It is quite possible that you have never heard of the 5,000-year-old martial art of Tahtib. But there is no shame in admitting the fact because for much of that time it has served as little more than a pastime for the people of rural Egypt.

But now, thanks to the efforts of one man, Adel Boulad, the ancient military art of Tahtib is finally making a comeback in the form it was originally intended, as a martial art.

Tahtib: Ancient Egyptian roots


Tahtib is thought to have been one of the three main disciplines which the ancient Egyptian army trained in, along with archery and wrestling. It was a form of combat which involved two sticks and according to Boulad the objective was to “destroy the other person’s head”.

There is evidence of Tahtib to be found in ancient Egyptian engraving which back these claims about its origins, although it is millennia since the practice fell out of use amongst the Egyptian military. So, how did it survive such a sustained period in the wilderness?

According to Boulad, the wilderness is exactly where it ended up. “Gradually it was transformed to become a game; a rural game played in the evenings,” he explained in an interview with Radio France Internationale. The traditional has been passed down through rural Egyptian families for generations. But modern demographic changes threatened to bring to the traditional to an end.

“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.”

An Ancient Tradition Facing Modern Challenges

Like everywhere, Egypt has seen rapid urbanisation in the past hundred years and around 85% of its population now live in the city. Along with the advent of modern technology, this means that many rural traditions are under threat, with Tahtib one of them. This is where Boulad came in. He was a martial arts enthusiast who had studied various East Asian martial arts over a thirty-year period. Whilst he had been aware of Tahtib during that period, he had long dismissed as more of a ‘folklore’ dance than a martial art.

But after looking into it more, he had a revelation. “I discovered [Tahtib had a] way of talking to me in the same language as Japanese martial arts,” he explained. “I was really astonished in discovering that [The Ancient Egyptians] had the same philosophy, the same thinking.”

He also realised that this fascinating piece of Egyptian and martial arts history was at risk of being lost. So, he took it upon himself to revive Tahtib and restructure it in a format which would appeal to a 21st-century audience.

Modern Tahtib: A 21st-Century Martial Art


Like many East Asian martial arts, he decided to introduce forms or a structure (kata in Japanese) which practitioners could learn. He, therefore, created eight different forms, all of which are made up of between 30 and 60 different traditional movements. Each person holds and stick and moves in time to music, much like the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira. According to Boulad, the role of the music in Tahtib is to regulate the movements and keep people in time, as well as provide a link between the practitioners and their audience.

The stick still plays a crucial role, although in modern Tahtib, destroying your opponent’s head is no longer the objective. The modern sticks are lighter and less dangerous, but practitioners still have to learn to control the stick and its various movements indicate which person is on the defensive and which is offensive. The noise of the stick banging together is also done in time to the music giving a pleasing rhythm for any watching audience to enjoy.


Modern Tahtib is open to all-comers, including women, which was not the case 5,000 years ago. The dress-code is much more relaxed too, with the red sash around the waist, the only remnant of the original flowing robes which were thought to have been worn.

Boulad’s modern version of Tahtib was only created in the year 2000, but it has already made great strides. There are now Tahtib clubs in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, and France, where Paris boasts no fewer than five.

And in November 2016, UNESCO formally recognised Tahtib as an intangible cultural heritage of Egypt. This is crucial in ensuring that Tahtib remains intrinsically linked with Egypt as well as ensuring there is an international recognition of what is a growing martial art. It should help to ensure Tahtib’s future and who knows, maybe it will still be around in another 5,000 thanks to one man, Adel Boulad.

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