Siege Warfare in Ancient Egypt

Siege Warfare in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

It is clear that the Egyptians did posses the means to conduct siege warfare, though in reality, like other powers in the region such as the Assyrian, they tried to avoid this type of battle where possible. They preferred, rather, to force a military decision on the battlefield. However, with the large number of fortified cities throughout Palestine and Canaan, they were forced to employ siege warfare at times, though they were probably less adapt at this form of battle then some of their neighbors.

Ramesses II storms Askalonin  soutern Canaan

Yet some recorded sieges were prolonged affairs going on for months and even years, and a few of them are important markers in Egyptian history: For example, the successful siege of Hatwaret (Avaris) by Ahmose I signalled the end of the Hyksos presence in Egypt. The three year siege and taking of Sharuhen in southern Canaan opened the path to start to hegemony over the Levant and with the fall of Megiddo after a seven month siege Canaan came under direct control of the Egypt's Tuthmosis III. Other important sieges include Seti I's attack on the great city of Kadesh on the Orontes prior to his son's famous battle in the same area.

When sieges were called for, depictions of such campaigns, such as those in Merenptah's campaign in Palestine recorded in the annals, display soldiers assaulting the fortifications by scaling ladders, sometimes on wheels and by infantry using axes to break into the wooden gates, all backed up by a hail of arrows from Egyptian archers.

Scene showing Seti I's second ampaign in central Syria against the city of Kadesh

Scene showing Seti I's second ampaign in central Syria against the city of Kadesh

Rarely do we find the possibility of equipment such as battering rams, and the use of more aggressive weapons such as catapults is complete absent. In fact, as late as the New Kingdom, other than ladders, the most sophisticated equipment seems to have been shielding devices used to protect the troops as they worked upon the wooden gates of fortresses.For example, in the tomb of the 11th Dynasty noble Khety we find a pair of Middle Kingdom soldiers advancing towards a fortress under the protection of a mobile roofed structure. They carry a long pole that was perhaps an early battering ram. And in the Middle Kingdom tomb of General Intef at Thebes (modern Luxor), a depiction shows a type of mobile siege tower.

Scene showing soldiers using a mobile siege tower from the tomb of general Infef at Thebes

Scene showing soldiers using a mobile siege tower from the tomb of general Infef at Thebes

Thutmose III: Megiddo

The Taking of Jappa

In Tuthmosis III's 1482 BC campaign against Megiddo, there were actually two separate sieges. Even as Tuthmosis III approached the initial battlefield at Megiddo, the king sent his general Djehuty to place Jaffa under siege, apparently feeling that this city posed a threat to either his line of communications or possible retreat. Like the siege of Megiddo, we have written evidence of how Djehuty took Jaffa, by a an unusual trick that would perhaps later be the origin of a number of tales.

In this story, called "The Taking of Joppa," we meet with what is unquestionably the original source of the leading incident in the familiar story of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." Djehuty conceals two hundred of his soldiers in two hundred big sacks, fills three hundred other sacks with cords and fetters and loads five hundred other soldiers in these sacks, and sends them into the city in the character of captives. Once inside the gates, the bearers liberate and arm their comrades, take the place, and make all the inhabitants prisoners.

It is almost certain that Djehuty was sent by Tuthmosis III to capture Jappa, but it should be noted that many scholars doubt the validity of this story, feeling that it is pure fable rather than actual fact.

The Siege of Megiddo

Megiddo was for thousands of years an important city that controlled the east-west traffic from its position on the plain of Esdraelon. Trade had to pass through its realm of influence in order to travel from the plains of Canaan to the Lake of Tiberias region and the north-south routes between Akka dn the Beth Shean area. As such, the city was correspondingly large in area.

Sometime prior to Tuthmosis' siege of Megiddo, the city had walls build of brick with a thickness of up to ten meters and of considerable height. However, by the time of Tuthmosis attack, the city had declined to some extent, and had walls of only about five meters in thickness, that were correspondingly smaller in height. Most Canaanite cities had only one gate, which had to be wide enough for the passage of chariots and carts.

Siege warfare from the tomb of Inti at Deshasheh

Like most Canaanite city states, Megiddo depended on wells for water, which were usually located at the foot of the tell, or mound upon which the city was built. Hence, this water supply lay outside the walls of the city. Therefore, tunnels would be excavated to the wells from within the city gates, and the wells would be covered and hidden.

The inhabitants of Canaanite cities depended upon wells for their water supply. These were generally at the foot of the growing tells, and thus outside the city walls. The wells were consequently often covered up and tunnels were excavated to make them accessible from the city interior. Therefore, water would probably not have been a problem for the inhabitants of Megiddo during its siege by Tuthmosis III, but food was wood have been given a period of prolonged siege.

During the battle of Megiddo the city gate was barred and the walls were manned. When the fleeing charioteers reached the city, the defenders refused to open the gate, preventing the pursuing Egyptian chariotry from gaining access. The Canaanites had to abandon their chariots and were pulled up the city walls. The Egyptian chronicler thought that "if only the army of his majesty had not given their heart to plundering the things of the enemy, they would have captured Megiddo at this moment". However, this may have been an incorrect assumption on their part. How many additional defenders could have been pulled up over the walls is questionable, and it is clear that the city's guard did not panic. Hence, there is no clear indication that an immediate attack on the city would have resulted in any immediate victory for the Egyptians, even in the ensuing confusion of the field battle's aftermath.

However, the city's capture was paramount, though no immediate attack was deemed necessary:

Then spake his majesty on hearing the words of his army, saying: "Had ye captured this city afterward, behold, I would have given Re this day; because every chief of every country that has revolted is within it; and because it is the capture of a thousand cities, this capture of Megiddo. Capture ye mightily, mightily."

James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part II 432

The Egyptians prepared for a prolonged siege. Most Canaanite leaders were either captured, killed on the battlefield, or managed to escape into Megiddo. Many of the regional leaders had joined the Egyptian opposition, and thus the land was left without its rulers, so the Egyptian forces were not worried about outside intervention during a long siege. No help would come to save the city, and it was just a matter of time until the food reserves of the beleaguered defenders were exhausted.

His majesty commanded the officers of the troops to go, assigning to each his place. They measured this city, surrounding it with an enclosure, walled about with green timber of all their pleasant trees. His majesty himself was upon the fortification east of this city, inspecting. It was walled about with its thick wall. Its name was made: "Menkheperre Thutmose III-is-the-Surrounder-of-the-Asiatics." People were stationed to watch over the tent of his majesty; to whom it was said: "Steady of heart! Watch." His majesty commanded, saying: "Let not one among them come forth outside, beyond this wall, except to come out in order to knock at the other door of their fortification." Now, all that his majesty did to this city, to that wretched foe and his wretched army, was recorded on each day by its the day's name. Then it was recorded upon a roll of leather in the temple of Amon this day.

James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part II 433

After seven months of siege the Canaanites surrendered, and the whole region came under the nominal control of Egypt. However, Tuthmosis III, as was not uncustomary, allowed the local kings to continue to rule the region in his name throughout much of the the New Kingdom.

Behold, the chiefs of this country came to render their portions, to do obeisance to the fame of his majesty, to crave breath for their nostrils, because of the greatness of his power, because of the might of the fame of his majesty the country came to his fame, bearing their gifts, consisting of silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite; bringing clean grain, wine, large cattle, and small cattle for the army of his majesty. Each of the Kode among them bore the tribute southward. Behold, his majesty appointed the chiefs anew.

James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part II 434

In fact, Tuthmosis III probably had no real desire to rule these foreigners. Rather, he sought to create a buffer zone as a defense against Asiatic attacks of Egypt, and to control the wealth of trade that passed through that region.

Ramesses II: Dapur

Ramesses II at Dapur

In the years following the battle of Kadesh around 1296 BC, the whole of Canaan was in turmoil. With Hittite support the local rulers defied the Egyptians. Ramesses II set out to suppress them, and he was pressed enough not to waste time with prolonged sieges. Askalon, close to the Egyptian border was stormed. A relief at Karnak shows soldiers scaling the walls with the help of ladders and an officer trying to break down the city gate with an axe.

The wretched city which his majesty captured, when it rebelled, Askalon. It (the city) says: "It is joy to be subject to thee, and delight to cross thy boundaries. Take thou the heritage, that we may speak of thy valor in all unknown countries.

James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part III 355

In the eighth year of his reign Ramesses II was faced with having to conquer the Galilee. In this campaign, fortified towns like Bethanath, Merom and Dapur (probably Tabor) were captured. It seems that some Hittites were stationed at Dapur:

Said the vanquished of Kheta in praising the Good God: "Give to us the breath that thou givest, O good ruler. Lo, we are under thy sandals; thy terror, it has penetrated the land of Kheta. Its chief is fallen because of thy fame; we are like herds of horses, when the fierce-eyed lion attacks them."

James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part III 359

Piye: Hermopolis

Piye at Hermopolis

By the time the Nubians made their incursions into Egypt, around 715 BC, walls, siege tactics and equipment had undergone changes, mostly influenced by developments in the Asiatic East. Early shelters protecting sappers armed with poles trying to breach mud-brick ramparts gave way to battering rams.

Enclosures were still erected, preventing surprise attacks, but raised platforms from which the town could be showered with missiles, which decreased the advantage the defenders had on their tall ramparts as we find from Piye's siege of Hermopolis in Egypt:

Behold, [he] besieges Heracleopolis, he has completely invested it, not letting comers-out come out, and not letting goers-in go in, fighting every day. He measured it off in its whole circuit, every prince knows his wall; he stations every man of the princes and rulers of walled towns over his respective portion.

The Piankhi Stela James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part IV 818

Then they fought against Tetehen, great in might. They found it filled with soldiers, with every valiant man of the Northland. Then the battering-ram was employed against it, its wall was overthrown, and a great slaughter was made among them. of unknown number; also the son of the chief of Me, Tefnakhte. Then they sent to his majesty concerning it, (but) his heart was not satisfied therewith.

The Piankhi Stela James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part IV 838

He set up for himself the camp on the southwest of Hermopolis (Hmnw) and besieged it daily. An embankment was made, to inclose the wall; a tower was raised to elevate the archers while shooting, and the slingers while slinging stones, and slaying people among them daily.

The Piankhi Stela James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part IV 842

While some of the Lower Egyptian towns were besieged, Piye decided against this in the case of Memphis after Tefnakht had gone north to raise troops for the defense of the city. The building of a causeway was proposed, as was the erection of siege towers, but Piye took advantage of the fact that the harbor was not as well defended nor the river wall as well manned as the huge ramparts facing north. The ships captured, he seems to have used them for scaling the city wall facing the Nile.

When day broke, at early morning, his majesty reached Memphis. When he landed on the north of it, he found that the water had approached to the walls, the ships mooring at [the walls of] Memphis. Then his majesty saw it was strong, and that the wall was raised by a new rampart, and battlements manned with mighty men. There was found no way of attacking it. Every man told his opinion among the army of his majesty, according to every rule of war. Every man said; "Let us besiege [it] .... ; lo, its troops are numerous." Others said: "Let a causeway be made against it, let us elevate the ground to its walls. Let us bind together a tower; let us erect masts and make the spars into a bridge to it. We will divide it on this (plan) on every side of it, on the high ground and ..... on the north of it, in order to elevate the ground at its walls, that we may find a way for our feet.

Then his majesty was enraged against it like a panther; he said: "I swear, as Re loves me, as my father, Amon [who fashioned me], favors me, this shall befall it, according to the command of Amon. This is what men say: '[The Northland] and the nomes of the South, they opened to him from afar, they did not set Amon in their heart, they knew not what he commanded. He (i.e. Amon) made him (i.e. Piankhi) to show forth his fame, to cause his might to be seen.' I will take it like a flood of water. I have commanded .... ..... ..... ."

His majesty himself came to line up the ships, as many as there were. His majesty commanded his army (saying): "Forward against it! Mount the walls! Penetrate the houses over the river. If one of you gets through upon the wall, let him not halt before it, [so that] the (hostile) troops may not repulse you. It were vile that we should close up the South, should land [in] the North and lay siege in 'Balance of the Two Lands'."

Then Memphis was taken as (by) a flood of water, a multitude of people were slain therein, and brought as living captives to the place where his majesty was

The Piankhi Stela James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents. (Chicago: 1906), Part IV 861 ff

Early siege warfare was undoubtedly a costly affair from the standpoint of human life, though in some situations the king's may have looked upon this as simply a loss of resources. However, this was a cost to them, and in the end, many sieges were simply a matter of waiting out the enemy rather than storming a fortress and taking it by brute force.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Armies of the Pharaohs Healy, Mark 1992 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 85532 939 5
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Warfare and Weapons Shaw, Ian 1991 Shire Publications LTD ISBN 0 7478 0142 8
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2