Nubians in the Ancient Egyptian Army

From a relatively early time, Egyptians and Nubians interacted peacefully with each other in trade, as neighbors in Egyptian held portions of Nubia, and some even intermarried. Egyptian kings were impressed with the Nubians’ martial abilities and often used Nubian bowmen contingents in their armies as mercenaries. Nubian mercenaries would work and live in Egypt and sometimes married Egyptians. There are several examples of funerary stelae (offering stones) from Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (ca. 2150-2050 BC) that depict Nubian mercenaries with their Egyptian wives. The Nubian mercenaries are dressed in traditional Egyptian clothing but their skin color and physiognomy show them as clearly being Nubian.

There is evidence for mercenary troops at all periods of Egyptian history from the First Intermediate Period onward, and it is reasonable to assume that they played a part even earlier. The best-documented early mercenaries are the Nubian troops attested from Gebelein and Middle Egypt.

Of the Nubian tribesmen who served the Egyptians, the most favoured were the Medjay. They were employed as scouts and skirmishers from the Old Kingdom and figure prominently in the campaign of Kamose. The Medjay may be identical to a group known as the ‘Pan-Grave’ people, of whom archaeological evidence has been found in Upper Egypt. Their cemeteries do not extend further north than the limit of Theban territory during the Hyksos period, so they probably featured mainly in Upper Egyptian forces. They originated in the deserts east of the Nile, in Lower Nubia. Burials contain weaponry and various trinkets of Egyptian manufacture, the presense of which might indicate their employment as mercenaries by the Egyptians. Weapon finds demonstrate that they were archers. By the beginning of the New Kingdom the Medjay had begun to assimilate Egyptian culture and become indistinguishable in the archaeological record.

The model soldiers from a tomb at Asyut comprised a body of Egyptian spearmen and one of Nubian archers. The latter are organised in the same way as the Egyptians, suggesting that some auxiliaries may have been drilled on Egyptian lines as close-order troops.

Apart from the Medjay other foreign troops employed by the Egyptians were Nubians from the tribes of Irtjet, Yam, Wawat and Kaau.

The military society of the New Kingdom and of her neighbors operated within a system different than earlier. The series of additional changes in both offensive and defensive weapons can be seen in the swords (in their various manifestations), spears, and body-armor. Previously, the main weapon was the bow and arrow, intended for long-range combat, in addition to a preponderance of weapons for hand-to-hand fighting. To the northeast in Palestine and Syria there were many fortified cities. The effects of this change would impact upon the Egyptian war machine when it decided to advance into southern Palestine. The soldiers themselves remained Egyptian, although Nubian “mercenaries” are also known as early as the Late Old Kingdom. (Dynasty VI) and the First Intermediate Period. Mercenary soldiers certainly had high status: Egyptian wives and servants are documented for Nubian mercenaries at Gebelein in the First Intermediate Period. But the core of the native state of Thebes in Dynasty XVII was Egyptian, and through their strength the successful, albeit lengthy, wars against the Hyksos occurred

In the satirical account dated to the reign of Ramesses II referred to earlier, P. Anastasi I, useful details concerning the military provisioning of a moderate sized group of 5,000 soldiers are presented. It remains open whether this account reflects is realistic or not. Nonetheless, the number may be equivalent to an Egyptian division in the New Kingdom. The problem, although artificial, is not fanciful. The archers comprise 1,900 men and Sherden “mercenaries” total up to 520. There are as well 1,600 Qehek and Meshewsh troops, both of whom were Libyans in the pay of the Egyptian state. Finally, 880 Nubians are present. (Again, the presence of these non-natives in Egyptian pay cannot be ignored.) Although this account is considerably later than mid XVIIIth Dynasty, a rough arithmetical analysis concerning the supplies can be attempted.

An attempt to determine the actual caloric intake of the breads can be hypothesized by turning to a second administrative papyrus. In one baking account of Seti I, Nubians, once more in the Egyptian army, are given breads. Because the Amarna Letters provide explicit evidence that some Nubians were soldiers of Pharaoh, this conclusion appears reasonable. Each of the 85 receives one large bread apiece, which was prepared with a baking ratio of 15. This means that, on a standard, all such breads followed a set pattern in which the breads have to be divided by 15 in order to determine the amount of grain in liters.

In the Amarna archive we hear from time to time of Nubian troops in the Egyptian army. Letter No. 117 from Byblos indicates that Amunhotep III had previously sent Nubian soldiers northward to that city.


Nubia was divided into two parts; Lower Nubia or Wawat, extending from Elephantine to the 2nd Cataract, and Upper Nubia or Kush extending beyond this. The Nile valley in Wawat was narrow and supported I small population. The desert and scrublands to East and West were inhabited by Nomadic herdsmen. The Nile valley in Kush widens at the Dongola reach and could support a larger population. It was possible for a powerful kingdom to develop here. A kingdom of Kush arose several times in this area and posed a serious threat to Egypt.

The Egyptians campaigned into Nubia as early as the 1st Dynasty and began exploiting its raw materials in the Old Kingdom. The so-called ‘A group’ inhabitants at this time were culturally similar to the Predynastic Egyptians. By the 6th Dynasty, however, the situation had changed and the ‘C-group’ appear. They may be equated with the tribes and kingdoms recorded by Weni and Harkhuf; The lrtjet, Medjay, Wawat. Yam, Setju, and Kaau. Inscriptional evidence from the late Old Kingdom tomb of the border official, Harkhuf, at Aswan, tells how the army was used to accompany trading expeditions into Nubia and also that bands of Nubian mercenary troops came back to Egypt. Harkhuf was able to reach Yam by setting off from Aswan or the Abydos region (via the Western Oases) so it must have lain to the south-west, (one journey took 8 months). On one expedition Harkhuf found that the king of Yam bad gone to War with the Tjemehu Libyans. This king also supplied Harkhuf with an escort of troops to supplement his Egyptians as they passed through me territory of a confederation of Irtjet, Setju and Wawat tribes.



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