Second Intermediate

The Second Intermediate Period

A politically incorrect tale of immigration

In the years around 1770 BC, Egypt once again fell apart. We enter the second intermediate period, and there are two big questions that we need to ask. Firstly, why did it fall apart?  And secondly, the big current question in the early 21st century, what part in the collapse did immigration play?

We must begin by challenging one of the deepest held beliefs of archaeologists, that is our disbelief in the great man theory. History tends to revolve around ‘great men’, and the great changes are seen as being driven by great men – Augustus, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, Napoleon, or Winston Churchill.  Archaeologists however do not believe in great men. We look at the underlying causes which bring about changes regardless of individuals. Yet the ‘intermediate periods’ challenge these beliefs, for in both cases it seems that it was the weakness of the rulers – not great men but weak men who were followed by the collapse of centralised power. In the first intermediate period, it was basically the rule of a single man Pepi I who ruled for 60 years, and who ruled weakly, allowing local rulers, the nomarchs to take over power. In the second intermediate period, the reverse happened, and the strong rulers of the 12th dynasty were followed by a series of weak rulers in the 13th dynasty who were followed by a collapse in the 14th to 16th dynasties which become simply a mass of names of which Egyptologists try to make sense,  and determine how far they were Hyksos rulers in the north,  or Theban rulers in the south.  Was it the weakness of the rulers that led to the collapse? Or had the glue that held the Egyptian state together become so weak that ruling was impossible? Do historians or archaeologists win? Shall we call it a draw?

Map of Lower Egypt to show Avaris on the Pelusium branch of the delta.

The other main feature of the Second Intermediate Period is the great question that concerns us in the 21st century A.D: immigration. The story of the second intermediate period is dominated by the advent of Asiatic rulers in the North, the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings, who established a capital in Avaris, a city that is now becoming very well explored.  And there was trouble too in the south, where Nubia, which had been a part of the Egyptian Empire, breaks away and is once again dominated by the natives. The second intermediate period has much that deserves our study.


This map of Avaris by the Austrian excavators shows the excavated areas in green. The River Nile is now canalised, the canal being the green strip.Originally it was built on a series of humped back islands, but boreholes have revealed that by the time of the Hyksos kings the settlement was arranged around two basins.The original settlement was to the north around area RII but it later spread to area F1 and then to areas A1 – AIV around the modern village of Tell el-Daba-a. The later palaces were to the west in area H.

Archaeologically, the story of the Hyksos depends very much on the exploration of their capital city, Avaris near the modern town of Tell el-Dab’a. Here, extensive excavations were carried out from 1966 – 2009 by the by the charismatic Austrian excavator Manfried Bietak, and since by his successors. Avaris lies in the north, in the delta of the river Nile which has split into a number of different streams, and Avaris is in the eastern most branch, the Pelusiac branch.  Its position was unknown until the 1950s when the Austrian Archaeological Institute,  under its director Manfred Bietak located its position 50 kilometres downstream from the sea, but in an ideal position on the way from the cities of the Near East to Egypt.  The whole area was swampy, but there were a number of  ‘turtleback’ mounds on which a settlement could flourish.

The Austrian excavators’ diagram to show the gradual expansion of the settlement. The two left columns show the chronology. The fourth column shows the chronology of the original settlement, then it gradually expanded as shown by the columns to the right.

In recent times it has been heavily ploughed over and flattened to make the Egyptian cotton fields and the Nile has been tamed into orderly canals.  Extensive boreholes have revealed a sprawling city spread around two harbours. At its greatest extent, it  covered some 220 hectares, which makes it one of the biggest of all Egyptian cities –  indeed at its height it was probably the greatest city in the east Mediterranean.

It began early in the Middle Kingdom as a small community founded by the Egyptian crown to colonise this part of the country, but it gradually expanded and an immigrant population moved in.  This is something that to the archaeologist’s delight can be traced by the pottery, for new types of pottery are introduced of types found in Syria and Palestine and among the Canaanites.

A typical jug of Tell el-Yahudiya ware. The prick marks over the surface were filled with white.

In particular there is a type of pottery known as Tel el Yahudiya ware, a normally black fabric with pricked designs on the surface.  These foreign types now become prominent and form 40% of the total amount. However the remaining 60% continues in the traditional Egyptian style: it is perhaps not unreasonable to follow the extent of immigrant influence by studying the varying pottery styles.

But it is not just the pottery; new types of burials are introduced and instead of having burials with the bodies laid out prone on their backs as with Egyptian mummies, we begin to get crouched burials.  There are also a number of donkey burials where donkeys were buried in a separate pit at the end of a human grave.  In the days before the introduction of the camel, the donkey was the main beast of burden, and these donkey burials are thought to mark the burials of rich traders. There is much discussion too as to whether an east Mediterranean style of houses, temples and palaces can be distinguished.  An Egyptian god is adopted, Set, who was long known as a storm god, but is now conflated with the Syrian storm god, Baal-Zephon.

The tomb of the Deputy Treasurer named Amu (the Asiatic). Note that the skeleton in the tomb is lying on its side with knees bent and a dagger of Asiatic type at its hip. Outside the tomb to the left is a pit in which five donkeys were buried.

The most interesting burial is one of a person identified by his finger ring as being Amu the Deputy Treasurer, — Amu means Asiatic —  who was buried in a fine rectangular chamber, lying on his side and buried with a fine dagger and battle axe, both of Syrian type.  While at the entrance of the chamber was a pit in which no less than five donkeys were buried.  However his title of Deputy Treasurer shows that he was part of Egyptian bureaucracy.  The Hyksos rulers took over all the paraphernalia of the Egyptians and wanted to think of themselves as being Egyptian, just as in China the invading barbarians from the north, once they had seized power, immediately adopted all the bureaucracy and structure of the Chinese state.

Then around the end of the 16th century sometime between 1530 and 1500 in the traditional chronology, the city collapses. The central part is deserted, though there are new structures in the north western area where a massive building called the Citadel was constructed. This was to become the forerunner of palaces built in this area at the beginning of the New Kingdom, which have become controversial because they contain Minoan material and links to the volcanic eruption of Thera. See our pages on Thera for the controversy. During the New Kingdom a new city was built at Piramessse a couple of miles to the north.  Here the excavations have been less intensive, but it was clearly a major town in the early New Kingdom period.

The Nubians

But it was not just in the North that the central powers lost control —  they lost control in the South too. In the South, a powerful new kingdom arose at Kerma, 400 km south of Thebes, and beyond the second cataract of the Nile. There had been a number of powerful kingdoms in the area known as Nubia, and in the Middle Kingdom, a string of forts had been constructed above the first cataract. These however all fell to the new power that arose in the area further south, around Kerma.

Kerma pot from the Sudan, in the British Museum

A bowl of Kerma ware in the British Museum. In Egyptian fashion the top half is fired black, but note the white band around the centre.

They did not use writing, and so they are only known archaeologically, but their central palace was a large roundhouse and they produced a distinctive type of pottery called Kerma ware most of which was handmade but the best pots are very much in the Egyptian tradition, but with a white strip round the centre. It was often imported into each it and it is even found as far north as Avaris.

Their warriors were renowned and were used as mercenaries by the Egyptians. There seems to have been a sort of balance that the Nubians provided soldiers for the Egyptians, while Egyptian craftsmen travelled to Kerma to adorn the Kushite capitals.

Thus Egypt in its weakness suffered from two rather different types of invasion, or immigrants: to the north were the Asiatics, or Amu as they were called, who pushed down into Egypt but were desperate to be absorbed into the Egyptian way of life, and their distinctive traits, as shown in their pottery and their architecture, soon adopted Egyptian traits.  In the south however the Nubians were the opposite; though they often adopted Egyptian styles, they were soon absorbed into their own culture.


The end of the Hyksos episode is chronicled by two texts concerning the deeds of Kamose, who appears to have been the Theban ruler who began the expulsion of the Hyksos.  The texts apparently copy an original set up in the temple at Karnak, at Thebes, and between them they provide a remarkable window into the Hyksos world.

In the first, Kamose speaks to his council, complaining that there is one chief to the north in Avaris, another to the south in Kush, each having a slice of Egypt.  A customs barrier had been established at Cusae, half way between Thebes and Memphis, so he could not get through to Memphis, the traditional capital of Egypt of which he claimed to be ruler. ‘My desire’ he says ‘is to deliver Egypt and to smite the Asiatics’.  He wanted to attack but the council was more cautious.  ‘We are tranquil in our part of Egypt: Elephantine to the south near Aswan is strong, and the middle part is with us as far as Cusae.  Men till for us the finest of their lands.  Our cattle pasture in the marshes.  Corn is sent for our swine, our cattle are not taken away, so why worry?’

But Kamose is not convinced and sets out to attack and here the text breaks off.  The stele text takes up the later story when Kamose was already near the fortress of Avaris, and claimed that he had captured a messenger from Avaris  with a message calling on the rulers of Cush to join up with the rulers of Avaris so they could divide the towns of Egypt between them.

This Kamose text has become the principle source of written evidence about this period, confirming the existence of Avaris and Kush and providing details of the fear that Egypt would be squashed between them.  Kamose appears to be the penultimate Theban ruler of the second intermediate period and he is followed by Ahmose (1550 – 1525) who is considered to be the first ruler of the New Kingdom, which begins with the establishment of the 18th dynasty. In our suspicious minds in the 21st century we inevitably wonder whether Kamose’s text may not be slightly exaggerated, but certainly he marks the beginning of the revival of the traditional state of Egypt. The end of Avaris does not come for another 20 or 30 years, when it’s final capture is recorded by Ahmose. There is no sign archaeologically of destruction, no layer of burning or evidence of a massacre, but it simply stops: according to Josephus, after a long siege a treaty was concluded, and there was a mass exodus. Egypt was once again united.

The Palace problem

Before we leave Hyksos we should perhaps ask the big question: how far did they succeed in becoming properly Egyptian, in being ‘assimilated’ to use the modern phrase.  Did they have a palace and Egyptian style temples?

Avaris has become one of the most extensively explored Egyptian towns, but infuriatingly nothing survives above ground, so it is a difficult town to assess. The excavated areas are few but they are backed up by extensive geophysical surveys which are difficult to interpret, but which nevertheless give an idea of the overall layout.

The simple answer is that so far no definite palace has been found, though there are two possibilities. But the question we must ask first is: what is a palace?

Egyptian palaces are disappointing; they are not like the Minoan palaces which are the dominating feature of that culture.  In Egypt the role of the palace is shared with the temple.  Palaces are often considered to be simply big houses, but we need to go beyond this and to ask what role palaces play in a gift exchange economy.  The role of the palace is not just to be big and impressive and to overawe the population, but more importantly the palace plays a major role in the redistribution of the assets of a society.  It is a place where goods are taken in and stored, so we need to look for granaries and store rooms.  It is also a place of feasting where food is produced in lavish, indeed ridiculous quantities, just to show how wealthy and generous the ruler is.  The ruler also needs to give out lavish presents and sparkling jewels, and so workshops for highly skilled craftsmen may be part of the palace ensemble. How does Avaris measure up to the standards?

The trouble is that in Egypt there were also local rulers, often called ‘mayors’, who were appointed by the central government to run a local district.  And the mayor’s house was often a sort of mini palace, and there is therefore a range of large houses occupied by officials which are in effect mini palaces.

The Middle Kingdom mini-palace or Mayor’s house at Bubastis. Enter from the bottom, go into the ceremonial area, the residential quarters to the right, the storage area at the top. Adapted from Barry Kemp

Ironically the best example of such a proto-palace can be seen at the neighbouring town of Bubastis which lies half-way between Avaris and modern Cairo, best known because it became briefly the capital of Egypt in the 8th century BC.

Here a fine example of a Middle Kingdom palace has been excavated.  It is in three parts with a ceremonial entranceway, with the residential area to one side, and a storage area at the back. The interesting and unusual thing is that just outside it was the tomb of the mayors of Bubastis, a square bricked mausoleum that contained many burial chambers.

The harbour side Palace at Avaris. The massed magazines that dominate the top and centre are probably later, but note the ceremonial courtyard where banqueting took place and also the storage building that was inserted into the courtyard. This is presumably part of a largely unexcavated Palace.

There are two contenders at Avaris in the Hyksos period. There is a good example of a big house at the centre of the town in Area FI where a comparatively small central room is fronted by a long rectangular columned room.  Another possible palatial structure has been located down in the harbour area.  This is dominated by a whole series of storerooms, later in date. But at one end there is a large a courtyard which seems to have been used for ritual banqueting on special occasions.  There were benches around the sides, and afterwards the vessels that were used were buried in ritual pits, together with the bones of the animals that were eaten.  Later a storage building was constructed filled with beakers, bowls and other vessels. Six seals impressed with the name of one of the kings were also discovered.

None of these buildings is quite grand enough to rank as the palace of a pharaoh, or even as a palace of a local ruler who pretended to be a pharaoh.  But we begin to have a glimpse of the palaces of the local bigwigs and a glimpse too of the social structure of Egypt where there were many local rulers living in considerable luxury in mini palaces.  And in Avaris, some of these local rulers made themselves into pharaohs and formed the 15th dynasty.


The Second Intermediate period was a remarkable episode echoing in many ways the First Intermediate period. Both begin with the  breakdown of central rule, following weak rulers. In both cases the ultimate reunification came from the south, from Thebes, though in both cases the allure of Memphis remained strong. This was where the bureaucracy and the fine craftsmen were situated, and it was not until the New Kingdom that that Thebes finally became the centre of power, both in bureaucracy and in craftsmanship.

But the Hyksos remain fascinating.  How far were they raiders?  Or how far were they just traders?  They came from the coastal areas of Syria and Palestine and culturally they were an offshoot of the Mesopotamian powerhouse.  Yet clearly Egyptian culture was the stronger and more alluring — the Hyksos wanted to be Egyptian and it is the traditional Egyptian culture that wins out. For a couple of centuries it seemed that the two peoples would integrate, and for a century or more the Hyksos actually became the rulers of the north;  but the efforts of integration were in vain, and eventually the immigrants were driven out.


On to Later Egypt



21st January 2018