Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian fortresses: Abydos, Kumma, Semna, migdols.
The Old Kingdom
The Middle Kingdom
   The eastern border
   The southern border
The New Kingdom

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When your frontier to the Southern Region is troubled, it is the barbarians who have taken the belt. Build castles in the Delta, for a man's name will not be diminished by what he has done, and a well-founded city cannot be harmed. Build castles [///], for an enemy loves disturbance, and his actions are mean.
Fortress, Source: Oriental Institute     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 earliest times measures were taken to prevent these possibilities:

Pharaoh attacking fortress
Beit el Wali
Source: Oriental Institute, Chicago

    The walls were, if not very strong at least of massive thickness and higher than the portable ladders that could be built. The gates were specially protected. Wall tops have decayed completely, but according to drawings there were cornices all around behind which the defenders could take cover. The main rampart was surrounded by an outer wall of lesser height.

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 Abydos fortress, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne inner wall made of mud bricks, about twelve metres high, six metres thick at the base, about five metres wide at the top, and a five metre tall outer wall with a gap of about three metres 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: 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.

The Middle Kingdom

beni_hassan_under_attackBeni Hasan under attack. Tomb of Amenemhet. Middle Kingdom
E. Teeter, J. A. Larson (eds.), Gold of Praise, University of Chicago 1999, p.440

    By this time the 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.
Asiatics who roam the land.
Foes have risen in the East,
Asiatics have come down to Egypt.
             The fictional 'Prophesies of Neferti', 11/12th dynasty

The eastern border

    Amenemhet I began the construction of the Wall of the Prince, a string of fortresses on the eastern border of the Delta, 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
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.
    These fortifications were more or less well defended and maintained over the centuries. 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.

The southern border

Semna , Kumma  seen from the west shore of the river; Excerpt; Source: Oriental Institute University of Chicago website     Senusret III fortified the southern border of Egypt after his conquest of Nubia by building strongholds on either side of the Nile close to the second cataract. [1][2]
    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
    At Kumma on the right bank advantage was taken of a natural hillock of about 60 metres 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 Fortress at Semna, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne Fortress at Kumma, Source: Maspero, L'archeologie Egyptienne protected by crossfire. The outer wall is at four metres distance from the inner wall for most of its trajectory, apart from two bastion-like salients.
    At Semna only the side facing the Nile had any natural protection. The eastern wall, built on top of a rocky slope, was only 15 metres high, while in the other directions the walls reached heights of about 25 metres with ramparts 9 metres 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 metres and had a gap in its northern side opposite the main gate of the fortress.
    All these precautions were to no avail: a breach in the southern wall between the two ramparts closest to the river indicates that the fortification was conquered.
    Buhen was the main garrison town among these fortresses protecting the Nubian frontier, a few tens of kilometres north of Semna and Kumma, and a string of further forts (Mirgissa just south of the 2nd cataract, Dabenarti, Askut, Shalfak, Uronarti) in between. It had two concentric rings of ramparts, 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 centre of the region. It was abandoned by the Egyptians during the 20th dynasty.

The New Kingdom

    Little changed over the centuries as far as weapon and fortification techniques were concerned until the Egyptians Kadesh 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 Thutmose 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] ).
Migdol at Medinet Habu, excerpt, courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan     No strongholds of this era remain, but the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu shows a number of features characteristic of New Kingdom fortification. A crenellated outer stone wall 4 metres high protects the whole eastern side. The entrance which passes through a massive bastion, is slightly wider than a metre and flanked by two guardrooms. [3]
    The two-towered migdol is 22 metres high, its front 25 metres wide. It surrounds and controls a courtyard which one has to cross in order to enter the temple. Its walls have windows and loopholes, high enough to be inaccessible to the enemy on the ground. There was also a parapet along the edge of the flat roof.
Migdol at Medinet Habu, Source: Maspero - L'archeologie Egyptienne     Its foundation wall is five metres high and has a slight inclination. The reason for this is twofold: the wall becomes less vulnerable to sapping and the projectiles dropped from above bounce off the inclined stone wall, changing their direction and hurtling on a horizontal trajectory into the massed enemies, which increases their chance of hitting someone.
    At strategic places large depots were built. At Tharu (possibly identical with Sile) on the eastern border these were rectangular structures inside the citadel, covered an area of 12,000 m², had three metre thick mud-brick walls and opened on an adjacent yard.
Ancient Egypt: Fortifications


[  ] Photograph excerpts of Pharaoh attacking fortress, Semna , Kumma seen from the west shore of the river: © Oriental Institute University of Chicago website
[  ] Photograph excerpt of the Migdol at Medinet Habu: © Mary Ann Sullivan

Bibliography for this and related pages

--Walls and ramparts
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page
Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites.
-[1] The 1905-1907 Breasted expeditions to Egypt and the Sudan: Semna East (Kumma)
-[2] The 1905-1907 Breasted expeditions to Egypt and the Sudan: Semna West
-[3] The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III , a great many photographs by M.A. Sullivan
(The photograph excerpt of the Migdol has been taken from this site, the original is larger and of better quality)
-The fortress of Shalfak
-The fortress of Buhen
-The rising tide of imperialism
-Tell Abqa'in: The University of Liverpool excavations of the Ramesses II fortress
-Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham
-The Middle Kingdom Egyptian Fortresses in Nubia by Brian Yare
-Frühe Befestigungsanlagen in Elephantine und Ayn Asil by Martin Ziermann

Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me.Thanks.

© October 2001
June 2009