OF ARMS AND THE MAN: THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY BC
In about the year 1477 BC, in the city of Peru-nefer in the Nile delta of Lower Egypt, quite close to the Mediterranean Sea, Pharaoh Thutmose III ordered the construction of a grand palace with elaborate frescoes. Minoan artists from distant Crete, located far to the west across the Great Green (as the Mediterranean Sea was known to the Egyptians), were hired to create these frescoes. They painted pictures never seen before in Egypt—strange scenes of men leaping over bulls—with the paint applied to the plaster while it was still wet, in an al fresco style so that the colors became part of the wall itself. It was a technique, and a scene, that they had learned on Crete in the Aegean. The unique images created in this manner were now in vogue not only in Egypt but also at palaces up and down the coast, from northern Canaan to the Egyptian delta at sites now known as Kabri in Israel, Alalakh in Turkey, Qatna in Syria, and Dab'a in Egypt.
Peru-nefer, the city in the delta, has now been identified with modern Tell ed-Dab'a. It is a site that has been excavated by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak and his team since 1966. The city had also previously been known as Avaris, capital city of the Hyksos, the hated invaders of Egypt who ruled much of the country from ca. 1720 to 1550 BC. Avaris was transformed into Peru-nefer, a valued Egyptian metropolis, after its capture by Thutmose's ancestor the Egyptian pharaoh Kamose around the year 1550 BC.
In uncovering a formerly wealthy city now buried under meters of sand and debris, Bietak brought both the Hyksos capital city and the later Egyptian metropolis back to life over the course of four decades. He also recovered the amazing fresco paintings created by Minoans, or possibly local artisans trained by the Minoans, which date to the early Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1450 BC). These serve as a good example of the internationalized world that began to coalesce in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean after the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt.
Harkening Back to the Hyksos
The Hyksos had first invaded Egypt in about the year 1720 BC, a quarter of a millennium before the time of Thutmose III. They stayed for nearly two hundred years, until 1550 BC. At the time that the Hyksos overran the country, Egypt was one of the established powers in the ancient Near East. The pyramids of Giza were already nearly a thousand years old by that point, having been built during the Fourth Dynasty, in the Old Kingdom period. Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived and wrote during the much-later Hellenistic period in the third century BC, identified the Hyksos as "Shepherd Kings"—a mistranslation of the Egyptian phrase hekau khasut, which actually means "chieftains of foreign lands." And foreigners they were, for the Hyksos were Semites who migrated into Egypt from the region of Canaan, that is, modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. We see representations of such Semites in Egypt as early as the nineteenth century BC—for example, a wall painting within an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hasan, where we are shown "Asiatic" merchants and traders bringing their goods into the country.
The Hyksos invasion of Egypt brought the Middle Kingdom period (ca. 2134–1720 BC) to an end. Their success was quite possibly the result of an advantage in weapons technology and first-strike capability, for they possessed composite bows that could shoot arrows much farther than a traditional bow of the time. They also had horse-drawn chariots, the likes of which had not previously been seen in Egypt.
After their conquest, the Hyksos then ruled over Egypt, primarily from their capital city of Avaris in the Nile delta, during the so-called Second Intermediate period (Dynasties Fifteen–Seventeen) for nearly two hundred years, from 1720 to 1550 BC. It is one of the only times during the period from 3000 to 1200 BC when Egypt was ruled by foreigners.
Stories and inscriptions dating to near the end of this period, about 1550 BC, record some of the battles that flared up between the Egyptians and the Hyksos. In particular, we have one story that records a disagreement between two rulers, The Quarrel of Apophis and Seknenre. In this tale—quite possibly apocryphal—the Hyksos king Apophis complains that he is being kept awake at night by the noise from hippopotami kept in a pond by the Egyptian king Seknenre, who was ruling simultaneously elsewhere in Egypt. The complaint is preposterous because several hundred miles separated the two royal courts; one was located in Upper Egypt and the other in Lower Egypt. The Hyksos king could not possibly have heard the hippos, no matter how loudly they were bellowing. However, the mummy of Seknenre has been recovered by archaeologists, and it is clear from wounds on his skull—made by a battle-ax—that he died violently in battle. Was the battle with the Hyksos? We do not know for certain; however, it is possible that Apophis and Seknenre fought each other, whether or not it was over hippopotami.
We also have an inscription left to us by the pharaoh Kamose, last king of the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt. At the time, Kamose was ruling from his home in Thebes, in Upper Egypt. He gives details about the final victorious battle against the Hyksos, whom he refers to as "Asiatics," writing as follows in about 1550 BC:
I sailed north in my might to repel the Asiatics ... with my brave army before me like a flame of fire and the ... archers atop our fighting-tops to destroy their places.... I passed the night in my ship, my heart happy; and when day dawned I was upon him as if it were a hawk. When breakfast time came, I overthrew him having destroyed his walls and slaughtered his people, and made his wife descend to the riverbank. My army acted like lions with their spoil ... chattles, cattle, fat, honey ... dividing their things, their hearts joyful.
Kamose also tells us about the fate of Avaris itself:
As for Avaris on the Two Rivers, I laid it waste without inhabitants; I destroyed their towns and burned their homes to reddened ruin-heaps forever, because of the destruction they had wrought in the midst of Egypt: they who had allowed themselves to hearken to the call of the Asiatics, (who) had forsaken Egypt their mistress!
And, with that, the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos from the land. They fled back to Retenu (one of the ancient Egyptian names for modern-day Israel and Syria, the same general area also known to the Egyptians as Pa-ka-na-na, or Canaan). The Egyptians, meanwhile, established the Eighteenth Dynasty, begun by Kamose's brother Ahmose, which initiated what we now call the New Kingdom period in Egypt.
Avaris and the rest of Egypt were rebuilt during this period, and Avaris itself was renamed. By the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III some sixty years later, ca. 1500 BC, it was once again a flourishing city, this time known as Peru-nefer, with palaces decorated with Minoan-style frescoes depicting bull-leaping and other scenes more clearly at home on Crete in the Aegean than in Egypt proper. One archaeologist has speculated that there may even have been a royal marriage between an Egyptian ruler and a Minoan princess. There are certainly a number of later Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian pharaohs who married foreign princesses, primarily to cement diplomatic bonds or a treaty with a foreign power, as we shall see below, but it is not necessary to invoke politically instigated marriages to explain the occurrence of Minoan wall paintings in Egypt, since there is other independent evidence for contacts between the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and, in this case, the Aegean.
Flashback: Mesopotamia and the Minoans
It is clear, from a multitude of data, including archaeological artifacts, and textual and pictorial evidence, that the Minoans of Crete had already been in contact with several areas in the ancient Near East long before their interactions with the New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohs. For example, we know of Minoan-manufactured objects that had been transported across the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers—the Tigris and Euphrates—by the eighteenth century BC, nearly four thousand years ago.
Documentation of this ancient trade comes from the ancient site of Mari, on the western side of the Euphrates River in what is now modern Syria, where French archaeologists excavated a treasure trove of more than twenty thousand inscribed clay tablets during the 1930s. They had been summoned to the site by locals who had accidentally uncovered what they thought at first was a headless man—which turned out to be a stone statue, one of many, including one with an inscription identifying him as a king of the ancient city. The tablets, inscribed with texts written in ancient Akkadian, came from an archive of royal correspondence and other more mundane records belonging to the kings of Mari, including one named Zimri-Lim who ruled ca. 1750 BC. They record all sorts of information pertinent to the administration of the palace and the organization of his kingdom, as well as aspects of daily life at the time.
One tablet, for instance, is concerned with the ice that Zimri-Lim was using in his summer drinks, which included wine, beer, and fermented barley-based drinks flavored with either pomegranate juice or licorice-like aniseed. We know that he had ordered an icehouse to be built on the bank of the Euphrates, which was to be used specifically to hold ice collected from the snowy mountains during the winter until it was needed during the hot summer months. He claimed that no previous king had ever built such an icehouse, and that may well have been the case, but the use of ice in drinks was not new to the region, even though one king had to remind his son to have the servants clean the ice before actually putting it in the drinks: "Make them collect the ice! Let them wash it free of twigs and dung and dirt."
The archives included records of trade and contact with other areas of the Mediterranean and Near East, with specific mention of unusual items that were received. We also know from these tablets that gifts were frequently exchanged between the rulers of Mari and those of other cities and kingdoms, and that the kings requested the services of physicians, artisans, weavers, musicians, and singers from one another.
Included among the exotic imported objects recorded in the tablets at Mari were a dagger and other weapons made of gold and inlaid with precious lapis lazuli, as well as clothing and textiles "made in the Caphtorian manner." Caphtor (or Kaptaru) was the Mesopotamian and Canaanite name for Crete, just as the Egyptians later called it Keftiu. The items had traveled a long way from Crete, acquiring what is now known as "distance value," in addition to the inherent value that they already held because of the workmanship and the materials from which they were made.
We also have a tablet that records an unusual situation, when Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari, sent a pair of Minoan shoes from Crete as a gift to King Hammurabi of Babylon. The text says simply, "One pair of leather shoes in the Caphtorian style, which to the palace of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, Bahdi-Lim (an official) carried, but which were returned." It does not give the reason why the shoes were returned. Perhaps they simply didn't fit. Hammurabi's law code, which is the first to contain the saying "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" later made famous by the Hebrew Bible, does not mention any penalties for returning items such as shoes.
It is a bit surprising that Hammurabi rejected the leather shoes, regardless of whether or not they fit, because they probably would have been both rare and unusual in his lands at the time, given the distance lying between Crete and Mesopotamia, that is, between what is now modern Greece and Syria/Iraq. Such a journey would not have been undertaken lightly and would likely have been made in stages, with different traders or merchants transporting the items for separate segments of the trip. On the other hand, such gift giving between kings of equal rank was a practice quite well known in the ancient Near East during the second millennium BC. In these cases, the items in question were brought directly by emissaries of one king, in what we would call today a diplomatic embassy.
Discovery and Overview of the Minoans
From the foregoing, it is clear that the Minoans of Crete were in contact with several areas in the ancient Near East during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, from at least 1800 BC on. There is even mention in the Mari letters of Minoans, and a possible Minoan interpreter (or an interpreter for the Minoans), present at the site of Ugarit in north Syria during the early eighteenth century BC, where they were receiving tin that had been sent westward from Mari. However, there seems to have been a special relationship with Egypt beginning in the fifteenth century, during the time of Hatshepsut and then Thutmose III, which is why our tale begins at this point in time.
It is interesting to note that the Minoan civilization was given its name by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. We don't actually know what they called themselves, although we do know that the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Mesopotamians each had a name for them. Furthermore, we do not know where they came from, although our suspicion points to Anatolia/Turkey as most likely.
We do know that they established a civilization on Crete during the third millennium BC that lasted until ca. 1200 BC. Partway through this period, in about 1700 BC, the island was hit by a devastating earthquake that required the rebuilding of the palaces at Knossos and elsewhere on the island. However, the Minoans recovered quickly and flourished as an independent civilization until Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland invaded the island later in the second millennium, after which time the island continued under Mycenaean rule until everything collapsed ca. 1200 BC.
Sir Arthur Evans began excavating on Crete after tracking down the source of so-called milk stones that he found for sale in the marketplace of Athens. Greek women who had given birth or were about to give birth wore these "milk stones." The stones had symbols engraved upon them that Evans had never seen before, but which he recognized as writing. He traced them back to a buried site at Knossos (Kephala Hill) near the major modern city of Heraklion on Crete—a site that Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, had tried to purchase and excavate, but to no avail. Evans, however, was able to purchase the land and began excavating in March 1900. He continued to dig for the next several decades, sinking most of his personal fortune into the project, and eventually publishing his findings in a massive multivolume work entitled The Palace of Minos at Knossos.
Aided by his trusted Scottish assistant Duncan Mackenzie, Evans soon uncovered what appeared to be a royal palace. He promptly named the newly discovered civilization "Minoan," after King Minos of Greek legend, who it was said ruled Crete during ancient times, complete with a Minotaur (half man, half bull) in the labyrinthine subterranean extensions of the palace. Evans found numerous clay tablets, and other objects, with writing on them—in both Linear A (still undeciphered) and Linear B (an early form of Greek probably brought to Crete by the Mycenaeans). However, he never did discover the real name of these people, and, as mentioned, it remains unknown to this day—despite more than a century of continuous excavation not only at Knossos but at numerous other sites on Crete as well.
Evans uncovered numerous imports from Egypt and the Near East at Knossos, including an alabaster lid inscribed in hieroglyphs with "the good god, Seweserenre, son of Re, Khyan." Khyan, one of the best-known Hyksos kings, ruled during the early years of the sixteenth century BC. His objects have been found across the ancient Near East, but how this lid got to Crete is still a mystery.
Of additional interest is an Egyptian alabaster vase found many years later during another archaeologist's excavation in a tomb at the site of Katsamba on Crete, one of the port cities on the north coast related to Knossos. It is inscribed with the royal name of Pharaoh Thutmose III: "the good god Men-kheper-Re, son of Re, Thutmose perfect in transformations." It is one of the only objects bearing his name to be found in the Aegean.