The Curved Might of History: Understanding the Khopesh Sword

The khopesh sword, a weapon of distinctive design and formidable reputation, holds a prominent place in the annals of ancient warfare. Characterised by its unique curved blade that resembled a sickle or an axe, this ancient Egyptian sword was an iconic weapon reflecting the technological and strategic innovations of early Near East civilisations.

Military History
5 June 2024

The ancient Egyptian sickle sword known as the khopesh, or sometimes the khepesh sword, boasts a rich and fascinating history which intertwines with the cultural and military developments of the Near East over thousands of years. Developed from early battle axes, its appearance on the battlefield marked a significant evolution in early combat techniques, heralding a new era in the art of ancient warfare.

Let’s take a trip back to ancient Egypt to discover the khopesh curved sword and its origins, its storied history, and where the two most famous swords were found after 3,200 years.

What is a Khopesh Sword?

The famous bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Credit: OLIVER LANG via Getty Images)

Like many swords of antiquity, the legendary Ancient Egyptian sword known as the khopesh was instantly recognisable for its innovative curved blade. Although it’s far from certain, it may be that the khopesh sword was the first curve-bladed sword used in battle.

The etymology of the word ‘khopesh’ remains the subject of debate among historians and archaeologists, but it’s possible it comes from an early translation of the word ‘leg’ since its shape resembles the foreleg of an animal like an ox, cow, or sheep.

The sword had a sickle-shaped blade with the razor-sharp cutting edge on the convex side. The blade was typically around 50 – 60 centimetres long, with an overall length including the handle of around 75 centimetres. The blade featured a pronounced curve that widened into a blunt back edge, enabling it to deliver powerful slashing and hooking attacks. This dual functionality made the khopesh curved sword incredibly effective in close combat, capable of both cutting through armour and disarming opponents of their weapons or shields. Its design also allowed for intricate decorations, often including engravings and inlays, making it a status symbol among elite warriors and royalty.

In around 1350 BC, legendary eighteenth dynasty queen Nefertiti was depicted in a famous carving holding what some believe to be a khepesh sword to the head of a female prisoner. It’s also thought that nineteenth dynasty pharaoh Ramses II, one of ancient Egypt’s most successful warrior kings, was the first pharaoh depicted wielding the Egyptian sickle sword in battle.

The History of the Khopesh Curved Sword

Khopesh sword on the Stele of the Vultures (Credit: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images)

The origins of the khopesh – the earliest examples were bronze – can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia and the Sumerian people, around 2500 BC. Indeed the earliest known depiction of the Egyptian sickle sword comes from the Stele of the Vultures, believed to be the world’s earliest known war monument. This limestone monument from the Early Dynastic III period (2600 BC – 2350 BC) was excavated from the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, now the Tello archaeological site in southern Iraq. Today it’s housed in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the largest art gallery in the world. It depicts the victory of King Eannatum of Lagash, seen holding what appears to be a weapon resembling a khepesh sword, against King Ush of Umma.

However, it was in Egypt during the early New Kingdom period (approximately 1550 – 1070 BC) that the khopesh sword – by this time forged in iron – reached its peak. Influenced by the earlier Sumerian sickle swords, the Egyptians refined the design to create a more effective and versatile weapon. This development was closely tied to advancements in metallurgy and military tactics, allowing it to transition from a simple tool to a sophisticated weapon.

Not Just a Weapon of War

Burial tomb of Tutenkhamun (Credit: skaman306 via Getty Images)

While the Egyptian sword was a devastating battlefield weapon, it’s also believed to have had a ceremonial or religious function. For example, soldiers are depicted carrying khopesh swords during the funeral rites of Hatshepsut, the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II, at her mortuary temple in Deir el-Bahari, near the city of Luxor.

This ancient Egyptian sword has also been found in the tombs of various pharaohs, and while some are sharp and battle-ready, others have dull blades which may suggest they were only ever intended to be used on ceremonial occasions.

Perhaps the most famous of all khopesh swords to have been discovered were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, unopened for over 3,200 years until it was excavated in 1922 by a team led by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter.

From Battlefield to Burial Chamber: The Khopesh Sword

Khopesh sword (Credit: Sepia Times via Getty Images)

The Egyptian sickle sword enjoyed widespread use for several centuries before its popularity waned somewhere around 1300 BC – 1200 BC. Despite being supplanted by more advanced weapons, the legacy of the khopesh curved sword persisted through its representation in art and mythology.

This unique weapon, with its distinctive blade, not only revolutionised combat techniques and became a powerful symbol of status and authority, it also provided invaluable insights into the technological advancements and cultural significance of early ancient warfare.


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