Military Architecture of Ancient Egypt

Military Architecture of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

The Battlements of Buhen

For most of Egypt's ancient history, it was a land of fortifications. To some extent, all Egyptian ceremonial buildings, including temples and even funerary complexes, were intended to function as bastions of order and harmony, requiring at least symbolic fortifications to protect them from the surrounding chaos. And from the very beginning, we find references to Egypt's attempts to fortify their country, for the Memphis of Menes, united Egypt's earliest King, was known as Ineb-Hedj, meaning "the White Wall". In fact, the earliest surviving Egyptian fortifications were built to protect towns rather than to defend frontiers. Probably the first evidence for an Egyptian fortress is a Predynastic ceramic model of a building, discovered by Flinders Petrie at Abadiyeh, which appears to show two men peering over a crenellated wall. However, the oldest surviving remains of fortifications are the early dynastic settlements in Upper Egypt at Kom el-Ahmar (Heirakonpolis) and at Elkab.

Unless an enemy was willing to besiege a stronghold until it surrendered or could surprise its garrison and subdue it, he had to conquer it by forcing the gates, by scaling the walls or by breaching them. Since the earliest times measures were taken to prevent these possibilities: Hence, there was an attempt to build fortification walls with massive thickness and of a height that ladders could not be built to scale them. The gates were specifically protected. While the tops of walls are often decayed completely, drawings indicate that there were cornices all around, behind which the defenders could take cover.

In fact, the distinctive features of Egyptian forts, with their symmetrical and often elegant designs, probably reflect the monumental traditions of Egyptian religious architecture just as much as pragmatic military requirements.

Various terms could be used to designate a fortified structure, corresponding to various types, including bekhen, meaning "tower", nekhetw, meaning "fortress" and simply nekhet, meaning "strong". The frontier posts were often called khetem, which means "seal".

Architectural Definitions

Balk: A wooden beam or rafter.

Bastion: A projecting part of a fortification.

Battlement: A projecting structure, such as a beam, that is supported at one end and carries a load at the other end or along its length.

Cantilever: A projecting structure, such as a beam, that is supported at one end and carries a load at the other end or along its length.

Corbeled: A bracket of stone, wood, brick, or other building material, projecting from the face of a wall and generally used to support a cornice or arch



Loophole: A small hole or slit in a wall, especially one through which small arms may be fired.

Machicolation: A projecting gallery at the top of a castle wall, supported by a row of corbeled arches and having openings in the floor through which stones and boiling liquids could be dropped on attackers.

Sally-Port: An opening in the wall of a fort used by soldiers going out to attack.

The Defense of Egypt's Frontiers

Egypt's true military fortresses, as opposed to fortified towns, is very closely connected with the empire's frontiers. We can define Egypt's traditional frontiers as the Western Desert, the Sinai Desert to the east, the Mediterranean coast to the north and the First Nile cataract at Aswan in the south. These were the natural physical barriers that allowed protection to the Egyptians from outside interference during the early, predynastic period when this great civilization was formed. Later, while these boundaries helped maintain Egypt's independence during periods of relative weakness, they required fortification to do so. Of course, the fortresses became even more important over time, and as rulers such as Tuthmosis III expanded the Egyptian boarders to their farthermost extent into Syria and as far south as the Fifth Nile Cataract in Nubia.

The Old Kingdom

A fortress at Abydos, the funerary enclosure of Khasekhemwy, was built to protect the temple of Osiris. It was surrounded by a massive inner wall made of mud bricks, about twelve meters high, six meters thick at the base, about five meters wide at the top, and a five meter tall outer wall with a gap of about three meters between them. This arrangement prevented sappers from attacking the foot of the main wall under cover of portable shelters. Apart from the gates and posterns there were no openings in the walls such as loopholes, machicolations or the like. The main entrance was near the north eastern corner, with further gates in the south and east walls. The gap in the outer wall could be closed with wooden doors. Behind this gate there was a courtyard with another narrow passage leading into a further court surrounded by the main and two retaining walls. One had to pass through a sally-port to gain access to the interior. This layout gave the defenders the advantage of height for a considerable amount of time. The attackers could be showered with arrows and other projectiles without being able to respond in kind. The entrance in the eastern wall had similar characteristics, consisting of narrow passages to slow down the attackers, forced changes in the direction in which they had to proceed, and courtyards surrounded by walls, which were manned by archers.

An older photo of the fortress of Kubban

This fortress gives us some idea of the sophistication of even the earliest of fortresses in Egypt, but it was certainly not alone. Though we know little about the actual fortification of Memphis in the north, it must have been grand. However, even by this time, there appears to have been frontier outposts such as the small Old Kingdom settlement at Buhen near the Second Cataract in Nubia, with a crudely built stone wall. There may have been others in Nubia, including a possible early fort at Kubban, some 60 miles south of modern Aswan, evidently intended to protect the Egyptian copper and gold mining expeditions in the Wadi Allaqi.

The Middle Kingdom

By the time of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, her rulers were certainly aware of the need to control the flow of people into their country, be it from the south, the west or the east, for we read in the fictional "Prophesies of Neferti" dating to that period:

"Asiatics who roam the land. Foes have risen in the East, Asiatics have come down to Egypt."

Hence, these frontiers were more or less fortified from the Middle Kingdom onward.

Along the Eastern Delta, Amenemhet I began the construction of the Walls of the Prince (inebw heka), a string of fortresses on the eastern border of the Delta which was later protected by a string of fortresses during the reign of Ramesses II, taking advantage of the watery obstacles of the region.

"One will build the Walls-of-the-Ruler, To bar Asiatics from entering Egypt; They shall beg water as supplicants, So as to let their cattle drink. Then Order will return to its seat, While Chaos is driven away."

Prophesies of Neferti, 11/12th dynasty

And in the fictional account of Sinuhe, we also hear:

"I came up to the Wall of the Ruler, made to oppose the Asiatics and crush the Sand-Crossers. I took a crouching position in a bush for fear lest watchmen upon the wall where their day's [duty] was might see me."

The Tale of Sinuhe

These fortifications were more or less well defended and maintained over the centuries. They were intended to prevent invasion along the coastal route from the Levant, which was known as the Way of Horus during the Middle Kingdom. Under the coregency of Amenemhet II and Senusret II, the official Hapu had the following inscription made:

"Made in the year 3, under the majesty of Horus: Seshmutowe (Senusret II), corresponding to the year 35 under the majesty of Horus: Hekenemmat (Amenemhet II), The [....], Hapu came, in order to make an inspections in the fortress of Wawat"

James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part One, 616

During the 2nd Intermediate Period they were probably largely abandoned, but the New Kingdom saw their restoration. Under Seti I there seems to have existed a bridge at Sile spanning a crocodile infested waterway.

At about the same time as the Walls of the Prince were built, Amenemhat I also seems to have built a fortress in the Wadi Natrun in order to defend the western Delta from the Libyans.

The most elaborate fortifications during Egypt's Middle Kingdom, however, seem to have been built in the south. Originally, the border with Kush (Nubia) was marked by the town of Elephantine, naturally defended by its island location, the first Nile Cataract, and a thick, surrounding defensive wall. The original name of this settlement was Swn, meaning "trade", from which the modern name Aswan derives. Apparently, this reflects the commercial nature of the southern border.

This border was protected by a huge mudbrick wall, measuring some 7.5 kilometers (4 1/2 miles) long, probably built principally in the 12th Dynasty. The land route at the Second Cataract in the region of Semna was defended by a similar fortification built probably during the reign of Senusret III after his conquest of Nubia. We are told that:

"Southern boundary, made in the year 8, under the majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khekure (Senusret III), who is given kife forever and ever; in order to prevent that any Negro should cross it, by water or by land, with a ship, (or) any herds of the Negroes; except a Negro who shall come to do trading in Iken, or with a commission. Every good thing shall be done with them, but without allowing a ship of the Negroes to pass by Heh (Semna), going downstream forever. The first Semna stela"

James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part One, 652

During the Middle Kingdom, Egypt embarked on a program of military expansion into Nubia, bolstering their position with a long chain of fortresses between modern Aswan and the region of the Second Cataract. These were heavily fortified settlements, located at the most vulnerable points in the trade route from the south and were simultaneously both military outposts and customs stations. Though most have now vanished beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, the rescue excavations of the Nubian Salvage Campaign (1959-1969) did provide a great deal of information about these unique sites. These fortresses were actually some of the most sophisticated fortifications ever built in ancient Egypt, with many features that look forward to the much later medieval fortifications.

Map of the fortifications and outposts in Nubia

Most of these fortifications were built of mudbrick over a period of some 130 years, between 1971 and 1841 BC, spanning the reigns of Senusret I to his great grandson, Senusret III. Of about seventeen fortresses, eleven fortresses were clustered in the area of the Second Cataract alone, each positioned so that they could control the flow of traffic northwards at points where the Nile was difficult to navigate.

The principal reason for these fortresses was apparently not the protection of Egypt's southern border, for they could have been easily outflanked by desert invaders on either side of the Nile. They also appear not to have been designed simply to subjugate the Lower (Northern) Nubians, since the local population does not seem to have been considered much of a threat. The names of the forts do seem to refer to enemies of Egypt located further south, and they may have provided bases from which to launch attacks on Upper (southern) Nubia. In fact, the enormous amount of space devoted to granaries at such fortresses as Askut, together with trances of buildings interpreted by Barry Kemp as royal "campaign palaces" at Uronarti and Kor, all suggest the use of these Lower Nubian fortresses as a 12th Dynasty springboard into Africa. However, their main function was probably to protect Egypt's monopoly on trade goods emanating from deeper Africa, further still to the south, which was known to the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom as Yam.

The southernmost of these fortresses, at Semna, Kumma, Uronarti and Semna South, were about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the Second Cataract, around the narrowest gorge in the whole course of the Nile, and these marked the final frontier in the 12th Dynasty.

Although the general uniformity of ground plan in these Middle Kingdom forts suggest that they were probably designed by only one or perhaps two architects, with those north of the Second Cataract simply rectangular structures, those south of this natural boundary show fascinating variations in response to the local topology.

At Kumma on the right bank advantage was taken of a natural hillock of about 60 meters width with steep rocky faces. The inner and outer walls follow the contour of the knoll. The entrance is a passage between two ramparts close to each other and thus easily protected by crossfire. The outer wall is at four meters distance from the inner wall for most of its trajectory, apart from two bastion-like salients.

An older photo of the fortress of Semna

The fort at Semna, was built in an L shape in order to conform with the rocky hill on which it stood. Only the side facing the Nile had any natural protection. The eastern wall, built on top of a rocky slope, was only fifteen meters high, while in the other directions the walls reached heights of about 25 meters with ramparts nine meters thick at ground level jutting out from the main wall. The walls were built of mud bricks and reinforced with horizontal wooden beams. The lower part was practically perpendicular, while the upper half was at an angle of twenty degrees to the vertical. The floor inside the wall was raised almost to the level of the top of the ramparts.

The outer drystone wall rose to a height of two to three meters and had a gap in its northern side opposite the main gate of the fortress. All these precautions seem alas to have been to no no avail. A breach in the southern wall between the two ramparts closest to the river indicates that the fortification was conquered.

Fortress of Semna

Fortress of Uronarti

Fortress of Semna Fortress of Uronarti

Fortress of Shalfak

Fortress of Shalfak

Uronarti is an island very near Semna, and there the fort was triangular in shape, with a northern side that was more heavily fortified with huge towers because the flatter terrain to the north made the possibility of attack more dangerous. It had two long spur walls which stretched out to the south and northeast from the main fort, so that the whole of the irregular island was afforded maximum protection.

The fortification of Buhen in Nubia

By far the most elaborate of the Nubian fortresses, however, were at Mirgissa, Aniba and Buhen, which appears to have become the main garrison town among these fortresses protecting the Nubian frontier. They were all located a few kilometers north of Semna and Kumma, with a string of further forts (Dabenarti, which was apparently an unfinished island fortress, Askut, Shalfak) in between. Buhen had two concentric rings of ramparts, with the Egyptian officials living inside the inner walls and the mercenary troops, which were quite possibly native, occupying the outer circle. With its population of several thousand inhabitants it was the administrative center of the region. It was abandoned by the Egyptians during the 20th dynasty.

Mirgissa is now securely identified with the fort named as Iken in the Semna stele of Senusret III. It consisted of a whole complex of smaller sites, including the fortress itself, two separate towns (only one of which was fortified) and two cemeteries. Like Uronarti, one side (in this case, the one facing the western desert) of the main Mirgissa fortress was felt to be more vulnerable to attack. Hence, it was given an additional outer wall.

Aniba (Mi'm), further north, must have originally had some connection with the diorite quarries about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the southwest. However, it was located within an area of relatively dense Nubian population. It may have been the only one of these Middle Kingdom garrisons specifically intended as a military check on the Lower Nubians themselves.

This city was eventually enlarged into a rectangle of some 200 by 400 meters by the addition of an area of 20,000 square meters enclosed within a simple wall about five meters in thickness. A dry mote with a stone foundation surrounded the wall. A large gateway opened into the western side, flanked by two high towers and fronted by a bridge spanning the mote. The landing quay of the harbor was heightened on account of the higher levels of the Nile.

There were also smaller forts at Faras and Serra, only about 15-25 kilometers (10-15 miles) north of Buhen. Their purpose is not clear, but the inclusion of part of the Nile actually within the fortification at Serra perhaps suggest a concern with regulation of river traffic.

The New Kingdom

With the New Kingdom begins an era of Egyptian expansion in Asia. Come records of the momentous expeditions is to be found in the contemporaneous literature and in the extensive low-relief representations of Syrian fortresses on the walls of Egyptian temples and private tombs. In fact, despite the abundant military scenes on temple walls, not much can be derived from the text about military architecture. Almost all of the fortresses represented were located in Syria, being either Syrian structures or Egyptian fortresses built to control Egypt's Asiatic possessions. They are rarely accompanied by more than a mere mention of their name.

Little changed over the centuries as far as weapon and fortification techniques were concerned until the Egyptians came into contact with the far more warlike Asiatics. During their campaigns in Canaan and Retenu they encountered fortified places built of stone, with towers and sometimes even water filled moats.

These cities and fortresses easily withstood traditional Egyptian siege techniques. Megiddo for instance fell to Tuthmosis III only after it was beleaguered for seven months.

During the 19th dynasty a number of Canaan-style stone fortresses were erected along the Egyptian eastern frontier. They were called by their Semitic name magadilu (In Hebrew for instance migdal means tower; cf. the biblical Migdol [Jer. 44:1; 46:14] ).

From representation of these types of fortresses, Naumann has classified them into three chronological groups, from the time of Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses III. The earliest group represent fortresses in south Palestine of a uniform, presumably simplified type, characterized by an enclosure with four bastions and one or two doorways. Above the wall rises a second similar but smaller one, perhaps a citadel. The bastion seems to be crowned by a balcony with machicolations, possibly built on corbeling balks. The second group shows more types, varying according to the sites. The fortresses in Palestine are of the former, simple type, with windows, whereas those in North Syria occupied by the Hittites are more complex and characterized by loft towers. Those of the latest group show both simple and complex types used by the Hittites all over Syria and Palestine.

Basically, all of these fortresses may be grouped according to their enclosure walls. They consist of:

  • Simple battlemented enclosures

  • Simple battlemented enclosures with citadel

  • Double enclosure with one doorway

  • Double enclosure with two doorways

  • Double enclosure with towers

  • Double enclosure with towers and citadel

  • Many enclosures

Simple battlemented enclosures Simple battlemented enclosures with citadel
Simple battlemented enclosures Simple battlemented enclosures with citadel

Double enclosure with one doorway

Double enclosure with two doorways

Double enclosure with one doorway Double enclosure with two doorways

Double enclosure with towers and citadel

Double enclosure with towers and citadel Many enclosures

The simplest types of these forts feature a single vertical enclosure battlemented and opening through a central or side doorway. The top of the wall runs at one straight horizontal level, with semicircular, triangular or rectangular battlements, while bastions, probably rising at the corners, have cantilever machicolation similar to those represented in the paintings of Egyptian forts from the Middle Kingdom at Beni Hassan.

Enclosures with a citadel are similar to the simplest form of fortification, though they have a central isolated tower which is the highest in the whole fort.

A fortress with a double enclosure and one doorway has an internal enclosure that appears above the external wall. This inside structure usually is narrower, has battlements and is provided with bastions. These types of fortresses, with a dry moat between the two enclosures, were not unlike those that Egypt built in Nubia during the Middle Kingdom.

Similarly, the fortresses with double enclosures and two doorways have portals that are flanked by two machicolated bastions which open at either end of the facade. The number of bastions on the inner enclosure can vary from those on the outer enclosure.

In a representation of a Libyan fort we find a typical example of a fortress with double enclosures with towers. Here, three small towers rise above each of the outer and inner enclosures. These may have served as observation posts. In a representation of Ascalon in the Ramesseum, one single tower rises above the outer enclosure, while the balconies of the inner enclosure are enlarged to small cantilever chambers provided with windows, resembling the turrets in mediaeval military architecture.

The Tower at Medinet Habu

Most of the larger Syrian towns, though not Kadesh, are shown with two enclosures, the inner one being surmounted by several towers, and a central citadel. At least three, battlemented walls rise at different levels, indicating presumably as many stories. The upper battlement is provided with towers similar to those of the enclosure wall itself.

We also find some fortresses with three or more enclosures of the same width, suggesting that they rose on a slope and were terraced like a step pyramid. Windows open into the upper enclosure or in the citadel crowning the structure. Towers are occasionally erected on the citadel, topped with the emblem of the city.

No strongholds of this era remain, but the temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu shows a number of features characteristic of New Kingdom fortification. A crenellated outer stone wall 4 meters high protects the whole eastern side. The entrance which passes through a massive bastion, is slightly wider than a meter and flanked by two guardrooms.

Perspective of the landing quay in front of the eastern gateway at Medinet Habu

The two-towered migdol is 22 meters high with its front measuring 25 meters wide. It surrounds and controls a courtyard which one has to cross in order to enter the temple. Its walls have windows and loopholes that are high enough to be inaccessible to the enemy on the ground. There was also a parapet along the edge of the flat roof. Its foundation wall is five meters high and has a slight inclination. The reason for this is twofold. First, the wall becomes less vulnerable to sapping and secondly, the projectiles dropped from above bounce off the inclined stone wall, changing their direction and hurtling on a horizontal trajectory into the massed enemies.

Representation iof the frontier post at Tjalu

At strategic places large depots were built. At Tharu (Tjalu, possibly identical with Sile) on the eastern border between Egypt and Asia, we find an interesting example of such. here, a canal bordered with reeds and lively with crocodiles marks the boundary, and the structure stretched to both banks connected by a bridge. On the Egyptian side, a court surrounded by a wall and having two portals, one toward the land and the other to the bridge, is flanked by two series of three rooms each. A portal at the opposite end of the bridge opens onto the remaining part of the buildings, consisting mainly of a court opening on the Asiatic side through a gateway topped by a window that appears much like those at Medinet Habu.

In the south, the fortresses of Nubia seem to have been maintained, with all of the fortresses under the central command of Buhen. Now, these fortresses appear to be symbolic from the standpoint of defense, for we find temples and settlements built outside any enclosures. However, it was entirely possible that as in the Middle Kingdom, they may have been used as springboards for military campaigns deeper into Africa. The fortresses were often improved during the New Kingdom, mostly in response to such technological weapon innovations as the chariot. A series of lookout posts were built, consisting of clusters of rough stone huts at strategic high points along the banks so that strong communications could be maintained between the forts. All information, however trivial, was conveyed back to the military headquarters in Thebes.

From one Papyrus, called the Ramesseum Onomasticon (papyrus Berlin 10495) we also find a list of seventeen of the Nubian forts by name, including "Repelling the Seti", "Warding off the Bows" and "Curbing the Countries".






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