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Was this ancient Egypt's greatest military leader?

A pharaoh keen on conquest, Thutmose III transformed Egypt from an inward-looking kingdom into an expansionist empire.

Photograph by De Agostini Picture Library, G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
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Spoils from his many wars made Thutmose III the richest man in the world. His military accomplishments are recorded on the numerous monuments he built.

Photograph by De Agostini Picture Library, G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
CultureReference

Was this ancient Egypt's greatest military leader?

A pharaoh keen on conquest, Thutmose III transformed Egypt from an inward-looking kingdom into an expansionist empire.

Thutmose III (unknown-ca 1426 B.C.) wasted no time making a name for himself, once he was out from under the shadow of the over-reaching regent-turned-pharaoh Hatshepsut. He transformed Egypt from an inward-looking kingdom into a triumphant, conquering nation. And he established a reputation as a brilliant military strategist, one whom later historians would call the “Napoleon of Egypt.”

Just a few months after coming to power, Thutmose III marched with an army of 20,000 soldiers to Megiddo, in modern-day northern Israel—a site better known by its Greek name, Armageddon. A coalition of opponents had gathered there, outside the city. Scribes traveled with Thutmose III’s forces and recorded the campaign’s details, an invaluable chronicle now known as the Annals of Thutmose III.

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The pharaoh defied his advisers and surprised his foes by surging through a treacherous mountain pass to mount a deadly direct attack on Megiddo. He rode up front during that perilous advance to show that he trusted in the gods to protect him and his troops, and indeed, all made it through the pass unscathed. Then he entered battle at Megiddo “on a chariot of fine gold, decked in his shining armor,” dazzling and intimidating his opponents, who soon gave up the fight and retreated to their last bastion of safety within the city walls. Thutmose III laid siege to Megiddo for seven months, mercilessly starving out its remaining inhabitants until they surrendered.

Thutmose III flexed his military might repeatedly: in Nubia, in Phoenician ports, in the valuable trade center of Kadesh, and in the kingdom of Mitanni, in modern-day Syria and Turkey. Over the course of 17 campaigns, he secured more territory than any other pharaoh. By the end, he controlled Egypt’s largest ever empire. (Learn more about King Tut and his time as pharoah.)

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A statue of Thutmose III in the Luxor museum.

The spoils from Thutmose III’s military campaigns—including plunder, taxes, and tribute—vastly enriched Egypt’s treasury and made him the richest man in the world at the time. But he also secured human capital from his captured lands. The sons of conquered rulers were taken to Egypt and educated at court. Acclimated to Egyptian ways, those offspring returned home sympathetic to Egyptian rule.

Unlike one of his later successors, Ramses II—who exaggerated his military achievements—Thutmose III earned the triumphs recorded on the numerous monuments he built. His annals were inscribed on the sanctuary walls at the great Temple of Amun at Karnak. The Festival Hall there depicts the fauna and flora—including 275 plants—he collected on his Asian campaigns. He installed obelisks at Karnak and built the sun god temple at Heliopolis. And by destroying—albeit incompletely—references to Hatshepsut and her reign, Thutmose III fashioned a direct line to his eponymous predecessors, strengthening his claim and his legacy as the rightful and most powerful ruler of Egypt.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.