The Battle of Megiddo
by John Patrick Hewson
The battle of Megiddo is the earliest battle of which there is some historical record, although the record is fragmented and sketchy. And, although no complete record of the tactics exists, we do have some information at our disposal. James Henry Breasted, in his “Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents” published in Chicago in 1906, gives a translation of an inscription from the Amen temple at Karnak which gives some details of the battle. A slightly different translation is given by J. B. Pritchard in “Ancient Near Eastern Texts” published in 1969. In addition, a tentative map of the battlefield is given in “Carta’s Atlas of the Bible” by Yohanan Aharoni, published in Jerusalem in 1964.
Thutmose III Menkhepori, (died 1449 BCE), an eighteenth dynasty king of the Egyptian new kingdom, was the son of Thutmose II and Iset, one of his lesser wives. His grandfather, Thutmose I, had undertaken extensive military campaigns in both Syria and Nubia. However, Thutmose II did not conduct any major military campaigns during his reign; the only one we know about was a minor police action in Nubia.
Thutmose II died when Thutmose III was only 8, so his aunt, Thutmose II’s half-sister Hatshepsut, ruled Egypt as regent, and, while a woman regent was not unusual, she acquired more power than previous woman regents had done. Then, in the seventh year of Thutmose’s reign, she elevated herself to the status of co-Pharaoh. In an attempt to justify this she put about false information that her father Thutmose I had elevated her to the kingship. It was to be another 7 years before Thutmose III would become sole ruler. It is not known whether this came about because of Hatshepsut’s death or whether she retired from public life. All we know is that her career came to a sudden and. But we do know that she was no longer co-regent when the battle of Megiddo was fought (about 1481 BCE), which is the date on the Karnak inscriptions.
During the co-regency the administration of the affairs of the country was divided between them, with Thutmose responsible for military affairs and Hatshepsut responsible for home affairs and foreign affairs such as trade and diplomacy. During this time Thutmose conducted at least two military campaigns into Palestine and another two into Nubia, but we have few details about them. Much of Syria was controlled by the Kings of the city-state of Mitanni, and we know that Thutmose made incursions into Mitanni controlled areas. However, Mitanni and Egypt eventually made peace, necessary because of the threat from Judaliya, the king of the powerful Hittite state to the north in what is today eastern Turkey.
Egypt’s main enemy was an alliance of Cananite city-states, led by the kingdom of Kadesh. The king of Kadesh, Durusha, attempted to take advantage of the disorganisation caused by the end of the co-regency to assert his power in an attempt to rid the Cananite tribes of Egyptian influence. Kadesh, Mitanni  and the other Cananite city-states, including Megiddo itself, raised a combined army under Durusha’s leadership and embarked on a military operation against Thutmose. However, because of the nature of the Cananite kingdom, there was chronic disunity of command. Canan was divided into many smaller kingdoms and city-states under kings or princes who governed their own jurisdictions and who forged diplomatic and trade agreements with each other as circumstances required. The Cananite state itself had a ruling king and a royal family advised by a judicial council, but agreement with the individual kings and princes was essential for security and governmental stability.
The army of the seventeenth and eighteenth dynasties of Egyptian the new kingdom was very different from that of previous dynasties. Previously, the weaponry had consisted of a throwing weapon for offense and a heavy shield for defense. The new kingdom dynasties adopted new weapons and strategies after the Hyksos occupation, and the role of the military in Egyptian society changed. The length and complexity of military campaigns increased, and as it did so the use of conscripts became impractical and the development of a professional army was necessary. At first, the nobility assumed the role of the officer corps and charioteers, with the king fighting among them, generally in close order. Many specialised troops evolved, such as sappers with battering rams and scaling ladders, trench diggers, Kushite shock troops and Nubian archers.
Because this new army did not have all the entrenched traditions which other societal institutions had, it was relatively easy for a common soldier to rise through the ranks; a talented or brave soldier could move into other segments of society and assumed an exalted position because of gifts of land and slaves bestowed upon him by the Pharaoh. This resulted in the evolution of a self-made nobility and officer corps. One consequence was that a number of army commanders became Pharaohs, and many Pharaohs surrounded themselves with officers whose loyalty and self-sacrifice they had witnessed. An elite arose of royal bodyguards drawn sometimes from the Egyptian army and sometimes from the elite troops of conquered peoples, such as the Nubians. Infantry and chariotry offers could also be drawn from these men. In addition, the new kingdom army saw the first use of Egyptian mounted cavalry, though only in small scale; it was the Persians in the sixth century B.C.E. who pioneered the first large cavalry units. During the new kingdom Egypt embarked on its most ambitious expansive exploits, but also in later dynasties, upon its gradual decline. The increasing use of militia and mercenaries also characterised this period. These mercenary units, consisting mostly of Ionians, Carians, Jews, Aramaeans, and Phoenicians, were deployed when regular army forces were considered to be unreliable. Mercenary troops were officered by foreign commanders, often of a different ethnic group, but there was still a feeling of loyalty to their employer, to their officers and to each other which was, and still is, essential to an army on the battlefield.
The Cananite army was made up mostly of men from the upper classes who began their training at a very young age and mostly came from warrior families. They enjoyed very high prestige and were well armed with spear, sword and shield, and highly skilled in the use of these weapons. They would sometimes be trained by their fathers, who usually were also soldiers or veterans. The high ranking officers, called
mohars, were mostly stationed in hilltop fortifications and were only called upon for actual combat, usually in a defensive role, by the king in times of need. Infantry and chariot units were commanded in battle by field commanders, called
muru-u, usually middle ranking officers.
The infantry carried long spears and were less well trained than the officer corps. Charioteers usually wore bronze armour and carried javelins. There was an elite corps called the Sacred Band, and were heavily armoured and carried long spears and round shields. The Sacred Band was so-called because they dedicated themselves to the Gods and would often carry standards emblazoned with the symbols of the gods into battle. They were usually foot soldiers, although some appear to have been mounted. They were ferociously trained and were greatly feared by their enemies. The king also retained a highly trained personal bodyguard, called
mara-u. There were also lower ranks made up of allied tribal warriors and mercenaries. These forces were utilised according to their own specialised talents and were led into battle by a high ranking officer. There were also archers, who were usually placed in separate close order formations
Both Egyptian and Cananite infantry usually fought in close order with swords or spears. In both armies, mercenaries and allied tribal infantry were usually placed in the front lines so that they would bear the brunt of the enemy attack. Chariots were used either in an initial charge against enemy against enemy chariots, and were usually placed in the centre, although on several occasions they are recorded as being in front of the army to be used in a head-on charge against the enemy infantry phalanxes.. Archers were also placed on the flanks, but sometimes they were placed in the rear so as to fire over their own men. They were usually used against infantry, both during the initial advance and in the course of the ensuing hand-to-=hand fighting.
There were three routes by which Thutmose’s army could reach Megiddo. The northern route emerged north of Megiddo and ran through Djefti. The southern route emerged at Taanakh to the south of Megiddo. These routes were less easily defendable. The central route, which ran through the mountain pass near Aruna, (modern Wadi Ara) emerged very close to Megiddo itself. This was shorter than the northern or southern route, but was easily defendable; the Cananites could easily mount an ambush of an army going through the narrow pass. Thutmose’s generals had gathered intelligence telling them that the Aruna pass was blocked by Cananite forces, and they Advised Thutmose to take either one of the other two routes. However, Thutmose rejected this advice and went through the pass, reaching the river Qinah south of Megiddo after a march of 24 days without encountering any opposition. The generals’ intelligence had been faulty.
It then became clear to Thutmose how Durusha had arrayed his forces. Infantry units guarded the roads at Taanakh and Djefti, while his chariots were in the centre near Megiddo itself. His plan had called for the Egyptians to attack the infantry units, who would feign retreat, causing the Egyptians to pursue them, splitting their forces. This would leave them vulnerable to a massed attack by his chariots, which would destroy them. His plan had been effectively nullified by Thutmose taking the Aruna pass route. Meanwhile Durusha, seeing the Egyptians emerging from the pass opposite Megiddo, decided upon an attack the following day.
After resting for the night, the Egyptian army moved towards Megiddo in three sections. The southern infantry was on a small hill south of the Qinah, while the northern wing moved into position northwest of Megiddo. Thutmose himself was in the centre with the chariots, who were in position at the town of Aruna just west of Megiddo. His spies had told him that the Cananites were plagued by disunity of command, with local princes each advocating different strategies and arguing amongst themselves. He therefore decided to launch a pre-emptive attack. He ordered a massed two-pronged chariot assault from the west and the south. The Cananites broke and fled back to Megiddo, where the citizens hauled them over the walls to safety. Then, instead of attacking the city, the Egyptians stopped to plunder the Cananite camp. This gave the Cananites inside Megiddo time to organise a proper defense of the city. As a result, instead of an immediate conquest of Megiddo, the Egyptians had to lay siege to it. The siege lasted seven months, after which the city fell. When it fell, Thutmose was able to capture all the Cananite princes, who had taken refuge within the walls.
Megiddo was the first of many campaigns in Syria by Thutmose. Seven years after Megiddo, Thutmose expanded the area of Egyptian influence in Syria beyond the extent it had reached as a result of the battle. He advanced and captured Kadesh itself. As he advanced, he had the sons of the kings of the various city-states he conquered sent to Egypt, both as hostages against their fathers’ good behaviour and to educate them in Egyptian culture and society so that, as Egyptophiles, they would increase Egyptian influence in their respective city-states upon their succession.
Eleven years after Megiddo,
Thutmose reached the Euphrates as his grandfather had done, advancing as far north as Carchemesh, thereby effectively separating Mitanni from its western vassal states. The result was that the princes of these states formed an alliance with him against their former overlord. However, Mitanni couldn’t have been very much weakened by this because, although the sequence of events is uncertain, we know that by the last years of the fifteenth century BCE, Mitanni had regained much of its power under its king Sauchtetar. However, he had extended Egyptian influence in Asia to the maximum area it would reach in Egyptian history. He also built a large river navy, but this was not a fighting force in itself. Its purpose was to transport troops and chariots to places where they could fight land battles. This was an important factor in extending his influence because it enabled him to transport troops and chariots to any part of the Euphrates basin in four or five days, whereas marching would have taken two weeks or more. This meant that surprise attacks were possible, and Thutmose used them on several occasions, extending Egyptian influence over much of the near east.
. The date of his birth is not certain.
. For example, for her tomb she commissioned a sarcophagus of a type usually reserved for kings and, according to an inscription on the tomb of one of her officials, Ineni, she “settled the affairs of the two lands according to her own plans”.
. The date of the battle is uncertain. The Amen inscription states that Megiddo took place in the 22nd year of Thutmose’s reign (14 years of co-regency plus 8), which, if the battle was in fact in 1481 BCE, would mean that he was born in 1503 BCE.. This date is further strengthened by the fact that he ruled Egypt for almost 54 years and died in 1449 BCE.
. Mitanni joined the alliance because its royal family bore a grudge against Thutmose III because of his father’s punitive actions against them during his advance to the Euphrates.
. By the middle of the twelfth century B.C.E. almost sixty percent of the regular Egyptian army consisted of non-Egyptians
Copyright © 2014 John Hewson.
Written by John Hewson. If you have questions or comments on this article,
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About the author:
John Hewson was born in England. He holds a BA from UBC and an MA from Carleton in International Relations.
He comes from a military family; his father was a staff sergeant in Royal Engineers. He is now retired and worked 23 years for Passport Canada.
He has always been interested in military history and has written several brief battle histories.
He is mainly interested in military history of ancient times and early middle ages, and also World War I.
Published online: 02/16/2014.
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