Espionage in Ancient Egypt

Espionage is a complicated aspect of security. It both assists in providing security and is an active threat to security at the same time. Those engaging in espionage do so to increase the security and safety of their government and its interests by acquiring secrets and information regarding the actions of enemies, allies, and citizens; but at the same time, their acts of espionage are a threat to the security of anyone from whom the secrets and information have been acquired. In ancient Egypt, espionage was rampant at all levels, both by official government decree against domestic and international targets and by those targets in attempts to protect themselves and their interests. Much of what developed into modern espionage has its roots in the protocols developed in Egypt for the security of the pharaoh.

The ancient empire of Egypt was a place and time of great intrigue and developed many of the espionage protocols still in place around the world today. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt employed a wide range of spies for domestic and international purposes. The spies of ancient Egypt were among the first to develop codes and encryption for passing clandestine messages, and they laid the framework for many current espionage techniques and tactics. This ensured security and privacy of communication. In terms of security, the actions of the ancient Egyptian espionage network give a historical basis for the understanding of modern spy networks, their practices, their exploitation, the dangers they face, and their ultimate purpose of maintaining the safety and security of their homeland.

As the powers of the ancient world struggled for territory and domination, it became more and more important to acquire knowledge of the enemy, so as to disrupt the enemy’s plans and to protect one’s own territory. In ancient Egypt, threats to the stability of the pharaoh’s reign came from both internal and external sources. Domestic unrest was as dangerous to the continued rule, and sometimes to the life of a pharaoh, as threats from the outside. Therefore, it was necessary to have the spies keeping tabs on the population to ensure the security of the pharaoh.

With the variety of intrigues occurring within the country, talented espionage agents were a desperately needed resource, and the ones who could apply ingenuity as well as secrecy were highly sought after. The spies of ancient Egypt developed a variety of encrypted styles of writing. They were among the first to develop invisible and disappearing forms of ink. They created codes, as well as other forms of obfuscation in written messages. To further protect such messages, they developed ways of hiding the messages within clothing and other objects through hidden pockets and compartments, thus maintaining the security of such information.

The role of a spy in ancient Egypt was also the role of an assassin. The espionage networks of ancient Egypt invented a wide variety of poisons and toxins that were employed for a range of purposes. In some cases, these toxins, derived from both plants and animals, were used to assassinate enemies; in other cases, they were used to sabotage the actions of individuals whose immediate death would be detrimental to the political needs of the pharaoh but whose illness could be equally expedient.

Egypt’s creation of an espionage network began to seek out domestic threats, prevent assassinations, and maintain the pharaoh’s power; however, not all spies were employed by the pharaoh; other political and religious figures used spies to protect themselves and their privacy from the pharaoh’s spies or to carry out their own political intrigues. Domestic espionage agents were deployed to seek out information on individuals traveling through the Egyptian territory, to determine their purpose, as well as to determine their potential use as slaves. If a tribe traveling through the Egyptian territory was considered to be weak and easily dominated, based on the information from the spies, it would be attacked and its members enslaved; if it appeared to be well protected, it would likely be unmolested, as long as it did not attempt to settle within the Egyptian territory. In some cases, espionage networks working for some of these tribes, such as the Hittites in the 1200s BCE, were able to send spies to attempt to trick the Egyptians. While some of these intrigues are known to have worked, it is also known that Egypt was quite skilled in capturing and interrogating spies of its rivals and used any acquired information to its advantage.

As the Egyptian empire expanded and those of ancient Rome and Greece took notice and desired conquest, Egypt’s espionage network turned from internal and domestic security to external threats, seeking information on the political and military strength and intentions of these two potential enemies. In these situations, it was necessary for Egyptian spies to attempt to gather information outside their home territory, where capture might mean immediate death. For such reasons, spies may have employed disguise to blend in with diplomatic envoys as servants or among groups of merchants, so as to avoid detection and still gather information.

As animosity grew between the ancient nations, more advances were needed. The Egyptians were surpassed by the Greeks in advances in the methods of espionage, as the Greeks relied heavily on surprise attacks and expanded their military espionage to include one of the ancient world’s foremost communication networks between its city-states, including symbolic communication from watchtowers and outposts, the predecessor of the modern semaphore.

As the Roman Empire surpassed both the Greeks and the Egyptians, its espionage network dwarfed both these nations as well. While espionage was useful to the Romans throughout most of its campaigns for territorial domination, especially when spies were used for infiltration and creation of alliances in desired territories, such tactics did not succeed in the Roman conquest of Egypt, mostly due to Egypt’s extensive knowledge of how espionage operated. Rome did surpass Egypt in its domestic use of espionage agents as a secret police who worked to prevent dissension, predominately through censorship in Roman territory.

Clairissa D. Breen

See also Espionage ; Spies

Further Readings

Crowdy, T.The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.

Owen, D.Hidden Secrets: The Complete History of Espionage and the Technology Used to Support It. Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books, 2002.

Rank, M.Spies, Espionage, and Covert Operations: From Ancient Greece to the Cold War. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2014.

Singh, S.The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy From Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography (Reprint ed.). New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2000.

Volkman, E.The History of Espionage: The Clandestine World of Surveillance, Spying and Intelligence, From Ancient Times to the Post-9/11 World. London, England: Carlton, 2008.