Thutmose III: Titan of the Sands

When you ask people to name an Egyptian pharaoh, almost anyone will be able to say Tutankhamun. A far fewer, but still sizable number of more educated people will be able to say Ramesses II. How many of you will be able to say the name Thutmose III? Probably very few.

What a tragedy. It goes to show you that doing deeds worthy of True Glory might still not quite get you there on a huge scale in the manner of Achilles, although Thutmose III’s name still echoes. It’s good that it does, and it should echo far louder, because Thutmose III was, in Mertz’s words in Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, “the greatest warrior that Egypt ever produced.”

Most people probably think that title belongs to Ramesses II, but he was a much better marketer than he was a warrior (remember how I said that marketing is a necessary tool for the hero?). Still, Thutmose had a good marketing team with him in Egypt, which included his scribe Tajenni, who some have described as the first war correspondent in history.

Nonetheless, this man’s story deserves to be told far more than it usually is. I now take up the task in this very brief biography.

Thutmose III: Titan of the Sands

Childhood:

Thutmose III grew up in an atmosphere that could have easily stifled his development. In many respects he is a lesson to the modern man, because the modern man has often grown up in similar circumstances, ultimately succumbing to them. In life he becomes a weirdo, a supplicating degenerate, and a soft hipster who doesn’t go to the gym and prefers to remain pampered with his mobile devices and his Starbucks. He then virtue signals his superiority by supporting leftist causes, and is ultimately worthless to himself, his people, and his nation.

Thutmose’s early life was complicated to say the least. His father, Thutmose II, died when he was very young, and Thutmose III was far too small to govern as king. This had of course happened in Egypt many times before, but a further complication arose. Thutmose III’s mother, Iset, was a very minor wife of the deceased king. For this woman of comparatively low stature to take over as regent, as was the custom, was unthinkable.

Fortunately there was another person who could conveniently assume the role. That person was Hatshepsut, the deceased king’s wife and sister, daughter of Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was only too willing to take on the job, but she would also in effect cheat Thutmose III out of his birthright for many years. Hatshepsut not only ruled as regent, but through a slow, gradual process over the course of a few years, she usurped the throne, ruling as pharaoh, with all the accompanying male imagery.

Clearly Hatshepsut was incredibly politically talented, as defying tradition and keeping a man as capable of Thutmose III off the reigns of state until her death were no mean feats.

Thutmose’s role was ill-defined. He was the rightful king, but throughout Hatshepsut’s reign he played second-fiddle. He accompanied his aunt and stepmother to ceremonies and functions, but was clearly the inferior party. I’m sure this must have been confusing to him, at least at first. It’s hard even for us to define what exactly he was doing at this point in time.

At any rate, Thutmose III was pampered, just as anyone growing up in his position would be. In the presence of an undeniably powerful woman, he could have fallen into inactivity and indolence, simply being content to enjoy himself while she and others took over the hard work of leadership. This is not what Thutmose III consigned himself to. Details are a bit spotty, but he seems to have devoted himself to the army and learned the art of soldiering. Hatshepsut would eventually appoint him commander-in-chief. It was certainly a dangerous move on her part, but as can often happen between potential rivals, a mutual respect, friendship, and admiration for the strength of the other may have developed. In any case, these military skills would serve Thutmose III and his country, which would soon badly need him, well.

Early on Thutmose resolved that he would not be an idle weakling. The educational customs in Egypt seem to have reinforced this. Thutmose was also far from a one-trick pony. He was a complete man. In addition to soldiering, he occupied his mind with several other pursuits. He was an architect, a scientist (if one can use such a term for those times), a priest (as was his kingly duty at any rate), and a man of letters. (Thutmose III: A Military Biography) As is so often the case, history produced this man at just the right time and for the right circumstances. Trouble was brewing.

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut
Thutmose III (left) and Hatshepsut (right). Her status as #1 is obvious.

Assuming Control:

In Year 22 of his reign, Tuthmose III took power in Egypt for real as Hatshepsut died. The transition would not be a smooth or an easy one. If Thutmose, sitting in his stepmother’s shadow for so many years, wanted to prove his worth, as any man in his 20’s wants to do, he would soon get his chance.

Hatshepsut’s reign was a peaceful one. She had several notable commercial expeditions and emphasized trade, not military affairs. Yet, as is so often the case, this period of prosperity was enticing, but deceptive. One of the other big powers on the block at the time was the mysterious Kingdom of Mitanni. Sensing weakness in Egypt, the Mitanni aided and abetted an uprising against Egyptian power in what is now Israel (called Canaan then) and Syria. A coalition of many city-states, commanded by the king of Kadesh, threatened Egypt’s sphere of influence and its borders. In contrast to Hatshepsut, Thutmose, now finally able to exercise his birthright, would take the rebels head on.

Late Bronze Age Map Thutmose III
The international situation around the time of Thutmose III. This map is dated to about 25 years after his death, but you get the overall picture.

The Megiddo Campaign, 1457 B.C.

The Megiddo campaign was Thutmose III’s most famous, the one that established his reputation as a great warrior. Yet Megiddo was also, to quote the words of another great soldier, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” The crucial part of it was, anyway.

As a matter of fact Thutmose III had a problem at the beginning of the campaign – Hatshepsut’s largely peaceful reign left the Egyptian military in a state of disuse. In addition, most of Thutmose’s soldiers were peasant militia, as had been the case with Egypt throughout most of its history. With this less-than-perfect fighting force, Thutmose III would have to confront the biggest threat to Egypt in the past half-century.

If he failed, Egypt’s influence in Canaan and Syria would evaporate and its northern border would be severely threatened.

Thutmose III faced the challenge bravely however, and covered ground quickly, marching toward Megiddo, where the rebel coalition led by the king of Kadesh (we don’t know his name) had set up its base of operations. It was a perfect staging ground – straddling an excellent position atop a hill and commanding trade routes through the region. Egypt could easily be cut off from Canaan and Syria from this ground, and should it remain in rebel hands permanently, it was an ideal base to launch raids against Egyptian territory.

Battle of Megiddo Thutmose III 1547 B.C.
The modern site of Megiddo.

Thutmose resolved to take the offensive, but he understood that in doing so he would be facing a logistical problem. Far from his own center of operations, Thutmose III knew the Egyptian army would need to cross through miles of desert with no natural sources of food and water. To keep his army of around 10,000 nimble, Thutmose, in a move that anticipated Alexander the Great, sent his supply corps well ahead, depositing essentials at stations in the desert that his men could march to and rest at. This insured that the army would not plod along and wait for supplies to catch up, limiting its movement.

When Thutmose III arrived at Megiddo, he had another problem. The enemy was nowhere to be seen. Additionally, there were three routes to Megiddo. Two of them, a northern and southern route, skirted around the mountains to the city. A third was the most direct, going straight through the mountains to Megiddo, but it was very narrow. His army could easily be ambushed and destroyed in that pass, with no room for maneuver or retreat. Tajenni said that the Egyptians would have to march single-file through the pass – “horse before horse and man before man,” although this should probably be regarded with suspicion.

Thutmose III decided to go through the pass, called Aruna, exhorting his soldiers and officers to follow him if they wished:

My majesty will proceed along this road of Aruna. Let him who will go among you go upon those roads of which you speak, and let him will among you come in the following of my majesty. (Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs pg. 173)

Battle of Megiddo Thutmose III
The roads to Megiddo.

Safe to say, the entire army followed the king, who in this dangerous moment seems to have displayed tremendous courage, “leading the army by his own footsteps,” says Tajenny. I can imagine being a soldier in that dangerous area, seeing my king leading me, decked out in his crown making him conspicuous to every enemy on the field. Bold moves like these – taking danger head-on, exposing oneself just like your men, and standing out so that you loom large over the enemy – and your own men as a display of your inspiring prowess, these are the things that make a leader, that will get men to follow you and make them want to follow you.

The move was risky and perhaps even ill-advised, yet Thutmose III probably figured that because the move was so audacious, his enemies were not expecting him to take that route either. The audacious attack combined with a slothful and incompetent enemy has worked wonders for many a general in history – Joan of Arc when she first entered Orleans, Napoleon at Austerlitz, the list goes on. It worked for Thutmose III as well. The Syro-Canaanite coalition was caught completely off guard. When Thutmose and his army emerged on the other side of the Aruna Pass, he was wedged between the coalition forces and Megiddo.

The subsequent Egyptian attack was a complete success, scattering the enemy and scrambling the coalition’s leaders into Megiddo pell-mell. The city would have been captured then and there had the Egyptian army not given in to that age-old temptation – looting the enemy’s camp. Thutmose III was disappointed, lamenting an almost literal truth – that “the capture of Megiddo was the capture of a thousand cities.” Nevertheless, he remained undaunted and conducted a seven-month siege. The king of Kadesh managed to escape, but Megiddo surrendered. Thutmose III showed comparative leniency. When dealing with a city that had held out for several months, and the fact that the defenders were a rebel population on top of that, he could have easily put the whole population to the sword. Instead, Thutmose took hostages back to Egypt and extracted an oath from the coalition leaders to never again resist Egyptian power or threaten Egypt’s security. The great threat to Egypt had been lifted, but Thutmose was far from done.

Thutmose III Battle of Megiddo

Subsequent Campaigns:

Thutmose III conducted 17 campaigns over his decades of rule.

Megiddo is the most well-known, but to me, there were other, more impressive operations. The most impressive one consists of a series of the original Battles of Kadesh some years later:

Kadesh was a hard nut to crack, even for Thutmose III. It was entirely surrounded by water, with rivers on two sides and a canal on the third; moats and formidable walls made it perhaps the strongest fortress in all of Syria. (Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, pg. 177)

Kadesh map.
Video game reconstruction of the area around Kadesh.

This was Thutmose’s first encounter with the city, but it is not known if he actually captured it. His old enemy from Megiddo, the king of Kadesh, was saber-rattling once more, but Thutmose III would get his due in the end in the second encounter:

In the spring of the forty-second year of his reign, Thutmose’s fleet could be seen heading for a harbor on the north coast of Syria. Instead of marching up the river to Kadesh, he had decided to cut her off from her northern ally first. Tunip held him for a time, but he took it eventually, and then led his troops up the Orontes to Kadesh.

The battle was fiercely fought by both sides. The stakes were tremendous, and the prince of Kadesh knew it. In his last, desperate attempt to turn the tide in his favor, he thought up a trick that was worthy of him: he sent a mare out of the city and had her driven toward the Egyptian army. The chariotry wavered as the stallions yielded to this exciting distraction. The prize of victory hung in the balance; and Amenenmhab [one of Thutmose’s officers] moved to weigh the scales. Leaping from his chariot, he ran the mare down and killed her. In a gesture of pure panache, he cut off the animal’s tail and presented it to the king. The assault on the city must have followed immediately; in an epic it could not be otherwise, and an epic king would have cried his army on with a great shout of laughter and a flourish of the mare’s tail. Amenemhab, carried away by his success, was first over the walls. Behind him poured the hard-bitten veterans of the Syrian wars. Against such men and such a leader even Kadesh the invincible had no chance. The city fell; and with it fell the last hopes of the Syrian cities for independence. (Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, pg. 183)

However poetic and with whatever flourish, Thutmose’s capture of Kadesh is very impressive. In it, as in Megiddo, we see that a man living over 3,400 years ago knew much of modern military doctrine, and the genius seen in so many other notable military leaders is also seen in his campaigns. He was a master of rapid, deceptive movements, dominating space and using it against enemies (as seen in his brilliant backdoor campaign into Kadesh), and logistics. He recognized the importance of combined arms attacks and land-sea operations. In reading his campaigns, I’m reminded of those of the Duke of Marlborough or Napoleon 3,200 years later (though the latter was far from as astute as Thutmose or Marlborough).

Yet Thutmose III’s greatest battle never quite came. It was obvious from the start that the Kingdom of Mitanni had instigated and abetted the initial Canaanite-Syrian uprising in the waning days of Hatshepsut’s reign. Yet when Thutmose actually arrived in Mitanni territory, he was unopposed. The Mitannian army fled before him, abandoning their people to his mercy! Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

Triumphant, Thutmose erected a stela on the far side of the Euphrates and departed. Mitanni would never be a serious threat to Egypt again.

Thutmose III stela.
A stela constructed during Thutmose’s reign.

Thutmose the Ruler:

Thutmose III was also an astute politician. He knew that it made far more sense to bend his enemies to his will and use them as assets rather than destroying them and losing valuable capital outright. That’s why his policy was to take the children of his enemies into Egypt as hostages, insuring their loyalty and raising their successors as Egyptians to govern the provinces of his empire in the next few decades. Egypt’s empire reached its greatest territorial extent under him, stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile’s Fourth Cataract. Under his rule, the Egyptian army, or at least the core of it, ceased to be a part-time militia, becoming a well-armed and equipped professional fighting force, with all the trappings of modern military organization.

He enriched the empire. With wealth pouring in from foreign lands, Egypt’s art and architecture flourished, and Thutmose III himself took great interest in beautifying his country with new and glorious buildings. Perhaps the most famous of these are the so-called “Cleopatra’s Needles.” One of them stands on a typical day game route I take in Central Park. Because I see it constantly, I never gave it much mind. But now I will. I now realize that I’m seeing with my own eyes something that Thutmose III must also have seen with his own eyes. It’s a magnificent physical connection to the past, one which I can siphon strength from to face any challenge that I may need to overcome. Certainly, the immediate problem of approaching women doesn’t seem so hard compared to the challenges another set of eyes on that obelisk saw elsewhere during their time of being open.

Cleopatra's Needle Thutmose III

Cleopatra's Needle Thutmose III Plaque

Thutmose also enriched the temples, particularly the priesthood of Amun, which would lead to its ascendancy to power centuries later. The current field of atheists would lambaste this, but I think that this was, in a way, a valuable service to Egypt and its people. Egyptians were anything if not spiritual, and it must have overjoyed them to know that the gods were pleased. Their own psychology, their own mental and spiritual health, must have been done a world of good by his campaigns, allowing them to be at ease in mind and devotion to their gods and country. Certainly, this devotion and higher calling is something we can use in our own way today, instead of the spiritually dead, mindless hedonism we are witnessing, alongside the degeneration of our countries in demography and art. I can’t help but wonder if Thutmose III knew that his people had a deep spiritual need to see their gods flourish, or they, and hence Egypt, would fall off the cliff.

Conclusion:

Thutmose III, it seems, was a man worthy of emulation, as he had all the important traits of masculinity. He was unbowed in the face of setbacks (though he never knew defeat on the battlefield) and generous in victory. He had his share of women, as anyone in his position would, but they were very minor in importance to him. He didn’t seem to think his notch count was brag-worthy, unlike Ramesses II. He led his men from the front, possibly even standing with them in the Aruna pass at Megiddo until the last man was safely through. I can again, only imagine seeing that as a soldier, watching my king, probably in his blue crown or something else that easily identified him, wading into danger along with me. How much strength must have been filled into the body and mind of the Egyptian soldier! That is what a great leader does. In short, Thutmose III was strong and stoic. He possessed those two qualities that I believe are most important in a masculine man in spades.

Unfortunately, as seems to be a law of nature, his loins would go on to produce men that would squander his legacy, mainly the hapless Akhenaten who stood by, convinced of his religious righteousness, as Egypt’s enemies gathered while he tore it apart from the inside.

Yet the degeneration of the elite in society as prosperity reigns makes their predecessors loom larger. And it is in contrast to his successors that we can see Thutmose III’s glory.

Lessons from Thutmose III:

  1. You must throw yourself into your work. Even if you are under the thumb of someone incredibly powerful, you must not get complacent or delegate yourself to indolence, for your time will come.
  2. A country’s educational system must not only teach, but extol virtue and drive its youth into activity. Repetition of facts alone is not education.
  3. Your enemies are constantly probing for weakness, and if you are anyone of consequence, you will have enemies. Do not let them gather strength. Take the offensive.
  4. A leader must loom large over both friend and enemy, providing an example to both. Be ten times as great as the average man. Do not only lead from the front, lead from the front while standing out conspicuously, voluntarily making yourself a target. At worst, you will be worthy of being remembered.
  5. The bold, audacious attack can often work even if it seems ill-advised. This is especially so if your enemies are incompetent, as they often are.
  6. Cultivate a reputation of strength with a proven track record, and even the mighty will often flee before you.
  7. See to the needs of your people. Cultivate yourself in finery as a man of arts and letters. Your figure will loom larger and your people will feel mental and spiritual flourishing.
  8. Honor the appropriate traditions, ideals, and spiritual ethos of your country. Be their defender while changing what must be changed. No one admires degenerates.
Thutmose III Karnak
Thutmose III’s relief at Karnak.

 

KV34 Thutmose III Tomb
Scene from Thutmose III’s tomb, KV34.

 

Thutmose III mummy.
Thutmose IIII’s mummy.

Thutmose features prominently in Stumped as providing a test for leadership. Take a look at it if you want to learn much more about how to become a strong leader like him.