Egypt and Mitanni: War in the Levant (1550–1400 B.C.)

Mitanni Warriors

The Levant had been a land of cities long before the second millennium. Many of the early cities in the southern Levant had declined or been abandoned in the later third millennium B.C., however, and it was not until the Middle Bronze II period (c. 2000 B.C.) that there was an urban renewal. By the early second millennium, the Levant as a whole was divided up among a number of kingdoms ruled from major cities like Hazor and Qatna. Hazor is a good example of such a city, with a large lower town and a more strongly defended citadel, which probably contained the royal palace. Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin found that the lower town was laid out in the early second millennium and surrounded by a massive earthen rampart built around a mud-brick core. The front of the rampart was steeply sloping and faced with small stones—too steep to scale and too sloping to attack with a battering ram. On top of the rampart was a wall or breastwork of mud-bricks. The city gateways were flanked by square towers of mud-bricks on stone foundations. Similar defenses encircled the citadel or upper city.

The size of these fortifications hints that large-scale warfare was a fact of life in the Levant during the early second millennium. If so, it was largely internecine, for it was only in the sixteenth century B.C. that neighboring states began to interfere in the affairs of the region. It was at this time that a trio of “superpowers” emerged around the fringes of the Levant, each seeking to establish its dominance over the local kings.

First of the trio to campaign in the region was Egypt. The invasion of the southern Levant under Pharaoh Ahmose (1550–1525 B.C.) began as retaliation for the Hyksos domination of Egypt—the Hyksos being peoples of the Levant who had conquered the Egyptian delta. What began as retaliation soon turned into imperialism, as subsequent Egyptian rulers campaigned far to the north. Tuthmosis I (1504–1492 B.C.) even reached the Euphrates, and local rulers hurried to swear allegiance to such a powerful monarch, who had the immense resources of Egypt behind him. The problem for the Egyptians was that once their campaigns were over and they went home, the Levantine rulers grew less fervent in their support. Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 B.C.) sought to consolidate Egyptian power in the region by a twenty-year series of military campaigns. In 1457 B.C. he won a great victory at Megiddo. Much of the southern Levant then became an Egyptian dependency. In the north, however, Egyptian ambitions were checked by the development of a rival superpower of northern Mesopotamia—the kingdom of Mitanni.

In the early part of Dynasty 18, Egyptian rulers were primarily concerned with establishing their power in Syria/Palestine. At the beginning of this dynasty, ethnic movements in the Near East had created a power vacuum, and a new kingdom – Mitanni – had established itself in the land of Naharin, situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The population of Mitanni consisted of a ruling aristocracy of Indo-Aryan origin, and the Hurrians – people who had branched out in c.2300 BCE from their original homeland situated south of the Caspian Sea.

The Mitannians were one of the most powerful enemies that Egypt faced in Dynasty 18, although eventually the two countries became allies. The Egyptians wanted to set their own northern boundary at the Euphrates, so when Mitanni first began to push southwards, this led to direct conflict. Northern Syria became the main focus of Egypt’s campaigns and the most significant arena of warfare. However, the princedoms and city-states which occupied Palestine and the rest of Syria at this time were also drawn into the conflict; although they presented no cohesive threat to Egypt or Mitanni, both sides tried to coerce them into becoming vassal states.

Mitanni arose around 1550 B.C. when a local ruler succeeded in defeating his rivals and established a powerful unified state. Its center lay east of the Euphrates, in the Khabur plain, but the Mitannian kings soon cast their eyes west and east. In the west, they took control of Syria up to the Taurus Mountains, including territories previously conquered by the Hittites. In the east, they captured Assur and the valley of the upper Tigris, as far as the Zagros foothills.

These shows of armed resistance received support from the Syrian kingdom of Mitanni. Earlier, under Thutmose I, Egypt had engaged in war with Mitanni without, however, being able to achieve a decisive victory, since Mitannian power was equal to Egypt’s. Mitanni stood close to the Lebanon and maintained indirect control over central and south-eastern Syria. Any forays of Egypt into its heartland met with stiff opposition. So it is not surprising to find Mitanni actively championing a major revolt in Palestine against Egyptian control. Significantly, the subsequent northern wars of Thutmose III – Nubia had ceased to be a thorn in the side of Egypt by now – were directed inland and across Syria to the heartland of Mitanni. But before Thutmose could press his army so deep into Asia, he had to crush the rebellion at Megiddo.

In his later campaigns, all of which preoccupied him up to his forty-second regnal year, Thutmose III moved troops and war material north, through the age-old trade routes of the Via Maris on the coast, or the King’s Highway in the central valley of Palestine and Syria. Furthermore, the Egyptians secured the harbours of the Lebanon, used the ports as staging bases, and campaigned inland against Kadesh and eventually Mitanni.

Tuthmosis III sent a further sixteen campaigns to Syria over the next twenty years, which successfully sacked the city of Kadesh twice, and crossed the Euphrates to penetrate deep into Naharin. In the eighth campaign, which took place in Year 33, the Egyptians resoundingly defeated the Mitannians, but despite some significant successes there was no outright winner in this contest and, ultimately, the two powers were forced to recognize that neither would ever win a conclusive victory. Therefore, towards the end of Dynasty 18, they changed their policies and became allies. Tuthmosis III also reasserted Egypt’s control of Nubia, leading campaigns as far south as the Fourth Cataract. His excellent strategies and well-executed campaigns ensured that he is now appropriately recognized as Egypt’s greatest military ruler.

For several decades Egypt and Mitanni pursued a form of proxy warfare in the Levant, fighting each other’s allies and dependants rather than attacking each other directly. Then in the reign of Tuthmosis IV (1401–1391 B.C.) they suddenly changed tack and made an alliance because of renewed activity by the Hittites, culminating in the conquests of Suppiluliumas. This Hittite monarch defeated and destroyed Mitanni and took over Mitannian territories in the northern Levant. His victory brought the Hittites face to face with the Egyptians.