“We have come from the well of Ibhet”: Ethnogenesis of the Medjay

in Journal of Egyptian History
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Our current understanding of the ancient Nubian people called the Medjay has been informed by textual and artistic representations created by the ancient Egyptians. By studying these sources, Egyptologists have argued that the Medjay were an ethnic group living in the Eastern Desert near the Second Cataract. Yet these studies exhibit an Egyptocentric bias, in which the Egyptian sources have been interpreted literally. This paper reexamines Egyptian references to the Medjay before the New Kingdom and demonstrates how the Egyptians conceptualized and fostered the creation of a Medjay ethnicity. The Egyptians perceived the people of the Eastern Desert near Lower Nubia as one unified ethnic group. Yet these people were not politically unified and did not identify themselves as Medjay until the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. Increased interaction between the Egyptians and the people of the Eastern Desert caused certain pastoral nomads to adopt the term “Medjay.” Whatever role ethnicity may have played in their society previously, ethnogenesis of a “Medjay” ethnic group began towards the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty.

“We have come from the well of Ibhet”: Ethnogenesis of the Medjay

in Journal of Egyptian History



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BietakAusgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien61–79; Bietak “Pfannengräber”; Bietak “The C-Group and Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia” 123–25.


Bechhaus-Gerst“Beja Identity in Tu Bedawie” 196. The words “Medja” and “Bedja” are not etymologically connected as often asserted (Zibelius-Chen “Die Medja in altägyptischen Quellen” 391) even if their peoples may have spoken related languages (Zibelius-Chen “Ein weiterer Beleg zum sprachlichen Kontinuum”).


Habachi“Nebhepetre Menthuhotp” 23.


Gardiner“Tomb of Si-renpowet I” 124; Wilkinson Lives 113.


Gnirs“Die ägyptische Autobiographie” 194–219.


ZibeliusAfrikanische Orts- und Volkernamen72 74–75 104; Zibelius-Chen “Die Kubanstele Ramses’ II.”


Altenmüller and Moussa“Inschrift Amenemhets II” 9–10.


Seidlmayer“Execration Texts” 487–89.


ZibeliusAfrikanische Orts- und Volkernamen72 74–75 104.


RedfordEgypt Canaan and Israel87–93.


Smither“The Semnah Despatches” 7–8. The Semna Dispatches seem to contain the direct speech of Medjay individuals. Of course this direct speech is heard by the Egyptians and rendered by the Egyptian scribe or a translator rendered their speech into Egyptian. The speech could have been paraphrased and/or changed in some way. Nevertheless it still maintains a hint of the speaker’s original intent and allows us to glimpse at how these people identify themselves even if we cannot be absolutely certain that this is what they said.


SetheÄchtung feindlicher Fürsten33–40.


Smither“The Semnah Despatches” 9.


Fischer“The Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein”; Kubisch “Stelen der I. Zwischenzeit aus Gebelein” 239–46.


Aufrère“Le Nomarque Ânkhtyfy” 9; Zibelius-Chen “Die Medja in altägyptischen Quellen” 395–96. Zibelius-Chen has associated these iconographic traits with Eastern Desert people through ethnographic parallels with the modern Bedja. Not all scholars consider these stelae to be commissioned by Medjay some believe that they are Nehesy (Kubisch “Stelen der I. Zwischenzeit aus Gebelein” 239–46; Bietak “Zu den nubischen Bogenschützen aus Assiut” 92; Fischer “The Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein”) and others believe that they are Egyptians (Meurer Nubier in Ägypten 94–96).


Zibelius-Chen“Die Medja in altägyptischen Quellen” 397.


Darnell“Tjehemau at Abisko” 46.


Darnell“Tjehemau at Abisko” 34.


TörökBetween Two Worlds23–52 75–102; Zibelius-Chen Die ägyptische Expansion nach Nubien.


Collier and QuirkeThe UCL Lahun Papyri: Accounts92–93.


Smither“The Semnah Despatches” 7–8.


Delia“Khakaure Senwosret III” 22; Meurer Nubier in Ägypten.


VossArchaeology of Ethnogenesis1–33; Roymans Batavians in Roman Empire esp. 1–7 251–59.


Translation adapted from Smither“The Semnah Despatches” 9. For additional discussion of the translation see Kraemer and Liszka “Further Semna Dispatches.”


VossArchaeology of Ethnogenesis4.


MeurerNubier in Ägypten98.


SchneiderAusländer in Ägypten98.


The Biography of Sobeknakht: Davies“Sobeknakht and the Coming of Kush” 6.


Säve-Söderbergh and TroyNew Kingdom Pharaonic Sites2–6; Török Between Two Worlds 157–69.


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