World History 1 55 - 4.2.3 Egypt’s Foreign Policy

Powerful pharaohs used war beyond their borders to keep their rivals and other major powers in check. Thutmose III had led armies into both Nubia and Canaan for this purpose. In Canaan, his efforts were directed at blunting the growing influence of Mitanni, a kingdom in northern Mesopotamia. The rise of Mitanni led a number of Canaanite leaders who had previously pledged their allegiance to Egypt to instead seek Mitanni protection. By campaigning in Canaan several times, Thutmose III was able to bring the Canaanite regions back into Egypt’s orbit. He also directly attacked Mitanni itself in order to weaken its control in the region. His numerous successors continued these efforts, thus ensuring Egypt’s influence in Canaan. Amenhotep II brought back thousands of prisoners and a wealth of treasure from his campaigns in the region, for example. Well over a century later, Seti I and Ramesses II were still pursuing these efforts to preserve Egyptian dominance.

Pharaohs also frequently took hostages, usually members of the royal families of subject kingdoms. Thutmose III brought back a number of the sons of Canaanite kings after his campaigns, who were raised and educated in Egypt and learned Egyptian customs. Apart from serving as cultural bridges, hostages also helped strengthen Egypt’s relationships with its subject realms by reducing the likelihood their fathers would rebel in the future. Another means of improving relations with other kingdoms was marriage. Thutmose IV married one of the daughters of the Mitanni king as part of an agreement intended to check the power of the Hittites.

While wars in foreign lands could pacify enemies and preserve Egypt’s international influence, military campaigns also had a strong economic component. Conquering new territory meant conquering new wealth that could be used to benefit the state. Records of just one of Thutmose III’s campaigns in Canaan note that the booty included more than two thousand horses and twenty thousand sheep, almost two thousand goats, wheat, weapons, equipment, captives, and items made of precious metals, such as copper from mines in the Sinai. Descriptions of campaigns in Nubia recount similar acquisitions. Conquered peoples were also expected to provide annual tribute to the Egyptian state.

And there were benefits from maintaining control over vital trade routes and centers of commerce. The eastern Mediterranean regions of Canaan and Syria included routes connecting Mesopotamia with the sea and Cyprus. Major trading centers included Hazor and Qadesh. Megiddo was located at a mountain pass on the trade routes connecting Mesopotamia with important Canaanite cities on the way to Egypt (Figure 4.26). The value of these trade routes and commercial centers prompted Egypt to launch several campaigns into the area. Battles were fought at Qadesh and Megiddo in an effort to keep the Hittite and Mitanni kingdoms out and maintain Egyptian control over the area. These famous battles came at enormous cost in troops and wealth, and the results were mixed. The Battle of Qadesh was at best a draw. The Battle of Megiddo, fought in the fifteenth century BCE by the forces of Thutmose III, was largely an Egyptian success and led to the kingdom establishing firm control over the larger region.

A map of the Middle East is shown with Greece and Turkey in the top left corner and the northeast corner of Africa at the bottom left. The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are shown in the north, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea are shown in the west, and the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf (Arabian Sea) are shown in the south. The Sahara Desert in Egypt is labeled as well as the An-Nafud Desert and the Arabian Desert in Arabia. The Syrian Desert is labeled in Syria. Red dotted lines are shown crisscrossing throughout the map connecting various cities together. Cities that are connected with the red dotted lines are: Athens, Troy (Illum), Ephesus, Beycesultan, Karahüyük, Hattusa (Bogazköy), Kanish, Tarsus, Carchemish, T. Brak, Chagar Borsippa Bazar, Nineveh, Geoytepe, Alaiakh, Ugarit, Emar, Terqa, Arvad, Hamath, Datna, Asshur, Qadesh, Tador, Mari, Kedesh, Hazor, Megiddo, Damascus, Agade, Jemet Nasr, Susa, Kish, Babylon, Isin, Ur, Rabbathammon, Jerusalem, Gaza, Elath, Tanis, Avaris, Giza, Memphis, Abusir, Saqqarah, Dashur, Maidum, Beni Hasan, T. el-Amarna, and Thebes. The lines also head north up into the Caucasus Mountains, east into Asia and toward India, and south through Arabia and Africa.
Figure 4.26 The regions of Canaan and Syria connected vital trade routes (shown in red) that ran from Mesopotamia to Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula as well as Anatolia. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

By maintaining their influence in Canaan, Syria, and Nubia, Egyptian pharaohs preserved the state’s access to vital trading resources. Tin and copper were transported from Anatolia via trading routes through Canaan. Phoenicia in northwestern Canaan was a major source of the cedar used to construct Egyptian ships. It was also through the Phoenician port city of Byblos that Egyptian papyrus frequently flowed to other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek name for book, biblos, reflects this connection with Byblos and is the ancient origin of the English word “bible.” Ivory, ebony, leopard skins, incense, and gold were procured in Nubia. There were also mines in the Sinai for turquoise, alabaster, and quartzite. Trade goods coming from Egypt to other parts of the world included pottery, grains, papyrus, linen, and many other items. To protect the flow of trade, Egypt provided border protection, supervised toll roads, and generally ensured the safety of merchants. Records from New Kingdom Egypt note frequent deliveries of trade goods from foreign allies such as Mitanni, Babylon, and others. They are described as gifts, but scholars believe they were almost certainly trade.

Toward the end of the New Kingdom era, Egypt’s ability to maintain control over the trade routes in Canaan and Syria declined steadily. Instability in the commercial centers and banditry on the roads became more common. One travel report from the tail end of the New Kingdom (c. 1100 BCE) describes some of the problems experienced by an Egyptian envoy sent to Phoenicia to buy a supply of cedar. First he was robbed by his own crew, then he was refused the cedar he was promised in Phoenicia, and finally he was attacked by roving migrants. He appealed to officials in Egypt, but little could be done. In earlier centuries, such difficulties would have been unthinkable, but by 1100 BCE, Egypt’s influence in the region was no longer strong.

Many of the problems the envoy described were symptoms of the Late Bronze Age Collapse and were out of Egypt’s control. One of the consequences of this larger civilizational decline was that large numbers of migrants, such as those who attacked the envoy, were sweeping across the eastern Mediterranean bringing chaos and destruction. An Egyptian inscription from 1208 BCE described them as “coming from the sea,” which has led modern scholars to refer to them as the Sea Peoples (Figure 4.27). It appears that many came from the Aegean area.

A black and white drawing is shown. In the left half of the drawing six flat boats are drawn with no sails. One has oars on the side. People are crowded in and around the boats mostly dressed in cloths around their waists and simple headdresses, with spears or swords and shields. Many are shown falling out of the boats and laying on the ground and arrows litter the drawing being shot at people and hitting people. A tall stacked pile of bodies lay at the front of the boat at the bottom right. At the right are drawn three larger figures standing one right behind the other with their bows and arrows drawn and aiming at the boats. Behind them is a very large figure that is also aiming a bow and arrow at the boats. He wears a cloth and sash around his waist, has a tall headdress, and wears a quiver of arrows on his back. A bird is seen flying above his head. Across the top are nine hieroglyphics drawn, positioned slightly off center. Across the bottom twenty-nine figures are shown, some dressed in robes and some in cloths around their waists, holding weapons and looking at the people in the boats. Some have their arms raised.
Figure 4.27 This redrawing of a wall relief from the Temple of Ramesses III records the arrival of a group of Sea People (on the left) and the Egyptians led by Ramesses (the larger-than-life archer on the right) preparing to defend themselves. (credit: modification of work “A depiction of the army of Ramesses III fighting the Sea Peoples” by “Seebeer”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As inscriptions from the period demonstrate, Egypt resisted the invading forces. Many of the Sea Peoples were likely killed. But many others settled in Egypt and assimilated there, just as they did across the entire eastern Mediterranean. All this disruption took a toll on the region, however. The Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece and the Hittite kingdom in Anatolia suffered greatly and collapsed. City-states across Canaan were especially hard hit. Even kingdoms far from the Mediterranean, like Assyria and Babylon, weakened during this time of troubles.

Though Egypt proved more able to withstand the dangers of the period, it did experience problems. Grain prices, for example, soared during this time. Tomb robbing became common as workers who had not been paid found other ways to support their families. At the same time the Libyans and Sea Peoples were leading their attacks in northern Egypt, Nubian subjects rose up in rebellion to Egypt’s south. And the migrating Sea Peoples in Canaan greatly weakened Egypt’s control of the region. By 1070 BCE, the challenges had been mounting for years, and the New Kingdom came to an end.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax