The ancient Egyptian civilization has had many high points. To this day, we still talk about their architecture and the artwork that they left behind. Their most famous pharaohs have become iconic. However, we should consider what information we have about their armies. How many troops did they have? What were the kinds of Egyptian weapons that were in use at the time?
In most cases, a powerful old civilization like ancient Egypt was only as strong as its army. And the Egyptian army was a force to be reckoned with. They were especially celebrated for their range of projectile weapons and the war chariot. From the early days of the Old Kingdom to the height of their power, the Egyptian dynasties owed a great deal to their armies. At one time, the Egyptian military was the greatest fighting force in the world.
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The Beginnings of Ancient Egypt and Early Weapons
In the beginning, with the early ruling dynasties (3150 BCE – 2613 BCE), the Egyptian army was still in its infancy stage. The weapons that the soldiers carried were daggers, maces, spears, and simple bows and arrows. The bows were the only long-range weapons, while the daggers and maces would be used in melee and close-range combat. The weapons were naturally of a more rudimentary type at the time.
The spear tips were made of copper and were a slight improvement from the wooden-tipped spears carried by Egyptian hunters of earlier periods. The daggers also had copper blades, which meant that they were not very strong or reliable. Copper is a rather brittle metal.
Even with the rise of the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian military was not an organized force. There was no one standing army. The governor of each region had to raise an army made up of volunteers. Serving in the Egyptian army was not considered a prestigious position in those days, even though the soldiers fought under the pharaoh and in his name. Only the poor would sign up for the army since they could not afford to be trained for other jobs.
The Old Kingdom army still used the old bow with a single arch. This was before the composite bow was introduced in Egypt. The old bows were long, but the single-arched bows were difficult to draw. They did not have a very long range and were not always accurate.
READ MORE: Ancient Egypt Timeline
The Middle Kingdom and the Egyptian Army
With the rise of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II of Thebes came the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt. He maintained a large and well-equipped standing army. He carried out military campaigns in Nubia and united the country under his rule. Mentuhotep was not fond of the earlier system of individual governors answering to a central government in Herakleopolis. Herakleopolis was known as Het-Nesut in Egyptian but was called Herakleopolis by the Romans, after Heracles.
Mentuhotep got rid of the system, toppled the central government in Herakleopolis, and established a proper Egyptian army. Since the army in the earlier system was on a voluntary and temporary basis, it did not have much funding or proper weapons. This was the major change that this period of Egypt’s history brought about, the establishment of a permanent and much larger military. However, the ancient Egyptian weapons of the Middle Kingdom were not very advanced. The swords and daggers the Egyptian soldiers used were still made of copper and could snap from a hard blow.
One revolutionary weapon of the time was the slicing ax, which had a crescent copper blade attached to the end of a long wooden shaft. It had good range and was a very effective weapon as the wooden shields of the time were not a good defense against it. The armies were also provided with minimal body armor, which they had not worn before.
The Intermediate Periods
Egypt had two intermediate periods, between the Old and Middle Kingdoms and then between the Middle and New Kingdoms. These were periods with changing power structures, where there was no one overarching ruler.
The Second Intermediate Period was when the Hyksos from western Asia and other Canaanite people came over to Egypt. This was not originally good for the Egyptians, who fled from the foreigners in Upper Egypt and whose government collapsed. However, it eventually had a positive effect on their armies. This period was significant in Egyptian history because of the way it led to the streamlining of weaponry.
The Hyksos brought inventions that changed the ancient Egyptian army forever. They brought with them horses and war chariots, as well as the composite bow. These became essential parts of Egyptian armies in later years.
The Hyksos held most of the important Egyptian cities for many years, apart from Thebes, which was still ruled by Egyptians. It was Ahmose I of Thebes, who finally defeated them and established the New Kingdom.
The New Kingdom Army
The New Kingdom was one of the most prominent and powerful eras, militarily, in Egyptian history. Having beaten off the Hyksos, they developed their armies and introduced several new kinds of weapons. They were determined that they would not be invaded by foreign conquerors again. The New Kingdom soldiers were outfitted with better armor and advanced in training rapidly. The defeats of the Second Intermediate period were left behind and forgotten.
There were different divisions in the Egyptian army. These divisions were arranged according to the weapons they used. Thus, there were lancers, archers, spearmen, and the infantry. The charioteers were a different and more elite group.
Egyptian Gods and Weapons
The people of ancient Egypt did not specifically have a deity devoted to making weapons. But Neith (also spelled Nit or Net) was an ancient Egyptian goddess who was considered the goddess of war. In this form, Neith was said to forge the weapons of warriors and to guard their bodies. Neith was one of the older and more obscure Egyptian gods. Fittingly enough, she was sometimes paired up with Ptah, the god of crafts and creation.
She was often associated with archery as the goddess of war and hunting. Two arrows crossed over a wooden shield were her symbol. Thus, it is clear that the bow and arrow were one of the most important of the ancient Egyptian weapons.
Weapons of the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom faced its share of challenges and foreign conquests, from the Hittites and a mysterious group of people called the Sea Peoples. In facing these conquests, the ancient Egyptians employed the weapons they had gotten from the Hyksos. The Egyptians also had a strong infantry and were not just dependent on their charioteers, like the Hyksos were. The Egyptian troops of the New Kingdom now had the training and the weaponry to drive the invaders off.
Apart from long-range composite bows and brand-new chariots, some other new technology used by the ancient Egyptians was the khopesh and proper body armor for the soldiers.
The Importance of Projectile Weapons
The Ancient Egyptian weapons used in the earlier stages of the civilizations had improved greatly by the time of the New Kingdom. Projectile weapons that could be used for long-range war became more and more common in the later centuries. Although siege engines, catapults, and trebuchets were not known at the time, individual projectile weapons like the javelin, slingshot, and spears were commonly used.
The Egyptians also used a kind of rudimentary boomerang made of wood. These were mostly used for hunting, but decorative boomerangs have been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The composite bow was one of the more advanced and deadly projectile weapons used in those days. It not only had a longer range but also more accurate aim than the single-arched bows of earlier days.
Projectile weapons could be used from a distance to take out the enemy before the infantry was sent to the battlefield. They greatly helped to bring down the number of casualties. The enemy was already weakened by the time the foot soldiers, armed with spears and shields, took to the field.
Egyptian Chariots and Armor
As stated earlier, the Egyptian war chariots evolved from the chariots that the Hyksos introduced into Egypt. Charioteers were the strongest force in the Egyptian army, although Egypt also had a well-developed infantry section. These men were considered foremost among all the Egyptian warriors and were from the upper classes. The chariots were manned by two soldiers, a driver with a shield and a marksman armed with a projectile weapon, usually a bow.
The chariots were light and speedy and could turn quickly and suddenly. They were drawn by two horses and had wheels with spokes in them. However, they did have one major drawback. They could only be used in large, flat terrains. The chariots became more hindrance than help in rocky, mountainous terrains. This was the case in a war between the Egyptians and the people of Syria in the 8th and 9th centuries BCE.
Just as important as offensive weapons was the defensive equipment provided to an army. The armor provided to the Egyptian troops was much improved in the later years. Full metal armor was not worn by the ancient Egyptians because of the climate and weather. Only the Pharaoh had this distinction, and that only from the waist up. However, the soldiers were provided with shields, made of wood, leather, or bronze. Some soldiers wore leather bands around their chests to protect vital organs.
Scale armor was common among the charioteers. Both drivers and marksmen wore armor made of bronze scales that allowed greater mobility.
Examples Of Ancient Egyptian Weapons
There were many different kinds of ancient Egyptian weapons, some of which were quite distinctive. For example, we would not think the slingshot was a weapon an elite and highly trained army would use in a war. But the Egyptians did use them.
The spear was a common Egyptian weapon from very early on. In the earliest years, the tips of the spears were made of wood. These eventually evolved into the bronze-tipped Egyptian spear. Spearmen were usually armed with a shield as well, and the wooden shafts of the spears were quite long. Thus, they could attack from a longer range while using the shield to protect themselves from oncoming attacks.
Apart from the projectile spears made for thrusting, there were also spears fitted with ax heads at the end to cut the enemy down with.
Spearmen made up the largest fighting force and the core of the army in ancient Egypt.
The javelin, which we know from the Olympics in the modern day, evolved from simple spears. They were meant to be thrown at the enemy. Like arrows, soldiers carried quivers filled with javelins. They had diamond-shaped heads made of metal and could pierce through armor when thrown from a distance.
Javelins could be collected and reused after a battle, unlike arrows. They were also light and well-balanced weapons, which made them quite accurate. Javelins, like spears, could be used for thrusting. But they had a shorter range than the typical spear.
The composite bow was the weapon that changed Egyptian warfare the most from the early days. An invaluable loan from the Hyksos, these bows had a long recurved shape. They reached 5 feet in length and had a range of about 250-300 meters (above 800 feet).
The Egyptians valued these bows so much that they reportedly demanded composite bows in tribute from their fallen enemies rather than gold. Made from wood and horn, the bows were held together with animal glue. The strings were made from animal guts. The composite bow was expensive to make and maintain, which is why they were so prized.
The arrows for these composite bows were made of reed and had a bronze tip.
Bow and Arrow
While the composite bow certainly helped the Egyptians make greater strides in warfare, we should not forget the simple single-arched bows that had existed before. They had always been a very important Egyptian weapon.
They were made first of horn and later of wood. The strings were made of plant fiber or animal sinew. The arrows were bronze-tipped woody reeds. The Egyptians did not favor one particular kind of wood to make these bows but would use various kinds, both native Egyptian wood, as well as wood from foreign lands.
These bows were harder to draw than composite bows. The archers who used them needed greater strength and experience. These single-arched bows were not completely abandoned after the introduction of the composite bow. Ancient battle records seem to imply that both Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II still used these bows in their armies.
The Egyptian battle axe was a new weapon in the New Kingdom. Before this, the only battle axes known by the ancient Egyptian soldiers were the slicing axes of the Middle Kingdom. While this was effective against enemies who were not armored, it did not prove as effective against armored ones.
The new battle axes evolved out of the old ones after Egypt’s encounters with the armored Hittites and Syrians. They were a secondary weapon used by the foot soldiers. The new Egyptian battle axe had a narrow blade with a straight edge that could punch through the armor that could not be sliced through.
For a brief period, before the battle axe, the Egyptians carried a weapon called the mace axe. Historians say this weapon was unique to Egypt and was used to bash through wooden shields and break enemy swords with blunt force. These two-handed axes had heads made of metals like bronze and copper. They eventually evolved into the battle axes used by the later Egyptian soldiers.
The khopesh was a distinctive Egyptian weapon and a rather unique one. It has become synonymous with Egyptian pharaohs because several have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. For example, Tutankhamun’s tomb had two khopeshes. Many have even been depicted carrying these weapons in ancient Egyptian art.
The khopesh was something like a curved sword. The name means ‘leg’ or ‘leg of beef’ because of the curved shape. It was sharp only on the outer side. The weapon looked like a scythe but was considered a brutal and terrifying instrument of war. With its sharp outer blade, the ancient Egyptians dispatched warriors that had already fallen with one blow.
The khopesh appears to have fallen out of favor by 1300 BCE.
One of the more unique weapons used by the ancient Egyptians was the slingshot. The advantage of the slingshot was that it did not require much training to use. In the absence of trebuchets and catapults, these weapons were used to throw stones at the enemy. They were also easy to make and carry. The only material needed to use these particular projectile weapons was rocks, which could be easily replaced on the battlefield, unlike arrows.
The slingshots would, in most cases, not result in the deaths of enemy soldiers. They were used mainly for distraction purposes and played a secondary role in warfare. However, in the hands of a well-trained soldier with good aim, the slingshot could be just as useful as an arrow or a spear.
Broad swords and long swords were not weapons used by the Egyptians. They did, however, make use of daggers and short swords. Before the conquest of the Hyksos, these weapons were not very reliable as the copper blades were brittle and broke easily.
However, advances in the technology of bronze casting in later years meant that the ancient Egyptians could cast whole swords of bronze. The hilt and blade formed one solid piece without any joints. The lack of joints meant that these weapons did not have a weak link anymore.
These new and improved swords and daggers now came to be used widely in warfare. The daggers would be used for close-range combat and to stab enemy soldiers. The longer short swords could be used for slashing at the bodies of the enemy at a somewhat longer range. It was never, however, the primary weapon of the Egyptian armies.