Libyans in Egypt.

I’m on the final section of Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, one of the best histories of a country I’ve ever read (see this post from a few weeks ago), and I wanted to quote this passage on the incursion of the Libyans during and after the ignoble collapse of the New Kingdom; it ends with an interesting bit on linguistic change:

Under Ramesses III, the battles against the Libyans in 1182 and 1176 had been nowhere near as conclusive as the official propaganda had suggested. Behind all the triumphalism, the authorities had felt it necessary to fortify temples on the west bank of the Nile, including the king’s own Mansion of Millions of Years, with its valuable treasuries and granaries. Despite the Egyptians’ best endeavors, the Libyans who had been repelled from the western delta had simply turned southward to infiltrate the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt. The frequent attacks on Thebes during the later Ramesside Period showed the Libyans’ determination and persistence. Ramesses III had also boasted of forcing thousands of Libyan prisoners to “cross the river, bringing them to Egypt,” where they were settled in fortified camps (“strongholds of the victorious king”), branded with the pharaoh’s name, and forcibly acculturated: “He makes their speech disappear and changes their tongues, so that they set out on a path they have not gone down before.” Yet the integration had often been only superficial, and sizeable concentrations of Libyans around the entrance to the Fayum and along the edges of the western delta had resolutely hung on to their ethnic identity, forming distinctive communities within the local Egyptian population. By the reign of Ramesses V, a land survey of Middle Egypt noted a substantial proportion of people with foreign names. The Libyans were by now well ensconced. A generation later, a boisterous community that had settled in the central delta near the town of Per-hebit (modern Behbeit el-Hagar) was causing the Egyptian authorities particular concern. During the course of the Ramesside Period, Egypt had unintentionally become a country of two cultures, in which a large ethnic minority made its presence increasingly felt.

Of all the country’s institutions, the army had felt the impact of Libyan immigration most acutely. The Egyptian military had a long and proud tradition of employing foreign mercenaries, and had therefore proved a natural, and popular, career choice for many Libyan settlers. Whether manning remote desert garrisons or fighting on campaign, Libyan soldiers had served their adopted country with loyalty and distinction throughout the second half of the Twentieth Dynasty. Moreover, some of the more ambitious Libyan soldiers had been able to secure themselves positions of considerable influence at the heart of Egyptian government. Two such individuals were Paiankh and Herihor, the military strongmen who headed the Theban junta in the dying days of Ramesses XI’s reign.

By 1069, Libyans in Egypt had not only achieved high office, they stood ready to assume the government itself. […] For the next four hundred years, Egypt was dominated by Libyan power brokers, a dramatic twist of fate that had a profound effect on every aspect of society. Although the earliest of these alien rulers, men such as Herihor and Nesbanebdjedet, sported traditionally pious Egyptian names (with their references to Horus and the ram god of Djedet), such outward trappings of pharaonic decorum were an illusion. Beneath a thin veil of tradition, non-Egyptian features flourished. In the predominantly Libyan areas of the delta, local dignitaries openly wore traditional Libyan feather decorations in their hair as a proud marker of their ethnic origin, and Libyan chiefly titles made a comeback. Once the Libyan generals had gained power after the death of Ramesses XI, their kinsmen had even less cause to integrate with the host population, and within a few generations many families reverted to giving their children unashamedly Libyan names that were strange-sounding to the Egyptians, names such as Osorkon, Shoshenq, Iuput, Nimlot, and Takelot. With such a strong sense of their own identity, generations of inhabitants of the western delta regarded themselves as Libyans, not Egyptians—a phenomenon still prevalent enough to be remarked upon by the Greek historian Herodotus five centuries later.

Together with the appearance of Libyan names in official inscriptions, the Egyptian language began to show other signs of the foreigners’ influence. Ever since the Middle Kingdom, written Egyptian carved into temple walls in finely executed hieroglyphs had preserved the classic form of the language. Vernacular spoken Egyptian, by contrast, had diverged a long way from this “pure” written form, to the point where the two versions were practically different dialects. While this posed no problem for native Egyptian scribes schooled in the classical script, it must have been a considerable impediment to the Libyan bureaucrats and priests who now ran the country. For them, mastering one form of Egyptian was quite enough. As a result, official inscriptions of the Libyan Period show a marked preference for spoken forms, workaday grammar, and simple vocabulary, in contrast to the more refined formulations of the ruling class.

I knew vaguely that Libyans had frequently attacked Egypt, but all the details were completely new to me.


  1. Fascinating – thanks for posting this!

    The Libyans are generally assumed to have spoken a language related to Berber, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual evidence on the subject.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, thanks!

    I assume the onomastic evidence from Egypt has been used well beyond its worth already?

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    I was under the impression that the change from Middle Egyptian to (actually writing) Late Egyptian was a New Kingdom thing, i.e. several centuries earlier than can be attributed to Libyans not being able to cope with the old written forms.

    The change from Middle Egyptian to Late is profound; it marks the biggest shift in the language over its four-thousand year career. It would have been no easier for a native Egyptian speaker of even the Amarna period to write proper Middle Egyptian than for a mediaeval Italian to write Latin. The business about Libyans and language seems to be confusing several different things, not only involving changes in the Egyptian language over time which were already well advanced at that point, but questions of elevated style vs common. If you’re carving hieroglyphs on a temple wall you’ll use a much more archaic style than if you’re writing a love song on a bit of papyrus (or you’ll hire somebody else to do it for you if your own classical education isn’t up to it.)

  4. I have had that book sitting on my shelves for years, saw it just last night as it happens, and thought, I should either read this or let go of it and let someone else have a crack at it. Thanks for this post–now I know I should give it a go!

  5. Michael Eochaidh says:

    Toby Wilkinson also has a book with selected translations, Writings from Ancient Egypt, which is worthwhile. I’ve kind of jumped around and I think I’ve read about half the book, though.

  6. Sounds interesting, thanks for the tip!

  7. Bill W. says:

    I’m reading Wilkinson’s book on your recommendation, and so far I haven’t been disappointed.


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