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.”
Egyptian: Unknown (probably approximately 10,000 men). Commander: Pharaoh Thutmose III.
Kadesh alliance: Unknown. Commander: King of Kadesh.
In the early years of the eighteenth century b.c., the power of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom was waning. That coincided with the immigration of the Hyksos, a Semitic population probably from the region of Palestine, that used superior weaponry to topple the faltering Thirteenth dynasty. The Hyksos dynasty began ruling Egypt in 1786 b.c.and lasted until 1575 b.c.By then the Hyksos had become sufficiently complacent and content to lose their edge, and the Egyptian population reasserted control over their own nation. The new pharaoh, who began the New Kingdom era, was Ahmose (ruled 1575–1550 b.c.). Ahmose was not content with merely regaining his country, but wanted to extend Egypt’s northeastern frontier to establish a strong buffer zone. He also wanted to extend Egypt’s power because exposure to foreign peoples had given the Egyptians a taste for things that could come only from outside their country. Hence, conquest and trade as well as security motivated Ahmose’s war making.
Following in Ahmose’s footsteps, later pharaohs extended Egyptian authority into the region along the eastern Mediterranean as well as southward into Nubia, modern Sudan. Under the direction of Thutmose I, Ahmose’s grandson, Egypt established hegemony in Palestine and Syria. Upon his death in 1510, however, Egyptian expansion was temporarily halted because of the attitude of the new pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut was daughter of Thutmose I and stepsister and wife to Thutmose II. When Thutmose II died in 1490, Hatshepsut at first ruled as regent for their young son Thutmose III, but soon threw off all pretense at regency and ruled openly as pharaoh, the only woman ever to do so. Her rule (1490–1468 b.c.) was marked by more than 20 years of peace, during which time Egypt embarked on a serious building program of constructing temples and monuments.
Hatshepsut’s passive foreign policy, however, encouraged subject kings in the Middle East to ponder the idea of independence. Under the direction of the King of Kadesh, supported by the powerful Mitanni population east of the Euphrates, the states of Palestine and Syria broke free of Egypt’s rule about the time of Hatshepsut’s death.
Early rumblings of discontent had not been punished by Egyptian forces, so the King of Kadesh, who probably exercised suzerainty over most of Syria and Palestine, demanded and received affirmations of loyalty from his subject kings. Some small kingdoms in southern Palestine hesitated, perhaps remembering the days of Ahmose and the penalty for disloyalty. Kadesh sent troops to compel them to cooperate, and it seems that the kingdom of Mitanni gave Kadesh covert support. They were an up-and-coming power themselves, currently competing with the nascent power of early Assyria. If Kadesh could hurt Egypt, then the Mitanni certainly hoped to benefit.
The cause of Hatshepsut’s death has never been positively determined; it may have been assassination at Thutmose III’s direction. Whatever the reason, Thutmose III was eager to take the throne and restore Egyptian power. After directing that Hatshepsut’s name be obliterated from all public buildings, he set about rebuilding an army that had been idle for more than two decades. His southern flank was secure because the Nubians had become increasingly Egyptianized. He could therefore focus on the rebellious kings to the northeast without having to worry about threats to the rear of his army.
How many men Thutmose enrolled has never been determined. Most historians believe that no Egyptian expeditionary force ever numbered more than 25,000 to 30,000 and the first army to take the field after such a long hiatus would almost certainly not be that large. The Egyptian army was comprised primarily of infantry, carrying shields and side arms—either axes or sicklelike swords. The aristocracy fought from chariots and probably as archers. Weapons at this time were bronze. The forces that Egypt faced were equipped in much the same fashion.
In his second year as pharaoh, Thutmose III took his army into action. He appears to have been skilled as an organizer because the rapid progress his army made implies a well-laid-out logistical system. He was also the first pharaoh who, apparently, took his own chroniclers on campaign with him because the details of the march and the battle are contemporary with the campaign. Megiddo was the first battle in history for which that can be said. Thutmose departed the Nile delta at Tharu on 19 April 1479 and just 9 days later was at Gaza, some 160 miles up the coast. He arrived there on the anniversary of his coronation, but spent no time in celebration; his troops were on the march the next morning.
Twelve days from Gaza, the Egyptians encamped at Yehem, about 80 to 90 miles from Gaza and probably about 16 miles southwest of Megiddo. That walled city was the target because Thutmose’s intelligence corps had reported that the King of Kadesh and all his vassal kings were there. At this point, Thutmose had three possible routes to Megiddo. The road north to Aruna, along the ridge of Mount Carmel, turned northeast at that town and ran through a narrow pass directly to Megiddo. His second alternative branched north-northeast just past Aruna and intersected the Tannach road north of Megiddo. The third possibility was to take the road toward Damascus. This road ran eastward from Yehem and then hit a junction, which led north-northwest through Tannach. This route would enable him to approach Megiddo from the south. Thutmose’s advisors counseled either of the latter alternatives, as the pass was too narrow, inviting an ambush. Thutmose brushed their cautions aside, determined to take the direct route. He told them they could go by any route they pleased, but he was going through the pass. “For they, the enemy, abominated of Ra, consider thus, ‘Has His Majesty gone on another road? Then he fears us,’ thus do they consider” (Petrie, A History of Egypt, vol. II, p. 105). His subordinates reluctantly agreed to go with him.
Whether through accurate supposition or by good intelligence, Thutmose was correct in his choice. Apparently, the King of Kadesh never thought that Thutmose would be stupid enough to commit his force to a narrow defile, so he concentrated the bulk of his army on the road near Tannach. Thutmose led his men out of Yehem toward Aruna on 13 May. As they approached the pass, he took the point position in his chariot, certainly a decision designed to inspire his troops and assure them of the correctness of his decision. As they debouched from the pass, they encountered only a small covering force, which they quickly drove away. Here Thutmose heeded his subordinates. Instead of launching a pursuit, he agreed to deploy his force in a defensive posture to allow the entire column to come up. Hearing of the arrival of the Egyptian army, the King of Kadesh withdrew his forces back to Megiddo.
Thutmose, either that afternoon or during the evening, decided not to attack the forces of Kadesh but instead to take up a position to the west of the city. He deployed his men in an arc athwart the small river Kina, with his flanks resting on high ground. This gave him a good route of retreat, if necessary. On the night of 14 May, the two armies camped, facing each other. At dawn, Thutmose spread his forces in three groups. He commanded in the center, and his left flank extended to the northwest of Megiddo, to be in a position to block any enemy retreat on the road that led northwest from the city. The details of the battle are too sketchy to determine how it was conducted. All the contemporary chroniclers state is that the enemy fled before the pharaoh’s forces: “His Majesty went forth in his chariot of electrum adorned with his weapons of war, like Horus armed with talons, the Lord of might, like Mentu of Thebes, his father Amen-Ra strengthening his arms” (Petrie, A History of Egypt, vol. II, p. 107).
Whatever the missing details, the Egyptians gained the upper hand, and the enemy fled in haste for the protection of the city walls, abandoning their camp and much of their materiel. That was what saved the Egyptians, at least temporarily. The Egyptian troops, lured by the prospect of loot, abandoned the chase and turned themselves over to pillage. That allowed the enemy to escape, although just barely. The residents of the city closed the gates rather too quickly, and the fleeing troops had to be hauled over the walls with ropes made of clothing. Thutmose was not happy, and chastened his men. “Had ye afterwards captured this city, behold I would have given [a rich offering to] Ra this day; because every chief of every country that has revolted is within it” (Breasted, A History of Egypt, p. 290).
Having failed to capture the city in a rush, Thutmose settled down for a siege. He ordered a wall of circumvallation built of wood from the surrounding forests; the rampart was called “Thutmose, encloser of the Asiatics.” In the wall, one gate was built, through which those inside the city that wished to surrender could exit. The details of the siege were recorded on a roll of leather stored in the temple of Amon, but only the reference to that scroll survives. The countryside was sufficiently lush to allow the Egyptians to eat well out of the fields and off the cattle and sheep herds. The length of the siege is debatable, sources listing it as anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months, although it was probably shorter rather than longer. However long it took, the besieged finally ran out of food and surrendered.
Although a number of kings were taken captive, surrendering either during the siege or at the city’s fall, the King of Kadesh managed to escape, probably in the immediate wake of the battle. Thutmose took little retribution on the captive kings or the city, although he did remove back to Egypt much of the city’s wealth. Thutmose, however, had captured on the battlefield the king’s son, who he took back to Egypt as a hostage, along with others of the king’s family as well as the sons of the other rebellious but now humbled kings. The description of the spoils of war is long and impressive, including 924 chariots, 2,238 horses, 200 suits of armor, and the tent belonging to the King of Kadesh along with all his furniture and household goods. Added to the spoils of later victories on this campaign, 426 pounds of gold and silver were acquired.
With Megiddo now firmly in hand, Thutmose marched his men northward toward Lebanon, taking possession of the cities of Yenoam, Nuges, and Hernkeru. It is not known if these cities had sent their submission to him during the siege of Megiddo or if Thutmose had to capture them upon his arrival; either way, they came under his control quickly. He ordered a fortress built in the area in order to keep back any threat the escaped King of Kadesh might mount and then proceeded to reestablish Egyptian hegemony by either accepting the vassalage of the local kings or replacing them with successors who would swear loyalty. Just as he had done with the son of the King of Kadesh, Thutmose took the sons of those rulers back to Egypt. This not only ensured cooperation, but it allowed the Egyptians to raise the hostages in a manner that would immerse them in Egyptian culture and power, making them more amenable to control when the hostages were in a position to succeed their fathers.
Thutmose was back in his capital city of Thebes in early October and master of a new and more stable Egyptian Empire. It would not always be happy; he conducted another fifteen campaigns in the northeast to either subdue rebellions or beat back foreign threats. During his eighth such campaign, he fought and defeated the Mitanni on the other side of the upper Euphrates, taking Egypt to the limits of its empire. This completely transformed Egypt as a nation. The wealth that came into Egypt in the form of annual tribute was so massive that it allowed for the construction of temples and public buildings for which Egypt is best known today, barring only the Pyramids and Sphinx.
Through both the Old and Middle Kingdoms Egypt had striven to remain isolated; after the expulsion of the Hyksos and the wars of the New Kingdom, commerce with foreign powers was too profitable to ever go back to the old days. The administration of an empire required the establishment of an expanded bureaucracy as well as a large standing army, both of which are expensive propositions. The wealth was the gift of the gods, so the priesthood also expanded, gaining in both wealth and power. Their temples demanded the best in craftsmanship, and the artistic life of Egypt benefited. Two hundred years after Thutmose III, Rameses II fought to maintain the borders of the empire. No pharaoh fought as often as he, but by the thirteenth century b.c. the power of Egypt had reached its height. From then onward, the Sea Peoples, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans all either weakened Egypt or exercised dominion over Egypt.
Megiddo in History
Although historians know of battles before Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh fighting in 1479 b.c., this battle was the first to be recorded by eyewitnesses, making it the first recorded battle in history. Because of disputes over dating, however, just when the battle took place is a matter of some debate. James Breasted in 1905 gave a detailed account of the battle, and his dating has been used in the Megiddo entry as the most specific, giving day and month as well as year. William Petrie’s translation of the Annals of Thutmose III gives contemporary dates, not in years b.c. but by years of the pharaoh’s rule. Hence, we learn that Thutmose began his campaign toward Megiddo when he left the town of Tharu on the Nile delta on the twenty-fifth day of the month Pharmuthi in the twenty-second year of Thutmose’s reign. That also creates some problems because he dated his reign not from the previous year when he succeeded Hatshepsut, but from the death of his father and the year he should have begun his rule. The battle at Megiddo is placed variously in 1458, 1467, 1469, etc.
Megiddo remained an important location in the ancient world, on the crossroads between the Hittites in the north and the Egyptians in the south, as well as those of the trade routes from the Mediterranean eastward to the empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Book of Judges describes an eleventh-century b.c. battle along the River Kishon, flowing along the Plain of Esdraelon, which Megiddo overlooked. In that battle, Israelite forces under Deborah and Barak defeated the Canaanite forces of King Jabin. In 609 b.c., King Josiah of Judah was defeated and killed at Megiddo by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho.
Even more unspecific about the date of the first battle at Megiddo is the date of the last one. The Hebrew word for Megiddo is Armageddon, described in the biblical Book of Revelation as the site of the final battle between the forces of good and evil. The foundation for one of the great ironies of history is thus foretold: the beginning and the end of military history occur at the same site.
Benson, Douglas. Ancient Egypt’s Warfare. Ashland, OH: Book Masters, 1995; Breasted, James Henry. A History of Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1905; Gabriel, Richard, and Donald Boose. The Great Battles of Antiquity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994; Petrie, William. A History of Egypt, vol. II. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1972 ; Steindorff, George, and Keith Seele. When Egypt Ruled the East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.