Q&A: The Khopesh

Do you have any tips on researching historical fighting styles? I’m specifically interested in writing fight scenes involving a khopesh, and I’d really like to be able to include tactics/techniques accurate to the weapon and its historical users (rather than go the typical Hollywood route of giving every swordfighter kali moves and calling it a day). However, the khopesh isn’t particularly common/popular, and I don’t think it’s used in any living arts. Where should I start my research? Thanks!

captain-acab

This wasn’t a rare or unpopular weapon. Several khopesh have been uncovered in the tombs of Pharaohs, among the grave goods. The khopesh was used the Egyptians for over a thousand years. This isn’t a popularity issue. This wasn’t an exotic weapon. This was over three thousand years ago, and the weapon hasn’t been used since.

I’m shaky on some of the details, but there were three major, interlinked, elements.

First, the khopesh was a bronze weapon. It was possible to manufacture iron khopeshes, and some were produced. However, because it was a bronze weapon, it was also quite short. Historical examples were around 20-24 inches long. While you could produce longer bronze weapons (like the Celts did), those weapons would be considerably weaker. The Kopesh was reportedly used to pull enemy shileds, something you couldn’t do with a flimsier weapon.

Incidentally, you can’t simply make a bronze weapon, “heavier,” to compensate, as bronze is already a very heavy alloy. Weight becomes a serious issue.

Second, Egypt had limited wood resources. This may sound like a strange detail to include, however, producing iron required charcoal. Very importantly, this was a regional problem. By the final centuries of the second millennium BCE, Egypt was facing enemies who were outfitted with iron weapons and shields, while struggling to equip their own soldiers with similar arms.

That’s the third problem. The khopesh fell out of use during The New Kingdom. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but it looks like the khopesh was caught between the decline of the Egyptian military, and being rendered obsolete by superior arms.

Martial methods are very difficult to study historically. This stuff is a living art, and if it falls out of active use, it can be very difficult to reconstruct. Sometimes, there are surviving illustrations which can offer some insight, but that’s still limited.

For example: modern HEMA is not the same as historical European combat techniques. Some of the techniques may be accurately reproduced, but the system as a whole is, “a best guess.”

We don’t know how the Egyptians used swords 4500 years ago. We don’t know how that usage changed over the next 1200 years. All we can do is guess, and look for, “hints.”

There is a hint, but it’s a limited one. Tahtib is not a sword combat style. It is an Egyptian stick-fighting martial art that dates back to The Old Kingdom. It still exists as a sport, and as a dance. There’s been an effort in recent years to reconstruct the original combat form, but no guarantees that’s how it was actually used. There’s also no certainty that the stick fighting techniques matched the contemporary sword techniques, though it’s likely that there were similarities.

So, all that’s left of the historic khopesh use is a 4500 year old sport, that may have originally shared elements with sword training from that era, assuming it didn’t significantly change over time. However, given the nature of martial arts, it’s almost certainly changed beyond recognition in that time, and there are elements of Tahtib that simply wouldn’t work with a sword style.

That’s the best I can offer.

-Starke

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