Egypt’s 5,000 year old secret art: tahtib

Audio 10:47
Tahtib combatants at a tournament in Paris
Tahtib combatants at a tournament in Paris Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

The drums beat a hypnotic rhythm. The fighters, each armed with a bamboo-like rod, display their footwork as they keep an eye on their opponent, accelerating or slowing down in time with the music. They move in circles around one another, often in duels between two, sometimes three or four at a time. This is Tahtib. This week - May 28 - the first ever tournament in Paris is being held. 


To the majority of people, it’s an unknown sport. But in fact, it’s a 5000 year old martial art that comes from Egypt.

Adel Boulad is the founder of today’s Modern Tahtib. Armed with books on this ancient martial art and a passion to spread the word about this ancient sport, he sits down to describe in detail the origins of Tahtib.

He shows photos of what he claims are “the most ancient engravings we have in Egypt, [which]  in Abouseer: between the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara and the Abouseer site”.

Based on these pharaonic engravings, it is now believed that Tahtib was one of three disciplines for the Ancient Egyptian army: archery, wrestling and figthing using staffs, or rods.

At the time, Boulad explains, the ultimate goal was to “destroy the other person’s head; today the aim is to […] graze it.”

Military origins

The rods that are used today are also lighter, and unable to inflict the same harm.
Although the ancient military training disappeared from the Egyptian landscape long ago, the art has itself remained ingrained in the culture across the southern rural areas.

"Gradually it was transformed to become a game; a rural game played in the evenings,” explains Boulad.

“You know, in Egypt you have at least four or five hours after the work [day] because the sun set is very fast, and no tv, [so] people used to stay together to chant, to have poetry and to play music and also with the stick; just to play with the stick, so it became a rural game."

Rural pastime

It has remained a pastime for men in the rural areas passed down through the family. "This was a traditional transmission from the father to the son, the uncle to the son, the grandfather to the son", explains Boulad. "This is now disappearing because there is no more traditional transmission."

He adds that at one point nearly 85 percent of the country lived in rural villages, versus roughly 15 percent today.

This rapid urbanization sparked warning signs for Boulad. He expalined: “ [I wanted to] safeguard this heritage and to develop it in a different form so it is suitable to the new Egyptian society.”

To the common Egyptian, knowledge of stick fighting is associated with the culture of the fellahin: the peasants.

It is also associated with the folkloric dance that made a resurgence during the 1960s under the Reda dance troupe, led by Farida Fahmy and Mohammed Reda.

Together, they fused elements of Tahtib along with baladi, or Egyptian folk belly-dancing that made its way into live performances and films. One of their famous dances involved a stick, which is why many people from that generation associate Tahtib with dance.

But apart from the Reda group or those living in the villages, no one really knew about the true Tahtib.

Just as many urban dwellers had done, Boulad admits he also overlooked the traditional art form, even though he himself had studied martial arts for over 30 years.

"After having snubbed [tahtib] for 30 years, I considered [it] for a long time as [a] folklore dance, not serious, compared to the other martial arts," he said.

"It's when I removed this wool from my eyes […], I discovered their way of talking to me in the same language as the Japanese martial arts....the Japanese masters.

I was really astonished in discovering that they have the same philosophy, the same thinking. This happened in 2000 and from that time, I said this deserves something else than only folklore dance."

Reviving Tahtib

What really struck Boulad is the fact that the country was sitting on a 5000 years-rich history, and nobody was doing anything about it! With his background in East Asian martial arts, he set about structuring Tahtib to spark interest to the people of today.

“When you look at the other martial arts, you will discover then in each culture you have what you call a form. In Japanese it's called kata.”

He explains the same phenomenon is also found among the martial arts in Korea, China and Indonesia. In all the forms, there exists a sequence of movements that includes rotation, distance, and so on.

It was this structure that was lacking in Egypt.

“This is what I created to facilitate the transmission," he said.

From that starting point, he created eight forms. Each form is made up of a sequence of 30 to 60 movements.

Here at the tournament in Paris, all the participants move in synchronization to the beat of the music. It’s almost like a choreographed dance, except each person is armed with a stick, and uses the movements to access his or her opponent.

Much like Brazilian Capoeira that moves to music as well, Boulad explains that in Tahtib the “music is here to kind of moderate or modulate the game to boost it, to catalyze it if it's too slow, or calm it down if it is too tough, and it links the game to the crowd.”

Musicians modulate the Tahtib match.
Musicians modulate the Tahtib match. Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

As the combatants encircle each other, deliberating their next step, the music slows down and the crowd claps in rhythm to the drums, adding to the suspense of the match.

Music aside, part of the art of Tahtib is also mastering the stick. Right from the onset of training, participants are taught how to develop control and power of the stick. The maneuvering of the stick sets up the defense and offense between the combatants. The sound of the ‘clank - clank’ as the sticks hit each other are done in a rhythmic fashion as well.

In addition to bringing Tahtib to the forefront of modern martial arts, Boulad did one thing that 5000 years ago was unheard of: he ensured it was open to both men and women.

Prior to this first tournament in Paris, due to be followed by one in Cairo in July, competitions were never held, apart from a display of fighting as part of a cultural festival in the Egyptian city of Luxor.

But as the modern sport continues to spread outside of Egypt, training clubs have opened up all over, including in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic and here in France.

In fact, here in Paris, there are over five clubs that are competing against one another at this tournament.

While the traditional dress, still found in the villages, is no longer worn by the modern competitors, a red sash around the waste is required by all those training and competing in Tahtib, as it resembles a similar belt seen in the ancient engravings.

As of November 2016, UNESCO, recognized it as an intangible cultural heritage of Egypt.

That means Tahtib will now have the international backing to ensure the ancient sport cannot be appropriated by any other country, and its heritage will be maintained for years to come and martial arts’ enthusiasts can learn the discipline of staff fighting.

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