back last updated 28th January 2001

The Middle Kingdom Egyptian Fortresses in Nubia

Brian Yare, January 2001

Adams (1977, 187-188) makes the following comments about the forts:

Any attempt to account for the fortresses on pragmatic military grounds alone seems as futile as an attempt to account for the pyramids in terms of a need to dispose of the dead. Both are examples of the material hypertrophy, which is characteristic of Egyptian civilization. Once the decision to build them was taken, the rest followed from force of habit. In the long run, the size of the fortresses might be less a reflection of the pharaoh's will than of his inability to curb his architect's ambition - an experience not unfamiliar to royal patrons.

The rigid canon of their design, as well as their history of continual aggrandizement, make it plain that the fortresses must be regarded primarily as monuments. The formal symmetry of bastions and embrasures bears comparison to the exterior decoration of a temple or cathedral, rather than to any known military challenge of the times. The fortresses are the chosen form of self-expression for the militarist civilization of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, as the pyramids are for the Old Kingdom and Karnak is for the New Kingdom. That they were built in Nubia and not in Egypt was an accident of circumstance which did not affect their primarily symbolic function.

Think about what we have so-far learnt about the relationship between Egypt and Nubia, and the Nubians. Do you agree with Adams’s assessment? Are the forts simply monuments which are ‘accidentally’ in Nubia, or do you think that they were built there for a very specific purpose? Are they really primarily symbolic? Do you think that these elaborate defences served that purpose alone?

Consider the issue of how many people it took to construct the fortresses in a relatively short period. Could any architect really succeed in this enterprise without royal backing? And what about the military challenge: why would such massive fortresses be built without any military threat?


The Middle Kingdom Egyptian fortresses near the Second Cataract in Nubia seem excessively large for the purpose of defence. This essay examines their origins and use, and considers whether they served another purpose. After examining the occupants of Lower Nubia at the time, we then turn to the 12th Dynasty Pharaohs in whose reigns the fortresses were built. We look also at Egypt’s neighbours in Kerma to the south, and we look at the structure of the fortresses.

The Nubians of the C-Group

There is geological and climatological evidence that there was a sudden decrease in rainfall in Nubia around 2000BC. The pastoral C-Group people moved further north and congregated on the riverbanks. Their cemeteries have been found as far north as Kubanieh, north of Kom Ombo. Occasional Egyptian goods were found in their graves. They appear to have been a peaceful people (Drower 1970, pp. 23-24).

Trigger (1976, p71) estimates the C-Group population of Lower Nubia during the Middle Kingdom to be about 10,000.

Background Sources

Manetho gives a little information about the eight kings of the 12th Dynasty, but does not mention any activity in the south. Senusret III’s campaigns in Asia and Europe are mentioned, as is the fact that everywhere he erected memorials of his conquest of the tribes. Waddell (1940, p68) points to a stela at Semna with an inscription from his year 16 in which Senusret III pours contempt upon his enemies, the Nubians. This inscription (Lichtheim 1975, pp. 118-120) indicates that the Nubians attacked first, and that Senusret forced them to retreat. A second identical stela was found a little to the north on the island of Uronarti.

An earlier stela from year 8 of Senusret III, also found at Semna, says that all Nubian traffic from the south must halt at Heh; that Nubians wishing to trade at Iken will be permitted to proceed by an overland route; but no river trade north of Heh will be allowed. It is suggested that Heh is Semna and Iken is Mergissa, some 30 miles to the north.

A hymn to Senusret III states "His majesty’s tongue restrains Nubia, His utterances make Asiatics flee." (Lichtheim 1975, p. 198) I interpret this as suggesting that Senusret used diplomacy rather than force to contain the threat from the south. It should be noted here that a string of forts in Sinai protected Egypt from Asiatic incursions.

Strabo, in Geography XVII.i written in about 22AD, tells us that Egypt was from the first disposed to peace, from having resources within itself, and because it was difficult of access to strangers. It was also protected on the north by a harbourless coast and the Egyptian Sea, on the east and west by the desert mountains of Libya and Arabia, as I have said before. The remaining parts towards the south are occupied by Troglodytae, Blemmyae, Nubiae, and Megabarae Ethiopians above Syene. These are nomads, and not numerous nor warlike, but accounted so by the ancients, because frequently, like robbers, they attacked defenceless persons.”

From Clayton, 1994, p74 we learn that in Menthuhotep I’s reign Nubian archers fought alongside Egyptian spearmen during the reunification of Egypt after the First Intermediate Period. This is shown by wooden models of soldiers found in the tomb of Mesehti at Aswut. It is inconceivable that such care would have been taken in the construction of the model of the Nubians if they had been adversaries at the time.

A fragmentary inscription from el-Ballas in Upper Egypt, dated to the reign of Menthuhotep II contains an account of conquest, Wawat (Lower Nubia) and the Oasis, I annexed them to Upper Egypt. (Barry Kemp, in Trigger, 1983, p130). No archaeological material has been found in Nubia, dating to his reign or to that of Amenemhat I, but ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.

Map of Second Cataract Fortresses

Fig. 1. The Second Cataract Forts. (Adams, 1977, Fig 27)

A 12th Dynasty papyrus sheds some light on life in the fortresses: it contains extracts from dispatches sent from Semna to the commanders of other forts in the area, reporting apparently trivial comings and goings of Nubians in the area, even the movements of herdsmen and their flocks in the desert!

Clayton, 1994, p80, suggests that Senusret I founded the Second Cataract fortresses to control trade in Lower Nubia, from which gold and agricultural products were the main imports.

Grimal, 1992, p168, tells us that there was a long period of military inactivity in Nubia during the reigns of Amenemhet II and Senusret II. The Sudanese tribes had taken advantage of this and advanced gradually north of the Third Cataract. Senusret III therefore took urgent steps to deal with this threat.

Clayton, 1994, p85, tells us that Senusret III (c1878-1841BC) established a separate administration for the Head of the South (Elephantine and Lower Nubia) administered, like Upper and Lower Egypt, by a council of senior staff reporting to a vizier. Obviously great importance was placed on Lower Nubia at this time. A canal was rebuilt around the First Cataract at Aswan enabling easier access for troops and trading vessels to reach as far as Buhen and the Second Cataract. Goods from Upper Nubia and beyond were moved by boat on the Nile. These included ebony, ivory, spices, exotic fruit, live animals and skins. There were mines for gold, diorite and gneiss in the area (Manley, 1996, p19)

History of the forts

In the Old Kingdom, there was an Egyptian colonial town at Buhen. This was surrounded by a massive though crude stone wall (Adams, p170). A main purpose of this town would appear to have been smelting of copper: copper slag, charcoal and gouts of pure copper from the crucibles were found there, near the river’s edge (Drower, 1970, p.17). Almost all the pottery found there was Egyptian, and further evidence from clay seals on jars, bags and papyrus scrolls point to the colony having been supplied from the north, keeping contact by courier. The seals included some from the reigns of Khafre and Menkaure of the 4th Dynasty. Because Buhen is not the best place on this stretch of the Nile for the loading and unloading of ships, Adams suggests that it was the terminus of the desert road leading from the copper mines.

There is evidence of earlier, 2nd dynasty, occupation at Buhen (Drower, 1970, pp. 16-17), and the site remained important right through the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom and up to the reign of Taharqa in the 25th Dynasty.

After the Old Kingdom trade between Nubia and Egypt probably diminished, as there was no firm central government in Egypt during the First Intermediate Period. When Egypt was later reunited, Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty began to exploit the resources of Lower Nubia much more intensively. His successor, Amenemhat II, continued this exploitation, and later Senusret III took control of the whole of Lower Nubia to the Second Cataract. Semna was to be his southern frontier. Some of the fortresses were started under Senusret I, but they were mainly completed under Senusret III. The First Semna Boundary Stela of Senusret III reads, "Southern boundary made in the eight year (of the reign of Senusret III) to prevent any Nubian from passing it downstream, either overland or by boat, or any herds of the Nubians, apart from those Nubians who come to trade with Iken or on any good business which may be transacted with them." (Drower, 1970, p.28)

The Middle Kingdom fortresses near the Second Cataract were built at Buhen, Kor, Dorginarti, Mirgissa, Dabenarti, Askut, Shelfak, Uronarti, Semna, Semna South and Kumma. See Fig. 1 for a map showing the location of these forts.

They were mainly sited on the West Bank of the Nile or on islands by the cataracts. This suggests that the main overland threat was from the east. Clayton, 1994, p87, tells us that some fortresses were founded by Senusret I and Senusret II, but the majority were built by Senusret III. Papyrus dispatches of the time report the slightest movements within the area, and one lists 13 fortresses between Elephantine (Aswan) and Semna. Seven of these were located along the Second Cataract in strategic positions, and all were built with thick mud-brick walls. They were evidently big enough to be self-sufficient and to house all the necessary personnel, their like unparalleled until the great fortifications of mediaeval Europe.

The fortress at Buhen seems to have existed in year 5 of Senusret I, and Aniba (stage II) and Kubban (stage II) have similar architectural features. Stage I of Aniba, Kubban and Ikkur predate Senusret’s fortress at Buhen. (Trigger, 1983, p130)

Description of the forts

The eight or more second cataract fortresses extend for some 60km along the River Nile from Buhen in the north to Semna in the south, each fortress being in visual contact with its neighbours. They were built during the 12th Dynasty, reaching their final form during the reign of Senusret III (Trigger 1976, 68). The enclosure wall of each fort was massive, constructed of mud brick and strengthened with timbers both along its length and through it. The fortresses vary in size and shape depending on their location, some having in addition a broad outer ditch protected by loopholed ramparts, and an external glacis. They could be easily defended by a small number of soldiers and were effectively impregnable.

The interior plans usually started out on a rectangular grid basis with paved and drained streets, housing, barracks, workshops, storerooms, a governor’s house and simple temples. Later rebuilding was less regular, depending on local needs. The largest forts could have accommodated only some 300 soldiers and their families, which is fewer than would be needed to fully defend the walls.

Professor Bryan Emery and his team worked for several years at Buhen for the Egyptian Exploration Society. They found that there was a double line of defence; soldiers manning the outer defences were protected by a mud brick breastwork with towers at intervals. There were two rows of loopholes along these defences so that each archer had a choice of 6 slits, giving good all round protection against any enemy crossing the steeply walled ditch. In the unlikely event that this outer wall was overrun, the higher bastioned wall towered above them, and soldiers could rain all manner of objects down upon them. There were only two entrances to the fortress: an easily defended water-gate on the quayside and a narrow gate flanked by towers on the western side. Even this gate was approached by a drawbridge over the moat, which could be drawn back on rollers into the gateway when danger was imminent.

The fortresses at Mergissa and Kor had similar defences.

Considering that all these fortresses were being constructed at about the same time, it is difficult to calculate the workforce necessary, but it is likely to have been several thousand men. A project of such size and importance would have needed strong control and organisation, and the similarities between the fortresses suggest a common architect. Such a construction project could only have been undertaken at a time when there was strong rule in the realm.

Buhen Fortress

Fig. 2. Buhen: The Western Defences. A rounded buttress and the loopholes in the outer ramparts. (From a painting by Alan Sorrell in Drower, 1970, p28.)

Possible reasons for forts

While the fortresses would have been easy to defend, it is difficult to see an enemy of any size in the region. However, the support of the docks, quays, warehouses, porters, etc., needed to run an efficient trade operation would have entailed the storage of a large amount of foodstuffs. There was very little food available locally, certainly not enough to support several thousand families.

The fortresses would have served as excellent lookout posts and signal towers, enabling good warning to be given of the approach of shipping on the Nile as well as of potential aggressors overland. The valuable trade goods would need to be transferred from boats above the Second Cataract, overland for some distance onto boats below the Second Cataract. Although evidence of a slipway has been found north of Mergissa, it seems unlikely that whole vessels would have been dragged overland past the Cataract on a regular basis.

There is evidence that raw copper was processed in the fortresses at Buhen, Kubban and possibly Mergissa. (Trigger, 1983, p131)

It seems unlikely that the forts were needed for defence against the friendly local C-Group people. Perhaps the threat was from further south, from the land of Kush. Two hundred miles south of Semna, at Kerma on the Dongola reach of the Nile, 12th Dynasty Egyptians had built a trading post. Reisner found an inscription there naming one of the Deffufas "The Walls of Amenemhet", and attributes one of the three 12th Dynasty Pharaohs of that name as the founder (Drower. 1970, p30). He found some graves nearby, apparently of Egyptian officials who lived and died there. The bodies were interred facing north, their sandals ready for the long journey home to their homeland, and plenty of food and drink nearby. Reisner also found large burial mounds of officials, surrounded by their sacrificed retainers. Most Egyptologists, Drower and Morkot (2000, p61) included, now identify these graves, and probably the whole site of Kerma, to the local Kushites. They are probably later than 12th Dynasty, and the local rulers were buried with a number of scavenged Old and Middle Kingdom artefacts acquired from the north during the Second Intermediate Period.

Senusret III made several campaigns to ‘smite the miserable Kush’ from his 8th year onwards. The fact that he was later worshipped as a god in the region of the Second Cataract suggests that Kush was the real enemy.


The Second Cataract fortresses are much too large and strong to have been used purely to defend against the small local Nubian C-Group population. Controlling trade with the south would have been easy with these fortresses, and they would have provided plenty of storage space for valuables in transit and provisions for the tradesmen and sailors, as well as a safe area in which to smelt copper and process other raw materials. The fortresses must have had another purpose. By the reign of Senusret III, Kerma was gaining power, and would eventually take control of Lower Nubia during the 13th Dynasty. The fortresses were probably built to contain this threat. However, mainly they stood as a monument to the might of the Egyptian Pharaohs who dominated this area. For the remainder of the Middle Kingdom trade with the south was secure and could be controlled by a very small group of people.


Adams, William Y. 1977: Nubia: Corridor to Africa. London
Clayton, Peter 1994: Chronicle of the Pharaohs, London
Drower, Margaret 1970: Nubia, A Drowning Land, London
Grimal, Nicolas 1992: A History of Ancient Egypt, Bodmin
Lichtheim, Miriam 1975: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms, Berkeley, California
Manley, Bill, 1996: The Penguin Atlas of Ancient Egypt, London
Morkot, Robert, 2000: The Black Pharaohs, London
Trigger, Bruce 1976: Nubia under the Pharaohs. London
Trigger, Bruce, 1983, Ancient Egypt, A Social History, Cambridge
Waddell, W G 1940: Manetho. Harvard
Strabo: Geography, (January 2001)

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