Ancient Egyptians in War Battle, tactics, and weaPons


The ancient Egyptians were a very militaristic, very advanced people. But before we get to that, a quick history. Their story started in about 3150 BCE with the great king Narmer. A picture dating from around 3000 BCE was thought to be a historical depiction of the unification of Egypt under Narmer, but some also claim the image as a symbolic rendering of the event. Narmer may or may not have united the country through force, but the concept of a king as a mighty warrior was a cultural value, so he was depicted as a conqueror. The country's birth began the Early Dynastic period. (3150-2613 BCE)

The kings of Mesopotamia, the areas near Egypt, were keen on invading other people's stuff. The Egyptians, however, favored their own land to any other. They much preferred to preserve their own land rather than conquer more. The early record of Egyptian warfare have to do with civil unrest and local turmoil. No doubt a large standing army was necessary to keep Egypt united, but it was likely not used to invade. This remained constant until the the time of the Middle Kingdom. (2040-1782 BCE)


Through the time of the Old Kingdom (2613-2181 BCE), the Egyptian military was not a unified whole. Each regional governor would send men to the king to act as an army. The battalions would carry their region's banner, and their loyalty was to their region and their people, not the king. This army was pretty effective, as time and time again they were sent to stop uprisings, secure borders from the pesky Mesopotamians, and seize resources for the king.

This effectively led to the governors gaining power and eventually collapsing the Old Kingdom to begin the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE). Egypt broke up into regions, each governor taking control. They built temples in their own honor, created their own rules, and used their militia for their own purposes. The king moved the capital to Herakleopolis, which was more centrally located. That sat so well with everyone else, the king was overthrown by Mentuhotep II of Thebes, who initiated the period of the Middle Kingdom. Mentuhotep's successor, Amenemhat, created the first standing army in Egypt, which took power from the governors and placed it in the hands of the king.


Time to learn a little bit about the weapons the ancient Egyptians used. The weapons of the Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic periods were primarily maces, daggers, and spears. By the time of the Old Kingdom, they had progressed to a bow and arrow amongst other weaponry.

As historian Margaret Bunson explains...

"The soldiers of the Old Kingdom were depicted as wearing skull caps and carrying clan or nome-totems. They used maces with wooden heads or pear-shaped stone heads. Bows and arrows were standard gear, with square-tipped flint arrowheads and leather quivers. Some shields, made of hides, were in use but not generally. Most of the troops were barefoot, dressed in simple kilts, or naked. (168)"

The Egyptians used a single-arched bow that all around sucked. It was hard to draw, had almost no range, and had mediocre accuracy at best. However, fired from large groups over short distances made this bow a very deadly weapon. Most of the soldiers were peasants with no formal training. While it was possible, albeit unlikely, for one to have experience hunting with bows. It was a royal sport to hunt, and illegal to do so without consent of the landowner.


Once the Middle Kingdom rolled around (2040-1782 BCE), troops were outfitted with copper axes and swords, a bronze spear, leather body armor and a short kilt. The army also now had a "minister of war and a commander in chief of the army, or an official who worked in that capacity." (Bunson, 169) These troops were highly trained, and the elite "shock troops" were used as the vanguard. While we are not completely sure what each man did along the chain of command, we know that the army in the Middle Kingdom was much more organized. Soldiers served for prolonged periods of time, and were regularly stationed abroad.

The remainder of the Middle Kingdom is a story of wealthy foreigners gaining political power. The rise of the foreigners, the Hyksos, marked the beginning of the Second Intermediate Period. (1782-1570 BCE) The country was divided, the Hyksos in the north, Egyptians in the middle, and Nubians in the south. The Nubians were another country that had lived near Egypt for quite a long time.


The uneasy peace lasted a while, each side tolerating the others, while trading and cooperating. It was all good until the Egyptian king Seqenenra Taa, attacked Apepi, the Hyksos king. The Hyksos were driven out of Egypt by Ahmose I, which began the New Kingdom. (1570-1069 BCE)

During the Second Intermediate Period, the army was made up of Medjay, Nubian mercenaries. Horses, being unknown to the Egyptians, was a new invention when the Hyksos brought it. Introducing the horse drawn chariot, the time of the Hyksos was a dark and chaotic age when foreign kings introduced a number of new inventions, primarily war related.

The rulers of the New Kingdom wanted to make sure Egypt would never be invaded again, as the Hyksos invasion was the first and only time in its entire history. The rulers placed particular emphasis on expanding the borders of the country to create buffer zones, which in turn launched the Egyptian Empire.

Having just gotten out of a war, the leaders of the New Kingdom decided to annex territories outside its borders for its own benefit. This was a policy briefly seen in earlier periods, but reached its peak in the New Kingdom when Egypt was in a permanent state of war.

The empire of the New Kingdom begins with Ahmose I's pursiot of the Hyksos out of Egypt, through Palestine, and into Syria but really begins with Amenhotep I who expanded the southern borders into Nubia. Thutmose I went further through Palestine into Syria and Mesopotamia, reaching the Euphrates river. Queen Hatshepsut sent expeditions to Nubia and Syria, and Thutmose III conquered Libya, part of Nubia, and areas around the Levant.


Besides the army and the chariotry, there was a third branch of the military, the navy. Even as late as the Second Intermediate Period, Kamose, the current Pharoah, was using the navy simply as transport to bring his troops down the Nile for the sack of Avaris. In the New Kingdom, however, the navy became more prestigious as foreign invaders threatened Egypt's prosperity by sea.

Between 1276 and 1178 BCE, the country was in a constant state of war with the 'Sea Peoples', whose real identity is still unknown, however suspected to be a coalition of many countries.

The Egyptians were not a seafaring people, and their navy shows this. Large ships had a crew of 250, and small 50 crew ships had a 30 man fighting crew. Ramesses II emphasized victory at sea, but it was really a land battle on water. The Egyptian ships would close in on and crash into the opposing ships, then the foot soldiers would swarm the enemy ship and take it over.

The Egyptians were known for guerrilla warfare and trickery on the water. A few ships would be placed in an area, and when the larger opposing force moves in on the little ships, the large Egyptian ships would come out of hidden areas and box in the enemy. Since Egyptian ships had no weapons on them with the exception of the soldiers, this was very important to victory.


Ramesses III was the last effective pharaoh of the New Kingdom and, after he died, great military successes became more and more a thing of the past. The pharaohs who followed him were not strong enough to hold the empire and it began to fall apart. A contributing factor to this decline was actually Ramesses II's decision to build Per-Ramesses and move his capital there from Thebes. Thebes was the site of the great Temple of Amun at Karnak and the priests of Amun, not just there but throughout Egypt, were very powerful. When the capital moved to Per-Ramesses the priests at Thebes found they had a good deal more freedom to amass even more wealth and power than before. By the time of the reign of Ramesses XI (1107-1077 BCE) the country was divided between his rule from Per-Ramesses and that of the priests of Amun at Thebes.

This division begins the era known as the Third Intermediate Period (1069-525 BCE). Whatever power Egypt had at sea was eclipsed by the Greek and Phoenician navies of the time which were much faster, better equipped, and manned by experienced seafarers. Egypt entered the so-called Iron Age II in 1000 BCE when they began producing iron tools and weapons. Forging iron required charcoal from burned lumber, however, and Egypt had few trees. In 671 BCE the country was invaded by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon who, with his professional army wielding weapons of iron, massacred the Egyptian army, burned the city of Memphis, and brought royal captives back to Nineveh. In 666 BCE his son Ashurbanipal invaded Egypt and conquered the land all the way past Thebes. Again, the iron weapons, better armor, and tactics of the Assyrians proved superior to the Egyptian military.


After the split, the Persians invaded. With no army, no government, no indivisibility, the country was in ruins. The Persian general Cambyses II knew of the great veneration the Egyptians had for animals in general and cats in particular. He ordered his men to round up as many animals as possible and drive them before the army. Further, he had his soldiers paint the image of the goddess Bastet, among the most popular of all Egyptian deities, on their shields. He then marched on the city with the animals in front of him declaring that he would hurl cats over the walls if he did not receive an immediate surrender. The Egyptians, fearing for the safety of the animals (and also their own if they should offend Bastet), lay down their arms and surrendered.

Since then and until recently, the Egyptians have had little control over their country. Any weaponry and inventions after around 1069 have been irrelevant, since there was no army to wield them, and no country to distribute them.

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