15 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

It is obvious from the scenes depicted on pyramid and temple walls that the ancient Egyptians knew how to keep fit. In ancient Egypt sport was a part of the daily life and culture. Archaeologists and scholars have uncovered interesting information about ancient Egyptian sports practiced thousands of years ago.

Not surprisingly, ancient Egyptian games and sport are not that different from the games we practice and enjoy today. Murals and paintings dating back to the days of the ancient Egyptians indicate that the pharaoh and his people enjoyed activities such as wrestling and the javelin.

With the fact that Egypt lies on the banks of the Nile River it is quite likely to assume that many of the ancient Egyptian sports were water related. Evidence indicates that Egyptians enjoyed such sporting events as swimming and rowing.

Judging by drawings and paintings, ancient Egyptian sport also included an assortment of ball games. One of the games involving ball play appears to be a version of handball, while other games were played using balls and bats fashioned from palm trees.

Many of the ancient Egyptian sports were enjoyed for the pure fun of it but others might have developed into professional spectator sporting events. Certainly the latter would have been attended by the royal family as a means of entertainment and diversion.

In addition, ancient Egyptian sport included marathons that were recorded in a number of Egyptian texts. Marathons seem to have even played a part in the coronation festivities of pharaohs throughout most ancient Egyptian history.

The Egyptians favoured organised sporting events, such as boxing and fencing with sticks. Marathon races were important events, particularly during celebrations commemorating a new pharaoh. One of the rituals of these celebrations was to hold a marathon run by the pharaoh around the temples before spectators to reveal his physical strength and his ability to rule using his bodily and mental capabilities.

The artist has brought out, with a thorough knowledge of anatomy, the harmonious play of muscles. The positions of Zoser's arms, trunk and legs denote an expertise of technique and movement which only advanced development can achieve.

The ancient Egyptians engaged in sports with the intention of training and strengthening their bodies, as well as for pleasure and recreation.

The high standard of physical fitness reached by the ancient Egyptians is revealed in their standard portrayals of the male and female forms in sculpture and painting.

The men are strong, and radiate a muscular vigour, while the women are slender, and redolent with femininity.

There are countless representations on tomb and temple walls, but none is more striking than the oldest document relating to sport. It is a unique mural, not only because of its date, but also through its social implications, depicting the Pharaoh Zoser the Great, the founder of the third dynasty nearly 3000 years before Christ, or about 5000 years ago.

Fully aware of the invaluable role of sport in raising the standard of health, and hence of national productivity, the ancient Egyptians as a whole, men, women, youths and children, were all engaged in sporting activities with a zeal which amounted to a cult.

There is a theory that the ancient Egyptians began the custom of holding international games regularly at Akhmem in Upper Egypt. It should also be said that in Egypt, sport was born and flourished, and from there spread to Greece, Rome and to the rest of the world.

The ancient Egyptians filled their leisure time with many pleasant activities. They enjoyed good food, drink, music, singing, and dancing. The upper class watched professional dancers at formal banquets. A number of musical instruments accompanied the dancers. The flute, oboe, trumpet, and an instrument resembling a clarinet were the most common wind instruments; stringed instruments included various types of harps, lutes, and lyres; and tambourines and drums were the normal percussion instruments. In rituals, sistra and clappers were used.

Other leisure activities included hunting, fowling, and fishing for sport. Hunters used a bow and arrow for most game--ibex, gazelle, wild cattle, ostriches, and hares. Fowling and fishing took place in marshes. For fowling, Egyptians used a throwstick that acted like a boomerang, stunning the bird and knocking it out of the sky. For fishing a long, double-barbed spear was used.

Members of literate households (5 percent at most) enjoyed reading. In the quiet of their homes, the ancient Egyptians played a number of board games, the most, popular being senet. Ancient Egyptian children had games and amusements similar to those of Egyptian children today. A number of simple toys like balls and dolls have been found in tombs. They lived life to the full. At festivals and parties they feasted and drank, and were entertained by singers, dancers and musicians.

Egyptians held feasts to celebrate births, marriages and religious festivals, or simply to entertain friends. The wealthy enjoyed holding dinner parties, where cooks would prepare huge meals, flavoured with imported herbs and spices. Dressed in their best clothes, guests sat on chairs or on cushions on the floor, eating and drinking large quantities of wine.

Party scenes show how much the Egyptians liked music and dance. This well known banquet scene is from a tomb of a wealthy nobleman named Nebamun. The tomb was built around 1400 BC in Thebes. One woman plays a double flute while others clap along and dance.

An integral part of both religious and secular festivals, dancers and musicians would enliven the festivities with harps, lyres and lutes, the oboe (most often played by women) the double flute, and drums to keep up beat of the music. Dancers and musicians were usually employed by a temple, or could work as freelancers.

These carved wooden toys would have been pulled along by a string. Pulling the string on the wooden cat would have made its mouth open and close. Other ancient animal toys have glass eyes, movable legs and arms and tails that wag. Simple rag dolls were also a popular choice.