Egypt’s Ancient Tahtib Martial Arts Form: Stick Fighting Warriors!
Tahtib is an ancient Egyptian stick fighting martial art that dates back to Egypt's Old Kingdom (2649-2130 BC) during the second millennium BC. This martial art emphasizes the use of a long stick for battle against another combatant. Tahtib, or "the stick dance," is still practiced by the people of Upper Egypt, North Africa, and several other Arab countries.
Although it persists, the ancient martial art has changed and is now performed as a folk dance by two individuals wielding long ceremonial sticks. In its current incarnation, Tahtib is usually complemented with music as well as a performance art narrative. Tourists from around the world come to Egypt to see Tahtib dance performed at Luxor and Aswan. However, as the world becomes interconnected, martial arts enthusiasts from around the globe are striving to revive Tahtib into its former glory as a respected fighting form.
It is fascinating to see such an ancient sport evolve from an effective military technique for military training into a ceremonial art form performed ina peaceful setting. With such change, Tahtib may be encountering another paradigm shift as it now allows women to dance with men in mixed-sex dance performances.
The earliest depictions of the Tahtib martial arts form go all the way back to the 26th-25th century BC in Egypt as pictured here in ancient Egyptian drawings and hieroglyphics. (Public domain)
The Earliest Depictions of Tahtib Are Over 4,500 Years Old!
During the great Old Kingdom, pharaohs, elite soldiers, royalty, and athletes were trained in Tahtib stick fighting. The earliest evidence of their existence was depicted in art engravings from the necropolis site of Abusir, excavated near the southwestern suburbs of Cairo.
Other depictions existed in the reliefs of the fifth dynastic Pyramid of Sahure. In total, there were 35 tombs discovered at the Minya site of the Beni Hassan Necropolis, which also carried further depictions of the Tahtib art form. Additionally, the site of Tell el Armana 60 km away from Minya, also had similar depictions.
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From these detailed depictions, it appeared that Tahtib stick fighting was a complimentary exercise along with archery and wrestling. These three disciplines were foundational for all Egyptian warriors during the Bronze Age and later.
Writer Lyric Ludwic describes the act of Tahtib as "being a way for young men to express themselves with a leisurely yet athletically challenging activity." In Ludwic's perspective, knowing how to fight, live, and prepare for a glorious afterlife were paramount in ancient Egyptian society. Therefore, being physically fit, endurant, and skilled in the martial arts held great value to the Egyptian pharaohs.
Because of Tahtib's prominence with the elite warrior class of Egypt, the artform intrigued the lower peasant classes. Eventually, Tahtib training became festival attractions where retired soldiers and athletes provided exciting demonstrations. Like the later retired Roman gladiators who were called to perform at special religious events, those who were masters at Tahtib were treated with the same respect.
In time, the sport was taught to peasants and farmers as a form of self-defence and for festival performances. Tahtib, as a performance exercise, became most prominent during Egypt's New Kingdom period (1550-1153 BC). Once Christianity emerged, early Christian writings also depicted Tahtib as a ceremonial dance performed as entertainment for celebrations, especially during weddings.
This ancient Egyptian artifact (part of the Louvre’s exceptional collection) shows two Egyptian warriors engaged in Tahtib stick fighting. (Guillaume Blanchard / CC BY-SA 1.0)
Tahtib, in its New Kingdom transformation, saw the change from practice drills for warfare into interpretive dances for festivals. In this version, the first descriptions revealed that men solely performed these festive dances. But as time went on during the New Kingdom, other variations emerged that allowed for troupes of only women to perform distinct variants of the dance.
Although women were allowed to perform a variation of Tahtib, the performance art still forbade mixed-sex performances. One form of Tahtib maintains more of an aggressive representation of combat. Other variations such as the Saidi has women dance with more of a seductive and culturally feminine influence. This version was learned from the Ghawazee of Upper Egypt, who borrowed the
male Tahtib's movement and blended it with their own cultural dances.
In the later variation known as Raqs Al Assaya, also known as "dance of the stick," the performance stick used for the dance took on a more flamboyant appearance. The sticks used for the dances became lighter and were lengthened for increased flexibility. In its later forms, the performance stick resembled a lengthy cane rather than a fighting stick.
In some forms, the stick was emphasized with the attachment of silver and gold foils so that when it spins, it left a trail of majestic colors. All of these variations, whether its earliest form or its most recent, are always accompanied by music.
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Music was just as important as dance to the ancient Egyptians. Music represented the balance between creation and communication with the gods. If one were to take a walk through an ancient Egyptian city, it would be very common to hear music being played in ceremonies, banquets, military parades, places of commerce, and areas of labor.
These melodies would overlap and blend making anyone inhabiting this civilization feel connected to the thriving Egyptian world. Music was even played as farmers toiled in the fertile grounds near the ancient Nile.
The music performed during a Tahtib performance used the Tabl (bass drum) and Mizmar (oboe). Together these instruments could represent the rhythm of a heartbeat as well as the fast beat staccato of intense movement. In unison both instruments form a beautiful creative union encapsulating all the emotions felt when witnessing two people interpreting war. However, this information also brings an interesting question, when exactly does a martial art become a formal cultural dance?
"Negroes fighting, Brazil" circa 1824, a painting by Augustus Earle (1793-1838) depicting an illegal capoeira-like game in Rio de Janeiro. (Augustus Earle / Public domain)
From Martial Art to Dance Form, In Almost Every Culture
Whether it be recorded through rock carvings, petroglyphs, or ancient written records, almost every culture on earth had some form of weapon dance. In some ways, the dances reflected either a combat technique, a recollection of a battle, or a way of culturally preserving an effective martial art. Dance throughout human history has been significant in preserving information and transmitting it from one generation to another.
The act of the dance, especially one originating from essential skills for war, helps to preserve a people's culture and history. The reasons why this occurs may have varying reasons. One of which is not only to preserve a cultural fighting style but also to “hide” this form of lethal training from oppressors.
One such martial art altered for dance is the Brazilian capoeira martial art, a 16th-century acrobatic dance developed and practiced by African slaves. This technique incorporated the use of inverted sticks and flowing movements for fighting. Due to the fear of death for teaching such an effective technique, the sport added dance and music to cloak its purpose among the colonizing Portuguese.
Although Capoeira is a perfect example of a martial art masquerading as a dance form, many war dances were created to commemorate significant battles. In Syria, the Shora is a folk dance that reminds all who dance it of the turbulent bloody battles Syria has either brought on or endured. In this dance, a ritualistic dancer symbolizes a warrior king who is surrounded by followers joining him in a dance of blades.
Similar to Shora, the Central American Danza de la Pluma war dance represents the trauma brought forth by the Spanish conquest. It portrays a native Aztec ceremoniously fighting against a Spanish conquistador.
Mbende Jerusarema is a popular dance style practiced by the Zezuru Shona people living in eastern Zimbabwe, especially in the Murewa and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe districts. (Intangible Cultural Heritage)
War dances also provide a way to preserve the battle strategies of entire groups when fighting against large groups of people. This preservation can be seen in the Jerusarema dance of the Zezuru people in Zimbabwe. This interesting war dance uses music and ritual dance to indicate what is needed for battle against an oncoming foe and to depict key events in understanding how a battle is won or lost.
In Jerusarema, the dance also depicts key strategies for fighting against other unfamiliar tribes. This dance is believed to have been created in the 19th century as a result of the colonial Boer's expansion into Zezuru lands. This colonial expansion caused the displacement of many people, therefore, creating much conflict within the region.
The music itself also represents the significant battle tactics used to indicate which flank to move and whether to retreat or advance. The Zezuru dance is a key example of the preservation of battle information.
Several other war dances exist to popularize major battle events throughout history in the form of dance and opera.
Whatever the reason for a dance’s preservation, it appears that the human need for dance is essential for continuing the transference of knowledge from one person to another. For the sake of Tahtib, its metamorphosis from a war exercise to dance may have been due to its popularity with farmers eager to study the exercises of the ancient Egyptian military.
This intrigue for Tahtib continues to this day as it makes a modern revival along with many other Egyptian folk dances.
A modern version of Tahtib stick dancing being performed in Egypt. (Public domain)
The Modern Revival of Tahtib Dance and Stick Fighting
Egyptian folklore dancing as a whole, as discussed by writer Mary Aravanis, made a great revival during the 1950's thanks to the Reda troupe and their founding members Mahmoud Reda and Rarida Fahmy.
Through their experience in choreography, dance, and appreciation for their cultural arts, they were able to recreate and adapt a large number of Egyptian folk dances as stage performances. Their theatrical abilities elevated their performances to jaw-dropping spectacles while tastefully maintaining their cultural heritage. Along with the Reda troupe's efforts in reviving Egyptian Folk dance, Tahtib also made a return.
The writer Karim Zidan credits Adel Boulad as a founder of the modern version of Tahtib. Boulad's work in adapting the modern version of Tahtib gained him recognition for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage distinction in 2016. Boulad's efforts emphasized reviving the ancient techniques as a form of training for athletes and performers while adding dance and movement to make Tahtib more appealing to younger generations.
In the modern era, Tahtib has become a training dance with variations from all over the Middle East. Because of Boulad's success, the sport has also created global interest leading to several training centers in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The dance form currently exists as a mixture of folk dance, martial arts, sports, and performance.
In modern Egypt, Tahtib is performed as entertainment for festive occasions. It is always complemented with a troupe of musicians, and the performers use more theatrical methods to woo the crowd. It is also seen as a competitive game where two athletes playfully compete to reveal their prowess and endurance.
Modern Egyptians engaged in Tahtib dance or stick fighting. (Egyptian Geographic)
The performance still begins the same as it did in ancient times. Each opponent opens by taking turns on a ceremonial attack in an attempt to touch the top of an opponent's head without being struck themselves.
As Zidan explains, both performers remain in a circle as they continue the choreographed combat. The ritual ends with either a direct tap to the head or three taps to the body. Both the men and women wear distinct attire that indicates what version of Tahtib they will perform.
For the most part, men wear loose-fitting colorful galabeyas or long dress-like garments, while the women wear similar galabeyas that are brighter and more colorful. Women performers wear more jewelry, and scarves wrapped around their ankles, wrists, and waist.
As with the significant revivals of folk dance and Tahtib, other changes emerged in the 21st century, signifying an adaptation for changing times: practicing Tahtib in mixed-sex groups.
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In 2017, Ms. Rania Madhat became the first Egyptian woman to be certified as a Tahtib instructor and player in Cairo by Adel Boulad and the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED). Due to Madhat's success, further efforts have been made to include Tahtib into the physical education curriculum of Egypt.
With such positive changes occurring with Tahtib and other folklore dances, the Egyptian community has a growing awareness for its preservation. As Zidan mentions, Tahtib not only has proven to strengthen the physique, mind, and spirit of all who perform it. It also has solidified a sense of Egyptian identity and self-confidence. Perhaps Tahtib will survive for a few millennia more.
Top image: Tahtib dance or ancient Egyptian martial art stick fighting being performed in modern Egypt. Source: Traditional Sports
By B.B. Wagner
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