Sport of Kings -- Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt by Wolfgang Decker and Translated by Allen Guttmann

By Mandell, Richard D. | Natural History, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Sport of Kings -- Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt by Wolfgang Decker and Translated by Allen Guttmann


Mandell, Richard D., Natural History


by Wolfgang Decker, translated by Allen Guttmann. Yale University Press, $40.00; 206 pp., illus.

On a magnificent carved relief from Karnak, Amenophis II, alone in a speeding two-horse chariot, shoots arrows at his target. The accompanying inscription tells us, "The perfect god, mighty in his strength...shoots at the copper ingots...transfixing them like papyrus." The scene is more than 3,000 years old and, according to Wolfgang Decker in Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt, "deserves a leading place among the masterpieces illustrating the world history of sport." And so it does. But did this pictured act of balletic prettiness actually occur? In fact, it did not. And so we come upon a fundamental problem in this survey of Egyptian sports and indeed in almost any investigation of sports before modern times.

The Egyptians' obsessively lavish burials and the desert that preserved them have saved for our perusal enormous amounts of artifacts attesting to their life: ships, clothing, bakeries, politics, and entertainment. And among the last two classifications, we can include sports or some approximation of sports as we know it. We have balls for tossing, fighting sticks, board games, and even eight intact chariots. In Decker's book, the drawing of a chariot from an Eighteenth Dynasty tomb (1552-1306 B.C.) suggests a spare elegance rivaling that of our racing bicycle.

The translation and publication of this book is an event in the legitimization of sports as a solid historical subject. The German author, the reigning expert, tells us a lot. We learn of training runs for Nubian troops, of female gymnasts and hippopotamus hunts, and see reproduced inventories of allowable holds for wrestlers.

As in all surveys of Egypt, we are reminded yet again of the antiquity and stability of Egyptian society. Here, too, the interrupting incident of the Hyksos conquerors plays a big role. To regain control of their land, the Egyptians were forced to adopt the foreigners' war horses, chariots, and compound bows.

Although claiming to be a survey of forty centuries, this 200-page volume, shaped by available evidence, dwells on the wealth of pictorial and inscribed information from three generations of "athletic kings" who ruled just after the Hyksos: Tuthmosis III, Amenophis II, and Tuthmosis IV.

In this volume, more so than in other discussions of ancient public life, we learn that beneath the visual and written evidence, which communicates elegance and power, there was a miasma of fear. The ruling elites wanted protection from a recurrence of the Hyksos interruption and assurances against any sort of change. The lower orders feared disruptions in agricultural routine.

The descriptions of sports rituals, and especially the preserved reports of distance running and of marksmanship from chariots, celebrate impossible feats. The god-kings had to demonstrate awesome powers--less sport than propaganda--guaranteeing that they were supernaturally dependable. Decker admits that he describes "a society remote from our conception of reality." "Unlike Greece," he says, "where as early as the fifth century B.C. critical historians like Herodotus and Thucydides were analyzing events with more or less modern criteria, ancient Egypt had no 'private' historiography (of sports)...(royal inscriptions) report the course of events as they, ideally, had to have been."

Despite such demurs, we have here the overeagerness of an enthusiast. This Egyptologist covering relatively new ground hopes to fix the high legitimacy of this subject, especially vis-a-vis the already well-established, indeed venerable, topic of athletic contests in classical Greece. (See Allen Guttmann's article, page 50, which explores the roots of sports in history.) Decker sometimes expresses a sort of gee-whiz attitude, as when he says that girls swam and muscular youths leaped in the air. Haven't children always played monkey-in-the-middle, leapfrog, and jump rope? …

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