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Recreation: Sports

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To start of, let us examine the composition of the bow and arrow, during Pre- and Dynastic Egypt. Being a weapon of paramount importance, the bow and arrow was also a means of recreational sport. Beginning its usage during the Pre-dynastic Period, some of the first bows ever to be created by the hands of the ancient Egyptians were made by joining the butt-ends of two antelope horns to a piece of wood; these bows are called “horn bows” and were the most commonly used by both peasant and royal alike.


At the start of the Old Kingdom, bows no longer had a double curve made by two antelope horns, but were of a single curve, looking more like a modern bow. In addition, horns and a piece of wood were no longer used as material for their construction; wood strung with sinews or plant fiber strings was used. This type of bow was called a “self” or “simple bow.” The length of a bow of this type was between one and two meters and, from the center of the bow, it would be broad and then narrow toward either ends. Simple bows that were closer to two meters in length could be strengthened at various points on the wooden rod by binding on it a cord. Although this sort of bow was being used during the Old Kingdom, it was far harder to use than the horn bows.


Enter the composite bow, which was an adoption during the New Kingdom sometime during the Second Intermediate Period and was of Asiatic Hyksos design; at this time, bows were imported from the Middle East rather than made within Egypt. Such bows could be as long as 1.45 meters. The central part of the composite bow was most likely made from the wood of the acacia tree and was brought together with fish glue on two wood slats. The outer part of the bow was covered with sinew and the inner part was covered with antelope horn plates. The string that the archer drew back to make fly his arrow was made of four intertwined animal intestines. Evidence of composite bows has been discovered in the tombs of Amenhotep II and the famous Tutankhamun. From these bows, we can see how elaborately decorated some could be, bedecked with leather or even gold, inscribed with the greatness and skill of the owner. In addition to bows and arrows, archer’s rings have been discovered; they were finger rings that an archer put around his thumb in order to shoot arrows from his bow. Here, we can see how the ancient Egyptians pulled the strings—with their thumbs, rather than with three fingers as is done in modern times. Even though this sort of bow came into use and was more modern than either the horn or simple bow, the latter two were not abandoned. For one thing, composite bows were much more difficult and expensive to produce than horn and simple bows because the archer was able to draw the bow at a greater length than he could with a horn or simple bow, whose maximum draw length never exceeded the length of the archer’s arm. In other words, composite bows were more flexible and could withstand the tension of drawing the string back than could the earlier bows. What is more, the expense of the composite bow depended on the amount of care required to keep it in perfect condition: being vulnerable to moisture, one needed to cover it and, when not in use, the archer would have to unstring his bow, then restring it when he used it again—sometimes two people were required to carry out this process. With these requirements it is evident that peasant archers or hunters with bow and arrow could afford only the horn or simple bow. This does not mean that Pharaoh himself snubbed his nose at the thought of using one, no; because of its simplicity, pharaohs like Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II were not beyond using such objects for archery practice, hunting or combat. However, the composite bow was a weapon most commonly employed by the chariot drivers during battle, so as to better penetrate through the enemies armor.


Arrows used with most styles of bow were made of reed and were fletched with feathers—usually three. For its point, flint, hardwood, or bronze—which replaced flint and hardwood in the second millennium—were used. Ancient arrows could measure up to 50 cm in length. The sharpness of the point depended on its use: sharper points where made for archery, for battle, and for large-game hunting, whereas more blunt heads were for small-game hunting.


Archery was both a means of battle and of sport; we are concerned here with it sportive employment. During ancient times, archery—more precisely, target archery—was a sport played in public and such scenes were very much illustrated on the walls within tombs. Skill was not the only element measured in archery competitions but also, the princes’ or princesses’ ability to use their strength to draw and arrow; from the descriptions above concerning the types of bows used in ancient times, some bows were harder to draw than others, so it would have been impressive to witness an archer being skilled at the bow that was the most difficult the handle. A record of an ancient archery competition records that Amenhotep II pierced a thick brass target with four arrows and would offer a prize to anyone who could equate the feat.


Evidence of this sport can be found at the Luxor Museum, which is a depiction of Amenophis III of Dynasty 18, which dates to 1420 BCE. Another representation of the sport can be found at the temple at Karnak. Here, there is a depiction of Taharak of Dynasty 25, which dates to around 700 BCE.



Boating, Rowing


In ancient times, rowing was a means of testing strength, one of many activities the ancients measured this. Races during ancient times are similar to those of modern times: a team of mean would move their oars at the same time to a systematic and high-pitched call from the leader, whose place was at the rudder, where he held that boat’s appendage and steered the vehicle.


Other than for sport, boating had another, more religious significance: mostly used for hunting and catching birds and fish, a man and possibly his wife and children would set out on their merry way down the marshes of the Nile either collecting lotus flowers or catching birds in nets or using whatever equipment the man employed; the former symbolized new life or rejuvenation and catching birds symbolized the successful taming of chaos. Such scenes with this religious significance can be found in the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, granddaughter of Khufu and wife to Khafre; her burial place resides on the eastern side of Khufu’s pyramid, in the Eastern Cemetery. On one relief she and her mother, Hetepheres II, are depicted on a boat with two children; the former two and one of the children are pulling lotus flowers while the other child steers the boat. Other religious significance attached to boats can be seen near this site, at the Pyramid of Khufu, where several boat-shaped pits and pits made to bury boats can be found; the former were more for religious purposes, perhaps intended to come to life for the ruler in the afterlife to bring him north to the stars or rise in the east as the setting sun with Re, or to transport the ruler’s ka through the underworld. The latter pits, which were actually occupied with disassemble boats where most likely used as elements in the funerary procession and might have been used in real life. One of the many disassembled boats found near Khufu’s pyramid was comprised of 1,224 pieces, made of cedar wood to look like a papyrus reed boat, originally held together with ropes and pegs but not nails, and measures 142 ft long and 19 ft wide; the tops of its prow and stern were fashioned in the form of papyrus buds. Model boats were other evidence of the importance of the sport in ancient times. Not only could they be founding royal burial places but also in non-royal burial places, illustrating the lack of social limitation that this sport had in ancient times; it was a sport and recreational activity that could be enjoyed by both Pharaoh and his subjects.



Boxing, Weightlifting, Wrestling


Wrestling was a sport mainly for boys and men as well as animals—there is a representation of a cat boxing a mouse at the Carlberg Museum, its date of origin unknown, and was most likely a symbolic illustration rather than an actual boxing match set up between the two—which we know to be true from wall reliefs and from hieroglyphic inscriptions inside the bellies of some pyramids. In the latter location, we may view possibly the first recordings of this sport, some 3,000 years old, from the Old Kingdom—and through the New Kingdom, where depictions are located in tombs and mortuary temples. One such recording, which dates to 2300 BCE, is found inside the tomb of Ptah-hotep, Dynasty 5 pyramid builder and vizier. Its location is at Saqqara and illustrates a group of six young men boxing and wrestling each other. At Beni-Hassan, there are hundreds of depictions of wrestling group scenes—around 200, to be exact; these depictions show wrestlers donning loin-cloth and practicing various wrestling positions, holds, and moves as a means of military training. Such reliefs illustrate both dilettantes and professionals alike executing various moves and contorting their persons in an assortment of positions. Examples from Beni Hassan include the tombs of Paket and Khiti of Dynasty 11 and date to 2000 BCE. Perhaps weightlifting activities were also meant for military training, but without sufficient evidence this is just speculation. However, we can tell from a depiction of weightlifting found in the tomb of Paket of Dynasty 11 at Beni Hassan—ca. 2000 BCE—how the ancients went about this activity: the weights were in the form of heavy sacks of sand and had to be picked up off the ground and held up in the air above the weightlifter’s head, for an allotted time. No doubt this measured the sportsman’s strength.


During the Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 18 to be exact, and at the tomb of Kheroef at Luxor, there is yet another depiction of wrestling. This dates to about 1500 BCE.


During the New Kingdom, there have been at least five instances where ancient Egyptians wrestle against their southern neighbors: the ancient Nubians. It was at the height of Egyptian control over and imperialization of Nubia that these scenes are most prominent. However, let us not assume that Nubians appeared inferior to the Egyptians. It is from a tomb painting, dated around 1410 BCE, in the tomb of Tyanen, an officer, which proves otherwise and is the first of five Nubian wrestling scenes: this wrestling scene represents a wrestling competition as a means of military training for Nubians, whom the Egyptians recruited often in their battles, even making them their archers, possibly implying that Egyptians held Nubian wrestlers in high esteem, at least with regard to warfare. In addition, this depiction illustrates five Nubians marching together; the first four Nubians brandish sticks, which were sometimes used in dueling tournaments, and the final man in the procession carries a platform on which a husky wrestler—most likely a Nubian—and a leaner Egyptian wrestle. The appearance of men welding sticks is most likely a common addition to wrestling during ancient times; stick-fighting and wrestling appear together, perhaps indicating that those who wrestled also stick-fought.


On the other hand, it may have also been the case that wrestling matches that were for anything other than military training was to illustrate the ancient Egyptians as more superior than the Nubians, representing Egypt’s suzerainty and prowess over Nubia, an ethnocentric, boastful, fancifully imaginative, and derogatory illustration of their power over their southern neighbors. We see an example of this caliber on a relief, found in the tomb of Meryre—dated around 1355 BCE, at Akhetaten—modern El-Amarna—who was the palace steward to the wife of the pharaoh who built this city, Nefertiti. On the relief, there is a depiction of a sequence of four scenes, which were carried out as a “tribute” match in front of Akhenaten, foreign ambassadors, nobles and soldiers. The first scene depicts the Egyptian wrestler in military garb; the second scene depicts the Nubian in a head-lock; in the third, the Egyptian reaches through the Nubian’s legs and pulls his head down; and the final scene shows a victorious Egyptian, raising his hands in triumph, and the defeated Nubian, over which the Egyptian stands.


The third evidence of Nubians depicted in wrestling scenes appears also at Aketaten and date just five years after the depiction at the tomb of Meryre. This shows not a tournament for royal affairs, but that of a general match between two Nubians, at which a woman and a dog gaze. In the same area, we see also Nubians welding sticks, evidence that wrestling and stick-fighting could be seen used together. The location the sandstone carving shows is the countryside, an informal setting compared to the king’s court.


The fourth and fifth evidence of Nubian wrestling in Egyptian art can be seen at the temple of Ramesses III, Pharaoh during Dynasty 20, at Medinet Habu, an arm’s length away from the Ramesseum. This artifact, which dates to around 1000 BCE, was meant to be a prototype made for the latter location, for Ramesses II. Both the prototype and the one at the Ramesseum similarly depict a Nubian and an Egyptian engaged in a wrestling match, with Ramesses III’ appearing below the Window of Royal Appearance, a window-like structure through which he appeared in order to collect spoils of war and tribute in his honor. Nevertheless, from both the prototype and from the Ramesseum depiction, it is evident that, at these matches, Pharaoh and his court appear as well as a Nubian, possibly an emissary, bedecked with a plume and earring. A particularly enthusiastic tournament, it was most likely organized to illustrate Egyptian power over Nubia. It is also from this depiction that we see stick-fighting and wrestling happening together; a rowdy crowd calling out praises to the Egyptian, comparing him to Montu and assuring the wrestler that Amun is watching over him; and a vision that negates the fancifulness of the match…a referee, whose presences possibly denotes that all abide by an established set of rules and that the Egyptian and the Nubian have a fair chance at winning the match…or a facsimile thereof.


Similar to the relief in the tomb or Meryre, the depictions of a wrestling Egyptian and a Nubia opponent at Medinat Habu are shown in a sequence of scenes, of which there are three. In the first scene, the Egyptian has the Nubian in a choke-hold, as the referee reinforces the rules to ensure fair play before the king. The second scene shows the Egyptian forcing his defenseless opponent to the ground, taunting him all the while—a similar scene is show on the depiction at the Ramesseum. The way in which the Egyptian weakens his opponent appears to be thus: he forces the Nubians left arm into submission and holds him tightly, leaving the Nubians legs crumple beneath him. According to one source, this move would most likely not drive an opponent’s face to the ground as it does the Nubian in this depiction. It might have been the ignorance of the artist that this move was not properly documented. Rather than follow this sequence of moves to defeat the Nubian, in true Egyptian technique, the Egyptian would have employed the following moves: twisting the left arm, forcing the opponent’s thumb down, causing the bent arm to straighten all the while localizing all the pressure on the back of the Nubian’s arm. This maneuver would more than likely have hunched the Nubian’s shoulder than the maneuver depicted, but hunch his shoulder the depiction undeniably. And finally, the last scene shows the triumphant Egyptian in a victorious pose similar to the one depicted on the relief at the tomb of Meryre. Unlike the relief at Meryre, however, the one at Medinat Habu depicts the winner chanting a victory hymn as the defeated Nubian genuflects to kiss the ground before Pharaoh.



Bull Fighting


Being an agricultural civilization, cattle-breeding was eminent in the development. Depictions of cattle and other breeds of oxen seem to grace nearly every tomb depiction, whether in a sacred setting, such as the celestial cow or Hathor be, or in the every day setting, such as herding, branding, grazing, and, in this case, fighting. What is perhaps the most unusual about the Egyptians is their association of the bull as a strong, resistless creature; where they compared several of their gods to the “strong bull,” other civilizations compared theirs to the mighty lion. Granted, the ancients revered the lion just as much as the cow either was equally strong in their eyes.


Now to the matter at hand: bull-fighting was a sport that was held in an arena usually during an event known as the gymnastic games and the bull-contenders, much like in horseracing, had epithets such as “the favorite” or “broad striker.” To entice the bulls into fighting, two men acting as umpires to their own bull would use short sticks. When a clear winner was observed, this bull would then compete against another with even longer horns and swaddled with a festive cloth. A representation of this sort can be seen at, where else but, Beni Hassan and dates to the Middle Kingdom. Other representations of bullfights can also be seen at a funerary temple in Kerma, just recently discovered. Along with bullfights, these scenes also depicted fishing, crocodile, and rows of giraffes and hippopotami, the latter two being depicted rarely during ancient times. Such scenes seen at Kerma are also seen in the Aswan tomb of Sarenpet, an official, mayor of Knum, and overseer of the priests of the local temples under the reign of Senusret I during Dynasty 12.



Chariot Racing


Chariot racing was another sport of the public kind. There are no depictions anywhere to suggest the manner the ancients organized this sport, but we do know that aristocrats who were charioteers enjoyed engaging in this activity, mainly for the glamour and honor that a chariot rider was seen. As in all things, the ancients were sticklers for perfection, and this is what they did when they drove chariots; they strove to perfect the art of it.



Equestrian Sport, Horseback Riding


Although the horse was not introduced into Egypt until the New Kingdom, the ancients picked up its usage plenty quick and became masterful horseman, as they did in all things. Originally, donkeys were the main form of transportation of both royal and non-royal; this animal was a great means of transportation, especially good for usage in Egypt. A saddle used for this animal now resides in the Berlin Museum and dates to the New Kingdom. We can thank the Hyksos for the introduction of the horse into Egypt—perhaps it was this Asiatic peoples that introduced horse, but more has to been uncovered in this matter; the ancients also imported horse from Sangar. The earliest evidence of their use, along with the chariot, has been dated to Dynasty 18. However, the earliest mention of the word ‘horse,’ h.tor appears on a personal stela that dates to Dynasty 13; other words from ancient Egypt that relate to this word are ssmt and smsm. Even though horseback riding was a recreational activity, it was not done with quite as much fervor as other, more documented sports and games—this does not mean that the Egyptians were not horseback riders. However, it is for this reason, there have been no depictions of horseback riding found as of yet, though barbarians were represented on horseback and the Semitic goddess of war was also depicted on horseback; horses attached to a chariot used for war, campaigning, and hunting are the only evidence of horses. Evidence of horseback riding by a non-Egyptian can be seen on a battle ax. Evidence of horseback riding, of only man and horse together with only a saddle between them comes in the form of the written word, of literary illusions: the officers were said to have been on horseback, in pursuit of the enemy; a story tells us of the pharaoh mounting a horse and another ruler was accompanied by his wife who was on horseback; and a fighter received a letter from an opponent by a messenger who appeared to him on horseback. Evidence of the chariot and horse kind are thus: in the tomb of Horemheb, which is located in Luxor and dates to Dynasty 18 circa 1900 BCE; at the Luxor Temple, which dates to Dynasty 18 circa 1280 BCE and depicts a cavalry; also depicting a cavalry is one that dates to Dynasty 26 circa 700 BCE; and at Medinat Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, which illustrates equipment for a horse—a saddle and other accoutrement—which dates to Dynasty 20 circa 1180 BCE.





The most surprising here may be that the ancient Egyptians were the first to institute a form of sport known to most Europeans as football, or soccer to Westerners. As is the case for evidence of handball, evidence of football in ancient Egypt can be seem depicted on the walls of Beni Hassan where the girls who are shown playing handball with each other also play football, kicking a ball with their legs and executing passes with it. What a great reason to give the next World Cup concession to Egypt: “we were the first nation to invent it!”





Some depictions at Beni Hassan in Minya, especially at the tombs of Khiti and Baket, which date to Dynasty 11 circa 2000 BCE, offer us a glimpse at what a handball game might have looked like, who played, how many played, and with what equipment the players played the game. The most likely way players of handball set themselves up to play handball was to have two or more bend their persons over, while carrying a person on each of their backs. Once there are two or more persons on piggy-back, they would then toss around and catch a handball or juggle two to three balls at once. There is evidence of this particular game on one wall painting at Tel-el Amarna, ancient Akhetaten. This painting shows a group of girls—most likely of royal status, as the headdresses each wears denotes. Not only did girls play this sport but also boy; one theory voices that the beauty of a girl was measured by the strength of her back—her ability to play this game, to carry another person on her back, would give credit to her beauty. According to the ancients, women were in charge of bearing heavy burdens such as birthing children and carrying heavy things—they were thought to be the stronger gender, whereas men were the directors.





The prime area from where the evidence of this sport is can be found in tombs at Beni Hassan; drawings in Menia Governate illustrate hockey players, holding bat-like sticks, most likely made from the wood of palm or tamarisk branches or stalks. At the end of such sticks was a bent edge, which resembles the form of the modern day hockey stick. As for the ball used for the ancient game, it was made from papyrus fibers, which were compressed within two pieces of leather, shaped in a semicircle. At times, the ball was tinted to make its color contrasting to the ground on which it was played; usually it was dyed in two or more colors.





Ends To The Means

Perhaps the most beloved sport in which royalty and peasant alike engaged was hunting both in the marshes and on land for either sport or for leisure; peasants hunted mainly on foot in order to provide their families with food, whereas kings, courtiers, dignitaries, and other folks of royalty hunted in order to display their strength, courage, valor, and mastery over all animals they hunted. Peasants would not have hunted to prove anything, but being a successful hunter without a doubt symbolized his strength, courage, valor and mastery.


In general, hunting had a ritualistic connotation for anyone who engaged in it; it can be said that no greater civilization has ever revered more the animals they hunted than the ancient Egyptians, with the exception of the Native Americans. Like them, the ancient Egyptians prayed to various gods and goddesses of animal images—say, praying to Bastet or to Mafdet for success in hunting wild cat…or praying to Sobek that they may avoid being eaten by crocodile—ere going out on the hunt, to ensure their safety and the bounty for which they hoped would come in plenty. Not only did success come in praying for it, but also it came by knowing their prey well; they knew how each species of animal mated, ate, by what means each normally died, and other personal traits they felt important to know in order to ensure success on the hunt. It usually worked. What is more, animals such as the lion, represented royalty and there was something more to hunting lion than just for the fun of it. Being the image of the pharaoh’s power and leadership and the dangers that came with hunting such a beast, the lion embodied the pharaoh’s ability to triumph over his enemies and further symbolized the pharaoh’s courage.


Type Of Game On Land

The ancient Egyptians hunted both on the waters of the River Nile and in the red sands of the desert. The game after which they chased on land varied from dynasty to dynasty. For example, during the pre-dynastic period—the time before the unification of Egypt—agricultural Egypt had not yet been established; the area was more of a jungle complex than anything else, with its tamarisk trees, thickets, papyrus plants and reeds. This meant that all sorts of large game on four legs prowled around: elephant, giraffe, lions, rhinoceros and wild boar. Other animals hunted by the ancients included antelope, gazelle, stags, ibex, ostrich, fox, hare, hyena, and many species of deer and bird, just to name a handful. Later on, the first few dynasties hailed in the first signs of agricultural development; farmers began to drain the marshes where once large game lived, extending the agricultural boundaries. All this cause was not without effect: when farmers drained the marshes, they chased all large game—elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros and wild board being a few examples—away from the valley. Despite this change in economics and the loss of larger game, the Old Kingdom peoples still hunted for food—they were actually quite good at hunting at this time; the game they hunted was of the faster sort and included animals they had hunted before, such as lions, gazelle, stags, and ostrich.


Type Of Game In The Marshes

Just as the ancients were great hunters on land, they were also just as great in the marshes and waters of the River Nile. The animals the Egyptians hunted at this time included any of the following: fish, duck, crocodile, or hippopotami; one artifact that makes known the type of animal hunted in or by water is a fragmented papyrus named The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling. Let us first examine fishing.


To us westerners, fishing for sport—or for food, to some, one-in-the-same—doesn’t differ from fishing for sport or for food—always one-in-the-same—in ancient times. Examine how you fish, next time you go; how fish market venders sell their fish; and how they prepare fish to sell: almost a replica of how the ancients used to do it, however, with far less technological advances as are evident now.


Like most recreational activities in which the ancients engaged, in particular peasants, fishing was depicted on many-a tomb painting; the ancient fishers, much like today, could be seen lazily lounging about in chairs alongside the Nile or beside their garden pools—if they were so lucky to have one—waiting for a single tug. Depictions also have shown us the playful side of fishing: on another tomb painting, we can see fishermen jostling each others’ fishing rods with theirs—the fishing rod, a New Kingdom technique used for so many things. On the other hand, fishing was a measure of professionalism; these sorts of fishers stood on canoes made of papyrus, welded harpoons, and waited for the right opportunity to strike.


As is no doubt evident, fishing was a great pastime and sport among the Egyptians and having an abundant supply of species of fish helped in the matter. Among the many fish caught for sport—a count of around 20 different species, as shown on tomb paintings and reliefs—were the following: Nile perch; eel; catfish; carp; mullet; tilapia or ‘bolti’; elephant-snout; tiger fish; the amphibious clarias; the electric catfish, called malapterurus electricus, which packs a powerful 200 volt punch; and moonfish—the Nile perch and eel being considered the most sacred of the lot and the best at that.


Just as there were a great many fish after which both royal and commoner hunted either for sport of for necessity, there was an equal amount of fowl after which they hunted. These included the ser, which was a rather fat goose; the terp; the hoopoe; crane; ducks; quail; the much sought-after bird off Arabia, which supposedly smelt of myrrh; and many others.


Whether hunting or sporting in the water, there were dangers all the same, be it from crocodile or other fish-eating aqua dwellers such as poisonous catfish; crocodile finding a fish on a line could without effort make a meal out of the fisherman—if he should fall overboard—on whose line this fish was caught.


It was not only in the mind of a hunter to be wary of the crocodile to keep from being injured by such an animal, but also to be seen as brave in hunting such a dangerous and sacred beast. In ancient times, it was an honor and a feat of which to be proud if one successfully hunting the crocodile. However, no depictions of such a sport exist, which gives one reason to believe that the crocodile was revered with such respect that depicting it being hunted was not conducive to their reverence.


One the other hand, the hippopotamus—an even more dangerous creature after which to hunt because of its size and powerful jaws that can crush a crocodile—was extensively shown being hunted, a beast as dangerous and sacred to the Egyptians as the crocodile. Successfully hunting a hippopotamus, which took several jabs of the harpoon at times, was also cause for great pride to whoever hunted it. It must have been the best mode of feeling proud and gaining great recognition and reverence from one’s people, owning to the fact that Old Kingdom depictions are plenty.


Preparation Of Food After Hunting

If a fisherman had caught his fish without incident, he could prepare to eat it by first cleaning it and then cooking it by doing any of the following: pickling, roasting, salting, drying in the sun, or boiling. It was also usual for a fisherman who was part of a group of men working for a master to collect their lot of fish, string the fish through their gills, attach their catch of fish in rows on a stick, and then carry it all to the fish dealers. Just as a lone fisherman might prepare fish for his family’s next meal, so also did the fish dealers: they sat low to the ground, near a small table, where they would clean out and cut up the freshly caught fish. Afterward, he would hand the fish on strings in order for them to dry out in the sun. Sometimes, to spare the dealer this preparation process, to prevent spoiling, and if the fishermen’s trip was a rather long one, the fishermen would do the cleaning and cutting on their boats.


Hunting Techniques; Equipment Used

During the earlier dynasties, hunting on land was done on foot; only until the advent of the usage of horse and chariot—a 2000 BCE adoption, thanks to the Hyksos—did Pharaoh and his colleagues hunt this way. For either means of hunting, the key technique that the ancients employed to hunt their prey resembled that which a wild animal hunting would use: to lie-in-wait for or to lure a large number of animal to a specific locale such as a body of water or a valley. Once this step was followed through, the hunters attacked their prey en bloc with throwing sticks, boomerangs, or nets to catch birds; spears or arrows to catch land or water animals; or nets specially made to capture fish. Another approach to hunting was to use dogs—perhaps a type of greyhound, so tomb paintings illustrate—or tamed cheetah as accompaniment on the hunt.


When the ancients hunted in the marshes, especially for fish, they used nets, traps, pens, hooks, or harpoons; this type of equipment was in great employ during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. In its earliest usage, the harpoon was a common tool to spear fish, usually two at a time—one fish caught on either end of the double-edged harpoon, which was made of a thin piece of wood 3 yards long with barbs attached to either end. Later on, however, the spear was used in a more recreational setting, where fishing for necessity was not the aim; rather skill and technique were measured. It was also during the Old Kingdom through the New Kingdom that hunters of hippopotami used harpoons, which was designed so that, if one punctured the skin of this animal, the shaft of the weapon would separate from the spear, which was attached to a string, sort of like a hippo fishing pole. Being such powerful creatures with killer jaws, hunters of this animal dared only to approach it by boat—what fool would jump in the water with it, aside from the Crocodile Hunter. The method of killing the animal came in more than one jab of a harpoon, but in several. When the hunter first strikes his prey, releases the spear point from the shaft, and if the hippo retreated to the depths of the water, out of sight of it’s hunter, the hunter would allow the hippo to go under as the hunter lets out his line to permit this turn of events. Having the ability to hold its breath under water for so long, the hippo would eventually come up for air; at this moment, the hunter would wound the creature again. When the hippo gave in to weakness, the hunter would tie a rope round the animal’s head and then drag its body to shore.


Another sort of tool the ancients used to fish for either recreation or for necessity were bow- and drag-nets, which was a favorite and more convenient piece of equipment mostly used by the common fisherman and that started its usage during the Old Kingdom. These nets are almost similar to modern ones in design, where corks (on top) and weights (on bottom) were fastened to either end of the net. Once it was situated upright in the water and when a good amount of fish were wading within the net’s boundaries, the fishermen would pull on strings that were attached to either end of the net, trapping a good thirty heavy fish of various kinds, previously mentioned. When they used hooks, they were simple in structure, made of bone and attached to a line. A typical bone hook would measure anywhere from 8mm to 18mm. By Dynasty 12, the ancients started to make their hooks from metal, which was in lieu of bone, some of these hooks would also be with or without barb.


The ancient Egyptians also enjoyed hunting or sporting for fowl, which included crane, duck, geese, and quail; the nobility employed throwing sticks to knock their prey out of the sky—it illustrated their skilled aim, not necessarily their success in hunting for food—and the common Egyptians preferred to net fowl as they would fish. Otherwise stated, Egyptians of royal blood would use spears, throw sticks, or harpoon for hunting fish, bird, or hippopotami for recreation, respectively, equipment efficient enough to kill one animal at a time, hardly; the commoner would use nets or snares for hunting for the need of food, equipment efficient enough to catch a large amount of animal. The way the common Egyptians would lure either was to bait the trap with corn, maggots, or worms. Really, when royals used spears, throw sticks or harpoons, it was not necessary to provide bait; his skill was the only thing that was required of him during the hunt.


Typically, the royal Egyptian would wear his honorable costume when he went out to hunt any animal he pleased, accompanied by his wife and his children. This costume was composed of his royal skirt, a beautiful wig, and his false beard. His wife might wear a sheath dress covered by a beaded collar and a wig of longer length than that of her husband’s. The royal man’s children would usually be naked with a number of bracelets, armlets, or anklets on. As mentioned before, if the royal was hunting bird in the marshes, he would float through the forest of papyrus reeds and then fling his boomerang-like throw stick, typically made from a small piece of hard wood that was bent in a certain way so as to cause it to return to the thrower after he threw it, at the neck of a bird, breaking it if he was so skilled. When the bird fell to the water, his wife would collect it as her husband scoped the air for more targets. The children, on the other hand, would playfully swivel the water with their fingers as the boat sailed through it.


The commoner, whose aim at hunting was of the necessary sort, would not trouble himself with decorating his person with unnecessary clothing, such as a skirt, a wig or a false beard, the last being one he would never have worn. It was commonplace to start off with wearing a skirt, but it was not an unusual event to discard this, leaving nothing concealed, when hunting became intense, especially when the bird and fish nets were full to the brim with bird and fish. Rather than be accompanied by wife and children, a man was accompanied by a handful of his best mates. Sometimes, a master had a small group of men who worked for him in hunting. In either case, the group of hunters would far exceed that of the royal group, whose only master at hunting was Pharaoh himself. The costume and number of hunters in a group were not the only aspects that differed between royal recreation and common persons hunting for food, but also the way the latter group of people caught their birds and fish. As mentioned before, snares and nets were mostly used and were baited either with maggot or other type of food or with a decoy bird. It is difficult to be certain of the actual bait used, as most of the scenes depicting such hunting occur at the moment a group of men catch their lot of prey. However, just from observation, we can determine that bait was used and that the nets and snared, especially for bird-catching, measured about 10 feet by 12 feet. Much like how modern-day hunters trap their prey, during the Old Kingdom, the common Egyptian concealed his net or snare beneath the reeds floating on the water. In silence, the men would wait until a great many bird sat their fannies on the traps to delight themselves with the bait. Once the number of bird within the concealed net or snare was to the master’s liking, usually around 30 or 40 birds, he would wave a piece of linen in the air to signal to his men to start pulling on the string that was attached to the net or snare in order to close it. The master or leader would also help in closing the net as well as break some of the wings of the birds inside in order to prevent any from escaping. Once caught, the trapped birds would be sorted and put into cages, ready for transport.



Marathon Running


In ancient times as well as modern times anyone of any class knows how to and can run, but it was the king for whom running was of the utmost importance, especially to measure his ability to rule. Typically, the king and those born on the same day participated in a marathon race of sort, where each runner fasted until having covered 180 stages of the race. Whether or not this was part of the following festival, which is of a more sacred significance, is not certain.


The heb sed festival

The heb sed festival, also known as the ‘royal jubilee festival,’ was the most famous and ancient of all running sports of ancient Egypt. Unlike other sports this was a race of only one person: Pharaoh himself. This festival took place after the 30th year of a pharaoh’s reign, thus it is evident that only a handful of Egyptian rulers have ever gone through this ritualistic run. However, on some reliefs and for some kings, the festival is celebrated earlier. What is more, rulers that had a relatively shorter reign, say of less than 30 years, would only have been depicted symbolically carrying out this duty of kingship.


The point of the exercise was to renew the ruler’s royal powers and potion as king. As a means of illustrating his right to rule, Pharaoh would sometimes be depicted running in step with an Apis bull, the living image of Ptah when alive and of Osiris when dead. When pharaoh successfully executed the race, re-coronation took place. It was not only in life that Pharaoh would run the heb sed, but also he was to do the same during the Afterlife, renewing his power and position even in death. Evidence of the heb sed during the Afterlife can be found depicted on an alabaster vase, which was found in a chamber under Djoser’s pyramid.


A great example of a heb sed court—where Pharaoh would engage in this ceremony—can be found at Saqqara, near King Djoser’s step pyramid. On the walls of the Southern Tomb, on the south side of the Great Courtyard, there are depictions of King Djoser running the heb sed race; here he has renewed his royal position, rightfully being called Horus Netjerikhet. At center of the Great Courtyard resides a set of semi-circular blocks, between which Djoser would run the heb sed in the Afterlife. It is said that these semi-circular blocks had some cosmic connotation to them, representing the order of the universe. On the other hand, these markers may have represented the frontiers of Egypt, symbolizing the boundaries of Pharaoh’s dominion. On the east side of the Great Courtyard is a temple, named Temple T, perhaps a pavilion through or at which King Djoser ran or waited at a certain point in the ceremony, respectively. Following the curve of the walls of Temple T, we enter the heb sed court. It is at the center of this court that steps would have led up to a platform roofed by a canopy; here King Djoser would have been re-crowned twice—as Ruler of Lower Egypt and then as Ruler of Upper Egypt.


The earliest evidence of this festival can be found on a small ebony label, which used to be attached to an oil jar perhaps belonging to King Den of Dynasty I, in whose tomb at Abydos this object was found. On it one can see a tiny figure of a man, running through a court and then being crowned on a canopied platform. From this date through Pharaonic Egypt, this festival had been practiced. For example and as mentioned before, there is a wonderful mural at Saqqara, dating to 2650 BCE, which depicts king Djoser participating in his heb sed festival. The quality of workmanship accentuates the significance of physical fitness that the ancients held in high opinion; the artist shows his skill in depicting the leanness of Pharaoh’s muscles; the anatomical correctness of arms, legs and torso; and movement only such a skilled artist could capture. We find also the remains of the heb sed boundaries of Hatshepsut at the Red Chapel at Karnak, which date to 1480 BCE, where also she is depicted running with the Apis bull between these boundaries. Inside the Theban mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, we see the king running his race, though in a different manner as the previous two. Instead of running his race in a court near his tomb, descriptions indicate he did so, on the great artificial lake of his design at Malkata. However, Amenhotep III was not the only ruler to break with tradition; the heretic ruler, Akhenaten, did as well—big surprise. Evidence of Akhenaten running his heb sed race appear in the colonnade court of the Temple of Aten at Karnak. Traditionally, Pharaoh was the only runner in the race; however Akhenaten, Nefertiti, their daughters, and the aten took part in the action. The most intriguing of the lot is the aten; never has a god been depicted in a heb sed festival, other than the Apis bull. The aten’s appearance, as Akhenaten’s philosophy would imply, was the god’s participation in the festival was necessary, as a king and a god are one in the same. Pharaohs of Dynasties 19 and 20 engage also in their royal duty to re-coronation: Seti I carries out his heb sed duty, which is depicted at Abydos and dates to1300 BCE; his son, Ramesses II, is depicted on the inner walls of the hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak, on a dilapidated block found at Tanis, and at Abu Simbel, running his heb sed race, the latter dating to 1280 BCE; and Ramesses III, a Dynasty 20 ruler, participates in his royal jubilee festival, which is depicted at his mortuary temple at Medinat Habu and dates to 1880 BCE.


Other evidence of this festival taking place span all the way to Dynasty 22, where Osorkon II is depicted in his heb sed uniform—usually a short wrapped skirt, a crown, a false beard, a flail, and an object yet to be identified. This depiction of Osorkon II is located in scenes on the wall of the temple dedicated to Bastet, at Bubastis. At Kom Ombo, Ptolemy VIII, a foreign king, is depicted on carved reliefs; here he is receiving gifts from Horus.



Tennis, Badminton


Similar to the execution of handball, girls and boys and even Pharaoh and his wife, played a game that resembles the modern tennis or badminton game. Evidence of such matches can be found in paintings at Tel-el Amarna, ancient Akhetaten.


Although it is far from clear, Egypt—along with Greece and Rome—may have been one of the first ancient civilizations to engage—invent?—the game of tennis; others accredit the origins of tennis to French monks of Medieval France. That which is in ancient Egypt’s favor is the apparent similarities between Arabic words—dating from ancient times—and English derivatives; Tinnis or Tanis—the city near the Delta—and rahat—meaning ‘palm of the hand’—corresponding to “tennis” and “racquet,” respectively.

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