Tahtib: A Living Artifact from Ancient Egypt

Tahtib is a little-known stick fighting discipline developed during Egypt's pharaoh period. Its history has seen it used in combat, snubbed by its countrymen, and transformed into a type of folkloric dance, before its re-emergence as a martial art in recent years.


What began as military training nearly 5,000 years ago has come full circle, as tahtib being studied once again as a martial art, thanks to the efforts of Adel Boulad. He is credited with revamping the sport and promoting it on the world stage, where it is gaining followers. Here's a closer look at this intriguing art from Egypt.

Early Days of the Art

The earliest signs of tahtib are from Cairo, where engravings dating to 2500 B.C. show detailed images with explanatory captions that describe military training using sticks. Engravings from other sites dating to 1500 B.C. show a change in the practice of tahtib to a celebratory dance. Other accounts from the later era also point to it as a popular form of entertainment that men performed on special occasions, such as weddings.

Fun Facts About Tahtib

  • Both the dance form and martial art form are known as tahtib
  • The stick that's part of this art is called an asaya, or naboot, and measures four feet in length (similar to the bo!)
  • Dancers and martial art fighters spin the asaya in a figure 8 pattern before them
  • It is one of three disciplines the initial military trained in; the other two were archery and wrestling
  • The goal in early fighting was to strike at the head of an opponent and kill him
  • Fighters are taught from the outset how to maneuver and control the asaya

Although early fighters used heavy sticks with deadly intent, today's rods are much lighter in weight and purpose. A match is won by either grazing an opponent's head or touching him or her elsewhere three times with the stick.

Handing Down the Art

Despite being discontinued over time as military training, tahtib did not vanish from Egypt. Instead, it became a game to play while relaxing at the end of the day. Gathering in the evenings, members of the country's agrarian society sang and performed music, recited poetry and played games, including tahtib, remaking it into a dance. It was handed down among male family members just as poetry and music were. As modern industries arose and people were drawn to the cities, Egypt's urban countrymen came to regard tahtib with disdain, thinking it a chiefly rural tradition.

Adding Structure to the Sport

Although he admits to being one of those who used to dismiss the sport as a peasant tradition, Adel Boulad has championed tahtib in recent years, working to retain this long-standing tradition, while also remaking it as a martial art. A student of Japanese martial arts, Boulad came to understand that tahtib shared an underlying philosophy with its Asian counterparts, but lacked the form, or structure. He has thus developed eight forms of the art, each containing between 30 and 60 movements performed in sequence.

Music Adds to the Event

Music is part of both versions of tahtib, where participants perform movements in keeping with the tempo. It helps participants focus on executing each move correctly, while also adding to the audience's involvement. Onlookers are drawn into the drama as the fighters face each other, moving in a circle while sizing up their opponent. As the music slows, the audience begins clapping to the beat of the drums as the moment builds anticipation of the coming attack.

Modern Tahtib Gains a Following

Although the practice of Tahtib was restricted to men only in both dancing and martial arts forms, the modern sport includes both sexes and is growing in popularity throughout the world. The first competitive tournament took place in Paris in 2017, followed by one in Egypt. In addition to these venues, training clubs have opened in the Czech Republic, U.K. U.S. and Canada as this ancient martial art from the pharaoh time period acquires a new and broader audience.

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Photo Courtesy: Dawson Holt via Instagram

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