By helping to launch the Egyptian Empire, history’s first recorded battle changed the ancient world.
The world’s first battle
The swinging of swords. The blaring of guns. A field watered with blood. Our species has engaged in violent warfare for thousands of years, and some of these battles have changed the course of history.
It is hard to know when battles between humans first started, or whether they have always been part of our nature. In 1964, archaeologists discovered 61 skeletons at a site in Sudan, many with arrowheads lodged in their bones. These skeletons are more than 13,000 years old, and some historians believe they were the victims of one of the first ever battles in history.
Unfortunately, this conflict took place before the invention of writing, so there are no written accounts to explain what really happened there. The first written account of a historical battle did not appear until 1457 BCE, thousands of years after that conflict in Sudan. This was the Battle of Megiddo – a seismic clash between Ancient Egypt and a coalition of rival states.
Egypt’s New Kingdom
The Battle of Megiddo took place during the New Kingdom era of Egyptian history, which lasted from 1549–1069 BCE. In the century beforehand, Egyptian society had been weak, divided and chaotic, but the New Kingdom era saw the country become stable and prosperous.
The New Kingdom era was a period of impressive literacy, at least among the elites. Historians believe that the ancient Egyptians were the second civilization in human history to come up with a functional writing system, with the first being the ancient Mesopotamians in the region now known as Iraq. Egyptian writing, or hieroglyphs, were in use from as early as 3250 BCE, but it wasn’t until the New Kingdom era that literacy really took off.
With so many written sources to draw upon, the New Kingdom era has been widely studied by historians, and modern perceptions of Ancient Egypt are usually based on this period. The most famous pharaohs, like Tutankhamun, Ramesses II and Nefertiti, all ruled during the New Kingdom era. Even the word pharaoh is a product of this time. Before that, Egyptian kings were known as nesuts.
Thutmose III was a New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled over Egypt for more than 50 years. He was a clever, charismatic leader, but probably not blessed with good looks. When his mummy was discovered in 1881, an Egyptologist wrote an unflattering account of Thutmose’s face: “the forehead is abnormally low, the eyes deeply sunk, the jaw heavy.”
During the course of his life, Thutmose took part in seventeen military campaigns, and on each occasion, he brought an official scribe to keep note of his victories. The name of this scribe was Tjaneni, and his reports were the first of their kind. Never before had a battle been recorded in writing – at least, not in a form which survived to the present day.
The first report which Tjaneni wrote for Thutmose III described the Battle of Megiddo, which pitted Egyptian forces against a coalition of rival states. Nobody could have predicted it at the time, but this battle changed the world.
At the start of the New Kingdom era, the Egyptians took control of the Canaanites, a group of states in the area of the world now occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. During the reign of Thutmose, two of these states – Kadesh and Megiddo – decided to revolt.
The state of Megiddo owned an impressive fortress at the top of a hill, the remains of which can still be visited today. The rebels planned to use this fortress to defend themselves against an Egyptian response. They mustered a force of 15,000 men, complete with a thousand horse-drawn chariots, then steeled themselves for the enemy to arrive.
In 1457 BCE, Thutmose III led 20,000 warriors to the fortress at Megiddo. Tjaneni, the military scribe, traveled with him. In his report of the event, Tjaneni wrote how “his majesty set forth in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accouterments of combat.”
The right path
To reach Megiddo, the Egyptian army had to pass through the Carmel mountain range. There were three possible routes: two were wide and safe, while the third was narrow and treacherous. Thutmose’s generals advised him to take one of the safer routes, but he feared that the Canaanites would expect this decision, and await the Egyptians at the other end.
After a period of careful deliberation, Thutmose decided to lead his men along the treacherous path instead, in the hope of catching the Canaanite forces by surprise. According to Tjaneni, the Egyptians had to walk in single file: “horse [followed] horse, while his majesty was at the head.”
When they finally emerged from the mountain range, they found the Canaanites guarding the other two paths, just as Thutmose had predicted. The Egyptians struck the unsuspecting enemy in a three-pronged attack, and the Canaanites scattered. Some of them managed to escape into the fortress at Megiddo, but they were only delaying the inevitable. After a prolonged siege, the Canaanites surrendered, and Thutmose was declared victorious.
Launch of the Egyptian Empire
The immediate profits of the victory at Megiddo were listed in Tjaneni’s report: 340 prisoners, 924 chariots, 200 suits of armor, 502 bows, 2238 horses, 1929 cattle, 22,500 sheep, and the royal armor of the King of Megiddo.
But this battle was far more significant than that, as it proved to be a launchpad for Egyptian ascendancy in the Middle East. Riding a wave of self-belief, Thutmose III engaged in sixteen more battles over the course of his rule, many of them countering Canaanite rebellions, and he won on every occasion. Subsequent pharaohs built on these victories, expanding north into Syria, Libya and Palestine. For the first time in history, Egypt was building an empire, expanding out from their traditional borders and into the wider world.
Some historians talk about ‘The Club of Great Powers’, referring to a cluster of empires which took shape during this period: Assyria, Babylon, the Hittites, Mitanni, and Egypt. They were the first of their kind – international superpowers with vast, complex territories.
What if the Canaanites had won?
Counterfactual history is a method of inquiry which predicts how the world might have developed differently if a significant event had never occurred. These questions of ‘what if?’ will always be loose and speculative in nature, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful.
If the Canaanites had predicted that the Egyptians would take the narrow road through the Carmel mountains, they could have caught them in a bottleneck and slaughtered them as they tried to exit. Thutmose III, riding at the front of the line, would have been the first to die. Egypt would have been thrown into an ascendancy crisis, while the Canaanite states gained confidence.
There is every chance that the Egyptians would have lapsed into a period of chaos, just like the one which preceded the New Kingdom era. They might never have built an empire, and iconic pharaohs like Tutankhamen and Ramesses II would never have come to power. As well as this, we would never have known that the Battle of Megiddo took place. If Tjaneni had died during the Canaanite attack, nobody else would have written an account of the battle.
Can Tjaneni be trusted?
Tjaneni’s report of the Battle of Megiddo is an invaluable source, but it needs to be treated with caution. A written report is only as reliable as the person who wrote it, and with no other sources to cross-reference against, we will never know for certain whether Tjaneni’s words can be trusted.
Thutmose III comes across suspiciously well throughout the entire account, probably because Tjaneni wanted to boost his patron’s reputation. Maybe somebody else had the clever idea to take the narrow route through the mountains. Maybe somebody else took the brave decision to ride at the front of the line. Or maybe Tjaneni’s report is true. It is hard to know either way.
Thutmose III was understandably pleased with Tjaneni’s reports, and had the words inscribed on the walls of a temple at Karnak. Tjaneni’s original writings have since been lost, but these walls are still standing, which is why historians are able to read these reports today.
Stele of the Vultures
While the Battle of Megiddo is generally regarded as the first ever battle to be immortalized in words, there is one key challenger to this claim. In the 1880s, a Mesopotamian monument was discovered in Iraq, dating to somewhere between 2600–2350 BCE.
The Stele of the Vultures, as this ancient monument came to be known, is a limestone slab completely covered by detailed, pictorial carvings. Some of these pictures show soldiers following a king into battle, trampling their enemies underfoot. Vultures soar in the sky above them, hence the monument’s name.
There is a written inscription on the Stele of the Vultures, which explains how these pictures depict a military victory by King Eannatum of Lagash over King Ush of Umma. However, the rest of the inscription has been lost, making it impossible to know why this conflict took place or how the battle unfolded. Because of this, Tjaneni’s account of the Battle of Megiddo is usually given credit as the first ever written report of a battle, but this could change if the rest of the Stele of the Vultures is discovered by archaeologists in the future.
Armageddon: the world’s last battle?
While it is hard to identify the first ever battle in human history, it is even harder to know what the final battle will look like, but a number of sources have tried to make a prediction. The Book of Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, describes a conflict to end all conflicts, a battle between the forces of good and evil which takes place at a site called Armageddon.
The word ‘Armageddon’ is a Greek transliteration of ‘Har Megiddo’, or ‘Mount Megiddo’ – the location of the battle between Thutmose III and the Canaanites. This connection is no coincidence, and the writer of Revelation probably used the Battle of Megiddo as a source of inspiration. The victory of the forces of good against a coalition of evil could even be analogous to the Egyptian army and the Canaanite states.
Megiddo has attracted a number of battles throughout the course of history. The most recent of these was in 1918, towards the end of World War One, when a combined force of British, French and other allied forces engaged a coalition of Ottomans and Germans.