1457 BC - The Battle of Megiddo
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
1457 BC. The armies of Pharaoh Thutmose III march into the sun-drenched plain, bronze weapons glinting in the breeze. Chariots rattle over the rocks as the Egyptian army rushes forward to do battle with the King of Kadesh. It is the dawn of military history – the first battle ever recorded for posterity by eyewitness account. Ironic, then, that Megiddo is also supposed to be the site of the last battle.
Ancient Egypt, so often remembered for its pyramids and mummies, was the great power of the Bronze Age world. Even its power, though, rose and fell like the level of the Nile, and in the 1700s BC Egypt was conquered by a migratory people known as the Hyksos. These chariot-riding foreigners overran the light Egyptian infantry and established a hegemony in the occupied land for over 200 years.
Finally, in 1575 BC, the Hyksos were thrown out by a native Egyptian. He established the 14th Dynasty as Ahmose I. This final period of classical ancient Egypt, known as the “New Kingdom” period, is unspeakably ancient to us, but in 1575 the Great Pyramid of Giza was already a millennium old. It would be another millennium still before the Spartans fought the Persians at Thermopylae. This is ancient history, so deep and dusty that it almost seems mythical – but to these people, it was very real and recent.
For Ahmose I and his descendants, their primary task was ensuring that Egypt was never dominated by invaders again. This meant establishing a strong buffer zone along each border, especially in the northeast in Palestine and Syria, from where the Hyksos had come. Ahmose and his descendants gradually extended Egyptian control up the coast of the Mediterranean into Palestine and Syria as well as southward down the Red Sea into Nubia – modern Sudan.
This control was shaken, though, during the reign of Hatshepsut, the new Pharaoh. Her husband had died early, leaving a young son – Thutmose III – as his heir. Hatshepsut was designated the regent for her son, but in a true case of #girlboss openly discarded the regency and ruled in her own name as Pharaoh, the first woman to do so. Her reign brought on 20 years of peace and prosperity, including a great building program and amassing of wealth. Even if the sources are not kind to her – powerful women do NOT get many “likes” in ancient sources – it is clear that Hatshepsut was extremely capable and unwilling to waste Egyptian resources on pointless wars in the Middle East. If only anyone had ever learned that lesson…
Egypt’s hold in Syria had slowly slipped away during Hatshepsut’s reign, with the powerful King of Kadesh (an ancient city near Homs in Syria) slowly spreading his own hegemony in the subject kings of the Levant. Under his encouragement, and with the backing of the kings of Mitanni near modern Aleppo, Egypt’s buffer zone crumbled into bits around the time of Hatshepsut’s death. When some of these subject kings refused to abandon their powerful Egyptian overlord, the King of Kadesh (whose name is still unknown) invaded them to force compliance with his new anti-Egyptian coalition.
It is unknown exactly why Hatshepsut died; there are theories that her son, wanting his throne back, had her murdered but that is speculation. What is not speculation is that the 22-year-old Thutmose III immediately directed that her name be removed from all public buildings, so I guess she told him to clean his room a lot or something. Either way, Thutmose was determined to reverse what he saw as his mother’s weakness on the border and began rebuilding the decrepit Egyptian army. In 1457 BC, after only two years on the throne, he set out on campaign to confront and defeat the King of Kadesh.
It was a significant achievement to put together a well-trained army from scratch in two years, and Thutmose III quickly proved to be as good at war as his mother had been good at peace. His numbers probably did not exceed 10,000, but this was a gigantic army for the ancient world. These Bronze Age armies were made up almost entirely of lightly armed infantry. They likely had next to no armor, but carried crude bronze axes or sickle-like swords as their main weapon with wicker or wooden shields for defense. The true striking arm of the ancient army, though, was the mounted nobility.
The chariot was the panzer of the Bronze Age, a swift-moving two-wheeled vehicle that carried one driver to steer the horses while the passenger, armed with a bow, took his best shot at his opponents. Only the nobility could afford chariots, and in an age without good saddles, stirrups, or much experience with horseback riding, a swift chariot arm was the striking force of any Bronze Age army.
When Thutmose set out in 1457, his skill at organization and logistics soon mad itself known. His army moved swiftly, only taking nine days to march from its base on the Nile to reach the Egyptian outpost at Gaza. Barely pausing to take water from the wells, they then made tracks for the walled town of Megiddo, in what is now ancient Israel. The Egyptians had received word that the King of Kadesh and all his subject kings were there. The Egyptians set off “in valor, victory, power, and vindication.”
Due to its critical place as a crossroads in the ancient Near East, Megiddo has been a magnet for armies and battles; even World War I saw the British-Australian armies of Edmund Allenby triumph over the Ottomans at Megiddo. There were three roads to Megiddo, the most direct of which went straight through a mountain pass with the other two curving around to come in from an angle. Thutmose decided to take the shortest way, even though the narrow pass invited an ambush. When his advisors protested, he rejected their advice, the 20-something King informed them that he did not want to give the enemy the impression that he was scared. “For they, the enemy, abominated of Ra, consider thus, ‘Has His Majesty gone on another road? Then he fears us,’ thus do they consider.” Thutmose would take the dangerous and direct road as a psychological show of bravado.
This move apparently took the King of Kadesh by surprise – something along the lines of “It’s such a bad decision that I never expected him to do that.” He missed a chance to destroy the Egyptian army in the pass, as Thutmose himself rode point in his chariot as they thundered up the craggy slope. Driving away a small force, he caught the King of Kadesh scrambling to gather his forces at the plain of Megiddo.
(Note: I keep calling him the King of Kadesh because all of this is from Egyptian records. We don’t actually know homeboy’s name.)
Thutmose set his army up to the west of Megiddo, placing them in a strong defensive position with his flanks on high ground. Thutmose himself commanded the center. The King of Kadesh drew up facing him, mirroring his foe’s dispositions. The two armies slept facing each other, with Thutmose wandering his camp the night before the battle and, like Henry V, encouraging his men: “Be steadfast, be steadfast! Be vigilant! Be vigilant!”
On an uncertain date – April 27, May 15, June 15, no one actually knows for sure – the two armies decided to give battle. The narrative up to this point has been fairly clear, but we know very little about the actual course of the battle. Like I said above, everything we know is from Egyptian records. Thutmose was not simply a battle captain – he was an expert propagandist. As far as we can tell, he was the first Pharaoh to bring scribes and recorders with him on campaign for the explicit purpose of recording his military activities. Much as Caesar would do with his writings, or Napoleon did with his battle reports, or H. Norman Schwarzkopf did in his famous press conference after victory in Desert Storm, Thutmose tried to manipulate the press of his time to paint himself and his army in the best possible light. So the only information historians have, of course, is heavily biased and slanted.
Even with this relative lack of information and with this sheen of propaganda, the account I just gave you of the leadup and the period before the battle is the first eyewitness account of a campaign in recorded history. We know of battles, expeditions and sieges before this, but only with the barest of details and written by people who were not there. The Battle of Megiddo can stand not as the first battle ever, but *history’s* first battle.
At daybreak, Pharaoh Thutmose III appeared before his soldiers on a chariot of electrum in armor that shimmered in the sun, giving a rousing display in front of his infantry. This was meant to inspire his forces and strike fear into the enemy, and it worked. The Egyptians charged the forces of the enemy, and they cracked instantly and “fled headlong toward Megiddo with faces of fear.” Headlong in the pursuit, the Egyptian army surged forward.
Then their discipline fell apart. Excited by the scale of loot and plunder left by the enemy on the battlefield and in camp, the soldiers began picking through the booty even as the King of Kadesh escaped. Thutmose was furious; his soldiers had cost him a golden opportunity. Most of the Kadesh army had escaped to the city of Megiddo itself, and had shut the gates before the Egyptians had regained their discipline. What could have been a quick coup of the city now became a siege. Thutmose berated his troops: “Had you afterwards captured this city, behold I would have given to Ra on this day, because every chief of every country that has revolted is in it.”
Nevertheless, Thutmose got to work. Siege lines were laid, ditches dug, and an encircling wall built. As the days and weeks dragged on, the city was gradually starved into submission. When civilians came out from the walls to beg for food, Thutmose kindly pardoned them and led them through his lines. It was only a matter of time. Soon the King of Kadesh and his allies came out to surrender, “crawling upon their bellies to kiss the ground before his Majesty’s might.”
Thutmose took all the rebellious kings captive, and unlike some of his contemporaries did not take out his revenge on the city or its people. He did, however, confiscate an enormous amount of wealth which he brought back to Egypt. The list of captured war booty rolls on and on: 924 chariots, 2,238 horses, 200 suits of armor, 426 pounds of gold and silver, and 1,796 male and female slaves and their children.
It was only the start of Thutmose III’s remarkable military career. Over the next 32 years of his life, the warlike Pharaoh embarked on 16 more campaigns in Nubia, the Middle East and Libya, forcing the submission or surrender of every local king in his path. He would take hostages back to Egypt from any vassal ruler, usually their children, but would ensure that they were well-treated and educated. Almost as importantly, they would be immersed in Egyptian culture and style, so that when they sat on their parents’ thrones Egyptian supremacy would seem almost natural.
Thutmose would take Egypt to the limits of its empire, expanding its borders well into modern Turkey and even Iraq, and completely transform it as a nation. The boundless wealth that flowed into his coffers made Egypt the glamorous kingdom that still mesmerizes people today. It was the tomb of Thutmose’s great-great-grandson Tutankhamen that best displayed this lavishness to a spellbound world – lavishness made possible by Thutmose’s victory at Megiddo.
Thutmose, then, won the first battle of recorded history – even though we don’t know the date. If the date of the first battle of Megiddo is unclear, the date of the last one is even murkier. The Hebrew word for Megiddo is Armageddon, described in Revelation as the site of the final battle between good and evil. If one believes such things, it is perhaps proof that God is a big fan of irony.