Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian weapons: Bow and arrow, slingshots, shields, spears, swords, daggers, sickleswords, axes and maces

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Archer carrying his weapon
Archer

Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt

Narmer wielding  a mace
Narmer wielding a mace

Source: Samivel, The Glory of Egypt

Soldiers bearing shields
Soldiers bearing shields
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Weapons

Weapons: Composite bow     The Old Kingdom had soldiers equipped with a great variety of weapons: shields, spears, cudgels, maces, daggers, bows and arrows. Quivers and battle axes came into use before the second Intermediary Period, which was a time of revolution in the Egyptian martial arts. The earliest metal arrowheads date from the 11th dynasty (ca.2000 BCE), made of copper hardened by hammering.
    The principal weapon of the Egyptian army was the bow and arrow. Nubian mercenaries formed the best archery units. It was transformed into a formidable weapon with the introduction by the Hyksos of the composite bow made of horn, sinews and wood, combined with body armour - which was often little more than broad leather straps - and the war chariot, enabling fast attacks at long range [1].
 
Bronze Dagger,Source:  L.Casson, Ancient Egypt     The infantry of the New Kingdom carried spears, battle axes, sickleswords and daggers. The sicklesword (MdC transliteration: xpS - khepesh or khopesh) came to Egypt from Syria, where Thutmose III used it first. There are many depictions of the gods handing the pharaoh this weapon of victory [2]. It quickly became part of the infantryman's basic equipment.

Mace Detail from the Narmer palette
Source: Samivel, The Glory of Egypt

    After the bowmen, either on foot or on chariots, had softened up the enemy forces with a shower of arrows [4], the infantry would rush in, breaking their ranks with hand weapons, maces with wooden handles and stone - later metal - heads, battle axes, hatchets, clubs, swords, sickleswords and daggers.
 
Ramses III killing a Libyan, Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt -     The spear was used for stabbing, giving greater reach to the soldier. Charioteers carried with them, apart from their bows and arrows, a number of spears and were thus not left weaponless after shooting their arrows.

Ramses III killing a Libyan
Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt

    Many of the new arms that came into use during the New Kingdom had their origin in Asia. The helmets Ramses III ordered distributed looked like Syrian helmets, the main difference being that the Syrian helmet was decorated with a horsetail while the Egyptian had cords ending in pendants. The body armour was of Asiatic origin too. It consisted of a leather jacket covered with little metal scales, not completely protecting the soldier from arrows, as the Egyptians could conclude from their own successes, or the Syrians when a lucky shot killed the disguised Ahab [3]
34     And a certain man drew a bow at a venture , and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness.
Kings 1, 22
Charioteers with shields     Despite such deficiencies, the charioteers of Thutmose III wore occasionally scale armour centuries before Ahab's mishap, but many preferred broad bands (of leather possibly) crossed over the chest or carried a shield. Their torso was thus more or less protected, while the lower body was shielded by the chariot itself. The pharaohs often wore armour with inlaid semi-precious stones, which offered better protection, the stones being harder than the metal used for arrow tips. It is difficult to estimate, how widespread the use of armour or helmets really was, as the reliefs depict Egyptians very rarely carrying protection other than shields.

The introduction of metal

    The military accepted new technologies , such as the use of bronze in the Middle Kingdom or of iron in the New Kingdom and above all during the Late Dynastic Period, faster than the general population, where stone tools were still used when bronze would have been available, but was too expensive.

[Image: sicklesword, Source:  L.Casson, Ancient Egypt] Sicklesword
Source: L.Casson, Ancient Egypt

    Even so, the bronze Middle Kingdom arrowheads may have been imported from the Middle East and their production in Egypt became common only in the time of the 18th dynasty. [Image: Battleaxe, Source:  L.Casson, Ancient Egypt]
    While Egypt produced at least part of the copper it needed, it had to import all the tin required to make bronze and was also wholly dependent on import for iron, which put it at a disadvantage vis à vis the rising empires of the east during the first millennium BCE.
    The techniques for working copper and bronze, i.e. casting and subsequent hammering may have been developed by the Egyptians themselves; forging, the only way iron could be worked in the ancient world was imported from Europe.

Arsenals

    The weapons were manufactured and stored in royal armouries. During the New Kingdom one such arsenal, referred to as khepesh (xpS)  [5] was apparently at Memphis:
It is Ptah who has fashioned your lance,
It is Sokaris who has forged your arms.
S. Sauneron, La manufacture d'armes de Memphis, BIFAO 54 (1954), p.7
[Image: Chariot makers, tomb of Ipuya]

Tomb of Ipuya, Chief of the workshop and head of the goldsmiths of the Lord of the Two Lands
Source of the extract: BIFAO 54 (1954), p.10

    A number of the functionaries who worked there were buried at Saqqara:
Head of chariot makers
Chief of the workshop of the Lord of the Two Lands
Chief of the workshop in the arsenal
Chief of the manufacturers of the arsenal
S. Sauneron, La manufacture d'armes de Memphis, BIFAO 54 (1954), p.9
    The distribution of the arms to the soldiers before a campaign was an occasion for a splendid ceremony attended by the pharaoh. Ramses III, speaking to the assembled soldiers from a balcony, declared at such an event
Wake your arms, draw your weapons in order to destroy the rebelling lands who do not know Egypt, the strength of Amen my father.

 


[1] We know practically nothing about the Hyksos. It is supposed that they introduced the novel weaponry familiar to New Kingdom soldiers, mainly because
  ♣   they seem to have originated in the region where it was invented,
  ♣   they controlled the trade routes between the Levant and Upper Egypt,
  ♣   the Egyptians had not used it previously.
[2] An image which shall be called that of "Ptolemy, the Defender of Egypt", beside which shall stand the principal god of the temple, handing him the weapon of victory, all of which shall be manufactured (in the Egyptian) fashion ... , from the Rosetta Stone
[3] The historical correctness of the Bible is often suspect, more so when it is reporting events supposedly having happened during the 2nd millennium than occurrences of the first millennium BCE.
[4] Merneptah blocked the advance of the Libyans into the Delta and described the battle in his Karnak inscription. The role of the archers was crititcal.
Lo, the bowmen of his majesty spent six hours of destruction among them; they were delivered to the sword upon ... ... ... ... ... of the country.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt; Part Three, § 584
[5] xpS: like xpS for "sword", but with the "house" denominator.

Bibliography for this and related pages
 
 -Impact weapons: The club and the mace
 -Edged weapons: The axe, the sword, the spear
 -Missiles: The javelin, the bow and arrow, the slingshot
-Protective equipment: Shields, helmets and body armour
 -The chariot

 

-Koller Papyrus - Model letter: The equipment of a Syrian expedition

 

 -The army

 

-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page

 

Links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these sites.

 

-Recent find of a warrior tomb with a servant burial in area A/II at Tell el-Dab'a in the eastern Nile delta
-Weapons (University College London website)
 

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

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March 2010
March 2006


 

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