Knowledge from Images . The Egyptians built forts in all periods of their history. Abundant evidence for fortifications remains, giving a broad picture of the changes in fort building and location throughout the period under consideration. Because Egyptian hieroglyphic writing used pictures, some idea of the appearance of early forts was preserved in writing. The words for “mansion,” “wall,” and “fortified building” are found on seals and sealings from the beginnings of Egyptian history. These writings show large buildings with thick, crenellated walls, towers, and monumental gates. The Narmer Palette, carved in the time of the first king of Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.), depicted a bull destroying the walls of a fortified city or a fort. This scene represented the king’s symbolic uniting of various Egyptian towns into one country.
Archaeological Evidence. Archaeological evidence for forts is rare in the first three dynasties. Yet, archaeologists have identified buildings at Elephantine, Abydos, and Hierakonpolis as forts. A fortified building containing Egyptian artifacts in En Basor (Syria-Palestine) might be a fort or a trading station. In general, the forts of this period were built of mud brick. Curved towers stood along the wall. At each corner a square tower defended the fort. The gate was also fortified.
Old Kingdom. In the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) a text mentioned a Fortress of the Bitter Lakes, which was located in the eastern delta. The only archaeological evidence for a fort from this period comes from the other end of the country. The Dakhla Oasis contains remains of a mud-brick fort with massive walls and a circular bastion at the corner and semicircular bastions along the walls. Piers flanked the gate and protected it.
First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom. In the First Intermediate Period (circa 2130-1980 b.c.e.) and the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) literary and historical texts often mentioned forts. The Instructions of Merykare for his Son, The Complaints of Neferty, The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, and the epic poem Sinuhe all mentioned forts. Biographical texts written by Ankhtyfy of Moalla and King Wahankh Antef I of Thebes also discussed capturing forts.
Nubian Forts Phase I. However, archaeology provides the most plentiful information about forts built in the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptians constructed a system of forts in Nubia to guard their southern frontier, exploit natural resources, and administer trade. The forts were built during three distinct phases between the First and Second Cataracts. The earliest forts, built at the end of Dynasty 11 (circa 2081-1938 b.c.e.), are the least well understood. Archaeologists discovered their remains at Aniba, Ikkur, Kubban, and Wadi el Hudi. Yet, the second phase of forts, built by Senwosret I, is better preserved.
Nubian Forts Phase II. Senwosret I began a second series of forts, first improving on the design of the Dynasty 11 forts at the same sites. He also added one at Buhen. In general, these structures were built with massive mud-brick walls. External rectangular towers stood along the walls and at the corners. Buttresses on the exterior face of the walls supported wooden platforms. These platforms, called battlements, provided a place for soldiers to stand and fight. One wall of the fort stood parallel to the Nile River, and a gate gave access to the riverside quay. A dry moat surrounded the fort on the other three sides.
Buhen. The fortress at Buhen had additional defensive features. The dry moat was lined with bricks. The sharply inclined inner side of the moat (scarp) met a slope of earth (glacis) on the inside of the moat and would have further impeded an attacking soldier’s progress. A low wall stood on a built-up area of earth between the glacis and the fort’s
walls. Behind this defense stood semicircular bastions. Small windows pierced these bastions. The opening of the windows pointed downward, giving the archer inside a good shot at attackers trapped in the moat. Other openings in the bastion allowed archers a straight shot across the moat. A main gate extended over the ditch. It had double wooden doors and a retractable wooden bridge that could be removed on rollers. These forts demonstrate a new sophistication in designing defensive structures.
Nubian Forts Phase III. Senwosret III built a third phase of Middle King forts in Nubia at the Second cataract. These forts, found at Askut, Shalfak, Uronarti Semna, Kumma and Semna South, represent a different construction type from Buhen. They were built following the hilly terrain, and thus they required no moats. Soldiers could access the Nile through a stairway. These forts lacked the mud-brick towers that had been so basic to the design of earlier forts. Now the Egyptians constructed spur walls that followed the contours of the land. These spur walls provided platforms for the soldiers defending the fort.
Interior Design. All the forts’ interiors followed a regular plan. The Egyptians constructed streets that met at right angles in the center of the fort. Other streets followed the interior of the massive walls. Streets also divided the interior into units. These units included administrative buildings, soldiers’ barracks, and officers’ houses. Storerooms and granaries were in another section. Other areas were utilized for food production, including bakeries and a garden. One fort contained clear evidence of an armory.
Delta. In the Middle Kingdom the northern border is less well known. Texts refer to a frontier station called The Walls of the Ruler. Yet, scholars have not yet tied this name to an archaeological site. The Walls of the Ruler was either one fort or a series of forts in the delta and on the border. Some scholars have suggested it was a canal with a dike on one or both sides. The poem Sinuhe clearly placed The Walls of the Ruler on the frontier near the Sinai. Since Egypt had trade interests with Syria-Palestine in this period as it did with Nubia, it is likely that part of the purpose of this installation was to control and monitor trade.
Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom. The Nubian forts developed into towns during the Second Intermediate Period (circa 1630-1539/1523 b.c.e.). They must have been dominated by the Kerma culture of Nubia in this period. By the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) the Egyptians had reoccupied the forts and added an Egyptian temple to these towns. The towns had thick walls with square towers at the gate, corners, and along the walls. The towns within the walls were planned with streets crossing at ninety-degree angles. The temples and storage areas were built of stone, while the houses were mud-brick. Some settlements remained outside the walls of the town. Middle Kingdom sites such as Aniba and Buhen were modified to fit this pattern. Newly built towns included Aksha, Amara West, Sai, Sesebi, and Soleb. These towns were administrative centers responsible for sending taxes north to Egypt proper, protecting trade and preserving the frontier.
Evidence of the Hyksos. In the north the earthen embankments at Heliopolis and Tell el Yehudyyah, once thought to be forts, are now recognized as foundations for temples. True forts have been identified at Tell el Daba and Deir el Ballas. The use of the site of Tell el Daba can be identified with the town fortress of Avaris described in the Kamose Stela. Remains of earthwork platforms and a thick-walled superstructure have been excavated. This town is associated with the Hyksos occupation.
Syria-Palestine. In the New Kingdom, Thutmose III established garrisons in Syria-Palestine to supervise trade, tribute, and communication with Egypt. The garrisons also maintained the peace among city-states in Syria-Palestine and provided a buffer between Egypt and the empires of the Hittites, Babylonians, and Hurrians. Ancient lists of forts by place-names were composed in Thutmose Ill’s reign. They are arranged from north to south and from east to west. But the sites on the ground have not been identified.
Residence-Forts. In Dynasty 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.) archaeologists can trace a development in Egyptian forts found in Syria-Palestine. The first common type was a small square tower known as a migdol Later forts resembling Egyptian houses replaced the migdol. Archaeologists believe that these forts were the Residence of the Egyptian governor. They were built with a central courtyard and rooms were arranged around it. The plan resembled a large Egyptian house. Residence-forts were excavated at Tell Farah, Tell esh-Sharia, Aphek, Tell Jemmeh, Tell Masos, and Tell Hesi.
Beth Shan. Archaeologists have discovered the complete sequence from Dynasties 19 and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.) of Egyptian forts at Beth Shan in modern Israel. In Dynasty 19 the site contained a residence, Egyptian temple, granary, and migdol. The large house and migdol were unoccupied in Dynasty 20, but there was still an Egyptian residence.
Karnak Temple. A relief at the Karnak Temple carved in the reign of Sety I preserved depictions of a series of small fortresses. These fortresses were located on the Ways of Horus, the main ancient road from the eastern delta and across the northern Sinai to modern Israel. Many of these buildings were discovered archaeologically in the late twentieth century C.E., but exact identifications between the relief representations and the sites have not been made.
Northwest Border. The northwest Egyptian border was first fortified in Ramesside times (circa 1292-1075 b.c.e.). Ramesses II, Merneptah, and Ramesses III built forts against the Sea Peoples in this area.
Third Intermediate Period. During the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1075-656 b.c.e.) Egyptian towns became fortified as the central government broke down. Notable fortified towns included Medinet Habu, El Kab, and Herakleopolis. In Dynasty 26 (circa 664-525 b.c.e.) there were forts at Tell Kedwa in northern Sinai and at Dorginarti, an island near the Second Cataract.
Frontier Relations. By studying the location of forts in various periods Egyptologists determine Egypt’s ancient borders and the degree of hostility it experienced with its neighbors. The extent that the buildings were fortified suggests to historians the nature of Egypt’s foreign relations. Clearly, Nubia and Syria-Palestine must have been safer places for the Egyptian garrisons in the New Kingdom than in the Middle Kingdom. The open towns found in Nubia and the residence-forts found in Syria-Palestine dating to the New Kingdom are nearly undefended in comparison to the Middle Kingdom forts. Further research on forts should yield even more information on Egyptian foreign relations.
John Carman and Anthony Harding, eds., Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999).
Adrian Gilbert, The Encyclopedia of Warfare from Earliest Times to the Present Day (Chicago &, London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000).
A. W. Lawrence, “Ancient Egyptian Fortresses,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 51 (1965): 155-179.