Medjay: elite paramilitary members of the Ancient Egyptian military (Nubian Pan Grave People)

Medjay

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Medjay "mḏꜣ.j"
(throw stick det.)
Egyptian hieroglyphs

Medjay (also Medjai, Mazoi, Madjai, Mejay, Egyptian mḏꜣ.j, a nisba of mḏꜣ,[1]) was a demonym used in various ways throughout ancient Egyptian history to refer initially to a nomadic group from Nubia and later as a generic term for desert-ranger police.[2]

Origins

 
Statuettes representing the Medjay
 
Painted bull's skull from a Pan-Grave burial, dating to the Second Intermediate Period

In the archaeological record, a culture known as the Pan-Grave Culture[3] is generally considered by experts to represent the Medjay.[4][5] This culture is named for its distinctive circular graves, found throughout Lower Nubia and Upper Egypt, which date to the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (1800-1550 BCE).[4][5] The sudden appearance of these graves in the Nile Valley suggests that they represent an immigrant population, while the presence of Nerita shells in many of them suggests their occupants came from the Eastern Desert between the Nile and the Red Sea.[4] Other objects commonly found in these graves include the painted skulls of various horned animals, which are found either arranged in a circle around the burial pit or placed in separate offering pits.[4]

The first mention of the Medjay in written records dates back to the Old Kingdom, when they were listed among other Nubian peoples in the Autobiography of Weni, who was at the time a general serving under Pepi I Meryre (reigned 2332–2287 BC).[6] During this time the term "Medjay" referred to people from the land of Medja, a district thought to be located just east of the Second Nile 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.[7] Since the time of Alan Gardiner, a common account has been that the Medjay constituted an ethnic group. More recent work suggests that the term was initially an Egyptian exonym, and that those identified as Medjay may not have considered themselves to have a shared ethnicity, and certainly were not a unified polity.[8]

Written accounts from the Middle Kingdom such as the Semna Despatches describe the Medjay as nomadic desert people. Egyptian sources are inconsistent in distinguishing between "Nehesy" people generally and Medjay until the latter portion of the Middle Kingdom. Senwosret III enacted a prohibition on Nehesy movement north of Semna, while the administration began making a distinction between these two categories of people. Liszka hypothesizes that this may have motivated people to take on "Medjay" as an ethnic identity.

They also were sometimes employed as soldiers (as we know from the stele of Res and Ptahwer). And during the Second Intermediate Period, they were even used during Kamose's campaign against the Hyksos[9] and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power.[10]

Police force

 
Funerary cone of Penre, an 18th Dynasty Chief of the Medjay

By the Eighteenth Dynasty during the New Kingdom, the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force.[11] No longer did the term refer to an ethnic group, and over time the new meaning became synonymous with policing in general. As an elite 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 best known for their protection of the royal palaces and tombs in Thebes and the surrounding areas, the Medjay were used throughout Upper and Lower Egypt. Each regional unit had its own captains.[12] Chiefs of the Medjay are also known from the New Kingdom, but that title is more likely to refer to a person in charge of building and building material procurement.

At first, the group just consisted of ethnic Medjay and those descended from that ancient tribal group. This changed over time as more and more Egyptians took up their occupation. Records show that various Medjay chiefs and captains had Egyptian names and were depicted as such. Why this change occurred is not known, but it is assumed that, because of the Medjay's elite status, Egyptians joined them.[12]

Demise

After the 20th Dynasty, the term Medjay is no longer found in Egyptian records. It is unknown whether the Medjay as an occupation had been abolished or the name of the force had 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.[11]

Language

Linguistic evidence indicates that the Medjay spoke an ancient Cushitic language related to the Cushitic Beja language and that the Blemmyes were a subdivision of the Medjay. Rilly (2019) mentions historical records of a powerful Cushitic speaking group which controlled Lower Nubia and some cities in Upper Egypt. Rilly (2019) states:

The Blemmyes are another Cushitic speaking tribe, or more likely a subdivision of the Medjay/Beja people, which is attested in Napatan and Egyptian texts from the 6th century BC on.[13]

On page 134:

From the end of the 4th century until the 6th century AD, they held parts of Lower Nubia and some cities of Upper Egypt.[14]

He mentions the linguistic relationship between the modern Beja language and the ancient Cushitic Blemmyan language which dominated Lower Nubia and that the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay:

The Blemmyan language is so close to modern Beja that it is probably nothing else than an early dialect of the same language. In this case, the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay.[15]

Cultural depictions

In the 1932 film The Mummy, the Medjay are mentioned as Pharaoh Seti I's personal bodyguards in ancient Egypt.[16] They are also mentioned in the 1999 remake The Mummy, and the sequel The Mummy Returns (2001).[17]

In the 2017 video game Assassin's Creed Origins, the protagonist, Bayek of Siwa, is considered "the last Medjay", acting as a "sheriff" throughout first century BCE Egypt.[18]

References

  1. ^ Erman, Adolf; Grapow, Hermann (1926–1961). Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache. 2. p. 186.
  2. ^ Liszka, Kate (2011). ""We have come from the well of Ibhet": Ethnogenesis of the Medjay". Journal of Egyptian History. 4 (2): 149–171. doi:10.1163/187416611X612132.
  3. ^ for this culture seeː Aaron de Souza: New Horizons: The pan grave ceramic tradition in context , London 2019, ISBN 978-1906137656
  4. ^ a b c d Näser, Claudia (2012). "Nomads at the Nile: Towards an Archaeology of Interaction". In Barnard, Hans; Duistermaat, Kim (eds.). The History of the Peoples of the Eastern Desert. UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press. pp. 81–89. ISBN 978-1-931745-96-3.
  5. ^ a b "Pan-Grave Culture: The Medjay". University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Retrieved 7 June 2018.
  6. ^ Breasted (1906), §§ 317, 324
  7. ^ Gardiner (1947), p. 74
  8. ^ Liszka, Kate (2011). ""We have come from the well of Ibhet": Ethnogenesis of the Medjay". Journal of Egyptian History. 4 (2): 149–171. doi:10.1163/187416611X612132.
  9. ^ Shaw (2000), p. 190
  10. ^ Steindorff & Seele (1957), p. 28
  11. ^ a b Wilkinson (2005), p. 147
  12. ^ a b Gardiner (1947), pp. 82–85
  13. ^ Rilly, Claude (2019). "Languages of Ancient Nubia". Handbook of Ancient Nubia. ISBN 9783110420388. Retrieved 2019-11-20. The Blemmyes are another Cushitic speaking tribe, or more likely a subdivision of the Medjay/Beja people, which is attested in Napatan and Egyptian texts from the 6th century BC on.
  14. ^ Rilly, Claude (2019). "Languages of Ancient Nubia". Handbook of Ancient Nubia. ISBN 9783110420388. Retrieved 2019-11-20. From the end of the 4th century until the 6th century AD, they held parts of Lower Nubia and some cities of Upper Egypt.
  15. ^ Rilly, Claude (2019). "Languages of Ancient Nubia". Handbook of Ancient Nubia. ISBN 9783110420388. Retrieved 2019-11-20. The Blemmyan language is so close to modern Beja that it is probably nothing else than an early dialect of the same language In this case, the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay.
  16. ^ Fritze, Ronald H. (25 November 2016). Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy. Reaktion Books. p. 363. ISBN 9781780236858.
  17. ^ Kirby, Alan (May 1, 2009). Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. A&C Black. p. 134. ISBN 9781441175281.
  18. ^ Cacho, Gieson (24 June 2017). "How Ubisoft fixed combat in 'Assassin's Creed Origins'". The Mercury News. Retrieved 6 August 2017. Players take on the role of Bayek, a Medjay.

Bibliography

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medjay “mDA.y
(throw stick det. , for “foreign-peoples”)
in hieroglyphs
The Medjay (also MedjaiMazoiMadjaiMejay, Egyptian mDA.y)–from mDA, represents the name Ancient Egyptians gave to a region in northern Sudan–where an ancient people of Nubia inhabited. In the New Kingdom, the word Medjay evolved to refer to members of the Ancient Egyptian military as desert scouts and protectors of areas of pharaonic interest. However, this evolution is more likely based on a change in the definition of the word, Medjay, rather than a change in the Eastern Desert peoples.

Recorded history

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.

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image
Bucranium, Egyptian Second Intermediate Period, ca. 1640–1550 b.c.
Medjayu (Pan-Grave)
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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Citation
“Bucranium [Medjayu (Pan-Grave)] (16.2.23)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/16.2.23 (October 2006)

 

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