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

In: Journal of Egyptian History
Author: Kate Liszka1
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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.



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.

* * * *


In modern scholarship on ancient Egypt and Nubia, the standard model for the evolution of the word “Medjay” is primarily due to the work of Sir Alan Gardiner.1 Although other scholars have adjusted the structure of his model slightly,2 Gardiner’s model still prevails in the literature. In surveying the attestations of the word “Medjay” in texts dating from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom (c. 2300 to 1069 BCE; Table 1),3 Gardiner suggested a diachronic model for the word “Medjay” which evolved through three meanings in the Egyptian language: First, in the Old Kingdom, the word “Medja” was a place name that seems to refer to an area north of the Second Cataract. That was the location where the Egyptians encountered groups of people associated with Medja.4 Second, until the end of the Second Intermediate Period, the word “Medjay” denoted an ethnic group of Nubian people who lived in the Eastern Desert around the First and Second Cataracts.5 They were primarily pastoral nomads. Third, in the New Kingdom, the word “Medjay” had lost its ethnic connection to Nubia and was an occupational title for policemen or desert-rangers. Additionally, the works of Säve-Söderbergh6 and Bietak7 have connected the Medjay to the Pangrave material culture of the Late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Although my doctoral research re-evaluates all of these evolutionary aspects of the Medjay, this paper only investigates the second stage of Gardiner’s model: the Medjay as an ethnic group in the Middle Kingdom (Fig. 1).

Table 1

List of Primary Sources mentioning Medja(y) from the Old Kingdom the Second Intermediate Period.8

Table 1
Table 1
Table 1
Table 1

Since the time of Gardiner’s work, anthropologists and other social scientists have conducted extensive research on ethnicity,9 identity,10 pastoral nomadism,11 and imperialism.12 Moreover, our knowledge of the Egyptian textual evidence has changed since Gardiner’s time. These developing theoretical perspectives make it important to re-evaluate the traditional model of the evolution of the Medjay.

It is also important to distinguish pastoral nomads from the Eastern Desert as a group defined by geography and lifestyle from “the Medjay” as an ethnicity. Pastoral nomads always lived in the Eastern Desert. They maintained their own identity and their own ethnic, kin, clan, or other divisions.13 This article asks the question: when did these pastoral nomads adopt the ethnic identity of “Medjay”? Before we look at this question, however, we need to acknowledge a bias in the sources for the Medjay. The sources largely limit us to the Ancient Egyptians’ understanding of the Medjay, because all of the evidence comes from Egyptian texts. We must assume that there is a level of ambiguity and ignorance in the Egyptian evidence towards foreign locations and peoples.14 Each piece of evidence needs to be examined critically and not taken literally.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Fig. 1

Models showing the evolution of the meaning of the designation Medjay.

Evolution of the Meaning of Medjay

Citation: Journal of Egyptian History 4, 2 (2011) ; 10.1163/187416611X612132

The Geographic Ambiguity of Medja-land

According to the evidence available to us, prior to the New Kingdom, the Egyptians seem to have thought of the people from the Eastern Desert around the First and Second Cataracts as a Medjay foreign ethnic group. Yet the Egyptians seem to have used the term loosely to designate an area with which they were not familiar. The sources strongly suggest that they created a stereotype of a Medja-land and a Medjay people. This stereotype is partly revealed through the geographic ambiguity of Medja-land in Egyptian texts.

The etymology of the word “Medja” may inherently indicate that it is an Egyptian construct. Although the etymology of the word “Medja(y)” is problematic, many scholars argued that the term “Medja” (Md̠Ꜣ, ) might have been an Egyptian word from its origin to indicate the desert landscape southeast of Egypt and east of Nubia.15 Medja is likely made up of a preformative m- affixed to the root of the verb d̠Ꜣı̓ “to cross over.” The preformative m- converts d̠Ꜣı̓ into a locative lexeme, “the land of traversing,” i.e. the Eastern Desert.16 Medjay (Md̠Ꜣy, ”) is a nominalized nisbe adjective constructed from the noun md̠Ꜣ, which may refer to the people who crossed this “land of traversing,” i.e. pastoral nomads. The name that the ancient Eastern Desert people used to refer to their own land or people is unknown. Interestingly, the modern Bedja people who inhabit the same area of the Eastern Desert do not have an ethnonym for themselves from their own language. They borrowed the ethnonym “Bedja” from Arabic.17

Through the Twelfth Dynasty, Egyptian monumental texts generally refer to the land of Medja as a non-specific location in the Eastern Desert near Lower Nubia (Table 1). Medja represented an iconic foreign land to the southeast of Egypt. For example, in the Chapel of Hathor at Dendera, Montuhotep Nebhepetre described lands that ideologically represented the cardinal directions at that time. His text states, “. . . Uniting Upper and Lower Egypt (?), the Medja-land, the Libyans and the marsh lands by the Horus ‘Neteryhedjet’, King of Upper and Lower Egypt ‘Nebhepetre’.”18 Medja-land here generically refers to the east or southeast and is contrasted with the Libyans to the northwest.

Moreover, the term “Medja” does not seem to reflect a specific, bounded territory. The Biography of Sarenput I from Aswan dating to the reign of Senwosret I broadly describes the governor as: “The one to whom the produce (ı̕nw) of Medja-land is reported, namely the tribute of the rulers of the deserts (ḥqꜢw ḫꜢswt).”19 This passage describes an ex officio duty of Sarenput to collect tribute from the people whom the Egyptians considered to be Medjay. Furthermore, it provides us with no specific details about the tribute collection from them, such as who brought it, how frequently tribute came, or even when it happened. In this text, the term “Medja” is once again only meaningful for its iconic value as a distant place to the south. Its nonspecific nature is due to the fact that the text is a biography, a genre of literature that often strays from details about specific historical events.20

However, we find something very different when we look at other contemporary texts that do mention specific historical events or people in the Eastern Desert, such as daybooks and execration texts. In these texts, the word “Medja” rarely occurs. Instead, these texts refer to more precise geographic locations in the Eastern Desert, such as Wabet-Sepet, Awshak, and Ibhet.21 For example, the so-called Annals of Amenemhet II, probably a copy of a palace daybook, note a specific tribute collecting event from Wabet-Sepet. The annals state: “[The coming in prostration of the children of the rulers of] Kush and Wabet-Sepet with their tribute.”22 This is followed by a precise tally of products from those lands. While the places mentioned above are associated with the people called Medjay elsewhere, this record of factual tribute does not refer to Medja-land explicitly.

Similar precision appears in the execration texts.23 These texts do mention Wabet-Sepet and Awshak as locations associated with either the Medjay or the Nehesy.24 The Helwan execration texts of the early Twelfth Dynasty target “All the Medjay of Wabet-Sepet and all the Nehesy of Wawat, Kush, Shat, and Beqes.”25 Similarly, the Mirgissa and Berlin execration texts dating to the Late Middle Kingdom are aimed at rulers of these specific lands:

The prince of Wabet-Sepet, Bakwayt called Tai born of Ihasy, born of Wenkhat and all the captives who are with him. The Medjay Wahib, born of Iwhy, born of Wenkhat and all the captives who are with him. The prince of Awshak and all of the captives who are with him.26

The places Wabet-Sepet and Awshak are associated with the Medjay.27 Nevertheless, the scribes who compiled the execration texts did not recognize a single ruler for a politically unified state called Medja. The annals and the execration texts are two textual genres that present information excerpted from state records. The geographical terms used in them represent the administrative vocabulary of the Egyptian state in its understanding of its interactions with the outside world.28

The Semna Dispatches dating to the reign of Amenemhet III provide another example illustrating the geographic ambiguity of the land of Medja.29 Dispatch 3 reports that patrolmen from Mirgissa encountered an extended family of seven pastoral nomads near the Nile Valley within the patrol circumference of Mirgissa. They were brought back to the fortress for questioning. The patrolmen referred to the pastoral nomads as Medjay. Nevertheless, the Egyptians still needed to ask the Medjay for specific information about their origins. The text says:

Then I [the reporting official] questioned these Medjay, saying, ‘Where have you come from?’ Then they [the Medjay] said, ‘We have come from the Well of Ibhet.’30

It is significant that the Medjay answered that they had come from the Well of Ibhet and not from Medja. Ibhet is located in the Wadi Allaqi,31 approximately 200 kilometers northeast of Mirgissa. Was it necessary for these people to identify themselves with a term other than Medja-land? Most likely, Medja had little, specific frame of reference.

By discretely looking at texts that belong to different genres of literature, it is possible to qualify the semantic value of the Egyptian word “Medja(y)” in the Middle Kingdom. It has no specificity and seems useless to convey the notion of a political territory which may be associated with a ruler who could send tribute to Egypt or be an enemy of the state. Generally, it reflects an ideologically constructed location southeast or east of Egypt.

The Medjay and the Nehesy

As an extension of our discussion of the geographic ambiguity of the term “Medja,” it is important to comment on the relationship between the Egyptian words “Medjay” and “Nehesy.” It has been fairly well established that the word “Nehesy” is a generic term to refer to people from areas south of Egypt; its definition seems to be consistent from its first appearance in the Second Dynasty through the Ptolemaic Period.32 At certain locations and times in Pharaonic history, “Medja(y)” sometimes appears to be a subcategory of the term Nehesy, while at other times and places, the Medjay are unmistakably distinguished from the Nehesy.33 The Biography of Weni provides a good example of the former trend; it refers to various types of southerners:

. . . his majesty put together an army of many tens of thousands, from all of Upper Egypt, from Elephantine north to Medenyt, from Lower Egypt, from the Delta, from Sedjer, Khensedjer, from Irtjet-Nehesy, Medja-Nehesy [], Iam-Nehesy, Wawat-Nehesy, Kaau-Nehesy and from the Tjemehu.34

However, the Medjay should not always be considered a subcategory of the Nehesy as it appears to be in the Biography of Weni. A substantial fluidity exists between the uses of the two terms by the Egyptians. This ambiguity is apparent in the Berlin execration texts dating to the end of the Twelfth Dynasty. In lines A3–A6, the ruler of Awshak is called a Medjay, yet in lines B1–B23 the land of Awshak is referred to as Nehesy.35 At least through the Second Intermediate Period, the term “Medjay” was not meant to be a precise term, its usage changed based on its context.

Nevertheless, in one particular context – that of the Late Middle Kingdom administration of Lower Nubia – “Medjay” and “Nehesy” are purposely differentiated. Georges Posener postulated a difference between the two terms, especially in this time and place. To Posener, Nehesy referred to the people who lived near the Nile in Lower Nubia, whereas Medjay referred to the people who lived in the Eastern Desert near Lower Nubia.36 In his discussion of the distinction between the “Nehesy” and the “Medjay,” the pivotal examples that Posener cites are all from the Semna Dispatches. The vocabulary used for the Medjay and the Nehesy re-enforces the geographical distinction identified by Posener. For example, in Dispatch 5 (quoted below), the Medjay “came down from the desert (hꜢw ḥr ḫꜢst)” and were “dismissed to their desert (hdı̕.t(w=sn) r ḫꜢst=sn).”37 On the other hand, after trade was completed, the Nehesy “went/sailed south to the place from whence they came (ı̕w ḫntw r bw ı̕ı̕.n=sn ı̕m).”38 Posener successfully extrapolated the differences between these people in other Egyptian texts from Lower Nubia during the Late Middle Kingdom. This distinction is particularly important in the small Semna boundary stela.

Unfortunately, many scholars have applied Posener’s argument to further temporal and lexical contexts than the Late Middle Kingdom, thus forcing a distinction between the terms when there was in fact more ambiguity. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Egyptian administrators who worked in Lower Nubia during the Late Middle Kingdom maintained a purposeful and official distinction between the Medjay and the Nehesy even if this distinction was not maintained at other places and times.

The Medjay Ethnicity as an Egyptian Construct

The aforementioned evidence demonstrates that the Egyptians painted a picture of the people who lived in Medja-land from their own point of view.39 Based on an uncritical application of these texts, scholars have assumed the Medjay-people were a unified ethnic group who lived in the Eastern Desert near Lower Nubia.40 Yet this perspective relies upon a series of assumptions about the nature of ethnicity which have been substantially critiqued over the last thirty years.

During Gardiner’s era, historical and archaeological scholars took it for granted that ethnicity was an intrinsic attribute of a person which was associated with a race, homeland, or language group. People belonged to ethnicities.41 Yet beginning with the work of Barth in 1969,42 anthropologists have shown that this idea of ethnicity does not reflect how identity is actually constructed and expressed in human societies. They have demonstrated that ethnicity can be “situational.” It can be changed, emphasized, or suppressed based on the circumstances at hand. People can also identify with multiple ethnicities simultaneously or consecutively over their lifetime depending on the types of interactions that they have with other people. Ethnicity is not intrinsically correlated with other cultural traits such as language, kinship, territory, or religion, although these traits have been used as ethnic identifiers in different places and times. Moreover, in archaeological analysis ethnicity cannot necessarily be determined by any one category of material culture. Ethnicity is a social phenomenon which frequently defies geographic boundaries, and it is not contained by national borders. Most significantly, people in an ethnic group must identify themselves as members of that group. If they do not, the so-called “ethnic designation” is in fact an “ethnic stereotype” that other people apply to a group of people who they believe are similar to each other. It does not reflect internal, subjective ethnic divisions. However, people can adopt external stereotypes in their own definition of their ethnicity. This co-opting of stereotypes occurs especially when the stereotypes emphasize positive or elitist characteristics.43

This re-evaluation of the concept of ethnicity makes it problematic to deal with ethnicity in past societies, especially when the most abundant evidence consists of ethnonyms and archaeological assemblages without their living social contexts. However, one way to examine whether a Medjay-ethnicity existed at all among the people of the Eastern Desert is to look at the few cases in which scholars might have expected people of the Eastern Desert to have identified themselves as Medjay. The first case to examine is the First Intermediate Period stelae from Gebelein depicting Nubian soldiers.44 Some scholars believe that a few of these stelae might have been commissioned by Eastern Desert pastoral nomads, because their imagery includes bows, arrows, dogs, bushy hair, exotic clothing and adornments.45 Similarly, El-Sayed has pointed out one man named Ihtek on Turin Suppl. 1270. He argues that Ihtek was a Medjay because his personal name may be linguistically related to the Tu-Bedauye language, once spoken by Bedja pastoral nomads in the Eastern Desert.46 Nevertheless, every time the stelae note origins of these people or provide ethnonyms for them, they refer to themselves as “Nehesy” rather than “Medjay.” At this time and place the ambiguity between Medjay and Nehesy was common. If El-Sayed and others are correct in their argument that some of the stelae were commissioned by pastoral nomads from the Eastern Desert, then we must conclude that their self-identification with the geographic term “Medjay” was not significant to them. Their own self-identified ethnicity was Nehesy, regardless of how the Egyptians would have categorized them.

We can see this pattern again in the inscription of Tjehemau at Abisko dating to the Eleventh Dynasty.47 Zibelius-Chen has argued that Tjehamau was a pastoral nomad because of his connections with herdsmen, cattle, and the bow.48 We see these traits in his sixth inscription: “A herdsman driving the cattle; I am Tjehemau, the victorious, having spanned the bow.”49 These iconographic characteristics can be associated with pastoral nomads from any location. Her insight is corroborated by the way that Tjehemau describes his journey to Egypt with the use of the verb hꜢı̕ “going down.” Darnell has argued that this word indicates that Tjehemau descended from the desert highlands into the Nile Valley;50 hꜢı̕ is also used to describe the Medjay’s arrival at Elephantine in Dispatch 5 (above). Therefore, it seems that Tjehemau was a pastoral nomad living in the desert. It is unclear whether this refers to the Eastern or Western Desert, and it is unclear if Tjehamau was a Medjay in the eyes of the Egyptians. Nonetheless, Tjehemau reveals his self-identification and his military prowess in his first inscription by saying, “It was the Nehesy who brought about the rally.”51 Even though Tjehemau was probably a pastoral nomad, possibly from the Eastern Desert, he identified himself ethnically as a Nehesy.

From the First Intermediate Period stelae from Gebelein and the inscription of Tjehemau, it seems that pastoral nomads ethnically identified themselves as Nehesy to an Egyptian audience through the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty. This Nehesy-identification is juxtaposed to the contemporary inscriptions pointed out above – such as the inscription of Montuhotep at Dendera and the Biography of Sarenput I from Aswan – in which the term Medja(y) was a stereotypical term used by Egyptians. Through the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty, our evidence suggests that the Medjay did not exist as an ethnicity according to the modern stipulations of that term. That is to say, the term “Medjay” was still an Egyptian stereotype that no one self-identified with at this time.

Historical Circumstances of the Late Middle Kingdom

A change in how the Egyptians and these pastoral nomads interacted occurred because of the expansion of the Egyptian state into Lower Nubia over time.52 The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom to the beginning of the Twelfth Dynasty had a very vague understanding of who these pastoral nomads were; there is no evidence that the Egyptians had extensive contact with people from this region at that time. Old Kingdom expedition leaders and even early Middle Kingdom bureaucrats staffing a few Egyptian fortresses in Lower Nubia did not fully comprehend the socio-political divisions of the Eastern Desert nomads. However, vast expansion into Lower Nubia by pharaohs like Senwosret I and Senwosret III changed everything.

As of the late Twelfth Dynasty, the Egyptians were in contact with the pastoral nomads. They now had the opportunity to identify these people as Medjay much more frequently in their interactions with them. These same people even began working for the Egyptian state both in Egypt and in Lower Nubia. For example, Papyrus UC 32191 from Lahun notes Medjay who danced at a festival in year 35 of Amenemhet III.53 Moreover, Medjay worked for the Egyptian fortresses in Lower Nubia, as we see in Semna Dispatch 354 and in Papyrus Ramesseum 18.55

Additionally, Senwosret III enacted an imperial policy against Nehesy that directly affected the administration of Lower Nubia. This policy is outlined in the small Semna boundary stela, Berlin 14753:

The southern boundary made in Year 8 under the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khakaure, given life forever and ever; in order to prevent any Nehesy from passing it going north, either on land or in a boat, or any herds of the Nehesy, except a Nehesy who comes to trade at Mirgissa or on official business. . . .56

The Semna Dispatches, numerous seals, stamped mud seals, and papyrus fragments from the Egyptian fortresses demonstrate that the Egyptians attempted to track the movements of foreigners in compliance with the imperial policy noted on the Semna stela.57 Simultaneously, a clear distinction between the terms “Nehesy” and “Medjay” was promoted within the Egyptian administration, as Posener observed (above). If the small Semna stela should be understood literally, then there would be a distinct benefit for Eastern Desert pastoral nomads to identify themselves as Medjay rather than Nehesy, as they may have done prior to this time.

The sources suggest that a major change in the Egyptian perception of Medja-land and in the development of meaningful ethnic categories within the Egyptian administration of Nubia occurred as part of the increasing physical presence of Egyptian administration in Lower Nubia during the Late Middle Kingdom. The circumstances were set up for the process of ethnogenesis to take place.

Creation of a Medjay Identity

When two or more cultures interact with one another in locations such as imperial frontiers, ethnic identities and customs mix together. Sometimes, if the crosscutting of ethnic groups occurs deeply enough, a new ethnic identity can emerge. This process is called ethnogenesis.58 Ethnogenesis can occur in many ways. One example is when a non-dominant group accepts the terminology applied to them by a dominant group in specific interactive situations. The non-dominant group often accepts this stereotypical terminology because the interaction benefits them in some capacity.59

The Medjay process of ethnogenesis began to occur in the Late Middle Kingdom through the increasing frequency of interactions between some Eastern Desert people and the Egyptians. This process is visible in Semna Dispatch 5. This dispatch reports that an extended family of pastoral nomads arrived at Elephantine looking for work. The text says:

Be informed, if you please, of the fact that two Medjay-men, three Medjay-women, and two children came down from the desert in year 3, month 3 of Peret, day 27; they said, ‘We have come to serve Pharaoh, life, prosperity, health.’ A question was put to them regarding the condition of the desert. Then they said, ‘We have heard nothing at all; but the desert is dying of hunger’ so said they. Then your humble servant caused that they be dismissed to their desert on this day. Then one of the Medjay-women said: ‘Would that be given to me my Medjay-youth(?).’ Then the Medjay-man said: ‘It is he who has brought him who barters.’60

In this specific situation, the pastoral nomads called themselves Medjay, when the Medjay-woman asked for the return of her “Medjay-youth(?).”61 It was beneficial for these particular pastoral nomads to accept this terminology, because they were seeking a betterment of their situation through employment with the Egyptians, and because the woman was asking for her child to be released when the interactions with the Egyptians soured. The first stage in the ethnogenesis occurred when they recognized that the Egyptians used the term “Medjay” to refer to them and applied it to themselves in their interaction with the Egyptians.

Because pastoral nomads were not a unified group, each extended family must have chosen to accept this terminology of their own accord. The Medjay who went to Elephantine in Dispatch 5 seeking employment were pursuing different short-term goals from the pastoral nomadic Medjay in Dispatch 3 who were brought into Mirgissa for questioning. On the other hand, the Medjay in Dispatch 3 and Papyrus Ramesseum 18 who worked for the Egyptians in the Lower Nubian fortresses62 must have implicitly consented to the Egyptian policies of ethnic identity in the hope of benefiting from the classification as a Medjay.

These individuals who worked for the Egyptians under the title Medjay were at some level complicit in the imperial policy that used the identities Medjay and Nehesy for inclusion and exclusion. The individuals who benefited from the identity of Medjay could both adopt it as a form of situational ethnicity and also communicate the advantages to other people. One may say that they were co-opted into the imperial system. This type of situation has many ethnographic parallels. For example, many of the so-called “Batavians” who worked for the Roman army in fact originated from a number of foreign ethnic groups. The Romans lumped them together into one group. However, as these Batavian soldiers found benefit and pride in the designation of “Batavian,” they propagated this new identity into their own diverse communities.63

The kinds of interactions seen in the Semna Dispatches must have increased and intensified over time. Of course, ethnogenesis does not fully take place until groups of people identify themselves by a new term in the privacy of their own homes.64 By the Thirteenth Dynasty, calling oneself a Medjay was a significant means of creating one’s identity. This shift is seen in the stela of Res and Ptahwer.65 It depicts the earliest known example of individuals who identified themselves proudly as Medjay on a private monument. In fact, the title Medjay appears five times on the stela before every occurrence of Res’ or Ptahwer’s names; they hold no other titles. Moreover, the spelling of Medjay appears with the determinative of an arm holding a stick “,” which may give these men the connotation of being foreign soldiers.66 Schneider has furthermore pointed out that Ptahwer’s wife and Res’ mother, Satepihu is also called Medja.67 This designation occurs in a peculiar, shortened spelling without determinatives that appears after her name, . It may indicate our first clear-cut ethnic self-identification of a Medjay because there appears to be no reason to assume this woman was a soldier or policeman. The stela of Res and Ptahwer signifies that the term “Medjay” is changing during the Thirteenth Dynasty. It was now a positive characteristic to promote one’s identity as a Medjay.

If the Second Intermediate Period had not happened, the term “Medjay” might have fully evolved into the creation of a new ethnicity, but the wars of the Second Intermediate Period launched another shift in the meaning of the word “Medjay.” Because they fought as heroic military troops on the side of the Egyptians,68 the Kushites,69 and the Hyksos,70 these Medjay earned a valiant military reputation. From that point on, a secondary definition for the word “Medjay” arose which signified specialized paramilitary troops.71 Any person with the proper skill set could join these “Medjay.” Because of the shift in the meaning of the term “Medjay,” the Egyptians then minimized the use of that term to denote Eastern Desert nomads. Pastoral nomads still existed in the Eastern Desert, but instead were indicated by other terminology, either by a specific territorial location such as Ibhet or Akita,72 or by general terms for peoples like ı̕wntyw, mntw, or ḥryw-šʿy, among others.73


In summary (Fig. 1), during the Old Kingdom and the early Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians used the term “Medjay” vaguely to denote pastoral nomadic people in the Eastern Desert near the First or Second Cataract. The Egyptian identification of these people as a culturally unified “Medjay” ethnicity does not necessarily reflect these peoples’ internal, ethnic division(s); they may have chosen to emphasize other social categories such as clan and kinship instead of ethnicity. “Medja” was the Egyptian name for a land about which the Egyptians probably had little first-hand knowledge. “Medjay” was an Egyptian stereotype applied to those pastoral nomads. As the Egyptians and the so-called Medjay interacted more frequently due to the Middle Kingdom’s occupation of Lower Nubia, these Eastern Desert peoples probably became more familiar with the Egyptians’ categorization of them as the “Medjay.” By the late Twelfth Dynasty, some of these pastoral nomads accepted the term “Medjay” when interacting with the Egyptians. The process of ethnogenesis began. Thus, we can only talk about a true Medjay-ethnicity briefly at the end of the Middle Kingdom. This ethnicity was conceptualized and in many ways promoted through the ethnic categories that the Egyptians expressed in Middle Kingdom imperial policy.

The study of the Medjay has been based primarily on a linear model created through philological studies conducted long ago. These studies do not necessarily acknowledge the ambiguities and misconceptions that the Egyptians who wrote the texts had about people in far off desert regions. Hopefully, this paper has demonstrated that comparative ethnographic data and anthropological theory about ethnicity and pastoral nomadism should alert us to the problems inherent in the textual sources available. Those deriving simple models from the uncritical use of ancient texts will overlook the difference between ethnic stereotypes and true ethnicity.

* I first presented this paper at the 2011 conference of the American Research Center in Egypt held in Chicago. It stems from my larger doctoral research on the Medjay at the University of Pennsylvania (Liszka, We Have Come to Serve Pharaoh, in preparation). I am indebted to Dr. Josef Wegner, Dr. Karola Zibelius-Chen, Dr. David P. Silverman, and Bryan Kraemer for their assistance and encouragement with this project.

1 Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, *73–*89.

2 E.g. Trigger, Nubia under the Pharaohs, 49–77, 104–06; Zibelius-Chen, “Die Medja in altägyptischen Quellen.” For more divergent reinterpretations of Gardiner’s model, see Giuliani, “Medja Sources in the Old Kingdom”; Michaux-Colombot, “Md̠Ꜣy.w, not Policemen but an Ethnic Group”; Michaux-Colombot, “Qui sont les Medjay.”

3 Table 1 provides a list of primary references to Medja-land, Medjay-people and the textual genres in which they occur.

4 Gardiner assumed that the territory associated with the land of Medja shifted between the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom (Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, *74–*77, *88; Giuliani, “Medja Sources in the Old Kingdom”). However, it is more likely that pastoral nomads always lived in the Eastern Desert, and small groups traveled to the Nile seasonally (Bintliff and Barnard, “Concluding Remarks”). Although the Egyptians encountered them along the Nile, as seen in the Biographies of Weni and the “Crimes of Sabni” (Table 1), these texts do not indicate where the center of Medja-land was located, nor if Medja-land was a territory with definable boundaries. O’Connor provides a persuasive argument which demonstrates that Medja-land should be located within the Eastern Desert even in the Old Kingdom (O’Connor, Nubian Archaeological Material, 200–06).

5 Although Gardiner recognized them as an ethnic group, he did not associate the Medjay of this period with the Eastern Desert (Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Onomastica, *75–*77, *88–*89). Georges Posener was the first of many to argue that the Medjay were from the Eastern Desert (Posener, “ et ”).

6 Säve-Söderbergh, Ägypten und Nubien, 135–40.

7 Bietak, Ausgrabungen in Sayala-Nubien, 61–79; Bietak, “Pfannengräber”; Bietak, “The C-Group and Pan-Grave Culture in Nubia,” 123–25.

8 This list includes references to the Medjay-people, Medja-land, and titles that include the word Medja(y) through the Second Intermediate Period. It does not include personal names that consist of the word “Medja(y),” nor does it include attestations of the name of the fortress of Serra East, “Repelling-the-Medjay.” A few scholars have compiled lists of some Medjay primary sources prior to this article. In particular, see Meurer, Nubier in Ägypten, 92–120; Schneider, Ausländer in Ägypten, 92–99; Zibelius, Afrikanische Orts- und Volkernamen, esp. 133–37.

9 E.g. Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity; Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity.

10 E.g. Díaz-Andreu, et al., Archaeology of Identity.

11 E.g. Khazanov, Nomads and the Outside World; Schlee, “Forms of Pastoralism.”

12 E.g. Barfield, “The shadow empires”; Alcock, et al., Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History.

13 Bintliff and Barnard, “Concluding Remarks.”

14 E.g. Kemp, “Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and Second Intermediate Period,” 120–22. Ritner also argued for a similar ambiguity and ignorance in Egyptian evidence towards the Libyans (Ritner, “Egypt and the Vanishing Libyan”). Although the Egyptian knowledge of Libya is certainly poorer than other places at this time, we should assume that their knowledge of all foreign peoples and places was imperfect.

15 For a discussion of the etymology of the word “Medja(y)” and its associated problems, see Takács, Etymological Dictionary of Egyptian vol. 3, 811–15.

16 Hodge, “Medjay/ Mişri”; Takács, Etymological Dictionary of Egyptian vol. 3, 811–15. The use of a “m-” prefix occurs occasionally in Egyptian and other Afro-Asiatic languages to refer among other things to locations, for example mfkꜢ.t, “turquoise land.” For a discussion of this construction and other examples, see Grapow, “Über die Wortbildungen mit einem Präfix m- in Ägyptischen,” esp. 8, 17.

17 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”).

18 Habachi, “Nebhepetre Menthuhotp,” 23.

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

20 Gnirs, “Die ägyptische Autobiographie,” 194–219.

21 Zibelius, Afrikanische Orts- und Volkernamen, 72, 74–75, 104; Zibelius-Chen, “Die Kubanstele Ramses’ II.”

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

23 Seidlmayer, “Execration Texts,” 487–89.

24 See below for the relationship between Medjay and Nehesy.

25 Posener, “ et ,” 35–37.

26 Koenig, “Textes d’envoûtement de Mirgissa,” 105–06, A 3–A 5.

27 Zibelius, Afrikanische Orts- und Volkernamen, 72, 74–75, 104.

28 Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel, 87–93.

29 Smither, “The Semnah Despatches.”

30 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.

31 Zibelius-Chen, “Die Kubanstele Ramses’ II.”

32 Schneider, Ausländer in Ägypten, 82–91, esp. 82–83; Meurer, Nubier in Ägypten, 83–116.

33 Posener, “ et .”

34 Strudwick, Texts from the Pyramid Age, 352–57, no. 256, lines 13–16; Urk. I 98–110.

35 Sethe, Ächtung feindlicher Fürsten, 33–40.

36 Posener, “ et .” See also Gratien, Les cultures Kerma, 317.

37 Smither, “The Semnah Despatches,” 9.

38 This example is from Dispatch 1, but this phrase occurs in other dispatches as well. Smither, “The Semnah Despatches,” 7.

39 See also the Inscription of Nehry, Giuliani, “A New Proposal.”

40 E.g. Giuliani, “Some Cultural Aspects of the Medja”; Michaux-Colombot, “Qui sont les Medjay.”

41 Summaries of early views of ethnicity in archaeology and cultural history and their critiques appear in Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity, 24–29 and Lucy, “Ethnic and Cultural Identities,” 86–91, among other places.

42 Barth, “Introduction” and “Pathan Identity.”

43 Jones defines ethnic groups as “culturally ascribed identity groups, which are based on the expression of a real or assumed shared culture and common descent (usually through the objectification of cultural, linguistic, religious, historical and/or physical characteristics).” See her work for definitions and clarifications for other anthropological terminology (Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity, esp. xiii, 84 for quote). Extensive work on the aspects of ethnicity has been conducted. Some recent fundamental sources that expand considerably on the terse explanation presented here include Jones, Archaeology of Ethnicity; Lucy, “Ethnic and Cultural Identities”; Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity; Voss, Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, 1–33; S.T. Smith, Wretched Kush. For a longer discussion of the definition and manifestations of ethnicity as it applies to the Medjay, see Liszka, “We Have Come to Serve Pharaoh, in preparation.

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

45 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).

46 El-Sayed, “r’n Md̠3.iw – Lingua Blemmyica – Tu-Bedawie,” 357–59. In various books and articles, Zibelius-Chen and El-Sayed attempt to connect the people of the Eastern Desert to the Tu-Bedauye linguistic tradition. It is important to note that linguistic groups and ethnic groups are not one in the same. However, in this case, it is very possible that there is a significant overlap between the language and ethnicity of the Eastern Desert pastoral nomads. See El-Sayed, “r‘n Md̠3.iw – Lingua Blemmyica – Tu-Bedawie”; El-Sayed, “Afrikanisches Lehngut”; El-Sayed, Afrikanischstämmiger Lehnwortschatz im älteren Ägyptisch; Zibelius-Chen, “Ein weiterer Beleg zum sprachlichen Kontinuum”; Zibelius-Chen, >>Nubisches<< Sprachmaterial in hieroglyphischen und hieratischen Texten.

47 Darnell, “Tjehemau at Abisko.”

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

49 Darnell, “Tjehemau at Abisko,” 46.

50 Darnell, “Tjehemau at Abisko,” 43 n. A.

51 Darnell, “Tjehemau at Abisko,” 34.

52 Török, Between Two Worlds, 23–52, 75–102; Zibelius-Chen, Die ägyptische Expansion nach Nubien.

53 Collier and Quirke, The UCL Lahun Papyri: Accounts, 92–93.

54 Smither, “The Semnah Despatches,” 7–8.

55 Kraemer and Liszka, “Further Semna Dispatches”; Gardiner, The Ramesseum Papyri, pl. 62, bottom.

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

57 E.g. Smither, “The Semnah Despatches”; H.S. Smith, The Fortress of Buhen, 5–93, esp. 36; Wegner, “Regional Control in Middle Kingdom Lower Nubia,” esp. 148; S.T. Smith, “Askut and the Role of the Second Cataract Forts.”

58 Voss notes that “Ethnogenesis refers to the birthing of new cultural identities. The emergence of a new ethnic identity or the reconfiguration of an existing one is not simply a question of terminology. Moments of ethnogenesis signal the workings of historical and cultural shifts that make previous kinds of identification less relevant, giving rise to new forms of identity. . . . At its core, the investigation of ethnogenesis reveals the politics of social difference” (Voss, Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, 1).

59 Voss, Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, 1–33; Roymans, Batavians in Roman Empire, esp. 1–7, 251–59.

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

61 See footnote 30.

62 See footnotes 54 and 55.

63 Roymans, Batavians in Roman Empire, esp. 1–29, 207–09, 253–59.

64 Voss, Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, 4.

65 Louvre 2665 = Musée Guimet C 14: Moret, Catalogue du Musée Guimet, 31–34, pl. 13.

66 Meurer, Nubier in Ägypten, 98.

67 Schneider, Ausländer in Ägypten, 98.

68 Kamose Stela: Smith and Smith, “A Reconsideration of the Kamose Texts,” 61 n. E.

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

70 Bourriau, “Notes on the Kamose Texts.”

71 Liszka, “We Have Come to Serve Pharaoh.”

72 Säve-Söderbergh and Troy, New Kingdom Pharaonic Sites, 2–6; Török, Between Two Worlds, 157–69.

73 Ferriol and Fidanza, “ŠꜢsw y Md̠Ꜣyw,” 23–27. Also note that the generic terms for pastoral nomads, such as ı̕wntyw, mntw, or ḥryw-šʿy are old terms. Their use certainly pre- and post-dates the shift in usage of the word “Medjay,” and thus were not invented to replace the word “Medjay.” These terms instead refer to the lifestyle of pastoral nomadism, which is different than words used to refer to an ethnic group whose members practiced various lifestyles. Instead, when the shift in the word “Medjay” took place, some of these older general terms were used to refer generically to people in the same region who acted the same way.


EAO Égypte, Afrique et Oriente

REE Revista de Estudios de Egiptologia


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