Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Walls and ramparts in ancient Egypt: private dwellings, palaces, city walls.
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house in town,source: British Museum website
Model of town house with small barred windows
Source: British Museum website
house in the country, source: British Museum website
Model of house in the country with walled-in courtyard
Source: British Museum website

Walls and ramparts

Detail from the Tehenu Palette,  Pre-dynastic Period     Throughout much of their history, ancient Egyptian city-dwellers lived surrounded by ramparts, and even villages were at times walled in. Despite the absence of powerful external enemies until the Third Intermediate Period, enough dangers beset them to make the expense of building and keeping up fortifications seem worthwhile.

Detail from the Tehenu Palette, Pre-dynastic Period
Source: Francesco Raffaele

    Since pre-dynastic times victories have often been depicted by Egyptians as conquests of cities and the demolition of their walls [1]. Wars against neighbours but also possibly against foreigners [3], were frequent until the unification and pacification of the country. They broke out again when the central power decayed after the sixth dynasty, and nomarchs began vying for hegemony.
    But even under stable governments, Egyptians could never feel completely secure. Bands of bedouins were attracted to the rich settlements of the Nile valley and never were the police forces strong enough to completely prevent their incursions. They therefore built their dwellings like minor forts, surrounded their cities with walls and erected strongholds in strategically important locations.


Private dwellings

    In the countryside houses had just one storey; and people surrounded them and their courtyards with mud brick walls, in the hope of preventing robbers from breaking in and stealing their belongings. The most valuable among these were their cattle, which were often Enclosure branded, and their agricultural stores.

Unwalled habitation near the desert's edge, where canines and antelopes are roaming. An enclosure made of branches is shown on the left of the building.
Theban area
After Pierre Anus, "Un domaine thébain d'époque 'amarnienne'. Sur quelques blocs de remploi trouvés à Karnak", BIFAO 69 (1971) p.71

    But at times, probably when they felt safe, they just erected an enclosure of branches to pen their animals in.
Walled in private home, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne     In towns too, a large part of the houses had walled-in courtyards. Door jambs were let into stone lintels and thresholds, making breaking down the doors more difficult. Windows were small and placed high up close to the ceiling, which also improved ventilation. Walls were thick and often crenellated even if this was just for show.


    If there was little to steal in a peasants hovel or even a craftsman's house, Ay's palace, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne - Click for a perspective view the rich had quantities of luxury goods which might tempt a robber. According to a painting in a tomb at Akhetaten Ay's place looked more like a castle than a palace.

Ay's palace
Source: Maspero, L'archéologie Egyptienne
Click on the image for a perspective view

    It was surrounded by walls, the main gates protected by massive gate-houses. Along the outer walls there were storage rooms. The living quarters were at the centre of the whole complex, with the doors opening into the inner courtyard which had to be reached through another pair of pylons.
    Brick walls were at times plastered with gypsum, as a find at Hierakonpolis suggests. The view of a big structure shining brilliantly white in the Egyptian sun light must have been impressive to the populace advertising the grandeur of its inhabitants.



    The temple complexes which frequently had extensive storage space filled with the produce of the temple estates and the gifts of the kings were well protected.
    The thickness of the brick wall lined with limestone around Senusret's temple at Hotep Senusret (Kahun) for instance was about 12 metres [4]. Its height must have been correspondingly great.

Temple of Seti I at Thebes     When walls were built completely of stone, their thickness could be reduced, but they were still quite massive. Most impressive were the huge pylons 'guarding' the main gates, which became popular in the New Kingdom. The temple of Seti I had one main entrance which gave access to the first court and a small side door, probably used as a service entrance. The second, inner courtyard was separated from the first by another pylon.

Temple at Deir el Medine, Excerpt, source: L'Egypte restituee
    The Ptolemaic temple at Deir el Medine was dedicated to a number of deities, among them Hathor and Maat. Its walls are preserved almost in their entirety.

Temple at Deir el Medine, excerpt
Source: L'Egypte restituée


Villages and towns

El-Kab, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne     Not all villages were surrounded by walls and perhaps not even all towns. But with memories of bad old times when kings were too weak to enforce order, alive at all times, local nobles would have been foolish to neglect fortifying their population centres.
    City walls were rarely built to withstand the onslaught of a great, well organised and properly equipped army; but they could prevent the penetration of marauding nomads and stave off attacks by an unruly neighbour.
    Nekheb, an Old Kingdom town in Upper Egypt was laid out as a square, with sides of about 640 metres (40 hectares). The inner walls which formed a square of about 25,000 m² contained the temples.
    The walls were straight without towers or other fortifications. They were built of sun-baked mud bricks laid in horizontal layers, between 11 and 12 metres thick and 9 metres tall. Sometimes the walls were probably covered with white plaster, as one of the names of Memphis - jnbw-HD (Anbu-Khedj - White walls, surrounding the palace rather than the city itself [5]) - seems to imply.


Kahun, Source: Petrie, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob     Rectangles as outlines for towns were often preferred in the plains. Hotep Senusret in the Fayum was a planned town. It's streets ran parallel to the brick ramparts. Its northern part lay higher than the southern quarters close to the Nile. From what is left it appears that a square outlay seems to have been implemented.
    The southern and most of the eastern part of the town were destroyed by the flooding Nile, together with any surrounding walls. Nothing can therefore be said about the main gate. But there was a side gate in the eastern wall near the north-eastern corner of the town. Anybody entering had to pass by a gate-keeper's lodge and cross a walled-in courtyard.


Kom Ombo, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne     At Nebeet (Kom Ombo, near the first cataract) the walls followed the contour of the hillock on which the town was built, which made it look as if bastions had been planned and added.

    Moats were at times dug to enhance the effectiveness of the ramparts and the towns' inhabitants were encouraged by economic benefits:

Dig a moat against [...] and flood the half of it at the Bitter Lakes, for see, it is the navel-string of the desert dwellers; its walls and its soldiers are many and the partisans in it know how to take up arms, apart from the freemen of the camp; the region of Djed-esut totals ten thousand men consisting of free untaxed commoners, and magnates have been in it since the time of the Residence. (its) boundary is established, its garrison is brave, and many northerners irrigate it to the limits of the Delta, they being taxed in corn like freemen; it is... the face of him who made it, and see, it is the door of the Delta. They made a moat for Ninsu, for a populous city is...

    Following their experiences with Canaanite fortifications during the New Kingdom the Egyptians began to cover many of their city walls with stone. They seem to have improved primarily the ramparts of exposed towns on the eastern frontier, but sometimes even of cities deep inside the country such as Heliopolis and Memphis.

[1] The hoe was a symbol for both constructing (see the Narmer mace head) and destroying as here on the Cities Palette.
[3] The conquered cities on the Cities Palette [2] have been identified as Tehenu, i.e. Libyan, though some think that they were situated in the western Delta rather than in the Libyan Kyrenaika.
[5] The national capitals, Memphis and Thebes, were generally not fortified. But in the 8th century BCE Memphis was surrounded by ramparts which Piye had to overcome
Behold, Memphis is filled with troops of all the best of the Northland; (with) barley and spelt and all kinds of grain, the granaries are running over; (with) all weapons of [war. It is fortified with] a wall; a great battlement has been built, executed with skilful workmanship.
When he landed on the north of it, he found that the water had approached to the walls, the ships mooring at [the walls of] Memphis. Then his majesty saw it was strong, and that the wall was raised by a new rampart, and battlements manned with mighty men. There was found no way of attacking it.

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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites
[2] The Cities Palette by Francesco Raffaele
[4] Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, Chapter III: The civilization of the XII dynasty Kahun by Flinders Petrie
Perimeter walls at Tell Abqa'in
Hierakonpolis online: The Fort
Die Stadt als Festung (in German)


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© September 2001
December 2007
November 2003