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Smiting of the Enemy: Pharaohs at War

Updated on March 24, 2017

More Than Just Cracking a Few Skulls

One of the most recognizable scenes in the iconography of ancient Egypt is the image of the King ritualistically slaying the enemies of Egypt. It might very well be the longest-lasting image in Egyptian culture. These scenes can be found in every period of Egypt’s history from the predynastic age until the Roman period. Although over the different time periods the stylistic features will vary, the consistency in the imagery over a timespan of more than 3000 years is fascinating. The six works of art that we are going to discuss here are intended to demonstrate this amazing consistency in the depictions, but also the enormous variation, beauty and workmanship we can find in Egyptian art in general.

What Does it Look like?

A typical ‘smiting scene’ depicts the King wielding a mace with one hand while restraining one or more enemies with the other. The King is shown leaning over his victim(s), one heel raised of the ground, in the very last moment before striking the enemy in the head. The King is depicted much larger than his victims, stressing that he is the most important and powerful figure in the scene. The enemies are shown totally overpowered, often on one knee, waiting to be slain. Most commonly the Nubians, Libyans and/or Asiatics are on the receiving end of the King’s wrath. Some slight variations in these depictions can be found, but overall the picture is tremendously consistent over time.

Close-up of Senwosret I grabbing the enemies of Egypt by their hair.
Close-up of Senwosret I grabbing the enemies of Egypt by their hair. | Source

Did it Realy Happen?

It is very well possible that the origin of the smiting scenes lies in some sort of ceremonious slaying of prisoners of war, but we should not take the individual depictions as representations of historical fact. The ancient Egyptians were highly skilled propagandists and lousy journalists. We should also keep in mind that most of these depictions were never ment to be seen by the general population. Exceptions are the depictions on the outer walls of Temples. Kings that ruled in periods of relative stabililty or periods without foreign campaigns still had themselves depicted in scenes of ‘smiting of the enemy’. In later times when the mace is no longer in use as a practical weapon (somewhere during the middle Kingdom period the mace is abandoned by Egyptian military) it is still being used in these depictions. So rather than taking these depictions literally, it would be more appropriate to interpret the imagery in a more symbolic way.

So What Does it Mean?

In the ‘smiting of the enemy’ scenes the King assumes his role of protector of Egypt against foreign powers. Foreigners were seen as representatives of chaotic forces threatening ma’at (balance or order). Nothing you can think of would be more frightning to an ancient Egyptian than disorder. By overcoming the enemies the King safeguards Egypt from falling into disarray. So on a spirtual level we may interpret these scenes as depictions of the King fulfilling his sacred duty towards Egypt. This reflects the mythological battle between Horus and Seth, the everlasting battle between order and chaos, and on a very basic level, the battle between good and evil. The smiting motif therefore has political, religious and propagandistic connotations.

Seti I, striking prisoners of war with a mace. Karnak, Thebes
Seti I, striking prisoners of war with a mace. Karnak, Thebes | Source

Early Dynastic Age, King Narmer

Dynasty '0' Approx. 3150 - 3050 (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

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The famous 'Narmer Palette' is commonly interpreted as the allegorical depiction of the unification of upper and lower Egypt. It was found by by British archeologists Quibell and Green, in 1897 at the Temple of Horus at Nekhen. The normal purpose of such a palette is for grinding cosmetics, but this one is simply to big to have any practical use. So the Narmer palette is most likely a ritual or votive object. What is shown here is the back side of the object.

A King called Narmer is shown in full royal regalia, wearing the white crown of upper Egypt, a false beard and a bull’s tail, as he is on the verge of killing an enemy. We know it is Narmer because his name is written in the upper register between the two depictions of the cow godess Hathor. Note the little guy on the left: that's the King's sandal bearer. A clue to the identity of the victim is given in the picture on the right where the Horus falcon is restraining a bound captive that has papyrus plants growing out of his body. Papyrus is a symbol for lower Egypt. So Narmer, King of upper Egypt, defeated lower Egypt and in doing so unified the two lands.

Early Dynastic Age, King Den

1st Dynasty Approx. 3050 - 2890 (British Museum, London)

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This Ivory label depicting King Den of the first dynasty, was found at his tomb in Abydos and it was originally attached to a pair of his royal sandals. The Pharaohs loved their footware. King Den can be identified by his Horus name in a serekh above the Asiatic tribesman that is being clubbed to death. Again we see the bull's tail, but we also see the uraeus cobra on the forehead of the King. On the right we see the King's Anubis standard. The hieroglyphic inscription on the piece reads: 'The first occasion of smiting the East'.

Middle Kingdom, King Amenemhat III

12th Dynasty Approx. 1853-1806 (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

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This pectoral is made out of gold and contains turquoise, carnelian and lapis lazuli. It once belonged to Mereret, the daughter of King Senwosret III and sister of King Amenemhat III and it was found in her Dahshur tomb, within the pyramid complex of Senwosret III. Lapis lazuli was only found in modern day Afghanistan and was obtained through trade with the Asiatic peoples. The unfortunate victims clubbed to death by King Amenemhat III in this scene happen to be these very same Asiatics. They can be indentified by their weapons, a dagger and a throwing stick, and also by the hieroglyphs indentifying the captives as 'nomadic Asiatics'. Overall the reign of Amenhemhat III is characterized by it’s peaceful relations with neighbouring states. This pectoral may therefore serve as a further indication that the imagery is not to be taken as a depiction of historical events, but rather as a symbolic portrayal of the essence of Kingship.

Amarna period, Queen Nefertiti

18th Dynasty, Approx. 1353-1336 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

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During the Amarna period, some or arguably most of the conventions concerning the artistic representation of the King become invalid. However, the smiting motif is not discarded during this period. In this limestone relief Queen Nefertiti is seen smiting a female captive under the watchful eye of the solar disk Aten. Of course Nefertiti is a Queen and not a King (although she may have actually become King later in time under the name Neferneferuaton), so the iconography is no longer exclusively reserved for the King during this period. Also note that since there were almost no foreign campaings during Akhenaton’s reign, the royals still felt the need to have themselves depicted in the same way as their predecessors: wielding a mace, striking the enemy. Again, this points to the symbolic nature of these depictions.

New Kingdom, King Ramesses II

19th Dynasty, Approx. 1279-1213 (Temple of Beit El WalI, Nubia)

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Ramesses the Great was one of the most powerful monarchs that Egypt has ever known. He was a prolific builder and he ordered the construction of many monuments and temples all over Egypt and Nubia. This colorful relief was in the temple of Beit el-Wali in Nubia, but the entire temple was moved because of the building of the Aswan dam. We see Pharaoh Ramesses II smiting an enemy of Egypt, in this case a Nubian.

Ptolemaic period, King Ptolemy XII

Ptolemaic Dynasty, Approx. 80-51 (Horus temple, Edfu)

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In this relief from the first pylon in the temple dedicated to Horus at Edfu, we see Ptolemy XII in the all familiar pose, destroying his enemies with a royal mace. He is wearing the Atef crown with horns and the solar disk. Although this depiction is designed to make us believe otherwise, Ptolemy XII was not a powerful monarch. By this time Egypt’s power had declined enormously, from being the sole superpower in the mediteranian world, to being a mere vasal state of Rome, and the reign of Ptolemy XII depended heavily on Roman support. After the fall of the Ptolemaic Dynasty with the death of Cleopatra, after some 3000 years of independence, Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire.


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