Tahtib Egyptian Stick Fencing

Egyptian stick fencing can be classified into ancient and modern forms. Ancient Egyptian stick fencing was practiced during religious ceremonies, processions, and as sport or game in ancient Egypt. It is also one of the oldest forms in Martial arts and the oldest Egyptian Martial Art as well.

History: The ancient Egyptians performed stick fencing or stick fighting as a tribute to the pharaoh. This type of fencing was probably based on actual fighting systems used in combat with a shield and a sword – as with the wooden bokken or bamboo shinai in kendo – which then evolved into a system with its own rules and methods.

The fighting stick does not appear to have been used as a battlefield weapon (In Egyptian Warfare and Weapons, Ch. 5), and so it seemed to be primarily a training tool and/or sport.

There were advantages of teaching stick fighting, along with other combat sports such as a wrestling, the main advantage being that the Egyptian army could be kept trained and ready for war. In many respects it resembles the sport of single stick.

Research: Some assumptions have to be made in order to understand the stick fighting technique of the ancient Egyptians.

Their rules were probably simple and few, and there are two schools of thought on the main objective: the contest was one of either endurance or skill. There is stronger evidence, however, that the game was one of skill and that striking the head was a primary goal.

Stick fighting has a long history in Africa and it’s origins as mentioned above can be found woven in to its many cultures and societies.

The art of stick fighting in Egypt around the twenty-first dynasty might have been similar to kenjutsu of Japan where a wooden bokken is used. A curved stick resembling the rungu of eastern Africa with out the knobbed end was used in conjunction with a shield. Shabbako Sabtah, Shebitku Sabbtecha, and Tantamun Taiharcha reputedly saved Jeruselem and Egypt more than once from the attacks of Sanachareb, and later, Esshardon of Assyria using this system of combat. Sabbekka and other wrestling or grappling systems also used daggers, but in practice used small sticks to limit serious harm to practitioners.

Today: Stick fencing is still popular among modern-day Egyptians, particularly during the month of Ramadan. Stick fighting (usually a mock fight, but sometimes someone will force it to become real) and stick dancing is performed during marriage ceremonies. It is called tahteeb or tahtib and still practiced in northern Egypt. The basics of Tahtib are very similar to those demonstrated by African Martial Arts experts, although this comes as no surprise because of the link through Egypt.

The hanging guard and the overhead exhanges predominate these matches, with much faking and other stylistic elements that involve energy sensitivity and a counter-for-counter flow. The fight is accompanied by drummers, and is an event with its own ceremony and rules of conduct much like other martial arts. Stick fighting has also been used to settle disputes between members of rival families, mostly in the Egyptian countryside.

The stick: The stick itself is about four feet in length and is called an Asa, Asaya or Assaya, or Nabboot. It is often flailed in large figure-8 patterns across the body with such speed and violence that the displacement of air is loudly discernible. There is another form practiced from horseback known as “Horse Stepping” which uses a stick that is nearly 12 feet long.

A small crowd assembles in a public garden in Cairo to watch players of the ancient sport of tahtib swirl wooden staffs about their heads. Tahtib is played on the occasion of the prophet Mohammed's birthday which is celebrated as the Feast of Mouled el Nable.

Adaptions: The stick is regarded as a symbol of masculinity, i.e. a phallus. Although the dance form originally started as male-only, there are women who perform dressed as men and dance with other women. Another female version of stick dancing has been developed with a flirtatious and generally less aggressive style, and incorporated into cabaret or “belly dance.” The stick used for this type of dancing is generally thinner, more lightweight and hooked at one end like a cane, and generally embellished with metallic-coloured foil or sequins. The costume worn is usually folkloric: a simple Beledi dress, although Raqs al Assaya (Dance of the Stick) is often performed as part of the popularized cabaret dance set. Performance styles include balancing the cane on head, hip or shoulder.

Music: The music used in Tahtib features the tahvol (bass drum) and mizmar (shrill pipe). The tahvol is a double-sided drum worn with a shoulder strap so it hangs sideways in front of the drummer and is played with two sticks. The right hand uses a heavier stick with a hooked head to beat out the “dooms” which drive the heartbeat of the rhythm, while the left hand uses a light twig as a switch to produce rapid-fire staccato “kahs”. (Doom = the deep sound from striking the center of the drum with the right hand or with a knobbed stick; Kah = the higher sound from striking the edge of the drum with the left hand or with a light switch).