Nekau II Wahemibre (610-595 BC): confrontation with Babylonia

Saitic Egyptian 660BC-525BC & 405BC-335BC


The last Egyptian pharaoh of any significance (not counting the “pharaohs” during the Ptolemaic period), he was the second ruler of the XXVIth dynasty, the last native dynasty of ancient Egypt.


Sais was originally one of several small Assyrian client kingdoms in lower Egypt, but came to be favoured over the others, and Necho I died loyally fighting for Assyria against the Kushites. When the Assyrians withdrew from Egypt in the 650’s, Sais took over under Psamtik I. According to Herodotos, the native Egyptian warrior caste comprised, at its maximum, 250,000 Calasiries and 160,000 Hermotybies, supported by land grants. 1,000 of each served as the royal bodyguard, each man serving for a year on a rota basis, during which he received, in addition to his existing land grant, a daily ration of bread, beef and wine. However, increasing numbers of Greek mercenaries were used, the initial contingent possibly being sent by Gyges of Lydia to assist Psamtik. Saitic Egyptian infantry formed in separate dense bodies of spearmen and archers. Chariots had become heavier than in the New Kingdom and more suitable for shock action, and cavalry had taken over skirmishing and scouting.

NEKAU II (reigned 610-595 BC).

Pharaoh of the 26th Dynasty, son of Psamtik I. Shortly after his accession, Nekau continued the campaign initiated by Psamtik I in western Asia. The biblical Book of Kings (2 Kings 23:29-35) records Nekau’s interference in the affairs of Judah and the immense power he was able to exert in western Asia. Leading his army to the aid of Ashur-uballit II, king of Assyria, Nekau killed Josiah of Judah en route at the battle of Megiddo (609 BC). Josiah was succeeded by his son Jehoahaz, but three months later, Nekau replaced him with his brother Jehoiakim. Jehoahaz was taken to Egypt and Judah forced to pay tribute. The collapse of the Assyrian empire had created a power-vacuum in western Asia, and Nekau clearly tried to take advantage of this. In 606 BC, the Egyptian army besieged Kimuhu, near Carchemish; later the same year, the Babylonian forces were defeated at Quramati. The Egyptians were, however, defeated by the Babylonians, led by Crown Prince Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in 605. He then defeated a second Egyptian army at Hamath.

The death of Nabopolassar and accession of Nebuchadnezzar II brought a brief respite for Egypt, while the new king consolidated his power in Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar launched his attack on Egypt in 601 BC. There was a battle close to the fortress of Migdol, but there were heavy casualties on both sides and the Babylonians withdrew. Nekau followed the Babylonian retreat and was able to recapture Gaza. Following the confrontation, Nekau dedicated his armor in the temple of Apollo at Didyma, on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor. It seems likely that Nekau had employed mercenaries from this region. The continued activity of the Babylonian armies in western Asia deterred Nekau from further campaigns.

In the later part of his reign, Nekau probably launched an expedition against Kush. A fragmentary inscription from Aswan refers to a fleet sailing into Nubia. One can only speculate that the Kushite kings had taken advantage of Nekau’s Asiatic ambitions to make advances into Lower Nubia, or even Upper Egypt. Apart from some follow-up campaigns by his successor Psamtik II, Nekau’s reign marks the final attempt by the 26th Dynasty pharaohs to rebuild Egypt’s old empire and influence in western Asia. Nekau’s considerable successes were finally frustrated by the military superiority of the Babylonians. Nekau is also supposed to have commissioned a Phoenician fleet to circumnavigate Africa. Further naval interests are shown by the cutting of the canal along the Wadi Tumilat to the Red Sea. The canal, which might not have been completed, added a further defense on the eastern border, with the fortress at Tell elMaskhuta. The canal was enlarged by Darius I.

Confrontation with Babylonia

The support for Assyria and expansion into Palestine continued in the reign of Nekau II, Psamtik I’s son and successor. Therefore, Nekau II marched northward to assist his Assyrian allies and to extend Egyptian control over the Levant. In 605 BC the Egyptians fought and extended their control in Syria, but they were defeated in the battle of Carchemish by the Babylonians. The Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) stopped Egypt from gaining control over the Levant and Egypt was restricted to its own borders. The Babylonian forces secured dominion over Hamath, the Aramean States/Damascus, Philistia and all the kings of western Asia became Babylonian vassals (including Judah for three years, 603-601; cf. 2 Kings 24:1). In his fourth year (601/600) Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, but his army was crushed near Migdol by Nekau II, who occupied Gaza (Herodotus, II, 159; cf. Jer. 47:1b) and persuaded the Judean king to revolt. In his seventh year, Nebuchadnezzar campaigned against Judah and conquered Jerusalem in March, 597, appointing Zedekiah as king. At that time Nekau had evacuated Gaza. When Josiah, king of the kingdom of Judah (Mamlekhet Yehuda), tried to stop the advancing Egyptian army, he was killed in a battle at Megiddo in 609 BC. However, there is no mention of this event in Assyrian and Egyptian sources. The biblical accounts (II Kings 23: 29-30; II Chronicles 35: 20-5) mention the attempt of Josiah, king of Judah, to be in the way of an Egyptian advance to the Euphrates. The fighting armies met at Megiddo. As a result, in 609 BC Josiah, was killed and his army was defeated. The son of Josiah, Jehoahaz, succeeded his father on the throne, however three months later Nekau II replaced him by with another son of Josiah from the Davidic line, his brother Jehoiakim (his throne name) or Eliakim (608-598 BC), who became a loyal Egyptian vassal and then Nekau II took Jehoahaz captive to Egypt and Judah paid tribute to Egypt.

When the Babylonians attacked the Egyptian eastern frontier, the king of Judah, Jehoiakim, became a Babylonian vassal, however, the Babylonians never succeeded in conquering Egypt and they withdrew. According to the Babylonian Chronicle, late in 610 BC the king of Assyria, Ashur-uballit II (611-?), with the support of the Egyptian army left Harran in Syria before the arrival of the forces of the Babylonian king Nabopolassar (626-605 BC). The support of the Egyptian was probably sent in the end of the reign of Psamtik I. In 609 BC the Assyrian king Ashur-uballit II retook Harran through the Egyptian support. The Egyptians might have had supremacy over Phoenicia and Lebanon. During his reign, Nekau II probably maintained a general control over South West Asia from the Phoenician coast to Carchemish in the north on the Euphrates, which showed some traces of Egyptian occupation, including Judah. After the retreat of the Assyrians from the Levant, Egypt took over. In 609 BC the Egyptian army defeated Babylonian forces. In 606 BC an Egyptian army besieged and occupied Kimuhu, south of Carchemish in Syria, with its Babylonian garrison and later in the year, Egyptian force crossed the Euphrates and defeated the Babylonian army at the city of Quramati, south of Kimuhu and east of the Euphrates. According to the Babylonian Chronicle, the Babylonian crown prince Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Egyptian army. In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) defeated the Egyptian army at Carchemish and destroyed another at Hamath. As a result, Nekau II abandoned Asia Minor and the Babylonians took over. Nabopolassar attacked the eastern Egyptian border. There is a letter from a ruler of a Phoenician city seeking help from the king of Egypt against the Babylonians. According to Babylonian, The Chronicle, in December 601/January 600 BC. Nebuchadnezzar II attacked the eastern frontier of Egypt but he was forced to withdraw to home. However, there was no clear winner on the battlefield. Herodotus (Book II: 159) records a campaign of Nekau II in which he gained a victory over Magdolos and captured Kadytis (probably Gaza?), without fixing locations or dates. In Judah, King Jehoiakim died before the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem on March 16 597 BC, and his young son Jehoiachin was taken captive to Babylon and replaced by Jehoiakim’s uncle, Zedekiah.


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