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300px|thumbnail|left|Modern Recreation of an Ancient Egyptian Relief Depicting the Races of Man Known to the Egyptians – From Right to Left: Egyptian, Canaanite/Asiatic, Nubian, and Four Different Libyan Chieftains]]__NOTOC__
The ancient Egyptians were quite conscious of the cultural differences between them and their three closest neighbors – the Canaanites, Nubians, and Libyans. Although the Egyptians, for the most part, were xenophobic toward these peoples and almost always depicted them negatively in art and texts, there is little doubt that they influenced the course of pharaonic history.
For their oases settlements and camps in the Western/Sahara Desert, the Libyans were in contact with the Egyptians from the start of the Egyptian state around 3,100 BC and continued to be well into the period of Greek and Roman domination. The relationship between the Libyans and Egyptian was usually acrimonious, with warfare being endemic, especially during Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1075 BC). With that said, there were periods of peaceful interaction and trade between the two peoples, and since there was never any unified Libyan state, warfare and trade were at the time simultaneous. Eventually, due to largescale Libyan migration into the Egyptian Delta for reasons that are still unclear, the Libyans became rulers over parts of Egypt with their kings adopting the styles and nomenclature of legitimate Egyptian pharaohs. For these reasons, the Libyans probably had more impact, and certainly the most enduring, on ancient Egypt than any other foreign people.
As stated above, the ancient Libyans never had a central government, and instead of being one homogenous group they were a collection of various tribes who shared many cultural features. The ancient Egyptians had many different names for them and modern scholars define them simply as the ancient people of the Western Desert. <ref> Snape, Steven. “The Emergence of Libya on the Horizon of Egypt.” In <i>Mysterious Lands.</i> Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London, University College London Press, 2003), pgs. 94-95</ref> Culturally, the ancient Libyans were pastoral people who herded their cattle from oasis to oasis and sometimes to the coast. In their art, the Egyptians usually depicted the Libyans with light complexions and sometimes with blue eyes, but almost always with dark hair and often with their herds. It may be the Libyans’ herding background that played a role in their often negative representations in Egyptian art, as the Egyptians were a sedentary people who viewed desert-dwelling nomads as chaotic. <ref> David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. “Introduction: Mapping the Unknown in Ancient Egypt.” In <i>Mysterious Lands.</i> Edited by David O’Connor and Stephen Quirke. (London, University College London Press, 2003), p. 17</ref>
It is unknown today actually how many Libyan tribes there were in ancient times, but Egyptian texts identify four major groups. The Tjehenu and Tjemehu were the most important tribes during ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca. 2575-1640 BC), but they were, for the most part, eclipsed and replaced by the Libu and Meshwesh tribes just before the New Kingdom. Overall, the Egyptians’ representation of the Libyans varied slightly between the Old and New Kingdoms, although the basics were usually similar. It was almost always only men who were depicted, usually with long hair, light complexions, and wearing phallus sheaths. <ref> Wainwright, G. A. “The Meshwesh.” <i>Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.</i> 48 (1962) p. 91</ref> By the New Kingdom, the Egyptians portrayed the Libyans with some light complexions but wearing full beards and elaborate gowns and headdresses. <ref> O’Connor and Quirke, p. 17</ref>
Egypt’s New Kingdom was a period of imperial power and great material wealth, and it was also the time when the Egyptians and Libyans engaged in more regular contact with each other. Two new Libyan tribes came to prominence during this period, who would leave the most enduring impacts on Egypt. The first of the new Libyan tribes to enter the historical record during the New Kingdom was known as the Meshwesh or Ma. This tribe was first mentioned in Egyptian texts during the rule of the pharaoh Amenhotep III (ruled ca. 1403-1364 BC). <ref> Snape, p. 98</ref> Not long after the Meshwesh appeared, they were joined by another Libyan tribe known as the Libu, which is where it is believed the modern name of Libya is derived. <ref> Redford, Donald. <i>Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times.</i> (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 247</ref> The bellicose Libu, who were usually depicted with their hair cut at the nape and often tattooed, probably entered the scene a little later than the Meshwesh but left an equally deep impact on Egypt. <ref> Leahy, Anthony. “The Libyan Period in Egypt: An Essay in Interpretation.” <i>Libyan Studies.</i> 16 (1985) p. 55</ref>
Unlike the Nubians, who possessed rich gold deposits in their land, the Libyans had few resources the Egyptians desired. Cattle was the lifeblood of the Libyan people, but there is little evidence that they ever traded their livestock to the Egyptians. Instead, the Libyans probably traded more exotic goods to their more refined neighbors, such as ostrich feathers and eggs and the eatable plant silphium. <ref> Richardson, pgs. 151-3</ref> Although there was some peaceful trade between the Libyans and Egyptians, their relationship was mainly defined by war and invasion.
During ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom, from 1300 to 1170 BC, the Libyans invaded Egypt five times. But before, during, and after those invasions, the Libyans had already begun migrating to Egypt <i>en masse</i> as tribes and family units, usually to the Delta region. The reason, or reasons, for the migration remain unclear, but some modern scholars believe it may have been precipitated by a severe drought in Libya that affected the Libyans ability to live as they had for centuries. <ref> Leahy, p. 53</ref> Whatever the causes, when the Libyans migrated into Egypt they came as both settlers and warriors.
The Libyans returned in force, though, during the reign of Ramesses III. The Egyptian king was saddled with a similar problem that Merenptah faced – invasions from both the Libyans and Sea Peoples. During Ramesses III’s fifth year of rule, a Libyan chieftain named Themer led a coalition of Meshwesh and Tjemehu Libyans in an unsuccessful attack into the Nile Valley. <ref> Breasted, Volume 4, The Twentieth through the Twenty-sixth Dynasties, pgs. 23-24</ref> Another Libyan army returned in Ramesses III’s eleventh year but was repulsed when the Meshwesh turned and attacked the Libyan Tjehenu tribe. <ref> Breasted, Volume 4, p. 52 </ref> Although Ramesses III successfully repulsed both the Sea Peoples and Libyans, the damage had already been done. The Libyans had been migrating to Egypt for generations and would soon change the political complexion of the land.
The Libyan migrations and invasions were one of the major reasons for the collapse of Egypt’s New Kingdom. The native Egyptians lost control over the Delta and most of Lower (northern) Egypt but held onto power around the city of Thebes in the south. The Libyans eventually came to dominate the Delta region so much that they established their regional dynasties throughout much of Egypt outside of Thebes: The Twenty-Second, Twenty-Third, and Twenty-Fourth Dynasties were all descended from Libyan tribes, namely the Meshwesh/Ma, and were connected culturally. Unlike earlier periods in Egyptian history where one dynasty would rule the entire land, the Libyan dynasties often ruled only portions of the country simultaneously. It was truly a period of political fragmentation in ancient Egypt. <ref> Kuhrt, Amélie. <i>The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC.</i> (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 623</ref>
The Libyan kings of the Twenty-Second Dynasty, in particular, paved the way for the later Libyans to be accepted as Egyptians by marrying into the native Egyptian Twenty-First Dynasty, which led to them being reluctantly accepted by the powerful priests of Thebes. <ref> Kitchen, Kenneth. <i>The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt: (1100 to 650 BC).</i> Second Edition. (Warminster, United Kingdom: Aris and Phillips, 1995), p. 288</ref> The kings of the Twenty-Second Dynasty would renew trade with the Phoenician city of Byblos and were the contemporaries of King Solomon of Israel (reigned ca. 971-931), is mentioned in 1 Kings: 11-12. <ref> Kitchen, p. 292</ref> Although the Twenty-Second Dynasty collapsed and the Libyans were toppled from power by the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, descendants of the Libyans made their impact felt one last in Egypt when the Libyan descended Twenty-Sixth Dynasty came to power in the Delta city of Sais.
The ancient Libyans had a long and complicated relationship with the Egyptians. For most of their history, they were one of Egypt’s traditional enemies, but during that time they occasionally engaged in peaceful trade with their more powerful and advanced neighbor. Over time, as waves of Libyans began migrating into the Nile Valley and Delta, the Libyans were able to affect the political structure of Egypt, eventually installing their dynasties throughout the country. Because of these reasons, one can argue that the Libyans impacted ancient Egyptian history more than any other non-Egyptian people.