Every great nation experiences a peak of power, the exact moment where its political influence and cultural accomplishment reaches the zenith. For Egypt, that glorious moment came with the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Sometimes called “Amenhotep the Magnificent,” he was certainly lucky to be pharaoh at that moment. He was in the right place at the right time, but leadership can make or break moments like these. What would Amenhotep III do with his opportunity? Would Pharaoh squander it or capitalize on it?
Pharaoh Amenhotep III: Background
Amenhotep III became Pharaoh of Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, in about 1390 BC, give or take a year. His great-grandfather, Thutmose III, had carved out a mighty empire stretching from the Euphrates in the north to the Nile’s fourth cataract in the south (see Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs). Thutmose’s aunt, the polarizing Hatshepsut, had earlier opened up trade routes deep into sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of their reigns, wealth poured into Egypt from both directions.
The great Thutmose’s son, Amenhotep II, consolidated this dominion with his own, more limited campaigns. His son, Thutmose IV, needed only minor military activity to reinforce Egyptian hegemony. More significantly, he married a princess of the Kingdom of Mitanni. The marriage sealed an alliance between the two powers and ended hostilities between Egypt and the only near peer-competitor that it had in the region at the time. This diplomatic triumph did not come without difficulty. One of the Amarna Letters (EA 29) gives us a hint of the work that it took:
When the father of Nimmureya [Amenhotep III], wrote to Artatama, my grandfather, he asked for the daughter of my grandfather, the sister of my father. He wrote 5, 6 times, but he did not give her. When he wrote my grandfather 7 rimes, then only under such pressure did he give her.
Clearly, careful negotiating took place, but it was a success. As a result of the work of Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, and Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III came to the throne of an Egypt that had no rival to contend with. Wealth and tribute flowed from all directions. Egypt’s economic and military power were supreme and its material culture was reaching unprecedented splendor.
Amenhotep III was now tasked with protecting this mighty inheritance. Above all, he needed to prevent a coalition from forming against Egypt, which might include Mitanni, Babylon, Assyria, and the Hittites. But could he? And if so, how?
Egypt’s Gold Diplomacy
Fortunately for Amenhotep III, Egypt had something that other kings in the region desperately wanted: gold, and barges of it.
Pharaoh was wise. He did not want to use force to cement Egyptian hegemony at this time. Unlike America’s post-Cold War leaders and Vladimir Putin, he understood that power, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris, is defined by how much you have available, not by its use. The less resources you use to achieve your aims, the more powerful you will be. This is why Sun Tzu famously mentioned that the best way to win is to win without fighting.
When he began his reign, Pharaoh had the most powerful military in the region, but he preferred not to use it when there were other means available for getting what he wanted. Namely, he noticed that other kings were constantly writing to him about gold:
And as for the gold I wrote to you about, send me whatever is on hand as much as possible before your messenger comes to me right now in all haste this summer either in the month of Tammuz or in the month Ab so I can finish the work I am set upon. If during this summer in the months of Tammaz or Ab you send the gold I wrote to you about I will give you my daughter. So please send the gold you feel prompted to. But if in the months of Tammuz or Ab you do not send me the gold, and with it I do not finish the work I am engaged in what would be the point of your being pleased to send me gold. Once I have finished the work I am engaged in, what need have I of gold. Then you might send me 3000 talents of gold, but I would not accept it, I would send it back to you and not give you my daughter in marriage.
This was Amarna Letter EA 4, from the King of Babylon, Kadashman-Enlil I, to Amenhotep III.
Another letter also shows us how highly in-demand Egyptian gold was:
I also asked my brother for much gold, saying, “May my brother grant me more than he did to my father and send it to me. You sent my father much gold. You sent him large gold jars and gold jugs. 10 You sent him gold bricks as if they urn (just) the equivalent of copper.”
When I sent Keliya to my brother, I asked for [much] gold, saying. “May my brother treat me [ten times] better than he did my father, and may he send much gold that has not been worked.”
May my brother send me much more than he did to my father. Thus did I say to my brother: “I am going to build a mausoleum for my grandfather.”‘ I also said, “In accordance with a favorable answer, I am going to make the paraphernalia.” And thus did I also say: The gold that my brother sends me may he send for the bride-price as well.”
Now my brother has sent the gold. I say, it may be little or not, not a little but much. Still, it has been worked. But though it has been worked, I rejoiced over it much, and whatever it was my brother sent, I am happy about it.”
I now hereby write to my brother, and may my brother show me much more love than he did to my father. I hereby ask for gold from my brother, and the gold that I ask for from my brother is meant for a double purpose: one, for the mausoleum, and the other, for the bride-price.
May my brother send me in very great quantities gold that has not been worked, and may my brother send me much more gold than he did to my father. In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as din. May the gods grant that, just as now gold is plentiful in my brother’s country, [he can?] make it even ten times more plentiful than now. May the gold that I ask for not become a source of distress to my brother, and may my brother not cause me distress. May my brother send me in very large quantities gold that has not been worked.
This was Amarna Letter EA 19, the “Love and Gold letter” to Amenhotep III from King Tushratta of Mitanni. Note that he implies that Pharaoh gave him gold, but not enough to truly satisfy him. “He always left them wanting more,” in the words of the host of Egypt’s Golden Empire.
This tone carries through several of the other letters. The other rulers always request more gold. As such, Pharaoh had his potential rivals thinking about how they could get more of his gold, and not about how they could unite against Egypt. Amenhotep III was generous enough with them to keep them friendly, but not too generous.
If Pharaoh had given them no treasure, they would think about getting it by force, but by offering just enough, it did not justify the risk of a military confrontation with Egypt, even if they wanted more of it. It is one of the first instances of diplomatic genius on record. Amenhotep III came in the right place at the right time, but he did not squander his golden inheritance like America’s post-Cold War leaders did.
Trouble in Paradise
Unfortunately for Egypt, the splendor of Amenhotep’s reign would not last. By the end of it, a powerful new rival emerged in the form of the Hittites. Before, the Hittites had only been one minor power among many, and during his reign, they were almost wiped out. But the Hittites were soon blessed with their greatest leader, King Suppiluliuma I. This man, who deserves a biography of his own here, reversed Hittite fortunes, crushed Mitanni, and turned it into a vassal state.
Despite the alliance, the now-ailing Amenhotep III did not send aid to Mitanni. He may have believed that he could employ the same type of diplomacy on the triumphant Hittite king as he had his predecessors, but like any truly great man, Suppiluliuma was not interested in wealth for its own sake. He wanted to leave his nation much better than he found it, and secure glory for himself in the process. This was not a man that Pharaoh could buy off.
Suppiluliuma was cordial to Pharaoh. He allowed Amenhotep III to believe he would play along, but he must have known that the gap between the myth of Pharaoh as the rejuvenated, youthful, godlike being portrayed in his statues, and the reality of the king’s declining health, was growing starker by the day.
After subjugating Mitanni, Suppiluliuma used his new base of power to wage successful proxy wars against Egyptian influence in Syria, all the while claiming the same friendship to Amenhotep III that his predecessors had. Most of the blame for the further deterioration of Egyptian power from that point on goes to Akhenaten, the son of Amenhotep III, for the chaotic social revolution he imposed on Egypt. Still, Pharaoh had not seemed to realize that his and Egypt’s position depended on the international system that Thutmose III had created and his son and grandson had reinforced. By letting Suppiluliuma change that balance of power, he also made possible the rise of a far more formidable peer competitor than the one his predecessors had faced. That possibility became reality with his son’s disastrous reign. Ultimately, the Hittites became a competitor that Egypt would not be able to defeat. The threat only abated with the alliance Ramesses II made with them in 1259 BC.
What can we learn from the reign of Amenhotep III? We saw that Pharaoh understood the resources he had at his disposal and the wants, needs, and fears of his potential rivals. He also understood that power comes from how much you keep, not how much you spend. This understanding proved the basis of his successful diplomacy through most of his reign.
However, the golden pharaoh of Egypt also shows us that just because a strategy has worked does not mean it will continue to work. The rise of Suppiluliuma at the end of his reign fundamentally changed the equation. By failing to aid his ally Mitanni, Pharaoh allowed an alteration to the balance of power that had benefited Egypt so greatly.
The warnings of Theodore Roosevelt on preparedness come to the fore here. A good statesman must know the mindset of his potential rivals, and if need be, resort to force to protect the well-being of his nation and people. Even just a show of force in the Mitanni matter may have been adequate to force the Hittite King to back down, as Theodore Roosevelt’s was in 1902 with Kaiser Wilhelm II. No such show of force came from Pharaoh however, and deterrence failed as a result.
If a rival establishes firm routes to grow more powerful, one cannot count on fortune alone to prevent such a thing from happening. Fortune turned on Egypt after Amenhotep III died. Fortune favors active pursuit, not passive effeminacy, which unfortunately golden ages so often create.
For much more on fortune and fate, read Lives of the Luminaries, which expands on the career of Amenhotep’s successor in chapter 5.
And be sure to subscribe to my email list for more posts like this! Click here to do so.