Cultural History of Ancient Egypt

V77.0614 / V57.0506 

MW 11:00am-12:15pm -- Silver 711

Notes and Terms -- Lecture 27


Foreigners in Egypt—Some General Remarks

            The subject of Egypt’s attitudes towards foreigners reveals a significant disparity between ideology and reality.  Ideologically, foreigners were the exemplars of the forces of chaos par excellance. Some of the most important duties of the monarch were to suppress or conquer foreigners and to keep them at bay from the borders of Egypt.  Any foreigners who resisted Egyptian policy were said to be ‘rebels,’ as if the king actually were their legitimate ruler.  In reality, although the Egyptians were certainly bellicose towards foreigners and foreign lands at many moments in its history and may have overrun neighboring countries and brought back large numbers of foreigners to Egypt as foreigners, they also engaged in much peaceful contact with outsiders, they imported foreign goods, adopted some foreign gods as their own, and incorporated foreign vocabulary extensively in their language.  Egypt was never as xenophobic as it appears at first glance.  One of the reasons for this is that, from the Middle Kingdom onwards, foreigners also entered Egypt freely and peacefully in order to make their living in the land and often to adopt Egyptian ways.  In addition, some other groups of foreigners also managed to invade Egypt and govern it.  Among the latter, there were the Hyksos, the Nubians, the (somewhat Egyptianized) Libyans, the Nubians (or Kushites), the Assyrians, the Persians, and finally the Greeks and the Romans.  In the period that this course covers, the Egyptians were governed by foreigners to various degrees for a considerable stretch of time.  At those times, Egypt was forced not only to conform to the ways and dictates of foreign kings, but also to deal with an apparent violation of the ideological principles that Egypt, as the center of the ordered world, was always triumphant and that all lands were subject to it.  


The Ideology of the Outsider

            There is a reason why I have placed the subject of foreigners and much of my discussion of the afterlife close together in the course.  This decision lies in the ideology of the liminal.  The afterworld, the dead, and even the gods existed at the margins of the ordered world, that is to say, Egypt.  When maat was brought into creation, an island of order may then have existed at the center, but the prevalent state of the universe as a whole was chaotic.  This is why, as I emphasized many times in the lectures of the afterlife, that world was fraught with so many (esoteric) perils, dangers which would threaten even the sun god when he traveled down below on his daily journey through the night sky.  Hornung’s brief article on “The Challenge of the Non-existent” showed how the forces of chaos, or uncreation as we might call it, constantly attempted to break into the world of pharaonic order, i.e. Egypt, which was also the land of the living.  The iconography of Egyptian kingship is filled with what might be termed “magical” means of subduing these foreign representatives of the forces of chaos, whose images are shown bound and subdued under the feet of the king, and as well adorned both the Pharaoh’s sandals and the floors of the palace throne rooms so that the king would treat upon them constantly as he went about his business.

            The political consequences of these conceptions lay at the heart of the justification for rule at home and abroad.  The king was chosen and placed on earth to maintain order for the benefit of Egyptian mankind.  However, once one moved beyond the borders of that world into the liminal areas at the edges, that was where the representatives of the forces of chaos dwelt.  From the very beginning of their history, the Egyptians viewed outsiders through this politico-religious lens.  At first, this attitude had largely defensive or reactive consequences: foreigners were to be repelled or crushed when they tried to disturb Egyptian order.  With the passage of time, this attitude became increasingly aggressive, with the king leading expeditions to quell or repel foreigners at the borders.  Eventually, this ideology was tied to a form of royal militarism that grew out of the expulsion of the Hyksos, a group of Asiatic foreigners who had infiltrated into Egypt at the end of the Middle Kingdom and had finally seized power, ruling the land as the dominant force during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Dynasty.  The Seventeenth Dynasty, who had established themselves at Thebes, became the leaders of a war of national liberation that finally expelled these foreign rulers.  For the rest of Egyptian history, the king’s role as a military figure was central to the ideology of kingship and the prestige of office.  The monarch campaigned almost yearly, sometimes even when there was no strategic or tactic need to do so.  The normal exchange of gifts that formed the backbone of diplomacy in the ancient world would be cast as foreign tribute brought to the king in order to sue for peace.  It is not hard to envision how this line of thought when connected with the militaristic aspects of Egyptian kingship should develop into the theoretical foundations of a form of imperialism—Egypt had the right and duty to “extend it borders” and thus conquer foreign lands.  Similar attitudes can be found among the other civilizations of the ANE.

At the same time, there was a need for trade and peaceful conflicts that frequently worked at cross purposes to these aggressive activities.  Like several other conflicts in Egyptian culture, this was never entirely worked out.  It did, however, lead to a tendency not to treat foreign things as things which came from the outside.  There is no announcement that a god, an idea, a technical process, etc. brought in from the outside had a foreign origin.  It just was and existed in Egypt’s cultural or technological world as if it had always been there.  This makes assessing foreign influences in Egypt very difficult indeed.

Before going into further details on this complex and often elusive subject there are a few thoughts which I’d like for you to keep in the back of your mind.  The Egyptian view towards the outsider is typical of closed village-oriented societies like this.  Put aside all notions of the cosmopolitan and think momentarily in terms of the small town.  What I describe here is very much the way the Egyptians thought about the non-conforming individual generally.  The village point of view tends to be very conformist, and not focused on the antonymous individual which is one of the core values of Western liberal (in the broad sense of that word) society.


Military and Warfare

            It usually surprises people when they first study ancient Egypt seriously is that between Dynasty 0 and Dynasty 18, a span of nearly 1500 years, there was no standing army worthy of its name.  Before the New Kingdom, the Egyptians normally relied on a small internal force and raised troops by levy when they were needed.  (See, for example, the ‘autobiographical inscription’ of Weni, Lichtheim, Literature I pp. 19-20)  There were several reasons for this surprising fact: Egypt’s location was in itself ample protection from outside invasion; Egypt’s general form of state organization, i.e. a territorial or nation state, was based on cooperation rather than coercion; and most importantly of all, it initially had no imperialist or colonialist ambitions, which would be the chief reason for having a large army in the ancient world.

            One could fairly say that the need for a large standing army was at first imposed on Egypt from the outside world, in particular, by the Hyksos, a group of Asiatics mostly from the Syro-Palestinian region, who overran the land and ruled it for a while.  Eventually, a group of local Egyptian dynasts at the old capital city of Thebes were able to exert their independence, and, in what we would nowadays term a “war of national liberation,” managed to drive the Hyksos out of Egypt over the course of late Dynasty 17 and early Dynasty 18. Thereafter, a militaristic tradition was to persist throughout the rest of Egypt’s history in varying degrees of intensity.  During the NK much of the prestige of kingship became closely associated with the military, to the extent that one of the pharaoh’s most important functions was to be the nation’s military leader.  This aspect of the king’s rule, which one might uncharitably call the ‘macho style of kingship,’ was also tied to a motif of great physical strength and achievement among the NK kings.  The king boasted of his super-human abilities as a sportsman and a hunter as well.  In many campaigns princes would accompany the king so that they would learn this aspect of kingship.  Archery training was also an important part of their education.

            The military influence on NK kingship even extended to the royal costume, particularly the Blue Crown, which may be a “war crown” or “war helmet.” Another important iconographic feature of NK kingship related to the warrior-king motif is the chariot, on which the king is frequently depicted, even when he is not at war.  It was an idea vehicle (pun intended) for state display.

            Ramesses III was to take the identification of the king with the military to an interesting degree when he added a ‘migdol,’ a Syrian-style fortified gateway to his palace/funerary monument at Medinet Habu.  This new location of the king’s palace was partially due to the fact that the Delta residence was no longer safe for the king to inhabit, and that, even at Thebes, great troubles could suddenly arise with the appearance of nomadic raiders from the desert areas.

            Such influence on the military spilled out into the rest of the state, where active and retired military figures could be found at the upper levels of the state.  At the end of Dyn. 18, in reaction to the excesses of the Amarna period and the failure of the royal line to produce a male heir, the military took over the state.  By the Ramesside period we can even see the beginnings of a group of hereditary military men who have land allotments based on service.  These later developed into what was to become virtually a military caste, the machimoiwariors,’ who played such an important role in later periods.


“God is on Our Side”

            During the First and Second World Wars, there was a wide-spread sentiment among the Germans that as they would put it, Gott mit uns, “God is on our side.”  Recently, there has been a resurgence of a similar attitude among some conservative Christians here in the US.  The Ancient Egyptians clearly campaigned with the same thought in mind—they were the favorite people of the gods.  Egyptian military campaigns were sometimes supposedly conducted at behest of a deity, usually Amun-Re.  This concept of ‘holy war’ appeared among many other peoples of the ancient Near East, notable the Jews.  A number of Ramesside scenes depict the deity handing the king the Khepesh-sword, a motif which appears in a different form in the Bible as well.  Several campaigns began by the king announcing his intentions to military units assembled outside a temple.  Goods and people captured during the ensuing campaign were generally accounted to the temples, particularly the Temple of Amun at Karnak.


The Military as a Workforce

            One of the striking things about the ancient Egyptian military was the way in which it was used in construction projects, quarrying activities, and other large-scale, labor-intensive projects.  In many instances the Egyptian vocabulary for work-force organization and the organization of small military or naval units are one and the same.  Military units usually form a major part of any large quarrying expedition, for example.  This was good for training, unit cohesion, and insured that the military was kept occupied in peacetime.



            At all periods, the Egyptian military (and navy) employed considerable numbers of foreign mercenaries in the military.  In the later periods of Egypt’s history, these men had a considerable influence on contemporary politics.  The kings’ needs to keep them placated often gave rise to considerable resentment on the part of the native population who felt slighted by the favoritism towards these outsiders.  These feelings were even more intense among the machimoi who were, after all, native Egyptian warriors.

Guardia Civil motif  -- placed where they did not originate.  POWs were recruited.

Who they were – Nubians.  Always an important part of the Egyptian military as early as OK, one group the Medjay were used as an internal police force. Asiatics.  Libyans, were settled in the Delta as a Ramesside policy, one which eventually backfired.  Ramesside policy

            Sea-going peoples and the Navy.  Greeks, Phoenicians, and Carians


The situation in Egypt’s later history

            The Libyans and TIP ; Greeks during the Saite Period and later

            Egyptian resentments

The custom of military colonists and allotments; the later machimoi and the Macedonian kleruchoi



Weapons of close combat


            the khepesh-sword of royalty

short sword ;    long sword -- later

            Daggers, Axes, Spears

            Shields.  Padding and body armor.

Weapons of stand-off combat (somewhat)

            Bows and arrows.  The major weapon. Especially with chariot

            Chariots.  Not particularly practical.  It was fairly light and could be dissambled.


                        Brought in from the outside during the SIP.        The cavalry as an arm did not really exist until the development of the stirrup which did not appear until later

Implements of Siege warfare

            Siege ladders.   Boats



Naval Forces

            virtually all warfare initially along river; amphibious troops

            prefab boats brought along on campaigns.

            Naval forces were used primarily to transport goods to coast meeting points.

                        Often were chartered foreigners

Later a real sea-going navy was developed.


Foreign Trade

            Egypt largely an economic autarchy.  Self-sufficient in nearly everything it really needed, so all trade was initially just for the elite.  “Tribute” was in many cases actually trade goods.

            Living abroad as a way of life generally not desireable.  Burial motif in Sinuhe

            May have been largely a royal monopoly until the NK

                        Temple traders vwtyw

            Predominance of imports over exports; the significance of the coast

                        Byblos and Ugarit

            Egypt as a major maritime power

                        Saite Period and the growing influence of Greeks

                        Canals and Red Sea trade during the Saite, Persian, and Ptolemaic Periods

            Egypt as a merchant nation in the Ptolemaic Period


The Asiatic and Nubian Empire

            We can rightly call Dyn. XVIII “Imperial,” or “The Empire” because Eg. was in many ways an imperialistic power in pretty much the same way we consider England and France to have been.  A way for a young man to make his name.  Military was a prestige occupation.  We know a lot about this “Empire” through the Amarna letters which probably give us a rather exaggerated view of the situation.  It was an area in which there was a good deal of two-way cultural exchange.

            There are really two different “Empires” for the Egyptians at this time.  Nubia represents a much more serious attempt at colonization - “almost perfect Egyptianization,” as Frandsen puts it; Syria-Palestine is an area were the Egyptians seem to have contented themselves with trade and domination, but never any serious occupation except for the stationing of troops at strategic locations.

            Constant campaigning of the Egs. had as a theoretical basis the notion that the Eg. king was maintaining order throughout the world.  Eg. was entrusted with the maintenance of maat; foreigners were representatives of the forces of chaos.  Displayed on the visible outside wall of pylons.  In treaties, the gods of both sides were invoked as witnesses.

            Campaigns were performed in the name of the state deity, chiefly Amun-Re, and sometimes were begun with the king proclaiming the campaign at the quay of the temple.  Since the campaigns had been commissioned by the gods, then it was only natural that the loot and captive people the war brought about should be dedicated to the great temples. 

The Empire in Asia was maintained apparently by only a sparse number of troops.  There were troops stationed in large numbers only near the border in forts along the nearer reaches of  the Ways / Roads of Horus.”  The quasi-colonial administration was commissioner-based.  The Egyptians were chiefly interested in trade and “spheres of influence.”  Although royal inscriptions advance universal claims for both the king and the god, none of the religious overtones of modern imperialism applied to the Egyptian forms of the institution.  In fact, there is frequently the phenomenon of acceptance (and adaptation / adoption) of foreign deities and, at the same time, the Egyptians did not try to spread their religion.  Political control of the Asiatic territories at least was largely through proxies; the system was based on vassalage, not military occupation or colonial administration. The Egyptians had an interesting “hostage” program whereby they removed the sons of the local princes back to Egypt, where they would be held in luxury and effectively Egyptianized.  This was not done so much with their Nubian counterparts.  Perhaps the major restriction upon the subject “princes” in the Asiatic region is that they would not be allowed to correspond with the heads of states hostile to Egypt.

            One of the things that the Egyptians did more in the Asiatic sphere than in the Nubia territories was to bring back large numbers of POWs, who were put to work in temple estates.  Frandsen concludes his article with a question about who benefited from the Empire in Egypt?  The answer to this is unclear, but the more I look into the problem, the more I am convinced that it was the king and those among the elite who could benefit from the temple economy.  The temples were a major focus of the redistribution of loot from campaigns.  Much foreign trade was conducted with the aim of procuring goods for the temples as well

            The situation in Nubia was different at least administratively.  Here the chief aim seems to have been gold mining and production.  This, too was largely done for the benefit of the royal house and the temple economy.  Administratively, the whole region was under the Viceroy of Nubia, “the King’s Son of Kush,” operating out of Aswan.  Significantly, he was later put in charge of the areas north of Aswan which were gold producing as well.  The Nubian region proper was divided into two regions for the purpose of administration: Wawat and Kush.  The Egyptians built forts to be sure, but many of the biggest settlements there were essentially temples, without much to serve in the way of defense, essentially show and prestige, and strong indications that the land had been essentially pacified .  Some have observed that there is something of a parallel in this with the Egyptian form of urbanism which involved temple-towns.  Certainly Abu Simbel was intended to overly impress all in the region.  The local elite many have Egyptianized to a much greater extent.   We can see this is the change in the way the Nubian “tribute bearers” are depicted in Egyptian tombs between Rekhmire to the Viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamun.  When there were belligerent actions needed, Egypt may have contented itself with pushing aside the local population.  After a while the two groups doubtlessly blended together.  Nubia was more settled.  Farm and cattle growing land was the second purpose to which Nubia was put.


Egypt and the Outside World

            The Ramesside Period was even more of a “international age.”  I’ve been talking a lot about “imperialism” so far, but in this period it seems to be connected with spheres of influence; there were seldom the large military occupations and garrisons that one thinks of in, for example, British rule in India.  Foreign affairs seem to play an increasing important role with Dyn. XIX and XX.  A large reason for this was that the kings who came from this Dynasty were in origin probably a military family, well inculcated with militaristic values.  Ramesses I was a general, and the same seems to have been the last king of the previous Dynasty, Horemheb.  However, the militarism of this next Dynasty was not merely connected to royal prestige as before.  There were some very real threats to Egypt and its interests at this time.  Assyrians, but, more importantly, the Hittites.  The old Mitannian empire had disappeared from the scene, having been destroyed by both the Egyptians and the Hittites.

            Nonetheless, I am sometimes appalled by the underlying assumption that a king who campaigns a lot is vigorous, while one who does not is somehow passive and not a good monarch.  One can easily find this assumption in a much historical writing unfortunately.  Yet the Egyptians give a large place, literally and figuratively to their military activities.

            Not all of Egypt’s relationships with the outside world was based on predation and imperialism.  Trade and exchange were very important too.  Remember that if, while building the pyramids, the Egyptians were certainly not overly abusing the people who were doing the actual construction because it does not pay to run workers into the ground, so too the Egyptians could not have run a loose, yet fairly effective empire if all they were doing is ravaging the area they were controlling.  There is quite a lot of evidence for mutual trade.  This even was true of the Nubian dominions which were run like a more classical form of imperialism, with displacement of population, slavery, extensive settling of Egyptians in the region.

            The theoretical basis of Egyptian imperialism and Egypt’s relation with the outside world should be emphasized.  The Egyptians were essentially the center of the universe and as the custodians of Maat, especially in the hands of the monarch, all foreigners resisting Egypt’s ruler were then seen as “rebels.”  There is no question really of accepting the right of other people to their land.  This, again, is very much like the religious justification of classical imperialism.  Egypt’s imperialism had one major difference, however.  It did not attempt to impose their religion on the people it administered or controlled, nor was religion a major cornerstone of that imperialism.

            Egypt’s sea trade, incidentally, was largely based on chartering foreign ships or letting foreign ships come into Egypt.  The Egyptians were not particularly good sailors.  Most shipping at this period seems to have been largely off coast sailing.  Seldom out of the sight of land.  The Greeks and Phoenicians were much more of sailors as we think of them.  By the Saite Dynasty in the LP, the Egyptians were to finally develop a “Navy,” but even this seems to have been mostly on the Nile.  We have records of a dockyard at Memphis, and a fairly large quarter of foreigners developing there.  This and the number of POWs taken into Egypt during military campaigns became one of the ways in which foreigners incorporated themselves into Egyptian society.

            In the Ramesside period, especially, there was another increasing  important way in which foreigners became critically important to the Egyptian state, and that was through the military.  The Egyptian army always had large contingents of foreign mercenaries.  As a reward, these groups of mercenaries would be given the right to settle on land tracts and farm them.  Libyans in Dyns. XIX and XX, would lead to the later “Libyan” dynasties.  How “Egyptianized” were these people really?


What is Egyptian – how does one become Egyptian?

In Egypt, as everywhere else in the ancient world, what defined a person’s identity more than anything else were language, dress, and, of course, customs.  The modern fixations on ethnicity or race were largely absent.  Nobody was superior or inferior by his or her innate nature at birth, but customs and behavior could definitely be seen as deficient.  In short, throughout the ancient world before the Romans (and the Greeks to a smaller extent), the idea of people being racially inferior did not exist.  This viewpoint may have been particularly true among the Egyptians.  Despite their view of foreigners as they lived outside of Egypt, there are many, many examples of people of foreign extraction rising to the highest levels of Egyptian society.  Equally true is the fact that foreign populations who had been placed forcibly on Egyptian soil tended to blend into the background within a generation or so.  Assimilation was relatively easy among the Egyptians.  Often this was accomplished by adopting Egyptian names, especially “loyalist” names formed with the name of the ruling king.  Although the clothing and physical appearances of foreigners are carefully rendered in art, textual references to what we might consider race are extraordinarily rare in Egypt.

            One such example comes, interestingly enough, from the Hymn to the Aten (Lichtheim, AEL II 98)

            “How many are your deeds,

            Though hidden from sight,

            O Sole God beside whom there is none!

            You made the earth as you wished, you alone,

            All peoples, all herds, and flocks;

            All upon earth that walk on legs,

            All on high that fly on wings,

            The land of Khor and Kush,

            The land of Egypt.

            You set every man in his place,

You supply their needs;

Everyone has his food,

His lifetime is counted.

Their tongues differ in speech,

Their characters likewise;

Their skins are distinct,

For you distinguished the peoples.”


Perhaps it is a trite and predictable point, but clothes did make the man in ancient Egypt—likewise, no clothes, or foreign clothes.  Consider the hero in The Story of Sinuhe, who, as we saw earlier, had managed to go from destitute nakedness to the fine linen of a high status man, but, alas, in a foreign land.  Now, in the closing lines, Sinuhe had returned to Egypt and underwent a transvestiture in its most literal and original sense—putting off one set of clothes for another.  He was given (Lichtheim, AEL I 233): “. . . clothes of fine linen, first-class myrrh, and the royal nobles whom he loves were in every room, every servant was performing his duty. Years were caused to pass from my body. I was plucked and my hair was plucked. A load was given back to the desert, namely bedawin-clothes.  I was clothed in fine clothes.  I was anointed with first class oil.  I passed the night upon a bed.  I gave back the sand to those who are upon it, and salve to the one who rubs himself with it.”  Thus, Sinuhe put aside his Asiatic clothing, behavior, and identity and has now reinvested himself with the customs and costume of a true Egyptian.  The Egyptians, who had no real sense of themselves as a race in the modern sense of that destructive concept, instead constructed their identity as a people primarily in terms of their language, clothing, and, of course, customs.

The association of language with one’s identity is so strong, particularly in the ancient world, that in a document from the Ptolemaic period a Greek official described an Egyptian priest (most certainly literate and well-educated in the arcania of his religion) as “illiterate,” obviously because he did not write Greek.  Significantly, in the later periods of Egyptian history when foreigners ruled Egypt, these foreign monarchs were careful to have themselves depicted as Egyptian pharaohs in contemporary temple reliefs and statuary as a means of getting the Egyptians to accept them as legitimate Egyptian kings rather than as outsiders dominating the land by force alone.

Alongside of these familiar modes of blending into an adopted land, there were cases where foreign populations may have existed primarily in their largely unassimilated identities as foreigners within Egypt.  This was particularly true of people who had been brought into the Egyptian military as mercenaries.  In the Old Kingdom, we occasionally encounter references to small settlements of “peaceful Nubians,” who just might represent groups of Nubian mercenaries.  The Libyans, who were to become the dominating presence in the Third Intermediate Period in the Delta, apparently were settled there as farmers during the Ramesside Period in exchange for their military service.  It may have been the case that such settled mercenaries were obligated to offer their sons for military service in the future, thus in effect eventually creating a caste of warriors in Egyptian society.  The history of the latter part of Egyptian history is characterized by frequent struggles between these native Egyptian warriors and groups of foreign mercenaries brought in en masse.  A prime example of such foreign mercenaries were the Greeks, who became the backbone of the Egyptian military and naval forces during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and later.  Of course, the Ptolemies later created a system of military colonists called cleruchies as one of the central supports of their regime.