egypt needed to avoid a war on two fronts.

The nascent Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt was in dire straits, and the early kings seemed to know that it would be foolish to attempt to attack their enemies head-on. Instead, the early Seventeenth Dynasty Egyptians generally kept the peace.

The Quarrel of Apophis and Seqenenre

Despite their strategic disadvantage, the Egyptians never gave up their dream of restoring order to their country and ending the Second Intermediate Period. After a few decades of biding its time against the Hyksos, the Seventeenth Dynasty finally acted under its new king, Sequenenre Tao, known by future generations as “The Brave.” The Egyptian story of how the war began is one of the most amusing in history. According to the Egyptian sources (highlighted in Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs), the Hyksos King Apophis complained that:

The hippopotamus pool which is in Thebes must be done away with. For they permit me no sleep by day or by night; and the noise of them is in my ears!

The absurdity speaks for itself. There was no way Apophis could have heard the hippopotami of Thebes hundreds of miles away in Avaris. But this might have been more than an absurdity. Religion could also have been at work. The hippo was an animal sacred to Set, who opposed Horus, the traditional god of Egyptian kingship. There was nothing wrong with worshiping Set, but the Hyksos may have worshiped him to the neglect of the other gods, destabilizing the divine balance personified by Ma’at. On top of being foreign interlopers (which also destabilized Ma’at), this would have insulted Egyptian sensibilities even more. The disputes in the Second Dynasty, and Khasekhemwy, sound familiar here.

Seqenenre renewed the struggle against the Hyksos. Unfortunately for him, he was no Khasekhemwy. The war did not go well for him. He was captured in battle and executed. His mummy is a ghastly sight, the most famous image of Egypt’s humiliation in the Second Intermediate Period.

Seqnenre Tao Taa Mummy
The mummy of Seqnenre Tao (or Taa).

False Dawn

Seqenenre had two young sons, but neither of them appeared to be ready to renew the fight. Apophis took the opportunity to try and make a pact with the Kushites. Fortunately for Egypt, the message had been intercepted by Theban spies loyal to the new king, Kamose. In response to this dangerous provocation, Kamose renewed the struggle of the Second Intermediate Period, lamenting:

Let me understand what this strength of mine is for! There is one prince in Avaris, another in Nubia, and here I sit between an Asiatic and a Nubian! Each man has his slice of Egypt, dividing up the land with me. He (the Hyksos) controls Memphis, the waters of Egypt, and he has Hermopolis. No man can settle down, being despoiled by the demands of the Asiatics. I will grapple with him, so that I may cut open his belly! My wish is to save Egypt and to smite the Asiatics!

The council advises Kamose not to go, but this is a common trope in Egyptian literature to highlight the bravery of the king. Everybody in Thebes must have understood how much of a threat this was.

Kamose and his army went south on a preemptive strike against Kush, then turned north, and faced the truly dreaded enemy who had killed his father.

Fortunately, the losses to the Hyksos throughout the Second Intermediate Period had their value. The Egyptians learned from their enemies, adopting their weapons and tactics. Kamose proved far more successful than his father. His campaign took him all the way to Avaris, where he taunted Apophis and his people:

They peered out with their noses on the walls like the young of inhet-animals from inside their holes, while I was saying: ‘This is the attack! Here am I. I shall succeed. What is left over is in my hand. My lot is fortunate. As the valiant Amen endures, I will not leave you, I will not let you set foot in the fields unless I am upon you! So your wish has failed, miserable Asiatic! See, I shall drink of the wine of your vineyard, which my own Asiatic captives will press out for me. I shall destroy your dwelling-place and cut down your trees, after I have confined your women to the holds of ships. I shall take over the chariotry’.

It sounds rather like the taunting in the Iliad. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, like much boasting there, these empty words were ill-spoken. Kamose failed to capture Avaris. The Hyksos remained. Meanwhile, he died after returning to Thebes.

Fortune now truly seemed to taunt the Egyptians. Just when they and the Seventeenth Dynast had experienced success against the dreaded Asiatic, their champion died in his prime. The end of the Second Intermediate Period and reunification of Egypt seemed no nearer.

His younger brother Ahmose succeeded him, but he was only a 10-year-old boy, hardly in position to attack the Hyksos or their allies the Kushites.

Egypt once again stood at the precipice.

Kamose coffin
The coffin of Kamose.

Kamose Ends the Second Intermediate Period

Fortunately, Seqenenre’s widow, Ahhotep, seems to have done an excellent job holding things together. One source reads:

The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Kemet. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels, The king’s wife Ahhotep given life.

We have not heard the last of this underrated hero of the Second Intermediate Period yet.

10 years passed and Ahmose grew up to become as formidable a warrior as his father and brother had been. He eagerly renewed the wars of the Second Intermediate Period. Apophis still sat on the throne in Avaris as the Hyksos king. Ahmose was ready to avenge his father and complete his work.

Once again, he and his troops advanced up to Avaris, carefully cutting the city off from the rest of the world by taking Tjaru, which was strategically situated on the road to Canaan.

After a long struggle along the length and breadth of Egypt (a rebellion broke out in the south which demanded attention, according to the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus), Ahmose was finally able to take Avaris by storm. Some of the details are recorded in the tomb of a soldier on the campaign, another Ahmose, son of Ebana:

When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in his majesty’s presence. Thereupon I was appointed to the ship “Rising in Memphis.” Then there was fighting on the water in “Pjedku” of Avaris. I made a seizure and carried off a hand. When it was reported to the royal herald, the gold of valor was given to me. Then they fought again in this place; I again made a seizure there and carried off a hand. Then I was given the gold of valor once again.

Then there was fighting in Egypt to the south of this town, and I carried off a man as a living captive. I went down into the water, for he was captured on the city side, and crossed the water carrying him. When it was reported to the royal herald I was rewarded with gold once more. Then Avaris was despoiled, and I brought spoil from there: one man, three women; total, four persons. His majesty gave them to me as slaves. Then Sharahen was besieged for three years. His majesty despoiled it and I brought spoil from it: two women and a hand. Then the gold of valor was given me, and my captives were given to me as slaves.

Ahmose, son of Ebana, wants to celebrate his own heroism, but this is as good a record as any about the end of the Hyksos presence in Egypt and the Second Intermediate Period. As the soldier says, Ahmose the king would pursue them north into Canaan, sacking their city of Sharuhen to establish a buffer and ensure they would never return.

As for the Kushites in the south, Ahmose the soldier has this to say:

Now when his majesty had slain the nomads of Asia, he sailed south to Khent-hen-nefer, to destroy the Nubian Bowmen. His majesty made a great slaughter among them, and I brought spoil from there: two living men and three hands. Then I was rewarded with gold once again, and two female slaves were given to me. His majesty journeyed north, his heart rejoicing in valor and victory. He had conquered southerners, northerners.

Meanwhile, as Ahmose was away in Nubia, Ahhotep foiled an attempt to usurp the throne from Hyksos sympathizers.

Egypt was resplendent yet again. The Second Intermediate Period was at an end. Ahmose the king is considered the founder of the great Eighteenth Dynasty. In less than 50 years, Egypt had gone from a defeated, humiliated rump state into a great power, far beyond what the Old and Middle Kingdom kings had accomplished.

Ahmose I Egypt
Ahmose I ended the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt.

Ahmose died in his 30s, but he set the stage for Thutmose I and Thutmose III to turn Egypt into a hegemonic power.

Lessons from the Second Intermediate Period

The Hyksos defeated the Egyptians multiple times, but they turned failure into success by absorbing what went wrong and swallowing their pride. Swallowing your pride is always important in these experiences. The Egyptians swallowed theirs by adopting the weapons and tactics of the hated Asiatics.

Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period also shows us the power of perseverance. The Egyptian struggle against the Hyksos in Avaris displays that success doesn’t come gradually. It’s more like a flatline and then a sudden spike from nowhere. For a century in the Second Intermediate Period, the Egyptians failed. Seqenenre Tao died. His sons succeeded, but even then, it took a tragic roller coaster with Kamose before the Egyptians finally found lasting success with Ahmose.

Finally, the Egyptian plight in the Second Intermediate Period reminds us that no matter the odds, the right people in the right place can make all the difference. When times are bleakest, one or a few determined men can completely change the situation. Kamose and Ahmose were two such people.

In the bleakest times, pride in yourself, your nation and its history, confidence in your skills, and being unafraid of pain or failure can turn fortune’s wheel. Be one of those people in our own time of humiliation.

You can read about many more such people in Lives of the Luminaries.

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