Modern day combat sport enthusiasts mistakenly believe that wrestling originated in ancient Greece, due in part to its representation in Greek mythology, as well as it being the first sport added to the Olympic Games in 708 BC. However, the history of wrestling can be traced back to prehistoric times — long before Homer’s wrestling accounts — where cave paintings in France and Mongolia show two naked men grappling before a crowd of watchers. It can also be traced back to ancient tribes across Africa, where each region had its own specific practices for the grappling art.
While wrestling can be found all across the African continent, historical context has greatly focused on ancient Egypt. The country’s incredible Pharaonic tradition and later connection to the Roman Empire made it a topic of interest for Western study. The Victorian era saw the rise of Egyptologists from the English and French gentry, which led to the subsequent proliferation of information on Egypt that also overshadowed the remainder of the continent. As such, much of the information of wrestling’s ancient roots can be traced back to Egypt.
Old Kingdom Grappling
Of all the popular activities in Egypt at the time, wrestling was among the most visually documented sports. The earliest portrayals of wrestling in Egypt began during the 5th Dynasty (2400 BC) following the discovery of a mastaba tomb in Saqqara. The tomb belonged to Old Kingdom ruler Ptahhotep, while the painting depicted six pairs of boys wrestling. The evidence of wrestling grew even more plentiful during the Middle Kingdom (2000-1780 BC), with over 400 wrestling scenes discovered during that period alone.
Depictions of wrestling during the 11th and 12th Dynasty (2000 BC) in the city of Beni Hasan sometimes showed wrestling scenes filled with elaborate poses and positions that covered entire walls. Examples of this lie in the tombs of the princes of Antelope District. In the tomb of Baqti III, the wrestling scenes are depicted from left to right and can be followed by the colour schemes. The otherwise naked fighters only wore a long belt, which was wrapped around the waist and allowed for additional grips, while grips were otherwise allowed on the whole body.
These depictions can be dated to the reigns of three rulers which followed one another in immediate succession: the kings Mentuhotep Nebhepetre (11. Dynasty), Amenemhet I., and Sesostris I. (12. Dynasty). This points to a relatively short period of time in which the art of grappling flourished. However, despite the quantity of scenes depicting wrestling throughout ancient Egypt, information about the rulesets, including legal moves, continues to elude researchers.
During the New Kingdom (1546-1085 BC), Egypt increased its military campaigns in the south, sending expeditions deep into Nubia to protect their economic interests and to circumvent tribal chiefs. Following their conquest, Egypt’s Pharaohs divided up and maintained control over Nubia for centuries to come. During that time, Pharaohs demanded tribute from the Nubians, which included exotic goods, slaves, animals, and minerals.
They also used Nubian wrestlers as part of their official sporting events as a form of “imperial exploitation.” The portrayals of Nubian wrestlers in Egyptian tombs began during the height this imperialization stage during the New Kingdom. The earliest such depiction was found at the tomb of Tyanen, an Egyptian officer who died in 1410 BC. The wall painting discovered showed five men marching together with the last man carrying a standard with two wrestlers on it. The Nubian wrestlers are distinguished by their physical characteristics, as they were depicted with more girth than the slim Egyptians.
The second example of wrestling in ancient Nubia is from a relief in the rock tomb of Meryre (II), who died in 1355 BC. Meryre was the palace steward of Queen Nefertity, who was married to famed heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton. The painting on the tomb wall shows Phraoh Akhenaton seated on his throne, awaiting tribute from the conquered Nubia. The presentation also included wrestling matches, which took place before the Pharaoh, his court, soldiers and ambassadors. The match is illustrated from left to right in four frames. The Egyptian is dressed in the attire of a soldier, while the Nubian is mostly naked. Each frame slowly shows the Egyptian soldier overcoming his foe until the Nubian is spilled on the ground in the final frame.
Another example of wrestling can be seen on the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, a portion of which gives an example of a wrestling match from the days of Ramses II. The match depicted is once again between an Egyptian and a Nubian, with Ramses’ international court as the audience. Those in attendance included Nubian diplomats, who watched as their ethnic compatriots are defeated by the mighty Egyptians — a symbolic display of Egypt’s dominance over its neighbours in the region. This was further confirmed in a letter from an Egyptian official to a Nubian prince at the time, which states: Be mindful of the day when tribute is brought when thou passest before the king beneath the window, and the counsellors are ranged on either side in front of his majesty, and the chiefs and envoys of all lands stand there marvelling and viewing the tribute.”
As such, the final segment in the Medinet Habu frieze depicted a victorious Egyptian wrestler standing over his defeated Nubian foe. The victor is celebrated, while the defeated opponent is forced to acknowledge his loss by kissing the ground before the Pharaoh. This emphasizes the Pharaoh’s propaganda machine and soft power sports tactics.
While the New Kingdom saw the rise of tahteb (stick fighting) and pugilism, wrestling remained a popular sport in Egypt for thousands of years. The sport evolved following the Greek conquest of Egypt in 332 BC, and again when the Romans took control of Egypt 300 years later in 30 BC. Following the Roman conquest, wrestling underwent significant changes, which included eliminating the brutality of the sport in order to make it more palatable as a spectator sport for Roman citizens. This eventually became Greco-Roman wrestling, which was allowed in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. By then, the sport had already gone through nearly 4000 years of development in some of the greatest civilizations that ever existed.