Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt

Patrick Lynch - November 14, 2016

Ancient Egypt is believed to have been one of the most peaceful ancient civilizations. There has been human settlement in Egypt since prehistoric times but the first Pharaoh is said to have come to power in the 31st Century BC. It remained an independent country until 332 B.C. when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

What is remarkable about ancient Egypt is that there are no records of major battles for at least the first 1,500 years after the first Pharaoh. Its inhabitants lived peacefully until the Hyksos people invaded Egypt in the 17th century BC and took control of the north. Over time, the Egyptians would learn a lot about military tactics from the Hyksos and they eventually drove them out of their country.

With this new knowledge at their disposal, the Egyptians set their sights on expansion. This inevitably led to conflict and in this article I will look at 6 important battles in ancient Egyptian history.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt
Battle of Megiddo (OVGuide)

1 – Battle of Megiddo – 15th Century BC

The exact date of this battle is not known. Some historians place it at 1482 BC; others have it at 1479 BC while more accounts state it took place in 1457 BC. What we do know is that the ancient Egyptians were attempting to expand their lands and take political control. This led to conflict with a Canaanite coalition. The Canaanites rebelled against the Egyptians and were led by the king of Kadesh.

The Egyptian Pharaoh, Thutmose III, decided to deal with this threat personally. There were three access routes to Megiddo which is where the Canaanites had concentrated their forces. Thutmose ignored the advice of his generals and marched through Aruna. This turned out to be an excellent decision as he arrived after meeting little opposition. It is said that Thutmose had an army of between 10,000 and 20,000 men while the Canaanites had approximately 10,000-15,000 men.

Thutmose ensured his army moved closer to the enemy at night and they attacked in the morning. Ancient sources don’t tell us whether or not the king of Kadesh was ready for the attack. In any case, the Egyptians enjoyed quick success as Thutmose himself led the charge through the center with his army spread into three sections. They overwhelmed their opponents and the Canaanite line collapsed almost immediately.

The Egyptians plundered the enemy’s camp and took hundreds of suits of armor and over 900 chariots. However, the Canaanite forces were able to retreat and the kings of Kadesh and Megiddo managed to flee into the city of Megiddo where they remained safe from immediate capture. This led to the Siege of Megiddo which lasted for approximately seven months. Ultimately, Thutmose managed to break down the resistance of the defenders. In victory, he spared the lives of the king of Kadesh and those who survived the siege.

The battle and subsequent siege created the foundations for two decades of Egyptian expansion. During the reign of Thutmose III, the Egyptian Empire reached its greater ever expanse.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt

2 – Battle of Kadesh – 13th Century BC

This is another battle where the exact date is unknown. Some historians claim it happened in 1288 BC while others suggest it took place in 1274 BC. Rameses II is regarded as one of the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history and in this battle, he fought against King Muwatalli II at Kadesh which is located near the modern day Syrian-Lebanese border. According to historians, it is the oldest recorded battle in history in terms of knowing the tactics and formations used. Additionally, the Kadesh inscriptions ensure it is probably the best documented battle in ancient history.

After reaching its peak under Thutmose III, the Egyptian Empire began to lose territory. Towards the end of the 14th century BC, Egypt was losing territory to Mitanni which is located in modern day Syria. While Rameses I and Seti I managed to take back territory in Canaan and Syria, it seems as if the Hittites wrestled back control by the time Rameses II became Pharaoh.

By this time, Amurru had defected to Egypt and the Hittites wanted this territory back. This led to the Battle of Kadesh which happened in the fifth year of Rameses’ reign. He had approximately 20,000 men compared to the Hittite force which numbered anywhere from 23,000-50,000 men depending on the source you believe. Regardless, Rameses was outnumbered by his enemy and the battle didn’t start too promisingly.

Rameses made the mistake of believing that the Hittites were near Haleb; in actual fact, his enemy was hiding near Kadesh which was some 200 kilometers away from where the Egyptians thought they were. Rameses thought he could quickly take Kadesh without opposition so marched towards the city. His four divisions became scattered as they approached Kadesh; the Hittites quickly seized the initiative and launched a huge chariot attack and destroyed one of the Egyptian divisions.

They moved onto a second Egyptian division and had similar success. Then the Hittites made a fatal error; instead of continuing the onslaught, they began looting the bodies of their dead enemies. This gave Rameses crucial time to regroup and the two remaining divisions came together and launched a decisive attack which destroyed all but a small number of the Hittite chariot division. The battle continued the next day and both sides suffered huge losses.

While Rameses claimed a great victory upon his return to Egypt; historians now suggest the Battle of Kadesh was probably a draw. However, it could be classified as a ‘victory’ for the Egyptians in the sense that they halted Hittite incursions into their territory. Certainly, the battle paved the way for successful Egyptian military campaigns. Within four years, Rameses managed to capture Tunip and Dapur although these successes didn’t last very long. After years of constant war where no side could make a significant breakthrough; Rameses eventually signed a peace treaty with the Hittites some 17 years after Kadesh.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt

3 – Battle of Djahy – 1178 BC?

This battle took place in the eighth year of the reign of Rameses III and occurred at Djahy which is in modern day Lebanon. While the battle is said to have taken place in 1178 BC; this date is in dispute which some historians claiming it happened in 1175 BC. A seafaring confederation of groups known as the Sea Peoples was making incursions into Egyptian territory by the beginning of the 12th century BC.

It was an extremely difficult time for the Pharaoh who also had to contend with crop failures, drought, and a reduction in population among other things. Three years before Djahy, Rameses had defeated Libyan enemies on Egypt’s border but the Sea Peoples were a much more dangerous threat. It was a dark period as several Mediterranean civilizations such as the kingdoms of Ugarit and Cyprus and the Hittites and Mycenaeans were destroyed by the Sea Peoples and other invaders.

The Egyptians were helped by the fact that the Sea Peoples had already sacked the Hittite territory of Amurru which was on the Egyptian border. This gave Rameses time to prepare for the inevitable attack. Details of the battle are sketchy and we are relying on the account of the Pharaoh which would obviously be biased. Rameses spoke of how his fearless troops stood ready to crush the invaders.

While the details of the battle aren’t clear (Rameses suggests his chariots saved the day), we do know that the Egyptians managed to defeat the Sea Peoples at Djahy. Yet this was far from being the end of the war. The Sea Peoples continued to attack with their naval fleet and Rameses had to defeat them at sea in order to end their threat.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt
C3i Ops Center

4 – Battle of the Delta – 1175 BC?

After managing to fend off the Sea Peoples with victory at Djahy, Rameses used this breathing space to create a plan to end the threat of this dangerous enemy. According to the ancient Medinet Habu inscriptions, the Pharaoh looked at the sea and saw thousands of enemies. He knew the Sea Peoples were a great threat to his empire so he began preparations for a huge sea battle.

His first step was to line the Nile Delta shores with archers ready to shoot thousands of arrows at any enemy ships that came close to land. Rather than engaging with the Sea Peoples on the open water (which would spell almost certain defeat), Rameses cleverly lured their ships into the Nile’s mouth where he had an ambush waiting. This trap consisted of numerous Egyptian ships which pushed their enemy’s vessels towards the shore and the waiting archers.

These men, along with the archers located on the ships, let off volley after volley of arrows and utterly destroyed the enemy. The Sea Peoples were only armed with swords and spears so there was no way for them to counterattack. Their ships were overturned; many of their men drowned and most of those that survived the initial attack were either captured or killed on the shore.

The Battle of the Delta was unquestionably one of the most crucial battles in the history of ancient Egypt. Had Rameses III been defeated, it is almost certain that the empire would have met the same fate as destroyed civilizations such as the Hittites. Yet the victory came at a heavy cost. The Egyptian Treasury was completely drained and its army was severely depleted. While immediate destruction was prevented; the empire began a steady decline in any case. Once Rameses died, things got worse as the Philistines took all of Egypt’s territory in the East.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt
Generation Word Bible Teaching

5 – Battle of Carchemish – 605 BC

This significant battle involved an alliance of Egypt and Assyria against the Babylonians who were aided by the Scythians, Persians and Medes. Carchemish was to be Egypt’s last attempt to take control of the Middle East. Seven years previously, Assyria lost its capital Nineveh to the Babylonians (and their allies) and was forced to change its capital to Harran. In 609 B.C., the Babylonian alliance also captured Harran so the Assyrians moved their capital to Carchemish.

In the same year, the Egyptians under Pharaoh Necho II defeated King Josiah, the ruler of the kingdom of Judah, at Megiddo. Then the Egyptians joined the Assyrians in an unsuccessful attempt to retake Harran. In 605 BC, the Babylonian alliance, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, faced the Egyptian alliance at Carchemish.

It is difficult to ascertain the precise army sizes at Carchemish but we do know that the Egyptians lost a reasonable share of its army at Megiddo. The Assyrians had also suffered numerous casualties during the losses of Nineveh and Harran. Yet ancient sources suggest the Egyptians had up to 40,000 men against the 18,000 men of the Babylonian alliance.

According to the Chronicle of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian commander quickly crossed the Euphrates River and attacked the Egyptian army in what became a bloody battle. Necho’s men were the first to leave the field and the remaining soldiers were massacred. The fleeing Egyptians left their weapons behind and were easy prey for the Babylonians as Nebuchadnezzar conquered the entire Hamath area. Nebuchadnezzar ended up on the Babylonian throne soon after the battle and began an empire that stretched from Egypt to Persia.

Ancient World Conflict- 6 Battles that Changed Ancient Egypt
Ancient History Encyclopedia (Bastet)

6 – Battle of Pelusium – 525 BC

This battle took place near the eastern edge of Egypt’s Nile Delta in 525 BC between Pharaoh Psamtik III and Achaemenid king Cambyses II of Persia. It was the first big battle between the ancient Egyptian and Achaemenid Empires. The Persian ruler was furious that the Egyptian Pharaoh’s father (Amasis) had sent him a ‘fake’ daughter and decided to invade Egypt as retribution. By the time Cambyses was ready to invade, Amasis had died which meant his son had to deal with the invaders.

Psamtik was prepared for the attack and strengthened his position at Pelusium. While he believed his forces could repel attacks and withstand a siege, he was unprepared for his crafty enemy. At that time, Bastet was one of Egypt’s most popular goddesses and was known to be a loving and kind deity unless she was offended. In this case, she would become her wicked and spiteful alter ego Sekhmet. In ancient Egypt, you could be executed for the crime of killing a cat such was the reverence the Egyptians showed for this animal.

On the day of the Battle of Pelusium, it is said that Cambyses ordered his men to paint the image of Bastet on their shields. Another source suggests he told his army to pin cats to their shields as a means of psychologically paralyzing the Egyptians. 2nd Century AD Macedonian writer Polyaenus claimed the Persians placed various animals sacred to the Egyptians on their front line including cats, sheep and dogs. We will never know the precise story but it does appear as if Cambyses used some cunning strategy to win the day.

The Egyptians suffered a terrible defeat and up to 50,000 of them died on the battlefield compared to approximately 7,000 Persians. Once again, it is claimed that the Egyptians surrendered their position due to the sight of cats/Bastet on enemy shields (or clothing). Retreating Egyptians fled to the city of Memphis and a siege ensued. Cambyses finally lifted the siege and killed an estimated 2,000 of his enemies. Egypt was annexed by the Persians and Cambyses became the new Pharaoh. While Psamtik III was initially spared, he attempted a rebellion and was promptly executed.