Ancient Egyptian wars had played a decisive role in the destiny of this great civilization and helped the pharaohs defeat Egypt’s many enemies.
During their long history, the Egyptians fought amongst themselves and against foreign enemies that often strove to grab Egypt’s vast riches for themselves.
In this article, we will shed light on how the Egyptians defended their land from foreign invaders and marched to war in order to subdue other peoples on behalf of the pharaoh. Join us on a fascinating journey through the battlefields of the Ancient Near East and discover how the Ancient Egyptians waged war.
The Birth of Egypt as a Unified Country
Although very little is known about protodynastic Egypt before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the rule of a single monarch, most Egyptologists today agree that it was a period of strife.
Agriculture has been practiced in the Nile Valley since the Neolithic, with most scholars agreeing that agriculture in the Near East developed around 9000 BCE.
Ancient Egyptian civilization emerged due to a long process that saw the development of agriculture, industry, trade, and written language.
The hieroglyphic script developed towards the end of the fourth millennia BCE (c. 3400 – 3200 BCE) and was followed by the advances in architecture and the birth of Egyptian religion during the Naqada III Period (c. 3200 – 3150 BCE).
During this period, protodynastic Egypt came under the influence of Mesopotamia due to extensive trade links between Mesopotamian cities and Egypt, which led to the exchange of ideas.
Narmer Unifies the Two Lands and Becomes the First Pharaoh
The identity of Egypt’s first pharaoh has sparked much debate among Egyptologists. Upper Egypt during the Naqada III period had been divided between three city-states of Thinis, Naqada, and Nekhen. It is believed that Naqada had fallen to Thinis and that Nekhen suffered the same fate.
The nearly endless warfare resulted in the eventual unification of Egypt under a single ruler. Sources claim the Scorpion King(s) unified Egypt, but their identity has never been determined.
Most scholars identify the Scorpion Kings as Ka and Narmer, two of the last three kings of the Predynastic era. The ancient historian Manetho, writing during the Ptolemaic period, lists Menes as the first pharaoh.
Modern Egyptologists identify Menes with Narmer, but there is no consensus on whether Narmer and Menes were the same. Egypt’s first pharaohs had established their capital at Memphis, located 12 miles south of Egypt’s current capital, Cairo.
The Old Kingdom: Egypt’s Golden Age
During the 3rd and 4th dynasties, Egypt had entered a golden age. The existence of strong central authority and a capable bureaucracy enabled the Egyptians to effectively organize labor and built grand monuments such as the Pyramids of Giza.
Notably, there were no major wars during the Old Kingdom period, owing to Egypt’s geographic isolation and internal stability. As the central authority began to weaken, however, nomarchs gained greater independence and power.
– Nomarchs and Priests Challenge Pharaonic Authority
The First Intermediate Period (c. 2181 – 2040 BCE) was marked by political fragmentation due to the collapse of central authority.
Old Kingdom pharaohs had enjoyed a semi-divine status; all power was concentrated in the hands of the monarchs who appointed nomarchs and diverted enormous resources into the construction of their tombs and mortuary temples.
Such a state of affairs proved to be unsustainable in the long run, and consequently, 5th Dynasty pharaohs delegated more power to the nomarchs, which meant an effective decentralization of power.
The Priesthood of Ra also gained prominence because the priests were responsible for maintaining mortuary complexes and their wealth and influence kept growing as a result.
– Mentuhotep II Reunites Egypt Under His Rule
At the time of Mentuhotep’s accession, Egypt had been effectively divided into two kingdoms: Lower Egypt, the capital of Heracleopolis, and Upper Egypt ruled from Thebes. A son of the Theban King Intef III, Mentuhotep moved against his rival Merikare, who he managed to defeat and reunite Egypt.
It appears that the reunification was a gradual process rather than a one-off event. Mentuhotep had some difficulty in pacifying the country that seems to have been in turmoil. It was not uncommon for commoners to be buried with weapons during this era, and funerary stelae of officials depict them holding weapons.
How Ancient Egypt’s Wars Were Fought
War in Ancient Egypt changed over the course of centuries, most notably when the Hyksos settled in the Nile Delta and introduced horses to Egypt.
The Hyksos were a migratory people from the Levant who firmly established themselves in the Delta region and eventually managed to overthrow the native dynasties and rule over much of Egypt.
The consequent change in Ancient Egyptian military tactics saw the Egyptians using chariots in a war for the first time (c. 1600 BCE).
Chariots: A New and Deathly Weapon That Revolutionized Egyptian Warfare
The arrival of the Hyksos forever changed Egypt. They introduced to Egypt the horse, chariot, and Bronze Age weapons that would dominate the battlefields of the Ancient Near East for the next ten centuries.
Among the weapons the Hyksos introduced to Egypt were the ax and the composite bow, which helped them defeat the Egyptians in battle and dominate Egypt for two centuries, during the era commonly known as the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1700 – 1550 BCE).
The military inferiority of the Egyptians was further exacerbated by the lack of adequate body armor and outdated weapons. Nevertheless, it was the chariot that would strike terror into the hearts of Ancient Egyptian soldiers.
A Hyksos chariot would have typically been drawn by two horses and carried two soldiers. One of them was responsible for driving the chariot while the other fired the bow and threw spears at enemy men.
The Egyptians were unable to mount resistance against the enemy onslaught. The Hyksos established their own dynasty in Lower Egypt, with the rest of the country reduced to vasal status.
The Egyptians Throw off the Yoke of Foreign Rule
Two centuries of Hyksos dominance forever changed Ancient Egypt’s warfare by introducing horses and chariots and formidable new weapons.
For the Egyptians, the Hyksos rule presented a chance to adapt to new methods of warfare their enemies had introduced. Initially, the Egyptians had difficulty in acquiring the horses and chariots and adopting new military tactics.
From their capital of Avaris, the Hyksos dominated Egypt and imposed a tribute on the Theban rulers in Upper Egypt. The Theban pharaoh Seqenenre came into conflict with the Hyksos King Apophis for encouraging the people to worship the God Ra, which greatly displeased the Hyksos King.
Seqenenre seems to have perished in battle against the Hyksos, as the wounds on his mummy strongly indicate he died in battle. It has been theorized that a Hyksos ax caused the large wound on the pharaoh’s forehead.
Kamose and Ahmose Defeat the Hyksos
Seqenenre’s son and heir, Kamose, avenged his father’s death. He successfully waged war against the Hyksos during his reign, but it would be his son Ahmose who would finally drive out the foreign invaders from Egypt and restore native rule.
The New Kingdom: Egypt as a Superpower of the Ancient Near East
Ahmose’s defeat of the Hyksos marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Ancient Egypt. Having driven out the Hyksos, Ahmose founded the 18th Dynasty and embarked on a series of ambitious building projects in the manner of Old and Middle Kingdom rulers.
Egypt would experience an era of unprecedented prosperity during the New Kingdom. During this period, the pharaohs sought to expand the borders of Egypt and frequently campaigned into the Levant and Nubia and reached the Euphrates.
– The Egyptians Develop a Powerful Military
Thanks to the introduction of bronze, horses, and chariots, the Egyptians had managed to reorganize their army and greatly increase their military power. Egyptian lightweight chariots were arguably faster and more effective than those of the Hyksos.
They had two wheels and were drawn by two horses. Horses in Egypt had various other uses, but it seems only the elite could afford them. New Kingdoms pharaohs were often depicted riding chariots which they used either for hunting or war. Chariots enabled the Egyptians to dominate the battlefield for centuries to come.
– The Period of Expansion Begins
The first pharaoh to lead the Egyptian armies far into the Levant was Thutmose I. Egypt’s military power, and prestige grew rapidly following Ahmose’s campaigns against the Hyksos and Nubia. The Near Eastern kingdoms on the Levantine coast likely entered into some tributary relationship with Egypt.
Thutmose I advanced as far as Naharin on the Euphrates River after he campaigned in Syria. It was the farthest north any Egyptian pharaoh had campaigned. Thutmose defeated the Nubians, who would remain under Egypt’s political and cultural influence for most of the New Kingdom era.
The brief rule of Thutmose II did not bring any significant changes in terms of Egypt’s status as the foremost power of the Ancient Near East. After a peaceful period during the reign of the first female ruler Hatshepsut, Egypt would reach the peak of its military glory under Thutmose III.
– Thutmose III: Egypt as the Undisputed Hegemon in the Near East
The warlike Pharaoh Thutmose III led his army on as many as seventeen campaigns, all of which were successful. All of the enemies of Ancient Egypt had been vanquished, and Egypt firmly established itself as a great power.
Thutmose III may have captured as many as 350 cities. During his reign, Egypt ruled a territory that stretched from the Euphrates in the north to Nubia in the south.
The Hittite Empire Challenges Egypt’s Claim to Regional Hegemony
The conquests of Thutmose III were followed by a long period of peace during which Egypt reached the apogee of its artistic and cultural splendor.
Ancient Egyptian generals were able to secure Egypt’s borders and preserve its influence in the Levant for the next three centuries until the rise of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia threatened Egypt’s control over Syria.
The Battle of Kadesh Ends and the World’s First Recorded Peace Treaty
Relations between the Egyptians and the Hittites had become strained when Ramesses II took the throne in 1279 BCE. Only five years later (1274 BCE), the two armies would clash in the Battle of Kadesh, which ended inconclusively and lead to the signing of the world’s first documented peace treaty.
Ramesses II invested no small effort into representing Kadesh as a great victory. It is thanks to Ramesses’ propaganda that Kadesh is one of the best-documented Ancient Egyptian battles.
Egypt Enters Into a Long Period of Decline
Ramesses II is often considered to be the greatest Egyptian pharaoh. Although Egypt had remained wealthy and powerful during the 20th Dynasty, foreign incursions, economic difficulties, and the ever-increasing power of the priests of Amun contributed to the long but steady decline of Egypt’s power.
Egypt would be ruled by a succession of foreign empires from the Persian conquest in the 5th century BCE until the annexation of Egypt into the Roman Empire after the death of the last Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra in 30 BCE.
Ancient Egypt was one of the world’s first superpowers, despite Egyptians failing to build a powerful empire. Although Egypt was not a militarized society, Egypt’s had a professional army that owed its success to:
- Usage of chariots, horses, and advanced Bronze Age weapons the Hyksos first introduced to Egypt
- Competent generals loyal to the pharaoh
- Successful leadership of pharaohs such as Ahmose I, Thutmose I and III, and Ramasses II, who fought in great battles of Egypt
Ancient Egyptians were skilled soldiers who successfully adapted to Bronze Age warfare and dominated the battlefields of the Ancient Near East for several centuries.