The Asiatic War of Tutankhamun

A painted wood box from Tut’s tomb shows him vanquishing Nubians and Syrians. (Araldo De Luca)

Akhenaten died soon after his attack on Kadesh, but the question of what to do about the area of Kadesh did not go away. The Hittite counterattack into the Egyptian territory of Amki breached the Egyptian-Hittite treaty of the time, but was probably no more than a retaliatory raid; as far as the sources indicate, Suppiluliuma did not follow with a major Hittite offensive. Major events in Syria-Palestine for most of the reign of Tutankhamun remain unknown, since Tutankhamun’s abandonment of Akhet-aten brought the Amarna archive to an immediate halt; wherever Tutankhamun’s diplomatic correspondence was stored-Thebes or more likely Memphis-the record lies as yet undiscovered. No Egyptian or Hittite historical texts unequivocally record any battles in Syria-Palestine prior to the final year of Tutankhamun’s reign, but at about the time of the death of Tutankhamun, another Egyptian campaign was launched against Kadesh; details do not survive, but the timing of the Egyptian attack might have been intended to coincide with a Mittani counteroffensive. The renewed attacks of the weakened but still existent state of Mittani precipitated the Second Syrian War, also known as the Six-Year Hurrian War, which culminated in the defeat of Carchemish and the complete destruction of the Mittanian state. Tutankhamun’s strike on Kadesh triggered a Hittite counterattack on Amki, the same reaction Akhenaten’s attack on Kadesh had elicited. Both Akhenaten and Tutankhamun probably sought to force some conclusion to the Kadesh problem, for with the last vestige of the Hurrian state expunged, Hatti might decide to use Kadesh and the corridor east of Amurru.

The images of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic campaign are fragmentary and provide few details about the location of the battle or the tactics involved. Despite these problems, the lively carvings indicate that a chariot battle and an assault on fortifications were elements of the campaign. In one scene, an Asiatic warrior, with a typical bobbed hairstyle and kilt, is transfixed by the spear of an Egyptian charioteer. The ancient artist heightened the drama of the combat by showing the dead Asiatic draped across the legs of Egyptian chariot horses. Another block from this same tableau depicts an Asiatic tangled in the reins of his own chariot. In addition to the chariot battle, Tutankhamun’s reliefs also depict an attack against fortifications. On one block, an Egyptian soldier armed with a spear, his shield slung across his back, ascends a ladder propped against a crenellated wall. The figure of a bearded Asiatic falling headlong from the fortress suggests the success of the Egyptian assault.

Two blocks from battle scenes of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic campaign. (top) A charioteer, with the horse’s reins tied behind his back, spears an Asiatic enemy, whose body falls across the legs of the horses. The shield-bearer wears a heart. shaped sporran and stands in front of a full quiver of arrows. After Johnson, Asiatic Battle Scene, 156, no. 10. (bottom) A soldier, armed with a spear and a shield, climbs a ladder resting against the battlements of an Asiatic stronghold, while an enemy defender falls to the ground. After Johnson, Asiatic Barrie Scene, 157. no. 12.

The Asiatic War scenes of Tutankhamun portray two different types of enemies, suggesting that the Egyptians fought a coalition of forces from throughout Syria-Palestine. The southern, Canaanite type have a short beard, a bobbed hairstyle tied with a fillet, and wear kilts. The northern Syrian or Mitannian type have short hair, a long beard, and wear long cloaks. The Tutankhamun battle scenes also provide a small but significant bit of information about the chariots of the “boy-king’s” enemies. A poorly preserved block from the Tutankhamun Asiatic battle scene appears to depict a three-man crew in an Asiatic chariot. The Asiatics against whom Tutankhamun fights are depicted as standard Canaanite types, not as Hittites, The Syro-Palestinians, as they appear in scenes of foreign tribute in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire, in the heraldic image of Asiatic combat on the chariot of Thutmose IV, and the Hittites in the later war tableaux of Seti I, routinely appear with chariots virtually identical to those of the ancient Egyptians, and like the Egyptians, the Asiatics appear to have assigned two men to a chariot.

The image of three Asiatic men in a chariot from the Tutankhamun monument recalls the later three-man chariots of the Hittites in the scenes of the Battle of Kadesh under Ramesses II. At Karnak, when Seti I depicted his encounter with the Hittites, he shows the Hittites fighting and dying with chariots manned by two men, similar to the Egyptian chariots. When Seti’s successor Ramesses II depicts the chariotry swarms of his own Hittite enemies, those Hittite chariots have three-man crews. Were it not for the Tutankhamun block, one might suggest that the Hittites simply adopted a new style of chariot, perhaps as a result of their loss to the forces of Seti I. The Tutankhamun scene reveals that some sort of experimentation with a different type of chariot crew, and almost certainly with a different sort of chariot, was already occurring during the reign of Tutankhamun.

Why would the Syro-Palestinian enemies of Tutankhamun or the Hittite opponents of Ramesses II add an extra man to the chariot crew? The added weight forced the Hittites to make their vehicles heavier, sacrificing both speed and maneuverability. The Hittite chariotry that attacked Ramesses II also appear to have shifted away from the use of chariots to carry archers; instead, the Hittite chariot crews consist of a driver, a shield-bearer, and a warrior armed with a spear or a lance, both weapons with ranges much shorter than that of the composite bow. While the Egyptian chariot was still suited for high-speed engagement as a platform for mounted archers, the makers of the Hittite chariots had sacrificed the potential for abrupt turns at speed, and seem uninterested in the vehicle’s properties of maneuver. The Hittite chariot warriors of the Kadesh battle scenes appear to have become mounted infantry, the chariot transforming into a type of battle taxi; the apparent three-man chariot in the Tutankhamun battle scene suggests that experimentation with the chariot as battle taxi could well go back at least as far as the Amarna Period. The impetus for this apparent shift in chariot tactics, from mobile archery platform to battle taxi, remains to be explored.

The inscriptions accompanying the scenes of the Battle of Kadesh indicate that the Hittites secured soldiers from throughout their empire, including the western marches. From the western edge of the Hittite realm may have come the chief impetus for the three-man chariot. The groups who harassed the western borders of Hatti fought as massed infantry, appear as the Ahhiyawa in the Hittite record, and are one of the groups the Egyptians included among the Sea Peoples. The chariot forces of the day, armed primarily with bows, had difficulty defeating the Ahhiyawa and other Sea People groups who wore armor and wielded close-combat weapons. The placement of Hittite infantry soldiers within the new three-man chariots was probably intended to make the chariotry more effective against the new Sea People foes. Considering the pressures on the Hittites in the west, and taking into account particular facets of the subsequent invasions of Egypt from the west and the north, the three-man chariot from the Tutankhamun battle scene is the swallow that heralds the dawn of the rise of massed infantry.

Fragments of relief from the mortuary temple of Horemhab contain further images of an Asiatic campaign. Since Horemhab was responsible for the actual military command and Tutankhamun may have even died while the campaign was in progress, Horemhab probably felt no compunction about taking credit for the victory, as he had for the Nubian War he also led for Tutankhamun. Without further evidence, the warfare in Syria-Palestine depicted on the monuments of Horemhab most probably took place entirely during the reign of Tutankhamun.

Images of the battle on blocks reused from Horemhab’s mortuary temple include the royal chariot (only the names of the horses survive) and Egyptian charioteers shooting arrows and surrounded by slain Asiatic foes. At least two of the Asiatics have only a single hand-the stumps of their right arms indicate that their hands have already been severed to provide an accurate count of the enemy dead. Another block depicting part of the battlements of a city labeled “Fortress which his Majesty captured in the land of Kad[esh]” provides the setting for this Asiatic battle.

Other reliefs from Tutankhamun’s Theban memorial chapel show the triumphal return of the Egyptian military by sea. The royal flagship, with dozens of rowers and a large two-level cabin decorated with a frieze of uraeus serpents, also carries an important piece of cargo: an Asiatic captive. This Asiatic appears in a cage hanging from the yardarm of the ship, a secure prison that allows Tutankhamun to display his military success. Unfortunately, no text accompanies this scene, and one can only speculate about the identity of the unfortunate captive. Earlier, Amunhotep III had Abdiashirta, the unruly Amorite leader, brought back to Egypt, and Tutankhamun may have copied this feat with the ruler of Kadesh, which would make the man in the cage Aitakama. In this case, while Akhenaten was not militarily successful, Tutankhamun’s attack on Kadesh would have achieved at least one major objective.

Block (rom the mortuary temple of Horemhab. An Egyptian chariot team rides into battle against Asiatic foes. While the helmeted charioteer shoots his bow, the shield-bearer holds aloft a round-topped shield. The chariot is equipped with a bow case (the limp flap indicates that it is now empty) and has a six·spoked wheel and hand, hold on the body. Fallen Asiatics and charioteers’ helmets litter the scene. The right portion of the block was recarved at a later date. After Johnson, Asiatic Battle Scene, 170, no. 50.

Tutankhamun also commemorated the results of the Syro-Palestinian war on the eastern bank at the temple of Karnak. In a relief in the court between the Ninth and Tenth pylons, Tutankhamun presents the spoils of victory to the Theban triad. Stacked before the king are elaborate metal vessels and other products from western Asia. Behind Tutankhamun are Asiatic prisoners, all bound by ropes that the king holds in his hand. The dress and coiffure of the captives indicate their diverse origins-some are from inland Syria-Palestine, while at least one is probably an Aegean islander or nautical type of the eastern Mediterranean. In a parallel scene, Tutankhamun presents tribute from Punt, accompanied by the high chiefs of the Puntites. However, the chiefs of Punt are not bound, but stride freely, presenting the produce of their country. The differences between the representations of the Asiatics and the Puntites demonstrate their contrasting relationships with Egypt. While the inhabitants of Syria-Palestine represent chaotic forces that must be subdued, the Puntites, who inhabited a land far southeast of Egypt, peacefully traded with the Nile Valley. Although some of the Asiatics led bound behind the pharaoh lived closer to Egypt than the distant land of Punt, they were ideologically much farther from the ordered world that was Egypt.

The tomb that Horemhab commissioned while a general provides further depictions of the results of Tutankhamun’s Asiatic War. Rows of bound Asiatic prisoners appear alongside Nubians and Libyans on the east wall of the second courtyard; the only accompanying text speaks of General Horemhab’s victories in all foreign lands: “His reputation is in the [land] of the Hittites(?), after he trave led northward.” The questionable mention of the Hittites in this text finds further support in two images from Horemhab’s tomb that represent the first depictions of Hittites from their Anatolian homeland, otherwise known from the battle reliefs of Seti I. The south wall of that same courtyard contains exquisitely carved reliefs of more Asiatic prisoners; the manacles-some of them elaborately carved to resemble rampant lions-and ropes binding the men advertise their status as prisoners of war, and the emotion-filled expressions of the men indicate their reactions to their new status. Horemhab, who is called “one in attendance on his lord upon the battlefield on this day of smiting the Asiatics,” leads these prisoners before the enthroned royal couple, Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun.

In addition to the scenes of Asiatic prisoners, the tomb of Horemhab also contains images of other foreigners from all corners of the world- Libyans, Nubians, and Asiatics. In these scenes, the different ethnicities are juxtaposed, and none of the foreigners is bound. These two types of scenes reflect two separate historical events. The reliefs of the unbound foreigners allude to a durbarlike event, such as that depicted in two of the tombs at Amarna and in the tomb of Huy, and the incorporation of foreign captives into the Egyptian military. The gathering of foreigners appearing in vivid detail in the tomb of Horemhab may even represent the same northern and southern durbars as appear in the tomb of the viceroy Huy. On the other hand, the scenes of bound Asiatics correspond to a specific military event. Unfortunately, the general lack of toponyms in the tomb prevents a precise determination of the origin of the Asiatic prisoners, but one may reasonably suggest that they were captured during Tutankhamun’s attack on Kadesh.

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