Although no word equivalent to “sport” existed in the ancient Egyptian language, there was clearly a cultural element that is best expressed by this modern word. The expressions sḏʒἰ-ḥr and swtwt incorporate the idea of “active diversion” as an essential component. In Egypt is found one of history's oldest sports cultures, surpassing in age, scope, and depth of sources even the Sumerian sports culture. The rise of the sports culture in Egypt coincides with the height of ancient Egyptian civilization at the beginning of the third millennium BCE, some twenty-three hundred years before the first Olympic games in Greece. If such marginal areas are included as games, hunting, and dance, Egyptian sports are represented in about two thousand figurative documents over three thousand years—an amazing wealth of sources compared to other early high cultures. This is further enriched by many written documents, of which the inscriptions of the athletic kings of the eighteenth dynasty are the most interesting. The study of these rich sources has only begun in the past three decades, and today we can speak of the existence of an actual sports culture in ancient Egypt.

The Sports of Kings.

Archaeological discoveries in Egypt may well provide evidence about the very origins of sports. At the tomb complex of King Djoser (third dynasty) in Saqqara, a running track has been preserved in the southern court of the Step Pyramid, the oldest pyramid in Egypt. The conception was that the track, outlined in durable stone, was used by the dead king for a ritual run, when he had to display his good physical condition as a guarantee that he was able to fulfill the duties of a king and ensure the safety of his people, even after a thirty-year reign. The run itself, which the king probably performed as an exhibition on the occasion of his sed-festival, is a relic of early hunting societies in which the chief would safeguard the survival of his tribe with a successful hunt. The fact that this demonstration of physical ability endured in ceremonies in the historic period—though it took on a more ritual character in which the king's physical strength and power were magically reaffirmed—does not obscure its prehistoric origin. In one of the three representations of the running king in Djoser's tomb, the runner is clothed only in a penis sheath and is accompanied by the standard of the god Wepwawet (“opener of the ways”), a figure interpreted by some as a deity derived from the pack of dogs that would have run with the hunter of earlier times.

The physical skills of the king do not become emphasized until the eighteenth dynasty, after the expulsion of the Hyksos invaders. The traumatic experience of the first foreign reign in Egypt would henceforth define the image of the hero-king, who began to display athletic traits, especially under Amenhotpe II. The text on his Sphinx Stela describes the king as not only an outstanding runner and skillful helmsman of a 200-man rowboat, but also as an unrivaled bowman whose arrows pierce copper ingots, trade currency in the Bronze Age. (This motif appears in altered form centuries later in Homer's Odyssey, in the competition held for Penelope's suitors, an event still linked to the legitimation of a ruler.) The archer king stands erect in a chariot drawn by two horses, a technical innovation whose introduction to Egypt in the Hyksos period had far-reaching social consequences. The role of king now requires proof of the ruler's ability to handle this status vehicle and the animals competently, an activity that required constant training of driver as well as horses. The Sphinx Stela clearly depicts the pharaoh's additional skill as charioteer and horse-trainer. Ramesses III (twentieth dynasty) had himself immortalized in his funerary temple in Medinet Habu in an image showing the pharaoh selecting a pair of horses for training.

The athleticism of the eighteenth dynasty Egyptian kings must be understood as a “sporting tradition” (Hayes) that was passed on from father (Thutmose III) to son (Amenhotpe II) to grandson (Thutmose IV), and shared by other kings. Not only is there impressive inscriptional and pictorial proof—for example, the panel showing the young Amenhotpe II at archery practice with Min, the mayor of Thinis (tomb 109 at Western Thebes)—but also original equipment (composite bows and six chariots from Tutankhamun's tomb) to give us a firm notion of the sporting practices of the time. The boundary between sport and hunt was very fluid, since this equipment could also be used for hunting.

Competition.

With Amenhotpe II, even the strict rule that a pharaoh could not be a participant in a sporting competition was overthrown. The idea of a defeated pharaoh, as might happen in competition, had no place in the royal dogma. Therefore, the king's sporting exhibition is always presented as an athletic demonstration without adversaries. As an exception, adversaries are mentioned in an inscription in Medamud commemorating an archery competition involving Amenhotpe II, yet they seem to have stood little chance against this royal athlete, according to the fragments that remain of this text. Despite the exclusivity of royal sport founded in ideology, the concept of sports records developed during the eighteenth dynasty and is documented in a comparison of recorded quantities and norms of achievement in archery, for several kings. The reigning king, confronted with the task of “expanding that which exists,” outperformed not only his own previous record but also those of his predecessors.

Historical reality differed from the dogma. Egyptians were familiar with the phenomenon of competition, as deduced from the many documents on combative sports, the use of the motif of the suitors' contest in the Story of the Doomed Prince, or in the evidence of sporting events. How strong the competitive element ultimately was in clear when the gods handle the dispute of who would succeed their deceased king. The Contendings of Horus and Seth recounts how Horus and Seth, both seeking the throne, agree to a diving competition, which fails and is followed by another competition in boating. The highest possible position in the Egyptian cosmos is therefore assigned by competition. Jacob Burckhardt, whose coining of the expression “the agonal Greek” placed Hellenic culture above all others in ancient history, was wrong when he maintained that only the Greeks had knowledge of athletic competition.

Sport Traditions among Commoners.

At first glance, the sporting traditions of private individuals are less ideologically bound than sport in the royal milieu, although there too the royal dogma can bear some influence.

Running.

For the common man, running was a popular sport, owing to its natural character and uncomplicated organization, as was indeed the case in Greece; however, there were hardly any Egyptian sources attesting to running as a sport until the discovery of the “Running Stela” of King Taharqa (690–664 BCE). It provided a text of great importance, not only for the history of running but also for the hitherto sparse sporting history of the Late period. The stela (685/684 BCE) tells the story of a race among soldiers selected from Taharqa's forces, over a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (65 miles, from Memphis to the Faiyum and back), with a two-hour break at the turnaround point. The recorded time of four Egyptian hours for this distance is barely credible, in view of their daily training and modern performance levels. It was a great honor for the successful runners to attend a celebratory meal together with the royal bodyguards and to win prizes. Diodorus Siculus provides a further reference to a similar approach to long-distance training in the mention of a historically unidentifiable king who apparently ordered his sons and their contemporaries to run 180 stadia every day before breakfast.

Fighting sports.

Sports based in combat are strongly represented in the form of wrestling, fencing with sticks, and boxing. Of the three, wrestling is most frequently attested and is found throughout Egyptian history. As a motif, wrestlers appear at the dawn of Egyptian history on the City Palette, and by the fifth dynasty the first full representation is known of a wrestling match in several rounds. In the vizier Ptahhotep's tomb in Saqqara, inscribed names clearly establish that the six pairs of wrestlers shown in various positions are in fact a single pair, whose fight is recorded in episodes. The same principle is perfected in the Middle Kingdom tombs of Beni Hasan. Of the thirty-three rock-cut tombs of the nomarchs (administrators) of the Oryx nome, no fewer than nine depict wrestling scenes, as Shedid's studies (1994) have shown. The images of wrestlers, usually on the tomb's eastern wall, stretch across several registers and may include multiple pairs. A count from the published tombs is given in Table 1.

Approximately 2 percent of the scenes are dedicated to fighting on the floor. The wrestlers in the Beni Hasan tombs are naked except for a girdle, which offers many possible grip variations (similar to Japanese Sumo wrestling or the Glima style practiced in Iceland). Because of the pictorial context (military scenes), the wrestlers may have been soldiers who used wrestling as a form of physical training. Wrestling is still in evidence in the New Kingdom in this context. A group of Nubian soldiers have a standard that identifies them clearly as wrestlers. It appears that the Nuba, who practice this sport today and whose dress even attests to continuity, can look back on a thirty-five-hundred-year tradition of wrestling prowess. The wrestling theme was also modeled on ostraca and in statuettes. Occasionally, a referee—once shown with a trumpet—supervised the contest, as in the tomb of Neheri in Bersheh, and in the depiction of wrestlers below Ramesses III's appearance window in Medinet Habu. Some scenes of wrestlers are accompanied by short inscriptions that prove to be boastful epithets (challenging speeches).

Table 1. Number of wrestling pairs in the published tombs of the nomarchs at Beni Hasan.



Tomb no. Tomb Owner Number of Pairs
2 Amenemhet 59
15 Baqti III 220
17 Cheti 122
29 Baqti I 6

Despite the abundant visual material on wrestling, little is known about the rules that governed the sport. Aside from the fact that grips and reaches to all parts of the body were allowed, and that the match continued even after the contestants had hit the floor, one can only deduce from the frequent pose of a victor standing above his unconscious opponent that victory was gained by wrestling the opponent to the point of incapacity; the victor then assumed a pose of triumph before the spectators.

The sources on wrestling often appear in combination with depictions of stick-fencing, or nabbût, a sport still practiced today in the Nile Valley. Two contestants, often soldiers, stand face to face, holding short batons; each wears various protective gear, such as shieldlike boards on the lower arm, or shields made of leather worn on the chin and forehead. The baton-wielding hand is sometimes protected as well. If the fight takes place on the roof of a boat cabin, as in the example in the tomb of Khons (tomb 31 at Western Thebes), the limited space creates an effect similar to that of a modern boxing ring.

Illustrations of boxing matches in ancient Egypt are extremely rare. They are undoubtedly shown in the ritual erection of the djed-pillar in the context of the sed-festival of Amenhotpe III, depicted in the tomb of Kheruef (tomb 192 at Western Thebes), where six pairs of fighters box bare-fisted in dancelike poses. In another example, boxing (along with wrestling and fencing) seems to be illustrated in a festive offering of tributes to Amenhotpe IV in the tomb of Merire II in Tell el-Amarna.

Sporting Events.

Competitive sports in Egypt sometimes occurred during festivals, in which context they would occupy a more or less fixed position in the program; this may have developed later into events exclusively dedicated to sports. Although the topic has not been systematically researched, in addition to the examples already given—the royal sed-festival with its ritual run, the ritual raising of the djed-pillar, and the three events in the tribute celebration to Amenhotpe IV—there is some evidence pointing in this direction. Below the appearance window in the tomb of Ramesses III in Medinet Habu is a depiction of a sporting event that gives an immediate impression of international character. Ten pairs of fighters contend in wrestling and fencing matches before an audience of Egyptians (including royal children) and foreign spectators. The unusual element is that each pair consists of an Egyptian and a foreigner (Near Easterner, Libyan, or Nubian), and that all the foreigners seem to be losing. No doubt the Egyptian royal dogma of the ever-victorious pharaoh dictated how the athletic event was depicted—in conformity with ideology, instead of with the open fairness essential in modern sports competitions.

Sports

Sports. Middle Kingdom wrestling scenes, from Beni Hasan.

A unique sporting event is jousting (no longer documented in the New Kingdom), which was practiced during a festival marking the end of the working season in the marshes. While this scene appears about fifty times in Egyptian sources, other sporting events are rare as a main theme. A possible rowing competition under Tutankhamun is notable, as is a still unconfirmed funeral game for Thutmose III, which may have been depicted four generations after his death in the tomb of Amenmose (tomb 19 at Western Thebes). Finally, there is the large celebration on the occasion of a completed pyramid-building project, discovered on the causeway to the pyramid temple of Sahure (fifth dynasty). On this occasion, elaborate games, including wrestling, fencing, archery, and possibly rowing, were held in conjunction with the setting of the last stone (bnbn) on the royal funeral structure.

See also GAMES; and HUNTING.

Bibliography

  • Carrol, Scott T. “Wrestling in Ancient Nubia.” Journal of Sport History 15 (1988), 121–137.
  • Decker, Wolfgang. Annotierte Bibliographie zum Sport im alten Ägypten. St. Augustin, 1978. This annotated bibliography, containing some 700 titles upon first publication, is updated in Stadion 5 (1979), 162–192; 7 (1981), 153–172; 8/9 (1982/83), 193–214, as well as Nikephoros 1 (1988), 245–268; 2 (1989), 185–215; 3 (1980), 237; 4 (1991), 224; 5 (1992), 221f.; 6 (1983), 210f.; 7 (1994), 257; 8 (1995), 208; 11 (1998), 195–197.
  • Decker, Wolfgang. “Die Lauf-Stele des Königs Taharka.” Kölner Beiträge zur Sportwissenschaft: Jahrbuch der Deutschen Sporthochschule Köln, St. Augustin 13 (1984), 7–37.
  • Decker, Wolfgang. Quellentexte zu Sport und Körperkultur im alten Ägypten. St. Augustin, 1975. Contains all Egyptian texts on sports in German translation (with the exception of the Runner's Stela of Taharqa, discovered after publication).
  • Decker, Wolfgang. “The Record of the Ritual.” In Ritual and Record: Sports Records and Quantifications in Pre-Modern Societies, edited by John Marshal Carter and Arnd Krüger, pp. 185–215. New York, 1990.
  • Decker, Wolfgang. Sports and Games in Ancient Egypt. Translated by Allen Guttmann. New Haven, 1992.
  • Decker, Wolfgang, and Michael Herb. Bildatlas zum Sport im Alten Ägypten: Corpus der bildlichen Quellen zu Leibesübungen, Spiel, Jagd, Tanz und verwandten Themen. Handbuch der Orientalistik, 1: Der Nahe und Mittlere Osten 14, 1–2. 2 vols. Leiden, 1994. Inclusive and comprehensive source corpus on Egyptian sport and related topics, containing some 2,000 documents, described in detail (including location, date, material, image content, and bibliography); roughly half are illustrated in the second volume.
  • De Vries, Carl E. “Attitudes of the Ancient Egyptians toward Physical-Recreative Activities.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1960. First important monograph on Egyptian sport.
  • Hawass, Zahi, and Miroslav Verner. “Newly Discovered Blocks from the Causeway of Sahure.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo (1996), 177–186.
  • Hayes, William C. “Egypt: Internal Affairs from Tuthmosis I to the Death of Amenophis III.” In Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 2, pp. 313–416. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1973. Note especially the chapter on “The Sporting Tradition,” pp. 333–338.
  • Littauer, M. A., and J. H. Crouwel. Chariots and Related Equipment from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamun. Tut'ankhamun's Tomb Series, 8. Oxford, 1985.
  • McLeod, Wallace. Composite Bows from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamun. Series Tut'ankhamun's Tomb Series, 3. Oxford, 1970.
  • McLeod, Wallace. Self Bows and Other Archery Tackle from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamun. Tut'ankhamun's Tomb Series, 4. Oxford, 1982.
  • Shedid, Abdel Ghaffar. Die Felsgräber von Beni Hassan in Mittelägypten. (Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie, 16.) Mainz, 1994.
  • Touny, Ahmed E. Demerdash, and Steffen Wenig. Sport in Ancient Egypt. Leipzig, 1969.
  • Van de Walle, Baudouin. “Les rois sportifs de l'ancienne Egypte.” Chronique d'Égypte 13 (1938), 234–257.

Wolfgang Decker; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger