The ancient Egyptians possessed many types of games, both athletic and sedentary, which became known from illustrations on tomb and temple walls, from text references, and from surviving game equipment. Some games were enjoyed exclusively by the royalty and nobility; some transcended class; some were played only by children; many had religious significance. Like those of the ancient Greek, Egyptian athletic games had been derived from competitive manly pursuits: running, hunting, fighting, throwing, and so on. The Egyptian national attitude toward them was, however, entirely different from that of the Greek. Whereas the Greeks extolled the individual champion, the Egyptians could accept no champion other than the king. For this reason, we know little about organized Egyptian sports and even less about the nonroyal competitors.
Sports played an important role in ancient Egyptian kingship ideology. Since the strength of the state was identified with the king's strength, the king periodically had to prove his fitness and to renew it magically. Part of his sed-festival, a jubilee that was held after thirty years of rule, involved a foot race around a course in which the king was the only runner and in which his only competitor was infirmity. The third dynasty's Djoser complex at Saqqara preserves such a race course; it has been called “the world's oldest surviving sports facility.”
In Egypt, from earliest times, much emphasis was placed on running. The kings performed their ritual runs at the coronation and at the sed-festival; there, too, soldiers were awarded the title of “swift runner” and royal guards ran beside the king's chariot. No evidence exists for competitive running, however, until the Dahshur stela of Taharqa (c.684 BCE), which records a royally sponsored footrace, from Memphis to the Faiyum and back, by units of the army. While the winners and runners-up received prizes, the king interpreted the excellent overall performance of his troops as a confirmation of his own superiority.
The mastery of horses and chariots and the use of the composite bow were activities introduced into Egypt by the Near Eastern conquerors known as the Hyksos (who ruled Egypt during the fifteenth and sixteenth dynasties), and by the early eighteenth dynasty, these had been adopted by the Egyptian elite and were combined to create a new royal sporting tradition. Although target archery is known from the fourth dynasty, the introduction of the costly and powerful composite bow—which combined hard and soft woods, horn, and animal sinews—made archery a favorite sport of kings, performed either on foot or from a moving chariot. On his Armant Stela, Thutmose III (of the eighteenth dynasty) recorded shooting and piercing copper ingots, a boast perpetuated by most later kings to Ramesses II (of the nineteenth dynasty). Amenhotpe II (of the eighteenth dynasty), trained in archery from childhood, bragged of shooting arrows through copper ingots in series while driving his own chariot, reins around his waist; his Medamud Stela records a challenge he made to his courtiers to better his shots, offering the only hint of competition between king and commoners. Ordinary mortals could never officially surpass the performance of kings, but kings could surpass their own records and those of earlier kings.
Wrestling appears in Egyptian art as early as the first dynasty. Wrestling pairs are known among Old Kingdom servant figurines, and naked boys wrestle in the fifth dynasty tomb of Ptahhotep at Saqqara. In the twelfth dynasty tombs at Beni Hasan, there are some two hundred depictions of wrestlers. At Bersheh, wrestlers even appear with a referee. Wrestling became a part of royal ceremonial during the New Kingdom, where the contestants were portrayed as soldiers of Nubian origin. The Theban tomb of Tjanuni (tomb 74) has a scene with a group of Nubian wrestlers carrying a standard, suggesting that they belonged to a special wrestling unit. At the sites of Tell el-Amarna and Medinet Habu, Egyptian wrestlers and foreign opponents were represented fighting each other before the king. Presumably, the Egyptian in each pair had to win in order to ensure that the king would dominate foreign nations.
Stick fighting sometimes accompanied ritual wrestling. The contestants often used boardlike shields that were fastened to their left forearms. They wore protective padding for their faces. Some examples of their cudgels have survived from the tomb of Tutankhamun (of the eighteenth dynasty). Boxing has appeared only once, in the Theban tomb of Kheruef (tomb 192), where it was shown with stick fighting in connection with the ritual of raising the Djed pillar.
The ancient Egyptians enjoyed many types of water sports. The biography of Kheti (of the eleventh dynasty) reveals that children were taught to swim. Frequently illustrated on tomb walls were family outings on papyrus rafts in the Nile marshes, undertaken for the pleasure of fishing or for hunting birds with throwsticks. Some tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms have scenes of a water sport in which teams of men on papyrus rafts attempted to push each other with poles into the water or to overturn their boats. Although there is no evidence for boat races, they must have been held. Amenhotpe II recorded working the rowers of his ship to exhaustion while he held the helm over a course of three iteru (itrw; about 31 kilometers/20 miles).
In some twelfth dynasty tombs, women were depicted catching and juggling balls, sometimes while sitting upon the shoulders of others. Many original Egyptian balls survive, made either of leather (sewn around a core of straw, hair, or yarn) or of wood, clay, papyrus, or palm leaves. A royal ritual game called “hitting the ball” has been represented abundantly between the eighteenth dynasty and Ptolemaic times; there, the king hit a ball with a bat in a symbolic act thought to damage the eye of the demon Apophis. In the Edifice of Taharqa at Karnak, the king was shown ceremonially, throwing four balls, toward the four cardinal points of the compass.
Children's games, illustrated in five tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, included jumping contests, contortionist competitions, games in which boys were carried on the arms or backs of others, tugs of war, whirling games designed to induce dizziness, guessing games, games with hoops and sticks, and others.
The Egyptians had at least four board games. Three can be documented from the first dynasty; they also were found as complete sets in a third dynasty painting in the tomb of Hesy-Re at Saqqara. Their names occur in a fourth dynasty offering list in the tomb of Rahotep at Meidum. The fourth game seems to have entered Egypt as an import from the Near East during the seventeenth dynasty. The most popular of the original three was senet (znt; “passing”), which can be documented from Predynastic to Roman times. Its longevity was due to its role as an allegory about the struggle of the dead to attain the happy afterlife. It thus became standard funerary equipment and was even depicted regularly in the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), in chapter 17. It was a game for two, played on a rectangular board of thirty squares (10 × 3). Each player used seven pieces and controlled the moves by means of flat two-sided dice sticks. By blocking and by leaping the opponent's pieces, a player attempted to remove all his or her pieces from the board first, which became a symbol of resurrection.
The second game, men (mn; “endurance”), was also a game for two, played on a long narrow board that was ruled into thirteen or more sections. Each player used five pieces and moved them probably by means of stick dice. Actual remains of this game are rare, but it appears to have been a race game. In its original form the game disappeared even before the Old Kingdom, but a very similar game, played with carved pegs on boards with two tracks of thirty holes each, made an appearance in the First Intermediate Period and continued to be shown well into the Late period. Numerous examples were found in the Near East, but it is unclear whether the original Egyptian men game was redesigned as a peg game in Egypt and exported or whether it was replaced by the peg game as a more entertaining foreign import.
The third game was mehen (mhn; “serpent”). It was played on a round slotted board, in the form of a coiled snake. In Hesy-Re's painting, the board is accompanied by a box divided into six compartments, each containing six marbles of one color and a lion-shaped piece, suggesting that up to six could play the game. In the fifth dynasty tomb of Rashepses at Saqqara, four are shown playing. Like senet, the game seems to have acquired early funerary significance, but it disappeared entirely after the First Intermediate Period. The reason has been attributed to the sudden prominence of the serpent god Mehen, a protector of the sun god Re. Since the snake of the game board was slotted, and since slotting or cutting was tantamount to killing the snake, the making of mehen boards may have been discontinued for fear of magically injuring the god of the same name. A variant of the game, however, seems to have survived in the Sudan.
A fourth board game, called “Twenty Squares,” appeared in Egypt during the seventeenth dynasty, a probable Hyksos import. From that time onward, it appeared on one side of the boxes on which senet was played. It was a game for two; the players used five pieces each. The board was divided into twenty squares (4 + 12 + 4). Every fourth square was marked with a rosette. Many Near Eastern parallels for the game are known, even as early as the third millennium BCE; it has been theorized that this game was the ancestral form of the Indian game called in Hindi pachisi (now “Parcheesi” in English).
See also SPORTS.
- Decker, Wolfgang. Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, 1992. Full documentation and discussion of ancient Egyptian games.
- Finkel, Irving, ed. Board Games in Perspective. London, 1998. Contains articles with full documentation and discussion of the Egyptian board games.