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War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)

Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

From the very origins of modern Egyptology until quite recently, 3rd
millennium Egypt has been considered one of the peaks of pharaonic
civilisation. Economic prosperity, social order, respect for hierarchy and
paternal government would explain the longevity of the Old Kingdom state
as well as such astonishing achievements as the massive pyramids. Egypt
would thus turn out to be a kind of miracle, an oasis of high culture and
elevated values isolated from other countries and influences thanks to its
deserts. Even foreign affairs would have been reduced to a strict minimum,
with just the occasional expedition led against a troubling Nubian or Bedouin
tribe, or the sporadic delivery of diplomatic gifts to a foreign ruler, as the
findings at sites such as Ebla would prove. In the same vein, the beginning of
the 2nd millennium, the period of Egyptian history known as the Middle
Kingdom, would have been another age of classicism, when literary creations
replaced huge architecture as the most refined fruits of a high and peaceful
culture. The absence of a durable empire in Nubia or the Levant, and the lack
of the kind of military and heroic ethos so prevalent in New Kingdom
sources, would only confirm such an image of Egypt, where attack and
conquest could only happen as a preventive reaction to foreign menace.
Thus, for instance, the New Kingdom conquests were the natural consequence of the traumatic impact of the Hyksos arriving in the Nile Valley.
Nevertheless, the discovery of the royal annals of the Middle Kingdom, in
the late 1970s, with their references to expeditions, loot and prisoners,1 or the
recent recovery of Khnumhoteps biography at Dahshur2 has altered the
usually accepted picture.
Yet war was present in 3rd millennium Egypt too, both inside its frontiers
and abroad. The representation of the king smiting his enemies was a
powerful ideological motif, which goes back to Predynastic iconography and
continued during the 3rd millennium, both in the Sinai reliefs and inscriptions and in the royal mortuary complexes surrounding Memphis. What is
more, the discovery of (probably) Predynastic inscriptions at Gebel Seikh
Suleiman, which seem to commemorate an armed clash with some Nubian
ruler, shows that war and conflict was coeval with the birth of the Egyptian

Altenmller / Moussa 1991.

Allen 2008.

Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

state. Later, Fourth Dynasty inscriptions found by a Spanish archaeological

team at Khor el-Aqiba, in northern Nubia, provide further evidence of large
Egyptian armies being sent to fight their Sudanese neighbours and returning
to Egypt with thousands of prisoners and hundreds of thousands of cattle.
Finally, the iconography, biographical statements and function titles found in
elite tombs from the end of the 3rd millennium provide a glimpse into an
increasingly militarised society, when the state collapsed and powerful
regional warlords (referred to as chiefs of troops in Egyptian texts) raised
local armies and led them into battle against their rivals in a merciless
struggle for power. Scenes of soldiers become common in some Upper Egypt
tombs, whereas inscriptions from localities such as Siut and Moalla describe
in detail the armed encounters involving their provincial governors. Even
foreign mercenaries were enrolled during this age of conflict, and it is not at
all impossible that the local availability and the control of such contingents
of troops are at the origin of the Theban kings. In any case, the monuments
of many of these soldiers found at Gebelein show the extent of war as a
source of power in 3rd millennium Egypt.
Finally, it must be stressed that no regular, specialised, army existed
during the Old Kingdom. Also, the bulk of Egyptian military forces seems to
have consisted of local contingents raised as occasion demanded and put
under the command of officers whose rank and function titles are ambiguous,
as they have both a civil and military meaning. References to actual armed
conflicts or military organisation are also rare and sources too scarce to get
even a general overall picture. Furthermore, warrior qualities lacked the
heroic ethos so praised in later periods, an ethos that, in fact, played almost
no role as a source of prestige in the numerous private inscriptions preserved
from this period. In these circumstances, the study of war in the Old
Kingdom is a rather difficult task and, not surprisingly, it hardly bears
comparison with later better documented periods.3
War and geopolitics from the end of the 4th to the end of the 3rd
millennium BCE
The origins of the pharaonic state are difficult to trace because of the scarcity
of the archaeological and written records and their uneven geographical
distribution. They are mostly concentrated in a small number of cemeteries
whose urban contexts are largely unknown. Meagre as this evidence might
be, Egyptologists accept that some centres of political power arose about the
last third of the 4th millennium in several Upper Egyptian localities such as
Hierakonpolis, Nagada and Abydos, and that the kings of Abydos accomplished the political integration of the country and the control of the neighbouring areas: military expeditions against Nubia and the establishment of

Gnirs, 1996a; Partridge 2002; Gilbert 2004; Spalinger 2005.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)

some kind of commercial colonies in southern Palestine are attested just

before and immediately after the unification of the country. But recent
discoveries at Hierakonpolis show that some kind of political authority was
already in place at this locality in the first half of the 4th millennium as it
displayed its emerging power in an elaborated form, including a life-size
statue,4 remarkable royal tombs and complex ritual centres.5 These tombs
precede the first royal burials from Abydos by several centuries and they
raise many questions about the relationship between Hierakonpolis (the first
royal local centre?) and Abydos (from where the first pharaohs came): the
importance of Hierakonpolis, at least as a venerable ritual centre, was
recognised by later pharaohs who built quite impressive monuments there
(like Khasekhemuy) or enriched the local sanctuary with their statues (like
Pepi II).
One can speculate that after the initial development of Hierakonpolis,
Abydos became a kind of Predynastic Memphis of the South, a new
political centre which arose in a fluvial basin far larger than the one in Hierakonpolis and better placed for controlling the exchange network with the
Levant as well as the northern areas of the Nile valley that were progressively integrated into the kingdom. After the consolidation of the united
monarchy, the capital was further moved to the north, to the area of
Memphis, where the control of the newly incorporated rich region of the
Delta could be easier. In any case, the recent discoveries at Hierakonpolis
show that some kind of royal authority or primitive chiefdom existed about
3700 BCE, well before the Predynastic kings of Abydos. One can infer that
the model for the conquest and territorial organisation of the kingdom could
have first arisen in southernmost Egypt around Hierakonpolis, in the region
later known, more specifically, as n-n the interior of Hierakonpolis.
The regional role played by Hierakonpolis may be better understood in
the light of new archaeological discoveries. First of all, the serekhs of some
Predynastic rulers have been found in the deserts surrounding the city, at
Wadi Mineh, Wadi Qash and Wadi Um Balad (Eastern Desert), at Gebel
Tjauti and west of Armant (Western Desert), but also at most distant places
such as Gebel Sheikh Suleiman in Nubia or the Kharga Oasis.6 This confirms
that some Predynastic polities were powerful enough to extend their influence far beyond the immediate area of the Nile Valley where they were
centred, towards the Red Sea, the western oases or Nubia, not to mention
Palestine. The vessels from Dakhla found in the tomb of a chief of Abydos
dating from Nagada II or the ceramics from the Nagada culture excavated in
the Dakhla Oasis are additional proofs in this respect.7 In this context, Hiera4

Harrington 2004; Jaeschke 2004; for another Predynastic over-life-size statue from
Hierakonpolis, cf. Quibell / Green 1902, 15 pl. 57.
Friedman 2008.
Ikram / Rossi 2004.
Hartung / Hartmann 2005; Hope 2006.

Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

konpolis appears as a crossroads for travel by land and river, connecting the
east-west desert routes to the south-north axis of the Nile which led to Nubia
and Palestine. The discovery of the bones of a young elephant recalls, in a
rather unusual way, the importance of contacts with the Sudan.8 As for the
strategic setting of the city, recent analysis of sediments at Hierakonpolis
reveals the gradual shift of the Nile across the floodplain, as well as the
presence of a waterway to the west of the city in Predynastic times that made
early Hierakonpolis an island. However, by the Early Dynastic this channel
had been almost entirely filled in, probably when heavy rainfall resulted in
increasingly dramatic wadi washout as the desert was deforested and deposits
of yellow clays, typical of the desert but uncharacteristic of the Nile Valley,
started to appear in the Predynastic and became thicker towards the end of
the Early Dynastic.9
Second, the wide distribution of artefacts such as the Clayton rings
reveals that pastoral populations travelled extensively through the Eastern
Sahara and the Nile Valley during the 4th and early 3rd millennia BCE
thanks to the more humid conditions then prevalent in this region.10 The
Megalake Chad covered a surface of about 350,000 km during this period,
whereas the West Nubian Palaeolake measured about 5,500 km. Wadi
Howar carried perennial water at least in its high and middle sections, and
permanent settlers are attested in remote regions such as Gilf el-Kebir. One
can also mention the fact that the water emblems carved inside a squarish
sign discovered at The-Water-Mountain-of-Redjedef, about 100 km SW of
the Dakhla oasis, have been also recently detected at Gala el-Sheikh in Wadi
el-Howar, about 700 km south of Dakhla; they probably do not represent an
Egyptian hieroglyph but rather some kind of mark used by native populations.11 This vast area offered better conditions for the presence of cattlebreeders and for the circulation of people and goods.12 Nubians were an
active element of this picture as they are attested, not only in the Nile Valley,
but also in the Western Desert13 and in southernmost Egypt, including
Hierakonpolis. In fact, as Gatto has stressed, Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia,
and therefore their cultural entities, were not antagonistic to one another, but
in the Predynastic period still expressed the same cultural tradition, with
strong regional variations. This applied particularly in the last part of the 4th
millennium BCE,14 not forgetting that in later periods Hierakonpolis
remained a focus of ritual and burial activities for Nubian populations.15

Friedman 2004.
Bunbury 2008.
Kuper 2007.
Krpelin / Kuper 20062007.
Jesse et al 2007.
Lange 2004a, 2004b.
Gatto 1996, 2000.
Friedman 1992, 2000, 2001; Giuliani 2006.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)

More unexpectedly, the recent discovery of new rock art with exciting ritual
scenes in the area of Gebel Uweinat suggests that, possibly, some kind of
proto-Egyptian religious beliefs could have left some traces there around
4000 BCE.16 Lastly the importance of Nubian activities and of their contacts
with Egypt are particularly visible at the necropolis of Qustul, the burial
centre of some powerful Nubian chiefs whose tombs display astonishing
wealth, including some high quality artefacts of Egyptian origin. These rulers
probably controlled Lower Nubia, which would have formed a political unit
prior to the beginning of the Egyptian First Dynasty.
Third, the gradual worsening of the climatic conditions of the Eastern
Sahara, in a context of increasing aridity, could have led to the gradual
disappearance of pastoral activities and human settlement in this region and,
as a consequence, the progressive abandonment of many of the land routes.
The Nile then became the most important (but by no means unique) route for
contacts and exchanges. Also, the decline of Hierakonpolis and the rise of
Abydos as the new emergent political power might be understood as the
consequence of the movement of the centre of political gravity to a locality
better placed for controlling this increasingly crucial axis of communications,
as well as the rich agricultural potential of Middle Egypt and the routes to
Palestine, where many Egyptian factories or commercial centres were
founded prior to the beginning of the First Dynasty.17 Bearing in mind the
importance of Hierakonpolis as a ceremonial centre during the Archaic
period, one can suggest that its rulers simply moved to Abydos. In fact, the
political initiatives of the last Predynastic Upper Egyptian rulers seem to
have been aimed at eliminating any rival in the Nile Valley. The conquest of
the Delta and the campaigns against Nubia ended with the destruction of the
proto-state centred in Qustul and the emergence of Egypt as a single polity. It
encompassed the lower section of the Nile Valley, and its capital was further
moved to the north, to Memphis, in order to assert better its control over the
Delta, an extensive area that covered more than 50% of the agricultural land
of the country. The fortress built at Elephantine represents the culmination of
the aggressive Egyptian attitude towards her southern neighbours. Nevertheless, Nubians are attested at Elephantine and other localities south of
Armant during the Thinite period, and this circumstance prevents us from
considering the area of Aswan as a sealed border between two different
cultural areas.
In any case, the main axes of the military activity carried out by the
pharaohs are evident from the very beginning of the Egyptian state until its
decay at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, as they encompassed the
Western Desert, the Nile Valley and the adjacent Levantine areas. Intervention in these areas was possible thanks to the creation of logistic centres
which provided the necessary facilities for the expeditions sent abroad. One

Le Quellec 2005.
Van den Brink / Levy 2002.

Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

of them was Elephantine, the southernmost Egyptian locality, organised from

the beginning as a fortified centre controlling access to Nubia. Its importance
explains the complex administrative organisation present from an early date,
with governors ruling the city and a multicultural local society formed by
soldiers, interpreters, traders, crown officials and Nubians. Later sources,
from the end of the Old Kingdom, display in colourful accounts the activities
carried out by the local authorities who were, at the same time, the leaders of
the caravans sent deep into Nubia, where dangers were not completely
absent. As for the Western Oases, the excavations at Balat and other localities at the oasis of Dakhla, as well as the discovery of the so-called Ballas
trail, are providing increasing evidence concerning the complex organisation of the administrative and logistic base founded by the pharaohs of the
Old Kingdom, both for gaining access to remote areas of the desert and for
providing alternative routes to Nubia. Lastly, the Eastern Delta seems to have
played a similar role as a departure point for expeditions, and some placenames formed with the term Hwt should confirm the existence of local crown
centres specialised in storing and delivering supplies to the agents of the
king. Some scholars have even suggested the existence of traces of foreigners
in the area, apparently of Levantine origin, perhaps settled as mercenaries or
traders like their Middle Kingdom successors.18 The biography of a military
leader of the Sixth Dynasty called Weni confirms that this was a concentration zone for the armies sent into Palestine, a role well known for later
periods of the Egyptian history, especially the area around Tell el-Daba
during the Middle and New Kingdoms.
What were the aims of Egyptian foreign policy in the geopolitical context
of the 3rd millennium and what was the role of war? These two questions are
difficult to answer due to the scarcity of the sources at our disposal. Unfortunately, no diplomatic archives have been preserved (if they ever existed)
and there are no traces of official contacts with other international powers.
Some evidence of gifts and of the circulation of precious goods has been
found in Levantine contexts, such as mace-heads in Palestine or various
objects at Ebla.19 It seems that there were two main goals of Egyptian policy.
On the one hand, control of the trade networks connecting the vast area
between Chad, Sudan, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. On the other
hand, control of direct access to valuable minerals from Sinai and southern
Palestine, with Byblos playing the role of trade partner and mediator between
Egypt and other Levantine and Near Eastern regions. It is quite symptomatic
that the direct involvement of the crown in the circulation of goods (at least
of prestige objects such as incense or exotic items from Nubia) led to the
organisation of expeditions with highly symbolic importance for the crown20
and to provide the necessary logistics in order to ensure their viability. This

Bietak 2003, 38.

Lovell 2008; Scandone-Matthiae 2003.
El Awady 2006.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)

does not exclude the existence of private trade, and there is increasing
evidence that a provincial elite in the Old Kingdom also imported luxury
goods from the Levant.21 War pursued the general goals of eliminating any
possible rival, and the expeditions into Nubia or against the Palestine
chiefdoms seem more inspired by this aim than by a highly improbable
foreign menace. In fact, Nubians were both fought against and incorporated
into the Egyptian armed and police forces during the Old Kingdom and later.
In this respect, it is quite noteworthy that recent epigraphic discoveries show
that incense was one of the principal motives underlying the Egyptian
presence in remote areas of the Eastern Sahara. At the other extreme of the
geopolitical area of interest for Egypt, in the land of Punt bordering the Red
Sea, incense, aromatics and precious minerals formed the bulk of exports to
Egypt. It is also significant that the end of Egyptian expeditions to Punt and
of its monopoly of the incense trade into Levantine areas, around 1200 BCE,
was followed by the rise of new policies and trade networks (the incense
road) in Ethiopia, South Arabia and the southern Levant. In any case, the
main threat was thought to come from Nubia, as the execration texts show.22
Epigraphic evidence confirms this picture, as war appears to have pursued
the main goal of controlling trade and strategic routes and areas, and no real
foreign dangers can be ascertained. The presence of outposts at such remote
(and vulnerable) localities as Buhen, in Nubia, or Balat, in the oasis of
Dakhla, would have been unthinkable if any serious menace had threatened
their communications with Egypt or their very existence. This is especially
the case when considering that these centres were active for centuries and
that the archaeological record proves that they could even go back to the
beginning of the 3rd millennium. Recent discoveries show that Egyptian
expeditions from Balat passed, at least, through remote areas such as Gebel
Uweinat, in the far West, and reached the land of Yam and other unattested
territories, bringing incense from there.23 It is not possible to determine the
enemies and regions fought by the powerful Egyptian armies sent into
Nubian territory at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (about 2600 BCE),
but it is probably not too speculative to think that the scope of these
expeditions might be related to the control of access to Punt and its precious
imports. King Sneferu, for instance, organised maritime expeditions to the
Levant which coincided with the dispatch of armies against Libya and Nubia,
where the fortress of Buhen, about 300 km south of Elephantine, was
founded during his reign. King Sahure brought precious goods from Sinai
and Punt and sent armies against Nubia. On the contrary, Puntite expeditions
could attack Egypt itself in the context of broader Nubian incursions, as 2nd
millennium inscriptions from Elkab prove,24 whereas Egyptian armies

Frstner-Mller / Raue 2008.

Osing 1973, 1976.
Clayton / De Trafford / Borda 2008.
Davies 2003a, 2003b.

Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

reached Punt during the 1st millennium BCE.25 Not surprisingly, the foreign
policy followed by Sneferu seems inspired by the traditional aim of eliminating any rival in areas strategic to Egyptian interests, such as the Libyans
probably in the western Delta and the Nubians living hundreds of kilometres
south of the Egyptian border. His campaigns against the Libyans and his
maritime expeditions to the Levant were also concomitant with a deep
reorganisation of the Delta. The inscriptions of some high officials living at
the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty mention many royal centres covering
the entire region and replacing former administrative units. Instead, the
archaeological record shows the development of a dense network of settlements in the eastern Delta, around the easternmost branch of the Nile, from
the beginning of the 3rd millennium throughout the Old Kingdom. This area
of the Delta always had a great strategic importance for the crown as a
logistical base into Asia, a circumstance which explains why administrative
centres and capital cities were founded there, such as Tell el-Daba,
Piramesse and Tanis in the 2nd millennium BCE. Also, Old Kingdom
inscriptions and texts reveal that it was a fortified area and the departure
point of the relevant Ways-of-Horus, the strategic route which led into
Asia.26 Yet the western borders seem to have been not so densely settled
during the Old Kingdom and extensive cattle breeding and scattered villages
seem to have been the norm here.27 A landscape of lakes and marshes,
extending west of the western branch of the Nile,28 probably made possible
the existence of a porous and rather imprecise frontier. This, in turn, enabled
the circulation of Libyan herders and possibly their installation there at the
turn of the 4th millennium, as cattle and trees are represented on the so-called
Libyan palette. The military campaign led against them by Sneferu, which
culminated in the capture of hundreds of prisoners and thousands of cattle, as
well as later representations of Libyan prisoners on the royal monuments of
the 3rd millennium, suggest that such populations were in contact with
Egypt. Yet they did not represent a serious menace for the country as the
western borders of the Delta were not fortified (as they were during the
Ramesside period) and even the southern oases were apparently free of any
(recorded) Libyan attack.
Nevertheless, as noted above, the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty was a
period when war, the administrative organisation of the kingdom and
enormous buildings went hand in hand, apparently a policy adopted to ensure
the control of trade routes and the arrival into Egypt of precious goods and,
perhaps secondarily, to obtain manpower. Libyans were fought against, probably in the western Delta. Logistical bases were created at centres such as


Petrie 1888, 107, pl. 42.

Moreno Garca 1999, 186188.
Cagle 2003.
Khalil 2008.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)

Mut el-Kharab, in the Dakhleh oasis29 and inscriptions and seals found on the
Redjedef Mountain as well as some seals found at Giza prove that
expeditions were sent deep into the Eastern Sahara during this period;30
quarries were exploited in the south-western deserts as well as in Sinai; seals
with the name of king Khafra have been found at Ayn Sukhna, the maritime
Egyptian base at the Suez Gulf from where expeditions were sent into Sinai
and the Red Sea during the Old and Middle Kingdoms;31 armies were
dispatched into Nubia, a fortress was built hundreds of kilometres south of
Egypt and maritime expeditions were sent to the Levant. The titles of some
contemporary officials such as Nesutnefer at Giza indicate the presence of
fortresses in strategic areas.32 He was the overseer of fortified towers and
crown centres (Hwt-aAt) in the eighth and tenth provinces of Upper Egypt. He
was also the overseer of royal fortresses, fortified enclosures and deserts in
the thirteenth province of Lower Egypt, a province which encompassed
during this period a substantial part of the eastern branch of the Nile as well
as access to Wadi Tumilat, the transit zone between the Delta and Sinai used
by nomad populations. Bearing in mind that desert routes from the eighth
and tenth provinces of Upper Egypt connected the valley with the western
oasis, it seems that Nesutnefer was responsible for at least some strategic
approaches to Egypt as well as the fortresses which controlled them.
Conspicuously, the western Delta was not included among his activities.
As suggested above, the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty seem to have
limited themselves to following the basic lines of what had been the
traditional Egyptian policy for centuries. War and conquest had culminated,
in about the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, in control of the final
stretch of the Nile and with the (apparent) monopoly of exchanges between
inner East Africa and the Mediterranean by a single power, the pharaonic
state. The epigraphic sources from the Early Dynastic period (31002700
BCE) suggest war and conquest to have been a fundamental, intrinsic and
prestigious activity in forming the Egyptian state, at least at a symbolic and
ideological level. Many monuments dating from Narmer, usually considered
to be the first pharaoh, celebrate war and booty: the scenes of his famous
palette condense the warrior and conqueror ethos of the early kings, as they
depict the destruction of a walled city, the capture of prisoners, the execution
of enemies with two rows of beheaded enemies (a motif also present in other
monuments from Hierakonpolis),33 and the heroic image of the sovereign
smiting an enemy, all these activities taking place in Lower Egypt. A votive
mace-head from his reign shows one row of, apparently, chiefs or some kind
of authority appearing before Narmer on his throne. They are represented by

Hope 2008.
Kuhlmann 2002, 2005; Frster 2008.
Pantalacci 2005, 485.
Junker 1938, 172176, figs. 27, 28, 30; Kanawati 2002, 3233, pl. 53.
Droux 20052007.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

numbers that could indicate tribute, booty or simply a census of the Delta or
of a smaller area in this region: 120,000 prisoners, 400,000 oxen and
1,422,000 goats (or small cattle).34 The motif of the conquest and destruction
of the walls of a fortified city was quite popular in early Egyptian art and
inscriptions, suggesting a world of conflict and conquest which continued
well into Egyptian history: the base of a limestone statue of pharaoh Khasekhemuy (ca. 2700 BCE) represents a line of slain enemies from the Delta,
and on the front of it the number 47,209 is written. The incorporation of
Lower Egypt into the pharaonic state seems to have been a rather complicated task. It was not completed until the middle of the 3rd millennium if one
considers that the administrative organisation of the Delta was still an
ongoing process at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, and that the division
of this region into provinces continued throughout the Old Kingdom,
especially its eastern borders, the most densely settled area. But foreign wars
were also common during the early centuries of the 3rd millennium, in
Libyan territory (as indicated in the Libyan palette), Asia (judging from
iconography)35 and Nubia. The frequency of titles formed with the element
a-mr administrator or rp director and the symbol of a fortified locality
is additional evidence of the importance of strongholds in controlling inner
and foreign strategic areas, as also happened in other periods of the Egyptian
history, such as the end of the Old Kingdom (see infra) or in the Saite
period.36 Watch-towers are also mentioned in sources from the Thinite
period,37 and they continued in use until the middle of the 3rd millennium.38
Even the most important administrative and production centres of this and
the following periods, known as Hwt and Hwt-aAt (lit. the great Hwt), were
originally towers and they were sometimes mentioned together with fortified
centres.39 Circular towers are also known from the archaeological record of
the New Kingdom, when they served as surveying posts of the tracks leading
to the desert.40
However, from the Fourth Dynasty on, military activity seems to have
been rather infrequent: only some scattered references in the Royal Annals
mention the arrival of foreign female workers as tribute during the reign of
Userkaf (24942487 BCE), and a scene of tribute from Libyan rulers was
depicted in the funerary temple of Sahure (24872475 BCE). Nevertheless it
is worth noting that tribute (or even conflict with Libyan dwellers) is not
mentioned in the surviving Annals from his reign, and that the same scene
and protagonists appear again in many other royal monuments of the Old

Quibell 1900, pl. XXVIB.

Petrie 1900, pl. XVII.
Smolarikova 2008.
Petrie 1901, pl. V[10].
Moreno Garca 1997.
Kaplony 1963, pl. 86[322].
Darnell 2002, 139141.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


Kingdom. The symbolic and ideological nature of this so-called Libyan

family makes it difficult to assert whether the events recorded took really
place during Sahures reign, if he copied them from another royal monument,
whether they may be linked to some kind of conflict, or even whether they
simply represent, in Egyptian ideological and cultural terms, some kind of
diplomatic contact between rulers. The huge amounts of tribute listed
(123,400 bulls and cows, 223,200 asses, 232,413 goats and 243,688 rams)
seem rather unrealistic for a pastoral population living on the margins of the
desert. About a century later, around 2400 BCE, a scene representing
Egyptian troops seizing a fortified Asiatic town appears in two tombs, one of
them in the mastaba of Inti, the provincial ruler of Deshasha.41 His titles of
jmj-r mnww nzwt overseer of the fortresses of the king and of provincial
ruler are reminiscent of the titles of Nesutnefer at Giza and reveal the range
of activities carried out by local governors. These included control over
fortresses and, probably, the command of local contingents into battle, as we
shall see.
Only at the end of the Old Kingdom, during the Sixth Dynasty, do the
sources again contain some references to military activity. The most detailed
come from the tomb of Weni of Abydos, a provincial official involved again
in commanding expeditions abroad, and whose famous biography contains a
thorough account of a great expedition sent into Asia. The recently discovered fragmentary Royal Annals of the Sixth Dynasty include some
references to the arrival of pacified Nubians, but the context suggests that
they were some kind of tribute.42 As for the accounts of the expedition
leaders from Elephantine, they carried their missions deep into Nubian
country using both the river and the desert routes. The only dangers seem to
have been bandits or occasionally reluctant foreign chiefs, but no organised
power happens to challenge Egyptian interests or bases, either in Nubia, in
the Western Desert or in Asia. It is quite symptomatic in this respect that the
collapse of the state at the end of the 3rd millennium was not followed by
foreign attacks and that Nubians were incorporated into the armies of the
contending local warlords.
Bearing in mind all these considerations, it seems that war played a rather
marginal role in Egyptian geopolitics after 2600 BCE. Not surprisingly, at
the time, foreign invasion was seen in Middle Kingdom literature as a
consequence of disorder and the collapse of royal authority, that is to say, as
an undesirable secondary effect of internal troubles, not as the result of a
tenacious and ultimately victorious power from abroad. Even this menace
consisted mainly in the infiltration of nomads and herders into some specific
areas of the Delta. These conditions probably explain why it is so difficult to
learn about the military organisation of Egypt in the 3rd millennium, or why


Kanawati / McFarlane 1993, pl. 27.

Baud / Dobrev 1995, 1997.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

military terms are in general so ambiguous, as they also had civil

The nerve of war: logistics and expeditions in 3rd millennium Egypt
The mobilisation of teams of workers was quite common in 3rd millennium
Egypt, and there is abundant evidence for the organisation of expeditions to
the quarries or the circulation of armies and agents of the crown. The
logistics of providing equipment, food and facilities to huge numbers of
people on the move or temporarily settled in a given area, quite often outside
the Nile Valley proper, were quite substantial for a pre-industrial civilisation
such as Pharaonic Egypt. The solution consisted in the creation of a network
of warehouses, stockpile centres and agricultural domains of the crown
scattered all over the country, which supplied the goods required. Bearing in
mind the ambiguity of some titles, such as jmj-r mSa overseer of the troop
(of soldiers or workers), we can safely assume that the facilities used by
team workers and expeditions at that time were also at the disposal of the
troops. In fact, inscriptions like the biography of Weni of Abydos show that
this was the case.
The most ancient evidence of such a system of crown centres goes back to
the Third Dynasty (26862613 BCE), the ink inscriptions on the vessels
from the funerary complex of Pharaoh Djoser43 and the seal stamps from
Elephantine being the most important sources for the study of the territorial
organisation of the kingdom at this early date.44 First of all, these brief texts
reveal the existence of a network of royal agricultural centres (the Hwt-aAt
being the most frequently attested whereas the Hwt are also mentioned).
These coexisted with the pr house/domain of some individuals, with
some royal domains bearing the name of the god Horus,45 and with some
institutions whose name is composed with the element Hwtperhaps some
kind of specialised (royal) workshops.46 The ink inscriptions from another
enormous set of vessels, recovered at Abydos and dating from the Second
Dynasty, confirm this model as they mention institutions named after the
element Hwt, like the Hwt-nbw the Hwt of the gold or the Hwt-wr(t) the
great Hwt.47 It seems that the territorial organisation of the kingdom was
twofold. It comprised agricultural centres of the crown (Hwt-aAt and Hwt),
administered by royal officials (HoA Hwt-aAt and HoA Hwt), and the domains of
individuals. Their links to the royal administration are poorly understood,
since it is impossible to determine whether they were local magnates who

Lacau / Lauer 1959, 1965.

Ptznick 2005.
Engel 2004.
Engel 2008.
Regulski 2004.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


exercised personal control over the territorial units called pr or whether they
were royal agents in charge of the administration of these districts. Second,
the stamp seals from Elephantine show that this locality acted as a royal
fortress and trade centre in the southernmost frontier of the kingdom.48 Many
of the stamp seals found, as well as three hieratic inscriptions,49 concern the
activities carried out by different officials and crown agents during the Third
Dynasty, including the transfer of cereal of some kind involving a chief of a
village and an official in charge of ships. Grain also came from the state
warehouses in the vicinity of Abydos and they served to pay the agents of the
pharaoh in the remote south. Third, the archaeological remains of several
small step pyramids from the same period have been recovered at some
localities in Upper and Middle Egyptperhaps significantly not in the
Deltathus asserting the local symbolic presence of the crown.50 This early
evidence confirms the importance of a territorial organisation based more on
a network of royal warehouses, production centres, agricultural domains and
mooring posts scattered all over the country than on a structure of provinces
clearly defined and controlled by local governors. Such a system made
possible the circulation of products at both local and regional levels, between
the royal centres and the local arrival points, under the supervision of a large
and complex bureaucracy whose members are prominently mentioned in the
inscriptions. The titles of Metjen, from the very beginning of the Fourth
Dynasty (about 2620 BCE), show that the administrative organisation of
Lower Egypt (where royal centres like Hwt-aAt or Hwt were gradually replacing the districts pr) was far from completed even some centuries after the
political unification of the country.51
Some of these institutions are better known from later inscriptions. They
served as the centres of royal power and institutional agriculture in the rural
countryside. They were the Hwt-aAt great Hwt and the Hwt, a kind of royal
farm, warehouse, processing and administrative centre, and defensive buildingin fact, the Hwt-hieroglyph represents a tower.52 The differences
between the Hwt-aAt and the Hwt were probably only of scale, the first being
the centre of larger agricultural units than the second. Later sources show
that the Hwt-aAt were only founded in certain regions, where land was particularly abundant, whereas the Hwt figures prominently in almost all the provinces of Upper Egypt as well as in the monuments from the capital (in this case
it is almost certain that the texts concern the Hwt of the Delta). The conclusion which can be inferred from the geographical and chronological distribution of these institutions is that the Hwt-aAt are more frequently mentioned
than the Hwt in the ink-written texts and in private inscriptions at this early

Ptznick 2005.
Dreyer 1987.
Seidlmayer 1996, 122125.
Sethe 1933, 17.
Moreno Garca 1998, 1999.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

stage of the Egyptian history, a trend confirmed by later documents and

which continued until the final centuries of the 3rd millennium.
The royal annals record the founding of thirty-five rural establishments
(Hwt-aAt or perhaps Hwt) in a single year of Sneferus reign, as well as some
cattle centres. Another year was celebrated because several agricultural Hwt
units were created in Upper and Lower Egypt.53 The extent of this policy is
further corroborated by the importance of the lists of Hwt in his mortuary
temple and by the inscriptions of some of his officials. Metjens activities,
for instance, mainly concerned the Delta, where he was in charge of many
royal agricultural centres Hwt-aAt and Hwt as well as of agricultural units
named grgt and aHt.54 The inscriptions and the administrative titles of other
officials living in the early part of the Fourth Dynasty, like Pehernefer,
Netjeraperef, Isi or Nesutnefer confirm this picture.55 The titles of Nesutnefer, mentioned already, suggest that the control of workers and defensive
buildings or watch-towers (the swnw towers) usually went together in some
provinces in Upper Egypt. The same concern for the control of manpower in
combination with watch-towers in some Upper Egyptian provinces is
included among the duties of some officials of the Fourth and Fifth
Dynasties.56 Finally, the royal annals of the Fifth Dynasty (24942345 BCE)
contain detailed descriptions of the numerous fields allotted to the provincial
temples by the king, sometimes involving a considerable surface area, up to
about 350 arouras (= 96 ha).57 Therefore, temples, Hwt-aAt, grgt and the
towers swnw were the most conspicuous elements of the rural landscape
during the Fourth Dynasty. Their frequency in the titles held by high
officials, usually with extensive territorial responsibilities, shows the
importance attached by the crown to the production, storing, control and
delivery of agricultural items, especially in the regions close to the capital,
Memphis (Lower Egypt and some provinces in Middle Egypt).58 The
enormous building projects of the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty, for
example, were only possible thanks to the mobilisation of a large number of
workers and of raw materials, as well as to a complex labour organisation
whose traces can be found at the pyramid workers city at Giza.
The beginning of the Sixth Dynasty (23452181 BCE) was a period of
important changes in the organisation of the network of crown centres.59 Its
main elements in the provinces (swnw, Hwt-aAt, grgt) were replaced by the
Hwt. Although the Hwt appears from an early date in the epigraphic record, its
role seems rather secondary when compared to other royal agricultural

Sethe 1933, 236.

Sethe 19332, 15; Moreno Garca 1996.
Moreno Garca 1999, 233238; 2001; 2007.
Moreno Garca 1997a.
Sethe 19332, 235249.
Moreno Garca 1996, 1997a, 1998.
Moreno Garca 1999, 241265; 2007.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


centres such as the Hwt-aAt. But the situation changed at the end of the Fifth
Dynasty, when the title HoA Hwt governor of a Hwt became commonly
attested in most provinces of Upper Egypt. In fact, Hwt is virtually the only
royal agricultural centre that is mentioned in the monuments of the seven
southernmost provinces of Egypt. The extent and increase of the Hwt in the
Egyptian rural landscape is further corroborated by the fact that nearly 90%
of the about two hundred HoA Hwt known from 3rd millennium sources
existed during the Sixth Dynasty and the end of the 3rd millennium.60 Their
geographical distribution in Lower and Upper Egypt was quite similar, but
they were conspicuously absent from or rather rare in some Upper Egyptian
localities like El-Hawawish, Elkab and Coptos. These were precisely the
centres where the local temples happened to be the most important institutions and where powerful families monopolised the function of chief of the
local sanctuary for many generations.
In fact, temples and Hwt were part of a network of economic and productive centres spread all over the country and more or less dependent on the
crown. Their production was usually at the disposal of the kings officials, as
stated in the letter sent by pharaoh Pepi II to Herkhuf of Aswan, about 2270
BCE: Orders have been brought to the governor(s) of the new localities, the
companion(s) and the overseer(s) of priests to command that supplies be
furnished from what is under the charge of each from every Hwt belonging to
a processing centre and from every temple, without any exemption.61 The
role played by the Hwt in providing the agents of the king with supplies is
also exemplified by the inscriptions of Hatnub, which mention the equipment
delivered by the local Hwt to the teams of workers sent to the quarries, the
organisation of the expeditions by an overseer of Hwt, or the close relationship between the Hwt and the agricultural domains nwt mAwt. This was also
pointed out in the autobiography of Herkhuf just quoted (graffiti 1 & 6)62 and
in a fragmentary inscription from the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty.63 A
fragmentary text from the tomb of Ibi, governor of Deir el-Gebrawi, shows
that fields of considerable size (about 50 ha.) belonged to a Hwt which, at the
same time, depended on a processing centre, as in Herkhufs inscription.64 A
hieratic record from Elephantine, dated about 2000 BCE, mentions the
deliveries of cereals, dates and cattle made by a governor of a Hwt to several
dignitaries, including one envoy who arrived at Elephantine on a mission for
the king, showing the practical functioning of the Hwt system, as in
Herkhufs times.65 Finally, another contemporary early Middle Kingdom
administrative document lists the various kinds of textile items delivered to

Moreno Garca 1999, 252253.

Sethe 19332, 131.
Anthes 1928.
Sethe 1933, 87.
Sethe 1933, 144145.
Von Pilgrim 1996, 285300.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

an overseer of the seal during his journey to Per-Ikhekh. He received them

from a warehouse, a working centre (xnrt) and a village or royal centre called
wt-ttj the Hwt of (king) Khety.66 So the Hwt appears as a crucial link in
the geographical tax system of the Old Kingdom: they were founded in
almost every province, they acted as agricultural centres provided with fields,
cattle and workers, they were also local warehouses where agricultural
products were stored and delivered to the royal agents in mission. Together
with the temples, they formed the domains of the crown and the processing
installations, a network of royal centres for the collection of taxes and the
mobilisation of the labour force of the country. The growing importance of
the Hwt is also evident in the ideological representation of the Egyptian
landscape when, from the beginning of the Sixth Dynasty, the Hwt replaces
the grgt as one of the most conspicuous elements of the countryside.67
Arsenals are also known in Egyptian sources from the 3rd millennium. In
fact, these houses of weapons were a specific department within the
Egyptian administration, usually under the control of the vizier and the
overseers of works, missions and the treasury. Once again, it can be noticed
that they did not belong to a separate military sphere.68 Even the navy lacks
any specific military organisation, as it was used both for civil purposes and
for war. In fact, ship captains could lead not only naval forces but also land
expeditions, and it was not infrequent that the same person was both
general and admiral or the leader of an expedition.69
The importance of logistics probably underlies the famous description of
the preparations for the huge expedition against Asiatics and nomads
commanded by Weni of Abydos, in about 2300 BCE: When His Majesty
repelled the Aamu and the Sand-dwellers, His Majesty put together an army
of many tens of thousands, from all of Upper Egypt (from Elephantine [in the
South] to Medenyt [in the] North), from Lower Egypt with all its cattlebreeding centres, from Sedjer and Khensedjer, with Nubians of the land of
Irtjet, Nubians of the land of Medja, Nubians of the land of Yam, Nubians of
the land of Wawat and Nubians of the land of Kaau, as well as the Tjemehu.
His Majesty sent me at the head of this army having dignitaries, seal-bearers
of the king of Lower Egypt, sole companions of the Great Mansion, chiefs
and governors of Hwt of Upper and Lower Egypt, companions and overseers
of foreigners, overseers of priests of Upper and Lower Egypt, and overseers
of processing centres at the head of the troops of Upper and Lower Egypt, as
well as of the Hwt and towns that they ruled, and of the Nubians of those
foreign lands. It was I who used to command them, though my rank was
(only) that of an overseer of the khenty-she of the palace, because of my
rectitude, so that no one did any harm to his fellow, so that no one seized the

Simpson 1986, 14, pl. 14.

Moreno Garca 1999, 117150.
Chevereau 1987, 4044.
Chevereau 1989.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


loaf or the sandals of a traveller, so that no one took cloth from any town, so
that no one took a goat from anyone. I led them from the Island of the North,
the Gate of Imhotep, the district of the Horus Lord-of-Truth (= king
Sneferu), while I was in this position.70 What we can learn from this
passage, once the rhetoric has been left out, is that the organisation of a great
expedition was a complex matter involving not only the recruitment of
contingents on an (apparently) local basis, but also the participation of
several kinds of authorities whose main administrative concern was providing supplies to the envoys, workers and dignitaries in mission. This is
probably why cattle-breeding centres, governors of Hwt of Upper and Lower
Egypt, overseers of the priests of Upper and Lower Egypt, and overseers of
processing centres are mentioned, as their duties included, specifically, the
management, storing and delivery of agricultural and craft products. Not
surprisingly, Weni boasts of not having used force to take the provisions and
equipment needed by his army. This concern also explains why similar
statements, with the emphasis put on not seizing goods by force, appear in
the inscriptions of other leaders of expeditions. Sabni of Aswan, for instance,
proclaimed I never permitted that the sandal or bread of any man be stolen
during the expedition he led into Nubia.71 In fact, temples were also supposed to furnish personnel to various state departments that drew up lists of
workers fit for service, as some royal decrees show. These same documents
also reveal that deliveries suitable for supplying expeditions, such as ropes,
animal feed, skins and labour for carrying and transporting material, were
usually requested from sanctuaries, unless a special and temporary exemption was granted by the king.72 In any case, Wenis rhetorical claims find a
later echo in the inscription of the steward Henu, sent on an expedition to
Wadi Hammamat about 2000 BCE: [My lord] sent [me] to conduct seagoing ships to the land of Punt, to bring him fresh myrrh from the chiefs
ruling the Red Land, owing to the fear of him throughout the foreign lands.
Then I set out from Coptos on the way His Majesty had commanded me,
with me being an army of Upper Egypt from the garrisons of the Theban
nome, from Imyotru to Shabet. All royal offices from town and country were
assembled and followed me, and four companies of police cleared the way
before me, smiting any who rebelled against the king. Hunters and natives of
the deserts were employed as bodyguards, and all His Majestys councillors
were placed under my control to announce messengers to me, the sole
commander whom millions obey. Setting out with an army of 3000 men I
made the road into a river, the desert into a field border. For I gave a water
skin and a bread bag, with two djes-measures of water and twenty loaves, to


Sethe 1933, 101102.

Habachi 1981, 1922, fig. 5.
Sethe 1933, 284293.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

every one of them every day. Donkeys were laden with sandals; when a foot
became unshod another (sandal) was ready.73
Recent archaeological and epigraphic discoveries made at the oasis of
Dakhla, in the Western Desert, provide new evidence of the complex logistics involved when preparing expeditions or the journeys of some officials.
One example comes from some clay tablets dated about 2200 BCE: This
servant declares: inform the courier who is in the counsel that the potter has
not yet arrived at the locality of Rudjet to prepare the trip of the chief
/governor of Demyu. May the ka of the courier order that a potter be sent74;
the royal noble and messenger Rensi to the seal-bearer Rensi: I have sent
him to of the children of the chief/governor. Make these accounts for the
administrator Rensi.75 Furthermore, recent discoveries reveal the existence
of an ancient desert route running from the oasis of Dakhla to, at least, the
plateau of Gilb Kebir and Jebel Uweinat, covering more than 400 km.
Numerous stations with pottery deposits have been found, some 30 in all,
sometimes consisting of several dozen jars and most of them dating from the
late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, at the very end of the 3rd
millennium.76 These deposits mainly served as artificial water reservoirs and
storage depots. They seem to have been established at regular intervals of
three days travel, apparently based on the donkeys ability to go for up three
days without water, enabling caravans of an estimated 50100 donkeys to
cross the region between Dakhla and the Gilf Kebir in about two weeks.77
The final destination of the route is still obscure, even though the next stage
was Jebel Uweinat, where a recently discovered hieroglyphic inscription,
dating from around 2000 BCE, mentions the bringing of incense from the
land of Yam.78 From here it was possible to reach more southerly regions in
the territory of modern Sudan or Chad, such as the land of Yam or the
unknown region of Tekhebet also mentioned in this inscription. The hieroglyphic texts found at the Redjedef Mountain prove that expeditions of
about 400 men could use this route.79 Instead, Herkhuf of Elephantine
declares in his autobiography that he led a caravan of 300 donkeys to the
land of Yam going from the Thinite nome on the oasis road to the land of
Yam, an alternative route to the road of Elephantine, stretching into Nubia
along the Nile. But dangers could also come from the deserts surrounding
Dakhla oasis. The archaeological remains found in about a dozen hilltop sites
controlling access to the oasis from the east and south indicate that their
principal purpose was to control approaching traffic. The depictions of

Lichtheim 1988, 53.

Pantalacci 1998, 306311.
Pantalacci 1998, 311313.
Frster 2007a.
Frster 2007a, 130.
Clayton / De Trafford / Borda 2008.
Kuhlmann 2002 and 2005; Frster 2008.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


soldiers and the seal impressions recovered suggest that these observation
posts formed part of the military infrastructure of the region. In fact, in one
of them, Nephthys Hill, a stone slab was found depicting a soldier and some
Finally, a different logistic organisation can be ascertained in south Sinai
thanks to archaeological and epigraphic finds. The main goal of the expeditions sent to this area was the exploitation of the local turquoise mines.
Recent archaeological digs at the site of Ayn Sukhna, at the Gulf of Suez,
have revealed that this Middle Kingdom maritime base was in fact already in
service during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, as seals with the names of
kings Khafra and Nyuserra have been recovered there (around 25502425
BCE).81 This base enabled expeditions to be sent not only to Sinai but also to
the Red Sea. The titles of Kaaper, an official buried at Abusir and who lived
about 2490 BCE, cast some light on the organisation of such missions. His
titles included the quite unusual functions of herdsman of the dappled
cattle, scribe of the pasture lands of the dappled cattle, scribe of the
kings army in Wenet, in Serer, (in) Tepa, in Ida, (in) the Terraces of the
Turquoise, in the western and eastern foreign lands, as well as great one of
the tens of Upper Egypt and various other scribal titles. The toponyms
Wenet, Serer, Tepa and Ida are written inside ovals and some of them are
known from other sources to have been fortified centres related to the
Eastern Delta. As for the Terraces of the Turquoise, it was the name for the
turquoise mining site of Wadi Maghara in Sinai, that was exploited from
2660 BCE principally for copper ore.82 So, Kaaper was responsible for several fortified military camp-sites situated behind the north-eastern Egyptian
border and connected to the exploitation of the mines at Wadi Maghara. His
titles of scribe of the kings army at those locations and of great one of the
tens of Upper Egypt, a title involving the recruitment and organisation of
manpower, further corroborate his activities as an expedition leader to
foreign lands. Furthermore, his exceptional titles of herdsman of the
dappled cattle and scribe of the pasture lands of the dappled cattle suggest
that he was also involved with the administration of herds and pastures and,
probably, with supplying foodstuff to the troops under his command. It might
be worth remembering in that respect that providing animals in order to
provision armies and teams of workers was frequently mentioned in Egyptian
inscriptions of the 3rd millennium.83 Consequently, the scribal activities of
Kaaper imply that he was in charge of a full chain of logistical responsibilities related to equipping, provisioning and commanding foreign expeditions, from the pastures and flocks which provided sustenance both for men
and animals, to the troops and the fortified camp-sites where these were

Kaper / Willems 2002.

Pantalacci 2005, 485.
Barta 2001, 143191.
Anthes 1928, 1819, pl. 99a; Sethe 1933, 259.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

quartered and, finally, the mines. Recent excavations in south Sinai have
revealed the existence of one of these forts, dating to around 2250 BCE. It is
a circular limestone structure that measured about 44 metres in diameter,
with walls 7 metres wide and preserved up to 3.5 metres in height in some
areas. The fort could have accommodated a small garrison of between 25 and
30 soldiers with easy access to anchorage facilities at the nearby coast.84
Raising armies: recruitment, mercenaries and the role of local leaders
The logistical organisation just outlined allowed for the equipment of teams
of workers, armies and crown agents when accomplishing the services due to
the Pharaoh. Like many other pre-industrial societies facing similar problems
of transport, the Pharaonic state created a network of storehouses, production
centres, temples and specialised installations at regular distances along the
Nile, which provided the necessary facilities where and when needed. But if
logistics made possible the circulation of troops, the sources also throw some
light on such practical issues as the provenance and the number of men who
could be mobilised and equipped thanks to this organisation. They also help
to evaluate the capacities of mobilisation by the state in the 3rd millennium.
Some texts from the Old and Middle Kingdom indicate the number of
soldiers or workers participating in an army or an expedition, whilst recent
archaeological work provides some rough estimations of the personnel that
could be supplied by the state to/in [?] a single place. One can think, for
instance, of the 20,000 men settled in the Workmens City at Giza when
they were building the Fourth Dynasty pyramids.85 This locality not only
provided accommodation but also included bakeries, butcheries and storehouses where rations were prepared and distributed to the workers. It is quite
probable that the network of royal centres founded by king Sneferu was in
fact a precondition for the large-scale mobilisation of armies and workers
during his reign, especially when considering the huge number of workers
that had to be supplied at centres like the Workmens City or the quarries.
As a matter of fact, two inscriptions from Khor el-Aquiba, in northern Nubia,
record the passage of an Egyptian army of 20,000 men during the Fourth
Dynasty: The acquaintance of the king in the seventeenth province of Upper
Egypt, Khabaubat, came with an army of 20,000 men to hack up the land of
Wawat, and the acquaintance of the king in the northern part of the fourteenth province of Lower Egypt, Zauib: 17,000 Nubians were taken.86 A
later text, recording the great expedition of the year 38 sent by king Senusret
I to the quarries of Wadi Hammamat (1918 BCE), states that it consisted of
17,000 conscripts, 1,000 warriors, 20 mayors and several hundred specialists, totalling about 18,500 men. These figures bear comparison with the

Mumford 2005, 2006.

Hawass 1996; Conrad / Lehner 2001; Lehner 2004.
Lpez 1967.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


army of 20,000 soldiers and some additional auxiliary troops that fought the
Hittite troops at Qadesh during the reign of Rameses II. Therefore it seems
that 20,000 men was the largest single troop that could be handled by the
logistical organisation of the kingdom. Of course, other troops or teams of
workers could also be dealt with by the state at the same time, but at different
places. An example would be the thousands of workers occupied in building
activities or the thousands of quarrymen working in such a demanding environment as the quarries and mines in the desert. In any case, these figures
also recall the rhetorical many tens of thousands mentioned in Wenis inscription.
Little is known about the recruitment and training of soldiers during the
Old Kingdom, but the inscriptions of Weni or those found at Khor el-Aquiba
reveal that the contingents were levied on a local basis, with mayors and
provincial authorities often heading the troops raised in their respective
districts. In fact, it seems that the same system was employed indiscriminately when organising either armies or teams of workers, a situation in
accordance with the absence of a clearly defined military sphere in the
administration. This differed from the New Kingdom, say, when a true army
organisation was set up by the Pharaohs. The autobiographical inscription of
Amenemhet, the provincial governor of Beni Hasan in the early Middle
Kingdom, is a good example of this ambiguity. Given his position of local
supreme military authority, Amenemhet, always at the head of his provincial
troops, joined three separate expeditions organised by the crown, in one case
to fight the Nubians and on the other two occasions to collect gold. For the
last two missions he quoted the number of soldiers under his command,
totalling 400 and 600 conscripts respectively.87 The system prevalent during
the Old Kingdom seems rather similar, with provincial leaders in charge both
of local contingents and of entire national armies (as in the Khor el-Aquiba
inscriptions). When the number of the local troops is indicated, it is quite
close to that in Amenemhet inscription. For example, the 1,600 men sent on a
single expedition to the quarries of Hatnub, during the reign of Pepy II in the
late Old Kingdom, came from three different localities which provided,
respectively, 500, 600 and 500 men.88 Turning again to the Middle Kingdom
sources, inscription number 6 of Wadi el-Hudi states that an expedition to
these amethyst quarries included 1,000 recruits from Thebes, 100 warriors
from Kom Ombo and 200 warriors from Elephantine,89 whereas the great
expedition sent to Wadi Hammamat during year 38 of king Senusret I
comprised 17,000 conscripts and 20 mayors, suggesting an average of 850
men per district. The steward Henu, sent on a mission to the same area in
around 2000 BCE, was in command of a troop of 3,000 men who came
from the garrisons of the Theban province, from Imyotru to Shabet, that is

Lichtheim 1988, 138.

Anthes 1928, pl. 11.
Sadek 1980, 1617, pl. 3.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

to say, from provinces 46 of Upper Egypt,90 whilst another expedition to

these quarries included 10,000 men from the southernmost provinces of
Upper-Egypt, south of the garrisons of the Theban province or, in other
words, from provinces 13 of the South.91
Drawing up lists of workers to be mobilised was a common administrative practice, and it is apparent in Old Kingdom sources such as the royal
decrees from Coptos or the Gebelein papyri.92 The basic territorial unit from
where workers were recruited seems to have been the village or town, sometimes grouped into larger districts known as pr house, domain and placed
under the authority of a dignitary or a local potentate. The ink inscriptions
from Djesers pyramid, the Gebelein papyri and the biographical statements
of Metjen,93 all dating from the late Early Dynastic Period and the early Old
Kingdom, show that such territorial units consisted of several localities.
Shortly afterwards they disappeared from the administrative record until the
end of the Old Kingdom, when pr again recovered its former geographical
meaning. In all these cases it was quite common for pr districts to be named
after individuals, a feature which might hint at the existence of local potentates: one notorious example is pr-ww the house/domain of ww, ww
being a governor of Edfu in the First Intermediate Period whose name was
used to designate the three southernmost provinces of Upper Egypt. With
these considerations in mind, it might be easier to understand why in some
cases the geographical provenance of work-teams was indicated either by the
name of the village from which they came or by the name of the official in
charge of a specific region, as if his name had some kind of toponymic value,
like the teams from the rmnjjt domains or from the fields-xbsw of various
potentates.94 Even more extraordinary is the case of the officials designated
as bw place, whose names were followed by the determinative for a town,
to express the geographical provenance of certain groups of workers.95 Under
these conditions, local leaders could easily turn the levying of workers as
provincial troops into forming private armies when the central government
This may explain both the frequency of generals in many provinces of
southern Egypt at the end of the Old Kingdom and the late 3rd millennium
heroic topos of the local chief leading his fellow citizens into battle.
In fact, the crisis of the centralised state at the end of the Old Kingdom
saw the emergence of many local ambitious leaders whose power was based,
partly at least, on their capacity to raise provincial armies. The last pharaohs
of the Old Kingdom were apparently obliged to rely on the support of some

Lichtheim 1988, 53.

Couyat / Montet 1912, 99.
Sethe 1933, 281282, 285; Posener-Krieger 2004.
Sethe 1933, 15.
Arnold 1990, 26; Simpson 1965, pl. 13.
Simpson 1965, pl. 12.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


provincial loyal leaders in order to exert their authority and suppress

rebellion. In such a troubled context, military qualities became highly praised
both in the artistic and the literary record, so allowing for the development
of a heroic ethos that further stressed the capabilities of local rulers. The
epigraphic sources from this period mention generals or chiefs of troops in
provinces like Edfu, Moalla, Gebelein, Thebes, Dendera, Naga ed-Der,
Akhmim, Hagarsa or Siut. Some of them have left extensive records where
they display the new qualities of bravery, personal initiative and military
success, Ankhtifi being doubtless the most prominent but not the only one.
So, when rebels arose in the provinces of Thebes and Coptos, apparently the
king and his representatives in the Thinite province were unable to send an
army but preferred instead to instruct Ankhtifi, the ruler of Moalla, to fight
the new menace and restore order, relying only on his own means.96 Later on,
the Herakleopolitan kings of northern Egypt sought the support of powerful
local rulers loyal to their cause, like the governors of Siut, in their struggle
against the rising power of their Theban rivals. To sum up, the absence of a
regular army and the fact of relying on local militia raised and commanded
by provincial leaders proved to be risky for the central power. Even the
palatine guard, formed by a class of courtiers and dignitaries called khentiushe, appeared on occasion to have been somewhat untrustworthy, and references to the dismissal of some of their members are known in Egyptian
sources from the Sixth Dynasty.97
Three new military features seem to have accompanied the growing
importance of local warlords at the end of the Old Kingdom: a more formal
system of recruiting and training troops, the building of fortresses and the use
of Nubian mercenaries.
Texts from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE mention a new
system of military organisation, where fighters were classified depending on
their degree of training and specialisation, like the young recruits DAmw and
the warriors aHAwtjw.98 Such a system was unknown during the Old Kingdom
and, as has been stated above, the ambiguity of the terminology used
probably masks the absence of a true military sphere that is clearly differentiated from an administrative point of view. This is shown, for instance, by
the terms general/chief of troops (of workers), or recruit/young
worker (nfrw). Recent evidence demonstrates that the roots of the military
organisation of the Middle Kingdom are to be sought not in the Old Kingdom but in the troubled period which followed. That is the case, for instance,
of the first appearance of the term DAmw with a military meaning. It was the
current designation of recruits and inexperienced soldiers as opposed to
aHAwtjw warriors from the Middle Kingdom on,99 and is mentioned in a

Vandier 1950.
Kanawati 2003, 1424.
Fields 2007.
Stefanovi 2007.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

context of fighting in a First Intermediate Period fragmentary inscription

from Hagarsa, from Middle Egypt.100 In particular, the term aHAwtj also
becomes common in late 3rd millennium inscriptions, whereas another
expression with military connotations, anx n nwt soldier of the town
militia, goes back to the same period.101 It seems as if the new and demanding fighting capabilities, in a context of armed conflicts between warlords
and local rulers, made it necessary to improve the training of provincial
forces. But the mass of simple combatants continued to be formed by the
Hsbw conscripts, as the inscriptions of the Middle Kingdom prove: they
were commanded by their leaders both in war and on working expeditions.
They are carefully distinguished from the warriors in the inscription of the
great expedition sent to the quarries of Wadi Hammamat in year 38 of king
Senusret I.
Given the troubled nature of the times, late Old Kingdom and First
Intermediate Period inscriptions indicate (mention?) not only the existence of
local generals but also of fortresses. An official from Dendera, the overseer
of priests called Mereri, claims that he had built a fortress and that he was
beloved by the Nubians of the desert,102 whilst Ankhtifi of Moalla boasts of
having captured the fortresses of Armant: The overseer of the army of
Armant came saying: Behold, oh brave one! Sail down (to) the fortresses [of
Armant? ]. So I sailed down to the districts west of Armant and I found
that Thebes and Coptos in their entirety had [] the fortresses of Armant in
(the area of) The-hill-of-Sekhemsen [] I sailed upstream in order to demolish their fortresses with the brave troops of Moalla.103 In the course of his
campaign against the rebels, Ankhtifi also besieged the fortified town of
Sega: Its walls were besieged after it had closed its front gate from fear.104
Another provincial governor, Neheri of Hermopolis, stressed his protective
role towards his people by claiming to be a fighting fortress in the midst of
a district105. Capturing the fortresses of the enemy allowed the Theban king
Antef II to extend the frontiers of his kingdom northwards: It was in the
valley of Hezi that I drove in the mooring-post. I took possession of the
Thinite province in its entirety, (after) I had opened all its (i.e., of the
province of Aphroditopolis) fortresses (and after) I had made it (i.e., the
province of Aphroditopolis) as a (protective) door behind.106 Another fragmentary inscription from his reign mentions the conquest of a province or a
region and the fortresses and agriculture centres in the area just submitted: I
was the mighty one [] arm with my troops. As for any army which I sailed

Kanawati 1995, 15.

Berlev 1971.
Fischer 1968, 138, 140.
Vandier 1950, 198199.
Vandier 1950, 202203.
Anthes 1928, 43.
Clre / Vandier 1948, 1011.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


with [] I came from there in peace after I had accomplished it without any
losses on its part [] I have fought with [] having nourished its governors
and its chiefs of army [] in the northern agricultural centres (Hwt) and in
[] fortress.107 Therefore provincial fortresses became a new element of the
provincial landscape during the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate
Period, probably intended to complete the long-established role of (fortified)
agricultural and administrative centres like the Hwt as local bases of power.
In fact, the Hwt were favoured by both the Herakleopolitan and the Theban
kings as economic poles and centres of royal order and authority. RediuKhnum, a steward of the Theban queen Nefrukayet, claimed that she has
resettled Upper Egypt, the van of men, from Elephantine to the Aphroditopolite province, with women together with governors of Hwt and dignitaries
from the whole land.108 As for the Herakleopolitan kingdom, several Hwt
named after king (or kings) Khety are attested in later sources: one of them,
for instance, delivered various kinds of textile items to an overseer of the seal
during his journey to Per-Ikhekh,109 whereas another was founded in the
eastern Delta;110 its name (wt-rA-wAtj-tjj the Hwt at the crossroads of
Khety). In addition, location in an important strategic area, leading to the
south-western Levant, points to the continuity of these royal centres as
pivotal logistic bases for the monarchy. Not surprisingly literary texts like the
Teaching for Merikare state that founding Hwt was essential if the Pharaoh
intended to protect the frontiers of his kingdom: Arm your borders against
the Souththey are barbarians who take up the war belt! Build Hwt in the
Delta! A mans name will not be little, being what he has done. A wellfounded town cannot be destroyed. Build a Hwt for your image! The enemy
loves grieving the heart, and vile deeds.111
The third innovation that appeared at the end of the Old Kingdom is the
increasing use of Nubian mercenaries. Nubians figure occasionally in Old
Kingdom sources as auxiliaries of the Egyptian army and even as police
forces. The inscription in Wenis tomb mentioning the huge expedition he
commanded included several references: Nubians of the land of Irtjet,
Nubians of the land of Medja, Nubians of the land of Yam, Nubians of the
land of Wawat and Nubians of the land of Kaau and the Nubians of those
foreign lands.112 And the royal decree of Pepy I from Dahshur mentions
pacified Nubians acting as policemen authorised to enrol men or seize
goods, unless otherwise stated: My Majesty has decreed [] that it is
forbidden that any officiant of these two pyramid towns, who has been or
will be in their register, be taken away by any man or by any pacified Nubian

Arnold 1976, 5051, pl. 52.

Lichtheim 1988, 43.
Simpson 1986, 14, pl. 14.
Goedicke 2002.
Parkinson 1997, 224.
Sethe 1933, 101102.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

(just) because they were with them before. They have no right thereto []
that it is forbidden that any pacified Nubian should come along with the
intention of carrying out requisitions in these two pyramid towns.113 Quite
significantly, they were not allowed to become priests or to benefit from the
prebends usually bestowed on the personnel of the sanctuaries: My Majesty
has decreed [] that it is forbidden for any man who is beholden to these
pacified Nubians to enter into the wab-priesthood, monthly priesthood or to
eat any rations in the temple which is in these two pyramid towns.114
Pacified Nubians are also referred to in some passages of the fragmentary
royal annals of the Sixth Dynasty, but the role of Nubians was less submissive than Egyptian sources suggest. Execration texts, for instance, refer to
any Nubian who may rebel in the foreign lands of Irtjet, Wawat, Satju,
Yam, Kaau, Yankh, Masit (?), Medja or Meterti, and who may revolt,115
showing that they were considered a potential menace that needed to be
taken seriously.
The importance of Nubians might be better understood when considering
that their homeland and activities were in no way limited to the banks of the
Nile. Archaeological evidence indicates that in north-western Sudan, where
better climatic conditions prevailed around the end of the 3rd millennium
BCE, highly mobile groups of pastoralists roamed vast areas of the eastern
Sahara. The specific pottery of these groups has been found, for example, in
the Laqiya region, in Wadi Hariq and as far as Wadi Howar in the south.116
Frster statements that the transhumance cycles of the nomads not only
encompassed these areas, but also the Uweinat region and the Nile Valley
south of the third cataract, and that the Abu Ballas Trail may have been part
of a route that ultimately led to the Nile Valley in Upper Nubia, have
received full confirmation by the recent discovery of a late 3rd millennium
inscription at Jebel Uweinat which mentions bringing incense from the lands
of Yam, in Nubia, and Tekhebet.117 Nubians crossing the desert are attested
in Egyptian sources of the late 3rd millennium, like the inscription of Mereri,
an overseer of priests in Dendera: I am one beloved of Dendera in its
entirety, praised of his city, beloved of passers-by and the Nubians of the
desert.118 Other texts confirm the presence of Nubians in the desert, for
example, the contemporary inscription of Tjemerery, governor of Thinis
(overseer of the army [] in repelling foreigners who came down from the
southern foreign lands, where the foreigners presumably came via the oasis
route connecting the Thinite province with Nubia)119. Another example is a

Goedicke 1967, 56.

Goedicke 1967, 56.
Osing 1976, 146, 153.
Krpelin / Kuper 20062007; Kuper 2007; Frster 2007b, 8.
Clayton / De Trafford / Borda 2008.
Fischer 1968, 138.
Fischer 1968, 141.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


magical text mentioning the Nubian woman who has come from the
desert.120 Tjemerery assertion proves that Nubians could penetrate deep into
Egypt following not only the Nile but also the desert routes, and their
presence in Hierakonpolis even in the 2nd millennium BCE is well
attested.121 In this context, royal military activities against the Nubians, at the
beginning of the Middle Kingdom, affected both the oases and Lower Nubia,
one king Mentuhotep being mentioned in the Uweinat inscription just quoted
while another proclaimed that Wawat and the oasis, I annexed them to
Upper Egypt.122 A Theban overseer of desert hunters and overseer of the
western deserts from the same period stated that I reached the western oasis,
searched all its routes and brought back the fugitives I found there, the army
being safe and without losses.123 Finally, Henenu, an official serving
Mentuhotep II, boasted of having taxed for his sovereign Thinis of the
Thinite province and the Aphroditopolite province as well as being the
treasurer of the [products?] of the oasis,124 as Djemi had also done: I taxed
the people of Wawat for any chief who appeared in this province in bringing
taxes (also) from the Thinite province, and I was praised for it.125 As can be
seen, the Nubian land of Wawat and the Thinite nome were frequently
mentioned together.
Thus, the geopolitical importance of desert routes, the expeditions into
Nubia, the participation of Sudanese contingents in Egyptian armies, and the
settlement of pacified Nubians in Egypt during the last centuries of the Old
Kingdom reveal long-term contacts which probably paved the way for the
use of Nubian mercenaries by local warlords during the First Intermediate
Period. A colony of such soldiers was established at Gebelein, near Thebes,
and their monuments in the Egyptian style as well as their acquisition of
goods and properties reveal their integration into Egyptian society, whilst
still being depicted as Nubian and retaining their ethnic identity.126 The
resulting mixed population of Nubians and Egyptians is echoed in the stele of
one of these mercenaries called Qedes: I was an excellent citizen who acted
with his strong arm, foremost of his entire generation. I acquired oxen and
goats. I acquired granaries with Upper Egyptian barley. I acquired title to a
[great?] field. I made a boat of 30 (cubits) and a small boat which ferried him
who had no boat across during the inundation-season. It was in the house of
my father Iti that I did this, (but) it was my mother Ibeb who acquired it for
me. I surpassed everyone in this entire town in swiftness, its Nubians as well


Koenig 1987, 104.

Friedman 1992, 2000.
Fischer 1964, 112118.
Liepe / Priese 1991, 53.
Hayes 1949.
Goedicke 1960.
Fischer 1961.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

as its Upper Egyptians.127 In a monumental rock-inscription, another Nubian

soldier described his career in the service of the Theban kings and his
military activities in Nubia, the Western Desert and Upper and Lower Egypt:
Stela which Tjehemau made: Year of smiting (?) the foreign country. The
year of my beginning to fight during the reign of Nebhepetre in the army,
when it went south to Ben. (My) son went down with me towards the king.
He (= the king) traversed the entire land, having decided to slaughter the
Aamu of Djaty. When it would approach (in opposition), Thebes was in
flight. It was the Nubian who brought about the rally. Then he (= the king)
overthrew Djaty, with the result that he raised sail in sailing southwards. To
the south because of the extending the arm against Irtjet (?) so that Thebes
might rejoice, without flight amongst the people therein.128
The recent discovery at Siut of a decorated tomb with military scenes
reveals that the use of Nubian mercenaries was in no way limited to the
southern Theban kingdom; provincial warlords in the service of the northern
Herakleopolitan rulers were also enlisting them in their armies.129 In fact,
archaeological research at Siut is bringing to light fresh iconography about
the struggle between both kingdoms during the troubled times that followed
the end of the Old Kingdom. The tomb of Iti-ibi, for example, shows an
Egyptian warrior raising a stick and striking another Egyptian soldier,130
whereas the so-called Northern soldiers-tomb displays four rows of men
holding shields and battle-axes.131 Military scenes are well known from other
provincial necropolises, like Moalla and Qubbet el-Hawa.132 However, what
makes Siut special is that the decoration of some tombs depict Nubian
warriors and Egyptian soldiers in a provincial army. For example, one wall
of the chapel in the tomb of Iti-ibi-iqer shows four registers of spearmen and
archers headed by a troop commander, whilst on another wall warriors are
depicted on two registers. Armed with bows and battle-axes, they are shown
in a variety of attitudes attacking an enemy and Nubian archers are included
among these soldiers. More Nubian archers are represented in a desert
hunting scene on the chapels southern wall.133 One might add the two sets of
wooden models representing a troop of Nubian archers and a troop of
Egyptian spearmen found in the tomb of Mesethi. All these Siutian scenes
and models appear in the tombs of provincial governors, each of them in
command of a local troop of soldiers.


Fischer 1961, 4456.

Darnell 2003.
El-Khadragy 2006.
Kahl / El-Khadragy / Verhoeven 2007, 91.
El-Khadragy 2006, 150155.
Vandier 1950, 126129; Fischer 1961, 63; even a naval engagement in JaroDeckert 1984, pl. 14.
El-Khadragy 2008, 227228.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


The stelae from Gebelein show that Nubian mercenaries were settled
among the Egyptian population and adopted some aspects of their culture.
But it cannot be ruled out that some ambitious Nubian leaders could be
tempted to play a more active role, given the troubled conditions in Egypt
and, consequently, the opportunities open to military chiefs commanding
substantial and perhaps strategic contingents of warriors. The tomb of Ini of
Gebelein, dated to the Theban Eleventh Dynasty (around 2125 BCE),
contained a large coffin with the titles of the owner: Treasurer of the King
of Lower Egypt, Sole Companion, governor of the province and overseer of
priests of the temple of Sobek lord of Sumenu.134 Quite surprisingly, among
the funerary offerings placed in the tomb there is a complete cowhide, a
funerary practice also attested in the almost contemporary Kerma burials in
Nubia. One can assume that Nubian rites continued to be practised for a
person who, having reached the higher echelons of provincial administration,
had his body buried in a coffin, but his statue arranged according to the rites
of his ancestors.135
Given the importance of war and military leadership during the First
Intermediate Period, new values and attitudes began to develop in the realm
of ideology to celebrate the capabilities of local warlords. Epithets and
expressions display a nascent heroic ethos, where the military chief heads his
fellow citizens into battle on the day of trouble and returns safely without
any losses. Generally speaking, such ideological innovations were part of a
broader new culture aiming at reinforcing and legitimising the authority of
the local leaders, specially after the collapse of the central royal power, when
the palace values and culture no longer fulfilled their traditional role as a
source of prestige and promotion for provincial officials.136 In these circumstances, officials boast of their ability to command, their efficiency and their
heroic behaviour. The inscription of Ankhtifi of Moalla is the most celebrated example of the new ideology, and its protagonist repeatedly boasts of
being the champion who has no peer. But many other inscriptions display
the ethos of the heroic warrior: I was a hero (lit. citizen) in the struggle, the
vanguard of the army the day of danger, praised by his lord because of my
judgement. I reached the western oasis, searched all its routes and brought
back the fugitives I found there, the army being safe and without losses,137
I was the vanguard of men and the rearguard of men, for no one like me has
(ever) existed. Nor will he exist, none like me having been born (before),
neither shall he be born,138 I acted as overseer of the army for these
(provinces), as far as Elephantine (to the South) and Armant and Iusut (to the
North). Never did misfortune befall me. I acted as overseer of the army in

Brovarski 1976, 3137, fig. 910.

Donadoni Roveri 1990, 26.
Moreno Garca 1997b, 187; Gnirs 1996b, 223225.
Liepe / Priese 1991, 53.
Vandier 1950, 185.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

Moalla and in every difficult place I would go out against,139 I was a

warrior of the confederacy [] a possessor of counsel in the council
chamber of the officials on the day of painful words, ready to overthrow the
rebels on the day of [miserable] words.140 In the more detailed examples,
the hero stresses his courage and the merits of his victory, having faced an
overwhelming enemy with only a small select troop, a topos which was to
become quite popular in the royal ideology of the New Kingdom: I prepared
my troop of recruits and I set out for the fight with my city. It was I who
acted as its rearguard in Shedytsha. No men were with me but my retinue;
(but) people of the (foreign) lands of Medja and Wawat, Nubians and
Asiatics, and Upper and Lower Egyptians were united against me; (yet) I
came back, triumphant [] my city in its entirety being with me without loss
[] I made my house as a door for every one who came, being in fear, on
the day of strife.141 As has been stated in previous pages, armies were raised
on a local basis, with citizens (nDs, anx n nwt) as their main component. This
gave birth to a feeling of camaraderie between fellow fighters:142 I am a
citizen excellent in warfare, a comrade of fighters,143 The Unique
Companion, overseer of the army and overseer of interpreters Djemi says: I
acted as overseer of the army in this city and I did what the great desired and
the citizens praised. As for any overseer of the army against whom I went
down, I have returned successfully in it because of the goodness of my
directive and the excellence of my plans,144 master of determination the
day of the battle, praised by his town god,145 I am the bravest of the brave,
I am the swiftest of the swift,146 or I prepared the vanguard of the troops,
and I supplied it with all the strong recruits at the time. I fought in the midst
of the valiant recruits and I did not go forth empty.147 Consequently, the
protection granted to former soldiers, after returning to their civil everyday
life during a period of struggle, is emphasized in some texts: I levied its
troops of young men in order that its products might be plentiful. Now, its
former troops had become citizens settled in their houses, and there had been
no battalion of theirs at the time of the fear of the house of the king. I saved
my city on the day of plundering from the sore fear of the house of the king. I
was assuredly its fortress on the day of its battle, its shelter in Shedytsha.148


Vandier 1950, 242.

Brovarski 1981, 18.
Anthes 1928, 36.
Gnirs 2006.
Lichtheim 1988, 34.
Goedicke 1960.
Fischer 1961, 48.
Lichtheim 1988, 35.
Silverman 2008.
Anthes 1928, 5455.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


War and battles in the Old Kingdom

References to actual wars and armed conflicts are very scarce in Old
Kingdom sources, in both the texts and the iconography, whilst military
qualities played an almost insignificant ideological role in order to enhance
the position, charisma and decision of kings or dignitaries. Expeditions were
recorded in the royal annals as well as in some graffiti, but the importance of
warfare seems rather minor when compared to such prestigious activities as
building temples or granting land to sanctuaries. In these circumstances, two
scenes in private tombs, showing Egyptian troops attacking a fortified
Asiatic walled town, are quite exceptional. In the case of Intis tomb at
Deshasha, Egyptian archers and infantry soldiers holding battle-axes attack
the city, other soldiers attempt to break through the enemys fortified wall
using long pikes and another soldier adjusts a scaling ladder in preparation
for storming the town. Captives, old and young, are roped together and led
by Egyptian soldiers, whereas the remaining enemies inside the walls are
panic-stricken. The surviving fragmentary inscriptions mention an army, the
fact of destroying and a toponym, Nedia, probably referring to a town.149
The other scene comes from the tomb of Kaemhezet at Saqqara, and represents an assault on a walled city using a wheeled ladder.150 It is possible that
both events were in fact one and the same and the scenes commemorate an
Egyptian campaign in Asia towards the end of the Fifth Dynasty (about 2350
BCE). What is more, Kaemhezets titles reveal the nature of the Old
Kingdom army, since he was not an officer but an architect and chief of
works, connected with the province of Thinis. These scenes reveal that the
absence of a permanent significant army does not imply a primitive military
organisation: troops were raised in huge numbers, the logistics were effective
enough to supply armies and expeditions and skilled specialists like
Kaemhezet were mobilised when besieging walled towns. Another characteristic common to both Kaemhezet and Inti is their provincial background,
confirming the role of local leaders in pharaonic armies. In any case, these
examples show that expeditions to Asia were anything but exceptional and
that they established the precedents of the well-documented case of Weni.
The very fact that these expeditions became quite frequent (Weni himself led
at least five armies against the nomads) point perhaps more to an informal
policy of sending detachments periodically (as in the Amarna period) than to
a true will of imperial, permanent, conquest, without excluding the possibility of difficulties when dealing with a mobile and elusive enemy. In fact,
the scenes just quoted or Wenis account depict the enemy as sedentary
peoples, settled in fortified towns and involved in agricultural activities.
The inscription of Weni of Abydos is the most detailed military account
from the Old Kingdom. He describes in detail both the preparations for an

Kanawati / McFarlane 1993, pl. 2627.

Quibell / Hayter 1927, frontispiece.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

expedition launched against the Asiatic land-dwellers and its outcome. As

stated in the section on logistics, Weni reassembled a huge army whose
contingents were supplied by various local authorities, including temples and
foreign countries. Once the arrangements were complete and the troops
brought together I led them from the Island of the North, the Gate of
Imhotep, the district of the Horus Lord-of-Truth (= king Sneferu), while I
was in this position;151 in the end the army returned in safety and the
outcome of the campaign is described in rather eulogistic terms: the army
had ravaged the Sand-dwellers land [] flattened the Sand-dwellers land
[] sacked its strongholds [] cut down its figs, its vines [] thrown fire in
all its [mansions ] had slain its troops by many ten-thousands [] had
carried off many troops as captives.152 But this was only the beginning of a
series of campaigns always led against the same enemy: His Majesty sent
me to lead this army five times, to attack the land of the Sand-dwellers as
often as they rebelled, with these troops. I acted so that His Majesty praised
me [for it beyond anything]. Told there were marauders among these foreigners at the Nose-of-Gazelles-Head, I crossed in ships with these troops. I
made a landing in the back of the height of the mountain range, to the north
of the land of the Sand-dwellers, while half of this army was on the road. I
came and caught them all and slew every marauder among them.153 The
strategy followed recalls that of the Amarna period, when detachments were
sent against rebels and more regular armies against coalitions of Asiatic
princes; both land and amphibious forces were also employed in later
conflicts, as against the Hyksos or the Hittites. Even the characteristics of the
enemy population are quite similar and consist mainly of a world of cities,
strongholds and sedentary peoples involved in agriculture and cattle
breading. Thus, Wenis account reveals again that a non-permanent army did
not imply the absence of specialists or even of elaborate strategies: besieging
operations, amphibious attacks and encircling manoeuvres suggest an experienced military mind, an impression reinforced by the use of specialised
corps (archers, infantry armed with battle-axes, spearmen, etc.) as well as a
navy. Anyway, the highly rhetorical content and unilateral views of such
inscriptions must not be forgotten, as they represent a typical product of
palace culture and official ideology. As in the case of the relations with
Nubian peoples, reality was doubtless more complex. Trade relations with
the Levant (especially with Byblos) are well documented, whereas contacts
with Asiatic populations were not necessarily warlike. For instance, Iny, the
Sixth Dynasty chief of expeditions, states that [I was sent to? ] foreign
country four times when I was a seal bearer of the god under the Majesty of
my lord Pepy [] lapis lazuli and lead/tin [] The Majesty of my lord
Neferkare sent me [] I brought back one kbnt-ship and [] jmw-ships []

Sethe 1933, 102103.

Sethe 1933, 103104.
Sethe 1933, 104105.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


with silver, Asiatic men and Asiatic women [].154 War, trade and
diplomacy (as the Egyptian finds at Ebla show) went hand in hand when
dealing with foreign countries.
As for the Nubian front, the situation was quite similar, as war and
collaboration went hand in hand. Military expeditions continued to be sent
into Nubia, with the governors of Elephantine heading the Egyptian armies,
like Pepynakht-Heqaib: The Majesty of my lord sent me to devastate the
lands of Wawat and Irtjet. I did what pleases my lord and killed a great
number there, (including) the rulers children and the commanders of the
(Nubian) troops. I brought a great number of them to the (royal) Residence as
prisoners, I being at the head of the expedition, a large and strong force, as
one who is strong of heart, and my lord was delighted with me as (he was)
with every mission on which he sent me. The Majesty of my lord sent me to
subdue those foreign lands, and I did it in such a way that my lord was
immensely pleased with me. I brought to the (royal) Residence the two rulers
of these foreign lands along with gifts of oxen and goats chosen for the
benefit of the (royal) Residence, as well as the children of (these) rulers and
the two commanders of the (Nubian) forces which were with them.155 But
the military encounters were not always favourable to the Egyptian forces, as
Pepynakht-Heqaib states: The Majesty of my lord sent me to the land of the
Asiatics to bring back (the body) of the Sole Companion, controller of
Nekhen, Kaapers son the overseer of foreigners Ankhti. He had been building a boat there to travel to the land of Punt when the Asiatics and Sanddwellers killed him and the troops of the expedition which accompanied him
[] Using the section of the expedition which was with me, I drove the
murderers among them away.156
Unlike the Old Kingdom, political unrest, civil war and a lack of central
authority marked the period that followed. These conditions favoured the
emergence of local warlords eager to legitimize their power by developing
new ideological motifs and values. War and fighting were celebrated as
occasions in which the qualities of the provincial rulers could be better
appreciated: protection of the fellow citizens, successful military command
and return to the homeland without losses. Autobiographies became more
comprehensive and occasionally they provide some information about the
battles fought between Thebes and Herakleopolis as well as about the strategies followed.
The inscription of Ankhtifi of Moalla is the most detailed, as it reveals
the new realities of war after the collapse of the unified monarchy of the Old
Kingdom. Relying on his own local means, Ankhtifi fought in a provincial
landscape dotted with fortresses and walled cities, recalling the conditions
prevalent a thousand years before, when the birth of Pharaonic Egypt was

Marcolin 2006.
Sethe 1933, 133134.
Sethe 1933, 134135.


Juan Carlos Moreno Garca

marked out by the conquest of rival fortified cities: The overseer of the
army of Armant came saying: Behold, oh brave one! Sail down (to) the
fortresses [of Armant? ]. So I sailed down to the districts west of Armant
and I found that Thebes and Coptos in their entirety had [] the fortresses of
Armant in (the area of) The-hill-of-Sekhemsen [] I sailed upstream in
order to demolish their fortresses with the brave troops of Moalla.157
Moreover, some kind of heroic ethos seems to have developed between enemies, when rival leaders were summoned into combat and their fighting
qualities recognised by their opponents: The overseer of the army of
Armant came saying: Behold, oh brave one! Sail down (to) the fortresses [of
Armant? ],158 approach me, Khety, you who raised a storm over the
province, mighty ruler! I made my boundary at Wadi Hesy.159 As in the
case of the topos of one against many quoted in the preceding section, the
challenge addressed to the enemy is emblematic of the rules of war embedded in ancient Near Eastern traditions.160 And when the rival who had made
the challenge subsequently refused to fight, preferring to protect himself
behind the walls of his city, the blame fell on him: Having sailed down with
my loyal and brave recruits, I reached the west bank of the Theban province,
the vanguard of my fleet being at The Hill of Sekhemsen and its rearguard at
the Domain of Tjemi. Then my loyal conscripts tried to seek for battle at the
west of the Theban nome but nobody ventured to come out for fear of them.
So, I sailed to the eastern bank of the Theban province, the rearguard of my
fleet being at The Tomb of Imbi and its vanguard at the Meadow of Sega.
We besieged its (= Sega) walls after (the city of) Sega had closed its frontal
gate from fear. Then, these brave and loyal conscripts, these (truly) loyal
conscripts, became scouts crossing the western and eastern regions of the
Theban province and seeking for battle but nobody ventured to come out for
fear of them. I am a champion who has no peer,161 I made the province of
Edfu fight in front of the country, something that have never arrived since the
time of Ra, thanks to the strength of my loyal and brave conscripts.162 In the
end, Ankhtifi succeeded in restoring royal authority in the three southernmost provinces of Egypt, but his deeds proved to be ephemeral, as he could
not avoid the secession of Thebes and the consolidation of a southern
kingdom that extended its control from Elephantine in the south to Abydos,
in Middle Egypt.
In fact, Middle Egypt became the scenario of fierce combats and changing fortunes between the contenders. Thinis changed hands until it remained
firmly under Theban control and several private inscriptions record these

Vandier 1950, 198199.

Vandier 1950, 198.
Lichtheim 1988, 41.
Liverani 1990, 115171.
Vandier 1950, 202203.
Vandier 1950, 252.

War in Old Kingdom Egypt (26862125 BCE)


military events: [Theban king Antef II] sent <to me> after I had battled with
the House of Khety [i.e., the Herakleopolitan kingdom] in the west of Thinis,
and caused his commission to come: the great ruler made me fare north to
procure food, consisting of Upper Egyptian barley, for this whole land, from
Elephantine to the Aphroditopolite nome, because of my knowing matters
and speaking wellI am a weighty one among the officials and calm at the
moment of blowswith this message: Approach me, Khety, you who raised
a storm over the province, mighty ruler! I made my boundary at Wadi
Hesy;163 I went down against Abydos which was under the rebel and I
caused him to retreat to his home(land) from the midst of the city, whereas
nobody else (had) had the power to go forth against him,164 year 14: erect
this stele the year Thinis rebelled.165 Further north, the ruling family of Siut
was one of the main supporters of the Herakleopolitan kingdom. Not surprisingly, war ravaged the city itself, which fell under Theban control for a
while until it was conquered again, thanks to a successful counteroffensive
launched by the northern pharaoh, as the biography of governor Khety II
states: The whole land was with him, the governors of Upper Egypt and the
magnates of Herakleopolis, and the district of the Queen of the land came to
drive away the robber. The land trembled, Upper Egypt was sinking, they
were afraid and their behaviour was full of fear, the towns equipped
themselves (with weapons) [] The land was burnt by its (= Herakleopolis)
flame [] The vanguard of the fleet extended to Shashotep and its rearguard
to Uhwi, heaven was blowing the north wind, so that papyrus fell on the
water. Herakleopolis was landing. Welcome, the town cried jubilantly to its
ruler, the son of a ruler. Women were mingled with men, grown up and
children. The rulers son (= Khety II) reached his town, and entered his
fathers domain. He brought the refugees back into their houses [] Through
your counsels alone you put Siut in order: everyone spent the night in his
(proper) place, there was no fighting, no shooting of arrows, the child was
not beaten in the presence of his mother or the citizen in the presence of his
wife, there was no plundering of goods in the street and there was no act of
violence against his house, because your city-god guided you, your father
who loves you.166 The effects of war explain the popularity of military
motifs in the decoration of the tombs of the local governors, including the
representation of Nubian warriors.


Lichtheim 1988, 4041.

Goedicke 1960.
Clre / Vandier 1948, 19.
Brunner 1937, 2735; El-Khadragy 2008, 222226.


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