Egypt's Attitude Towards Foreigners
Editor’s Preface: The Torah uses Israel’s tradition of having been strangers in Egypt as a reason for Israelites to be kind to strangers in their own land:
שמות כג:ט וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
Exod 23:9 You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
דברים י:יט וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
Deut 10:19 You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The Torah also describes Egyptians as having contempt for strangers. In the Joseph story, for instance, we hear that the Egyptian officials will not eat with Joseph’s brothers:
בראשית מג:לבוַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ ל֛וֹ לְבַדּ֖וֹ וְלָהֶ֣ם לְבַדָּ֑ם וְלַמִּצְרִ֞ים הָאֹכְלִ֤ים אִתּוֹ֙ לְבַדָּ֔ם כִּי֩ לֹ֨א יוּכְל֜וּן הַמִּצְרִ֗ים לֶאֱכֹ֤ל אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִים֙ לֶ֔חֶם כִּי תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם:
Gen 43:32 They served him (=Joseph) by himself, and them (=the brothers) by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.
What does Egyptian culture suggest about its attitude toward foreigners?
The King Protects Egypt from Foreigners
In ancient Egypt, the attitude towards foreigners varied depending on context. In the official royal ideology, the foreigner was a symbol of chaos (isfet) and the king had to actively destroy chaos to preserve order (ma’at). In depictions that embody this idea, the king hits foreigners over the head with a mace on the exterior of temple walls. Anyone who had the luxury of being in the presence of the king would see him take part in a kind of sympathetic magic in which foreigners were depicted captive and bound on palatial tiles, footstools, throne bases and the royal dais. Just by sitting on his throne the king was actively crushing images of the foreigner.
Another example, on one pair of king Tutankhamun’s sandals a pair of foreigners, a Levantine and Nubian, were depicted on the inner sole of the shoe. Every step the king took he was trampling his foreign enemies. This idea of royal dominion is best summarized in the ancient Egyptian phrase “every foreign land is under your (the king’s) sandals.”
Foreigners as Animals: Egyptian Ideology
Elite and probably even non-elite Egyptians would have been aware of the “foreigner as chaos” concept propagated by the king. In this mode, not only was the foreigner insulted in the literature as “vile” or “wretched,” but also in imagery, they were visually interchangeable with animals.
In the decoration on a box from the tomb of king Tutankhamun, the king takes down both foreigners and animals alike with hunting dogs, thus making a visual metaphor that there was little difference between foreigner and animal in Egyptian royal ideology. This internal, royal, Egyptian narrative was assuredly hostile to foreigners. However, at least in the New Kingdom, the king’s actual relationship with foreign countries and foreign kings tells a different story.
Foreign Nations as Brothers: Realpolitik
In the Late Bronze Age, which corresponds with the Egyptian New Kingdom (1550-1077 BCE), Egyptian kings formed close relationships with foreign kings in the Levant. During this time period the most powerful kings around the known world called each other “brother,” and engaged in a system of diplomacy sending relatives to intermarry and delegations bearing lavish exotic gifts.
Such a political parity was necessary to maintain relative regional stability, access to trade routes, and luxury goods. This system was one of mutual reciprocity, where the Egyptian king viewed foreign kings with respect. Surely when the foreign dignitaries arrived with gifts to the Egyptian king, they were treated with dignity, even though the hall of the palace where they were greeted was decorated with images of Levantines and Nubians bound and trampled by the king.
Egyptologists call the images of gift-giving delegations “tribute images,” and they are found depicted on tomb walls of the ancient Egyptian elite. Such scenes do not indicate any sort of reciprocity on behalf of the Egyptian king, foreigners in these images ask the king for “the breath of life,” an Egyptian concept that foreigners did not believe in. The foreigners from these tomb paintings are shown in the same way the ancient Egyptians are depicted when they bring offerings for tomb owners or the king, except they wear foreign clothing and coiffure and bring exotic, elaborate luxury items. Like the goods being carried, Egyptians would have viewed foreign tribute bearers with awe and interest.
Foreignness as Inferior Culture
When foreigners were interacting with Egyptians in more ordinary, everyday circumstances, it is likely that they would have been considered somewhat inferior because they were not Egyptian. Being “Egyptian” meant speaking, behaving, dressing, and thinking like an Egyptian. However, outside of the official ideological representation and association with chaos, the foreigner would have likely met with little problems if they chose the path of assimilation.
We know of at least two individuals from the New Kingdom who assimilated successfully: Benja and Heqanefer. In the tomb of Benja, no other evidence besides his name and the time he spent in a royal nursery indicates that he is from the Levant. In his tomb, he is depicted as completely Egyptian, and his parents who might not have even traveled to Egypt, are also represented as Egyptians.
The tomb of Heqanefer is even more intriguing. He is rendered in his own tomb as an Egyptian. However, in the tomb of the Egyptian official Huy, he is depicted as distinctly different from the Egyptians in the tomb. There he is rendered as Nubian through his different skin color, hair, feather, and attire.
These two examples show the distinct wish of those who were upwardly mobile not to be associated with the representations that perpetuated imperialistic propaganda that equated foreigners with chaos. This refusal of foreigners to depict themselves as the “other” is a visual indicator of their rejection of the imposed stereotypes ascribed to foreigners by the Egyptian power structure.
Nebamun and His Respected Levantine Visiters
The tomb of Nebamun, however, shows a Levantine family visiting the tomb owner in one of the focal walls. The Levantine is seated, a position of honor, and is offered a drink. He and his wife are dressed in elite Levantine attire. The foreign guest wears a white galebeya (a long sleeved gown) with blue edging and a filet adorning his shoulder length hair. His wife wears a flounced four-tiered dress and shawl, and she has her arm around him in an Egyptian pose indicating affection. This demonstrates that elite Egyptians did not necessarily view actual foreigners as embodiments of chaos when those foreigners were of the upper echelon of their own society. If these foreigners were images of chaos they would not have been given pride of place in Nebamun’s tomb.
Status of Foreigners Varies
The way that the Egyptians perceived individual foreigners was likely related to the status of the foreigner. In reality, foreigners contributed to the Egyptian society through a variety of manners, from labor and trade to administrators in the royal bureaucracy. Foreigners could be adopted (a fate echoed in the story of baby Moses) and raised in households of the elite, and Levantine rulers sent their children to be raised in the royal nursery where they would be life-long friends of the king, a political maneuver made by the king to ensure loyalty and influence over foreign kingdoms.
New Kingdom Egypt was a cosmopolitan heterogeneous society where foreigners were enmeshed with the population at all strata’s of society. While the concept of “foreigner” within a royal ideological context was certainly negative, there is proof that individual foreigners did not experience such disdain when interacting with the Egyptian elite. In life, non-Egyptians were likely met with curiosity and apprehensiveness that could eventually turn into friendship and mutual respect.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 18, 2016
January 2, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Flora Brooke Anthony is Assistant Professor (PT) at Kennesaw State University. She received her Ph.D. in Art History from Emory University, having majored in ancient Egyptian art with a minor in ancient Greek art. She also holds a master's degree from the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis. She is the author of Foreigners in Ancient Egypt: Theban Tomb Paintings from the Early Eighteenth Dynasty (2016).
Essays on Related Topics: