Ancient History & Civilisation





At some point in his life almost every little boy wants to be a soldier. These days he can be a Roman soldier, complete with plastic greaves and breastplate, an intergalactic trooper, or a knight in armor, but these are merely variations on the basic theme—a love for legitimized mayhem, which is a congenital characteristic of most human males (and, admittedly, some females). The little Egyptian boy was probably no different. Since there were no toy manufacturers to influence his tastes, his choice was obvious: he wanted to be an Egyptian soldier.

Among the texts which schoolboys had to copy were several which might be subtitled “Why Not to Choose a Military Career.” Here is one of them:

Come, let me tell you of the woes of the soldier! He is awakened at any hour, and he is driven like a donkey. He works till the sun sets. He is hungry, his body is exhausted, he is dead while yet alive.

He is called up for Syria. His marches are high in the mountains. He drinks water every three days and it is foul with the taste of salt. His body is broken with dysentery. The enemy comes and surrounds him with arrows, and life fades from him. They say, “Hasten on, brave soldier—win a good name for yourself!”—but he is barely conscious and his legs are weak.

When victory comes, His Majesty hands over the captives to be taken down into Egypt. The foreign woman is faint with marching, so she hangs on to the neck of the soldier. His knapsack falls and others take it while he is loaded down with the Syrian woman. His wife and children are in their village, but he dies and never reaches it.

Frightful, isn’t it? I have had to prune this text considerably, for it goes on at length. We might suspect that the glamour of the military life was great, since the schoolmaster had to conjure up such horrific pictures to combat it. We may also wonder whether budding scribes had any choice in the matter. There was a form of military conscription; was there also such a thing as student exemptions from the draft? Not very likely.

The text I have quoted dates from a period when soldiering could be a profession. In the Old Kingdom, under the pyramid builders, there was probably no large standing army. When trouble arose with the Libyans or the Nubians, the king ordered his local governors, or nomarchs, to levy troops. This may have resulted in a situation resembling the press gangs of eighteenth-century En gland, with the nomarch’s men dragging reluctant heroes out of pretended sickbeds or caves in the hills or local taverns. One gets the impression that the Egyptians were never keen on fighting. “The army,” if one can give that name to a big disorganized militia, was not only called up for military campaigns. Under regular military commanders it was also employed for state work projects—quarrying, digging canals, and perhaps helping to build pyramids.

Some scholars believe that there must have been some sort of professional standing army even in the Old Kingdom. They assume that the king had sense enough to realize the danger of relying on troops who owed their immediate loyalty to the local prince who had called them up. This is a reasonable assumption, but there is no evidence that it was the case, except for the royal bodyguard, whose members could officer an amateur army in case of war. Although there is mention of a rank called “army commander,” possibly the equivalent of “general,” one of the most famous of the Old Kingdom campaigns was led by a man who held no military rank. His name was Uni, and he served under the kings of the Sixth Dynasty. When it was necessary to chastise the Sand-Dwellers, Uni, a mere Overseer of the Tenants of the Palace, was placed at the head of the army, although there were many men of higher rank available. He was chosen, he says, because he could manage the men better than anyone else.

Uni’s military career is an example, not of royal favoritism, but of the “Lord High Everything Else” tendencies of Egyptian officials, which we discussed in the preceding chapter. Once again it is a question of administrative ability; and, really, what other talent would be needed to manage an army? For the Egyptians, there was no such thing as military science. You just got your men out to where the enemy soldiers were standing, and then they shot arrows at one another and whacked one another with clubs and axes until one side got tired of it all and ran away. Some famous battles of the later period, when standing armies were the rule and kings prided themselves on their role as warriors, indicate a degree of ineptness and lack of common sense—let alone military strategy—that is astounding. So there was no reason why a judge and overseer like Uni couldn’t have been sent to chastise an enemy—and done it, as he claims, successfully. Even in modern wars the best soldiers are not always graduates of military academies.

After the Sixth Dynasty the local rulers used their local troops for their own purposes, set themselves up as in de pen dent princelings, and dared the king to do something about it. One nobleman bragged that he had resisted the Royal House when it attacked him. Nobody claims that the downfall of the united monarchy was caused by feudalistic military organization. It may have been the other way around—the nomarchs took advantage of a situation which they would never have dared to exploit when the monarchy was strong.

When forceful centralized government was restored in the Middle Kingdom the powerful nobles still maintained their own armies. Probably they didn’t get away with it for long. Senusert III, the great warrior king of the Twelfth Dynasty, seems to have subdued his proud nobles just as he subdued the Nubians. By this time the army had become a more regularized institution. It was recruited (perhaps this is a polite word for “conscripted”) by the army scribes, who got quotas from various districts. We assume that most of the conscripts—the “young men,” as they are called—served for a specified time and then went home, but other troops, whose name we translate as “warriors,” seem to have been real professionals. Another possibility is that “young men” was the designation of the raw recruits, and “warrior” a rank equivalent to the private first class. Then there were the “shock troops,” who may have been seasoned veterans.

An elite corps was formed by the “retainers,” who seem to have been young men of rank chosen to go into battle with the king. They were not the same as the royal bodyguard, though some of them seem to have been selected from it. In any case, it was an honor to be a retainer.

At the head of the whole business was the “great overseer of troops,” or the commander-in-chief. He had generals under him; some of them were no more than overseers in charge of quarrying operations, some actually led troops in the field, and others commanded the forts of Nubia. There was a host of army scribes, responsible for everything from recruiting to supply. One title has always fascinated me: “Master of the Secrets of the King in the Army.” If the Egyptians did not use secret agents, the people they fought may have done so; there is a wonderful story of the great Ramses being deluded, on the eve of battle, by two men who pretended to be deserters from the opposing army in order to assure the king that most of the enemy forces were far away from the town. They were actually creeping up on Ramses at that very moment, and his credulity lost him the battle and almost lost him his life. However, reluctant as I am to do so, I don’t believe the Master of Secrets was in charge of military intelligence—or, for that matter, any variety of intelligence.

We do not know how much actual training, if any, a young recruit had before he was marched out to fight. However, young Egyptian boys probably learned to use the throw stick and the bow in hunting. Weapons were very simple during this period; bows were just lengths of springy wood, and war arrows might be made of hardened wood, without even stone points. Archery was a skill in which the Egyptians took some pride, and they probably started practicing when they were still young.

The bowmen made up one group among the soldiers. Others carried axes. The actual weapons which have been found include slings, spears, daggers, and clubs. We are still in the Bronze Age here; except for rare items like Tutankhamon’s iron dagger, that metal was not widely used until much later. Presumably a battle began with the archers and slingers softening up the enemy from a distance, but it ended in hand-to-hand combat with axes and clubs. I have always had the feeling that there would not be many wounded after these battles—that if a man went down everybody jumped on him. However, one of the medical treatises deals with wounds, particularly with fractures of the skull, and this last would no doubt be a common casualty in a battle fought with clubs. Nobody wore armor, although soldiers did carry big shields covered with hide.

The Hyksos, that mysterious people from Asia who took control of part of Egypt after the fall of the Middle Kingdom, seem to have been responsible for a host of innovations in the art of war—if it can be called an art. We are constantly being forced to modify the statements we make about the Hyksos; the name itself may be incorrect, as applied to the whole mass of invaders, and some of the artifacts ascribed to them have been seriously questioned. It is undeniable, however, that there was a drastic change in the Egyptian arsenal and in the Egyptian attitude toward war after the Hyksos.

The Hyksos are usually given the credit for introducing the horse and chariot to Egypt. Apparently it never occurred to any of the early Near Eastern civilizations to mount soldiers on horses and turn them into cavalry. Perhaps the animals were too rare and too valuable. Most Egyptologists think the ancient Egyptians didn’t actually ride them. I think they did, upon occasion, though there are few representations of men on horse back. It’s an undignified pose, when you come to think about it, and the well-established canon of Egyptian art was not receptive to innovation. But surely the utility of horse men as scouts and messengers is too obvious to be overlooked. A horse can move faster than a man on foot, over terrain that would be impossible for a chariot.

Horses were primarily used to draw chariots, though. We have several Egyptian chariots, from the tomb of Tutankhamon and from the tomb of his presumed ancestor Yuya, whom we mentioned back in the first chapter. Yuya was a captain of chariotry, so naturally he would want to take a chariot with him—though his appears to be too small for an adult. A model, perhaps? Or did he have a sentimental attachment to his first chariot?

At first glance, these vehicles seem to be mostly wheels—two big ones, with four spokes per wheel and leather tires around the wooden rims. Between the wheels was the body of the chariot, floored with woven leather strips and partially surrounded by a curved railing. The back was usually left open. They look like light, flimsy vehicles, with a tendency to tip. To make them as stable as possible the chariot-makers put the axle at the very back of the carriage body; the pole went under the floor and then bent up at an angle to join the collar which went around the horse’s neck. The chariots had to be light if they were to be pulled by the little horses then in use. In warfare two horses might be used to each chariot, but they had to pull two men, the driver and the warrior. In some of the reliefs the valiant king is shown all alone in the chariot, with the reins tied behind his waist so that he can wield his bow. It’s a good trick if you can do it.

Egyptian weapons changed significantly at this same period. Copper arrowheads became common; and a new variety of dagger appeared, cast all in one piece to lessen the strain between hilt and blade. Perhaps these were used for overhand, stabbing blows, wherein the dagger was held at right angles to the length of the arm. The older daggers may have been held in such a way as to continue the line of the forearm and used to slash upward; the strain on the joint of the hilt would not be so great as it was in stabbing. Sometimes the dagger was strapped to the upper left arm; otherwise it was stuck through the warrior’s belt. Swords were used, and there are a few with a long grip which may have been used two-handed; they are sharp on both sides but relatively dull at the point, which means they must have been used like a saber rather than a rapier. There was no art of fencing, which is not surprising when we consider that even in the Middle Ages sword fights simply consisted of hitting the other fellow as hard and as often as you could. One curious and romantic-looking Egyptian sword was a sort of scimitar with a curved blade. The old clubs and axes still continued in use along with the new weapons. So did the bow, but it had undergone a considerable change. Instead of being a single piece of flexible wood, the new compound bow was built up of several layers of tough springy wood, or alternate layers of wood and horn, glued together and covered with bark. It was curved in the reverse direction from that in which it was to be shot, to give it greater power. These bows were harder to make, though, and they were susceptible to warping, so the good old long bow continued in use.

By the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty body armor was beginning to be used by some. Even foot soldiers had protective wrappings of linen or leather over vulnerable spots, and a kind of helmet to protect the head. More elaborate armor consisted of a linen or leather shirt covered with overlapping metal scales. It must have been horribly heavy and cumbersome (though not as bad as medieval armor). The king’s Blue Battle Crown, of leather sewed with metal discs, probably began its career as a head protector in battle, although it soon became one of the ceremonial crowns. Charioteers carried big shields to protect themselves and the warrior they drove, and even the horses wore heavy blankets that covered most of their backs. The little mare that may have been owned by Senenmut, Queen Hatshepsut’s henchman, had such a blanket of quilted leather lined with linen to prevent chafing.



The army that carried this arsenal into battle was a different thing altogether from the conscript armies of the Old Kingdom. We can give some of the credit for this—if credit it is—to the Hyksos again, since it was the effort of driving these foreigners out of Egypt that began the habit of campaigning which ended in imperial conquest. Beginning with Ahmose, who pushed the Hyksos out of Egypt into Palestine, and culminating in Thutmose III, who brought Syria-Palestine under Egyptian control and defeated the powerful kingdom of Mitanni, the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty were seasoned campaigners. Under Thutmose III the army went out to fight in Asia every year for almost twenty years; it must have been an annual occurrence as predictable as the inundation. The men who survived these campaigns were no longer amateur soldiers.

The army of the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties was divided into groups of about five thousand men, each division being named after the god whose standard it bore. These standards are fascinating objects—images of gold or gilded wood, carried on high poles so that they could be seen above the dust of battle and, presumably, spur their defenders on to greater valor. Each division consisted of twenty-five companies of two hundred men each, and these companies also had their standards. Some were simple painted squares of wood, others bore designs like the one that showed two men wrestling. The royal marines carried standards shaped like ships. The literature of war contains no noble, high-sounding references to these standards or to the soldier’s honor which was attached to similar devices in Roman times; but it is not far-fetched to suppose that the standards came to have some such significance to the men who marched under them.

Chariotry was the elite branch of the service; it led the charge, to clear the way for the foot soldiers behind. The infantry was made up of several types of soldiery called by different names, the meaning of which is not always clear to us. There seems to have been a distinction between veterans and new recruits, and perhaps also between volunteers (career army types) and conscripts. The “Braves of the King” sounds like a select group, and in at least one case their commander led the attack on the besieged city. Then there were military specialists: the heralds, who may have acted as dispatch runners, carrying the general’s orders to various parts of the field; the scouts, mounted on horse back (there was still no cavalry as such); and a whole battery of scribes. Thutmose III had an officer who was responsible for the royal quarters at night when the army was on the march, and presumably transport, supplies, communications, and other support groups were also organized.

We have some references to and depictions of naval battles. In the twelfth century Egypt was attacked from the north by a loose confederation of tribes we know as the Sea Peoples, and Ramses III met them on land and on water. Even here, hand-to-hand combat, ship-to-ship, was the rule, and the weapons were the same.

Some of the male slaves captured in the Asiatic and Nubian wars were allowed to serve as soldiers, thus earning their freedom, and as time went on such mercenaries became an important part of the military forces. Another originally foreign group of soldiers were never slaves; they became not only thoroughly Egyptianized but an elite corps. These men were Nubians, perhaps related to the warlike C people who gave the Middle Kingdom pharaohs such a hard time during their conquest of Cush. A delightful group of model soldiers found in an Eleventh Dynasty tomb shows that by that period they were already an integral part of the armed forces; the black men are as well armed and bear themselves as proudly as their brown-skinned counterparts from the same tomb.

During the Second Intermediate Period a large group of this warlike people moved into Upper Egypt. They were allied with the hated Hyksos, who occupied much of northern Egypt; this put a nasty squeeze on the princes of Thebes, who were, if we can believe the propaganda texts that have survived, chafing under Hyksos arrogance. Eventually the Thebans drove the Asiatics out and pursued them all the way to the Euphrates—with, it is now believed, the active assistance of Nubian troops. However, it was not long before the Nubians ceased to be a separate ethnic entity. Their distinctive graves, some so shallow that they have given the name “pan-grave people” to this group, disappear at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty—not because the Nubians left the country, but because they adopted the customs of their new nation. The round Nubian huts became Egyptian houses, the graves turned into tombs, and the “pan-grave people” became the famous Medjay, skilled bowmen and soldiers who served Egypt for centuries as scouts, policemen, and guards. After a few generations they might be assimilated physically as well as culturally, for the Egyptians, what ever their other sins, were never stupid enough to discriminate against people on the basis of skin color. The Medjay were first-rate fighting men, and that was what counted with Egypt’s warlike pharaohs of Dynasty XVIII.

We have fairly detailed descriptions of two ancient battles, and as I said, neither indicates much foresight on the part of the Egyptian general, who was, in theory, the king. The cities attacked were in the contested territory of Syria-Palestine, which was sometimes controlled by Egypt and sometimes by the Hittites of Anatolia or the Mitannian kingdom of north Syria. In both cases the assault was to be made on a walled town, and in both cases the enemy did not wait to be assaulted, but sallied forth to meet the Egyptians. Thutmose III, who was attacking Megiddo, had the nerve to lead his army along the most direct path to the city, which happened to be a narrow mountain road over a pass. The obvious idea of an ambush does not seem to have occurred to the enemy; or possibly the road was not as dangerous as Thutmose’s official report makes out, since its aim is to show the king’s daring contrasted with the cautious timidity of his staff. And, of course, a rash act that succeeds is daring, while one that fails is just stupid.

Ramses II, at the battle of Kadesh, did something equally rash, but in his case it turned out to be stupid. Kadesh, on the Orontes River, was then allied with the Hittites. In the first place Ramses took the unsupported word of two casual passersby that the main enemy force was a long way off, which wasn’t the case. In his manly zeal Ramses had outstripped two of the four divisions of his army, so that half his troops were too far behind to be of any use to him in case of trouble—which he promptly found. The activities of the enemy commander—who is referred to, in the engaging Egyptian fashion, as “the Fallen One of Khatti”—suggest that elementary notions of strategy (or is it tactics?) were not unknown. If he did send out the enterprising liars who told Ramses the fairy tale about his whereabouts—Egyptian texts say he did—he was a better strategist than Ramses. He followed it up by leading his troops out behind the opposite side of the city, hidden from the approaching Egyptians; he swung them around in a circle and hit, not the first division, which was closest to the city, but the second. This division, that of Re, was caught completely unawares, and the enemy commander scattered it. He then attacked the first division, that of Amon, which had set up camp with its king.

From that point on the story becomes a trifle misty. One version explains that immediately before the attack the Egyptians had captured two more enemy scouts (were they always sent out in pairs, or is this just for symmetry?), who admitted, after some strong persuasion, that the Hittites were close at hand. This bit of information, which would have been useful at an early stage, came too late. Ramses was still trying to decide what to do about it when the enemy struck. Egyptian versions attribute the survival of the king to his own valor in holding off, single-handedly, the whole enemy army until reinforcements arrived. Ramses II has never inspired much confidence in me, so I have serious doubts about this version. However, reinforcements did arrive in time to save the king’s skin—not the belated regiments of Ptah and Set, but another group referred to as the Na’arn, who seem to have been high-ranking Egyptian troops sent to Phoenicia by sea, and who came overland to Kadesh by another route.

It is possible to make a coherent, consistent narrative of these events, but I prefer not to do so since I don’t believe the Egyptian version. The arrival of the Na’arn, whoever they were, literally in the nick of time, seems a little too fortuitous considering the distances that were traveled and the difficulty of communication between them and Ramses. Then there are those two sets of spies….

On the other hand, if Amon was watching over his “chosen people,” that explains everything.

Thutmose III had less difficulty than Ramses, perhaps because his opponent was not so good a strategist as the Fallen One of Khatti. Thutmose got his army out of the pass without incident and thus was able to conduct his battle in approved style. The enemy was waiting, and both armies proceeded to arrange themselves in battle order, on a wide plain which gave everybody room to spread out. The trumpeters then sounded the charge….

I cannot resist a digression here. There are war trumpets in several museums, but the most famous are those of Tutankhamon. One was of silver, the other of copper alloy. The funnel-shaped bell was attached to a slender tube almost two feet long. They were in such good condition that the temptation to play them was irresistible. In a 1939 BBC broadcast a bandsman blew several blasts on the silver trumpet before it unexpectedly shattered. One can only imagine the poor man’s consternation—especially since, as some critics have suggested, it was the insertion of a modern mouthpiece that caused the disaster. What did it sound like? Raucous, according to some; but I’ve listened to the recording, and the very idea that I was hearing an instrument that had been silent for over three thousand years made chills run up my spine.

To resume: the trumpets sounded, and off went the chariotry, led by Thutmose, at a mad gallop, kicking up stones and dust and making a considerable racket—springs crackling, wheels rattling, and everybody yelling. The mounted archers began to shoot, though how they could have expected to hit anything I don’t know; I suppose if the enemy was thickly massed they were bound to hit something. The enemy front line also consisted of chariotry, at least in the Asiatic territories; the two sets of chariots engaged, or one swept the other away; at any rate, the field was now cleared for the infantry, who came running up waving their axes, clubs, swords, and daggers. Eventually, in the Egyptian narratives, the enemy broke and fled—to their city, if they had one close at hand. A siege usually followed, and it was sometimes maintained until the enemy was starved out. Thutmose III, who was a busy man and had a lot of cities to conquer, took some of them by storm, using siege ladders and sappers to undermine the walls. Judging from his accounts, clemency was the order of the day, not a brutal sack of the conquered city. Since it now belonged to Pharaoh, with all its people and their possessions, the common soldiers could not be allowed to loot it. Perhaps this is why the poor soldier in our quotation had to carry the Syrian woman instead of leaving her to die by the wayside, but it would be nice to think that compassion had something to do with it.

Some of the conquered peoples chose or were chosen to serve the conquerors as soldiers rather than slaves. They could earn freedom and promotion thereby. No doubt the Egyptians were glad to have mercenaries doing their fighting for them. The armies of the Late Period came to be made up more and more of foreign mercenaries. Such men, like the famous Medjay, had served Pharaoh at an earlier time, but not until the later New Kingdom was a majority, perhaps, of the army made up of men whose only loyalty to Egypt came through their pay. What, if anything, this had to do with Egypt’s later failures on the field of battle no one can say for sure, but it may have had its effect.

The army coup d’état is a familiar occurrence in some areas of the world; as far back as the Year of Four Emperors, when the Roman legions nominated their own Caesars, the army has been an entity capable of wielding political power. It is only natural that we should look for the same thing in Egypt after the rise of the professional army, and since we are looking for it, naturally we find it. At the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, after the fall of the royal house of Amarna, the throne of Egypt was held successively by two men who had, among other titles, that of “general.” Harmhab served under Tutankhamon and perhaps under Akhenaton as well. By the time he assumed the Double Crown there was probably no man alive who had a legitimate claim, by birth and blood, to the kingship, but this does not explain why it was Harmhab, and not some other commoner, who won it. Harmhab had no surviving sons, and his successor was probably another army man, perhaps an old buddy of Harmhab’s. It’s all very confusing, but confusion is compounded by the fact that both Harmhab and Ramses were other things besides generals.

A similar case occurred at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, when a man named Herihor turned up in Thebes with the resounding titles of Vizier of Upper Egypt and High Priest of Amon and removed—rather politely—the reins of power from the last of the feeble Ramesside kings. So for a long time the history books reported that the increasing power of the priesthood of Amon culminated in a theocracy which ruled at least part of Egypt. Then somebody noticed that before Herihor got to be high priest he was Viceroy of Nubia and Commander of the Army. The religious coup became a military coup, and once again, as in the case of Harmhab, the army got the credit for controlling the state.

With all deference to the distinguished scholars who have supported this interpretation, I cannot help but feel that it oversimplifies the ancient Egyptian scene and forces modern viewpoints on a culture to which they were not applicable. The army, the bureaucracy, the church, and the state—these categories were not as clear-cut in Egypt as they are today. We do not know how Harmhab and Herihor seized power, or which of their many titles conceals the real source of a strength great enough to enable them to mount the throne of the Two Lands. Their success may have been due to their control of the army, or to their high rank—or, for all we know, to their beautiful brown eyes.


Egypt had strong natural frontiers—the deserts on the east and west, the Sinai and the sea on the north, the unnavigable rocks of the First Cataract on the south. There were ways around or through all these obstacles, however, and various enemies took advantage of them. By the time of the Middle Kingdom the open borders of the Delta were defended by fortresses. Once Egypt expanded southward into what is now the Sudan, some very fancy forts were built to establish control over the region. Alas, the best of them are gone now, fathoms deep under the waters of Lake Nasser. Knowing that the building of the Aswan Dam would create a vast body of water, which would mean the destruction of innumerable archaeological sites, the international community of scholars united in a magnificent effort to preserve or at least record as many of these as was possible. Some temples were moved, but the majority of the ancient remains could not be saved. Among the lost were the ruined but still impressive fortresses built by the Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom above the Second Cataract in Nubia. This area of tumbled stone and rushing water formed a natural frontier which was virtually impassable to ships. The forts allowed Egypt to control trade and military passage.

Fortunately we have fairly detailed excavation reports about several of the major forts. Perhaps the most impressive of the ruins were those at Semna, where the Nile passes, narrowly constricted, through a region of hard rock. Two forts, one on either side of the river, controlled traffic north and south. Semna West was the bigger of the two; Semna East, also called Kummeh, was opposite. These two have been excavated, but a third fort, Semna South, turned out to be impracticable for the expedition, under George Reisner, which worked on the other two forts. It seems that once a herdsman brought his two camels into the ruins of the fort to graze. He decided to take a nap, and when he awoke, groggy with sleep, he saw a white gazelle bounding along in front of him. He snatched his rifle and fired; and then discovered that the gazelle was really one of his own camels. This was not a small financial loss, it was a catastrophe, and the herdsman decided he must have offended some powerful spirit to be so afflicted. The ruined fort thus acquired a taboo, and none of the natives would work there. At least that was the story they told Reisner.

The three forts of Semna, plus another one three miles away, formed an administrative unit under the commander of Semna West, the biggest of the group. The excavator calculated that the four forts could have held at least three hundred men, and perhaps twice that number, in view of the ability of the ancients to live in spaces we would consider impossibly cramped. Thus, the commander could send out a force of from one hundred fifty to two hundred men against local raiding parties, which would be the usual problem he had to contend with. In case of a serious widespread revolt, the Egyptians sat tight inside their walls and waited for reinforcements from home.

The forts were built to command the river, which was the main artery of traffic, military and commercial. The north-south road ran through the west fort at Semna, so that the commander could keep an eye on land traffic as well. There were magazines and store houses inside the fort, and it had a covered stair, protected by thick walls, leading down to the river, so that water was obtainable even under siege. Semna would have been a hard place to take; the brick walls, six to eight meters thick and perhaps ten meters high, were bonded with heavy timbers to make them stronger. Square bastions projected at intervals, with towers on each corner; the reconstructions of such forts look amazingly like medieval castles. The tops of the walls have not survived, but we assume there was a walkway on top. Around the fort, except on the river side, where it perched on top of the Nile cliffs, ran a wide ditch, the outer face revetted with dry masonry.

Inside the fort was a small town, complete with a temple and a house for the commander. Assignment to one of these forts must have been received with hearty groans; at best it was dull duty in an arid, unfriendly region, and there was always the chance that a patrol sent out to investigate rumors of unrest might discover, in a direct and unpleasant way, that the rumors were true.

There were compensations. The towns in some of these forts were as comfortable as most Egyptian towns, with markets and temples and probably a tavern or two. Some of the men brought their families with them, and others married local women.

All the same, perhaps the teachers of the scribal schools were right. The chances of booty and promotion were slight, and the “woes of the soldier” were great.

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