SHIPS AND BOATS AND RIVER AND SEA TRAVEL IN ANCIENT EGYPT

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SHIPS

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The ancient Egyptians used vessels powered by sails, oars and both. Their boats lacked rudders and instead were steered with a pair of stern mounted oars. Egypt was crisscrossed by canals and boats of various sizes were use on the Nile, the canals and the sea. The oldest crafts were built from papyrus. Later wooden boats became the norm. Large yachts were used to move people up and down the river. Cargo ships plied the Nile and the sea. The most elaborate vessels were buried with pharaohs for their journey to the afterlife and were perhaps never used as real boats.

In ancient times, boats were expressions of technology in its most advanced form. A vase painting of a reed boat with a pole mast and a square sail indicated that the Egyptians had been using sailing vessels as early as 3500 B.C. Most early Egyptian boats were built for going up and down the Nile. They were not strong enough to handle traveling in the open sea. The oldest known boat is a dugout found in Denmark dated to 6000 B.C. Scientists believe some kind of boat was used by ancient people to reach Australia at least 50,000 years ago.

Images from the tomb of To, a 5th dynasty official buried in Saqqara offers insight into how Egyptian wooden boats were built. In the early stages tree trunks were trimmed and smoothed with an adz. The logs are sawed into planks and holes were cut into the planks with chisels and mallets. Similar method are still used today.

The sun god, ancient Egyptian believed, used two boats to travel through the heavens: one for day and one for night. Pharaohs were buried with two boats to assist them in their journey to the afterlife. The pharaohs, when they were living , enjoyed hunting waterbirds and hippopotamus from boats and no doubt hoped to continue the hobby in the afterlife. Hunting scene with boats are featured in many Egyptian tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Ships Used to Carry the Dead, See Funerals

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Boats

Early boats were made of papyrus reeds which grow in abundance in the Nile and were also used to make paper-like materials and a host of other things. Papyrus river crafts had a narrow beam and a high, elegantly tapered stem and stern posts featured ends made from raised and bound papyrus. The slender shape was well suited from navigating swift river currents. Wooden boats that came later had a similar design.

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Egyptian barque
One of the earliest representations of a papyrus boat is a clay vessel from the Naqada culture dated to 3500 B.C.. The vessel had two cabins and 40 oars. A similar vessel was depicted on a small ivory plaque from 3100 B.C. Small papyrus crafts were widely used to ferry two or three people at a time across canals. They were also use on the marshes for hunting and fishing.

The hulls of papyrus boats were much more fragile than the hulls of wooden boats. Bipedal and A-frame masts are thought to have been used; they distributed weight over the hull.

The papyrus reed boats are similar to the reed boats used on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia. Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon Tiki fame, believed that the Incas in Peru were descendants of ancient Egyptians. Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II expedition attempted to show that the ancient Egyptians may have arrived in the America’s thousands of years before Columbus. The reed boats he used were similar to boats depicted on wall paintings from ancient Egypt and are used today on Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.

Ancient-Egyptian-Built Boats

The world’s oldest remains of a “built boat,” one constructed with planks tied together, comes from Egypt and dates to 3000 B.C. The boat were made from planks fitted together by ropes "sewn" through holes, which in turn were filled with bundles of reeds to prevent leaks. The early boats had no keels and were mostly paddled. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, October 31, 2000]

The boat was 75 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide, with a shallow draft and a narrowing prow and stern. Estimated to have been rowed by 30 men, it was found in Abydos (300 miles south of Cairo), the first capital of the pharaohs, and was used in the burial ritual of the of the pharaoh. The ship was found buried along with 13 other boats.

Dr. Cheryl Ward, an archaeologist at Florida State University, told the New York Times, “It takes a lot of skill to build a boat like the one at Abydos, something we don’t think about in our day of power tools. There had to be trained workers shaping the wood, usually with stone tools. It took planning and discipline and a higher level of organization in a society.”

Ancient Egyptian Mortise and Tenon Boats

A 142-foot-long boat was found buried next to the Great Pyramid of Cheops of Giza. Known as the royal bark of Khufu, and dated to around 2500 B.C. around the same time the pyramid was built, it was made with mortise-and-tenon joints and a frame lashed to the hull that kept the sides from sagging outward.

Hulls were held together with mortises and tenons (slots and wooden pieces) that were fit together with great skill. The mortises (slots) were drilled into the planks. Adjoining planks had mortise in the same places. Tenons (wooden pieces) were placed in the slots to hold the planks together. Wooden pegs or copper nails were then hammered into the tenons to hold them in place. The fit often was so tight that caulking wasn’t needed.

The Egyptians mass produced linen for sails.

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boat from 1900 BC

Advanced Ships in Ancient Egypt

The first known vessels that could handle the waves of the Mediterranean were boats that had stiffer hulls that appeared around 2400 B.C. These vessels didn't have a keel but were kept from tipping over by suspension-bridge-like rope trusses that were attached to upright supports that ran from the bow to stern. The ships were propelled forward by oars and a tall sail mounted on a bipedal mast.

Records dating to the time the Pyramids were built describe vessels traveling to Lebanon to pick up cedar and other valuable woods. An entry on the Palermo Stone, an early record of ancient events, describes an expedition of 40 vessels picking up enough logs to construct 170-foot-long ships. Egyptian ships plied the Red Sea and traveled as far as Punt (near modern-day Somalia) there is an account of one expedition returning with 80,000 measures of myrrh, 6,000 units of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), 2,600 units of wood, and 23,020 measures of unguent.”

Around 1500 B.C. Egyptians learned how to make keels and internally reinforced hulls. Sails were rigged differently and steering oars were relocated. Around this time two new kinds of ships emerged: sailing ships with wider hulls and smaller crews used for transporting goods and long, narrow oar-driven galleys that were developed for warfare.

Sailing ships transported cargo like wine and olive oil in five- to ten-gallon amphorae (ceramic jugs). Several vessels of this type and their cargos have found by archaeologists. A boat used by Queen Hatshepsut to carry obelisks to Karnak was larger and broader than Admiral Nelson’s Victory . The ancient Egyptian vessel was 200 feet long and 70 feet in beam.

Boats and River Travel in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “Ancient Egyptian boats are defined as river-going vessels (in contrast with sea-going ships). Their use from late Prehistory through the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods included general transportation and travel, military use, religious/ceremonial use, and fishing. Depending on size and function, boats were built from papyrus or wood. The oldest form of propulsion was paddling, although there is some evidence for towing as well. Sailing was probably introduced towards the end of the late-Predynastic Period. [Source:Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“Boats in ancient Egypt were ubiquitous and crucially important to many aspects of Egyptian economic, political, and religious/ideological life. Four main categories of uses can be discussed: basic travel/transportation, military, religious/cere- monial, and fishing. Examples of each can be traced from the formative period of Egyptian history down to the close of Egypt’s traditional culture in the fourth century CE. One terminological problem is to identify a dividing line between “boats” and “ships.” For the purpose of this article, the term “ship” is arbitrarily taken to mean craft working entirely or primarily at sea (i.e., on the Red Sea or Mediterranean). Therefore, we confine ourselves here as far as possible to water craft of any size that were intended primarily for service on the Nile.” <>

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “The boats in which they carry cargo are made of the acacia, which is most like the lotus of Cyrene in form, and its sap is gum. Of this tree they cut logs of four feet long and lay them like courses of bricks,42 and build the boat by fastening these four foot logs to long and close-set stakes; and having done so, they set crossbeams athwart and on the logs. They use no ribs. They caulk the seams within with byblus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the boat's keel. The mast is of acacia-wood and the sails of byblus. These boats cannot move upstream unless a brisk breeze continues; they are towed from the bank; but downstream they are managed thus: they have a raft made of tamarisk wood, fastened together with matting of reeds, and a pierced stone of about two talents' weight; the raft is let go to float down ahead of the boat, connected to it by a rope, and the stone is connected by a rope to the after part of the boat. So, driven by the current, the raft floats swiftly and tows the “baris” (which is the name of these boats,) and the stone dragging behind on the river bottom keeps the boat's course straight. There are many of these boats; some are of many thousand talents' burden. 97. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

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Boat from the Middle Kingdom

Types of Ancient Egyptian Boats

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “A large variety of boat types can be identified in ancient Egypt, ranging from small papyrus rafts that might be capable of carrying only a single person, up to extremely large vessels used for transporting exceptionally large cargoes like obelisks (see especially the obelisk barge of Hatshepsut pictured at Deir el-Bahri, which was 120 cubits, or about 60 meters, long). Vessels can also be divided into ceremonial/official vessels and working vessels. Ceremonial/official vessels often had the “wjA” profile of a divine bark: that is, a long, narrow hull with a bent stern decoration and an upright bow post, best exemplified by the 4th Dynasty Khufu vessel. These decorative posts were intended to evoke the tied-off ends of papyrus rafts, evoking Egyptian mythology in which the vessels of the gods appear as papyrus. Actual working vessels, on the other hand, while adopting a great many sizes and proportions, were typically broader than ceremonial vessels, generally lacked purely decorative posts, and typically had greater free-board (that is, the distance from the surface of the water to the deck).[Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“Prior to the introduction of the sail, probably in the very late Predynastic Period, pictorial evidence suggests that paddling (i.e., with the paddle held in the paddler’s hand, not mounted on, or attached to, the vessel in any way as an oar would be) was the principal method of vessel locomotion, although there is evidence for towing as well. With the introduction of the sail, nearly any vessel of any size would appear to have been equipped with mast and sail. However, ceremonial vessels or military vessels, or vessels like the personal “yachts” of dignitaries, for which demonstration of wealth and power, as well as speed and reliability of service were critical, continued to employ large crews of paddlers or rowers. Vessels primarily intended for cargo transportation, on the other hand, appear to have had comparatively smaller crews and to have relied as far as possible on wind power or towing. <>

“As one might expect, the Egyptians had a large variety of terms for various types of river or ocean-going craft, which can rarely be directly identified with a specific type known to us from the iconographic record. Possibly the most common word was dpt, an old term that occurs in both the Pyramid Texts and the Palermo Stone and seems to have been a common word for almost any type of boat or even ship; the term designates large, sixteen-framed vessels constructed by Sneferu in the 4th Dynasty and the large Red Sea ship in the Middle Kingdom Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (e.g., Shipwrecked Sailor 25). One interesting and also very old term is the dwA-tAwy, or “Praise of the Two Lands” vessel, a term that may have been used to designate large, ceremonial vessels similar to the Khufu funerary vessel from the Early Dynastic Period onward. <>

“Other descriptive terms include terms based on the numbers eight, ten, and sixteen, which may have been intended to convey a general notion of the size of a craft, based on the number of internal frames (ribs) the vessel had. The term aHa, or “that which stands up,” was common from the Middle Kingdom forward and may be a metonym—i.e., a term designating a mast that comes to represent the vessel itself. In the New Kingdom, a common term for a cargo vessel was the wsx, or “broad” vessel. Some New Kingdom vessel designation may be of foreign origin, particularly the very common br, which seems to have originally designated vessels used on the Mediterranean and Red Sea. This name continued to be common into the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods and was rendered by Greek authors beginning with Herodotus as “baris.” For Greek authors, a baris appears to have been a common working Nile boat, and the Demotic word byr, which underlies the Greek form, also appears most often in this sense. However, the word appears to designate sea-going ships in the Demotic text of the Rosetta Stone inscription and also appears once in a Demotic docket to a Persian Period Aramaic document, there designating what appears to be a ceremonial vessel. <>

“Pictorial evidence shows that fishing boats were generally small, able to be operated by one to five persons. Vessels might be rafts made of papyrus bundles (e.g., as seen in the papyrus models Y from the Middle Kingdom tomb of Mekhet-Ra) or made of wood (excellent illustration in the Ramesside tomb of Ipy). Many illustrations of fishing from boats show fishermen using various types of nets, sometimes (as in the two Mekhet-Ra papyrus boat models) with two craft working together. Other methods used from boats or rafts were spearing and line-fishing. Depictions of fishing are especially common in the Old Kingdom, but can be found in the Middle and New Kingdoms as well; documentary evidence for commercial fishing continues on into the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, when there is at least some evidence for women involved in the occupation.” <>

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funerary paddling boat

Boats as a Means of Transportation in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: The earliest evidence for the use of boats in Egypt usually comes in religious contexts— either funeral (like the common images of boats on Naqada II/Gerzean pots encountered in Predynastic graves) or in rock art that was, presumably, executed for ceremonial/magical purposes. That said, the ubiquity of the images would appear to confirm that boats must have been an increasingly important part of the daily life of Egyptians in the late Predynastic Period. [Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“The spread of Egypt’s Naqada II/Gerzean throughout the Nile Valley would have been greatly facilitated by improved river travel; it is probably no coincidence that images of boats with sails first occur at the very end of the Predynastic Period, or just at the cusp of the period in which a single group of rulers was able to extend political power, economic control, and cultural uniformity throughout the Nile Valley. <>

“By the Old Kingdom, images of boats carrying every-day cargo, especially food- stuffs, is common in Egyptian tomb art, and Egyptian texts of many types—literary as well as documentary—record the use of boats for basic transportation. Especially common in the written record are mentions of grain transport and the transportation of stone, both as raw material for construction or in more-or-less worked forms like columns or obelisks. Both grain and stone were of prime interest to large governmental and/or temple bureaucracies, so their prominence in the written and iconographic record is to be expected. Nevertheless, many other types of cargo can be documented, including bread, cattle, vegetables, fish, and wood. The evidence for this sort of basic transportation of every-day commodities is extremely rich, particularly in the New Kingdom, from when two transport vessel’s logs are preserved, along with numerous papyri and ostraca that document shipping of all kinds. Transport shipping on the Nile is even more copiously documented in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, in both Greek and in Demotic sources.” <>

Military Use of Boats in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “The connection of boats with warfare can be traced back to the Predynastic Period. Possibly the earliest image of boats connected to combat in Egyptian art is the Gebel el- Arak knife handle, an ivory knife handle apparently of Naqada II/Gerzean date, which shows two rows of boats of contrasting designs underneath two registers of men fighting. Because the boats in the upper of the two rows shows hulls that strongly resemble craft depicted on contemporaneous representations from Mesopotamia, the Gebel el-Arak knife handle was once thought to provide strong evidence for the theory of the infiltration into Egypt around 3100 B.C. of a “Dynastic Race,” perhaps from in or near the region of Sumer. Supposedly, the maritime invaders of this “Dynastic Race” will have sailed southeast (!) down the Persian Gulf, circumnavigated Arabia, entered Egypt on the western Red Sea coast, portaged their boats through the Eastern Desert (where numerous allegedly “foreign” boat petroglyphs were found), and then, over time, come to dominate the indigenous, Predynastic Egyptians and imposed on them a centralized, literate state. [Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“However, the “Dynastic Race” model, first proposed in the late nineteenth century (in the hey-day of the highly-racially-conscious British imperial project in Egypt, see Vinson 2004), has long been abandoned on multiple grounds. It is therefore hard to know exactly what to make of the Mesopotamian-looking vessels on the knife handle, which are quite unparalleled in other known examples of Predynastic Egyptian nautical art. It seems likely that the Mesopotamian imagery seen here is the result of a range of Mesopotamian cultural importations into late Predynastic Egypt, probably via Syria, reached by Sumerians during the Uruk Expansion of the late fourth millennium B.C.. Military conflict between fleets commanded by Predynastic Egyptians and invading Uruk-era Mesopotamians is probably not the explanation. On the other hand, whoever executed the Gebel el-Arak image was certainly familiar with the notion that boats could be used in warfare. <>

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p> “In the 1st Dynasty, a petroglyph connected to king Djer at the site Gebel Sheikh Suliman appears to show Nubian captives or slain surrounding a boat, which perhaps indicates a water-borne expedition into Nubia. The 6th Dynasty autobiography of Weni reports the use of boats to launch a sea-borne attack somewhere off the coast of Syria-Palestine at a place he calls “Antelope Nose”. Boats must have been used frequently for military operations, but depictions of such are surprisingly scarce. One excellent, but rare, example is a group of three rowed river boats shown in a wall painting from the 11th Dynasty Theban tomb of an official of Mentuhotep I named Intef. Aside from the rowers, the boats also carry archers and soldiers armed with shields and battle-axes. Who the enemy is, however, is unfortunately unclear. <>


ship with Nubian captives


“At the end of the First Intermediate Period, the Kamose Stela describes Egyptian troops under the Theban king Kamose moving northward in a battle fleet from Thebes to attack the Hyksos at Avaris. From the very early 18th Dynasty, the autobiography of Ahmose, son of Ebana, who had made his career in the military serving aboard combat vessels, describes fighting from Nile boats both at Avaris (under the command of Kamose’s younger brother Ahmose, who finally defeated the Hyksos and reestablished centralized rule in Egypt as first king of the 18th Dynasty) and two invasions of Nubia in which Nile boats were used to convey Egyptian armies (under the commands of Amenhotep I and Thutmose I).

“The only naval engagement actually portrayed in Egyptian art is the great battle against the People of the Sea in the funerary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, which appears to have taken place in the Nile Delta, not in the open sea. It is not, however, clear that any of the vessels involved are actually “Egyptian,” if by that we mean a vessel built, crewed, and commanded by Egyptians. It is notable that the ships on both sides of the battle are rigged with a new, non-Egyptian technology called “brails” (Venetian-blind-like cords that permitted rapid shortening and easy reshaping of sails), and the attire of the great majority of “Egyptian” marines suggests that they could be ethnically or culturally connected to the invading Sea Peoples. If so, it could be that the “Egyptian” fleet is actually a mercenary fleet. <>

“With the demise of the New Kingdom, boats certainly continued to be used for military purposes on the Nile. The great stela of the Nubian king Piankhy describes the fleet used to move his troops against his Libyan enemies in the Egyptian Delta, and the Libyan fleet that tried to stop Piankhy. In the Saite Period, Egyptians along with Greek and Carian mercenary soldiers sailed south for a campaign against the Nubians; one expedition is commemorated by Greek and Carian graffiti on the colossal statues of Ramesses II at the rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel.” <>

Religious and Ceremonial Uses of Boats in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “The use of boats or images of boats for religious purposes is found throughout Egyptian history, from the Predynastic Period down to the end of Egypt’s traditional culture in the fifth century CE. One of the Egyptians’ central religious images was that of the continuous voyage of the sun god Ra through the sky in his two barks, the day bark and the night bark. The continual motion of the solar barks betokened the continued functioning of maat, the basic moral foundation of the entire universe, including the celestial realm. [Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“One image of a blessed afterlife included joining Ra in his bark. Those traveling with Ra were assured of rebirth, as the Sun in his bark emerged every morning from the sky goddess Nut. As a result, images of boats are ubiquitous in tomb art, especially in the vignettes accompanying the underworld books in many royal tombs of the Egyptian New Kingdom, which show the many stages of the night voyage of the Sun.. In fact, the very first painted Egyptian tomb, Hierakonpolis Tomb 100 from the Gerzean/Naqada II Period, has a boat procession for its principle theme.

“There is no direct proof that the boats depicted in the Hierakonpolis tableau represent the bark of Ra or any associated barks, and many other interpretations have been offered, including the idea that the boat procession might be part of a Predynastic heb-sed ritual. However, the funerary context of the tableau makes the possibility of an association with the bark of Ra an appealing one. And in fact, one of the boats in the scene includes the image of a figure seated under a baldachin of the type that, in later Dynastic boat art, often encloses either a dead figure (e.g., the funerary boat models of Mekhet-Ra), or else Ra in one of his manifestations. Further, recent discoveries by John Darnell of Yale University of petroglyphs, presumably of late Predynastic date, that show boats traveling upside down suggest possible connections to the notion of metaphysical boats traveling in an inverted, night-time world even at this remote period.” <>


Funeral procession


Burying Boats with the Dead in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “In the 1st Dynasty, the practice of burying boats with deceased kings and dignitaries began—a practice archaeologically documented from the 1st, 4th, and 12th Dynasties (the discovery in the summer of 2012 of a new 1st Dynasty boat at Abu Rawash, dated to the reign of King Den, see now also Ahram Online for 25 July 2012). Whether the boats buried in the 1st Dynasty were actually working vessels is unclear, since none of them has been completely excavated. However, the 4th Dynasty boats connected with the pyramid of Khufu were magnificent specimens of shipbuilding, and could certainly have sailed on the Nile. The first of the two surviving Khufu vessels was excavated and reassembled in the 1950s. The second, far less-well preserved, has been the subject of a project to excavate and restore it undertaken by Sakuji Yoshimura of Waseda University since 2011. [Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“Both Khufu vessels were built of Lebanese cedar in the typical wjA-shape associated with divine boats and typical of ceremonial vessels built for gods and pharaohs. This design, especially with its decorative posts, seems intended to evoke the papyrus boats connected with the gods in Egyptian mythology. In the Pyramid Texts, either the green color or the actual papyrus construction of divine boats is mentioned with some frequency(the boat-types wAD and wAD-an, which Miosi takes as “green” and “beautiful in green” respectively, might as easily be taken to refer literally to papyrus). And at the far end of Egyptian history, a Demotic magical spell from the late Roman Period (prob. c. third century CE) refers to Osiris “upon his boat (rms) of papyrus (Dwf) and faience”. <>

“As noted above, it may be possible to link the Khufu vessels specifically to the category of dwA-tAwy, or “Praise of the Two Lands” vessels, known from textual sources as early as the 2nd Dynasty. According to the Palermo Stone, a number of such vessels had been built by Khufu’s father Sneferu, and the vessels’ descriptions are consistent with the actual characteristics of the Khufu vessels on a number of points, including shape, construction material, and general size. <>

“Aside from the ceremonial use of boats by kings, non-royal individuals used boats for religious purposes, particularly in pilgrimages. Among the best-documented of these was the so-called “Abydos voyage,” a ceremonial, posthumous boat voyage to worship Osiris at Abydos that is documented from the Middle Kingdom into the New Kingdom, most especially in tomb reliefs . It is not clear whether this was often or even ideally a real voyage, or whether the images of the “Abydos voyage” that appear in Middle and New Kingdom tombs were thought of as a sufficient substitute for an actual pilgrimage. On the other hand, use of boats is certainly documented for many other pilgrimages, including a Greco-Roman festival of the goddess Bastet described in Herodotus, 2.60. This famous description describes pilgrims raucously sailing down the Nile to Bubastis, singing, clapping, playing musical instruments and— most notoriously—sexually exposing themselves to on-shore spectators. <>

“Boat models were often buried with dead aristocrats and kings. Some of these models were similar to other so-called “daily life” models that appear intended to assist the deceased in maintaining his accustomed lifestyle in the next world. But many such models were specifically “solar” or “funerary” in their design and must have been intended to evoke myths of the gods traveling in their barks, and the hope that the deceased would join them. The exceptionally fine fleet of Mekhet-Ra, today shared between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, illustrates the height of what Middle Kingdom Egyptian boat modelers could achieve. The vessels are notable for their painted and constructed detail, especially their rigging, although, like the vast majority of Egyptian boat models, the hulls of the Mekhet-Ra fleet were carved out of solid blocks of wood, not built of individual planks in such a way as to fully imitate working boats.” <>

Ceremonial Barks

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “It has been long argued whether the Khufu vessels were “solar” barks—that is, intended to identify the king with the sun god Ra in the next world—or whether they were his own ceremonial vessels, buried with him as a ritual offering. In fact, these possibilities need not have been mutually exclusive, and we have no reason to suppose that the vessels could not have been understood to serve multiple functions in varying contexts. [Source: Steve Vinson, University of Indiana, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“Even more important than the ceremonial barks of kings were those of gods. Portable boat models were central to many cultic practices, and the holy-of-holies of Egyptian temples were often bark-shrines, places where these cultic models would be placed between symbolic voyages within or outside of the divinity’s home temple. However, some gods, notably the state god Amun in the New Kingdom, possessed full-scale river boats. The bark Amun-User-Hat, or “Amun-Mighty-of- Prow,” is known from multiple New Kingdom sources, both textual and iconographic. Perhaps most famously, the bark figures in the terminal New Kingdom/early Third Intermediate Period Tale of Wenamun, which recounts the experiences of a (fictional) priest dispatched to Lebanon to purchase cedar for a renovation of the bark. A second important sacred vessel was the Neshmet bark of Osiris, which appears to have been involved in a water-borne ritual drama at Abydos, in which boats manned by “confederates of Seth” attempted—always unsuccessfully—to attack and murder Osiris. <>


Funeral of a Mummy by Arthur Bridgeman


“Large-scale ceremonial barks continued in use in major Egyptian temples well into the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Herodotus described boats used in the Persian Period during rites connected with Osiris. From the Ptolemaic Period, the Apis Embalming Ritual describes a procession of the deceased Apis to the “Lake of Kings” near the Memphite Sarapeion. Following this procession, the cadaver of the Apis was laid out on the lake’s shore, while priests standing on a papyrus bark recited the appropriate ritual texts. These procedures were intended to suggest both the Osirian and solar aspects of the Apis bull and his impending metempsychosis and rebirth. A fascinating late Roman Demotic graffito from the Temple of Philae records the graffitist’s donation of a large amount of pitch for the purpose of water-proofing the sacred bark of Isis. <>

Transporting Stone by Boat in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Over large distances, stone cargoes could only be hauled by river. Famous images of stone columns being conveyed for the construction of the Valley Temple of Unas (Fifth Dynasty) or the colossal obelisks of Hatshepsut show the transport of large stone cargoes on board ships, but precisely how such cargoes were loaded and unloaded has always been something of a mystery. In a discussion dating to the early Roman Imperial Period, Pliny the Elder describes his understanding of methods that had been used by Ptolemy II to load an obelisk some three centuries earlier. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“According to Pliny, the obelisk was said to have been laid across a canal, and two barges, loaded down with smaller stones so that they were heavy enough to pass below the obelisk, were maneuvered into position underneath it. The smaller stones were then removed from the transport ships until they were light enough to float the obelisks. The mention of two ships in this context has suggested to some that a sort of catamaran or double-hulled vessel was routinely used to move large stone cargoes. It seems likely that double-hulled ships were known in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, but Pliny’s image as it stands seems improbable; Pharaonic images of the hauling of stone columns or obelisks show a single ship with the cargo parallel to the axis of the transport vessel. For the moment, the method or methods used by the Egyptians at any period to load barges with heavy columns, obelisks, or large sculptures remain unknown. <>

“One early method for moving stones by water, however, is suggested by the archaeological excavation of “Chephren’s Quarry,” a site some 65 kilometers northwest of Abu Simbel in the Western Desert. Featured here was a special, purpose-built loading ramp that may have been designed to receive an amphibious raft that could be drawn up out of the river and pulled on runners. According to the excavators of this site, it seems possible that stone would then be loaded from the loading ramp onto the amphibious raft, which could then be dragged back to the river and floated directly down- stream to construction sites in lower Egypt, without the necessity to load the stone onto boats. <>

“For the very largest cargoes, like the Hatshepsut obelisks, purpose-built ships were necessary. However, smaller quantities of building stone or brick might have been hauled by ships intended for general cargo. An entry in a Ramesside account ostracon is instructive: “The crew what was done by them, consisting of the emptying of the vessels that were under the authority of Penamun: seven vessels make 15 stones and 150 small bricks”. <>

“In the Roman Period, when both ancient obelisks and exotic stone such as porphyry from Mons Porphyrites were exported to Italy, the logistical problems were of course even greater. Unlike the Pharaonic Egyptians, the Roman-era stone-haulers made use of wheeled vehicles, which might have been loaded from specially built loading docks. In one case, we hear of a 12-wheeled stone- hauling wagon, which was perhaps configured with four axels with three wheels each. Such a wagon may have had an axel-width of 2.8 meters; comparable-sized wagons are suggested by Roman-era wagon tracks discovered in the Eastern Desert.” <>



According to PBS: “The Nile was used to transport supplies and building materials to the pyramids. During the annual flooding of the Nile, a natural harbor was created by the high waters that came conveniently close to the plateau. These harbors may have stayed water-filled year round. Some of the limestone came from Tura, across the river, granite from Aswan, copper from Sinai, and cedar for the boats from Lebanon.”

No animals or machines were used to transport the blocks. Whenever possible the stones were transported on the Nile. Canals may have been used to get the stones as close to the site as possible. On the banks of the Nile, teams of perhaps 20 to 50 men hauled the stones on wooden sledges to the building sites where master carvers shaped each block and levered it into place. A hoisting machine was used to lift stones ("none of them were thirty feet in length") into place.

Transporting Wood by Sea in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “The transport of large quantities of wood, especially from western Asia, is documented from an early period in Egypt; much, if not all, of this cargo must have been transported by sea. Imported wood was used in a number of First Dynasty royal tombs, and a First Dynasty label from the tomb of Aha associates an image of a ship with the word mr, although it is not clear whether the reference here is to the vessel’s construction or its cargo. From the Fourth Dynasty (reign of Seneferu), the Palermo Stone records a shipment of some 40 ships loaded with coniferous wood. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

“More details of the procedures by which the long, straight timbers available from the area of Lebanon and Syria were transported to Egypt come from the New Kingdom, when battle reliefs of Sety I at Karnak show foreign princes cutting down trees for transport back to Egypt, while others, possibly lower-status individuals, lower the trees with cables attached to the upper branches. From the Third Intermediate Period, the Report of Wenamun describes large tree-trunks being dragged down to the shore. <>

“Wenamun reports that a limited number of wooden ship components were placed aboard a transport ship bound for Egypt as a preliminary, good-faith shipment, but aside from this, no Egyptian text or image describes the specific modalities of the actual sea- transport of large timber. One might compare a first-millennium B.C. Assyrian relief from the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, which shows tree-trunks being towed behind Phoenician transport ships off the Syrian coast. Such towing may have been the (or a) method by which the Egyptians, or Western Asians in the service of Egypt, also moved cargoes of the largest trunks of wood back to Egypt.” <>

Transporting Grain by Boat in Ancient Egypt

Grain is believed to have been hauled by donkey from farmsteads to embarkation points, where it was loaded onto ships by local workers. Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote:“Middle-Kingdom granary models, such as the famous model from the tomb of Meket-Ra at Thebes, show individual porters with sacks of grain on their backs, emptying them out one at a time into silos. From there, grain would have eventually been unloaded and placed aboard transport vessels.” [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org <>]

The Twentieth Dynasty Papyrus Amiens describes “a flotilla of some 21 vessels that appear to have been engaged in a major tax collection voyage, perhaps in the region of Assiut, where the papyrus itself was found. Each ship made multiple stops, embarking large quantities of grain, which were often accounted for in detail, according to the specific agricultural domain from which the grain came and according to the individual or group who were to be credited with supplying the grain. Occasionally, as in P. Amiens r. 4.1, we see grain transferred between ships, perhaps (but not certainly) due to vessels being disabled. Another important Ramesside papyrus, the “Turin Indictment Papyrus”, is notable for illustrating the opportunities for embezzlement that might present themselves to the operators of transport vessels hauling large amounts of grain. <>



“The transport of grain in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods in Egypt is extensively documented in Greek papyrological sources. An instructive example is the Ptolemaic-era account papyrus Oxy 3, 522, which describes how boat captains recruited local labor through village elders to load 5,400 artabas (about 170 metric tons). Cargoes were often accompanied by persons known as naukleroi, whose function appears to have been to safeguard the cargo and organize transportation, not actually operate the ships in question. While the owner- operation of transport vessels is attested in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, transport vessels might also owned by wealthy investors, particularly members of the Ptolemaic royal family , or by governmental institutions such as the office of the dioiketes, or finance minister.” <>

Seafaring in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “Seafaring either to or from Egypt cannot be specifically documented before the Old Kingdom, but evidence points to the possibility of sea contact between Egypt and the Syro-Palestinian coast in the Early Dynastic Period, and it is not implausible to suggest that such contacts could have been established in the Predynastic Period or earlier. Egypt’s wooden boat-building industry appears to extend back that far, and while all currently available evidence is oriented towards Nile River shipping, there is no obvious reason why Predynastic Egyptian vessels could not have navigated coastal waters, as Mesolithic and Neolithic Aegean watercraft certainly did. Old Kingdom texts and images confirm seafaring on both the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and this activity continued throughout documented Egyptian history. By the Roman Period, Egypt was the nexus of a far-flung international maritime system that tied the Mediterranean to distant ports in East Africa, Arabia, and India.[Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“The sources for the history of ancient Egyptian seafaring—that is to say, use of water-craft on the Mediterranean and Red Seas—are, unfortunately, somewhat uneven and less informative than one would like. Far more information (textual, iconographic, and archaeological) is available for the study of riverine ships and shipping. In general, evidence is biased towards the New Kingdom and later periods, but at least some important and interesting material comes from almost every period in Egyptian history. <>

“Royal inscriptions, including both texts and images, are highly useful but not attested in all periods, and their limitations must be kept in mind. Egyptian nautical images are often highly detailed, but the details they provide are limited to exterior structures, most especially rigging. In the New Kingdom, a few tombs include images of ships from Canaan/Syria-Palestine, along with images of foreign traders bringing exotic materials from Western Asia, the Aegean, and Nubia. Numerous boat models come from Egypt, but none can be identified as models of specifically ocean-going craft. <>

“The texts that accompany nautical images can be informative, but their roots in religious/propagandistic discourses praising royal power must be kept in mind. So too must the interpreter be alert to these texts’ allusions to Egyptian perceptions of the world beyond Egypt—i.e., in part as a place where maat does not necessarily obtain, but also as a place where distant, unknown gods may dwell and where wonderful things may be found. <>

“Documentary texts dealing with seafaring (as opposed to river transportation) are rare before the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods; one exceptional document is a papyrus from the dockyard annals of Thutmose III, which includes mentions of ships of Keftyw (probably Crete). Likewise, archaeological remains directly connected with seafaring are relatively sparse, so far found only on the Red Sea coast. For all periods, an important source of indirect information is the archaeological and textual attestation of foreign trade.” <>


Ancient Egyptian seafaring ship


Seafaring in the Prehistoric, Predynastic and Early Dynasty Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “Seafaring, either by Egyptians or by others traveling to Egypt, cannot be documented before the Old Kingdom, but it might well have begun in the Predynastic Period, or even earlier. It is very probably the case that Egypt’s wooden boat/ship-building technology was well developed by the late Gerzean/Naqada II Period, when boat imagery (especially images of so-called “sickle- shaped” boats, characterized by crescentic hulls with multiple paddles, deck structures, standards, and palm-frond-like bow decorations) is common in both rock art and in pottery decoration. Such representations offer us no direct evidence for the material used to construct Egypt’s “sickle-shaped” boats, but archaeological evidence suggests a high general level of technical skill in working wood in the Predynastic Period. Construction of wooden boats is certain by the 1st Dynasty. While all extant evidence for such early craft points towards their use on the Nile, it is not difficult to imagine that Egyptian vessels could have sailed on the Mediterranean or Red Sea before the Old Kingdom; there is no reason to doubt that Egypt’s Predynastic and Early Dynastic vessels were at least as well constructed as the Mesolithic water-craft that brought obsidian traders to the Greek island of Melos, or the Neolithic water-craft that brought the earliest settlers to Crete and Cyprus. Moreover, there is considerable evidence for the importation of exotic materials into Egypt in the Gerzean/Naqada II Period. To what extent this can be attributed to either land transportation or seafaring cannot be definitely determined. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“We can, however, certainly discount earlier Egyptologists’ theories of circum-Arabian voyages from lower Mesopotamia to Egypt’s Red Sea coast by Uruk-era Sumerians who (allegedly) conquered Predynastic Egypt and founded the 1st Dynasty. A carved ivory knife-handle said to be from Gebel el-Arak in Upper Egypt (now in the Louvre) shows boats resembling vessels portrayed on Uruk- era cylinder seals, as well as sickle-shaped boats that somewhat resemble vessels on Gerzean/Naqada II painted pottery, amid a battle in progress. This scene, as well as other images of “foreign” ships, was once generally interpreted as showing such an invasion , but since the 1970s, this interpretation has lost considerable favor. In all likelihood, the undoubted Mesopotamian flavor of the Gebel el-Arak imagery—along with other examples of Mesopotamian cultural influences that reached Egypt in the Predynastic Period—can be explained by diffusion via Syria, which was reached by Sumerians during the Uruk Expansion in the late fourth millennium B.C., rather than by a sea-route connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt in this period. <>

“By the 1st Dynasty, contacts between Egypt and western Asia had accelerated and sea contact seems certain. An Egyptian cup, datable to the Early Dynastic Period, was found by an Israeli fishing trawler off the coast of Gaza in the 1980s. We know that, in the Early Dynastic Period, Lebanese cedar was imported into Egypt for the construction of royal tombs, and a Dynasty 1 label from the tomb of Aha (second king of the dynasty) includes images of ships labeled with the word mr “cedar”, which suggests a connection between Egyptian cargo ships and the importation of Lebanese or Syrian wood. It is unclear whether the word “cedar” here refers to the vessel’s construction or its cargo. Both are possible, since cedar was a well- attested ship-construction material in Egypt (most notably the 4th Dynasty funerary vessel of Khufu), and other evidence makes it all but certain that, not later than the 4th Dynasty, imported wood came to Egypt at least sometimes by sea (see Old Kingdom below). That said, it is impossible from the evidence at hand to say anything specific about how any Pre- or Early Dynastic seafaring would have been organized, beyond the probability that much, if not all, of this activity would have been in the hands of the ruling elite. Nor is it possible to estimate how important it was to Egypt’s overall economy.” <>

Seafaring in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2649–1640 B.C.)

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “The Palermo Stone reports for the 4th Dynasty: “bringing 40 ships filled [mH] with coniferous wood [aS]” in the reign of Sneferu. This would appear to confirm sea-going transportation of wood between Egypt and the Syro-Palestinian coast from at least the 4th Dynasty, if not earlier, though whether the ships involved were “Egyptian” or “Canaanite/Syro-Palestinian” cannot be determined. The first Old Kingdom representation of what appears to be a sea- going craft appears in the 5th Dynasty sun temple of Sahura. This much- discussed relief shows vessels that appear to be rigged like standard Egyptian river-boats of the Old Kingdom (i.e., with bi-pod, rather than mono-pod, masts), but that also show stoutly-lashed bulwarks (uppermost hull planking) and a hogging truss (heavy cable running bow-to-stern, capable of being tightened to prevent the ends of the ship from sagging), which would suggest a ship designed to withstand the rigors of sea travel. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]


trade ship carrying frankincense, trees and other goods


“The presence aboard of bearded persons who appear to be western Asian, along with an inscription presented as the arriving seafarers’ praise to Sahura, has led to the conclusion that this vessel probably represents a foreign craft arriving in Egypt. Although the word does not actually appear here, it may well be that this is a “Byblos” ship (kbnt). This ship name does not appear until the 6th Dynasty, in the inscription of the courtier Pepynakht. Pepynakht reports that he had been assigned to bring back to Egypt the body of a murdered Egyptian who had been sent to Western Asia to oversee the construction of a “Byblos” boat, which had actually been intended for an expedition to Punt (probably southern Sudan and/or Somalia, perhaps also including southern Arabia). This suggests that in the Old Kingdom, Egyptians may have depended at least in part on Western Asian ship-builders for their ocean-going craft. <>

“In the Middle Kingdom, we encounter “Byblos” boats (kbnjwt) once again in a Wadi Hammamat inscription commemorating an expedition to Punt. This time, the ships are actually constructed on the Red Sea coast— thus, most probably by Egyptians (Couyat and Montet 1912: 82 - 83; see 1.9 for reference to "Byblos" boats and 1.14 for their construction on the coast). In general, the best evidence for Middle Kingdom seafaring reflects Red Sea shipping. One of the best-known Middle Kingdom Egyptian literary compositions, the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, is centered on a voyage to Punt. The details given for the size of the sailor’s ship (120 cubits by 40 cubits, or about 60 meters by 20 meters) and its crew (120 men) should not be taken seriously (cf. Vinson 1997a; 1998: 15ff. for the much smaller crews known from actual documentary texts for working Nile vessels), but the tale does include a plausible list of products from Punt (e.g., myrrh, various oils, giraffe tails, elephant ivory) and reflects the genuine hazards of shipping on the Red Sea. One archaeologically documented Red Sea embarkation point during the Middle Kingdom was Marsa Gawasis, where shrines constructed of stone anchors have been discovered. However, Egyptian contacts with the Levantine coast, especially Byblos, and the island of Crete are also documented or suggested in the Middle Kingdom.” <>

4,500-Year-Old Ancient Egyptians Red Sea Port

Wadi al-Jarf is an ancient Egyptian port dated to 2600 B.C and linked with the Giza pyramid builders. Excavated bt French archaeologists Pierre Tallet and Gregory Marouard, it is 120 kilometers south of Suez , which in turn is 125 kilometers west of Cairo, meaning than Wadi al-Jarf was a considerable distance form the Pyramids of Giza. Caves in area had served as a kind of boat storage depot during the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. In 2013, in some of these caves Tallet and his team found entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact,written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication. These rolls turned out to be the oldest known papyri in the world. The port is also regarded as the world’s oldest. [Source: Alexander Stille, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2015 |=|]

Alexander Stille wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Wadi al-Jarf lies where the Sinai is a mere 35 miles away, so close you can see the mountains in the Sinai that were the entry to a mining district. The Egyptian site has yielded many revelations along with the trove of papyri. In the harbor, Tallet and his team found an ancient L-shaped stone jetty more than 600 feet long that was built to create a safe harbor for boats. They found some 130 anchors—nearly quadrupling the number of ancient Egyptian anchors located. The 30 gallery-caves carefully dug into the mountainside—ranging from 50 to more than 100 feet in length—were triple the number of boat galleries at Ayn Soukhna. For a harbor constructed 4,600 years ago, this was an enterprise on a truly grand scale. |=|

“Yet it was used for a very short time. All the evidence that Tallet and his colleagues have gathered indicates that the harbor was active in the fourth dynasty, concentrated during the reign of one pharaoh, Khufu. What emerges clearly from Tallet’s excavation is that the port was crucial to the pyramid-building project. The Egyptians needed massive amounts of copper—the hardest metal then available—with which to cut the pyramid stones. The principal source of copper was the mines in the Sinai just opposite Wadi al-Jarf. The reason that the ancients abandoned the harbor in favor of Ayn Soukhna would appear to be logistical: Ayn Soukhna is only about 75 miles from the capital of ancient Egypt. Reaching Wadi al-Jarf involved a considerably longer overland trip, even though it was closer to the Sinai mining district. |=|

“After visiting Wadi al-Jarf, Mark Lehner, an American Egyptologist, was bowled over by the connections between Giza and this distant harbor. “The power and purity of the site is so Khufu,” he said. “The scale and ambition and sophistication of it—the size of these galleries cut out of rock like the Amtrak train garages, these huge hammers made out of hard black diorite they found, the scale of the harbor, the clear and orderly writing of the hieroglyphs of the papyri, which are like Excel spreadsheets of the ancient world—all of it has the clarity, power and sophistication of the pyramids, all the characteristics of Khufu and the early fourth dynasty.” |=|

“Tallet is convinced that harbors such as Wadi al-Jarf and Ayn Soukhna served mainly as supply hubs. Since there were few sources of food in the Sinai, Merer and other managers were responsible for getting food from Egypt’s rich agricultural lands along the Nile to the thousands of men working in the Sinai mine fields, as well as retrieving the copper and turquoise from the Sinai. In all likelihood, they operated the harbor only during the spring and summer when the Red Sea was relatively calm. They then dragged the boats up to the rock face and stored them in the galleries for safekeeping until the next spring. |=|

“Ancient Egypt’s maritime activities also served political and symbolic purposes, Tallet argues. It was important for the Egyptian kings to demonstrate their presence and control over the whole national territory, especially its more remote parts, in order to assert the essential unity of Egypt. “Sinai had great symbolic importance for them as it was one of the farthest points they could reach,” Tallet says. “In the Sinai the inscriptions are explaining the mightiness of the king, the wealth of the king, how the king is governing its country. On the outer limits of the Egyptian universe you have a need to show the power of the king.” |=|

“In fact, their control of the periphery was rather fragile. Distant and inhospitable Sinai, with its barren landscape and hostile Bedouin inhabitants, represented a challenge for the pharaohs; one inscription records an Egyptian expedition massacred by Bedouin warriors, Tallet says. Nor were the Egyptians always able to hold on to their camps along the Red Sea. “We have evidence from Ayn Soukhna that the site was destroyed several times. There was a big fire in one of the galleries....It was probably difficult for them to control the area.”

“Working on the royal boats, it seems, was a source of prestige. According to the papyri found at Wadi al-Jarf, the laborers ate well, and were provisioned with meat, poultry, fish and beer. And among the inscriptions that Tallet and his team have found at the Wadi al-Jarf gallery complex is one, on a large jar fashioned there, hinting at ties to the pharaoh; it mentions “Those Who Are Known of Two Falcons of Gold,” a reference to Khufu. “You have all sorts of private inscriptions, of officials who were involved in these mining expeditions to the Sinai,” Tallet says. “I think it was a way to associate themselves to something that was very important to the king and this was a reason to be preserved for eternity for the individuals.” Clearly these workers were valued servants of the state.” |=|


Trade routes


Seafaring in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.)

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “Punt continued to be a focal point of Egyptian seafaring in the New Kingdom, with Hatshepsut’s Punt reliefs at Deir el-Bahri constituting perhaps the finest preserved examples of Egyptian nautical art. The vessels portrayed here show classic Egyptian lines and rigging, and suggest the very highest achievements of Egypt’s traditional boat- and shipbuilding craft. Further evidence for Red Sea sailing in the 18th Dynasty has more recently been brought to light by Boston University archaeologist Kathryn Bard, who in 2004 discovered a cave at Marsa Gawasis containing fragments of rope, steering-oar, and hull-planking that may date to or near the reign of Hatshepsut. The Ramesside Papyrus Harris I reports a voyage to Punt in the reign of Ramses III. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“As in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Egypt in the New Kingdom was also in maritime contact with the Late Bronze Age civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. A number of 18th Dynasty tomb reliefs portray Minoan traders, and an important relief from the tomb of Ken-Amun shows a Canaanite ship in port. This ship resembles contemporaneous Egyptian ships like the Hatshepsut Punt-expedition ships in some respects, notably the rigging; but the overall hull shape is characteristically Near Eastern. New Kingdom texts also reflect these connections. The dockyard annals of Thutmose III refer to ships of Keftyw, likely Crete or the Aegean more generally, and ships from Canaan are described in the Kamose Stela from the terminal Second Intermediate Period. <>

“The Kamose-stela ships are said to carry luxurious cargo including gold, silver, lapis lazuli, various sorts of wood, and other raw materials; curiously, the only finished products are “countless copper axes.” The summary writing used here for “copper” (Hmt) could also bear the reading Hsmn (“bronze”) per Habachi. Although the common Egyptian word for “axe” used here (mjnb) is admittedly attested nowhere else in this sense, it may be that the reference in the Kamose Stela is actually to copper ingots of the “ox- hide” type. The shape of such ingots has been compared to that of Aegean double axes of the Late Bronze Age. The rest of the cargos described on these ships comprise raw, unfinished products; copper ingots would be a more plausible bulk cargo than literal finished axes (cf. the large cargo of ox-hide ingots in the late fourteenth- century B.C. Uluburun shipwreck [Pulak 2001]; also the even larger cargo of copper ingots described in Amarna Letter 35 [Moran 1992: 107ff.]). <>

“Archaeologically, the late-18th-Dynasty-era Uluburun shipwreck shows the extent towhich Egypt was embedded in maritime and overland routes that extended throughout Africa, Western Asia, and southern and eastern Europe. Perhaps the most important Egyptian artifact from the Uluburun wreck is the golden scarab of Nefertiti. However, other important objects that suggest Egypt’s central location on many of the important trade routes of the Late Bronze Age world include raw ebony and ivory and ostrich eggshells, which may have been transshipped through Egypt from tropical Africa, and perhaps the wreck’s glass ingots, which some have argued to be of Egyptian origin.” <>

More Advanced Ships Appear in New Kingdom Egypt

Steve Vinson of the University of Indiana wrote: “By the end of the 18th Dynasty, new principles in ship design, likely derived from the Aegean, are visible in Egypt. A relief from Saqqara, probably to be dated to the reign of Horemheb, is the first known example of a ship rigged with brails—Venetian-blind-like lines that could be used to shorten or shape loose-footed sails, and that were to characterize the standard sea-going rig of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Up until this point, Egyptian ships—as well as sea-going ships that appear in the art of Mycenaean Greece, Minoan Crete, and the island of Thera—were almost always shown with the feet of their sails secured with booms. It could be that ships with these characteristics were brought to Egypt by raiders or traders from the Aegean, who are attested as early as the Amarna Period and who seem to have become increasingly irritating to the Egyptians in the Ramesside Period. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“The best illustration of Egyptian seagoing ships in the late New Kingdom occurs in the 20th Dynasty sea-battle relief at Medinet Habu, showing Egypt’s fleet under Ramses III in a pitched battle against the invading Sea Peoples. In the relief, both sides’ ships are shown with the new brailed rig. Since the sailors shown fighting on the Egyptian side are almost all wearing attire closely similar to that of the invading Sea Peoples, it seems likely that the Egyptian navy was made up, at least in this instance, of ships actually owned by Egypt’s own Sea-People allies or mercenaries—the Sherden or others. <>


Sea People Battle


“Were other innovations in ship design adopted by the Egyptians? The late fourteenth-century B.C. Uluburun shipwreck features a sea-going vessel with a construction similar to that of later Greek and Roman ships on the Mediterranean—that is, with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints—but unlike that of earlier Egyptian ships with lashed construction. A fascinating letter, in Akkadian, from the court of Ramses II speaks of an Egyptian ship that had been sent to the Hittites, evidently for the purpose of allowing Hittite shipwrights to copy it. The only constructional details we get are that the ship apparently had internal framing (ribs), and that it was caulked with pitch, a practice now paralleled archaeologically by a water-proofing agent observed on some planks salvaged from New Kingdom sea-going ships found at Marsa Gawasis (Ward and Zazzaro fc.; cf. Vinson 1996: 200 for the practice in Greco-Roman antiquity and one occurrence in Roman Egypt). Whether this was a traditionally constructed Egyptian hull, or a new-style hull based on Eastern Mediterranean/Aegean principles, is unknown. <>

“Egyptian dependence on foreign commercial ships at the end of the New Kingdom is suggested in the Report of Wenamun, a terminal New Kingdom/early Third Intermediate Period literary composition that describes the experiences of a priest of Amun who is dispatched to Phoenicia to secure wood for the renovation of the sacred bark of Amun. In this tale, Wenamun has to endure the sneers of his Phoenician interlocutors who point out that he has come to Lebanon on a foreign ship. Wenamun’s protest that any ship chartered by an Egyptian is, ipso facto, an Egyptian ship, is shown by the story itself to be empty bluster.” <>

Seafaring in the Late, Ptolemaic and Roman Periods (712 B.C.–364 A.D.)

Beyond the period reflected in the Report of Wenamun, it is not easy to trace any of Egypt’s own seafaring ventures. In the first millennium B.C., Egypt certainly maintained continuous, if fluctuating, contact with Syria- Palestine; many of the Egyptian artifacts discovered in Western Asia during this period may have been carried by sea, perhaps by Phoenician seafaring merchants. Seafaring again becomes clearly visible in Egyptian history largely in the context of Greeks coming to Egypt as traders or as mercenaries. As Greece recovered from the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, Iron- Age Greek seafarers spread throughout the Mediterranean. The most important early Greek entrepôt in Egypt was the east-Delta city of Naukratis, founded in the seventh century B.C.. According to Herodotus , Naukratis was originally conceived as a controlled trading point beyond which Greeks were not supposed to go (not unlike Nagasaki in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate). Egypt fell to the Achaemenid Persians in 525 B.C., and integration into the Persian empire appears to have promoted Egyptian trade in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. This eastern trade was facilitated by the construction of a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea through the Wadi Tumilat. A series of stelae in hieroglyphic and Persian marks the route of this canal, which continued in use during the Ptolemaic Period. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org <>]

“Many Greeks were already settled throughout the land of Egypt by the time of Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 B.C.. The new dynasty founded after Alexander’s death in 323 by his general Ptolemy son of Lagus turned the new city of Alexandria into one of the most important commercial and cultural centers of the Hellenistic Mediterranean. After Egypt was conquered by Rome in 30 B.C., Alexandria became the port of embarkation for the vast quantities of grain taken from Egypt to feed the Roman mob. By the end of the Ptolemaic Period, a Greek skipper appears to have discovered the monsoon system that blows across the Indian Ocean, enabling the establishment of a rapid, open-water trade route between Egypt and India; this route only grew in importance following the Roman conquest. The most important document detailing this route is the Periplus Maris Erythraei (“Sailing Directions for the Erythraean Sea,” a term designating both our Red Sea and Indian Ocean). The Periplus is a first-century CE Greek-language manual, probably written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian skipper or at least a Greek skipper with considerable knowledge of Egypt, that describes maritime routes for East Africa, Arabia, and India, as well as commercial opportunities and political/cultural conditions in the associated major ports. <>

“Hellenistic and Roman ships departed from Egyptian Red Sea ports like Myos Hormos or Berenike, which were accessible via desert routes connecting the Red Sea to the Nile Valley. These routes appear to have ended at Coptos, near the eastern-most bend of the Nile River. In the ninth year (89 – 90 CE) of the Roman emperor Domitian, an important inscription was executed near Coptos, detailing tolls to be paid by various classes of persons, animals, or items traveling or being transported along the desert route. Tolls varied widely—a “Red Sea skipper” paid eight drachmas, while “women for companionship” were assessed 108 drachmas! The eastern-most end of the Red Sea-Indian Ocean route can also be traced archaeologically through finds of Roman material, notably glass, which occurs in numerous sites along the coast of India.” <>

Herodotus on Egyptian Sea Navigation

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “And I think that their account of the country was true. For even if a man has not heard it before, he can readily see, if he has sense, that that Egypt to which the Greeks sail is land deposited for the Egyptians, the river's gift—not only the lower country, but even the land as far as three days' voyage above the lake, which is of the same nature as the other, although the priests did not say this, too. For this is the nature of the land of Egypt: in the first place, when you approach it from the sea and are still a day's sail from land, if you let down a sounding line you will bring up mud from a depth of eleven fathoms. This shows that the deposit from the land reaches this far. 6. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Further, the length of the seacoast of Egypt itself is sixty “schoeni”7 —of Egypt, that is, as we judge it to be, reaching from the Plinthinete gulf to the Serbonian marsh, which is under the Casian mountain—between these there is this length of sixty schoeni. Men that have scant land measure by feet; those that have more, by miles; those that have much land, by parasangs; and those who have great abundance of it, by schoeni. The parasang is three and three quarters miles, and the schoenus, which is an Egyptian measure, is twice that. 7.

“By this reckoning, then, the seaboard of Egypt will be four hundred and fifty miles in length. Inland from the sea as far as Heliopolis, Egypt is a wide land, all flat and watery and marshy. From the sea up to Heliopolis is a journey about as long as the way from the altar of the twelve gods at Athens to the temple of Olympian Zeus at Pisa. If a reckoning is made, only a little difference of length, not more than two miles, will be found between these two journeys; for the journey from Athens to Pisa is two miles short of two hundred, which is the number of miles between the sea and Heliopolis.”


states in the Middle East and Asia at the time of Ancient Egypt


Herodotus on Naucratis, Egypt’s Trading Port

Herodotus wrote in Book 2 of “Histories”: “Amasis became a philhellene, and besides other services which he did for some of the Greeks, he gave those who came to Egypt the city of Naucratis to live in; and to those who travelled to the country without wanting to settle there, he gave lands where they might set up altars and make holy places for their gods. Of these the greatest and most famous and most visited precinct is that which is called the Hellenion, founded jointly by the Ionian cities of Chios, Teos, Phocaea, and Clazomenae, the Dorian cities of Rhodes, Cnidus, Halicarnassus, and Phaselis, and one Aeolian city, Mytilene. It is to these that the precinct belongs, and these are the cities that furnish overseers of the trading port; if any other cities advance claims, they claim what does not belong to them. The Aeginetans made a precinct of their own, sacred to Zeus; and so did the Samians for Hera and the Milesians for Apollo. 179. [Source: Herodotus, “The Histories”, Egypt after the Persian Invasion, Book 2, English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920, Tufts]

“Naucratis was in the past the only trading port in Egypt. Whoever came to any other mouth of the Nile had to swear that he had not come intentionally, and had then to take his ship and sail to the Canobic mouth; or if he could not sail against contrary winds, he had to carry his cargo in barges around the Delta until he came to Naucratis. In such esteem was Naucratis held. 180.

“When the Amphictyons paid three hundred talents to have the temple that now stands at Delphi finished (as that which was formerly there burnt down by accident), it was the Delphians' lot to pay a fourth of the cost. They went about from city to city collecting gifts, and got most from Egypt; for Amasis gave them a thousand talents' weight of astringent earth,74 and the Greek settlers in Egypt twenty minae.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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