The first mention of the Medjay in written records dates back to the Old Kingdom, when they were listed among other Nubian peoples by Weni, who was at the time a general serving under Pepi I. During this time the term “Medjay” referred to people from the land of Medja, a district estimated to be located just east of the Second Cataract in Nubia. A decree from Pepi I’s reign, which lists different officials (including an Overseer of the Medja, Irtjet and Satju), illustrates that Medja was at least to some extent subjugated by the Egyptian government.
During the Middle Kingdom, the definition of “Medjay” started to refer more to a tribe or clan of people, rather than a land, (although references to Medja-land do exist). Written accounts, like the Semna Despatches detail the Medjay as nomadic desert people. As itinerant peoples, they worked in all parts of Egyptian society, including palace attendants, temple employees, merchants, and more. The Medjay worked in Egyptian fortifications in Nubia and patrolled the deserts and helped to patrol the desert with other Egyptian soldiers, like the Akhwty. They also were sometimes employees as soldiers(as we may know from the Stela of Res and Ptahwer). And during the Second Intermediate Period, they were even later used during Kamose’s campaign against the Hyksos and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power.
By the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period, the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force. No longer did the term refer to an ethnic group and over time the new meaning became synonymous with the policing occupation in general. Being an elite police force, the Medjay were often used to protect valuable areas, especially areas of pharaonic interest like capital cities, royal cemeteries, and the borders of Egypt. Though they are most notable for their protection of the royal palaces and tombs in Thebes and the surrounding areas, the Medjay were known to have been used throughout Upper and Lower Egypt. Each regional unit had its own captains. Chiefs of the Medjay are also known from the New Kingdom, but that title is more likely equated with a person in charge of building and building material procurement.
At first, the group just consisted of those who were considered ethnically Medjay and were descended from the ancient tribal group. This changed over time, however, as more and more Egyptians joined the occupation. Based on the written records, it can be seen that various Medjay chiefs and captains had Egyptian names and were depicted as such. Why this change occurred is not exactly known by Egyptologists, but it could be assumed that because the Medjay were seen as an elite group of warriors, more Egyptians might have joined to achieve a similar status.
After the 20th Dynasty, the term Medjay is no longer found in Egyptian written records. Egyptologists do not know whether the Medjay as an occupation had been abolished or the name had just been changed. However, there is speculation that a group of people called the Meded who fought against the Kush during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. might have been related to the Medjay. Regardless, there is no doubt that the Medjay played an important role in Ancient Egypt, first as foreign mercenaries employed by the Egyptian army and later as a paramilitary police force that guarded royal palaces and tombs. The Medjay will forever be known as a group of elite warriors.
Bone and horn painted with red, black, and white
H. 16 5/16 in. (41.5 cm), W. 29 1/2 in. (75 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1916 (16.2.23)
Not on view Last Updated March 8, 2011
When archaeologists first uncovered a group of shallow, pan-shaped graves at the site of Abydos in Upper Egypt, they designated the owners as the “pan-grave” people. The burials were accompanied by pottery of Nubian type and weapons of Egyptian manufacture. It is now generally accepted that these graves, found throughout Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia, are evidence of the nomadic Medjayu people, documented in Egyptian texts as fierce warriors who served in the Egyptian army and desert police force from the late Old Kingdom.
One of the most distinctive aspects of pan-grave burials are the painted skulls of various horned animals that are found above the graves or in nearby pits. The horns and skull of this example have been decorated with large blocks and bands of red and black, and white dots have been applied to the red areas.
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