Ancient Egyptian Wars – Navigating the Millennia of Bloodshed
In the histories of great ancient empires there was one thing that was always a certainty: war. To maintain power, to achieve wealth, and to ensure the prosperity of the people, war had to be waged: whether to conquer or to defend. Egypt is probably the longest lasting civilization that was characterized by war. In their long history that spanned millennia, the ancient Egyptians had many ups and downs, at times nearly losing everything and facing destruction, only to rise again stronger and more powerful. And for the duration of Ancient Egyptian civilization, they waged many wars, and often defended their prosperous lands from foreign invaders. Not all the Egyptian wars are interesting or notable, but many were. This article summarizes the outstanding wars that Ancient Egypt fought and how cunning pharaohs managed to win using the earliest forms of organized military and tactical warfare.
The Earliest Ancient Egyptian Wars
Conflict in Ancient Egypt was part of its formation and began even before its beginning. Long before Upper and Lower Egypt were unified in roughly 3150 BC, Egypt was the scene for continuous intertribal conflict, as numerous independent kings and chieftains warred for supremacy. For a long time, Upper (South) and Lower (North) Egypt were two separate and opposed political entities, separated by the branches of the Nile River.
The unification of these two entities occurred around 3100 BC, when Pharaoh Narmer invaded Upper Egypt with a superior military force and claimed total sovereignty over all of Egypt. Whether actual armed conflict took place or the invasion was “peaceful” is debated. It can be safely assumed that before Narmer’s rule, intermittent warfare was commonplace for several generations and the goal was always unification. Today, Pharaoh Narmer is considered the first Egyptian leader to unify Upper and Lower Egypt. For his victory and supreme power, he was given the titles “The Lord of Two Lands”, and “Of Sedge and Bee”, symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt. And Narmer’s dynasty was the first to rule over Ancient Egyptian civilization.
King Narmer, slate palette (Public domain)
The unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is probably the most significant outcome of all the conflicts in ancient Egyptian history, resulting in three thousand years of development. During most of this time, Egypt was defined as a kingdom ruled by a pharaoh, and many dynasties came and went. The transition between dynasties was sometimes peaceful but often not. These stages of rule were frequently separated by periods of instability, war, and conflict. Today, these are known as intermediate periods in Egyptian civilization. And after each intermediate period, there was always a new pharaoh and a new period of prosperity.
Pharaoh Ramses II charging the Nubians. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the earliest documented opponents of Ancient Egypt was Nubia, located to its south. Some of the earliest known inscriptions from the unified Egyptian era are related to conflicts with Nubia. Today, we can assume from these inscriptions that some of the early pharaohs of the First Dynasty tried to defeat Nubia. One of these inscriptions is the engraving on a sandstone slab, discovered at a small knoll, known as Djabal Shaykh Sulayman, some seven miles south of Wadi Halfa on the west bank of the Nile. This Djabal Shaykh Sulayman engraving documents the third pharaoh of the First Dynasty, King Djer, in battle against the Nubians. Some scholars refer to this period as the “Nubian Campaign”, dated to around 3050 BC.
Djabal Shaykh Sulayman Inscriptions depicting King Djer battling the Nubians. (Public Domain)
The Raiding of Nubian Lands
The next period of turmoil in Ancient Egypt occurred around the mid 2600’s BC, in the time of the Second Dynasty. Many scholars today agree that this period was marked by intense civil war that once again divided the unity between Upper and Lower Egypt. The nature of this civil war seems to have been religious in nature and therefore also political. The clash was centered on the worshippers of Seth and Horus. Not many details are known of this archaic period of Ancient Egypt’s history. What most scholars maintain is that the civil war ended the reign of the last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhemwy. Khasekhemwy returned from Nubia where he had successfully quelled a revolt and then defeated the previous pharaoh Seth-Peribsen, thus uniting Egypt once more. Khasekhemwy was succeeded by his son, Djoser, the famous first pharaoh of the Third Dynasty.
Nubian Temple of Amun in Naqa (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of the most important military undertakings in the Old Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt is attributed to Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. Sneferu, meaning “ He Who Has Perfected Me,” was an important and powerful ruler, who led Egypt into a new age of prosperity. Amongst his most famous accomplishments is pyramid building. Under his supervision, construction methods of pyramids greatly evolved.
Today, three monumental pyramids are attributed to his rule: the Red, Bent, and Medium pyramids. However, creating these grandiose structures was not a simple undertaking. It was a task that required many years of labor, a lot of resources, and above all a huge work force. To solve these problems, Sneferu led a series of conquests, sometime between 2613 and 2589 BC, into Nubia and Lybia, lands adjacent to Egypt.
In his Nubian campaign, Sneferu gained victory, and returned home with 7,000 captives, 20,000 heads of cattle, and many riches. It is assumed that the prisoners were the work force necessary to construct the pyramids. Furthermore, his campaign in Lybia led to 11,000 more captives. To understand the ferocity of these conquests, and the might of Egypt compared to its neighbors, it is important to realize that after Sneferu’s conquests, many Nubian cultures were permanently displaced and dissolved. As a crowning feature of his military endeavors, Sneferu built a system of defensive walls and fortifications along his eastern borders.
Snefru's Bent Pyramid in Dahshur (CC BY-SA 3.0)
When Order Comes Crashing Down
Ancient Egyptian wars were often civil wars as opposed to conquests. One of the most infamous of these conflicts is known as the First Intermediate Period, a span of 125 years of conflicts, power strife, and political chaos, ending with the so-called Middle Kingdom period. The turbulent First Intermediate Period resulted from the fall of the Old Kingdom, for reasons that are still being debated today. Many scholars point to a problematic line of succession, after the extremely long rule of Pharaoh Pepi II, the last ruler of the Sixth Dynasty. And when succession becomes an issue, disorganization and dissolution generally follow. Famine could have also contributed to the accelerated decline of the Old Kingdom period and the Sixth Dynasty.
The key conflict of this period was between two major ancient Egyptian cities, Heracleopolis and Thebes ( Waset). The civil wars between these two major centers produced numerous petty rulers and short-lived dynasties, and the destruction and vandalizing of many temples, statues, and monuments. Eventually, it was Nebheptere Menthuhotep II (ruled circa 2061 to 2010 BC) who emerged as the victor.
In what is known as the Wars of Reunification of Egypt, which lasted for 40 years, began by his father, Intef III, Nebheptere Menthuhotep II led his armies into Lower Egypt and emerged victorious. He managed to unify Upper and Lower Egypt once more, ruling as the sixth pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty that was the beginning of the Middle Kingdom period. During his rule, he led successful military campaigns into Nubia and Canaan.
Statues representing the soldiers of an ancient Egyptian army. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Hyksos Invasion
The next major war that struck Ancient Egypt marks a key moment in its history. Sometime around 1650 BC, invaders from West Asia, heqa khasut (Rulers of Foreign Lands) and hekw shasu (Shepherd Kings), known today as the Hyksos, waged battle on Egypt. This massive invasion was preceded by an influx of Canaanite immigrants, who settled a region of the Nile delta, gaining partial autonomy and thus usurping the ruling Egyptian dynasties. Once a substantial power vacuum appeared in Egypt, the Hyksos invaded. They sacked the capital city Memphis, and overthrew the ruling pharaohs, collapsing the Egyptian government, and established their own rulers as the new Fifteenth Dynasty. A large part of the Egyptian populace managed to flee south into Thebes, from where they eventually began opposing the invaders.
The Hyksos rule lasted roughly a century, from 1650 to 1550 BC. It was a period of great change for the Egyptians, particularly in the military sphere. The Hyksos brought with them new bronze working techniques, new domestic animals, the horse, new pottery building technology, and many new tools of war that the Egyptians successfully adopted. In particular, horse-drawn war chariots, the composite bow, and the improved battle axe all came from the Hyksos.
The uprising against the Hyksos oppressors began sometime around 1558 BC, when the Theban ruler Seqenenre Tao began “fighting” the invaders. This likely began with active and serious diplomacy, but later escalated into armed skirmishes. One of these apparently claimed Seqenenre Tao’s life. His mummified body bears vicious head wounds earned on the field of battle. His own son and successor, Wadjkheperre Kamose, continued his father’s struggle and launched another campaign against the Hyksos, but he also fell in battle. The struggle for liberation was eventually continued by his brother Ahmose I, who drove the Hyksos from Egypt. Ahmose I thus became the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the beginning of the New Kingdom period.
A New Enemy From the Sea
The new combat technologies and weaponry from the Hyksos were instrumental some 200 years later, when Egypt and whole of the Near East was faced with a new and dangerous threat from the so-called Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples were a confederation of tribes that excelled at seafaring and the plunder of the coasts of Near East. Their identity is unknown today, and many theories exist as to who they could have been. Some theories state that their identity could have been Nuragic, Greek, Minoan, Philistine, or Anatolian.
The Sea Peoples invaded from the eastern Mediterranean Sea and were met in battle by the pharaoh Ramesses III, who intended to stop their entry to Egypt. This was the Battle of Djahy, around 1178 BC, in which the Egyptians won a decisive victory. Important inscriptions remain that mention this conflict, including one by Ramesses III himself, in which he mentions the invasion, and his victory. The inscription reads: “ Those who reached my boundary, their seed is not; their heart and soul are finished forever and ever.”
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Ramesses III in battle against the Sea Peoples ( Public domain)
However, the Sea Peoples were not completely defeated. After his victory, Ramesses rushed back to Egypt to face another Sea People naval force. This resulted in the famous Battle of the Delta which took place around the mouth of the Nile River. Egyptian forces were well prepared for the conflict, and many of the invaders fell under a rain of arrows, while others were defeated in hand to hand combat. Ramesses III once more defeated the invaders but ultimately was not able to stop their entrance into Egypt. In the following decades, these peoples settled in the eastern reaches of the Egypt. The conflicts and battles with the Sea Peoples took a heavy toll on the empire’s treasury and it never fully recovered.
The fate of all great ancient civilizations was conflict without end. Greater prosperity, wealth, and power were always the goals of great empires. And Egypt had them all. In the later centuries of Egyptian civilization, Egypt was invaded by many powerful opponents, such as the Assyrians, and the famed Alexander the Great. One enemy they could never defeat, however, were the Romans. In 31 BC, the rule of the pharaohs came to an end, and Egypt became one of the provinces of the Roman Empire.
The Warrior Sons of Amun-Re
And thus ended centuries upon centuries upon centuries of Egyptian civilization and empire. But the legacy and culture of the Egyptians inspires and captivates us even today. Great empires and civilizations, whose mere existence is synonymous with wealth, power, and anciency, always have enemies. They prowl on the very doorstep, circling and biting like hyenas at a sleeping lion. In the end, the lion can’t always win. Especially not against the perpetually turning wheel of time.
Top image: Ahmose I against Hyksos. Source: Public Domain
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Mokhtar, G. 1990. General History of Africa II: Ancient Civilizations of Africa. James Currey Publishers.
Morkot, R. 2010. The A to Z of Ancient Egyptian Warfare. Scarecrow Press.
Spalinger, A. 2008. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. John Wiley & Sons.