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How Did the Libyans Impact Ancient Egypt

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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 were 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>
Both the Meshwesh and Libu were more culturally sophisticated than the other Libyan tribes to the point where they sometimes traded with the Egyptians as somewhat equal partners. <ref> Snape, p.98</ref> Although the Libyans had no real cities and had far less material wealth than the Egyptians, a system of trade developed between the two peoples. When Ramesses II (reigned ca. 1290-1224 BC) built a series of forts on Egypt’s border on the Western Desert, the initial purpose was to keep the invading Meshwesh and Libu tribes from entering Egypt, but some of these forts became trading posts. Just like the Egyptian forts in Nubia, some of the forts in the Western Desert, such as the fort near the modern town of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakkam, became centers where friendly Libyans offered their wares for Egyptian goods. <ref> Snape, p. 103. </ref> Archaeological evidence also indicates that the Libyan settlement near the modern coastal city of Mars Matruh was a point of sometimes peaceful contact between Libyans and Egyptians. <ref> Richardson, Seth. “Libya Domestica: Libyan trade and Society on the Eve of the Invasion of Egypt.” <i>Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.</i> 48 (1962) p. 91</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.

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