[January 14, 2021] Looking back into the haze of thousands of years ago, we can sometimes see meaning in the works of those who lived. And, those meanings can be a lesson for us living today. That is the case with Fort Buhen, Egypt.
Before the New Kingdom (16th to 11th Century BC), Egypt had a policy of defending its existing borders rather than looking outwards for empire expansion. As a result, Egypt had no standing army but instead relied on militias and conscription when threatened. During this period, Egyptian rulers created a buffer between them and various invasion routes to act as a simple shield of protection. The buffer was highly effective.
Fortresses, rather than fortified towns (like the Romans built), stood guard to control Egypt’s vulnerable frontiers. The mudbrick fortress of Buhen, in Lower Nubia, is one of the better-known and impressive structures. Various fortifications were built along the Nile River and were designed for mutual support.1 Fort Buhen was a significant cog in the defensive machinery of Egypt.
Fort Buhen played a defensive role to some extent, but there are additional core roles in terms of function and symbolism. In function, Buhen was part of a system to protect Egypt’s monopoly on exotic trade goods. However, my interest here is in the symbolism.
With the sheer size and complexity of Fort Buhen and being tied-in with other forts, it was designed to intimidate. With its elaborate bastions and ditches, the propaganda role was essential to deter Nubia and roving bands of bandits. It symbolized the strength of Egypt and projected power. Although primarily a defensive structure, it was a jumping off point for invasions southward in the Second Dynasty.
What is interesting for us in my leadership blog is that many of the innovations at Buhen preceded European Forts and purpose. For example, outer defensive walls were thick, tall, and included ditches (a moat without water), protective bastions for troops, narrow slits, and limited access routes. These were later built into Europe’s castle-fortresses starting in the 9th Century AD2 – 3,000 years later.
Fort Buhen’s messages to those who would attack the Egyptian empire are clear – “Don’t mess with me,” the fortress tells us. In a modern nation, fortresses no longer exist. The French Maginot Line is an example of how fortresses can be a failure since mobile warfare was created. But being prepared and letting your enemies (or competition) know you are ready, is a message that leaders must always project.