Discover more from Polemology Positions
The Fine Art Of Assaulting Mud Brick Fortifications In The Middle Kingdom
A regular series on poliorcetic portrayals
Symbolism, as well as the archaeology of defensive walls, point to an epoch of cities at war, and wars over control of cities, from before the First Dynasty. Before the Old Kingdom coalesced, the art of Egypt apparently depicted the fall and defense of cities with animals instead of people. A bull smashes a warrior over a fortress on the Narmer Bull palette, made sometime before 3000 BC, though it is not clear whether he is defending or attacking the fortress. While the precise meaning of the so-called Libyan palette is also contested, animals are depicted with hoes, either breaking or making cities named thereon. Martial meaning is conveyed by either interpretation, and intrinsically linked to the process of state formation in pre-dynastic Egypt besides.
Thus the scene above from the tomb of Baquet III, a nomarch of Upper Egypt during Dynasty XI (ca. 2000 BC), the so-called Intermediate Period at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, was typical of Egyptian art a thousand years later. Human figures were now used to portray military assault on cities. An overlarge shield or “mantelet” protects the Theban archers and a spearman, who are pinning down the defenders of a gate as foreign mercenaries assault the top of the wall; a Libyan slinger is on the far right. Today, we would call this an example of “operational art” and “combined arms.” Add it to the list of smart things that the people of the Nile had learned to do without the aid of modern science.
“This evidence is admittedly of a more mythic nature, and so perhaps of limited value, in that instead of human actors we see insects or other animals hacking away at iconic enemy cities or fortresses,” Brett H. Heagren writes in “The ‘Development’ of Egyptian Assault Warfare (Late Predynastic Period to Dynasty XX)” (Brill’s Companion to Sieges in the Ancient Mediterranean, 2019). “Nonetheless they do serve to introduce some of the key motifs and features that are found repeatedly in our later evidence,” for all the sterotypical motifs of ancient Egyptian art had been established by the First Dynasty.
A three-scene format appears in the pictorial evidence. First, a battle in the field, followed by an attack on a city or fortress, followed by the breached wall. During the storming of the city, “covering fire is a recurring theme” and the tactics depicted show a “preference for scaling,” i.e. climbing the wall with ladders. Extended siege is more expensive and attritional than field battles; Heagren detects a preference for storming operations and surprise, “a certain inherent reluctance on the part of the Egyptians to attack well prepared fortified targets, even though they possessed the technical skills to do so.” Whereas a strong Egyptian state was certainly capable of funding and maintaining a city investment, “the potential loss of life from conducting an aggressive siege must have been calculated as too high a price to pay.”
Baqet III, governor of the Oryx nomate and a city mayor, became a “confidential friend, true royal acquaintance” of the King of Lower Egypt in Thebes. Upon reuniting Egypt, Pharoah Mentuhotep II trusted him with authority over the treasury. Baquet surely understood the costs of war in general, including the resources needed for a siege. Indeed, war was his family business. The tomb of Ramushenti, Baqet’s father, contains a similar scene to the one above, but it has not been as well preserved, and remains unpublished to date. According to W.C. Hayes in “The Nomarchs of Middle Egypt" (The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol 1, Part 2, 1971), “the scene is repeated, with some variations, in the tomb of Baqet's son, the nomarch Achthoes, who lived during the latter years of the Eleventh Dynasty and rejoiced in the titles, 'Administrator of the Eastern Desert' and 'Commander of Soldiers in every difficult place.’”
Egypt was divided again. “The nomes, once administrative districts of a strong central government, had returned to their original status as small, independent states,” Hayes writes. Baqet remained neutral in the civil war until the Herakleopolitan kings opposed to Mentuhotep sacked the sacred city of Abydos and looted the necropolis, offending the gods as well as living Egyptians. Baqet joined Thebes and helped reunite the kingdom in a rapid military campaign that likely included storming walls defended by fellow Egyptians with assault parties made up of Libyans or Nubians or Sherdens. From the perspective of an Egyptian general, this approach would have seemed the least costly in terms of Egyptian blood and treasure.
Heagen observes that “while the Egyptians were of course technically proficient in this area, geographical and, more importantly, time considerations would not have made sapping” — the undermining or breaching of walls — “a desirable option.” Far better to take a city at one stroke.
Heagren calls the above scene “highly dubious” as a representation of any particular city falling. Rather, it is an idealized visual narrative of a city being stormed. We see “soldiers, armed with battering poles, attempt to break open the gate (or walls).” The assault party carries familiar weapons. “It appears that the axe was the personal weapon of choice when attacking a fortress,” Heagren says. Made of copper during this period, many examples of the weapon have been recovered by archaeology.
While this two-pronged tactical assault takes place, covering fire is provided by either Egyptian or Nubian archers, who were likely depicted in the topmost register (now partially damaged). We see, for example, that a number of the city’s defenders have received multiple arrow hits. In addition, Egyptian infantry, armed with axes, are also engaged in heavy hand-to-hand fighting with enemy troops who have already been subjected to arrow bombardment.
Another tomb from Dynasty XI, that of Pharaoh Inyotef, even shows what has been described as some kind of siege tower. However, no artillery or siege engines appear in any Egyptian art. To this writer, it looks more like a portrayal of escalade with some sort of double ladder, allowing two men to climb side by side. For soldiers bearing shields, as all of these storming parties are depicted doing, the main difficulty must have been climbing the ladder with it in one hand and an axe in the other.
Our knowledge of Egyptian storming tactics comes entirely from art. “The only text that comes anywhere close to a theoretical examination of aspects potentially related to siege warfare is Pap. Anastasi I in which military related problems (among others) are posed to the hapless scribe Amenemope,” Heagren writes. “In one passage Amenemope must work out the quantity of (mud) bricks required to build a ramp. Unfortunately, it is not explicitly stated in the text that the ramp was to be used as a siege tool and nor do we possess any extant images of one ever being employed in such a capacity.” Such a ramp would have contained more than 14 million bricks, Heagren says, enough for another fortress.
Of course, the ramp would also not be completely solid. Mud brick structures were built with internal spaces and layers of material to provide drainage and reduce erosion. To actually breach a mud brick wall is therefore quite achievable, though it need not be done with a battering ram. Instead, sappers can attack the structure with picks under the covering fire of archers and slingers, find the vault spaces, and collapse the wall. Dangerous, time-consuming, this was exactly the sort of siege method that Egyptians tried to avoid, but were capable of doing.
Domination of Egypt’s southern neighbor, source of gold and slaves, required Egypt to construct massive fortifications in what is now Sudan. “During the Middle Kingdom, a full-scale annexation of Lower Nubia was systematically achieved by the Senuserts and Amenemhets as evidenced by the building of thirteen forts from the end of the First Cataract to the Second, the southern-most being at Semna,” James K. Hoffmeier writes in “Aspects of Egyptian Foreign Policy in the 18th Dynasty in Western Asia and Nubia” (Egypt, Israel, and the Ancient Mediterranean World, Brill, 2004).
These massive structures required considerable manpower to build and an administrative network to sustain. Senusert III's Semna stelae make it clear that Egypt considered this fort to mark its southern frontier. The impressive Egyptian military presence would leave no question who was in control of Kush and it served to protect strategic economic links with the Kerma culture to the south with whom there was brisk trade.
Designed to intimidate with high walls and defensive towers to provide flanking fire, these fortresses anchored the military and trade communities that made Egypt the wealthiest kingdom in the world. Everything changed during Dynasty XV, however, when the Hyksos became the masters of the Nile delta. Their power lasted from 1650 to 1550 BC, ending with the triumphant Dynasty XVIII, inaugurating the period known as the New Kingdom.
Whereas Nubia had been a colonial project, it was the seeming pursuit of the Hyksos back into their homeland of Canaan that brought the imperializing stage of Egyptian civilization. Archaeologists have identified dozens of Middle Bronze Age communities in the near east that may have been destroyed by a vindictive, even genocidal campaign. While evidence is disputed, the presence of Egyptian power afterwards is acknowledged by all.
“The possibility that certain Asiatic cities did not even possess walls could explain why some pieces of Egyptian siege equipment fail to reappear during the New Kingdom,” Heagren writes. Storming tactics were still useful, however. For example, the ladders used to scale walls could also be used to scale buildings, accessing rooftops in the house-to-house fighting of urban combat. Mantelets were also quite useful in these settings, certainly moreso than chariots. A series of fortresses constructed in northern Sinai, near the modern Gaza, was built to secure the kingdom against any foreign threats from Asia.
Surveying Egyptian art, Heagren writes that “the vast majority of fortress/city assault scenes are dated to the reign of Ramesses II” in the 13th century BC,arguably the high point of the Egyptian Bronze Age. Among the many titles Pharaoh Ramesses II used was “one who breaches walls.” As we have seen, this was a real brag in his world, a rare feat of arms. Perhaps his most famous self-hagiography is on the wall of his temple at Thebes, where only the first two stages of Egyptian siege scening — the field battle and the ensuing assault on the city — are portrayed.
Dapur capitulated to Ramesses after a siege, proving their mettle, but before he was forced to breach their walls, inviting his revenge. Risk management was the imperative for both besieger and besieged.
Ramesses is portrayed as overlarge, a hero in his chariot, while the investment and assault of the hill city takes place on the right third of the depiction. We see ladders, the original siege technology, used to attack the walls with supporting fire from archers and storming parties with mantelets. Any siege during the Bronze Age probably looked very much like this.
However, the priests who painted this scene were not concerned with accurate portrayal of a particular event. Rather, this is meant to serve as propaganda for the reign of Ramesses. By the time the scene was painted, Dapur had long since tossed out their Egyptian garrison and returned to the Hittite fold. This artwork is a “Mission Accomplished” banner, a claim of perfect victory fluttering over what had already become a military and diplomatic fiasco on the ground. Ramesses had reached the absolute limits of Egyptian imperial power. Egypt would survive the collapse of the Bronze Age world, but a long decline lay ahead.
Polemology Positions is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe to support my work