Equipment (Weapons) of Pharaoh's Military

The Equipment of Pharaoh's Military

Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

A Predynastic disk shapped Mace Head

Besides the many depictions of battles on various temple walls, and hence the weapons that were employed, we owe much of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian military equipment to painted wooden models that have been found in several tombs.

We can classify Egyptian military equipment as consisting of weapons, defensive equipment, transport equipment, and various other items. Weapons consisted of impact weapons such as clubs and mace, edged close combat weapons including axes, knives and swords and projectile weapons such as bows and arrows, slingshots, javelins, spears and throwing sticks. Defensive equipment mostly consisted of shields, with a limited amount of body armor, while transportation equipment could include boats (actually, a navy) and later, horses and chariots (along with all types of utility wagons). Other items that the Egyptians used in the military might range from water bags to tents but would also include such items as scaling ladders, siege towers and battering rams for attacking fortresses.

A Predynastic flint knife

A Predynastic flint knife

It must be remembered that Egypt was, for much of its history, not a war like state. Early confrontations were mostly domestic involving small or sometimes large scale civil war. Most later military action outside of Egypt was initiated either to create buffer defense zones, or to secure important (usually mineral) resources. Egyptian pharaohs, for the most part, were far more interested in protecting their precious Nile Valley and Delta rather than power struggles for regional dominance.

Wooden model of Egyptian  soldiers from the tomb of Mesehti

Therefore, at first, and actually for much of Egypt's Dynastic history, the weapons of war were also the tools of peace. Battle axes were one and the same as those used for cutting wood, and for example, bows and arrows may have, overall, seen as much use for hunting game as for killing Egypt's enemies.

During the dynastic period, what most surprises us is the sheer uniformity and lack of change in Egyptian weaponry, considering the military power that was achieved by the Egyptian state during its peak. In fact, weaponry after the Early Dynastic Period remained similar to those of Africa and Palestine, suggesting that the territorial gains must have been owed more to superior organization then to military technology.

Early throwing sticks

Early throwing sticks

The soldiers of the Old and Middle Kingdom wore no armor to speak of and most are depicted wearing only a belt and a small triangular loincloth in the Old Kingdom, with only a short linen kilt similar to those worn by civilians during the Middle Kingdom. However, they did often carry shields that were roughly rectangular and composed of a wooden frame covered with cowhide.

Daggers from the tomb of Tutankhaman

Even during the Predynastic and Protodynastic Periods, the ancient Egyptian soldiers possessed and used a number of effective weapons, including bows and arrows, spears, daggers, cudgels, maces and throwing sticks, and by the end of the Predynastic Period, they were probably defending themselves with shields. Some weapons such as clubs or cudgels, maces and throwing sticks would not be used extensively in later periods. However, all of these weapons would continue to see some use in the military. For example, maces in particular would achieve a ceremonial importance, and we continue to see kings smiting Egypt's enemies even late in Egypt's dynastic period, and while throw sticks would have some limited military use, they remained popular for bird hunting.

An ornamental Dagger

An ornamental Dagger

Other early weapons, such as spears and bows and arrows would continue to be used throughout the dynastic era and even later, with some improvements. Quivers and battle axes (with semi circular ax heads) soon came into play in the Old Kingdom, and from the 11th dynasty we begin to find arrowheads made of copper hardened by hammering, along with Battle Axes with scalloped heads. However, the bronze Middle Kingdom arrowheads may have been imported from the Middle East and their production in Egypt may not have become common until about the 18th dynasty.

An ornamental Battle Ax

An ornamental Battle Ax

While there was a gradual improvement in the hardware provided to Egyptian soldiers, no real changes took place until the New Kingdom (or perhaps more realistically, the Second Intermediate Period). The Hyksos invasion of Egypt did provide an education to the Egyptian kings. They learned that a buffer zone was needed to protect Egypt's vulnerable northeastern border, and that the traditional weaponry of the Egyptian army would need to be radically modernized to keep pace with the military innovations of their neighbors.

Pharaoh's war helmet,  known as the Blue Crown

Hence, around the end of the Second Intermediate Period, we find the introduction to Egypt of the Horse and Chariot (wrrt, or mrkbt), which may have spelt the end of the Hyksos occupation and the beginning of the prosperous New Kingdom. In fact, the chariot would be absorbed into the royal regalia, becoming as powerful a symbol of domination as the Predynastic mace.

Narmer, smiting his enemy with a mace

Many of the new arms that came into use during the New Kingdom had their origin in Asia. In fact, while Egypt produced at least part of the copper it needed for weapons, it had to import all the tin required to make bronze and was also wholly dependent on import for iron, which put it at a disadvantage to the rising empires of the east during the first millennium BC. The techniques for working copper and bronze may have been developed by the Egyptians themselves, but forging, the only way iron could be worked in the ancient world was imported from Europe.

The principle weapon of the Egyptian army remained the bow and arrow, though, in the New Kingdom new models were available based on the Hyksos composite bow made of horn, sinews and wood. These new weapons, combined with the war chariot, enabled the Egyptian army to attack quickly and from a distance.

A scimitars

The infantry of the New Kingdom carried spears, battle axes, scimitars (for the first time) and daggers. The scimitar came to Egypt from Syria, where Tuthmosis III first employed it. There are many depictions of the gods handing the pharaoh this weapon of victory and it quickly became part of the infantryman's basic equipment.

The spear was used for stabbing, giving greater reach to the soldier. Charioteers carried with them, apart from their bows and arrows, a number of spears and were thus not left weaponless after shooting their arrows.

The helmets that Ramesses III ordered to be distributed among his troops looked like Syrian imports except that the Syrian helmet was decorated with a horsetail while the Egyptian version had cords ending in pendants. The body armor was of Asiatic origin too. It consisted of a leather jacket covered with little metal scales, not completely protecting the soldier from arrows, as the Egyptians could conclude from their own successes. Despite such deficiencies, the charioteers of Tuthmosis III occasionally wore scale armor, but many preferred broad bands (of leather possibly) crossed over the chest or carried a shield. Their torso was thus more or less protected, while the lower body was shielded by the chariot itself. The pharaohs often wore armor with inlaid semi-precious stones, which offered better protection, the stones being harder than the metal used for arrow tips. It is difficult to estimate how widespread the use of armor or helmets really was, as the reliefs depicting Egyptians very rarely portray them carrying protection other than shields.

In peace time the weapons were stored in royal armories. Their distribution to the soldiers before a campaign was an occasion for a splendid ceremony attended by the pharaoh. Ramesses III declared at such an event speaking to the assembled soldiers from a balcony, " Wake your arms, draw your weapons in order to destroy the rebelling lands who do not know Egypt, the strength of Amen my father".


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Armies of the Pharaohs Healy, Mark 1992 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 85532 939 5
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Egyptian Warfare and Weapons Shaw, Ian 1991 Shire Publications LTD ISBN 0 7478 0142 8
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Warrior Pharaoh, The: Rameses II and the Battle of Qadesh Healy, Mark 1993 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 84176 039 0