Neco was the Pharaoh of Egypt. During the brief power vacuum that existed between the waning Assyrian Empire and the Babylonians’ rise to power, Pharaoh Neco of Egypt played kingmaker in Judah. Neco belonged to the twenty-sixth dynasty of pharaohs; his reign lasted just fifteen years. Shortly after his ascent to the throne, Neco sought to help the Assyrians, who were being pushed farther west by the emerging Babylonian superpower. The Assyrian capital of Nineveh had already fallen; now Assyria’s army prepared to make its final stand near the Euphrates River, in present-day Iraq.
Josiah, the last good king of Judah, blocked Neco’s path. The armies of Judah and Egypt met at Megiddo, where Neco tried to dissuade Josiah from interfering. Amazingly, the chronicler revealed that it was Neco and not Josiah who acted in accord with God’s command. In the end, Josiah may have prevented Neco from saving the Assyrians, but he did so at the cost of his own life. Neco’s archers fatally wounded him on the battlefield.
With no Assyrian army left to save, Neco settled for a time in Riblah (present-day Syria). Having slain one Jewish king already, he imprisoned Josiah’s successor, imposed a heavy tribute on Judah, and appointed Judah’s next king, Jehoiakim. However, Neco’s influence over Judah was short-lived. Under Nebuchadnezzar’s command, the Babylonian army drove Neco all the way back to his homeland. The Egyptian Empire would never again extend its reach into the Middle East. Its diminishment had been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah ( Jeremiah 46).
Neco proved a more effective leader at home than on the battlefield. He began work on a canal connecting the Nile River to the Red Sea (though it was not completed until the Persians arrived under Darius). According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Neco’s naval fleet circumnavigated Africa—two thousand years before the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama managed the same feat.