Ancient Egyptian Battle Tactics

Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians didn't leave us with an abundance of military manuals or any type of material detailing battle tactics, organisation, unit formations and outfits. What is known about Egypt, we know almost exclusively from the mass of sculptured evidence found on battle reliefs created by order of the victorious Kings.

The battle reliefs of the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom at Abu Simbel, Karnak, and Medinet Habu, as well as the wall paintings found in the tombs at Beni Hassan and Thebes depict highly efficient, well-organized and well-equipped armies.

Egypt first became united around 3200 BC and the last great battle against the Sea Peoples was fought in 1185 BC. Between these two dates was the golden age of ancient Egypt, after which the country was governed by Ethiopian and Libyan Pharaohs that employed the services of mercenary armies leading to the deterioration of military conditions and the weakening of the country.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt

During the Old Kingdom, wars were relatively small scale consisting entirely of infantry. Armies likely used a straight line front of light infantry armed with spear, club, or battle axe, and shield. Archers would have been positioned either behind the infantry line or on the wings. The archers would fire on the enemy while the center would advance to hit on the enemy front. Hand-to-hand combat would continue until the center was broken and the enemy fled the field.

The Middle Kingdom of Egypt

Middle-Kingdom Egyptian armies were better organised and saw more variety of units containing special shock troops armed with axe, or bow, and shield. These professional soldiers were meant to breach the enemy ranks thus allowing the other Egyptian infantry to swarm in. The fighting would continue between pairs of combatants armed with similar weapons until one was driven from the field. It was only the heavy spearmen units that charged in single lines behind their great shields.

Statue of Thutmosis III in Luxor Museum
Statue of Thutmosis III in Luxor Museum | Source

The New Kingdom of Egypt

Egyptian battle tactics in the New Kingdom used revolutionised armies in which war chariots and various types of new weapons had been introduced by the Asiatic Hyksos. These armies of highly-trained men had more striking power and were commanded by professional officers for the first time in Egyptian military history.

Military campaigns in Syria usually involved the Pharaoh first taking a Phoenician-coast port to be used as a base to which supplies and reinforcements could be shipped from Egypt. This way, the Egyptian army could save the long march through Palestine and the Orontes valley maintaining the troops' freshness, which was key to every battle.

Having secured the port of Byblos, Thutmose III landed his army and conquered Carchemish. The Pharaoh, then, had the boats left at Byblos dismantled into sections to be loaded onto 4-wheeled wagons drawn by oxen and carried overland to Carchemish. There, they were reassembled and the army could travel on by river.

Egyptian chariot, accompanied by a cheetah and slave
Egyptian chariot, accompanied by a cheetah and slave | Source

Egyptian Battle Tactics

The army pressed forward in close order, in columns of 4 with the officers taking the rear. Chariots were positioned either on the wings or in the intervals between the infantry divisions. Skirmishers issued forth in front to clear the line of advance and were followed by the main army and the baggage train made up of 4-wheeled carts pulled by oxen.

When it came to battle, the infantry were always in the center with the chariots on the wings. The light units - mostly archers and slingers, - lined up in front of the heavy troops, and when ordered to attack by the trumpeters, these archers and slingers discharged a volley, and the heavy units of spearmen, khepesh-wielding swordsmen or macemen pressed forward in close order in an impregnable phalanx.

Simultaneously, the chariots would be discharged and swept towards the enemy. The light chariots would fire missiles at the enemy and then move to avoid physical contact. They would be followed by heavy units, the main objective being to crush or break up the enemy front line already harrassed by the light chariotry.

The light Egyptian chariotry would initially charge for something that would appear to be a head-on collision with the enemy lines, but they would wheel at the last moment, running parallel to the enemy front, giving them a broadside of archery fire from the closest range possible. This way, the Egyptians would not present a stationary target and would be protected by the vehicle itself. This kind of assault broke the enemy troop formations as well as pursued the demoralised enemy.

On the other hand, chariots could only operate on level ground and were little use against fortified walls or in holding ground against the enemy. For these purposes, heavy infantry units were employed. They advanced in phalanx under cover of archery fire either assuming long column formations or being deployed in small distinct bodies in order to fight the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. They used heavy maces, battle axes, or the khepesh (Egyptian sickle-sword) to hit on the flanks and center of the enemy, while often receiving their fair share of friendly fire from the bowmen.

Archers and light infantry either acted in line or adopted loose formations depending on the terrain or the movements of the enemy troops. After the initial charges and demoralization of the enemy, the light chariotry would regroup for a second wave of assault in support of the now engaging infantry units. The chariot archers had to be the most skilled among all archers in the army as the outcome of most battles depended heavily on their aim and ability to break enemy lines and formations.

Whenever a chariot steered too close to the enemy and there was no turning back, the warrior would dismount and grab his spear, battle axe, or khepesh, for hand to hand combat. Other times he would stay in the cart and grab a bow, with the charioteer, reins looped round his waist, holding a shield to protect him while aiming.

In light of the described Egyptian battle tactics and because its success depended greatly on the ability of individual soldiers, it is worth noting that throughout the period of the New Kingdom, the military success of Egypt could be attributed more to the courage and hardiness of her men in battle than to the strategies cooked up by military commanders.

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Comments 22 comments

DDS profile image

DDS 4 years ago from Toronto

Nice job! More substance than a lot of the stuff on here! Nice to see!


nmdonders profile image

nmdonders 4 years ago

I love anything to do with the ancient Egyptians. They were such an interesting group of people. You did really great work on this Hub with your descriptions.


SkeetyD profile image

SkeetyD 4 years ago from Barbados

This was a refreshing read. The Ancient Egyptians were a fascinating people


Volitans profile image

Volitans 4 years ago from Seattle

My wife is a huge Egyptian history buff, so I'll be sending this her way as well. Interesting info on a topic that isn't often talked about.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Very interesting. I didn't realize the Egyptian Empire lasted about 2,000 years. I wonder what their term for "friendly fire" was-- would it have been as innocuous-sounding as "friendly"? Again, nice, informative article.


Haunty profile image

Haunty 4 years ago from Hungary Author

Thank you for reading, nmdonders, SkeetyD, Volitans, and UnnamedHarald.

Harald, I have no idea what they called it, but ask Geoffrey Regan. He has written an entire book on the history of friendly fire. :)


CyberShelley profile image

CyberShelley 4 years ago

Haunty, thanks for this very informative hub. It's really a joy to learn something new!


Haunty profile image

Haunty 4 years ago from Hungary Author

Thanks for stopping by, CyberShelley. :)


nomnom 3 years ago

cool article


Nate The Great 3 years ago

I have an Egyptian project due in the 20th and we only got 2 days to work on it


biggles 3 years ago

i like your website it gives me a lot of info


ME 2 years ago

Missiles?

would people really pick up weapons for hand to hand combat?


Frogboy11101 2 years ago

I question the credibility of this

Chariots deploying Missiles like explosives

and why on earth would you pick up your weapons for HAND TO HAND combat


?? 2 years ago

even New Kingdom tactics seem primitive compared to the greeks or Romans..


fu man 2 years ago

they did not help


person122 2 years ago

hand to hand can mean swordplay as long as it is not a ranged weapon


1234 21 months ago

good website


233333e 21 months ago

love it so good when working on a project


Really 21 months ago

Learn some vocaburaly i cleerly nuw wut i am takin aboat.


Legend 19 months ago

Doing a history project really helped thanks!!


RG 3 18 months ago

it is good i had to do a power point in one day so it help


rg 3 it really helped thanks 18 months ago

thank you

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