Ancient History & Civilisation



A PARADOX LAY AT THE HEART OF EGYPT’S NEW KINGDOM RENAISSANCE. The country’s restoration to its former glory had been led by the institution of hereditary monarchy, yet this very system suffered from fundamental weaknesses. For two successive generations, the throne had passed to minors. Although this gave the female members of the royal family an unprecedented opportunity to exercise leadership, having the sacred office of kingship held by a child, dependent on others for direction, was not exactly in accordance with the Egyptian ideal, nor was it a recipe for strong government. Worse still, the inbreeding favored by the Theban rulers of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth dynasties had narrowed the gene pool to a dangerous degree. Amenhotep I and his sister-wife were themselves the offspring of a brother-sister marriage, as were their parents. With only two great-grandparents between them, it is perhaps not surprising that Amenhotep I and his queen were unable to have children. Indeed, it is remarkable that they were not afflicted by more serious congenital conditions.

Monarchy is nothing without an assured succession, and the lack of an heir risked undoing all the hard-won achievements of Amenhotep and his dynasty. What the king lacked in fertility he more than made up for in strategic ability. Recognizing the imperative of a legitimate successor, he took the unusual decision late in his reign to adopt one of his most trusted and talented lieutenants, a man named Thutmose, as heir apparent. Thutmose’s origins are shrouded in obscurity—the new king hardly wished to publicize his unorthodox path to power—but his selection was inspired. Though already in middle age, and unlikely to enjoy a long reign, he possessed apparently inexhaustable energy and determination. He had a bold vision for Egypt’s destiny, one that involved not merely cementing the victories of Kamose and Ahmose but actively extending the nation’s borders to forge an Egyptian empire. Under the Thutmoside Dynasty, Egypt would be transformed, at home and abroad, into the most powerful and glittering civilization of the ancient world.

Thutmose I (1493–1481) was the first king for three generations to come to the throne as an adult. He was in a position to begin his program of government straightaway, but only after he had countered any possible rumblings against his claim to the kingship. The continued presence of the royal matriarch, Ahmose-Nefertari, gave his reign a much-needed stamp of legitimacy, but Thutmose decided to take more public steps to underline his right to rule. His first act as king was to issue a decree announcing his coronation and his formal adoption of royal titles—two ceremonies that confirmed a king in power and conferred upon him divine authority. He sent the decree to his viceroy in Nubia, Turi, with express instructions to erect monumental copies in the major centers of Egyptian control—Aswan, Kubban, and Wadi Halfa. The memory of rebellion against King Ahmose was still raw, and Thutmose was determined to browbeat his Nubian subjects into submission from the very start. For the lands south of the first cataract, Thutmose’s coronation decree was both a warning and a promise. Within twelve months, Nubia would reel from the most concerted and devastating campaign of conquest ever launched by Egypt.

“Enraged like a panther,” Thutmose declared his aim “to destroy unrest throughout the foreign lands, to subdue the rebels of the desert region.”1 The firestorm over Nubia raged for most of his second year on the throne (1492). The rulers of the Middle Kingdom had been content to pursue a defensive strategy, guarding Egyptian interests in Wawat against the threat from the kingdom of Kush through a mixture of economic engagement and political appeasement. The disastrous results of this policy had been visited upon Egypt when the country was at its weakest. Thutmose I was not about to repeat the same mistake. For him, the only long-term guarantee of Egyptian security was the annihilation of the Kushite threat.

From the forward base on Shaat Island, Thutmose ordered a flotilla of ships to be dragged overland around the dangerous rapids of the third cataract, ready for an all-out assault on Kerma, capital of the Kushite Kingdom. The onslaught that followed was unyielding and terrifying in its ferocity. Kerma was sacked and burned, its temple desecrated. The victorious Thutmose set out cross-country with a detachment of his army and a large entourage of officials. Rather than following the river, they took instead the desert route from Kerma to the distant reaches of the Nile beyond the fourth cataract. This had both a practical logic and a symbolic purpose. It achieved the objective of extending Egyptian authority farther than ever before without the need to conquer all the intervening Kushite-controlled territory along the river.

The king and his followers halted at a great quartz rock (modern Hagar el-Merwa, near Kurgus) that rose up from the desert plain next to the Nile. A prominent marker in the landscape, visible for miles around, it was also of great spiritual significance to the local population and was covered in religious carvings. Thutmose ordered a victory inscription to be carved over these native scribblings, obliterating them with a bald statement of pharaonic power that proclaimed the boundaries of his new empire. The inscription also recorded the presence, at this most symbolically charged of occasions, of Thutmose’s daughter Hatshepsut. For Thutmose, extending the boundaries of Egypt was not just a personal priority but the destiny of his new dynasty. It was an injunction the impressionable young princess would not forget.

Returning to Kerma, the king looked upon the devastation that his army had wrought and, true to form, resolved to memorialize the crushing victory in yet another monumental inscription. (The power of the written word to render permanent a desired state of affairs lay at the heart of Egyptian belief and practice.) Carved into the side of an imposing, sloping rock just outside the city limits, near modern Tombos, the text gives an extensive commentary on the Nubian campaign. Its bloodcurdling tone surpasses even the ancient Egyptians’ accustomed rhetoric, painting a lurid picture of the carnage visited upon the unfortunate inhabitants of Kerma:

There is not a single one of them left.

The Nubian bowmen have fallen to the slaughter,

and are laid low throughout their lands.

Their entrails drench their valleys;

gore from their mouths pours down in torrents.

Carrion eaters swarm down upon them,

and the birds carry their trophies away to another place.2

In the same breath, the inscription extols (righteous) warfare and pumps up Thutmose I as a glory-seeking conqueror who is ready to roam the earth, taking on all comers: “He trod [the earth’s] end in might and victory seeking a fight, but he found no one who would stand up to him.”3 The Tombos text, which describes foreigners as “god’s abomination,” strikes a particularly uncompromising tone of exultant cruelty and rampant militarism.

Before leaving Nubia, the king ordered a series of fortified towns to be established throughout the conquered territories, to give the Egyptians a permanent foothold in Kush and to deter future rebellions. One of these forts was called, with typical bombast, “no one dares confront him among all the nine bows [the traditional enemies of Egypt].” To facilitate Nubia’s administration, it was divided into five districts, each controlled by a governor sworn in fealty to the Egyptian king. In a further measure intended to inculcate loyalty, the sons of Nubian chiefs were forcibly taken to Egypt, to be “educated” at court alongside their masters, in the hope that they would learn Egyptian customs and an Egyptian worldview. They also served as convenient hostages against possible insurrection by their relatives back home in Nubia.

An altogether more gruesome deportation awaited the defeated ruler of Kerma. If the Egyptian sources are to be believed, he was felled in battle by Thutmose I himself. If so, it was a mercifully quick death. On the Egyptians’ triumphant journey home, the enemy’s corpse was strung up at the bow of Thutmose’s flagship, Falcon. There it hung, putrefying and flyblown, a gruesome mascot of the king’s victory and a dire warning to any other would-be foes. Once back in Egypt, the conqueror thanked the gods for his victory by dedicating a stela at the sacred site of Abdju. At the end of the usual pious formulae, the king reverted to type, reveling in his subjugation of foreign peoples: “I made Egypt the chief, and the whole earth her servants.”4

Thutmose’s empire building had now taken on a religious zeal.


CONQUERING NUBIA, A NATURAL EXTENSION OF THE EGYPTIAN NILE Valley and a land easily accessible by boat, was one thing. Extending Egypt’s boundaries into Asia, with its multitude of city-states and unfamiliar terrain, was quite another. Yet no sooner had Thutmose finished celebrating bringing Kush to heel than he was busying himself with plans for an equally ambitious foray into the Near East, “to wash his heart [that is, slake his desire] throughout the foreign lands.”5 This time, however, the king’s main aim seems to have been a short-term propaganda coup rather than all-out military supremacy. The Egyptian garrisons at Sharuhen and Gaza, established by his predecessors, seemed sufficient to prevent another Hyksos-style invasion by hostile Asiatics. Egyptian economic interests continued to be centered on the entrepôt of Kebny, from which the royal court could obtain all the exotica it desired: timber, aromatic oils, tin, and silver. But this was not enough for Thutmose, scourge of Nubia. He craved international recognition for Egypt as a great power, on a par with the other emergent empires of the Near East. And he knew that the quickest way to win such status was a massive show of force right under the noses of his rivals.

There may also have been a longer-term strategic motive for an armed foray into Asia. Thutmose’s predecessors of the late Middle Kingdom had failed to recognize the threat posed by the Hyksos until it was too late. He was determined not to repeat their mistake. His envoys and spies would have told him that in northern Mesopotamia, far beyond the borders of Egypt, another potentially hostile power was growing in strength. The Kingdom of Mittani had been forged from a collection of smaller states by a force of Indo-European–speaking warriors. As well as their strange tongue (reflected in the names of their kings, and some of their gods), they had brought with them from the steppes of Central Asia the horse-drawn chariot and a class of elite charioteers called themaryannu. With this highly effective new weaponry, Mittani had grown strong enough in the time of Ahmose to invade Anatolia and inflict a heavy defeat on the Hittite Kingdom. By the reign of Amenhotep I, Mittani had driven the Hittites out of northern Syria, upsetting the delicate political balance in the Near East. Mittani was on the march, sweeping all before it. It seemed only a matter of time before it encroached upon the Egyptian sphere of interest. Faced with such a prospect, Thutmose determined that a preemptive strike was the wisest policy—better safe than sorry.

So, in the fourth year of his reign, he set out for the kingdom of Mittani, known by the Egyptians as Naharin, “the two rivers”—in other words, Mesopotamia. Details of the expedition are sketchy, but it seems likely that to avoid a lengthy and protracted campaign through Palestine, Thutmose opted instead for an amphibious operation, sailing up the coast of the eastern Mediterranean and landing his forces in the friendly harbor of Kebny. From there, it would have been a much shorter overland march into northern Syria and to the banks of the upper Euphrates. Beyond the mighty river lay Mittani proper.

Local intelligence sources confirmed Thutmose’s worst fears: Mittani was indeed planning an attack on Syria-Palestine, directly threatening Egypt’s economic interests. The king lost no time in engaging the enemy and “made great carnage among them,”6capturing some of their prized horses and chariots. To rub salt into Mittani’s wounds, Thutmose did what might, by now, have been expected of him: he had a great commemorative inscription carved on the banks of the Euphrates, to mark the ultima Thule of his new empire. From the borders of Mesopotamia, in the north, to the fourth cataract, in the south, Egypt’s power had never been so widely felt.

Honor satisfied, the Egyptian army turned for home. All-out conquest of Mittani had never been in the cards, for Egypt had no strategic interest in controlling a land so far from home. But Thutmose had succeeded in firing a warning shot across Mittani’s bows and neutralizing its immediate threat. He had also demonstrated Egypt’s new superpower status on the world stage, both to Mittani and to its nervous neighbors. Yet rather than heading straight back to Egypt with his victorious forces, Thutmose decided to indulge in a classic display of triumphalist hauteur. Halting his homeward march in the land of Niye, in the valley of the river Orontes (modern Asi), he proceeded to hunt the herds of Syrian elephants that roamed the area. This extraordinary act was no doubt carefully calculated. On a symbolic level, it drew on the ancient ideology of kingship, establishing an explicit parallel between the defeat of Egypt’s enemies and the subjugation of untamed nature. Thutmose the military leader was consciously promoting himself as Thutmose the cosmic avenger. On a more practical level, it must have reinforced the news that by now was spreading throughout the Near East—that a great king had arisen in Egypt who showed as much machismo in his peacetime pursuits as he did on the battlefield.


WHEN THUTMOSE I DIED IN 1481 AFTER A REIGN OF JUST A DOZEN years, he left as his legacy an Egyptian empire whose boundaries stretched from Syria to sub-Saharan Africa. The great kings of the Near East—the rulers of Babylonia, Assyria, Mittani, and the Hittites—recognized their Egyptian brother as a full member of their select club. Yet this newly won authority was both superficial and vulnerable. At Kerma the local people had rebuilt their town and temple, reaffirming their indigenous traditions in defiance of their Egyptian overlords. As soon as news of Thutmose’s death reached upper Nubia, the Kushites revolted, hoping to regain some of the autonomy that their nemesis had so barbarously crushed. Foremost among the rebels were the surviving sons of the very king of Kush whom Thutmose had slain and so gruesomely hung from the prow of his flagship. Revenge was sweet indeed. The Kushite forces attacked the fortresses built by Thutmose, killed their Egyptian garrisons, plundered their cattle, and for a time seemed to threaten Egyptian rule over Nubia. But they had reckoned without the determination of Thutmose’s young successor and namesake, who showed himself every inch his father’s son. Ordering an immediate military response to the uprising, Thutmose II (1481–1479) commanded that every Nubian male should be put to the sword, save just one of the Kushite princes who would be brought back to Egypt for “education” in time-honored fashion.

In his ruthless determination to defend his father’s achievements, Thutmose II was no doubt supported by his half sister and consort, Hatshepsut. Living up to her name (which means “foremost of noblewomen”), Hatshepsut was not merely the king’s great wife. As daughter of Thutmose I by his chief consort, Hatshepsut clearly regarded herself as having a stronger claim to the throne than her husband, whose mother had merely been a secondary wife. So, when Hatshepsut ’s young husband succumbed to ill health after only three years on the throne, she seized her chance. No longer content to stand on the sidelines, she set her sights firmly on gaining the top job. As for Ahmose before her, kingship would be the focus of her ambition, Thebes her stage. Just as her father had extended the borders of Egypt, so Hatshepsut would push the boundaries of royal ideology further than ever before.

Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

For a woman to hold the reins of power in ancient Egypt was not unprecedented. At the end of the Twelfth Dynasty, a female king, Sobekneferu, had briefly occupied the throne. More recently, during the upheavals and reconstruction of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth dynasties, three successive generations of royal women, Tetisheri, Ahhotep, and Ahmose-Nefertari, had exercised great influence over the affairs of state. On the face of it, Hatshepsut was merely following in this tradition when she ruled as regent for Thutmose II’s infant son, her stepson, Thutmose III. As a contemporary inscription makes clear, there was a different tone to Hatshepsut’s authority from the very start. After her husband’s death,

His son arose in his place as king of the Two Lands, having assumed rule upon the throne of his begetter; while his sister, the god’s wife Hatshepsut, conducted the affairs of the land, the Two Lands being in her counsels. She is served; Egypt bows [its] head.7

Her position as god’s wife gave her some authority, especially in the Theban region, but Hatshepsut and her courtiers must have been acutely aware that she was not the king’s mother, merely his stepmother and aunt. For her to exercise full control of the government would require appropriate ideological cover and proper theological justification. Her first bold step was to adopt the equivalent of a royal throne name, which she used alongside her queenly titles. Then, seven years into the new regency, in 1473, Hatshepsut made the determined and irrevocable decision to adopt the full panoply of kingship: the regalia of crowns and scepters and the hallowed titles and styles of Egyptian monarchy. Although she had to share the throne with her young stepson, there was no doubting who was the senior co-regent. Hatshepsut’s reign had begun in earnest.

In the wake of such an unorthodox accession, the new female king and her advisers embarked on a concerted program of myth-making to bolster her legitimacy. They promoted the story of her divine birth, and rewrote history to have her elected as heir apparent during her father’s lifetime. On monuments and inscriptions, she consciously emphasized her father’s achievements, calling herself “the king’s firstborn daughter,” and studiously ignored the brief reign of her late husband. It was as if Thutmose II had never existed and the throne had passed directly from Thutmose I to Hatshepsut.

This sleight of hand may have convinced some of her detractors, but there was still the awkward question of her gender. The ideology of kingship required—demanded—a male ruler. Yet Hatshepsut, as her very name announced, was female. Her response to this conundrum was deeply schizophrenic. On some monuments, especially those dating from the time before her accession, she had the images recarved to show her as a man. On others, she had female epithets applied to male monarchs of the past, in an apparent attempt to “feminize” her ancestors. Even when portrayed as a man, Hatshepsut often used grammatically feminine epithets, describing herself as the daughter (rather than son) of Ra, or the lady (rather than lord) of the Two Lands. The tension between male office and female officeholder was never satisfactorily resolved. Little wonder that Hatshepsut’s advisers came up with a new circumlocution for the monarch. From now on, the term for the palace, per-aa (literally “great house”), was applied also to its chief inhabitant.Peraa—pharaoh—now became the unique designation of the Egyptian ruler.

While Thutmose I had concentrated his efforts on building an empire, his daughter’s greatest desire was to deck Egypt with buildings befitting its new status. Hatshepsut’s reign is remarkable for the sheer number and audacity of her monuments, from a rock-cut shrine deep in the mountains of Sinai to a stone-built temple inside the fortress of Buhen, in Nubia. But it was Thebes that benefited most from her plans. The city’s sacred landscape, laid out at the very beginning of the New Kingdom, offered Hatshepsut unrivaled opportunities to associate herself ever more closely with the state god Amun-Ra, and hence to silence her critics and doubters once and for all. For generations, Amun-Ra’s chief temple at Ipetsut had enjoyed a theological importance belied by its rather modest proportions. Hatshepsut changed all that. She set about transforming it into a true national shrine, adding a “noble pillared hall”8 between her father’s two monumental gateways. At the core of the temple she reshaped the Middle Kingdom sanctuary, while on the south side her architects created a vast new gateway, the largest to date, fronted by six colossal statues of the female king. Nearby, she erected a chapel carved from blocks of red sandstone and black granite, each of them decorated with exquisite scenes of Hatshepsut performing the rituals and duties of kingship. On the north side of the temple, she built a royal residence with the revealing name “the royal palace ‘I am not far from him’ [that is, Amun-Ra].”

The crowning glory of her additions to Ipetsut were three pairs of obelisks, designed, quite literally, to point the way to the divine. On the base of one pair, she had her masons carve a long text, to record her pious motives for all eternity. It stands to this day as Hatshepsut’s principal apologia, the most revealing insight into her character and ambition:

I have done this with a loving heart for my father Amun.… I call to attention the people who shall live in the future, who shall consider this monument that I made for my father.… It was when I was sitting in the palace that I remembered my maker. My heart directed me to make for him two obelisks of electrum [a natural alloy of gold and silver], their pinnacles touching the heavens.…

Now my mind turned this way and that, anticipating the words of the people who shall see my monument in future years and speak of what I have done.… He shall not declare what I have said to be an exaggeration. Rather, he will say, “How like her it is, loyal to her father!” … For I am his daughter in very truth, who glorifies him and who knows what he has ordained.9


BEYOND IPETSUT, HATSHEPSUT TOOK UP WHERE AMENHOTEP I HAD left off, adding yet more architectural props to the great Theban stage set of kingship. From her gateway on the south side of Ipetsut, she set forth a new axis that linked the temple of Amun-Ra with a temple dedicated to the god’s consort Mut and, beyond that, with a new shrine for the divine barque at Amun’s southern sanctuary (modern Luxor). To make proper symbolic use of this new processional way, Hatshepsut’s theologians inaugurated an annual celebration, the Festival of Opet, during which the cult image of Amun was carried from Ipetsut to Luxor, for a period of rest and relaxation. Amun of Opet would journey across the river to visit the west bank (and a small temple specially built by Hatshepsut to receive him), opening up yet another ritual axis. With the Beautiful Festival of the Valley already connecting Ipetsut and Deir el-Bahri, processional routes now demarcated the whole of Thebes. The city and everything in it belonged incontrovertibly to Amun-Ra, thanks to the ministrations of his beloved daughter.

Of Hatshepsut’s many constructions in Egypt, none received more care and attention than her temple at Deir el-Bahri. The site’s close assocation with Hathor, mother goddess and guardian of kingship, must have given it a special appeal to a female monarch. The fact that it lay directly opposite her new southern gateway at Ipetsut gave it added symbolic potency. Such a spot demanded a monument of uncommon quality. What Hatshepsut and her architects created at Deir el-Bahri over the course of thirteen years remains one of the most remarkable buildings from ancient Egypt. The uniqueness of its design is striking, even today. Its scale and grandeur overwhelm just as their patron intended. Though devised, first and foremost, as a grand resting place for the barque shrine of Amun-Ra during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, the temple called by Hatshepsut Djeser-djeseru, “Holy of Holies,” also incorporated shrines to Anubis, Hathor, and Ra, as well as a set of chapels for the perpetual celebration of her funerary cult alongside that of her father, Thutmose I. A single building sought to incorporate every aspect of royal ideology, from the monarch’s relationship with the ancient deities Hathor and Ra to the celebration of the royal ancestors and the king’s eternal destiny.

Scene from the Egyptian expedition to Punt  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

The entire complex was arranged as a series of huge terraces, with the sheer cliff face as a stunning natural backdrop. It was inspired by the neighboring temple of Mentuhotep, yet it outdid its predecessor in every department and cast Hatshepsut as the founder of a new age. A causeway linked the main temple to a valley temple more than half a mile to the east. The last five hundred yards of this processional route were flanked by more than a hundred sphinxes of Hatshepsut. The temple proper was likewise furnished with magnificent statuary showing the monarch in different guises, offering to the gods or transfigured as Osiris. Behind the pillared façades of each terrace, delicately carved and painted scenes recorded key episodes from Hatshepsut’s life, real or imagined: her divine birth; her election as heir apparent; her coronation; the transport of her obelisks to Ipetsut; and, perhaps most famous, the expedition she sent in 1463 to the fabled land of Punt to bring back exotic materials for Amun-Ra. The vivid details of the African landscape, the Puntites’ stilt houses, and their obese queen have made this tableau one of the best-known in any Egyptian temple. It seems to capture the freshness, vitality, and innovation that characterize the reign of Hatshepsut, the most effective and powerful of the handful of women ever to rule ancient Egypt.

There is one further, unusual aspect to Hatshepsut’s reign—the unprecedented favors bestowed on her most devoted follower, Senenmut. A man of humble origins, Senenmut rose to prominence during Hatshepsut’s regency. As tutor to her daughter, he enjoyed privileged access to the royal family’s inner sanctum. As overseer of the audience chamber, he effectively controlled who did and did not get to see the regent. While as steward of the queen’s estate, he wielded considerable economic influence. The combination of offices made him Hatshepsut’s most influential courtier by far. He seems to have had an artistic bent, to judge from the unparalleled quantity, quality, and diversity of his surviving statuary, and his skills were recognized by Hatshepsut, who promoted him to the office of overseer of all the king’s works, and chief architect. In this capacity, he masterminded the sculpting and transport of the Ipetsut obelisks, and the construction of “Holy of Holies.” His special reward, among many, was royal permission to carve his own devotional reliefs at Deir el-Bahri, Ipetsut, and “in [all] the temples of Upper and Lower Egypt.”10 At Deir el-Bahri, he even had himself depicted in the upper sanctuary, albeit carefully concealed behind the open doors of the shrine. For a commoner to be shown in the most sacred part of the temple was not just unusual but unprecedented.

He was likewise allowed to commission a vast funerary complex, the largest of its time, comprising a public cult chapel and a secluded burial chamber, the latter reaching right underneath the sacred enclosure at Deir el-Bahri and equipped with a stone sarcophagus, another royal prerogative. It is little wonder that Senenmut’s jealous contemporaries harbored suspicions about the precise nature of his relationship with Hatshepsut, and little wonder that a cheeky Theban workman illustrated the more scurrilous rumors in a sexually explicit graffito.

Ironically, Hatshepsut’s elevation to the kingship did not bring commensurate promotion for Senenmut. He was replaced as tutor to the princess and subsequently disappeared from the official record. Whether he fell out of favor, retired, or simply died from natural causes remains a mystery. What is clear is that he never married and he left no heirs. Such, perhaps, was the price of winning and keeping his mistress’s favor.


WHILE HATSHEPSUT, IN HER MORE AMBITIOUS MOMENTS, MAY HAVE hoped to see her daughter follow in her footsteps, a mother-daughter succession would have stretched the ideology of kingship just too far. In the end, the throne passed to her stepson, nephew, and son-in-law, Thutmose III, who after a decade and a half as junior co-regent finally achieved sole rule in 1458. Whatever his personal feelings toward his stepmother, he certainly shared her idolization of Thutmose I. And it was with his grandfather’s energy and zeal that he set about consolidating his imperial inheritance. Just ten weeks after taking over the reins of power, Thutmose III rode out at the head of his army on his first military campaign to the Near East. He was determined, no doubt, to prove himself as brave and resolute a leader as his forebear, but there was also an immediate political imperative. While Hatshepsut’s regime had been preoccupied with construction projects at home, Egypt’s foreign rivals had not been idle. The kingdom of Mittani, temporarily humbled by Thutmose I, had reasserted itself and was busy stirring up resistance to Egyptian rule among a coalition of Asiatic princes. Chief among them was the prince of Kadesh (modern Tell Nebi Mend), who had holed himself up with his key allies in the fortified town of Megiddo (the biblical Armageddon). Since Megiddo controlled the Jezreel Valley, the main north-south route through northern Canaan as well as the easiest route between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean coast, Egypt ignored such unwelcome developments at its peril. Attack was the best form of defense.

At the end of winter 1458, Thutmose III and his household division of ten thousand men passed through the border fortress of Tjaru, bound for Megiddo. After a march of nine days, they reached Gaza and bedded down for the night in friendly company. But this was no time for relaxation. They were off again at the crack of dawn, setting forth “in valor, victory, power, and vindication.”11 A further eleven days’ march through unfamiliar and hostile territory brought the army to the town of Yehem, where the king held a war council. From Yehem, three roads led to Megiddo: one to the north, one to the south, and the most direct route through the narrow Aruna Pass. According to the official campaign record, the king argued for the Aruna road against the advice of his generals. Whatever the truth behind the decision, it was inspired, for as the Egyptian soldiers advanced through the narrow defile, with Thutmose leading from the front, they met no resistance. The enemy had been waiting for them to the north and south, never expecting them to risk the Aruna road. Once the Egyptian rear guard had safely emerged from the pass, the entire force continued down the road toward Megiddo and pitched camp on the bank of the Qina Brook in the early afternoon. Like Shakespeare’s Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, Thutmose steeled his men for battle the following morning, telling the soldiers of the watch, “Be steadfast, be steadfast! Be vigilant, be vigilant!”12

At daybreak on April 27, the king appeared in the midst of his infantry, standing on a chariot of electrum and clad in shining armor—a dazzling sight to inspire his troops and intimidate the enemy. It seems to have done the trick, for the opposing forces “fled headlong toward Megiddo with faces of fear, abandoning their horses and their chariots of gold and silver, [the men] to be hoisted up into the town by their clothes.”13 Then, to the Egyptians’ eternal shame, their discipline cracked, and instead of pressing home their advantage, they set about plundering the possessions the enemy had left behind on the battlefield. Having failed to capture Megiddo before the town could muster its defenses, the Egyptians found themselves preparing for a long siege. A detachment of soldiers was sent to measure the town walls, while others cut down the surrounding orchards. After a great effort, Megiddo was surrounded by the Egyptians with a wooden wall seven feet high and three feet thick, and was further isolated by a ditch. As the days and weeks dragged on, some of the beleaguered and famished townspeople came out to surrender, and were duly pardoned. For the prince of Kadesh and his allies, it was only a matter of time. Eventually, they too surrendered to Thutmose, crawling “upon their bellies to kiss the ground before His Majesty’s might, and to beg breath for their nostrils.”14

Their public submission was only the beginning. The victorious king appointed new rulers to all their towns, seized their land, and annexed it to the royal treasury. The produce from the rich, arable fields of the Megiddo Plain, together with annual tribute from across the Near East, gave Egypt the economic clout to match its political and military might. The haul of booty from the Battle of Megiddo was stupendous: two thousand horses and nearly a thousand chariots; almost two thousand cattle, the same number of goats, and more than twenty thousand sheep; 1,796 male and female slaves and their children, and numerous prisoners of war, including the wives of the ruler of Kadesh. All in all, it was the most signficant military event of Thutmose III’s reign and it secured Egyptian control over the Transjordan for the next four centuries.


BEHIND THE OFFICIAL RHETORIC OF THE CAMPAIGN ANNALS, THE spoils of Megiddo also had a human dimension. Egyptian soldiers returned from battle with foreign wives as well as plunder. The captives and concubines who made the long journey to the Nile Valley brought about a transformation of Egyptian society, integrating themselves with their host communities and turning New Kingdom Egypt into a thoroughly cosmopolitan country—a wholly unintended consequence of Egypt’s imperial adventures. The Nile Valley had always been a melting pot of peoples and cultures, Mediterranean and African influences coexisting and cross-pollinating. From prehistoric times Egypt had welcomed immigrants from other lands, as long as they thoroughly integrated themselves and adopted Egyptian customs. Even at the height of the Pyramid Age, when Egyptian chauvinism and self-confidence had known no bounds, a native citizen of Memphis might have rubbed shoulders with a shipwright from Kebny or a mercenary from Nubia, albeit bearing adopted Egyptian names. But the influx of foreigners prompted by Thutmose III’s campaigns was on an altogether different scale. Egyptian towns and cities found themselves home to significant foreign populations, and the migrants were quick to make the most of their new opportunities. One particularly talented prisoner of war, named Pas-Baal, rose to become chief architect in the temple of Amun, an office his descendants held for at least six generations. Even the royal palace witnessed changing attitudes toward foreigners. Among the booty brought back from the Near East by Thutmose III were three Syrian women on whom the young king seems to have doted. One of them was named Manuwai, from the Amorite word meaning “to love.” Her companions were named Manhata and Maruta (Hebrew “Martha,” meaning “lady”). Thutmose showered all three of them with sumptuous gifts: golden armlets, bracelets, and anklets; beaded collars; diadems inlaid with precious stones; vessels of precious metal, and rare glass vases. Barely a century after the expulsion of the hated Hyksos, the Egyptian king had Asiatic wives in his harem. It was a remarkable turnaround.

After Megiddo, Thutmose III led another sixteen military operations in the Near East during the next two decades, at a dizzying frequency of almost one a year. Most were little more than heavily militarized tours of inspection, to cement previous victories and receive tribute from vassal princes. But a few forays into Syria-Palestine had real military objectives. The city-state of Tunip, in northern Syria, posed a particular threat, and was the focus of three consecutive campaigns. Thutmose turned his forces against Tunip’s coastal protectorates, conquering them, taking their rulers hostage, and transforming their harbors into fortified supply centers for the Egyptian army. Slowly but surely, Egypt was eliminating the opposition and annexing large swaths of the Near East. Where Thutmose I had been content with a show of force, his grandson was determined to win and hold territory for the long term.

Not that Thutmose III was immune to the attractions of a propaganda coup. For his eighth campaign, he decided to set the seal on his grandfather’s achievements, following in his footsteps to the very borders of Mittani. As it had two generations earlier, the Egyptian army journeyed by sea from the delta to Kebny. There, timber was cut and ships were built, which the pharaoh’s men proceeded to haul overland to the banks of the Euphrates. Having “crossed the great bend of Naharin in bravery and victory at the head of his army,”15 Thutmose found the Mittanian forces ill-prepared for battle. Their king fled, and his nobility sought refuge in nearby caves to escape the Egyptian onslaught that devastated the surrounding towns and villages. Thutmose took the enemy’s retreat as a surrender, and recorded his triumph on a stela set up right next to Thutmose I’s victory inscription. History was repeating itself, just as the king intended. To complete the coup de théâtre, the pharaoh proceeded to Niye, where he killed 120 elephants in direct emulation of his grandfather. He then took time out to visit the local bow-making industry at nearby Qatna and participate in a sporting conquest, before collecting more tribute from the native princes and marching back to Egypt. Altogether, the campaign lasted a record five months. The plaudits from Mittani’s fellow enemies came thick and fast. Babylonia sent gifts of lapis lazuli; the Hittites sent shipments of silver, gems, and wood. Assyrian envoys brought tribute, too—as, a little later, did delegations from Ashuwa, on the Ionian coast, and the land of Tanaya (perhaps Mycenae), which provided silver and rare iron. Egypt’s reputation was at its zenith, and Thutmose III, Egypt’s warrior pharaoh, was the toast and envy of foreign capitals from the Aegean to the Persian Gulf.

There remained only the unfinished business of Nubia. Where brute force had failed to crush Kushite opposition, perhaps a more calculated policy might succeed. Kerma had been rebuilt time and again by its loyal citizens, so rather than razing the city to the ground, Thutmose III took the simpler expedient of founding his own Egyptian settlement next door. Drawn away by opportunities for trade and employment, the population of Kerma slowly but surely migrated the short distance to the new town of Pnubs. Starved of commerce, the old city, talisman of Kushite nationhood, withered and died. Instead of killing the local rulers and hanging them upside down from his bowsprit, Thutmose III brought them and their families back to Egypt for a spell of assimilation, before repatriating them, thoroughly acculturated, to continue administering their homelands on behalf of the Egyptian crown. While Egyptian control was never as strong in Kush as it was in Wawat, Thutmose’s policy was a success, and serious rebellions did not trouble the New Kingdom pharaohs again.

Thutmose III was justly hailed in his lifetime as the ruler “who makes his boundary as far as the Horn of the Earth, the marshes of Naharin.”16 In the eyes of posterity, he was, perhaps, the greatest of all pharaohs.

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