Egypt: The Evolution of Warfare Part II

The Evolution of Warfare

Part II

By Anita Stratos

Weapon Development

Ancient Egyptians were very conservative when it came to weapons: old stone weapons were retained along with newer metal weapons, as long as they continued to serve practical purposes. However, it is this conservatism that kept Egyptian weaponry inferior to that of neighboring territories. The design of these weapons changed very little between the Archaic Period and the Middle Kingdom, a span of some 1300 years.

As far back as predynastic times

As far back as predynastic times, throw sticks were used for marsh hunting and war dances. By the Old and Middle Kingdoms, slings and bows were used for long distance warfare and for close combat soldiers used clubs, daggers, axes, maces, and spears. These weapons were made of either stone or hammered copper with wooden handles. Eventually, axe blades were shortened and the edges became narrower, while arrows were later made from reed with bronze arrowheads. Bronze weapons were still being used far into the Iron Age, in part due to the fact that Egypt had no natural iron deposits, but also because of their continued resistance to change. It was these factors that gave iron-rich Assyria, with its powerful new iron weapons, the ability to conquer Egypt.

Evidence of axe usage during combat was found in a tomb at Deir el-Bahri

Evidence of axe usage during combat was found in a tomb at Deir el-Bahri, where the remains of sixty mutilated Egyptian soldiers were discovered, many with fatal axe wounds in the tops of their skulls. An axe wound is also evident in the skull of the mummy of Theban ruler Seqenenre Tao II (circa 1575 BC, 17th Dynasty), who helped drive the Hyksos out of Egypt.

Shields made of turtle shells were also used in predynastic times

Shields made of turtle shells were also used in predynastic times; later these evolved into rectangular shields made from wood covered with leather. The curve at the top of the rectangular foot soldiers shield shows the influence of predynastic shell shields.

The end of Hyksos domination brought many advancements to Egyptian military equipment. Besides adopting Hyksos chariots to their arsenals, other Hyksos weapons were also copied and later improved to suit Egyptian needs. (It should be noted that the Hyksos had adopted some of their weapons from other territories. In addition, a debate continues as to whether the horse-drawn chariot was actually introduced by the Hyksos or by Canaanites.) Along with this new weaponry, Egyptian battle tactics and military organization also improved. The New Kingdom saw improvements to standard weaponry as well as the addition of new weapons such as the khepesh (a sickle sword similar to Asiatic curved swords), which temple scenes show being presented to the king by the gods with a promise of victory.

Body armor also improved. Early leather triangular aprons worn over short kilts were replaced by coats of mail in the New Kingdom in the 18th Dynasty, mail was only worn by the king. In the 19th Dynasty, soldiers began wearing leather or cloth tunics with metal scale coverings. It appears that helmets were not generally worn before the Late Period except by Sherden mercenaries. Egyptians felt that allowing foreign mercenaries to use their native weapons and equipment improved their chances of victory in battle.

The Egyptian Navy

Supporting the army was the Egyptian navy, whose prime purpose was long distance transport of troops and supplies, or mobile military operation bases. Occasionally the navy did engage in warfare, but even then, sailors acted as soldiers at sea rather than as a separate force. Promotions from the army to the navy and from the navy to the army were common, since the two were seen as one single force. Many naval ships were actually built in Byblos; the Gebel Barkal stela shows that ship makers in Byblos built ships annually, then sent those ships to Egypt along with other tributes. This provided the Egyptian navy with a steady influx of high quality vessels.

Egypt developed coastal bases in other territories

egypy developed coastal bases in other territories, as well as creating a naval center near Memphis called Perw-nefer. This dockyard was most likely the most important port and naval base in the 18th Dynasty under Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II. Outside Egypt, Tuthmosis III took over harbor after harbor in Phoenicias coastal cities, acquiring supplies for his troops from each in order to proceed to the next. These harbors were inspected and equipped regularly so they could provide necessary support for the kings attacks against the Mitannians.

Naval recruits, called ww, mainly served on warships and most were the sons of military families who became professional sailors themselves. They began in a standard-bearers training crew of rowers, then moved on to become part of a ships crew. Sailors received promotions to either larger ships or to higher ranks. According to naval officials biographies and the Nauri Decree, naval rankings probably were as follows:

  1. King

  2. Crown prince, commander in chief

  3. Admirals

  4. Overseer, chief of ships captains (commanded several ships)

  5. Ship captain (navigation)

  6. Captains mates (navigational support)

  7. Commander of troops (older men with land-based duties)

  8. Standard-bearer

  9. Commander of rowers

  10. Sailors

New Kingdom sailors shared in the distribution of booty; they were further compensated with exemption from taxes, income from their estates, and for bravery they received royal rewards of gold. This helped to make up for the fact that some texts indicate that sailors endured difficult physical conditions and other hardships. Similar to the army, the navy was made up of both professionals and foreign mercenaries.

The Police Force

Egypts police force, on the other hand, was not an extension of the army. It was established to enforce the gods orders and protect the weak from the strong in the general society. The police maintained order by bringing guilty parties to justice. Even so, the police were not looked upon as a hostile body, but rather as the guardians and protectors of generally law-abiding communities.

Rural police forces protected farmers from theft; they banished troublemakers from their community and convinced peasants to pay taxes through whatever means were necessary, including persuasion and physical force. Nonpayment of taxes or attempting to cheat on taxes brought corporal punishment, wherein the guilty were laid prostrate on the ground and then beaten by police. There were also police who patrolled desert frontiers with trained dogs: their duty was to track down problematic nomads and escaped prisoners.

Nubian nomads, called the Medjay, became part of the Egyptian police force in the 18th Dynasty. Perhaps because the Medjay had already established a history of serving in the Egyptian army, they now blended easily into Egyptian society and had the responsibility of protecting towns in western Thebes as well as being responsible to its mayor.

The Medjay also served as tomb guardians during the construction of the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina. In this capacity, Medjay police had many responsibilities including ensuring the tombs safety, inspecting the tomb, guaranteeing good behavior on the part of the workers, protecting workers from any dangers (including threats by invaders), and occasionally assisting the workers and moving blocks of stone. Some of their other obligations included acting as messengers, interrogating thieves, being witnesses for administrative functions, and inflicting punishments.



Egypts periods of expansion pushed its boundaries beyond those original areas of natural protection; therefore, various types of fortresses and forts needed to be built for defense. Frontiers were protected by high, thick-walled fortresses, desert hills had smaller forts built upon them, and other buildings served as combination prisons and surveillance posts. The power of the pharaoh over his conquests is shown in temple depictions of prisons, in which rows of "fortress cartouches", each containing the name of a conquered people, are topped by the head and shoulders of bound prisoners. Attached to each cartouch is a rope, and all of the ropes are being held by the conquering pharaoh.

Besides covering their weak defense points with these artificial fortifications, most of which were made from mud brick, Egyptians also needed to stem the flow of outsiders into their country. This is evident in a translation from the Prophesies of Neferti:

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.

An interesting mud brick wall with wood beam reinforcements was built in the Middle Kingdom by Senusret III to protect the irregularly shaped Semna half way up the wall, its angle suddenly changed 20 degrees in order to prevent the enemy from using scaling ladders to penetrate the line of defense. This strategy was also incorporated into the walls of a fortress depicted in a Middle Kingdom tomb at Beni Hasan.

Middle Kingdom fortresses were also equipped with balconies, parapets, and occasionally ramps and ditches. King Amenemhet I built a castle east of the Delta called "Wall of the Prince" which was always guarded by soldiers. However, once Egyptians came across Asian fortifications during the New Kingdom, they promptly copied some of these style differences. These fortifications, called "migdols", were made of stone and included battlements on the outer wall, turrets, moats, and a keep.

The Ramesseum contains depictions of the Battle of Kadesh that Ramesses II fought against the Hittites

The Ramesseum contains depictions of the Battle of Kadesh that Ramesses II fought against the Hittites. Among these pictures are illustrations of the camp enclosure set up by the Amun division: soldiers shields were lined up side by side creating a four-cornered enclosure that had one entrance. The enclosure was protected with barricades and patrolled by four infantry divisions. In the center of the enclosure was the kings large tent surrounded by smaller tents of officers. Soldiers, animals, war chariots, and baggage wagons were housed between the officers tents and the outer walls.

But even the most strategically designed fortifications can eventually be penetrated. The thick, high wall surrounding Semna with its slope changes and reinforcements still didnt stop the enemy an existing part of the southern wall shows a breach between two ramparts.

See also:


Important Battles


Last Updated: August 8th, 2011