Thutmose III The Napoleon of Ancient Egypt 1479 – 1425 BC
Some believe Rameses II was the greatest Egyptian ruler but this not true; he spent Egypt’s wealth on massive building projects where as Thutmose III actually created Egypt’s wealth. Thutmose III possessed the archetypal qualities of a great ruler. A brilliant general who never lost a battle, he also excelled as an administrator and statesman. He was an accomplished horseman, archer, athlete, and discriminating patron of the arts. Thutmose had no time for pompous, self-indulgent bombast and his reign, with the exception of his uncharacteristic spite against the memory of Hatshepsut, shows him to have been a sincere and fair-minded man.
Thutmose III had spent the long years of his aunt Hatshepsut’s reign training in the army. This kept him away from court politics but nevertheless prepared him well for his own role as pharaoh because great ability in war was considered a desirable quality in the ancient world. Egyptian pharaohs were expected to lead their armies into foreign lands and demonstrate their bravery on the field in person. After a few victorious battles, a king might return home in triumph, loaded with plunder and a promise of annual tribute from the defeated cities. But during Hatshepsut’s reign, there were no wars and Egypt’s soldiers had little practice in warfare. The result was that Egypt’s neighbors were gradually becoming independent and when this new, unknown pharaoh came to the throne; these other kings were inclined to test his resolve.
In the second year of his reign, Thutmose found himself faced with a coalition of the princes from Kadesh and Megiddo, who had mobilized a large army. What’s more, the Mesopotamians and their kinsmen living in Syria refused to pay tribute and declared themselves free of Egypt.
Undaunted, Thutmose immediately set out with his army. He crossed the Sinai desert and marched to the city of Gaza which had remained loyal to Egypt. The events of the campaign are well documented because Thutmose’s private secretary, Tjaneni, kept a record which was later copied and engraved onto the walls of the temple of Karnak.
This first campaign revealed Thutmose to be the military genius of his time. He understood the value of logistics and lines of supply, the necessity of rapid movement, and the sudden surprise attack. He led by example and was probably the first person in history to take full advantage of sea power to support his campaigns.
Megiddo was Thutmose’s first objective because it was a key point strategically. It had to be taken at all costs. When he reached Aruna, Thutmose held a council with all his generals. There were three routes to Megiddo: two long, easy, and level roads around the hills, which the enemy expected Thutmose to take, and a narrow, difficult route that cut through the hills.
His generals advised him to go the easy way, saying of the alternative, “Horse must follow behind horse and man behind man also, and our vanguard will be engaged while our rearguard is at Aruna without fighting.” But Thutmose’s reply to this was, “As I live, as I am the beloved of Ra and praised by my father Amun, I will go on the narrow road. Let those who will, go on the roads you have mentioned; and let anyone who will, follow my Majesty.”
When the soldiers heard this bold speech they shouted in one voice, “We follow thy Majesty whithersoever thy Majesty goes.”
Thutmose led his men on foot through the hills “horse behind Horse and man behind man, his Majesty showing the way by his own footsteps.” It took about twelve hours for the vanguard to reach the valley on the other side, and another seven hours before the last troops emerged. Thutmose, himself, waited at the head of the pass till the last man was safely through.
The sudden and unexpected appearance of Egyptians at their rear forced the allies to make a hasty redeployment of their troops. There were over three hundred allied kings, each with his own army; an immense force. However, Thutmose was determined and when the allies saw him at the head of his men leading them forward, they lost heart for the fight and fled for the city of Megiddo, “as if terrified by spirits: they left their horse and chariots of silver and gold.”
The Egyptian army, being young and inexperienced, simply lacked the control to take the city immediately. Thutmose was angry. He said to them,
“If only the troops of his Majesty had not given their hearts to spoiling the things of the enemy, they would have taken Megiddo at that moment. For the ruler of every northern country is in Megiddo and its capture is as the capture of a thousand cities.”
Megiddo was besieged. A moat was dug around the city walls and a strong wooden palisade erected. The king gave orders to let nobody through except those who signaled at the gate that they wished to give themselves up. Eventually the vanquished kings sent out their sons and daughters to negotiate peace. According to Thutmose, “All those things with which they had come to fight against my Majesty, now they brought them as tribute to my Majesty, while they themselves stood upon their walls giving praise to my Majesty, and begging that the Breath of Life be given to their nostrils.”
They received good terms for surrender. An oath of allegiance was imposed upon them: “We will not again do evil against Menkheper Ra, our good Lord, in our lifetime, for we have seen his might, and he has deigned to give us breath.”
Thutmose III is often compared to Napoleon, but unlike Napoleon he never lost a battle. He conducted sixteen campaigns in Palestine, Syria and Nubia and his treatment of the conquered was always humane. He established a sort of “Pax Egyptica” over his empire. Syria and Palestine were obliged to keep the peace and the region as a whole experienced an unprecedented degree of prosperity.
His impact upon Egyptian culture was profound. He was a national hero, revered long after his time. Indeed, his name was held in awe even to the last days of ancient Egyptian history. His military achievements brought fabulous wealth and his family resided over a golden age that was never surpassed.
He was also a cultured man who demonstrated a curiosity about the lands he conquered; many of his building works at Karnak are covered with carvings of the plants and flowers he saw on his campaigns. He also set up a number of obelisks in Egypt, one of which, erroneously called Cleopatra’s Needle, now stands on the Embankment in London. Its twin is in Central Park in New York. Another is near the Lateran, in Rome, and yet another stands in Istanbul. In this way, Thutmose III maintains a presence in some of the most powerful nations of the last two thousand years.
Ancient Egyptian Anecdotes
The Ancient Egyptians in their own words
Illustrated Papyri translations edited for the modern reader.