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  • The Army and Politics in Ancient Egypt
  • Toby Wilkinson (bio)

To the student of Egypt’s ancient history, the pervasive influence of the army in the country’s current politics comes as no surprise. Throughout the pharaonic era, from the foundation of the Egyptian state (ca. 3000 B.C.) to its absorption into the Roman Empire (30 B.C.), military might played a role at least as important as hereditary succession in determining who ruled the Nile Valley. The first king of the First Dynasty, Narmer, won his throne by force and proclaimed his victory in a great commemorative stone palette decorated with scenes of military victory. Celebrated as Egypt’s founding document, the Narmer Palette stands today in the entrance of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, just yards from the site of the popular uprising that recently unseated President Hosni Mubarak.

In the centuries and millennia following Narmer, the kingship of Egypt was always vulnerable to seizure by the strongman of the day, despite its presentation in art and writing as a sacred institution, god-given and immutable. More often than not, that strongman was an army commander. This pattern of succession is most apparent at times of political upheaval, for example the century of turmoil that followed the collapse of the Middle Kingdom in the 18th century B.C. In this uncertain time, when the kingship passed from one claimant to another with bewildering rapidity, one of the men who seized the throne (and ruled long enough to commission a stone statue of himself) was called Mermesha. His name simply means “overseer of the army.” Another ruler, King Sobekhotep III (ca. 1680 B.C.), started his career in the palace guard and rose through the ranks of the army to a position where he was able, successfully, to challenge for the throne. On his royal monuments he made a virtue of his background, openly flaunting his non-royal origins so as to distinguish himself from the tired and discredited royal family that, a generation or two earlier, had led Egypt into disunity and chaos. Sobkehotep III did not inaugurate a dynasty of his own, but instead in typical army fashion he left the throne to three brothers— Neferhotep I, Sahathor, and Sobekhotep IV—who shared his military backround (their grandfather was an infantry officer).

Even in periods of strong central rule, such as the “golden age” of the Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1539–1319 B.C.), a close study of the historical sources reveals the central role of the army in the succession to the throne. The founding kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty came to power as victors in a protracted civil war. Once established in the royal palace, they were keen to portray themselves in a new light: as kings by divine right, the guardians of Egypt’s religious traditions. Yet they never forgot their military origins. Thus when the childless Amenhotep I looked for an heir to succeed him, he chose an ambitious and dynamic army leader (the future Thutmose I) who would extend the borders of Egypt and forge an empire in the Middle East. Thutmose I’s surviving royal inscriptions betray his origins. In a tone of rampant militarism, they extol warfare as the righteous duty of an Egyptian ruler, and laud the king as a great warrior who is ready to roam the earth and take on any adversary: “He trod its ends in might and victory seeking a fight, but he found no one who would stand up to him.”1

Thutmose I’s empire building strengthened the military’s grip on power. In earlier ages Egypt had depended upon conscript armies, raised from the general population as and when occasion demanded and bolstered by mercenaries. But such a system could not meet the demands of forging and maintaining an empire. The annexation of large tracts of territory in Syria, Palestine, and Nubia necessitated permanent garrisons to enforce Egyptian control, backed up by the threat of overwhelming force in case of insurrection. Only a permanent standing army could deliver such a policy. The Eighteenth Dynasty thus witnessed the creation of a full-time army for the first time in...


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pp. 35-36
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