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Defensive Equipment of the Egyptian Army


Defensive Equipment of the Egyptian Army

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

Defensive Equipment of the Egyptian Army


Ultimately, and outside of military architecture such as fortresses, the ancient Egyptians used three forms of defensive military equipment, which included body armor and helmets, shields and siege shelters, though most of these items were seen fairly late in the Dynastic period (with the exception of the shield, which may be dated back as for as the predynastic period.

It is perhaps obvious that defensive equipment often dictated the development and evolution of offensive weapons. For example, body armor and helmets worn by the enemies of Egypt forced the evolution of the blunt mace into cutting battle axe and finally into a piercing battle axe. On the other hand, since many of Egypt's enemies were in fact fairly lightly armored, the bow and arrow, which could be manufactured inexpensively and in large numbers, continued as a primary weapon despite the fact that heavier, more expensive spears had better penetrating power.

Shields

From the late Predynastic Period to the Middle Kingdom, the only real body protection used by Egyptian soldiers was supplied by a long, roughly rectangular shield made of cowhide stretched over a wooden frame. It was usually either one to one and a half meters high and tapered towards the top to a curved or pointed edge.

A model showing Egyptian soldiers with their shields, from Egypt's Middle Kingdom

The shield was only used to any large extent since the 2nd millennium, perhaps because it restricted the warrior ability to use his weapons. Bows for instance had to be handled with both hands. Thus sometimes a shield-bearer accompanied the archer: Shields were most often carried by soldiers with spears.

The shield's size was also dependent on the main weapon used by the soldier. In the 20th century BC, when Egyptians had not yet come into conflict with Asiatics, man-high shields behind which the whole body could be hidden gave good protection against showers of arrows. When defending oneself against directed blows of battle axes or swords, smaller shields, which were more easily handled, were a better choice. Thus the tall shields disappeared during the 2nd millennium from the Egyptian armory.

The Hittite chariots Ramesses II fought at the Battle of Kadesh were manned by a driver, an archer and a shield-bearer. This in return required bigger, heavier and therefore slower and less maneuverable chariots. Big shields were heavier, limiting the time they could be carried, the speed with which the soldiers could advance and their field of vision. Protection was paid for with the effectiveness of the attack.Hence, by the New Kingdom, shields became smaller with a tapered lower half.

Soldiers during Egypt's New Kingdom (reign of Hatshepsut) with their shields

During the New Kingdom bronze was sometimes used. Metal plate shields were heavier than leather shields with wooden frames, and did not necessarily afford better protection. At Oxford University a leather covered wooden frame shield and a bronze shield were constructed similar to those used in ancient times and attempts were made to pierce them with both a sword and lance. While the bronze shield was split by the sword and pierced by the spear, the leather shield with its higher elasticity was not penetrated.

The shields was usually held by a handle or a leather strip fastened to the center of the frame. However, shields were also sometimes carried by a strap slung over the shoulder allowing the soldier to use both hands, though this reduced the shield to a passive piece of armor protecting only one side of the body.

The round shield was an import from the Aegean. The Sea Peoples were depicted using them in Egypt, at first against Ramesses III. This form doesn't seem to have had any intrinsic military value over other shields, but was rather a local tradition which spread over much of the eastern Mediterranean.

The unusual helmet worn by the Sea People (specifically the Sherden)

Helmets

Just as in civilian life, Egyptians at war rarely covered their heads, the pharaohs being the exception. They often wore special headgear. The mercenaries continued their own traditions, which, if they were Europeans like the Sherden or Philistines, or Asiatics, generally meant wearing helmets. The Sherden helmets were particularly interesting, with a pair of horns protruding from the helmet on either side of a disk. Nubians on the other hand are never shown helmeted.

The pharaoh is often shown wearing the war helmet, otherwise known as the Blue Crown. This crown was made of cloth or leather but covered with golden discs.

Body armor

Because of the climate, very little armor was ever worn in Africa. In Egypt's Old and Middle Kingdom, Egyptian soldiers never wore armor. In the Old Kingdom they are usually depicted wearing only a belt and a small triangular loincloth. During the Middle Kingdom, their apparel was invariably the same short linen kilt as that worn by civilian workmen. Hence, from the late Predynastic Period to the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian soldiers at best only wore an occasional band of webbing across the shoulders and chest.

Ramesses II in battle on his chariot, wearing armor.

Sometimes broad leather bands covered part of the torso of charioteers, but generally soldiers are depicted without any body protection. Again the pharaohs were, not surprisingly, the exception. Ramesses II fighting as a charioteer was portrayed wearing scale armor with sleeves, covering the whole torso. The scales were bronze, attached through holes to a skirt. His legs were of course protected by the chariot. However, even he is not always shown wearing armor. It might be presumed that other charioteers who could afford the expensive armor might also have worn it. Yet, even pharaohs, though they almost always are depicted wearing the blue crown, did not always wear armor. For example, portrayals of Seti I clearly show him without any body armor in battle.

Defensive Equipment of the Egyptian Army

Often the use of armor was symbolical or for ostentation. Golden corselets of mail with precious stones were made for members of the royal family and gods are at times depicted wearing armor.Hence, we find that:

"Amen is clad in red and green chain armor. The skirts of the goddesses are inconceivably scant; but they are rich in jewelry, and their headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets are full of minute and interesting detail."

Shelters

Soldiers attempting to destroy walls or batter gates were especially vulnerable. As early as the 20th century BC, attempts were made to protect them by shielding them with portable shelters. A scene in the tomb of the 11th Dynasty noble, Khety shows a pair of Middle Kingdom soldiers apparently under the protection of a mobile roofed structure, advancing towards a fortress with a long pole which was perhaps an early battering ram. Egyptian siege warfare was never very effective compared to that of Mesopotamia where battering rams on wheeled carriages, which protected sappers quite well, were developed.

References:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Armies of the Pharaohs Healy, Mark 1992 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 85532 939 5
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Egyptian Warfare and Weapons Shaw, Ian 1991 Shire Publications LTD ISBN 0 7478 0142 8
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Warrior Pharaoh, The: Rameses II and the Battle of Qadesh Healy, Mark 1993 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 84176 039 0

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