Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian siege warfare: the sieges of Megiddo, of Dapur and of Hermopolis
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Wheeled siege ladder
Wheeled siege ladder
tomb of Kaemhesit, Saqqara
5th dynasty

Siege warfare

    Some recorded sieges were prolonged affairs going on for months and even years, and a few of them are important markers in Egyptian history:
  • 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.
  • With the fall of Megiddo after a seven month siege Canaan came under direct control of the pharaohs

Thutmose III: Megiddo

ca. 1482 BCE

    Megiddo lay in the plain of Yizreel, controlling the east-west traffic from the central coastal plains of Canaan to the Lake of Tiberias region and the Tell Megiddo; Source: Israel - Sites and Places, published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, 1989 north-south routes between Akka and the Beth Shean area. The town was seemingly quite sizable, having between 5000 and 10,000 inhabitants. The excavations of the tell of Megiddo uncovered ramparts dating to the Israelite period (half a millennium after Thutmose) of 800 metres length, encompassing an area of about 50,000 m².
    The city walls were built of bricks and had a thickness of up to ten metres during the early Bronze Age and a height of several storeys, but the whole of Canaan had declined since then, and Thutmose had to overcome a wall of a mere 5 metres thickness and correspondingly smaller height.
    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. Most Canaanite cities had only one gate, which had to be wide enough for the passage of chariots and carts.

    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. This may have been wishful thinking. The defenders had seemingly not panicked. There must have been a certain amount of confusion which could have been exploited by the attackers in order to organize an immediate assault by the infantry carrying the necessary equipment such as ladders, on condition that the shock troops had been deployed near-by previously.
    Whatever the reasons for the failure to storm the town immediately, an assault was deemed unnecessary later on despite the importance of the beleagered rulers

    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. The population of the land was left leaderless and did not constitute a danger to a beleagering army. The defenders could not expect any outside intervention. Their water supply was assured; but it was just a question of time before the food reserves were exhausted and the city had to surrender.
    His majesty commanded the officers of the troops to go, assigning to each his place. They measured this city, surrounding it with an inclosure, 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
Chiefs 'smelling' the ground; Source: Petrie: A History of Egypt, part II     After seven months of siege the Canaanites surrendered, and the whole region came under the hegemony of the Egyptians. There was little direct rule and Thutmose's policy of generally letting the local kings rule in his name was continued throughout much of 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
    Gaza, the town closest to their own country, was the centre of the Egyptians' power in Canaan, which suggests that - apart from having to pay tribute - the local kingdoms served mostly as buffer-states between Egypt and a succession of warlike neighbours in the north, Mitanni, Hatti and later, after the decline of Egyptian power in the Levant, Assyria.

Ramses II: Dapur

ca. 1296 BCE

Siege of Dapur, Ramesseum; Source: Petrie: A History of Egypt, part II     In the years following the battle of Kadesh the whole of Canaan was in turmoil. With Hittite support the local rulers defied the Egyptians. Ramses II set out to suppress them, and he was pressed enough not to waste time with prolonged sieges. Askalon, close to 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 Ramses was reconquering the Galilee. 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


Assyrian ram; Source: R.Gonen 'Weapons of the Ancient World'
Assyrian ram
Source: R.Gonen Weapons of the Ancient World
Egyptian weaponry was generally less well developed than that of its Asiatic neighbours.

Piye: Hermopolis

ca. 715 BCE Early battering ram (20th century BCE); Source: Gonen: Weapons of the Ancient World
Early battering ram (20th century BCE)
Source: Gonen, Weapons of the Ancient World

    By the time the Ethiopians made their incursions into Egypt, 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 sorties. Raised platforms from which the town could be showered with missiles, decreased the advantage the defenders had on their tall ramparts.

    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 harbour 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


[  ] Source of the map of Tell Megiddo: Israel - Sites and Places published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, 1989
[  ] Source of the linedrawing of the "Chiefs 'smelling' the ground": Petrie: A History of Egypt, part II
[  ] Source of the photograph of the "Siege of Dapur" relief: Petrie: A History of Egypt, part II
[  ] Source of the photograph of the Assyrian battering ram relief: Gonen: Weapons of the Ancient World
[  ] Source of the linedrawing of the "Early battering ram (20th century BCE)": Gonen: Weapons of the Ancient World. By the way, the archers on the right are not standing on raised ground. This was how Egyptian artists treated depth.

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