Second Intermediate Period—Foundation of the Egyptian Armies II

Egyptian Infantry in the Middle Kingdom : 1. Archer, 2. Light Spearman, 3. Nubian Archer, 4. Phalanx Spearman, 5. Axeman, 6. Javelineer | Standards: (a) Standard of Hare Nome, (b) The Scepter Nome, (c) Anupu – The Black Dog Nome

Egyptian Soldiers, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty: 1. Pharaoh Ahmose, 2. Officer, 3. Infantry, 4. Syrian Chariot Warrior, 5. Horseman, 6. High Ranking Officer, 7. Hyksos Chariot Warrior, 8. Canaanite Spearman

New Kingdom Egyptian armies added massed chariotry to the already sophisticated infantry tactics of the Middle Kingdom. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Canaanites, the Egyptians continued to rely heavily on their infantry, although both Thutmose III at Megiddo and Ramesses II at Kadesh berate their foot for lack of discipline.


It is thought-provoking to analyse the events surrounding the earlier seizure of the crucial site of Sile (Tjaru). Recent excavations have thrown welcome light on this matter, but the key point is that this fortress in the north-eastern delta served as the entrance and the exit of merchants, armies and tribes alike (Morris 2005: 46-7, 56-60). Sile, probably the second most important base of Hyksos control, fell to Ahmose before the capital itself. Located at Tell el-Hebua, it seems to have been significant from the Second Intermediate Period on, and bears witness to the intimate economic relations that the Hyksos had with their neighbours in Palestine. We can assume that the king’s troops used the numerous canals and small waterways in order to advance swiftly upon the citadel. The decisive battle, nonetheless, had to be fought outside the walls, in what was to become the standard means of military warfare: the king or his troops advance inland; they engage their opponents in the field outside a city or fortress; the fighting is chariot-based, and when the defending side loses, the city surrenders. This was the ideal system of Egyptian military conflict, one that occurs again and again in their pictorial reports carved on temple walls (Gaballa 1976).

The process of expansion by means of war rapidly became a principal raison d’etre of the re-unified Egyptian kingdom. The old conflict with Nubia never ceased, and we find not only Kamose but also his immediate successors (Ahmose, Amenhotep I and Thutmose I) pushing their fleet and army considerably upstream. To some degree, this was conceived as a reconquest of lost provinces that Egypt once held, in particular the territory between the First and Second Cataracts. That region, named Wawat, was soon to be completely incorporated into the Egyptian economy. Buhen at the Second Cataract was quickly established as the administrative focus of Egypt’s imperialistic desires. In similar fashion, the island of Sai at the Second Cataract was converted into yet another fortress-town. This practice is known only from the southern zone of Egypt’s control (Morris 2005: 112-13). Asia appears to have been another matter, probably because the logistics of political and military domination were more complex.

Under the first two rulers of the 18th Dynasty there is little evidence that the Egyptians were able to control Palestine. The need to develop a larger fighting force, composed of elite charioteers, was not at the core of the difficulty: distance and isolation were. Thus it was somewhat troublesome for King Ahmose to capture the southern Palestinian city of Sharuhen (Spalinger 2005: 34 note 31); sieges are notoriously the result of an army’s incapacity to effect a swift battlefield decision. Within Egypt proper, troops and supplies could be quickly dispatched to problematic regions with little fear of interruption, and this was also the case in Nubia. In Western Asia, on the other hand, there were no rivers that could provide such logistical support except for the faraway Euphrates in eastern Syria. Thus a different system of logistics had to be developed, one based on the active support of local cities, reinforced by key military bases. This took time.

This key difference between Asia and Nubia explains the seemingly rapid takeover of Lower Nubia (the province of Wawat) by the time of the death of Thutmose I, as well as territory south to the Third Cataract. This king even moved his flotilla far beyond the Fourth Cataract, and his exploits indicate just how effective the Egyptian logistical system was (Davies 2004). We must not assume that such an extensive voyage and the submission or defeat of the locals at the extreme limits of the known universe implies that Egypt could hold such territory. Superior military technology – in particular better bronze weapons, chariots and horses – could overwhelm the locals. In addition, the Nile was a perfect artery for expansion. Nonetheless – and the Nubian work projects of Amenhotep I and Thutmose I prove this – two key problems came to the fore. In order for Egyptian imperialism to be maintained, supply bases as well as military garrisons were needed: hence, the development of an 18th Dynasty fortress system, coupled with permanent occupation. At the same time, once the distances east and west of the Nile broadened, severe constraints were placed on Egyptian political and military control.

One reason why Middle Kingdom control over Nubia was more limited than that of the New Kingdom lies in the lower technological level at that time (O’Connor 1993; O’Connor and Reid 2003). In the 12th Dynasty, Egypt could move beyond the Second Cataract, as attested by campaigns against the Kingdom of Kerma. But Egypt could not control lands further south; hence, the major building projects of the 12th Dynasty in the Second Cataract region. This is not to deny that in the early New Kingdom major crises occurred in Nubia. One well-known case was the eruption of rebellion at the time of Thutmose I’s death (Gabolde 2004). The severity of the disturbance indicates that `pacification’ did not automatically mean control.

The first century or so of the New Kingdom may be said to have provided the bases of military and political domination over Palestine and Nubia. Equally, this period witnessed the gradual development of the Egyptian army with a more complex system of administration. By the reign of Thutmose III, the chariot divisions with their leaders had come to the fore in the military (Gnirs 1996: 12-17, 31-4). `Field marshals’ of non-royal blood ran the officer class. The gradual transformation of a marine-oriented army to a land-based one entailed the establishment of a new and increasingly important career path. The military had become a powerful corporation in its own right, and with the king leading it in person, the ethos of the army and the concept of kingship had altered (Spalinger 2005: 70-80). Now, the rulers of Egypt were expected to engage in wars, to show their virility in the field, to bring back prisoners as proof of success, and to return thanks and captives to the godhead, Amun. In fact, it seems that every campaign began in the temple of Amun where a `speech oracle’ (Schenke 1960) took place during which Amun promised victory to his son, the living king. The trip to foreign and distant lands commenced from, and returned to, the religious centre of Thebes.

All kings, including Hatshepsut, were obliged to perform military deeds. Begun as a nationalistic reaction against the internally divided nature of the home country, war now assumed a permanent aspect of society that embraced all key members, not just the king and his officers. The temples included age-old ritual smiting scenes on their walls, updated to reflect the circumstance of Asiatic and Nubian prisoners. The king comported himself in a militaristic manner, whether through his manly acts of archery and horsemanship in war or peace, or within a temple bequeathing captives to workhouses, if not death (Hornung 1982a). If the influence of the newly won empire led to independence of action and confidence in strength, it also meant that the kingdom had now become one of the superpowers of the day (Redford 1995).

The independent reign of Thutmose III is traditionally seen as the apogee of the 18th Dynasty’s military might and success. If so, and his published war record attempted to prove this, it was obtained only after many decades of continual warfare (Redford 2003; Cavillier 2003). There are two major divisions within the military reports of Thutmose III, although both were considered to belong together. The first covers the momentous campaign of the king to the central Palestinian city of Megiddo. That narration, detailed and historically sober, focuses upon the background to the war as well as the heroic deeds of the monarch. These two aspects permeate the composition. We learn that the north Syrian city of Kadesh was an active supporter of the resistance, undoubtedly hoping to deflect pharaonic strength away from itself. It is also evident from the official report that this opposition to Egyptian control had come about because of Egypt’s seemingly unopposed success at an earlier time. Even though we do not know precisely the depth of Egyptian control in Asia, it is clear that if Thutmose I was able to fight on the Upper Euphrates, none of the small city-states of Palestine and Syria was able, on its own, to resist Egypt effectively. Some have even argued that Palestine was devastated by the Egyptians in the early 18th Dynasty, a hypothesis that still needs clear proof (Spalinger 2005: 65-6 note 7 and 96-7). If so, the opposition of the Palestinian cities with support from Syria makes further sense.

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. This intense fighting ought to indicate that neither mere heroism nor personal satisfaction was at the heart of the matter. Although the economic implications of Egypt’s hegemony over Asia are still murky, it can be argued that Egypt had become reliant upon the region for long-range trade as well as the possible importation of horses and chariots, the power force always needed for any army at this time. Egypt’s desire to maintain control of the Levantine ports further highlights its indirect economic influence over the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the recent argument that the port of Perunefer, Egyptian for `good departure’, was located at Avaris/Tell el-Dab#a, emphasizes even more the need that the Egyptians had for an aggressive marine policy (Bietak 2005). Finally, all of this control could only be maintained by some type of policing, a point that has been investigated in detail from the voluminous data revealed in the Amarna Letters (Pintore 1973; Na’aman 1975; Liverani 1990, 1994; Bryce 2003).

By the end of the reign of Thutmose III, a rigorous policy of garrisons had come to exist in Asia. Though small in number, such troops served as a `civil guard’ necessary to aid and support small wars. Local princes were closely watched and often deposed if they attempted to shake off Egyptian control. One new fortress in the Lebanon is known from the reign of Thutmose III (Morris 2005: 213). By this time, the personal involvement of the king was no longer significant. In the subsequent reign of Amenhotep II, for example, the king fought in person only twice, although a third war is known to have occurred when he was regent with his father. Thutmose IV went abroad once, to Nubia. The role of the various Egyptian `commissioners’ and garrison soldiers was locally based. Their duty was to keep the peace and not actively to upset any urban power, city or kingdom. Local troops would have been busy in their attempt to repel local marauders, especially the tribes circulating around the borders of eastern and southern Palestine (known to the Egyptians as `Shasu’) (Giveon 1971; Ward 1972). This persisted into the following dynasty, as the various Late Egyptian Miscellanies reveal (Moers 2001; Spalinger 2005: 267-9). The inter national correspondence of the Amarna Letters, dated to the reign of Amenhotep IV, reveals similarly parochial, though extremely bothersome, concerns.


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