Necho II: An Archaeological Biography

The biblical “Neco, King of Egypt” is identified with Pharaoh Nekau/Necho II1, one of the pharaohs of the 26th Dynasty, who ruled Egypt from ca. 610–595 BC.2  He is named in eight verses in Scripture, and is connected with three significant events: he defeated King Josiah of Judah at the Battle of Megiddo (2 Kings 23:28-29), he choose Eliakim as the new vassal king of Judah (2Kings 23:34), and he was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar at the Battle of Carchemish (Jeremiah 46:2-3).  Outside of these events, no other information is given in Scripture about Pharoah Necho II.  Thankfully, numerous archaeological finds help us understand his reign and his life, which in turn, helps us understand the biblical accounts better. 

The 26th Dynasty of Egypt

A bronze statue of Pharaoh Necho II, currently housed in the Penn Museum. Necho’s cartouche appears on the back of his belt band. Photo: Object E 13004,  Courtesy of the Penn Museum. https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/27691

To understand the reign of Necho II, we need to understand the global politics of that era.  Assyria had been the prevailing world power, although her dominance was beginning to fade as the neo-Babylonian empire was beginning to flex its might.  While some kingdoms had rebelled against Assyrian control (as Hezekiah had done earlier – 2 Kings 18:7), Necho I, king of Sais in northern Egypt, allied himself with Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, who drove the Nubian Pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty out of Egypt.3   After Necho I died in battle, Assyria recognized his son, Psammetichus/Psamtik I as the sole ruler of Egypt.4  His son, Wehimbre Necho II succeeded him as Pharaoh, and inherited a stabilized kingdom (the 26th Dynasty) that was experiencing a renaissance in art, culture, and writing, which harkened back to the glory days of Egypt.5  Ruling from Sais, Necho II maintained his loyalty to the Assyrian kingdom.6  In addition, he appears to have had grandiose designs, as did the Pharaohs of old.

The ruins of Sais, Egypt, the royal city of the 26th Dynasty. A Drawing from the German expedition of 1842-45. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The remains of the ancient city of Sais, near the modern village of Sa el-Hagar, Egypt. Excavations were recently carried out by the Egypt Exploration Society and Durham University. You can learn more about Sais here: http://community.dur.ac.uk/penelope.wilson/intro.html Photo: Courtesy of Penny Wilson

Herodotus records that Necho began to build a canal to the Red Sea7, and sent a group of Egyptian and Phoenician sailors to circumnavigate the continent of Africa.8  He also turned his thoughts to expansion and led a campaign into Syria. Herodotus writes that he “stopped work on the canal and engaged in preparations for war; some of his ships of war were built on the northern sea, and some in the Arabian Gulf, by the Red Sea coast: the winches for landing these can still be seen. He used these ships when needed, and with his land army met and defeated the Syrians at Magdolus, taking the great Syrian city of Cadytis after the battle.”

In this relief, Pharaoh Necho II is seen facing the goddess Hathor (with a headdress adorned by a sun-disk and cow horns). The inscription at the top may once have read, “I grant you every country in submission.” Photo: Walters Art Museum, Public Domain

Necho & Judah: The Battle of Megdido

In his [King Josiah’s] days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him, and Pharaoh Neco killed him at Megiddo, as soon as he saw him. (2 Kings 23:29) 

A lion with the cartouche of Necho II on its shoulder. It once lay on top of another figure (now missing), perhaps a human captive. Photo: The Met Museum / Public Domain  

Understanding the power struggle at that point in history helps illuminate what Josiah may have been thinking in rushing into battle with the Egyptians.  After Ashurbanipal’s death in 627 BC, Assyria’s power began to wane.  Egypt, who was allied with Assyria, was growing in power and expanding into Syria-Palestine.  At the same time, Babylon was expanding its empire under King Nabopolassar, and in 612 BC, a combined force of Babylonians and Medes destroyed Nineveh and killed the Assyrian king.  One military commander escaped to Haran and the Assyrians accepted Ashuruballit as their new king.10

In 609 BC, the Babylonians marched on Haran, and Necho, king of Egypt attempted to come to the aid of Assyria.  Josiah, king of Judah attempted to intervene to stop Necho and met him at Megiddo.  Why did Josiah rush to battle?  Egyptologist, Donald Redford, explains:  “For a century, moreover, ever since the overtures of Marduk-baladin II to Hezekiah, Judah had perceived itself as sharing a community of interest with Babylon in international politics. Josiah simply saw himself as an ally of the forces of right in the final destruction of Assyria.”11

The Chronicler describes the battle of Megiddo:

After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out to meet him. But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” 

Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.”  So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. (2 Chronicles 35:20-24)

Egypt continued north to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians, who by this time had taken Haran.  The Baylonian Chronicle (BM 21901) for the years 616-609 records:

The Babylonian Chronicle for the years 616-609 BC famous for its description of the fall of Nineveh. Photo: (c) The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Seventeenth year[609 BC]: in the month of Du’uzu, Ashuruballit, king of Assyria, and a large army of Egypt [the forces of Necho II] crossed the river [Euphrates] and marched on to conquer Harran. [His army] entered it, but the garrison which the king of Akkad [Nabopolassar] had left there killed [defeated] them and so he encamped against Harran.  Till the month of Ululu he made attacks against the town. Nothing, however, did he achieve and they returned [to Carchemish].”12

The Egyptians and Assyrians were unsuccessful in taking the city and Necho returned to Egypt. On the way, he stopped at Jerusalem to depose Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah whom the people had made king, in order to install his own choice on the throne.  “And Pharaoh Neco made Eliakim the son of Josiah king in the place of Josiah his father, and changed his name to Jehoiakim. But he took Jehoahaz away, and he came to Egypt and died there.”  (2Kings 23:34)   Thus, Necho established Egyptian control of Judah, and no doubt, received tribute from his new vassal state.

Necho & Babylon: The Battle of Carchemish

About Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: “Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle!” (Jeremiah 46:2-3)

One of the Pharaohs from Sais, possibly Necho II. Photo: Jona Lendering / Livius.org /
CC0 1.0 Universal

In the spring of 605 BC, Nabopolassar’s son, the crown-prince, Nebuchadnezzar, marched on Carchemish, where the Egyptian army was wintering.  There he soundly defeated Necho’s troops, the event which the prophet Jeremiah referenced.  Babylonian control of northern Syria spelled the end of Necho’s control in the region.  In 601 BC, the Babylonians tried to invade Egypt, but Necho was able to repel them and defend his borders.  He spent his latter years sowing anti-Babylonian sentiment in Syria-Palestine.13

Conclusion

Despite his ambitions building campaigns and his military victories, it appears that Necho II may have been best remembered for his defeat at the hands of the Babylonians at the Battle of Carchemish.  Grimal remarks, “His reputation with both contemporaries and subsequent generations was very poor, despite the fact that he appears to have passed on a certain degree of prosperity to his successors.”14  Redford summarizes, “Among the members of the 26th Dynasty, Necho II has received the worst press.  A man of action from the start, and endowed with an imagination perhaps beyond that of his contemporaries, Necho had the ill luck to foster the impression of being a failure: in hindsight his bent to action was perceived as impetuosity, his imagination unrealistic dreaming.”15  There is evidence that some of his inscriptions were defaced, although the fact that there are numerous monuments of Necho II intact in the delta region, which likely came from Sais, make it unlikely that there was a systematic erasure of him in Egypt.16

The records left behind by the Babylonians and Egyptians align with the biblical events attributed to Neco/Necho II. Understanding the times in which he lived sheds light on his character and illuminates the Scriptures.

Cover Photo: A Bronze Statue of Necho II from the the Cattaui Family Collection. Photo Credit: Christies

Endnotes:

1 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 24.

2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Necho II,” Encyclopædia Britannica. November 05, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Necho-II (Accessed Sept. 4, 2020).

3 Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1992), 351.

4 Ibid, 353.

5 Ibid, 357.

6 Ibid, 359.

7 Herodotus, Histories, 2.158. Online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0126%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D158 (Accessed Sept. 8, 2020).

8 Herodotus, Histories, 4.42. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Herodotus/4B*.html#42 (Accessed Sept. 8, 2020).

9 Herodotus, Histories, 2.159.  Online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0126%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D159 (Accessed Sept. 8, 2020).

10 Michael Kerrigan, “Battle of Nineveh.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 24, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Nineveh  (Accessed Sept. 9, 2020).

11 Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 448.

12 ANET, 305.

13 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Necho II,” Encyclopædia Britannica. November 05, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Necho-II (Accessed Sept. 9, 2020).

14 Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1992), 361.

15 Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 447-448.

16 Roberto B. Gozzoli, “The Statue BM EA 37891 and the Erasure of Necho II’s Names,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 86 (2000), 77.

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