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Egyptian Military History in the Old Kingdom

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The Egyptian empire lasted over 10,000 years. It originated from factionalized farming communities on the Nile River and grew to a dynastic hierarchical society with great cultural influence. The beginning of Egyptian history starts in the Old Kingdom, which lasted from 2700 - 2200 B.C. In this time period, Egypt made revolutionary military advances and nearly-fatal mistakes.

A map of Ancient Egypt showing the Upper and Lower Kingdoms

A map of Ancient Egypt showing the Upper and Lower Kingdoms

The Narmer Palette in reproduction

The Narmer Palette in reproduction

The Origins of Civilization

In the fourth millennium B.C.E. the beginnings of major civilizations were established around five major rivers. On the Indus River in what is now India, an agricultural shamanistic society evolved. The Yellow River in China produced the early Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and others. Watered by the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East, the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian empires would take root. The Egyptian empire on the Nile is probably the most well-known of the ancient contemporary empires. The early settlers of Egypt hunted and gathered from bountiful game and grains that filled the area. The famous Nile river delta did not exist and rain was plentiful.

Over time weather patterns shifted and the area became less fertile. The early Egyptians became dependent on the river for survival and two rival kingdoms developed along the Nile. It is important to remember that the Nile flows from headwaters in the south to the north to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. From the Egyptian's perspective, the Upper Kingdom was in the south, and the Lower Kingdom was in the north. Around 3100 B.C.E. war broke out between the two kingdoms. The Upper Kingdom under King Narmer (sometimes called Menes) was victorious. The Narmer Palette, a carved piece of sandstone, is emblazoned with his cartouche and shows in two scenes the conquest of the south. The first scene is a picture of him wearing the red, sloped royal crown in procession with slaves and servants. In the second, he wears the white bowling-pin-shaped crown of Lower Egypt. This unification of kingdoms began the Egyptian empire and the period archaeologists call the Old Kingdom, and is the first recorded war of the Egyptian empire.

National Defense

The Old Kingdom was a period of great prosperity and wealth. It is sometimes called the "Age of Pyramids" because most of the great pyramids were constructed during this time. By the end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt would control all of the Nile from the delta terminus to the third cataract or waterfall, entering the land they called Kush, near modern day Buhen. Ports were established on the Red Sea and Mediterranean. King Djoser founded a capital on the border of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms and named it Memphis. That city grew to become the cultural and scientific capital of the Old Kingdom.

Egypt's location provided natural defenses. To the west lies the arid Sahara and Libyan deserts. On the east side lie the Arabian and Sinai deserts and the Red Sea. To the north, the Mediterranean Ocean was a formidable obstacle to ancient navies.Travel from the south would needs follow the Nile, which was exceptionally difficult to traverse owing to the sixteen cataracts between it's source and the flood plain. In addition, fortresses were constructed along the Nubian (Ethiopian) and Mediterranean borders. Costly to construct, the fortresses were marvels of ancient technology, employing buttresses, portcullises, ramps, ditches and twenty-foot thick brick walls. Manned by few soldiers, they were nevertheless difficult to storm with the technology of the era.

The step pyramid of Djoser, one of the architectural triumphs of the Old Kingdom

The step pyramid of Djoser, one of the architectural triumphs of the Old Kingdom

A National Army?

In the Old Kingdom there was no national army. Wealthy nobles and merchants hired or slaved their own militias. When attacks by Nubians from the south and Libyans from the east eventually necessitated a cohesive, centrally-controlled fighting force these militias would come together under the pharaoh. The army recruited soldiers from among the lower classes who had few other opportunities. They were conscripted in boyhood and housed in brutal camp lifestyle. Once they completed training, they were able to live with family members when not needed in the field. During times of peace each soldier was provided with food and clothing but in times of war subsistence was based on plunder. The same was true for mercenaries hired by the Egyptian government. Regular routines for soldiers included guarding supply routes and work gangs for the great construction projects of the era (such as the Great Pyramids at Giza), expeditions into the wilderness and patrolling the desert and wasteland borders for raiders.

Egypt also used the water to their advantage and had a complex navy by the Late Old Kingdom. Serving in the navy was more prestigious than the army, and it attracted more middle class conscripts. The navy was used for defense as well as to transfer troops throughout the country. Fast travel along the Nile was one of the major advantages the Egyptians had over invaders, and in part led to the safety and prosperity of the Old Kingdom.

A statue of a slave scribe from the 5th dynasty

A statue of a slave scribe from the 5th dynasty

Slaves and Warfare

The majority of soldiers were not slaves and were paid. During the War of Unification many northern leaders and nobles were taken prisoner. Many were killed but some became slaves in King Narmer's household. The practice of taking prisoners for slaves was ubiquitous to the ancient societies and Egypt was no exception. Slaves were especially valued in the Old Kingdom for their use in constructing the grand architectural projects. Because reading and writing were such rare skills, educated slaves were even more valued in the opulent households of the Nile courts. Many of the captured soldiers of the Lower Kingdom wound up constructing the city of Memphis. Slaves from Nubia and Syria built the pyramids. Captured soldiers deemed unfit to work were killed.

Weapons of Ancient Egypt

Weapons of Ancient Egypt

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Weapons of the Old Kingdom

The primary weapon of the foot soldier was the bow and arrow, which had a range of one hundred to three hundred yards. Once the enemy lines were too close to use a bow, soldiers would pick up heavy, full-sized shields and small axes or mauls. The pharoh and high-ranking generals might use a flail and mace. Small daggers and lances with fishtail-shaped heads were also popular. All these weapons, save the maces and mauls, were made with copper from the extensive mines near Buhen and Memphis. Mace heads were made of sandstone or limestone from quarries near Hieraconpolis. Each was carved with a hieroglyphic inscription and a picture of a mighty deed the owner had performed. These carvings allowed the wielder to identify his victims by the distinctive image left behind. The Egyptian army's renowned chariot forces did not exist until their conflicts with the Hyksos in the New Kingdom.

Conflicts, or the Lack Thereof

The conquest of the Nile valley and consequent unification of Egypt engendered the most peaceful period of Egypt's empire. However, scattered conflicts hinted at threats that would end the period and throw the government into turmoil. During the third dynasty, approximately 2686 - 2613 B.C.E., Lower Nubia came under Egypt's control. Around 2460, Nubia revolted and rose up against the Egyptians, assisted by Libya. The great fortresses built on the borders stood as a major deterrent to all-out open warfare and the rebellion quickly subsided - but not without inflicting a severe wound. The idea of revolt was a spark to a slow-burning flame within Egypt itself. The constant expensive building projects were draining the resources (money, time, labor and lives) of the country. The lower classes began to foment disorder, eventually spilling out into civil war. In this period of confusion, the Hyksos rode out of the east. The invaders found Egypt in turmoil, with a bankrupt treasury that could no longer afford to equip and maintain soldiers. The Hyksos also had a composite bow and horses and chariots. The Egyptian forces were overwhelmed. This lead to the end of the Old Kingdom around 2160 B.C.E. and the First Intermediate Period - the darkest age in Egypt's history.

The Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, just two of the construction projects that lead to Egypt's civil war.

The Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, just two of the construction projects that lead to Egypt's civil war.

The End of the Old Kingdom

After the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos, the Old Kingdom ended. The Hyksos established a puppet government to rule so that their armies could continue expansion south and west into Africa. Almost 500 years passed before the Egyptians were able to throw them out of Egypt and begin to rule again, in what is called the Middle Kingdom.


SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on August 14, 2011:

I've read a book - "The Egyptian" It.was supposed to have been a Novel yet it came across to me as if it could have been reality.Much of what you have written here is reflected by that book.It was written by an Egyptian.He could have relied on his knowledge of the Egyptian culture in order to write it of course.

The reason I think it could be a true story is the storyline.In the preface the "fictional Author" is the main character in the book.

kestrana (author) from Virginia on July 24, 2011:

Thanks. I've been writing a lot of travel pages so far since that's been what I've been doing the past month but I have quite a few scholarly articles planned. Stay tuned!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on July 24, 2011:

An informative page with lots of interesting facts. One of the best I've seen of this kind.

I trust the 'score' will soon go up - If your other pages are anything like this, I'll keep looking!

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