Restoring sacred sites to magnificence and endowing them with dazzling new monuments was a tried and trusted way of rebuilding Egypt’s domestic standing, but there was still the question of the country’s international reputation. From his background as an army officer, Seti knew that influence on the world stage came from military strength. Yet not since the glory days of Amenhotep II had Egypt won a decisive victory in the Near East. Under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, attempts to extend or even defend imperial possessions in Syria had been wholly ineffective. Horemheb had tried to reassert Egyptian hegemony, but with mixed results. Egypt’s reputation as a great power was seriously compromised, its overseas territories vulnerable to secession or seizure by the Hittites, and its mastery of trade routes threatened. Action was urgently needed if the Ramessides’ inheritance was not to disappear before their very eyes. Seti had lost no time, launching his first campaign while still crown prince. He had fought his way along the Phoenician coast to reassert Egypt’s traditional sphere of influence and to secure Egypt’s continued access to the Mediterranean harbors, with their garrisons and trading wharfs.
At the start of his sole reign in 1290, he led further campaigns with similar strategic objectives. The first people to feel Egypt’s wrath were the bedouin of northern Sinai. Struggles between their fractious tribes were not a hazard to Egyptian security per se, but they did threaten the country’s main supply lines to its imperial possessions in Syria-Palestine. Seti knew that control of the northern Sinai coastal route was a necessary prerequisite for more ambitious military maneuvers. Having reimposed Egyptian authority in his own backyard, he moved onward into Canaan, regaining control of the key fortified towns of Beth-Shan and Yenoam. He then set the seal on Egypt’s victory by forcing the chiefs of Lebanon to hew wood in his presence—a public act of submission to the pharaoh that also emphasized Egypt’s claim over the region’s abundant natural resources. In earlier times, small-scale local actions of this sort would not have required the personal presence of the king at the head of the army. But Seti recognized the need to project a renewed image of royal power abroad, and was fortunate in possessing the appetite for battle. Sustaining such a policy, however, would lead Egypt ever deeper into the quagmire of international politics, with momentous consequences.
The political map of the Near East in Seti’s time was radically and irrevocably changed from the confident days of the late Eighteenth Dynasty. Under Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, Egypt had achieved a lasting peace with the major power of northern Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Mittani, and had secured the new relationship through a series of diplomatic marriages. The two powers had respected each other’s spheres of influence and had managed to coexist amicably for half a century.
Then, early in the reign of Akhenaten, the accession of a belligerent and ambitious ruler of the Hittites had dealt a body blow to the carefully negotiated balance of power. In a series of swift and devastating campaigns, the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma had succeeded in breaking out of his Anatolian heartland to conquer significant swaths of Mittanian-controlled territory, even raiding the Mittanian capital. Egypt had stuck by its friendship with Mittani, but the Mesopotamian kingdom was by that time all but a spent force. A new superpower had arrived on the scene, and Egypt had been totally unprepared.
Under Akhenaten, the pharaonic government’s initial reaction had been not to get involved. This passivity had been a fatal error. The combination of Mittanian weakness and Egyptian hesitancy had then led a number of former vassal states to exploit the power vacuum and push for greater autonomy. Chief among them had been Amurru, a sizeable region of central Syria between the river Orontes and the Mediterranean Sea. As we have seen, the ruler of Amurru, Abdi-Ashirta, had been a shameless wheeler-dealer, quick to take advantage of political rivalries and social instability to advance his own cause. His missives to the Egyptian court form a significant portion of the Amarna Letters archive. Either the Egyptians had not known quite what to make of him or they’d decided a policy of nonintervention was the most sensible course. Yet this disinterest had merely encouraged Abdi-Ashirta in his ambitions, and Amurru had remained outside Egyptian control.
Pharaonic power, once feared and respected throughout the Near East, had had no more success with the wayward state of Kadesh. Its rulers had been a thorn in Egypt’s side ever since the reign of Thutmose III, and they had stayed true to character during Akhenaten’s reign by going over to the enemy side as soon as the Hittite army had come knocking at their gates. An abortive mission to recapture Kadesh had merely underlined Egypt’s weakness. A second attempt on the town during the reign of Tutankhamun had met with similar failure, encouraging the gloating Hittites to consolidate their hold over northern Syria. Aziru of Amurru (Abdi-Ashirta’s son), seeing which way the wind had been blowing, had joined Kadesh in pledging allegiance to the region’s new Hittite overlords. The attempt by Tutankhamun’s widow to engineer a diplomatic marriage to a Hittite prince, to save her from Ay’s clutches, could have brought about a lasting peace between the two rival powers. Instead, Prince Zannanza’s mysterious death had merely provided yet another excuse for Hittite expansion; the prince’s father had vented his wrath on the treacherous Egyptians by attacking Egyptian-held territory in southern Syria.
But the Hittites had not had it all their own way. In a bitter twist of fate, the prisoners of war that had been brought back to the Hittite capital from these punitive raids had carried with them the plague. It had swept through the royal citadel at Hattusa, killing not only the king but his crown prince as well. It was still ravaging the Hittite homeland twenty years later. To the Hittites, it must have seemed that the gods had changed sides. To the Egyptians, these bizarre events far from home seemed to have rekindled the possibility of victory. An uneasy peace had settled over Syria, with Egypt and the Hittites at a stalemate.
So things had stood when Seti I came to the throne. With a soldier’s blood in his veins, he was resolute in his determination to restore Egypt’s tarnished national pride. After a half century of inglorious retreat, it was time for Amun-Ra to be on the march once again. Having reasserted Egyptian control over Phoenicia and Canaan, Seti set his sights on Amurru and Kadesh. Winning them back would strike a symbolically powerful blow to Hittite aspirations and would go a long way to reviving Egypt’s regional reputation. Just a year after recapturing Beth-Shan and Yenoam, Seti’s army struck deep into central Syria. Kadesh was taken, and a triumphant Seti ordered a magnificent victory inscription to be erected in the city. His elation was to be short-lived. As soon as the Egyptian troops had disappeared over the horizon, the perfidious inhabitants of Kadesh returned at once to the Hittite fold. The pharaoh’s forces had rather more success with the province of Amurru—once retaken, it remained loyal to its new Egyptian master. At the end of the campaign, a large part of central Syria had changed sides. Seti had erased the humiliations of previous generations and had set Egypt back on the path of imperial greatness. Or so he hoped. In fact, the Hittites were merely regrouping. They had no intention of taking these setbacks lying down. Marshaling their considerable forces high on the Anatolian plateau, they prepared for all-out war. As the skies darkened over the Near East, the looming showdown between the two superpowers would not be long in coming.
Behind the apparent pluck and resolve of Seti I’s foreign policy there lurks a conundrum. If Egypt and the Hittites had indeed agreed on some sort of accommodation during the reign of Horemheb, as later sources suggest, then Seti’s bold campaigns drove a coach and horses through it. Moreover, his actions set in train a series of increasingly bloody clashes that led not to the restoration of Egyptian supremacy but to long-term losses. In retrospect, Seti’s Asiatic wars look rash and foolish. One possible explanation is that his policy was dictated more by political expediency than by a careful calculation of Egypt’s strategic interests. Rulers throughout history have resorted to stoking a foreign conflict to deflect attention from problems closer to home. And, indeed, there are tantalizing clues from early in Seti’s reign that may suggest an insecurity at the heart of his regime. In the king’s battle reliefs at Ipetsut, an enigmatic figure labeled only as “the group marshaler and fan bearer Mehy” is depicted with unusual prominence, as if playing a key role in the battles and in Seti’s wider offensive strategy.
To have been given such high status on a royal monument, Mehy (the name is an abbreviation for an unknown longer name) must have been one of the most influential figures at court—perhaps occupying a position akin to that of Horemheb during the reign of Tutankhamun or of Paramessu during the reign of Horemheb. It has even been suggested that the mysterious Mehy was Seti’s designated heir, and that the martial king had decided to follow recent precedent by leaving his throne to a fellow army officer.
If so, Seti’s son, the adolescent Prince Ramesses, had other ideas. Within a few years of Mehy’s figure being carved, every instance was systematically erased from the Ipetsut reliefs, to be replaced by Ramesses’s own image. The next generation of the Ramesside Dynasty had no intention of allowing a mere commoner to exercise such influence over the kingdom’s affairs. Ramesses, and he alone, would be recognized by posterity as his father’s true heir and most steadfast supporter.
Ramesses, and he alone, would continue Seti’s aggressive foreign policy and fulfill Egypt’s destiny as a great imperial power. Ramesses, and he alone, would confront the Hittites directly in a final struggle for international supremacy.
The pharaoh’s army readied itself as the country marched onward to war.