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Wrestling in Ancient Egypt

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

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Back in high school, I love how Brendan Fraser starred in The Mummy movies. Yet after he dueled with the undead Imhotep, I came to wonder if that’s how ancient Egyptians really fight. To begin with, in The Mummy Returns, his character slug it out with the movies’ twisted version of the Egyptian 27th century BC chancellor. Whoever choreographed the fight scene, probably assumed that men used some ancient form of Kung Fu back then when they brawl, because that’s how the fight (at least how I see it) looks like. The duel was cut short, when a terrible CG animation of the Scorpion King broke free from the gates of the underworld.

Years later as I become more aware of the world around me, and as I become more exposed to martial arts, the memory of The Mummy Returns brawl came back. My curiosity on the martial arts of Ancient Egypt was reignited as soon as I learned of the existence of various forms of fighting styles. Turns out that Kung Fu and other Asian martial arts are not the only brawling skills available. I learned that Europe has its own fighting method, and if that’s the case then Egypt most likely has its own. To my surprise (and delight), one of those styles is none other than the oldest, and the most widespread. Good old wrestling.

Martial Arts of Ancient Egypt

Depiction of Tahtib stick fighting.

Depiction of Tahtib stick fighting.

When training to fight, there were several forms of martial to choose from in ancient Egypt. Engravings at the Abusir necropolis shows these combative methods, which ranged from the empty handed to weapons fighting. One is stick fighting known as Tahtib. At present, Tahtib is considered as folk dance, but it was practiced differently during the antiquity. The main purpose back then is to bludgeon your opponent using a four-foot stick known as asaya with blinding speed. Getting deeper into this amazing form of combat requires a separate article, but ancient Egyptian martial arts also include marksmanship.

Archery was the primary ranged weapons training during the antiquity, and the Egyptians also employed bows and arrows in combat. In fact, it is one of the most crucial weapons of the ancient Egyptian military. What started as simple “horn bows” (antelope horns for limbs) then evolved into composite bows of the New Kingdom.

Then there’s wrestling, which will be further discussed below. Overall, stick fighting, archery and wrestling are the three fighting disciplines of an ancient Egyptian soldier, which somehow mirrors the training of a modern-day soldier. Like his counterpart back in the antiquity, soldiers today are trained to shoot, fight with contact weapons, and fight bare handed.

Wrestling in Egypt

Wrestling in the tomb of Baqti III.

Wrestling in the tomb of Baqti III.

Wrestling is well documented in ancient Egypt, and depictions are literally written on the wall. Again, we will have more on its history below, but the greatest number of wrestling scenes are told from the Middle Kingdom. In the tomb of Baqti III (Antelope District of Middle Egypt, in Bani Hassan), the east wall is decorated with various wrestling holds and moves, together with depictions of other martial arts. Here we could see the illustrations of the wrestlers, nude except for a belt, (to provide additional grip) one on one with their training partners. The scene begins with the placement of equipment, then with exploratory moves and holds attempts. Those who are trained to grapple will recognize this as the players sizing each other, before initiating a hold. Then there are series of throws, and the positions of the combatants on the ground is clearly represented.

Overall, what we are seeing here might be an illustrated documentation of an actual wrestling match, where the scenes are drawn like a comic strip. What’s amazing is that modern day wrestlers, and even MMA fighters often point out how the techniques shown is still applicable today. The moves that was effective back in the antiquity never lose its touch even at modern times, where it was still in used today.

The problem here though is that unlike Greek wrestling, where the rules of the game was well documented, it is still unknown how wrestling was played back then in Egypt. Greek wrestling was known to include submissions, throws and displacing your opponent out of the playing field to determine the winner. Modern day wrestling relied on shoulder pins to secure a victory. In the case of ancient Egyptian wrestling, how one wins a bout is unknown.

History

Depiction of Nubians.

Depiction of Nubians.

The story of Egyptian wrestling dates back to the Old Kingdom, where the earliest portrayal began in 2400 BC. That’s the 5th Dynasty of Egypt. In the mastaba of Old Kingdom Ruler Ptahhotep in Saqqara, a depiction of six pairs of boys wrestling could be found. More scenes are discovered in the Middle Kingdom (2000-1789 BC), over 400 of them in that period. Going back to the tomb of Baqti III where the elaborate wrestling depiction was found, it is worth mentioning that the tomb dates in the Middle Kingdom. Overall, wrestling flourished in a relatively short period, during the reign of the kings Mentuhopet Nebhepetre, Amenemhet I and Sesostris I.

In the New Kingdom (1546-1085) Egypt saw a lot of military campaigns in the south. Nubia was now under Egypt. Part of Nubia’s tribute to the Pharaohs include slaves, exotic goods, minerals and animals. And as a form of the so called “imperial exploitation,” they also include Nubian wrestlers in sporting events. The likenesses of Nubian wrestlers could be found at the Tomb of an Egyptian officer Tyanen (died, 1410 BC) where they are distinguishable by their thicker physique. More depictions of the Nubian wrestler could be found in the relief of Meryre’s (Queen Nefertiti’s steward). Here, we could see a nude Nubian wrestler being overpowered by an Egyptian soldier.

In the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, a wrestling match between an Egyptian and a Nubian is depicted, surrounded by international audience. The Egyptian emerged victorious, a symbolic dominance of Egypt over its neighbors. In the final scene, the Egyptian stands tall as the defeated Nubian kiss the ground before the Pharaoh. At that point, wrestling became more as the kingdom’s propaganda (a display of might).

References:

1. Zidan, Karim (October 09, 2019). "From Grappling Art to Pharaonic Propaganda: The History of Wrestling in Ancient Egypt." Bloody Elbow.

2. Bakan, Michael (2007). "World Music: Traditions and Transformation." McGraw-Hill.

3. Mark, Joshua (April 11, 2017). "Games, Sports and Recreation in Ancient Egypt." Ancient History Encyclopedia.



Comments

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on January 28, 2020:

Thanks Umesh!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 26, 2020:

Interesting article. Well researched. Thanks.