On June 20, 2019, the Ministry of Antiquities organized an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that paid homage to the country’s sports heritage ahead of the 32nd African Cup on Nations (AFCON) football tournament. The exhibit, titled ‘Sports Through the Ages,’ showcased more than 90 Egyptian artifacts that represented the wide range of sports that locals participated in through the ages.
The remarkable items on display included a statue of King Tutankhamun, which welcomed visitors as they step into the exhibit. The boy king is seen holding a javelin in his right hand, and a chain in his left, capturing him in the act of throwing the spear. There is also a painting taken from inside the tomb of ancient Egyptian official Baqet III that showed 220 pairs of wrestlers in unique poses.
Hidden amongst the impressive statues and murals is a small ceramics plate from the Fatimid era (909–1171 A.D.) painted a picture of two men practicing a traditional stick-fighting martial art called tahtib. It was a subtle callback to the ancient combat sport that continues to exist in small pockets of Egyptian society, but it also under threat of extinction.
History of Tahtib
Tahtib (or tahteeb) is an ancient martial art performed with wicker or bamboo-like sticks that dates back over 5000 years.
According to engravings from the archaeological site of Abusir located in south-western Cairo, tahtib dates back to 2500 BC during the Fifth Dynasty. The Pyramid of Sahure showed images and captions of soldiers using tahtib as part of their military training, along with archery and wrestling. Several tombs in the Beni Hassan necropolis (1900-1700 BC), as well as the archaeological site of Tell el Amarna (1350 BC), also contained engravings with scenes of tahtib as a tool of warfare.
The first evidence of tahtib being practiced in civilian context by peasants and farmers for festive reasons appeared on engravings on the walls of Luxor and Saqqara in the New Empire (1500-1000BC), at which point it had already begun to develop as a performance art and form of sports entertainment.
Over the years, tahtib lost its place as a martial art and evolved into a form of demonstrative dance. It remained popular amongst peasants and rural communities, who performed the dance as a form of stress relief. The dance was always accompanied by music, usually a tabla (goblet drum), and a mizmar (folk-style oboe made of reed).
As Egypt’s rural communities began to migrate to the cities in search for employment and better opportunities in the 20th century, the practice of tahtib dwindled and once again took new form. Women started to take part in tahtib, using it as a form of flirtatious dancing calls Raqs al-assaya (dance of the stick), which they performed either as soloists or with a male counterpart at cabarets and weddings.
However, the past few years have seen a resurgence in tahtib as a martial art form by formalizing the techniques used and applying a fixed structure that better facilitates competition.
Modernizing an Ancient Sport
The establishment of modern tahtib is credited to one man: Adel Boulad. As the founder of the modern form of tahtib, he revived the ancient techniques and presented it as a form of training, while also incorporating the dance aspect for performance value. All this was done in an effort to ensure that the ancient martial art does not become extinct.
Boulad’s efforts were not in vain. In November 2016, tahtib was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage — a step taken to help ensure that the sport does not become extinct. Training centres were opened in Egypt and across the world, including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, where the tahtib championships is held.
In modern tahtib, participants wear loose clothing such as t-shirts and athletic wear. After an opening ritual, the players take turns on the attack, where their goal is to touch the opponent’s head with the stick without being touched themselves. Players stay within a designated circle as they attempt this, while victory in ensured after any touch to the head or three touches to the rest of the body. Music remains essential to the sport, and is still performed with a bass drum and a mizmar.
Ahead of the first tahtib championships in July 2017, Al-Monitor interviewed Rania Medhat, the first Egyptian woman ever to be certified as a tahtib instructor. She was selected by the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development, a nongovernmental organization based in Cairo, to take part in a modern tahteeb training course in Cairo taught by none other than Adel Boulad. She completed the 30-day program and became the country’s first certified female player and instructor.
“In the Upper Egyptian governates, with their conservative communities, it is difficult for me as a woman to perform tahteeb, a male-dominated sport. So I attended the courses in the capital. The first-ever modern art tournament for tahteeb will be held this July in Cairo as well,” Medhat told Al-Monitor.
After seeing her friends eager to learn the sport, Medhat urged Egyptians to help keep the ancient sport alive and to push for it to be included in Egypt’s physical education curriculums.
”Apart from being our ancestors’ heritage, tahteeb helps in developing one’s physical skills” like flexibility, reaction speed and strength, she said. “It can be used as a new method in fighting a harasser, even without the stick. This art is really helping to strengthen the Egyptian identity and enhance the self-confidence of its practitioners.”