For prehistoric and ancient Egypt, there are records of the presence of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on cosmetic palettes, ivory carvings, painted ceramics, and rock paintings, as well as osteological (bone) finds. The name of Elephantine Island in the Nile (ʒbw, “Elephantland”) is further evidence. The dynastic era suffered increasing aridity and, above all, the transformation of the Nile Delta into a cultivated landscape. The process began with the first major efforts in Nile Valley farming and husbandry and became more prevalent after state formation in the late fourth millennium BCE. Such conditions caused elephants and other large wildlife to migrate south. The Syrian elephant, a subspecies of the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus), became known in Egypt for the first time during the Near Eastern campaigns of the New Kingdom. It was hunted by Thutmose I and Thutmose III near Nija on the Orontes River, and Thutmosis III is said to have killed a herd of 120 at that location—a great feat of which the king boasted on two stelae (the Armant and the Gebel Barkal). His officer, Amenemheb, wrote in his biography that the king's life was in danger on this hunt when a large bull charged him; however, he was saved when Amenemheb managed to sever the trunk (ḏr.t, “hand”) of the enraged animal.

The image of an elephant among other exotic animals in the tribute scene in the vizier Rekhmire's tomb, as well as the elephant bones in Ramesses II's palace in Qantir (Piramesse), prove that the pachyderms were not only hunted but also captured alive and brought to Egypt, where they joined the royal menagerie of exotic animals, which symbolized the king's claim to power over foreign lands. While the image in the Rekhmire tomb clearly depicts a Syrian elephant, species identification is less certain when it comes to the bones found at Qantir. An ostracon from Ramesses III's tomb, however, clearly shows a Syrian elephant, which the Assyrian kings hunted along the upper Euphrates River or captured for their private zoos. The population of that species was made extinct by the seventh century CE, when the Islamic conquest provided new natural history and geographic surveys.

In the late fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great's campaigns in India brought the Indian elephant, trained for work and military uses, to the Near East, and it was used in the wars of the Diadochs. In 321 BCE, the regent Perdikkas and his troops entered Egypt to attack Ptolemy, Alexander's successor in Egypt. Indian elephants were used during the failed attempt to capture Memphis. That episode may explain the singular image of an elephant in the offering procession in the early Ptolemaic tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel. Impressed by the war elephants in the Seleucid army, efforts began in the Egypt of Ptolemy II to train elephants for warfare, adapted to Egyptian requirements, but using the African rather than the Indian species. Initially, the animals were captured in the Meroitic kingdom (Ethiopia) and later on the Red Sea coast between Suakin and Massawa (Trogodytike). The Red Sea coast was easily accessible and offered Egypt transportation options, so it soon became the favored hunting ground. The capture and training of the elephants was handled by mahouts from India. After the battle of Raphia in 217 BCE during which African elephants proved less powerful than Indian elephants, the elephant troop became less and less important in the Ptolemaic army. Under Ptolemy V the experiment was abandoned.

There are no traces of the elephant in the religious realm of ancient Egypt. With the exception of elephants put on display in the New Kingdom, in dynastic times interest was focused exclusively on the ivory (ʒbw) of the tusks (mswʒ, ḏh.t). Ivory imports came to Egypt from the end of the Old Kingdom onward; the main importing nations were to the south (Yam, Kush, Punt, Wawat, etc.), but Libya, Syria, and Cyprus were also mentioned in New Kingdom texts.

See also IVORY.


  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1988.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London, 1996.
  • Johnson, Sally B. The Cobra Goddess of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic, Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Periods. London and New York, 1990.
  • Lloyd, Joan Barclay. African Animals in Renaissance Literature and Art. Oxford, 1971.
  • Störk, Lothar. Die Nashörner, Verbreitungs-und kulturgeschichtliche Materialien unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der afrikanischen Arten und des altägyptischen Kulturbereiches. Hamburg, 1977.
  • Zeuner, Frederick E. Geschichte der Haustiere. Munich, 1967.

Lothar Störk; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger