After they expelled the foreign rulers (the Hyksos) from Egypt, the kings of Dynasty 18 became aware of a need for a national army. Prior to this, there had been no standing army: whenever the king decided to fight or launch campaigns, his district governors simply conscripted peasants from the local population. However, the kings now recognized the need to maintain a standing army so that they could foil any future attempted invasions. The earliest rulers of Dynasty 18 therefore set out to organize an army on a national basis, manned by officers who were professional soldiers.
This standing army was probably started by King Amosis I. He and his immediate predecessors had successfully driven the Hyksos from Egypt, and he completed the task by pushing them back into southern Palestine where he finally subdued them so that they could not regroup and return to Egypt. He also dealt with an insurrection in Nubia. With Egypt’s northern and southern borders secured, Amosis I’s successors were now ready to conquer foreign lands and establish an Egyptian empire.
Some evidence about military expeditions and campaigns comes from scenes and inscriptions on tomb and temple walls. The most significant account of the expulsion of the Hyksos is preserved in an autobiographical account inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Ahmose, son of Ebana, at El Kab. The text relates events in the life and career of Ahmose, a professional soldier who fought against the Hyksos and was rewarded by the king. Following this, he accompanied the king to Sharuhen in Palestine, where again the army was successful:
‘Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His Majesty despoiled it and I brought booty away from it: two women and a hand [i.e., the hand of a slaughtered captive]. Then the gold of favour [i.e., a royal reward] was awarded to me, and my captives were given to me as slaves.’ (The Autobiography of Ahmose, Son of Ebana. Author’s translation)
This inscription also provides information about Ahmose’s illustrious career: at first, he served on board a ship, but when King Amosis became aware of his ability, he had him transferred to take part in military action against the Hyksos:
‘Now when I had established a household [that is, he had married], I was taken to the ship ‘Northern’ on account of my bravery. I followed the ruler on foot when he rode around in his chariot. When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in His Majesty’s presence.’ (The Autobiography of Ahmose, Son of Ebana.)
Once the Hyksos problem had been resolved, Ahmose accompanied the king to Nubia on a campaign to put down a local insurrection. He continued his career under the kings who succeeded Amosis I – Amenhotep I and Tuthmosis I – and took part in these rulers’ Nubian campaigns to subdue local rebellions. Finally, he accompanied Tuthmosis I’s campaign to the River Euphrates in northern Syria, a military action which was part of Egypt’s new strategy to establish an empire.
Ahmose was rewarded with promotion to the rank of ‘Commander of the Crew’, and received a royal gift of land in his hometown of El Kab. His career was typical of the new professional soldier: promoted from the ranks, he spent his whole life in the armed forces, serving a succession of rulers. Ultimately, the king rewarded his loyalty and ability with a high-level position and considerable wealth, which he was able to pass on to his family. His grandson, Paheri, eventually built the best tomb at El Kab, and became mayor of two towns.
In the early part of Dynasty 18, Egyptian rulers were primarily concerned with establishing their power in Syria/Palestine. At the beginning of this dynasty, ethnic movements in the Near East had created a power vacuum, and a new kingdom – Mitanni – had established itself in the land of Naharin, situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The population of Mitanni consisted of a ruling aristocracy of Indo-Aryan origin, and the Hurrians – people who had branched out in c.2300 BCE from their original homeland situated south of the Caspian Sea.
The Mitannians were one of the most powerful enemies that Egypt faced in Dynasty 18, although eventually the two countries became allies. The Egyptians wanted to set their own northern boundary at the Euphrates, so when Mitanni first began to push southwards, this led to direct conflict. Northern Syria became the main focus of Egypt’s campaigns and the most significant arena of warfare. However, the princedoms and city-states which occupied Palestine and the rest of Syria at this time were also drawn into the conflict; although they presented no cohesive threat to Egypt or Mitanni, both sides tried to coerce them into becoming vassal states.
Amenhotep I left no record of his military activities in this area, although he may have taken preliminary actions which laid the foundations for Tuthmosis I’s new, aggressive policy. Tuthmosis I, the first Egyptian king to launch a major offensive in Syria, led an expedition across the Euphrates into Naharin, where he set up a commemorative stela. His army killed many of the enemy and took others as prisoners before it returned home through Syria, where the king celebrated his success by organizing an elephant hunt at Niy. Wall inscriptions in tombs at El Kab belonging to Ahmose, and a relative, Ahmose Pennekheb, provide details of the roles these men played in the campaign.
Tuthmosis I also fought in Nubia, extending Egypt’s power as far as the region of the Fourth Cataract, where he built new fortresses. He established control over an area that stretched from this part of Nubia to the Euphrates in the north – the ultimate limits of Egypt’s empire. His policies were continued by his son, Tuthmosis II, who campaigned in Palestine and overthrew a rebellion in Nubia, but it was his grandson, Tuthmosis III, who ensured that Egypt became the greatest military power in the region.
Since Tuthmosis III acceded to the throne as a minor, his stepmother Hatshepsut had the opportunity to seize power and, for a time, she ruled in his stead. During Hatshepsut’s reign, some city-states in Syria/Palestine had formed alliances with the Mitannians, while others declared themselves independent of Egypt’s influence. However, once Tuthmosis III established himself on the throne, he wasted no time in reasserting Egypt’s supremacy. In Year 23 (the first year of his independent reign), he mounted a campaign against Mitanni and a coalition of city-states led by the Prince of Kadesh, a city on the River Orontes. The Egyptian armies were able to capture the city of Megiddo, a victory which formed the basis for future expansion in Syria/Palestine.
Tuthmosis III sent a further sixteen campaigns to Syria over the next twenty years, which successfully sacked the city of Kadesh twice, and crossed the Euphrates to penetrate deep into Naharin. In the eighth campaign, which took place in Year 33, the Egyptians resoundingly defeated the Mitannians, but despite some significant successes there was no outright winner in this contest and, ultimately, the two powers were forced to recognize that neither would ever win a conclusive victory. Therefore, towards the end of Dynasty 18, they changed their policies and became allies. Tuthmosis III also reasserted Egypt’s control of Nubia, leading campaigns as far south as the Fourth Cataract. His excellent strategies and well-executed campaigns ensured that he is now appropriately recognized as Egypt’s greatest military ruler.
Wall inscriptions in some temples preserve historical accounts of military exploits undertaken by kings of the New Kingdom.6 However, these often provide propagandist versions of events, their main aim being to record the pharaoh’s glory and battle prowess. The campaigns of Tuthmosis III are described in wall-scenes and inscriptions found in the Temple of Karnak, and on two stelae: one comes from Armant, and the other was set up in the king’s temple at Napata (Gebel Barkal), near the Fourth Cataract. Taken together, these literary sources provide sufficient information for Egyptologists to reconstruct some events in Tuthmosis III’s campaigns.
One of the Karnak records, carved on the walls of two halls situated behind the Sixth Pylon in the temple, is known as The Annals. These provided a factual account of Tuthmosis III’s annual campaigns; they give most information about the first one, and the others are recounted more briefly. Another inscriptional source, the so-called Poetical Stela of Tuthmosis III, was placed in a court in the same temple. This hymn of triumph, written in terms of a speech given by the god Amen-Re, also recounts the king’s victories.
According to these sources, the king’s campaigns were all successful. The Annals relate how his first campaign was undertaken in the fourth month of winter; he set out through Palestine, and by the first month of summer had reached Gaza. He took this city and then marched to Megiddo where a group of princes, led by the ruler of the city of Kadesh, awaited him. Through his own great personal valour and clever tactics, the king achieved victory and the enemy was routed, but this was followed by a seven-month siege of Megiddo. The Annals go on to describe the preparations his army took before attacking the city.
An important feature of Tuthmosis III’s military strategy was subjugation and provisioning of harbours along the Palestine/Syria coast; this was undertaken in order to support his campaigns in the hinterland. The inscriptions relate that, in the sixth campaign, some of the Egyptian forces were transported by ship to the Palestine/Syria coastal area. In the seventh campaign, Tuthmosis III sailed along the coastal cities, proceeding from one harbour to the next; he subdued and equipped them with provisions which would support his army’s actions in the hinterland. Inspecting and supplying the harbours became a regular feature of Egyptian warfare.
Tuthmosis III’s eighth campaign, which he undertook in Year 33, made use of boats to cross the River Euphrates and defeat the Mitannians. According to the Gebel Barkal Stela, these vessels were built every year at Byblos. They formed part of the annual tribute that Byblos, a vassal-city, paid to Egypt. These measures ensured that Egypt, although deficient in its native wood supplies, was still able to build up an adequate fleet. However, on the eighth campaign, the boats were not sent by sea from Byblos to Egypt; instead, they were transported overland to the Euphrates on wheeled wagons drawn by oxen.