A History of the Med-jai Nubians
by: Alisha Jourdenais
In the 1999 blockbuster, The Mummy, reference was made to men who called themselves "Med-jai" and served as the protectors of the city, Hamunaptra. A tribe called the Med-jai did actually exist. They are mentioned in the written records of the ancient Egyptians and known variously as Med-jai, Medjay, Medju, and Mazoi. These people are believed to have originated in Nubia as pastoral cattle herders. Later they served the Pharaohs' armies as mercenaries. In the New Kingdom, the word 'Medjay' became associated with a corps of the Egyptian army and the police force of the Egyptian state. This is an attempt to write the story of the historical Medjay from the earliest predynatic periods to the modern era.
It is generally accepted that the tribe known as "Medjay" originated in the Eastern Desert of Nubia. In a reference from the Sixth Dynasty (2355-2195 B.C.E.), the explorer Weni mentions using "Medja-Nubians" in a campaign against the Asiatic Sand-dwellers (Lichtheim 1976: 19). The land of Medja itself was supposed to be located near the second cataract of the Nile ("Sixth Dynasty"), while the people called Medjay could be found ranging between the first and second cataracts (Quirke: 205, Shinnie: 91). During the reign of Merenere (2297-2290 B.C.E.), Weni is said to have visited the first cataract, and received homage there from the chief of the Medja ("Sixth Dynasty"). During the Middle Kingdom (circa the year 1847 B.C.E.), Medjay were reported near the town of Semna, a city just south of the second cataract. The records are known as the Semna Dispatches, military corrspondence from a solider in Nubia to his superior up North (Berg: 28). The Dispatches report sending Medjay back into the desert (Berg: 27, James: 210). Daniиle Michaux-Colombot reports tentative evidence that the Medjay could be found as far North as the Qena-Thebes area (Michaux-Colombot) and the Pan-grave culture, thought to represent the graves of Medjay warriors (mentioned in more detail below), extends their range even farther North to Rifeh (Shinnie, 66). However, this could simply be because these men were soldiers and consequently, traveled away from their native lands and populations. Pepy I (2343-2297 B.C.E.) mentions "peaceful Nubians" in his decree regarding the dependents of Snefru's pyramids at Dahshur; it is thought that the Medjay could be included under that grouping ("Sixth Dynasty"). "Several clauses forbid interference with them [the pyramid dependents] by 'peaceful Nubians'…" ("Sixth Dynasty"). As Dahshur is close to Giza, it causes one to wonder how Nubians could interfere, unless they were somehow nearby.
Barbara Mertz is the only author who does not refer to the Medjay as Nubians. She calls them "a Libyan tribe" (Mertz: 159). Tamara Siuda purports that elsewhere in Red Land, Black Land, Mertz does refer to them as Nubians (Siuda). The confusion could possibly be due to a line from the Admonitions of Ipuwer. Ipuwer writes, "Every man fights for his sisters and protects himself. Is it Nubians? Then we will protect ourselves. There are plenty of fighters to repel the bowmen. Is it Libyans? Then we will turn them back. The Medjai are content with Egypt." (Lichtheim 1975:161). Ipuwer could be implying that the Medjay are from Libya, but a more logical interpretation is that he distinguishes them from the other Nubian tribes and that they are involved in repelling the Libyans.
According to Robert Berg, the Medjay were descended from a Hametic people, who migrated into Africa from Asia via the Arabian peninsula circa 4000 B.C.E. (Berg: 29). They seem to have been a hunter-gatherer people who, like their eventual descendants, lived outside the Nile Valley, in the desert, though they interacted with the early Egyptians (Berg: 29). Berg implies that the transition to pastoral nomadism, that is, domesticating animals as a nomadic people, could have taken place between the time of their arrival and c. 3200 B.C.E., a period of about eight hundred years (Berg: 29-30). It seems that by 3100 B.C.E., the transition had been made in full (Berg:30). Some petroglyphs left by these people in the wadis and trails of the Eastern Desert are contemporaneous with the A-group culture, c. 3100-2800 B.C.E., and clearly depict domesticated cattle (Berg: 31). It should be noted that during and after this time, Berg believes the Hametic/early Medjay tribes lived in groups of about 25-50 to 100 people (Berg:30).
During these periods and through to the Second Intermediate period (about 1200 years from c. 2700-1500 B.C.E.), Medjay society was still simple and tribal (Quirke: 207). It was in these years that the Medjay started entering into the Nile (Quirke: 207), presumably because of drought and famine. Strouhal mentions an "extreme desertification" between 2350 and 2200 B.C.E. (Strouhal: 189). A block from the causeway of the pyramid of Unas, c.2355 B.C.E., shows people suffering from extreme famine (Aldred: 122). One can assume that such famines, occurring from the Sixth Dynasty through to the First Intermediate period (2355- 2066 B.C.E.) would have also affected the Medjay.
The Medjay are mentioned in Egyptian writings from the time of Pepy I (2343- 2297 B.C.E). In his decree concerning the dependents of the pyramids of Snefru, Pepy I mentions possible interference from "peaceful Nubians" ("Sixth Dynasty"). It is unlikely that Medjay pastoralists would have journeyed as far as Dahshur; the Nubians Pepy refers to may have been Medjay who served as soldiers for the Egyptian army and were peaceful in that they were allied with Egypt. Weni uses them as soldiers in Pepy's campaigns against the Asiatic Sand-dwellers (Lichtheim 1975: 19).
The Medjay appear diplomaticlly during the reign of Merenere (2297-2290 B.C.E.). Either Merenere himself or Weni visited them in Merenere's first year to receive homage from the chieftain (Beck, "Sixth Dynasty"). Weni saw the Medjay again when Merenere sent him to build barges and tow-boats from acacia wood (Lichtheim 1975: 21). He says, "Then the foreign chiefs of Irtjet, Wawat, Yam, and Medja cut the timber for them." (Lichtheim 1975: 22). This raises questions about the nature of the relationship between the Medjay and the Egyptians. Some choose the interpret this as meaning the Nubians were used as a labor force, as slaves ("History of the White Race"). However, evidence for a simply servile relationship is scanty at this point in their history. The Egyptian did have slaves from the peoples they conquered and did consider the Nubians friendly enemies, but the fact that the Medjay were recruited for soldiers in the Egyptian army suggests that any wars with Nubia were on too small a scale to call for the enslaving of whole tribes.
The Medjay continued to serve as mercenary soldiers during the First Intermediate Period (Shinnie: 91). Shinnie remarks that they are "clearly distinguished" from other Nubians (Shinnie: 91), as can be seen in the Admonitions of Ipuwer. Ipuwer says the Medjay are "content" while other Nubians may cause trouble (Lichtheim 1975: 161). During this unhappy period, it is probable that Ipuwer is making a distinction between the Medjay who served as mercenaries and the Medjay pastoralists, who could have been afflicted by famine and in a position to "cause trouble."
In the Middle Kingdom, the relationship between the Medjay and the Egyptians took a turn for the worse. In the Eleventh Dynasty, they were still employed as mercenaries, but by the nomarch of Hermopolis instead of by the Pharaoh. There is an "allusion at Hatnub to men of Medja and Wawae among the followers of a prince of the Hermopolitian nome. "("Eleventh Dynasty"). This reflectes the growing power on the nomarchs during the Middle Kingdom at the Pharaoh's expense. Relations between the Medjay and the Pharaoh seem to have further soured in Dynasty 12. Amenhetep I (1994-1964 B.C.E.) said in his Instruction to his son, "I captured the Medjai." (Lichtheim 1975: 137). A similar remark was carved in an inscription found near Krosko in lower Nubia (Mokhtar: 256). This would be the time for large scale wars which would have allowed the whole of the Medjay tribes to have been enslaved by Egypt. Presumably, Amenhetep is continuing the distiction made by Ipuwer, referring to the pastoral Medjay and not those who left the tribe and became soldiers. If in fact the Medjay were enslaved, it was only for a short time, as they remained an independent people, even after Lower Nubia was conquered in 1950 B.C.E. (Quirke: 205, Williams).
The hostility between the pastoralists and the Egyptians continued with Sesostris I (1974-1929 B.C.E.) and Sesostris III (1881-1840 B.C.E.) who were busy building forts in Nubia in Medjay territory between the first and second cataracts (Quirke: 204). One function of those forts was in fact to monitor the pastoral Medjay (Quirke: 205, Williams).
Under Amenhetep III, (1842-1794 B.C.E.) the Medjay regained some of their former status. This is the period of the Semna Dispatches, which give information about the administration of the forts (Shinnie: 73). The Dispatches mention use of Medjay for patrol (Kemp: 177, Shinnie: 73). They also relate that the Medjay patrols were monitoring the activities of the nomadic, pastoral Medjay.
Kindly note that 2 of the Medjay men and 3 women… came down from the desert on the 27th day of the 3rd month of winter in regnal year III [of Amenhetep III]. They said: 'We have come to serve the Great House (may it live, be prosperous and healthy)'. They were asked about the state of the desert and they said 'We have not heard everything; but the desert is dying of famine.' So they said. Then this servant [the writer of the dispatch] had sent them back to the desert on this day. (James: 210)
This appears to have been another period of famine in the desert, when the desert people would have been trying to enter the fertile Nile Valley for refuge. The forts and patrols were needed to control immigration into Egypt. There were also Egyptian miners and prospectors who required protection from the starving desert nomads.
Berg gives a possible explanation for the activities of the pastoral Medjay during this time. He believes that the Egyptians had learned to appreciate the Medjay's skill in herding cattle, useful in a time of drought (Berg: 31). The painted frieze in the tomb chamber at Meir is contemporaneous with the Semna Dispatches and depicts Medjay, emaciated from famine, herding cattle while watched by Egyptian foremen (Berg: 31). Berg thinks the group of 5 Medjay may have been trying to find such a herding job among the Egyptians, but had come too late and were turned away (Berg: 32).
The Medjay seem to be found as soldiers for the Egyptians in about every war the Egyptians fought. During the Second Intermediate Period, they fought for Kamose against the Hyksos. The Carnarvon Tablet records Kamose saying, "I sent forth a strong troop of Mazoi…" (Becker-Colonna: 132). Regarding their activity, it is reported that they were more than hired mercenaries, but allies, the only non-Egyptians to help Kamose against the Hyksos ("Kamose," Michaux-Colombot). Kamose is reported to have begun the fighting with Medjay troops at Nefrusy (Beck). They supposedly fought "hand to hand… in the front lines" ("Kamose").
Mokhtar mentions that during this period that the Medjay, both nomad and warrior, were "of the same race and practically the same culture as the sedentary Nehesyu people settled along the river" (Mokhtar: 241).
At this point, it is useful to mention the Pan-grave culture. The Medjay people are known by name only in Egyptian records; there is no archaeological evidence that can be definitely said to be Medjay (Quirke: 207). However, many believe that the graves of the Pan-grave culture are Medjay, or at the very least, the remains of other Nubian mercenaries living in Egypt (Sadr, Shinnie: 67). The Pan-grave people first appear in considerable numbers during the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate period, with sites ranging from Rifeh to Toshka and they disappear from Southern Egypt around 1500 B.C.E .(Quirke: 207, Sadr, Shinnie: 66). Their graves are shallow pits, circular in shape and covered with gravel (Quirke: 207, Shinnie: 67). Grave goods included pottery, jewelry made from shells found in the Red Sea and some gold, painted animal skulls, pottery, and in the case of males, Egyptian style weapons (Quirke: 207, Shinnie: 67).
The shell jewelry shows that these people had ties to the Eastern desert or to the Red Sea itself and the weapons demonstrate ties to the Egyptian military forces. At present, the Medjay are the only group from the east and the Red Sea who are known to have been soldiers for Egypt. Pottery of the Pan-grave type has been found in Egyptian forts, supporting the Pan-grave people as being mercenaries and allies of Egypt (Shinnie: 67). Evidence that the Pan-grave people were Medjay can be found at a shrine at Toshka dedicated to Horus and the deified Sesostris III. It was made by a man named Humay, who identified himself as a Medjay and Pan-grave sherds have been found close by (Shinnie: 91). Shinnie believes that the "presence of typical Pan-Grave sherds close to the shrine presumably means that it was a place of worship for locally based Medjay troops." (Shinnie: 91). Sherds of the Pan-grave type are found associated with and used by the Medjay, so it is possible that the pots themselves originated with the Medjay.
In the New Kingdom (1550-1064 B.C.E.), the Medjay again appear in the Egyptian army. Berg suggests that extensive mining in Nubia resulted in the active recruitment of Medjay as guards and guides (Berg: 32). This recruiting was done in such great numbers that by the reign of Amenhetep III (1388-1348 B.C.E), there was a whole body known simply as "Medjay" (Berg: 32). One hundred and fifty years later, the Stela of Merenptah states that his "Medjai are stretched out asleep…." because there are no battles to fight (Lichtheim 1976: 77).
With the new peace, the soldiers found another role in Egyptian society as policemen, though Mertz also mentions them as the Pharaoh's bodyguard (Breasted: 355, Mertz: 159). A man named Dedu appears as a chief of the Medjay troops under Tuthmosis III (1479-1424 B.C.E) ("Dedu"). Mahu was chief of police in Amarna and from his tomb it is learned the Medjay police were a unit separate from the army (Kemp: 292). There is a set of buildings on the eastern side of the central city that Kemp identifies as the Medjay headquarters (Kemp: 292). They are designed to house men and chariots with cobbled floors, mangers, and tethering stones (Kemp: 292). Medjay-police are also found near Deir el Medina. There they lived outside the city and their names are found on ostraca as bartering with the villagers (Lesko).
A man named Nebamun commanded the Medjay under Tuthmosis IV (1398-1388 B.C.E.) and Amenhetep III ("Nebamun"). It is worth discussing his name, specifically the presence of "amun," the name of an Egyptian god, and the cultural amalgamation it implies. This combines with the evidence at Humay's temple, where the Medjay worshipped Egyptian gods with traditional pottery, as evidence that the Medjay were adopting Egyptian culture in the New Kingdom (Shinnie: 91).
Eugen Strouhal mentions a unit known as "Medjay of the Tomb." (Strouhal: 189). They were located near Deir el Medina and policed the town and the Valley of the Kings (Strouhal: 189). A diary from the 17th year of the reign of Ramsses IX (1123-1104 B.C.E.) describes the Medjay force near Deir el Medina. It says that there were 6 headmen and 18 policemen, which was rather large (Strouhal: 190). Strouhal mentions Cerny's idea that the number was high because the Medjay were investigating tomb robberies (Strouhal: 190).
There is no mention of the pastoral Medjay during the New Kingdom. It may be that their disappearance is tied to the Pan-grave peoples, who are last seen c. 1500 B.C.E. Karim Sadr suggests that the Pan-grave/ Medjay people migrated south to the Southern Atbai and took over there (Sadr). But the evidence did not suggest immigration, so any take-over would have been subtle (Sadr). This is just one possible explanation for what became of the non-military Medjay. It may be equally possible that they were wholly absorbed into Egyptian culture, on a larger scale than the Pan-grave archaeological evidence suggests, or that they remained in the Eastern Desert (Quirke: 207).
Robert Berg gives a chronology of the Medjay from the Late Kingdom to the end of the ancient world. He mentions Heliodorus, author of Aethiopica, who says that the Medjay were still warriors as late as 700 B.C.E., when they fought the Persians (Berg: 32). Under the Ptolemies, the Medjay and the Greeks intermarried and the Greeks took an active role in Medjay life (Berg: 32). The name "Medjay" disappeared with the Greeks and the eastern nomads from the Medjay's region became known as Blemmyes (Berg: 32).
The camel was introduced to the nomads in the period and its use made them stronger as a tribe and imparted a greater sense of identity, giving them the power to challenge Rome (Berg: 32-33). According to Eusebius of Caesarea, in 268 C.E. the Blemmyes overran the Nile valley from Aswan to Ptolemais and it took the Romans years to get them out (Berg: 33). Berg and Shinnie both mention Procopius and his De Bello Persico, where he records the emperor Diocletian's difficulties with the Blemmyes (Berg: 33, Shinnie: 118). In the end, Diocletian had to give them the Dodekaschoinus (a stretch of the Nile from Syene to the present Sudanese border), an annual tribute, and the right to worship at Philae and have priests there (Berg: 33). During this period, the Blemmyes practically ruled the Nile Valley well past Aswan; they felt capable of forcing the Romans to pay them tribute (Berg: 33). They were finally ousted by Macrinus in 451 C.E. (Berg: 33).
When Justinian outlawed paganism in 536 C.E., the Blemmyes were outraged and began raiding the Roman/ Byzantine ruled parts of the Dodekaschoinus (Borg: 33-35). They were finally defeated and sent back into the desert by the Christian king of Ethiopia, Silko, in 540 C.E. It is thought that the Blemmyes are the ancestors of the modern Bega people, who still live in the Red Sea Hills of Southeast Egypt and Northeast Sudan (Borg: 35, Shinnie: 118).
It can be said with certainty that the Medjay were a Nubian tribe, coming from the Eastern Desert between the first and second cataracts. They began and ended as a pastoral, nomadic people, whose young men were recruited by the Egyptian military in such numbers that their units were simply known as "Medjay." Too often, the idea of romantic adventure causes an incomplete view of who the Medjay were; "Medjay" does not refer only to an ancient mercenary, but also to their nomadic relatives. These soldiers and the tribe of nomadic cattle herders who suffered from famine and drought come from the same origins. With the popularity of the films The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, it becomes necessary to discuss the the differences between the historical Medjay and Hollywood's version.
Mertz mentions the Medjay as the Pharaoh's bodyguard (Mertz: 159).
The problem here is that the fictional Hamunaptra is a city in the Western Desert, while the descendants of the Medjay live in the Eastern Desert. However, it is possible that the groups of Medjay policemen at Deir el Medina and their descendants who patrolled the Valley of the Kings would have stayed to protect the city. There is a larger and more troubling question. Ardeth Bay mentions Allah, the deity of Islam. It is a historical fact that when one religion becomes dominant in a region, it will attempt to supress the older religions in order to gain power. Early Christians in Europe dismantled and desecrated older temples to pagan gods. The same was done in Egypt by the Muslims and the Coptic Christians. Why would Ardeth Bay and his tribes of Medjay continue to protect the world from a pagan curse if they had converted to Islam? Here, Hollywood may have to be allowed some artistic liscense.
It could be argued that the Medjay patrols of Hamunaptra were isolated to the extent that they had heard of the god, Allah, and worshiped both him and the Egyptian deities. This is highly unlikely. Ardeth Bay and the hook-handed man from the first mummy movie both speak English, which suggests an education and exposure to the cosmopolitan world that would negate the belief they are isolated nomads.
Twentieth century Medjay clothing would not be the same as ancient clothing. The clothing in the movies closely resembles that of the modern Tuarags. One could also consult any research on the modern Bega people. Facial tattooing is practiced in North Africa among the Bedouin tribes. The designs on Ardeth Bay and his Medjay are probably pure Hollywood.
First of all, ancient Egypt was a large country, and many people immigrated into it. The Egyptians were not all a single skin color. The darkest people came from Nubia while the lightest probably came from the Delta regions. It was artistic convention, as later happened in ancient Etruria, that the men were represented with dark, reddish skin, and the women with very light skin. Foreign people were respesented wearing different clothing; the Nubians were the exception as their skin was consistently dark. The famous Berlin bust of Nerfertiti shows her with very light skin; her mother-in-law, Queen Tiye, has very dark skin, and was probably from the South.
That being said, the Medjay were Nubians and were depicted on tomb walls and in the part of The Mummy that takes place in ancient Egypt as having dark skin. The fact that Ardeth Bay has light skin can be explained by intermarriage. The Ptolemies, who were from Greece, intermarried with the descendants of the Medjay. Overtime, this could have produced Ardeth's light skin color.
As this pertains to the Medjay who patrol Hamunaptra, it is likely pure artistic liscense.
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