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Introduction to Recreation

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Perhaps the activity the most illustrated from ancient Egypt is the many sports and games in which both royal and non-royal men, women, youths, and children engaged, whether for training and strengthening their bodies or for pleasure and recreation. In general, sports were divided into two categories: sports of the entertainment and fitness sort included acrobatics, gymnastics, high jump, hunting, and swimming; sports of the military training sort included archery, boxing, equestrian activity, marathons, and wrestling. It is difficult to determine whether or not the depictions of these various sports are pictured in the way the ancients actually played them, but one thing is certain: whether painted or carved or found in tombs, temples, or pyramids, these records are rich in artistry and massive in quantity; in terms of the latter, nowhere is this more evident than at Beni Hassan and in Theban tombs, which depict acrobatics, archery, ball games, boxing, dancing, fencing, gymnastics, high-jump, hockey, hop and jump, horse-riding, running, swimming, weight-lifting, wrestling, and yoga. From the quantity and care the artists took in documenting these recreational activities, we understand that the ancients held a high reverence for physical fitness, placing an invaluable role in sports in order to raise the standard of health and of national productivity, and engaging in such activities with a fervor that is ritualistic. As an example of this, Egyptian men are illustrated as lean, muscular, and strong and women are shown to be slender and gracefully feminine.

The area of paramount importance for sports and recreational activities was the River Nile, which included fishing, hunting, and other water sports such as boating, swimming, and rowing. The desert herself was yet another location of import when it came to spots and recreation, notably for hunting.

For most all sports, in some way or another, for either sports of the organized, individual, or pleasure kind, the ancient Egyptians established a set of basic rules, which were more pronounced for organized sports. For the more organized sports competitions, the ancients chose a referee to uphold the rules of a game; required players to wear uniforms; and announced winners of competitions and awarded them colored collars of ribbons, depending on their placement, similar to different colored ribbons for multiple-person games. Not only did Egyptians play with their fellow countrymen, but also they played—competed, rather—with their neighbors, such as the Nubians. Referees from both Egyptian and other lands enforced the rules and, it was typical that, if the foreigner lost the competition and if he was before Pharaoh, he would have to accept his defeat by kissing the ground before Pharaoh.

The following examines the many types of recreational activity in which the ancients engaged, as seen from the many depictions that have survived for more than 3000 years, and spread from Egypt, to Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece, and Rome.


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