7. The Bronze Age Super Powers That Jockeyed for Control of the Middle East
Two centuries after Thutmose III fought the Battle of Megiddo, Ramses II fought the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. It was the earliest battle in recorded history for which details such as tactics and formations are known. It was also the largest chariot battle ever fought, in which up to 6000 chariots took part. It occurred against a backdrop of a generations-long rivalry between Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, the superpowers of their day, as they jockeyed to control the lands of Canaan between them. Early in his reign (1279 – 1213 BC), Ramses decided to finish off the Hittites and patiently worked for years to gather a powerful army and build up supply depots.
Ramses marched north from Egypt into Canaan with four divisions. First was the Amon Division, led by the pharaoh in person, followed by the divisions of Re, Ptah, and Sutekh. When he heard the news, the Hittite King Muwatalli II marched south from Anatolia into Canaan, with 3,000 heavy chariots and 8,000 infantry. In the late spring of 1274 BC, Ramses emerged from the hills above the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River, near the border between modern Syria and Lebanon. He had not spotted the Hittites, who were far closer to his army than he thought.
6. A Desperate Battle, and a Bronze Age Propaganda Campaign to Paint it as a Glorious Victory
The Hittites hid behind Kadesh when Ramses II neared the city, and nomads falsely informed the pharaoh that his enemies were nowhere near. An emboldened Ramses hurried with the Amon Division to Kadesh and left the rest of his army behind. As Ramses advanced, the Hittites circled around the city, and took care to keep Kadesh between themselves and the Egyptians. As Ramses and the Division of Amon made camp, the Division of Re straggled up the road behind. That was when 2000 massed Hittite chariots charged directly across the Egyptian line of march. They wrecked the Division of Re, then surrounded Ramses in his camp.
The pharaoh gathered his personal guards, and led a desperate charge that drove some Hittite leaders into the river. Fortunately for Ramses, the Hittites behind him abandoned their chariots to loot the Egyptian camp. That was when the Division of Sutekh arrived, and slaughtered the looters. As King Muwatalli sent in the rest of his chariots, the last Egyptian Division of Ptah arrived, and the battle lasted until sunset. After prolonged slaughter, the Hittites finally withdrew into Kadesh and left the field – and victory – to Ramses. Upon his return, the warrior pharaoh littered Egypt with monuments and murals that detailed the engagement and in which he described himself as “Ramses, the Great, Conqueror of the Hittites“. It is thanks to that bragging that know so much about the battle.
5. The Fascinating Bronze Age Egyptian Warrior Queen
Bronze Age warrior Queen Ahhotep I (circa 1560 – 1530 BC) shone during Ancient Egypt’s Seventeenth Dynasty. She led armies in combat against the Hyksos – foreign Semitic interlopers who had conquered Egypt’s Nile Delta. After Ahhotep’s husband was killed fighting the invaders, she took over Egypt’s throne and armies as regent during the minority of her son, Ahmose I. As regent, she kept up the pressure against the Hyksos until her son came of age and took over the fight.
According to a stele that recorded her accomplishments: “The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Kemet [Egypt]. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels, The king´s wife Ahhotep given life. … She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”
4. Ahhotep’s Prowess Won Her Ancient Egypt’s Highest Military Award
Ahmose I, Ahhotep’s son, eventually came of age and took the reins of power, and took over where his mother and his father before her had left off. Ahmose fought the Hyksos, beat and drove them out of Egypt, and reunified the kingdom. He then went on to found the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ancient Egypt’s most famous and successful ruling family. During their reign, the Egyptian Empire reached the zenith of its power and stretched from Syria in the north to Nubia in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the east to the Libyan desert in the west.
The fascinating warrior queen was not done fighting, however. While Ahhotep’s son was busy in the south on a campaign against the Nubians, a cabal of Hyksos-sympathizing rebels tried to seize the throne. She rallied loyal troops, fought off the rebels, and foiled their attempt. For that, she was rewarded with the “Golden Flies of Valor” – Ancient Egypt’s highest military award for courage. It was discovered by archaeologists in Ahhoteps tomb, along with weapons and jewelry, thousands of years later.
The kingdom and civilization of Ancient Egypt lasted for roughly three millennia, from around 3100 BC until its conquest and annexation by the Romans in 30 BC. For most of the first two-thirds of its existence, Ancient Egypt was a dominant great power in its neck of the woods. Then it went into a steady decline during its last millennium or so. Pharaoh Ramses III (reigned 1186 – 1155 BC) is considered to be the last great ruler of that long-lived civilization.
This Ramses left his mark as a warrior king, and he is most famous for having fought against a confederation of mysterious marauders known as “The Sea Peoples”. Scholars and historians to this day are unsure just who exactly the Sea Peoples were, but what is known is that they overran nearly all of the era’s Mediterranean kingdoms. Except for Egypt. The invaders inflicted widespread devastation that ushered in what came to be known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse – a dark age that lasted for centuries, during which civilization took a nose dive.
2. A Decisive Victory Against the Bronze Age’s Most Terrifying Marauders
The one Bronze Age kingdom that the Sea Peoples failed to conquer was Ramses III’s Egypt. In the eighth year of his reign, the mysterious marauders invaded Egypt by land and by sea, while Libyans from the west also had a go at the pharaoh’s kingdom. Ramses took on and crushed the invaders. Ancient Egyptians did not have a great reputation as seamen, but on this one occasion, with everything at stake, they put up a determined resistance. Ramses massed archers along the banks of the Nile, and they kept up a steady and heavy fire that devastated the invaders as they tried to disembark. Then Egyptian ships struck, used grappling hooks to secure themselves to the enemy’s vessels, and slaughtered the Sea Peoples in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.
The victory was total. As Ramses put it on inscriptions that commemorated the event: “As for those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever. As for those who came forward together on the seas, the full flame was in front of them at the Nile mouths, while a stockade of lances surrounded them on the shore, prostrated on the beach, slain, and made into heaps from head to tail“. Unfortunately, as seen below, although Ramses had saved Egypt, he was unable to save himself from his own family.
1. The Pharaoh Who Saved Egypt Could Not Save Himself From His Own Family
Ancient Egyptian pharaohs often had multiple wives and many sons, and Ramses III was no exception. His designated heir was his son Ramses IV, but one of his minor wives, Queen Tiye, wanted her own son Pentawer to become the next ruler instead. So she enlisted a group of palace officials in a conspiracy to assassinate the pharaoh. In 1155 BC, as the pharaoh relaxed amidst the royal harem in a palace near Luxor, the plotters struck, took him by surprise, and slashed his throat. Unfortunately for the plotters, only the first part of their plan, the assassination, had succeeded.
The follow-up did not fare so well. Queen Tiye and her accomplices failed to install her son Pentawer on the throne, which had been their ultimate goal. The assassinated pharaoh’s designated heir Ramses IV rallied his supporters, secured the throne, rounded up the plotters, and executed 28 of them. Pentawer was either strangled to death, or was buried alive. Millennia later, his remains were discovered, and his face bore an agonized expression that led to its designation as “The Screaming Mummy“. Other plotters had their ears and noses cut off. Queen Tiye’s punishment is not recorded.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading