Tahtib Dance

This ostracon from Deir el-Medina shows two men performing the traditional stick-fighting martial art known as Tahtib, which is still practised and performed in Egypt to this very day.

The oldest traces of tahtib were found on engravings from the archaeological site of Abusir, an extensive necropolis of the Old Kingdom period, located in the south-western suburbs of Cairo. On some of the reliefs of the Pyramid of Sahure (V dynasty, c. 2500 BC); the images and explanatory captions are particularly precise and accurate in their depiction of what seems to be military training using sticks. Tahtib, with archery and wrestling, was then among the three disciplines of warfare taught to soldiers.

Tahtib Dance
Musée du Louvre. E 25340

Three of the 35 tombs of the Beni Hassan necropolis (XI-XII Dynasties, c. 1900 – 1700 B.C.) near the town of Minya, contain engravings showing scenes of tahtib. Similar engravings can be seen in the archaeological site of Tell el Amarna (XVIII Dynasty, 1350 B.C.), some 60 km south of Minya. In addition to its role as military training, tahtib matches were also popular among peasants and farmers.

The first evidence of the festive representation of tahtib can only be seen in the New Empire (c. 1500 –1000 B.C.), as shown by the engravings on the walls of Luxor and Saqqara.

Early Christian writings mention it as a leisure activity and a popular art performed by men during weddings and celebrations. It is believed that tahtib developed as a game or performance art in this civilian context.

Tahtib (Egyptian Arabic: تحطيب, Romanized: taḥṭīb) is the term for a traditional stick-fighting martial art originally named fan a’nazaha wa-tahtib (“the art of being straight and honest through the use of stick”). The original martial version of tahtib later evolved into an Egyptian folk dance with a wooden stick. It is commonly described in English as a “stick dance”, “cane dance”, “stick-dancing game”, or as ritual mock combat accompanied by music. Nowadays, the word tahtib encompasses both martial practice and performance art. It is mainly practised today in Upper Egypt. Tahtib is regularly performed for tourists in Luxor and Aswan.

The stick used in tahtib is about four feet in length and is called an asa, asaya, assaya, or nabboot. It is often flailed in large figure-eight patterns across the body with such speed that the displacement of air is loudly discernible.

As with its combative counterpart, the dance form of tahtib was originally performed by men, but female versions were later developed. In one form, the women dress as men and imitate the males. Another female variant is performed flirtatiously and with less aggression. The latter, called ra’s el assaya (dance of the stick) is incorporated into cabaret or Raqs sharqi performances. The stick used for this dance is generally more lightweight and hooked at one end like a cane. It is often embellished with metallic-coloured foil or sequins. The costume is a simple baladi dress. Performances include balancing the cane on the head, hip or shoulder.

Tahtib is still practiced by Egyptians today.
Tahtib is still practiced by Egyptians today.


Ostracon showing men performing the ritualistic stick-dance known as Tahtib
New Kingdom, Ramesside Period, c. 1295-1069 B.C.
From Deir el-Medina.
Now on display at the Musée du Louvre. E 25340