The Khepesh Sword

Last post I talked about the Goddess Neith and the multiple roles she played including holding the ‘Mistress of Bows’, ‘Ruler of Arrows’ and it got me thinking about ancient Egyptian weaponry. This isn’t a post all about arrows though. But a particular sword that appeared in Egypt during the New Kingdom known as a Khepesh sword.

Figure 1: Relief fragment showing a man holding a shield and curved fighting stick. https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010121764
Figure 2: Middle Kingdom Battle Axe (EA36776) and the Greek letter Epsilon. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA36776

Khepesh comes from the Egyptian word for knee/ leg with the hieroglyphs used to spell it including a cow’s leg mimicking the blades shape. However, this sword did not start its life in ancient Egypt but further north in the world of Mesopotamia and the wider Near East. This sword was a foreign invention introduced and then adopted by the ancient Egyptians. It is important to not just think of the Egyptian civilization as an isolated or singular but being part of a much wider network.   

Khepesh swords look like a strange cross between an axe and a sword. The haft and blade are made entirely of metal and is straight until the last half of its length, where it sweeps out into a curved cutting edge[1]. Some have said it could be an ancestor of the falchion/ heavy chopping sword.  Khepesh is the Egyptian term for this sword but it is commonly referred to a ‘sickle swords. However, this is misleading.  A sickle has its sharpened edge on its inside whilst the Khepesh has its sharpened edge on its outside edge[2].

Outside of Egypt

Figure 3: The goddess Ishtar holding a curved axe in her left hand; coloured mural from the Palace of Zimri-Lim, “The Investiture of the king by Ishtar”. https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010144553
Figure 4: Cylinder seal from Mari showing a god carrying a classic “sickle-sword” standing on a prostrate enemy. https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010146740

Mesopotamia is a historical region between the Tigris and Euphrates river. The sickle -sword-style weapon comes from Early Dynastic Mesopotamia period from approximately 2900 to 2350 B.C.[3]. An early dynastic fragment of sculpture from Telloh shows a man with a sickle-like weapon in his shoulder[4] (Figure 1). From this first sickle like stick weapon there have been a few phases of development until the classic sickle sword emerged in the Middle Bronze Age[5]. The widely accepted theory is that this weapon developed from a type of axe. Specifically, the Akkadian axe which had an epsilon like shape, given its name through its similarity in shape to the Greek letter epsilon (Figure 2). From this axe emerged this sickle -like- weapon. The Akkadian period (ca. 2350–2150 B.C.) is named after the city of Agade (or Akkad), whose Semitic monarchs united the region, bringing the rival Sumerian cities under their control by conquest[6]. The haft of the blade of this Akkadian weapon would be about 60-75cm long , given its proportions in depictions to its wielder. The tip as a result being shown brushing the ground. The haft of the blade is completely straight until the last foot or so which then slightly curves[7]. (Figure 3/4) Then came another innovation around 2000BC in the from of the Akkadian style rectangular axe split into two different forms; the Babylonian curved single axe and the classic sickle sword (Figure 5). This classic sickle sword then begins to filter throughout the Near East gaining in popularity and is represented more widely in art and technology[8]. Examples have been found in Elam, Syria, Canaan and eventually Egypt.  

Figure 5: Sickle sword of Middle Assyrian king Adad-nirari I (r. 1307–1275 B.C.). https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322443

The Sickle sword came to Egypt  

Egypt seems to have been the last of the region to gain access to this weapon. The khepesh doesn’t’ appear in Middle Kingdom art therefor making it likely that it fell into Egyptian hands through trade or plunder from Canaan[9]. Included in offerings made to the God Montu by Asiatics recorded at Saqqara, during the reign of Amenemhat II included was ‘(battle)-axes, 19, scimitar 33, daggers, 12…” a more literal translation would be reaping implements for the scimitars[10]. Given the sickle conations it would seem the sickle-sword had made it to Egypt.

Figure 6 (Bottom) Khepesh of King Tutankhamun
http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/record.aspx?id=14740

Figure 7 (Top) : Khepesh of Ramesses II from Pi-Ramesses https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010004555

Egyptologists also posit that the sickle sword was introduced by the Hyksos when they migrated into Egypt during the Late Middle Kingdom (c.1880-1650 BC) and then upon rising to power in Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC)[11]. During the Hyksos period there was a surge in warfare technologies. Horses were used more widely, chariots introduced, all in turn leading to the development of new military techniques and strategies[12]. The introduction of the curved khepesh sword, body armour and helmets included in these innovations.

The khepesh does not appear to have been manufactured in Egypt until the New Kingdom when it becomes truly formed into the khepesh sword. The haft of the weapon is modified and reduced to about 1/3 and the blade extended to 2/3[13]. This sword was quickly adopted and examples can be found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Figure 6) and from the capital of Ramesses II Pi- Ramesses (Qantir) (Figure 7). In fact, Rameses II was the first pharaoh to be shown wielding the khepesh in battle. The khepesh also eventually replaced the mace as the symbol of Egyptian authority (Figure 8). This shouldn’t be a surprise as these types of sword had been shown in the hands of kings and gods alike throughout the Near East (Figure 3) and now in Egypt. They were associated with power early on by both civilisations.

I hope you have enjoyed this week’s post all about the Khepesh sword an example of the ancient Egyptian taking and embracing foreign technology.

References


[1] Howard, D., 2011. Bronze Age Military Equipment. Havertown: Pen and Sword. Page 33

[2] Howard, D., 2011. Bronze Age Military Equipment. Havertown: Pen and Sword. Page 34

[3] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/akka/hd_akka.htm Accessed 27.05.2021

[4] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 67

[5] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 67

[6] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/akka/hd_akka.htm Accessed 27.05.2021

[7] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 67

[8] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 70

[9] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 71

[10] Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992 Page 79

[11] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 154

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 154

[13] Hamblin, W., 2007. Warfare in the ancient Near East to c. 1600 BC. London: Routledge. Page 71

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