The Second Cataract Fortresses

The typical images that are conjured when Ancient Egypt is mentioned are those of gigantic pyramids, desert tombs, chariots racing across a vast expanse, and huge amounts of gold adorning temples and palaces. However, one of the greatest achievements of the Egyptian kingdoms was the creation of the fortress system in Nubia, which is now Northern Sudan. Another major achievement of the Egyptians was their assorted trade route. In particular, the route heading south on the river Nile which was primarily focused upon the gold trade. The fortress system based around the Second Cataract and the Semna Cataract successfully policed trade, controlled local populations, protected the border, and acted as a supply base for launching campaigns south.  

Traditionally, Egypt had borders at the north-eastern Delta/Sinai, the Western Desert, the Mediterranean coast and the first Nile cataract, situated at modern Aswan. By 3050 BC a centralised state emerged in Egypt and it is from this point onwards that we have evidence of forts being used to strengthen Egypt’s borders. The area of focus for this article is the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, which lasted from around 2050 BC to around 1710 BC.  

In his recent research Carl Graves has described Nubia as ‘an ill-defined area from around the first cataract on the Nile, roughly up to the region of Khartoum in Sudan.’ Egyptian interest in ancient Nubia can be dated back as far back as the 1st Dynasty and King Djer (c.3000 BC), as a rock drawing dated to Djer’s reign is thought to illustrate a slave raid into Nubia. Djer’s interest in Nubia extended as far as the second cataract of the Nile.  

The long-term aim of the pharaohs appeared to be capitalising upon slaves and the natural resources found in Nubia. Alexander Badawy has outlined that these included:  

Gold, copper ore (malachite), semi-precious stones such as green jasper, turquoise, carnelian and rock crystal, hematite, feldspar, diorite, oils, gum, acacia, ebony, ivory and cattle. 

Gold in particular was a valuable resource of Nubia. Egypt itself did not have any natural gold supplies and so the pharaohs were reliant upon the numerous gold mines of Nubia. This is reflected through how the name ‘Nubia’ originated from the Egyptian word for gold, nub. At Buhen, a fortress just north of the second cataract on the west bank of the Nile, an Old Kingdom town was uncovered with copper ingots found stamped with the name of Kephren (IVth dynasty, ca 2700 BC). This shows how long smelting had been taking place at this particular site. The activity of the ancient mines in Nubia is shown by the litter of quartz fragments found in the desert valleys. 

When the so-called C-Group culture emerged in Lower Nubia from the 6th Dynasty onwards, the relationship between the Egyptians and the Nubians changed. This more assertive culture caused the pharaohs to take greater measures against them during the 11th and 12th Dynasties. A rock inscription at Korosko, No. 73, reads ‘… I sailed downstream plucking corn and cutting down their remaining trees.’ The Egyptian intention seems to have been to totally vanquish their enemy and take back control of access to Nubia.  The Theban prince, Mentuhotep Nebhepetre reunified Egypt after the First Intermediate Period. His reign may have seen the first Middle Kingdom campaign into Nubia, with the aim of reaching Buhen. This place was of significance as a town had been established there in the Old Kingdom. Under Senwosret I and Senwosret III the borders were extended down to the Semna cataract. 

Only the archaeological remains of the fortress of Buhen, located at the northern end of the second cataract can be reliably dated back to the pharaoh Senusret I (1971 BC to 1926 BC). However, fortresses that are further north between the first and second cataracts can be ascribed to this period die to structural parallels in their construction. These are Aniba, Kubban and Ikkur. 

Mirgassa was a fortress located on the second cataract. It included a unique, preserved slipway, which allowed loads and ships to bypass the cataract itself. It is believed to have been constructed by Senusret II (1897-1878 BC).  

Pharaoh Senusret III’s reign (1878-1860) led to a dramatic increase in military commitment. The fortresses that already existed were upgraded and many new ones were built. Semna-South, Semna-West, Kumma, Uronarti, Shaflak, Askut, and Serra-East are all second-cataract fortresses that were built during his reign. This intense building programme may have been prompted by the rise of the state of Kerma. Kerma had become much more complex and powerful, which went against Egypt’s economic interests in the region. The Egyptian goal shifted from securing trading routes within C-Group territory to also building an effective defensive system for protection against Kerma. 

The fortress system was a system with two primary functions (Fig 1). As Stuart Tyson Smith highlighted, it was devoted to the regulation of trade, in particular the gold trade, the native population, and natural resources. This supplemented its role in the offensive policy of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs, as reconstructed by Kemp. Nubians from the south or the desert would encounter a substantial set of fortifications at the boundary which blocked both the trade routes along the Nile and across the land, and also sent out patrols regularly into the desert. Any group, no matter how small, would be stopped and questioned; if necessary, by force. Those who did not have legitimate business would be turned away and if an attempt to circumnavigate the fortresses was made, the guilty party would be dealt with harshly. This suggests that the fortresses were effective in fulfilling their function. Semna-West was dominated by barracks and would have housed the largest garrison south of Mirgissa. If this garrison was combined with the garrisons from Kumma and Semna-South a major force could be summoned by an Egyptian commander. If the threat was overwhelming these troops could fall back behind the walls and signal directly to Uronarti for aid. This message would then be sent back from Uronarti’s commander to Mirgassa, and ultimately back to Buhen. 

Fig 1: Function of the fortress system. From Askut and the role of the Second Cataract forts, Journal of the American Research centre in Egypt, Vol. 28 (1991) pp 107-132. By Stuart Tyson Smith 

I agree with Tyson Smith that Vila’s estimates for the number of troops at Mirgassa is too low. He estimated that there was a contingent of 35 archers and 35 foot soldiers. This is based upon the caches of weapons found in a particularly well-preserved building at Mirgissa. However, this number of soldiers could barely man the rather large inner fortifications, let alone the outer fortified town. A major problem with Vila’s estimates is that it argues that the weapons recovered at Mirgissa accurately represent the entire reserve stock that was held there. When it is taken into account that much of the main fort has been very poorly preserved, this argument falls into disrepute as we really cannot say that the one preserved building we have was all that there was. Vila also failed to take into account that the outer town has not been properly excavated, and he also used extremely unusual divisors. He argued that each archer would require ten bows and eighty arrows each in reserve and that each foot soldier would need two pikes and nine javelins. This seems extremely unlikely. Tyson Smith suggested that a more reasonable estimate would be 200 or more archers (taking into account the 300-400 bows), and 150 or more pike men. These figures assume that a reserve weapon was kept for each man. Assuming that losses of weaponry were relatively low per person, then numbers similar to those estimated by Emery may be reached of 600-800 archers and 800 javelin and pike-men. A total garrison of 200 or more could be considered reasonable. By Dunham’s estimation of four to ten men per ‘barrack’ style and three-room complex, the garrison at Mirgissa might have numbered at least 600-1500 men, Uronarti 112-280 men, and the West- Wing of Semna-West alone may have housed 216-540 men. A total command of 368-920 men may have been available to the commander at Semna-West.   

The archaeological evidence is limited in terms of how much it tells us about the military operational history of the Second Cataract fortresses. However, several objects that have been found are perhaps representative of incursions made by small groups of raiders. The British Museum has three torpedo-shaped objects made out of unbaked clay (Fig 2). These are dated circa 1900-1800 BC and were found at Buhen. It is believed that they may have been missiles for a sling. A flint dagger blade (Fig 3), dated 1900-1800 BC, has also been found.  They add to the impression that the fortresses were engaged in active policing of the area and were not just for ceremony. 

Fig 2: Photo of three torpedo-shaped objects at the British Museum.  

Fig 3: Photo of a flint dagger blade at the British Museum.  

Although there is limited archaeological evidence, there are epigraphic sources that show how the fortresses played their part in Egyptian campaigns southward. At Uronarti, an inscription of the 19th year King Senusret III reigned was found on the quay. It describes the last known campaign during the reign of Senusret III, detailing how the unpleasant time of year (4th month of Akhet, day 2 = October/November) meant the war ships got into trouble whilst coming back north. They were unable to navigate on their own and had to be pulled through the cataract, or dragged round on a slipway made of mud and moistened with water. A similar inscription has been found at Mirgissa. At Kumma, an inscription belonging to a high official, Za-mentschu, who lived under Amenemhet III has been found. Part of it reads: 

I sailed downstream with my troop without a deceased among (it) in the land of Nubia. I did send nobody to jail but I destroyed and slew the rebels of him for his praise to the king who wishes the right. 

 This refers to the riots in the north of Kumma. Responsibility for dealing with them appears to have fallen to Za-mentschu, who led a successful frontier patrol from Kumma. 

The Semna dispatches provide further, vital information about frontier patrols. They are copies of a series of dispatches originating from Semna and other forts during the reign of Amenemhet III (1856-1803 BC) that were compiled in a papyrus report. They are now kept in the British Museum (Fig 4). They record the arrival and departure of various groups of Nubians and the reports made by the observation patrols from the fortresses. They portray how one of the main tasks of those garrisoned in Nubia was to carefully monitor the local people and what trade occurred. These dispatches also show how Nubian natives, such as the Medjai, were used as mercenaries against their own people. The Semna dispatches suggest that the fortress systems were fulfilling the function of protecting the trade routes and the Egyptian border, because these dispatches are a report of patrols being sent out. This is pointed out by the Egyptologist Josef Wegner when he said: 

Subsequent to the conquest they may have evolved into a role dominated by the activity of monitoring and controlling the native C-Group population as testified by the Semna despatches.

Fig 4: The Semna Dispatches at the British Museum.  

However, by the time of the Second Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom (1780-1070) the Middle Kingdom fortresses in the south had lost their significance. The new border went even further south and was protected by less fortified fortress towns. After the invasion of the Hyskos, Egyptian military technology evolved and military architecture changed. This is demonstrated by the fortresses which were built between the north-eastern delta and Gaza to act supply bases for the Egyptian army. 

Written by Alex Smith 


Badawy, Alexander. (1965). ASKUT: A Middle Kingdom Fortress in Nubia. Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 2. 

Graves, Carl, ‘Egyptian Imperialism in Nubia’ (the University of Birmingham MPhil thesis, 2010 

J Mark, Joshua. (2017). Trade in Ancient Egypt. [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at:

Objects and text panels in British Museum.   

Tyson Smith, Stuart. (1991). Askut and the Role of the Second Cataract Forts. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 28, pp.107-132. 

Vogel, Carola., The Fortifications of Ancient Egypt, 1st edn. (Osprey Publishing, 2010) 

sW Wegner, Josef. and Wegner, Josef. (1995). Regional Control in Middle Kingdom Lower Nubia: The Function and History of the Site of Areika. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 32, pp.144-149. 

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