An Egyptian Game of Thrones?

The Second Intermediate Period

Ancient Egypt had periods of political instability, in which different factions vied for control, not unlike the drama seen in Game of Thrones.

Written by Arianna Sacco on 29 January 2018

When we imagine ancient Egypt, we think about its powerful rulers and its treasures. In particular, we imagine ancient Egypt as a unified country. But that wasn’t always the case. In certain periods, known as “Intermediate Periods”, the country was divided into different smaller areas, each with its own ruler or ruling faction.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic of these periods is the Second Intermediate Period. This is the period separating the Middle Kingdom from the New Kingdom. The latter period is well known for its powerful kings, such as Tuthankhamun and Ramesses the Great. Chronologically, the Second Intermediate Period is a little hard to pin down, but it started roughly in the second half of the nineteenth century BC and ended in ca. 1550 BC. During this period, the country was fractured both politically and culturally.

An age of division

The Second Intermediate Period can be divided into two main phases. During the first phase, the Thirteenth Dynasty lost its authority over the whole country. Its power was henceforth limited to southern Egypt. In the eastern Delta, the Fourteenth Dynasty took control. They may also have exerted control over other parts of the Delta. There is some debate whether or not the Fourteenth Dynasty consisted of Egyptians or people of Levantine origin.

During the second phase of the Second Intermediate Period, foreigners from the Levant ruled the eastern Nile Delta. Their power may have extended into other parts of the Delta and even into Middle Egypt. These rulers are referred to as the Fifteenth Dynasty in the numbering scheme devised in later times. These rulers were also known as the Hyksos, a term derived from the title held by the first kings of this dynasty and a Hellenized form of the Egyptian phrase Hekau Khasut, which means “Rulers of Foreign Lands”.

A map of Egypt down to the first cataract (at Aswan). The darker areas show more fertile soil, around the oases and the Nile River. Note the locations of Avaris (in the Delta) and Thebes (in Upper Egypt, down south).

At the same time other dynasties, conventionally known as the Sixteenth and the Seventeenth Dynasties, ruled one after another in the south, in the region around Thebes. Furthermore, another dynasty reigned in the region around Abydos, and is therefore conventionally referred to as the “Abydos Dynasty”. This dynasty is known only from archaeological finds; not all scholars agree that it actually existed. In any event, the archaeological evidence suggests that it was in control of the area of Abydos before the Seventeenth Dynasty and probably existed alongside the Sixteenth Dynasty.

The Second Intermediate Period ended when the last kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty launched a war from Thebes against the Hyksos. The Theban ruler eventually managed to conquer the capital city of the Hyksos, Avaris, and chased the “foreign” rulers from Egypt.

There are still many things unclear when it comes to the Second Intermediate Period. What were the relationships like between the different dynasties? How did these factions secure power? Scholarship in this area is awash with debate and much new research is being conducted to shed light on the political and cultural issues that faced Egypt at this time. In my own PhD research, I focus on this period and examine it from an archaeological point of view to figure out, among other things, how different regions interacted with each other.

An Egyptian Game of Thrones?

Over the course of my research into the Second Intermediate Period, I was reminded more than once of the television series Game of Thrones. In this HBO show, the story takes place in a period of political turmoil, with different kings vying for power. This political turmoil has similarities and differences with the Second Intermediate Period. By way of a diversion, I figured it would be interesting to briefly compare and contrast the dynasties of the Second Intermediate Period with those of the show, in the hope that a relatively obscure period of Egyptian history might become more recognizable to the general reader.

The Thirteenth Dynasty is comparable to House Targaryen. In Game of Thrones, the Targaryens originally ruled over the Seven Kingdoms of Westerose, before Aery II Targaryen (the Mad King) was slain and the House was exiled. Similarly, the Thirteenth Dynasty originally ruled over all of Egypt, before its power was reduced by the Fourteenth Dynasty and confined to southern Egypt. (Admittedly, we have no proof that any of the rulers of the Thirteenth Dynasty was killed by members of the Fourteenth Dynasty. Furthermore, the Thirteenth Dynasty, unlike House Targaryen, managed to hold onto some power, limited though it perhaps was.)

The upstart Fourteenth Dynasty that overthrew the Thirteenth can perhaps best be compared to House Greyjoy, who ruled the Iron Islands, a group of islands off the western coast of the continent. They are expert seafarers and constantly in rebellion against the Iron Throne, fighting for independence or even to conquer of the mainland.

Similarly, Egypt’s Fourteenth Dynasty sought and obtained independence. Like the Greyjoys, they were considered outsiders: the Greyjoys because they lived out on the islands and the Fourteenth Dynasty because they were probably of foreign (Levantine) origins. But in the show, the rebellion of the Greyjoys wasn’t very successful, while the Fourteenth Dynasty in Egypt actually managed to seize power and to restrict the previous ruling dynasty to a smaller area of the country.

This photo from 1912 shows the mummified head of the king Seqenenre Tao. He ruled over the last of the local kingdoms of the Theban region of Egypt in the Seventeenth Dynasty. The many wounds to his head make clear that he died a violent death: he was either killed while asleep, slain in battle (against the Hyksos), or executed after being captured by Hyksos.

The Fifteenth Dynasty or the Hyksos, who ruled in the north of Egypt, sort of resemble House Stark. The Starks originally ruled in the north, but without full autonomy. Similarly, it’s believed that the Hyksos were originally living in peace with the kings of the south, before the outbreak of war with the rulers of the Seventeenth Dynasty. Naturally, the Starks of the HBO show don’t have actual foreign origins. Also, in the Egyptian case, it’s the Seventeenth Dynasty that ultimately started the war against the Fifteenth. Furthermore, the Hyksos controlled the territory previously belonging to the Fourteenth Dynasty, while something similar doesn’t happen with the Starks.

The Sixteenth Dynasty reigned in the area around Thebes, taking the place of the Thirteenth Dynasty. In Game of Thrones, the Baratheons took over the Iron Throne from the Targaryens after the Mad King had been dispatched. For the Second Intermediate Period, though, It is not clear how the Sixteenth Dynasty gained power or what its relations with the Thirteenth Dynasty were.

Finally, the Seventeenth Dynasty can perhaps be compared to House Lannister. Just like the Lannisters took the throne from the Baratheons, so also the Seventeenth Dynasty took the place of the Sixteenth Dynasty in southern Egypt, especially in the area around Thebes. We don’t actually know the relations between the Sixteenth and the Seventeenth Dynasty and how the latter gained power, but we know that the last kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty went to war with the Hyksos, resulting in a war between southern and northern Egypt, with the difference that in the HBO show the war is started by the ruler in the north.

Closing thoughts

We don’t know how the story will develop and end in Game of Thrones, as the books that the final season will be based on haven’t been published yet. Nonetheless, we do know how the Second Intermediate Period ended, namely with the southern ruler defeating the Hyksos and pushing them out of Egypt. The southern king then became the ruler of Egypt as a whole, heralding the start of what we now refer to as the New Kingdom.

History can serve as a good source of inspiration for modern fiction. Of course, George R.R. Martin didn’t model Game of Thrones after Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. His sources of inspiration are more recent than that. But periods of political upheaval and of dynastic struggles are found throughout history, and especially in the ancient world. Aside from the troubles of the Second Intermediate Period, one can also examine, for example, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), or the Wars of the Successors after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC).

But ancient Egypt is often thought of as a unified country that changes little over the course of more than three millennia. With this article, I hope to have shown to a wider audience that there periods in which Egypt was politically and culturally fractured. And by couching these developments in terms familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones, I hope to have made this remote piece of history a bit more relatable.