With a military strategy that changed from defensive to offensive, increasingly ambitious pharaohs looked “to extend the frontiers of Egypt.” King Ahmose’s armies had chased the conquered Hyksos invaders into Palestine to quash any future threat. This campaign to liberate Egypt had strengthened and organized the pharaoh’s forces, and built up their arsenal. Chariots, horse-drawn and driven by an archer, led them into battle, volleying arrows into swarms of enemy combatants. With every victory, their capital of Thebes grew in power and wealth.
Pharaohs periodically engaged in battle with Libyans from the Western Desert, but most of their conflicts were with Nubians to the south and their Asiatic rivals northeast.
Conquering Nubia was no difficult feat for the Egyptians, who easily navigated the treacherous cataracts of the Nile, and seized crucial spoils of copper, gold, and semiprecious stones such as amethyst, as well as ivory and cattle. In defeat, the Nubians, more pliable than Egypt’s other neighbors, adopted Egyptian customs. A pharaoh-appointed regent – the King’s Son and Overseer of the Southern Countries – represented Egypt’s interests in Nubia during the eighteenth dynasty.
Egypt’s conquering armies faced stiffer challenges in Palestine and Syria, situated across hot desert sands and bodies of water in the western Asian territories, beyond which an even greater threat encroached. Assyrians, the Mitanni, and the Hittites pressed westward from Asia, challenging the Egyptians’ ambitious bid for world supremacy.
Borders were not clearly delineated. Loose groupings of city-states made up Palestine and Syria, inhabited by an assortment of Amorites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, and others who ceaselessly warred with one another. A climate of perpetual unrest was the result of contentious alliances, carelessly forged and easily broken.
Egypt’s conquests were not without great risk, although early on, many lesser monarchs submitted almost willingly, recognizing Egypt’s resurgence and new might, and heaping respect on the pharaoh. In the south, Amenhotep I, son and heir of Ahmose, looked to tighten Egypt’s grip on Nubia. The more ambitious Thutmose I next became pharaoh, by way of his marriage to a royal princess, Amenhotep I’s sister. His claim was tenuous, and he set out to bolster it with conquests.
A veteran admiral navigating the Nile with the king, described him as “raging like a panther,” recounting a tale in which Thutmose, armed with a bow and arrow, killed a Nubian chieftain, and displayed his corpse like a grisly trophy on his ship’s prow.
Such brutality was common. Stacks of dismembered hands frequent temple artwork, telling of the mutilations that often befell the Egyptians’ conquered foes. Just as common in wall carvings are portrayals of pharaohs, gripping enemies by the hair, the royal mace raised and ready to smash their skulls.
Thutmose followed up his brutal conquest in Nubia with an unprecedented 1,300-mile expedition to Syria, which crossed the Euphrates River – farther from Thebes than any other pharaoh had ever ventured. The king’s men took up arms against the Mitanni, invaders from the north. A stone marker planted on the field of battle claims a massive slaughter of Mitanni, and the taking of many more as prisoners.
The third generation of his family to claim the throne, Thutmose III was the only other pharaoh to go as far into hostile Asian territory, and finding his grandfather’s marker still in place, he put one of his own alongside it.
Treasure from conquered lands poured into the blossoming capital, funding new construction and more and elaborate temple art and adornments on the shores of the Nile.
A daughter, Hatshepsut was born to Thutmose I and great wife Ahmes; and a son, Thutmose, came from a secondary marriage. The half-siblings followed common royal practice and wed. When the old king died (he was the first pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings), they took the throne as King Thutmose II and great wife, though Hatshepsut – the daughter of a king who had taken his place in the afterlife alongside the gods, and now the new king’s wife and sister – quickly became a much more indomitable force than the pharaoh. Thutmose II’s early reign is mostly insignificant, the only record of which being a revolt in Nubia and skirmishes in Palestine. The pharaoh and his great wife did not produce a son, so at the time of his death, the son of a concubine named Iset was crowned Thutmose III. Rather than taking the throne outright, however, the young pharaoh faced a significant challenge from his stepmother-aunt, Hatshepsut.
Not satisfied for long serving as the new king’s regent, Hatshepsut believed her power and pure royal blood gave her the right to rule. Several years into Thutmose III’s reign, she wore the crowns of The Two Lands as co-ruler, while he faded into the background.
A female pharaoh presented unprecedented challenges, small and large. Depictions of Hatshepsut were clumsily adapted by inscribers and sculptors accustomed to the male form. In many, she appears without breasts, dressed in male garments and a false beard common among kings’ wardrobe, though the artists eventually got a better grasp for shapely figure and vestments. These small matters did nothing to tarnish a reign that was overall a prosperous success.
Hatshepsut surrounded herself with trusted and influential advisors. As her vizier, she chose Hapuseneb, a High Priest of Amon, who brought political prestige to her royal court. Closer to her was another remarkable man, an arrogant, industrious commoner named Senenmut.
Senenmut was arrogant and greedy – he amassed no fewer than eighty ranks in his royal capacity, including Steward of the God’s Wife and Steward of the King. He also presumed to be buried in a tomb alongside the queen, and in her temple, he had memorials to himself erected. Some Egyptologists have speculated that he was Hatshepsut’s lover.
Hatshepsut restored a number of temples that had fallen into disrepair while the invading Hyksos ruled Egypt, and made additions, including two obelisks, at Karnak. The most notable contribution to the landscape during her reign was the Senenmut-designed burial chamber at Deir el-Bahri, opposite Karnak. With considerable imagination, it sprang up on a cliff, in a natural amphitheater, only a small sliver of rock between it and the Valley of the Kings. Its steep walls were striped in soft pink and buff stone. King Mentuhotep was entombed on this site.
Higher and considerably grander in scale, Hatshepsut’s temple was three stories, framed with majestic columns. It is one of the most remarkable of Egypt’s structures, easily Thebes’ greatest marvel. Sphinxes once lined the ground leading up to its entrance, on two immense shallow terraces that ascend to the base of the cliff of al-Qurn. Vines and palm trees added a lush greenery to a courtyard beneath the foundation of the first terrace. Stunning buildings on the next level followed a long portico, where once twenty-six imposing statues of Hatshepsut once stood regally, depicting her as the god Osiris. Within the depths behind the portico, a great hall and sanctuaries surround the queen’s final resting place. The magnificent white limestone of the temple stands in stark contrast to the craggy cliffs into which it is hewn. The same material comprises the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies.
Sanctuaries within paid tribute to the goddess Hathor (who took a cow’s form), the jackal Anubis, and sun god Ra. A number of reliefs amaze with scenes of enormous obelisks – nearly as long as the boats bearing them down the Nile from the island of Elephantine to Thebes. One of a quartet that once stood in the capital, reaching close to 100 feet into the sky – remains today in Amon’s temple at Karnak. A single huge slab of pink granite quarried at Aswan, was patiently and skillfully carved to form each obelisk.
The first terrace artwork features two distinctly different milestones for the queen. In one, she is molded on a potter’s wheel by the ram-headed god Khnum, as her mother, Ahmes, sits primly alongside the god Amon, who says: “Hatshepsut shall be the name of this my daughter whom I have placed in thy body. She shall exercise excellent kingship in this whole land.” This is meant to portray that Hatshepsut was of divine conception, a myth propagated by the queen.
Location of the Land of Punt for most scholars.
Another depicts the ambitious and lucrative expedition the queen dispatched to the trading center of Punt to enrich her treasury with African goods. About a half-dozen years into her reign, she ordered a Nubian named Nehery to lead the assembly from Qift, north of Thebes, across the desert to the Red Sea, where a pair of ships, laden with cheering sailors in the reliefs, would carry them down the coast to Punt. Here, people made their homes – round, high, domed huts with laddered entrances – among the palm groves. Nehery and his men were greeted by Punt’s queen, and “did not trouble to conceal their laughter,” the inscription reads, at her deformities, huge thighs and a harsh, strained face.
The people of Punt fell to the ground before an emblem of Hatshepsut: “They speak, praying for peace from Her Majesty: Hail to thee, king of Egypt, female sun who shines like the solar disk.” The pharaoh’s envoy Nehery set up camp, offering the natives a royal tribute of beer, fruit, meat, and wine.
A disproportionate bartering came after, in which the Egyptians got the better of the people of Punt, exchanging beads for baboons, ebony, gold, ivory, leopard skins, and myrrh trees (a prized commodity in Punt). Hatshepsut and Senenmut welcomed the company and its bounty back to the capital as the young Thutmose III burned incense at the foot of a massive statue of Amon.
Widely considered a military genius by historians, Thutmose III made 16 raids in 20 years. He was an active expansionist ruler, sometimes called Egypt’s greatest conqueror or “the Napoleon of Egypt.”
“The Napoleon of Egypt”
Until recently, conventional wisdom among Egyptologists held that Thutmose III resented Hatshepsut’s assumption to the throne, which postponed his reign for twenty-one years. After her death, there was a systematic effort to obliterate or deface her temples and monuments, along with those of Senenmut, which was taken as prima facie evidence of her nephew’s hostility. But the weight of the evidence has swung, and most scholars now agree that Hatshepsut and Thutmose III got along well.
One factor that points to a warm relationship: Hatshepsut never denied Thutmose III the title of pharaoh, even after she took the throne. What’s more, as he grew older, she gave him command of the Egyptian army – a sign of trust on her part. For his part, Thutmose made no effort to use the military to overthrow Hatshepsut, and he retained most of her officials after he succeeded her. He also married her daughter and placed his mortuary temple next to hers. Finally, the defacing of her monuments began twenty years after he was crowned – hardly a sign of hot-headed resentment.
The judgment now is that the vandalizing of Hatshepsut’s temples and statues was an effort by Thutmose III to erase doubts about his own claim to the throne as the son of a concubine, and thus reinforce the legitimacy of his son and heir, Amenhotep I. Thutmose also made Amenhotep his co-ruler in the last years of his reign, and it is possible that Amenhotep was behind the vandalism of Hatshepsut’s monuments.
Whatever the case, their co-reign came to an end with Hatshepsut’s death in 1482 B.C. Thutmose III ruled Egypt the next thirty years unassisted and unencumbered.
Five feet, four inches in height, the pharaoh and had a keen, alert face, dominated by his family’s protruding nose. Upon his coronation, he inherited prosperity and a full treasury, but Egypt’s empire in Asia was crumbling.
Egypt’s most formidable foes in Palestine and Syria had aligned behind the king of the city of Kadesh, where a mighty fortress stood on the Orontes River, in western Syria. The resurgent Mitanni added to this threat against the Egyptians.
In his second year as ruler, Thutmose III began his mission to “overthrow that vile enemy and to extend the borders of Egypt as commanded by his father, Amon,” according to a scribe accompanying the pharaoh on the campaign, who inscribed his reports in the temple of Amon.
Thutmose’s expedition traversed the modern-day Suez Canal, then a ten-day trek through the Sinai Peninsula, before finally capturing the Philistine city of Gaza. The pharaoh’s forces, acting on intelligence, moved quickly north to intercept the Kadesh coalition at Megiddo, where the plains stretched out beyond the hills of Mount Carmel. Three possible routes to Megiddo were debated by war strategists – dual options for low and open approaches were favored by generals, who argued against the tight, single-file passages that they would have to navigate on direct path over the hills. Thutmose, however, opted for the latter route, and his officers followed in step: “We are in the train of Your Majesty wherever Your Majesty will go. The servant will follow his master.”
A thin line of soldiers wound up through the desolate, scrub-filled valleys, the pharaoh atop his glimmering chariot, the bronze of his armored tunic shining like a fish’s scales. On his head sat the warrior’s crown, blue and etched with a golden cobra. Other chariots rattled and bumped in his wake, archers poised for battle. Some overturned. A sea of short, rounded shields – planks covered with cow or deer hides – represented thousands of foot soldiers, armed with bronze axes, daggers, and spears.
The feared ambush never happened. The Kadesh army had prepared an attack on the plain, expecting Thutmose’s forces to take the longer, flatter route to Megiddo. The pharaoh’s call proved to be the right one. Night was falling as the Egyptians descended the hills, so they set up camp. Thutmose told his soldiers to “prepare yourselves, make ready your weapons, for we will engage with that vile enemy in the morning.”
But the Egyptians delayed the attack, perhaps in anticipation of a new moon, considered good luck. The time finally right, Thutmose prayed to Amon, and unleashed his army. The soldiers set up north of Megiddo, and south of Kina brook, with the king in between. Thutmose and his men fought courageously, upending enemy chariots. The Kadesh allies fled on foot to Megiddo, where the gates were shuttered, forcing them to scale the walls.
The pharaoh’s greed led to a missed opportunity for a prompt end to the fight: “Would that the army of His Majesty had not set their hearts upon looting . . . for they would have captured Megiddo at that moment, while the vile enemy of Kadesh and the vile enemy of the town were being hoisted up.” Time and tactical advantage lost to plundering extended the battle many months, during which the Egyptians laid siege to Megiddo. The town’s defenses eventually succumbed, but by then the Kadesh king had escaped, living to bring the pharaoh more trouble in the future.
The Egyptians brought a tremendous load of plunder from Megiddo. According to the records, the spoils included: “. . . 340 living prisoners; 83 hands [cut off dead bodies]; 2,041 mares, 191 foals, 6 stallions; a chariot wrought with gold, as was its pole [property of the ruler of Kadesh]; a beautiful chariot wrought with gold [property of the ruler of Megiddo]; thirty chariots belonging to other chiefs plus 892 chariots belonging to his wretched army; a fine suit of bronze armor belonging to that enemy [the ruler of Kadesh] and 200 suits of armor belonging to his wretched army; 502 bows; seven poles wrought with silver to the tent of that foe; 1,929 large cattle, 2,000 small cattle, 20,500 white small cattle.”
The Megiddo campaign is the earliest full account of a decisive battle. In spite of later victories, Thutmose liked to celebrate this one, evidently feeling that the rest of his reign flowed from it. From then on, he consolidated his conquests as he pushed toward Mesopotamia. As he conquered each new city-state, he established a garrison and manned it with foreign mercenaries. To ensure future allegiance, he took the sons of conquered kings back to Egypt and trained them to be his lieutenants before he returned them to their homelands. Thutmose also took great pains to defend and provision ports on the Syrian coast in order to secure safe passage for his navy, which transported troops and supplies.
The pharaoh sculpted his army into a strong, efficient body – and among its vital components were chariot riders, infantry, naval operations, signals, accountancy, and supplies. Although he was formidable on the battlefield, Thutmose’s logistical and organizational skills most impressed later military historians.
The pharaoh’s fifth campaign crippled northern Syria’s wealthy seafaring cities. A year later, Kadesh’s imposing fortress at last fell to the Egyptian army. The year was 1471 B.C., and Thutmose was finally ready to confront the Mitanni, Egypt’s greatest hurdle to world domination. But to do that, his army would have to cross the Euphrates River. So, at Byblos, he ordered ships constructed of Lebanon’s famous cedar to be dragged along as the army marched.
The campaign was an unmitigated success. The Egyptians’ approach from the river was smooth, and caught the Mitanni off guard, with no defensive army in place to counter the attack. The pharaoh boasted he was out front for the victory, “the first of his army in seeking that vile enemy over the mountains of Mitanni, while [the enemy] fled before His Majesty to another far distant land.” To mark the conquering of his arch-enemies, Thutmose III erected his stela not far from his grandfather’s.
In another nod to Thutmose I, the pharaoh allowed himself an elephant-hunting diversion in the northern Syrian swamps of Niya. Although he had escaped the war without injury, he almost lost his life on the hunt. The quick reflexes of a general accompanying the pharaoh on the hunt put down a charging bull elephant before it could trample Thutmose. General Amenemhab leapt between the king and beast, severing the elephant’s “hand” – likely trunk – with his sword, saving both their lives.
While all pharaohs hunted, Thutmose’s genuine interest in wildlife extended beyond killing and mounting it. He often returned from conquests laden with species of plants and animals from distant lands in Asia – including, once, a rhinoceros from Nubia.
New buildings sprang up during Thutmose’s reign, including, in Karnak, a large pavilion, suitable for a Sed festival, and a monumental temple gate depicting him as a conqueror with mace raised over kneeling Asiatics. Similar to Hatshepsut, he had a fascination with obelisks – of the several he erected, two have withstood time; moved from their original home in Heliopolis to the Thames Embankment in London, and New York City’s Central Park.
Thutmose’s seventeen campaigns over a twenty-year period amassed enormous wealth for Egypt. His conquests expanded the country’s borders north of Syria to Niya, east beyond the Euphrates, and south to Nubia – earning his empire the distinction of being Egypt’s greatest, and him the nickname “the Napoleon of Egypt.” In tribute to the might of imperial Egypt, awed world leaders heaped gold and goods onto Thebes.
The age of conquest at its end, the capital basked in extravagance and luxury, which would peak during the long, peaceful reign of Thutmose’s great-grandson, Amenhotep III.