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Forts, Pharaonic Egypt


A fort is often defined as a fortified building,

or fortified position, while military historians recognize three basic types: a refuge
(place of retreat), a stronghold (essentially a
center securing an area), and strategic defenses
(an integrated line of fortifications controlling
a broad region or frontier) (Gilbert 2004: 99).
The materials, designs, sizes, population
(garrison), aims/functions, and locations
of fortifications vary widely throughout
antiquity, while innovations over time are
closely related to geographical location (i.e.,

Figure 1

landscape), changing sociopolitical and economic circumstances, means, and needs, and
advances in and adaptations against military
technology, siege tactics, and other strategies.
This entry covers Egyptian fortifications from
the late Predynastic through Pharaonic periods
(ca. 4000332 BCE).
From a purely architectural standpoint, many
ancient Egyptian non-military structures incorporated similar fortification features, including palace compounds (e.g., Malkata (see
MALKATA/MALQATA); el-Amarna (see AMARNA)),

Late Old Kingdom fort at Ras Budran. Courtesy of G. Mumford.

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, First Edition. Edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine,
and Sabine R. Huebner, print pages 27242730.
2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah15163

cultic and mortuary temple complexes (e.g.,
KARNAK Temple, MEDINET HABU (DJEME)), workmens communities (e.g., Qasr es-Sagha,
EL-LAHUN), and other state-founded installations (e.g., a hilltop mining camp at Wadi
Maghara). Despite such superficial similarities,
the Egyptians applied various indigenous
and Semitic-Akkadian terms to designate several types of military installations, including
mennw (in the Old Kingdom and later),
khetem (used especially in the 18th Dynasty
and the Ramesside period), and mekeder,
nakhtw, bekhen, and seger (applied in the
Ramesside period). These terms have been
translated variously and collectively as stronghold, keep, castle, fort, fortress, and
Morris (2005: 46, 80423) discusses these
terms in detail. The Egyptian term mennw
initially referred to variously sized Egyptian
desert strongholds and fort-towns in NUBIA
during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, perhaps
including a 44-m diameter fort found at Ras
Budran, south Sinai (Figure 1). In the New

Kingdom this label appears to indicate

a more substantial fortress-town spanning
10,00050,000 m2 (e.g., Aksha, Sesebi). The
latter type of fort is often associated with
the non-military term for town (demi), and
it was applied to well-fortified settlements in
the Western Desert (Libya) and more poorly
fortified towns in Nubia. Egyptian khetemforts also vary widely in size and complexity
but appear to be situated mainly at strategic
points (i.e., border forts) allowing foreign
access to the Nile flood plain. Hence, they
served as a seal/lock, essentially a controlling
mechanism, from which the term is derived.
The other terms appear to be less specific:
the words nakhtw (Egyptian for stronghold),
mekeder (Semitic migdol: tower/fort), and
bekhen (Egyptian for elite-royal estate or
dwelling) are used equally to label a number
of very similar looking forts both found by
excavations in north Sinai and depicted along
Sety Is military road (Way of Horus) in
Karnak Temple. Morris (2005: 6) argues,
however, that an analysis of the usage contexts

Figure 2 Middle Kingdom fort at Buhen. Adapted by Mumford from Vogel (2004, 235 abb. 26b) and Emery,
Smith and Millard, The Fortress of Buhen: The Archaeological Report (1979).

for these terms reveal some links between
nakhtw and military posts containing prisoners of war, and correlations between bekhen
and agricultural estates. In contrast, the
Semitic term mekeder appears to refer mostly
to military installations in north Sinai.

In the Nile floodplain and adjacent areas,
most Egyptian fortifications display mud-brick
walls with timber components and stone gate
jambs and lintels (e.g., Buhen (Figure 2),
Mirgissa, Semna, Shelfak, Uronarti), but could
incorporate more stone in specialized complexes, e.g., Rameses IIIs fortified mortuary
temple and administrative center at Medinet
Habu. Wooden beams strengthened mud-brick
fortification walls, being placed within courses
along the length and across the width of walling
systems, which also enhanced their stability
against earthquakes. Many walls also contained
interior drainage channels, permitting the mud
bricks to dry more rapidly in areas experiencing
precipitation or fluctuating water tables.
In areas lacking sufficient clay sources, the
Egyptians either imported mud bricks or
adapted local materials (Tell Heboua, Tel
Qedwa). The fortified Old Kingdom settlement
at Kor (Buhen South) utilized a perimeter wall
of fieldstone. A late Old Kingdom fort at Ras
Budran in south Sinai (Figure 1) incorporated
undressed limestone slabs for its defenses.
A Middle Kingdom fort near the amethyst
mines in Wadi el-Hudi contained rough stone
for its walls. At Tell el-Borg in northwest Sinai,
an 18th Dynasty fortification introduced a moat
lined with baked bricks and overlying packed
clay to stabilize it in an area that originally
had a high water table; an adjacent Ramesside
fort placed reused limestone blocks in its
moat. A Saite fort at Tel Qedwa (northwest
Sinai) incorporated a series of square, soil-filled,
small chambers along the length of its foundation perimeter wall; this may have served as a
drainage system for a structure that originally
lay within low-lying coastal marshland.

Pharaonic forts ranged from square
(Elephantine), to rectilinear (Buhen), L-shaped
(Semna West), and irregular plans following the
contours of the landscape in which they were
sited (Askut, Shelfak, Uronarti). The late
Predynastic through Old Kingdom period
yields circular mennw tower forts, found
as models (Abadiyeh, SAQQARA), hieroglyphic
determinatives, and perhaps via physical
remains at Ras Budran and elsewhere in the
Western Desert. Models and depictions of circular fort towers display a rope ladder entry to
the upper battlements, which is suggested by
finds at Ras Budran.
In more complex larger forts, such as
Middle Kingdom ones occupying Lower
Nubia, the walling systems often incorporated
an outer low wall and glacis fronting a
plastered dry moat, a low inner wall with
rounded buttresses, and a high inner wall with
projecting square towers. For example, Buhen
(Figure 2) contained elaborate, well-protected,
and regularly spaced archers firing positions:
each one fanned out into three horizontal and
three downward-sloping slots. Fort gateways
frequently had a pair of huge projecting towers,
sometimes spanning a moat with a retractable
bridge; the entry passage held multiple doors,
while upper archers firing positions protected
the entry passage from attack. The riverside at
Buhen incorporated stone quays that projected
into the Nile, with a covered passage originating
inside the fort and extending to the end of the
quay, enabling ships to be unloaded in safety
during a siege. A few other Second Cataract
forts had covered passages leading down to the
Nile (e.g., Semna South).
Depending on their size and function, fort
interiors ranged from open courtyards (e.g., Ras
Budran, Haruba) to more complex layouts (e.g.,
Buhen, Mirgissa) that might include a network
of streets around a commandants quarters,
a temple, a granary building, industrial installations and workshops, barracks, other buildings,
and one or more wells (Buhen, Borg). Some
New Kingdom forts along the north Sinai

military road had an adjacent exterior basin,
presumably for supplying water to both the
garrison and draught animals (Tell el-Borg,
Deir el-Balah).
Egypt sometimes had foreign-style fortifications. The earthen rampart mound and wall
surrounding the Second Intermediate period
town at Tell el-Yahudiyeh (northeast Delta)
resembles Middle Bronze Age Levantine
fortifications. A later stone tower with crenellated battlements at Medinet Habu is usually
interpreted as copying a Late Bronze Age
Levantine migdol-tower.

both permanent residents and transitory

populations. Stuart Smiths (2003) study of
Middle Kingdom through New Kingdom
Askut suggests that interactions and intermarriage occurred between the Egyptian garrison
and Nubian population, especially during
the Second Intermediate period of Nubian
domination: the fort yielded a significant,
albeit subordinate, amount of Nubian cooking
vessels, food types (via residue analysis),
jewelry production, cult figurines, and evidence of other aspects of Nubian activities
within Askut (see ETHNICITY, EGYPT).

Egyptian forts varied greatly in size, from
15 5 m way-stations (Gebel Abu Hassa), to
larger complexes measuring 20 20 m (Deir
el-Balah), 40 40 m (Bir el-Abd, Ras Budran),
50 52 m (Elephantine, Haruba site A289),
146 146 m (Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham),
200  200 m (Qedwa, Maskhuta), 189 410 m
(Tell er-Retabeh), 215 460 m (Buhen), at least
350 400 m (Tell Heboua (Tjaru)), and
379 624 m (Tel Defenneh). Depending on
the size of a given fortification, the enclosure
walls usually varied in thickness from 1 m to
over 10 m.

Although the garrison sizes for the smallest
outposts remain uncertain, it is likely their
personnel contained at least a squad of ten
men, while larger forts ranged from twentyfive to fifty troops (Ras Budran) to as many as
three hundred to three thousand troops and
personnel estimated for the largest Middle
through New Kingdom forts in the Second
Cataract region of Nubia (Arnold 2003: 91).
The ratio of garrison troops to non-military
personnel probably varied widely depending
upon the size and nature of each fortification,
with non-military personnel including families, officials, miners, merchants, and others,

Fortifications vary widely regarding their

primary through secondary functions and
location determinants. At the advent of the
1st Dynasty, Egypt built a square fort with
semicircular buttresses to secure its southern
border at the First Cataract (Elephantine).
Old Kingdom Egypt secured its trade with
and exploitation of metals and minerals in
adjacent regions by placing forts and fortified settlements at such places as Ras Budran
(south Sinai), Balat (Dakhleh Oasis in the
Western Desert; see OASIS MAGNA (DAKHLEH
OASIS)), and Kor (Lower Nubia). In the Middle
Kingdom, Egypt expanded into Lower Nubia,
placing several pairs of forts on either side
of the Nile, especially at the mouths of wadi
systems leading to quarries and mines in the
Eastern and Western Deserts. Wadi el-Hudi
contained a small fortress guarding an amethyst mine in the Eastern Desert near Elephantine. An especially strong fortification
system straddled the Second Cataract region:
three forts guarded the southern frontier
(Semna South, Semna West, Kumma); two
supply forts lay on islands in the Nile
(Uronarti, Askut); a small fort lay on the west
bank (Shelfak); and two massive forts lay at
Mirgissa (trading center) and Buhen (administrative center). A slipway extended between
Mirgissa and Askut, providing overland
portage passage for shipping during low flood
season. In addition, these forts maintained

communications via a series of clusters of fieldstone huts that lay on hilltops and high points
along the riverbank. Walling systems also
stretched several kilometers along the Nile riverbank at Elephantine and Semna, providing
additional security to these border zones.
During the New Kingdom, Egypt maintained a military transit route (Way of Horus)
across north Sinai. It had a huge fortified headquarters at Tjaru (Tell Heboua) and a coastal
road secured by up to ten way stations, many of
which contained a central fort, an adjacent
magazine, grain silos, and a water reservoir.
The small military way stations across north
Sinai facilitated merchants, regular official
traffic, and periodic large numbers of troops
and draught animals dispatched during campaigns into Syria-Palestine. This route has
yielded hearths, grinding stones, and other
debris, indicating that the bulk of the army in
transit camped around each way-station, presumably drawing upon provisions from the
magazines and silos found at such outposts as
Bir el-Abd and Haruba. During Rameses XIs
reign (late 20th Dynasty), the High Priest of
Amun sent a letter to twenty-five Nubian
troops guarding a gold-mining expedition in
the Eastern Desert. It mentioned the dispatch
from Egypt of textiles (kilts, cloth, tunics),
supplies (canteens, knives, axes), provisions
(bread, cakes, condiments, caraway seeds),
fifty sheep and goats (livestock), and five donkeys (draught animals). It also stipulated that
this escorts duties included safeguarding the
miners from Bedouin attacks and ensuring the
safe delivery of the gold to Egypt. New Kingdom Egypt also placed governors residencies and forts in Syria-Palestine, including
ones at Beth Shan, Deir el-Balah, Tel Mor (Figure 3), and elsewhere.
In the Saite period, Egypt employed
Greek mercenaries in its army, garrisoning
them at the capital (Memphis) and several
major frontier forts: Elephantine, NAUKRATIS,
and Daphnae (Tell Defenneh). Defenneh had
a well-fortified 379624 m citadel, forming
the eastern military headquarters for two
200 200 m frontier forts at Tell el-Maskhuta

Figure 3 New Kingdom fort at Tel Mor. Adapted

from Barako (2007, 20 plan 2.4).

and Tel Qedwa, which guarded the southern

and northern approaches to the eastern Delta.
Egyptian fortifications began as relatively
simple structures, including a Predynastic
terracotta model of a circular fort with crenulated battlements (Abadiyeh). By the Early
Dynastic through Old Kingdom, improving
military technology and tactics (e.g., projectile
weapons, siege ladders, sappers) may have
encouraged the development of such things
as gate towers, buttresses, and thicker walls
(Elephantine, Balat, Ras Budran). The appearance of battering rams and siege towers in the
early Middle Kingdom encouraged the adoption of sloping ramparts (glacis), moats, and
other features (e.g., Buhen). New Kingdom
Egypts expanding empire encountered and
copied Asiatic features, such as a fort-tower
(migdol); Egypt apparently forbade many of
its Levantine vassal city states from
maintaining walling systems, thereby discouraging rebellion. In subsequent periods, the
expert application of diverse siege warfare
techniques by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and

Persian armies encouraged Egypt and its
neighbors to adopt much more substantial
defenses, including thicker walls, scarping, glacis, and other components (e.g., Tel Qedwa).

Elephantine, Pharaonic.


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