Ancient History & Civilisation

5. The Empire

The great queen—Thutmose III—The zenith of Egypt

Perhaps the invasion had brought another rejuvenation by the infusion of fresh blood; but at the same time the new age marked the beginning of a thousand-year struggle betwen Egypt and Western Asia. Thutmose I not only consolidated the power of the new empire, but—on the ground that western Asia must be controlled to prevent further interruptions—invaded Syria, subjugated it from the coast to Carchemish, put it under guard and tribute, and returned to Thebes laden with spoils and the glory that always comes from the killing of men. At the end of his thirty-year reign he raised his daughter Hatshepsut to partnership with him on the throne. For a time her husband and step-brother ruled as Thutmose II, and dying, named as his successor Thutmose III, son of Thutmose I by a concubine.38 But Hatshepsut set this high-destined youngster aside, assumed full royal powers, and proved herself a king in everything but gender.

Even this exception was not conceded by her. Since sacred tradition required that every Egyptian ruler should be a son of the great god Amon, Hatshepsut arranged to be made at once male and divine. A biography was invented for her by which Amon had descended upon Hatshepsut’s mother Ahmasi in a flood of perfume and light; his attentions had been gratefully received; and on his departure he had announced that Ahmasi would give birth to a daughter in whom all the valor and strength of the god would be made manifest on earth.39 To satisfy the prejudices of her people, and perhaps the secret desire of her heart, the great Queen had herself represented on the monuments as a bearded and breastless warrior; and though the inscriptions referred to her with the feminine pronoun, they did not hesitate to speak of her as “Son of the Sun” and “Lord of the Two Lands.” When she appeared in public she dressed in male garb, and wore a beard.40

She had a right to determine her own sex, for she became one of the most successful and beneficent of Egypt’s many rulers. She maintained internal order without undue tyranny, and external peace without loss. She organized a great expedition to Punt (presumably the eastern coast of Africa), giving new markets to her merchants and new delicacies to her people. She helped to beautify Karnak raised there two majestic obelisks, built at Der-el-Bahri the stately temple which her father had designed, and repaired some of the damage that had been done to older temples by the Hyksos kings. “I have restored that which was in ruins,” one of her proud inscriptions tells us; “I have raised up that which was unfinished since the Asiatics were in the midst of the Northland, overthrowing that which had been made.”41 Finally she built for herself a secret and ornate tomb among the sand-swept mountains on the western side of the Nile, in what came to be called “The Valley of the Kings’ Tombs”; her successors followed her example, until some sixty royal sepulchres had been cut into the hills, and the city of the dead began to rival living Thebes in population. The “West End” in Egyptian cities was the abode of dead aristocrats; to “go west” meant to die.

For twenty-two years the Queen ruled in wisdom and peace; Thutmose III followed with a reign of many wars. Syria took advantage of Hatshepsut’s death to revolt; it did not seem likely to the Syrians that Thutmose, a lad of twenty-two, would be able to maintain the empire created by his father. But Thutmose set off in the very year of his accession, marched his army through Kantara and Gaza at twenty miles a day, and confronted the rebel forces at Har-Megiddo (i.e., Mt. Megiddo), a little town so strategically placed between the rival Lebanon ranges on the road from Egypt to the Euphrates that it has been the Ar-mageddon of countless wars from that day to General Allenby’s. In the same pass where in 1918 the British defeated the Turks, Thutmose III, 3397 years before, defeated the Syrians and their allies. Then Thutmose marched victorious through western Asia, subduing, taxing and levying tribute, and returned to Thebes in triumph six months after his departure.*42

This was the first of fifteen campaigns in which the irresistible Thutmose made Egypt master of the Mediterranean world. Not only did he conquer, but he organized; everywhere he left doughty garrisons and capable governors. The first man in known history to recognize the importance of sea power, he built a fleet that kept the Near East effectively in leash. The spoils that he seized became the foundation of Egyptian art in the period of the Empire; the tribute that he drained from Syria gave his people an epicurean ease, and created a new class of artists who filled all Egypt with precious things. We may vaguely estimate the wealth of the new imperial government when we learn that on one occasion the treasury was able to measure out nine thousand pounds of gold and silver alloy.43 Trade flourished in Thebes as never before; the temples groaned with offerings; and at Karnak the lordly Promenade and Festival Hall rose to the greater glory of god and king. Then the King retired from the battlefield, designed exquisite vases, and gave himself to internal administration. His vizier or prime minister said of him, as tired secretaries were to say of Napoleon: “Lo, His Majesty was one who knew what happened; there was nothing of which he was ignorant; he was the god of knowledge in everything; there was no matter that he did not carry out.”43a He passed away after a rule of thirty-two (some say fifty-four) years, having made Egyptian leadership in the Mediterranean world complete.

After him another conqueror, Amenhotep II, subdued again certain idolators of liberty in Syria, and returned to Thebes with seven captive kings, still alive, hanging head downward from the prow of the imperial galley; six of them he sacrificed to Amon with his own hand.44 Then another Thutmose, who does not count; and in 1412 Amenhotep III began a long reign in which the accumulated wealth of a century of mastery brought Egypt to the acme of her splendor. A fine bust in the British Museum shows him as a man at once of refinement and of strength, able to hold firmly together the empire bequeathed to him, and yet living in an atmosphere of comfort and elegance that might have been envied by Petronius or the Medici. Only the exhuming of Tutenkhamon’s relics could make us credit the traditions and records of Amenhotep’s riches and luxury. In his reign Thebes was as majestic as any city in history. Her streets crowded with merchants, her markets filled with the goods of the world, her buildings “surpassing in magnificence all those of ancient or modern capitals,”45 her imposing palaces receiving tribute from an endless chain of vassal states, her massive temples “enriched all over with gold”46 and adorned with every art, her spacious villas and costly chateaux, her shaded promenades and artificial lakes providing the scene for sumptuous displays of fashion that anticipated Imperial Rome47—such was Egypt’s capital in the days of her glory, in the reign before her fall.

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