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Ancient Egyptian Sports

Egyptian wrestling scene.
Egyptian wrestling scene.

People have played sports seemingly since the dawn of time when the first cities and organized civilisations emerged. Unsurprisingly, ancient Egyptians enjoyed both individual and team sports. Just as ancient Greece had its Olympic Games ancient Egyptians enjoyed playing many of the same activities.

Egyptian tombs contain numerous paintings showing Egyptians playing sports. This documentary evidence help Egyptologists understand how sports were played and athletes performed. Written accounts of games and especially royal hunts have also come down to us.

Many tomb paintings depict archers aiming at targets rather than animals during a hunt, so Egyptologists are confident know archery was also a sport. Paintings showing gymnastics also support it as a common sport. These inscriptions depict ancient Egyptians demonstrating specific tumbling and using other people as hurdles and vaulting horses. Similarly, hockey, handball and rowing all appear amongst the wall art in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings.

Facts About Ancient Egyptian Sports

  • Sport was a key part of ancient Egyptian recreation and played a prominent role in its day-to-day culture
  • Ancient Egyptians inscribed their tomb walls with brightly pained scenes showing them playing sports
  • Ancient Egyptians participating in organised sports played for teams and had their own distinctive uniforms
  • Competition winners received coloured denoting where they placed, similar to the modern-day practice of awarding gold silver and bronze medals
  • Hunting was a popular sport and Egyptians used Pharaoh Hounds to the hunt. These hounds are the oldest recorded breed and closely resemble paintings of Anubis the jackal or dog god.

The Role Of Sport In Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egyptian sporting events formed part of the rites and religious festivals honouring the gods. Participants often staged simulated battles between Horus’ adherents and those of Seth to celebrate Horus’ victory and the victory of harmony and balance over the forces of chaos.

Popular individual sports included hunting, fishing, boxing, javelin throwing, wrestling, gymnastics, weightlifting and rowing. An ancient Egyptian version of field hockey was the most popular team sport together with a form of tug-of-war. Archery was similarly popular but largely limited to royalty and the nobility.

Shooting-the-rapids were one of the most popular water sports. Two competitors raced each other in a small boat down the Nile. A Beni Hasan mural in Tomb 17 shows two girls facing each other expertly juggling six black balls.

Amenhotep II (1425-1400 BCE) claimed to be a skilled archer who “was apparently able to shoot an arrow through a solid copper target while mounted in a chariot.” Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE) was also renowned for his hunting and archery skills and he prided himself on staying physically fit during his long life.

The importance of physical fitness to a pharaoh’s ability to govern was reflected in the Heb-Sed festival, staged after a king’s initial thirty years on the throne to revitalize him, gauged the pharaoh’s capacity to perform different tests of skill and endurance including archery. Princes were often appointed as generals in the Egyptian army and were expected to command major campaigns, they were encouraged to exercise regularly, particularly during the New Kingdom.

Egyptians of levels of society viewed exercise as an important part of their life. Depictions of sports show common people playing handball, engaging in rowing competitions, athletic races, high-jumping competition and water-jousts.

Hunting And Fishing In Ancient Egypt

As it is today, hunting and fishing were popular sports in ancient Egypt. However, they were also a survival imperative and a way to put food on the table. Ancient Egyptians used several techniques to catch fish in the rich Nile River marshlands.

Egyptian fishermen commonly used a hook and line fashioned from bone and woven plant fibres. For fishing on a larger scale, fence traps, baskets and woven nets were used land a bigger catch. Some fishermen preferred to use harpoons to spear the fish in the water.

Hunting and fishing influenced both the development of other sports as well as military applications of these sporting skills and techniques. Archaeologists believe the modern javelin probably developed from both spear hunting skills and military spearman techniques. Similarly, archery was also a sport, an effective hunting skill and a potent military specialty.

Ancient Egyptians also hunted bigger game using hunting dogs, spears, and bows to hunt, big cats, lions, wild cattle, birds, deer, antelope and even elephants and crocodiles.

Team Sports In Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians played several team sports, most of which we would recognize today. They required coordinated strength, skills, teamwork and sportsmanship. Ancient Egyptians played their own version of field hockey. Hockey sticks were fashion from palm fronds with a signature curve at one end. The ball’s core was made from papyrus, while the ball’s cover was leather. Ball makers also dyed the ball in a range of colours.

In Ancient Egypt, the game of tug-of-war was a popular team sport. To play it, teams formed two opposing lines of players. The players at the head of each line pulled their opponent’s arms, while their team members grabbed the waist of the player in front of them, pulling until one team pulled the other across a line.

Ancient Egyptians had boats for transporting cargo, fishing, sport and travelling. Team rowing in ancient Egypt was similar to today’s rowing events where their coxswain directed competing rowing crews.

The Nobility And Sport In Ancient Egypt

Surviving evidence suggests sports formed part of a new pharaoh’s coronation celebrations. This is unsurprising given athleticism was part of everyday life. Pharaohs regularly went go on hunting expeditions in their chariots.

Similarly, Egypt’s nobility enjoyed both participating in and watching sports and women’s gymnastic dance competitions were one form of competitive sport supported by the nobles. The nobility also supported pageants and rowing competitions.

Egypt’s most celebrated written reference outlining this sporting interest is narrated in the Westcar Papyrus from the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-1570 BCE) through the story of Sneferu and the Green Jewel or The Marvel Which Happened in the Reign of King Sneferu.

This epic story tells how the pharaoh is depressed. His head scribe recommends he goes boating on the lake, saying, “…equip for yourself a boat with all the beauties who are in your palace chamber. The heart of your majesty shall be refreshed at the sight of their rowing.” The king does as his scribe suggests and spends the afternoon watching twenty women rowers perform.

Reflecting On The Past

While sport is omnipresent in our modern culture, it easy to forget the antecedents of many sports dates back millennia. While they may not have enjoyed access to gyms, or step-machines, the ancient Egyptians loved their sports and recognized the benefits of staying fit.

Header image courtesy: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Ancient Egyptian Sports," Give Me History, March 20, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-sports.

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