TRAVEL IN ANCIENT EGYPT

TRAVEL IN ANCIENT EGYPT


Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Travel was a crucial element of ancient Egyptian culture. An extensive traffic system by land and by water already existed as early as the Old Kingdom, including various means of transport that did not fundamentally change right through to the New Kingdom. Traveling activity attested for various professions demonstrates that Egyptian society exercised a high degree of mobility. In the majority of cases, a journey was undertaken within the scope of the traveler’s work and on behalf of the pharaoh. Travel had a significant impact on the Egyptian world-view as well as on the development of the identity of Egyptian society as an entity. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The concept of travel in ancient Egypt differed greatly from our modern understanding of the term, which is largely associated with tourism. Today, people frequently travel for touristic reasons—namely, their need for rest and relaxation and their curiosity regarding foreign countries and peoples. However, this is a phenomenon that has developed only within the last 130 years. Up to the European Middle Ages and early modern era, traveling mostly took place for economic reasons rather than for pleasure. The same applies to ancient Egypt. From Pharaonic times there is little evidence of journeys for pleasure, or what we would interpret as “touristic” travel today. Due to this fact, travel in ancient Egypt must be defined in a broader sense: it is the movement of a person from A to B, where B lies outside his usual radius of action. Other determining factors are absence from home and staying in other surroundings. Furthermore, the traveler’s intention to return to his point of departure is important, for this distinguishes travel from emigration, where no return is intended. <>

“Archaeological evidence, in addition to non-fictional and fictional texts, demonstrates how ancient Egyptians traveled. Depictions of Egyptian travelers are rare in Pharaonic Egypt. Occasionally Egyptian means of locomotion and transport appear in wall paintings, and reliefs in tombs and temples. Some sledges, chariots, and wagons, as well as one carrying chair, have been recovered archaeologically. <>

“Non-fiction sources referring to travels and travelers include biographies, expedition texts, official documents, and visitors’ graffiti. But travel is not the core motif in these texts; it is mentioned only in passing. Therefore the information on travel is rather fragmentary. Typically an inscription will mention only a journey’s starting point or destination, very seldom both. Harkhuf’s explicit reference to his travel routes to the land of Yam— namely, the Oasis Road and the Elephantine Road—is an exception. The means of transport or locomotion used on a voyage were scarcely mentioned. A rare exception occurs in the biography of Weni, where reference is made to the ships in which Weni traveled. The motif of travel appears often in Egyptian literature, for example in The Shipwrecked Sailor, Sinuhe, The Eloquent Peasant, The Letter of Wermai, and Wenamun.” <>

See Separate Article TRANSPORTATION IN ANCIENT EGYPT

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 Travelers


Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “A high degree of mobility is attested in ancient Egypt from the earliest times. Expeditions are already attested in the Predynastic Period. Visitors’ inscriptions from Dynasty 0 were found at the Gebel Tjauti. There is further evidence dating to King Hor Aha and Khasekhemwy in Nubia, and for Djer at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman. Expeditions are attested up to the 30th Dynasty. Travelers, however, were not only members of expeditions: they came from very different professions ranging across the whole of Egyptian society. Besides those professionals requiring a high degree of mobility, such as merchants, messengers, and members of the army, there is documentary evidence of many others, such as traveling physicians, architects, scribes, craftsmen, workers, and priests, who were frequently but not exclusively on the move as members of expeditions. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Thus the textual evidence, as demonstrated in these few examples, reveals significantly that travelers came from very different professions from the whole of Egyptian society. A sizable amount of them represented the lower levels of the population, such as the common workers recruited for building the pyramids and other large-scale state building projects, as well as low-ranking soldiers or unskilled laborers, illustrating that a high degree of mobility apparently existed not just for the elite. Moreover, it is evident that the great majority of the travelers were on the move not only in connection with their profession, but on official duty through the order of the pharaoh. <>

“Most travelers were men; women are only seldom attested. Although there is little explicit evidence for women traveling, frequently their mobility can be deduced, if indirectly. Egyptian marriage customs normally required that women move to their husband’s house, indicating a degree of mobility. Women were also included in corvée labor, for example at a temple of Seneferu. Rare textual and pictorial evidence for women using chariots and carrying chairs demonstrates that they used the same means of transport as men.” <>

Motivations for Traveling in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Throughout history there have been a variety of practical, psychological, and sociological motivations for undertaking a journey, the causal factor of utmost importance being the search for food and attainment of provisions. A secondary reason was to expand territory for settlement due to demographic pressure or military motivations. Trade and aspirations of profit-making were also highly important, coupled with the desire for new raw materials, exotic products, and luxury goods. Curiosity and the thirst for adventure were other motives to start a journey, as well as health reasons and the desire to educate oneself and broaden one’s horizon by visiting foreign lands and peoples. Other travels had a religious impetus, such as pilgrimages, or were of a social nature, such as marriage. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]


“Some of these motivations are attested for ancient Egypt, others not. According to textual sources the search for food was never a primary driving factor of Egyptian mobility, although there is evidence of foreign travelers, such as Nubians, who came to Elephantine in search of employment and subsequently reported that “the desert is dying of hunger”. Military motivations are well documented through various war campaigns, like those described in the Annals of Thutmose III. Egyptian travels to Punt or Byblos were motivated by reasons of economics and prestige. The exchange of luxury goods and objects of prestige was already important in the Nagada I Period. The travels of Harkhuf were prompted by a mixture of economic and military reasons. <>

“Exploratory voyages equivalent to those of Christopher Columbus, or to those of the eighteenth and nineteenth century CE made in search of the source of the Nile, are not known from ancient Egypt. Rather, the textual evidence shows that the ancient Egyptian traveler never journeyed at random but always had a fixed destination. Curiosity as a motive is attested, such as at the Temple of Philae, where visitors’ inscriptions demonstrate an interest in ancient buildings. The desire for education as a stimulus for starting a journey is very rare. It is shown, for example, by New Kingdom school excursions to temples and other monuments, as attested from visitors’ graffiti. Travel for religious purposes is attested from the earliest times. Pilgrimages in the truest sense of the word are known only from the New Kingdom, and possibly from the Middle Kingdom. Because a pilgrimage is defined as a voyage motivated exclusively by religious reasons and expanding the traveler’s usual sphere of action , the en passant inscriptions of expedition members at religious sites do not attest to pilgrimages per se, since religious reasons did not constitute the only impetus for their journey. Examples of involuntary travel (exile or flight) are known as well.” <>

Traveling Speed in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Information regarding the speed of overland travel in ancient Egypt is very seldom evidenced in the texts. Nevertheless, it was extremely important for the traveler for it enabled him to calculate the journey’s duration to the next stop or lodging place. Evidence for running is found on a stele of Taharqa of the 25th Dynasty (684 B.C.). The text states that the route from Memphis to the Fayum, a distance of about 50 kilometers, was covered by soldiers at a speed of 9.2 kilometers/hour to 14.6 kilometers/hour. From the Megiddo campaign of Thutmose III, an average daily travel rate for large troops is attested to be 20 kilometers or even 24 kilometers. The daily rate of marching by a Medjai soldier on patrol was 42 kilometers per day. These texts apply to soldiers, however, and not to ordinary travelers. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The speed of travel in ancient Egypt can be reconstructed by comparison with similar means of locomotion and transportation known from the Middle Ages, the modern era, and from experimental archaeology. For walking, one can assume an average speed of 4 - 6 kilometers/hour, allowing for a distance of 25 - 40 kilometers/day. Similar speeds can therefore be extrapolated for se-dan chairs carried by men. Edel suggested an average speed of about 15 kilometers/day for Harkhuf’s donkey-accompanied caravan, including breaks for resting and feeding. Stadelmann and Kuhlmann assume that the daily travel rate for donkeys was about 40 kilometers/day. <>


“Medieval four-wheeled freight wagons drawn by horses achieved 23 - 30 kilometers/day—that is, 2.5 - 3.75 kilometers/hour, traveling 8 hours/day. A four-wheeled oxen-drawn wagon, equipped with disk wheels and weighing about 670 - 700 kilogramsfrom the third millennium B.C., is assumed to have achieved about 3.2 kilometers/hour; in an 8-hour travel day, a daily travel rate of 25.6 kilometers/day can be calculated. The speed of Egyptian wagons, and probably carts as well, can therefore be estimated at about 3 kilometers/hour. <>

“The speed of a horse is 4 - 7 kilometers/hour at a walking pace and 45 - 52 kilometers/hour at a full gallop. An experiment conducted over a distance of 1000 meters with a replica of a chariot determined a speed of 38 kilometers/hour. It was calculated that chariots 3 and 5 from the tomb of Tutankhamen could reach speeds of 40.1 – 87.4 kilometers/hour before the wheel rims would break (adds that in modern trotting races about 50 kilometers/hour was reached). It is therefore realistic to suppose a maximum speed of about 40 kilometers/hour for Egyptian chariots. With the introduction of the horse obviously a new dimension of speed became available to the traveler. Before that, the speed of donkeys and traveling by foot was more or less equally slow. <>

“The speeds of river travel (i.e., traveling on the Nile) reached even greater extremes, varying considerably between 17 kilometers/day, 73 kilometers/day (Herodotus II: 4 - 9), and 140 kilometers/day, depending on the type of vessel the traveler used, the wind direction, and the stream velocity. <>

“When determining travel speeds, it is necessary to consider that a combination of different modes of transport and locomotion were often used to reach a destination. The speed of a traveling group consisting of different means of transport and locomotion was determined by the slowest element of the mission. The traveling speed and the distance covered per day also depended on the terrain the traveler had to pass through, on climate and temperature, on the constitution of the traveler himself and his pack or riding animals, the weight they had to carry, and the resting periods they needed.: [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

Maps, Guides and Means of Orientation in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “In ancient Egypt, the traveler could find his way in unknown terrain with the help of a local guide, or with maps or geographical lists, or even route markers. Egypt’s oldest surviving map is on a Ramesside papyrus, now in the Museum of Turin. Depicting a gold mine area with mountains and tracks, it bears geographical and even geological information. The landscape depicted in the map is the Wadi Hammamat, though the concrete relationship to the site is debated. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Several geographical lists are known from ancient Egypt. Those geographical lists are not merely a listing of place names in varying order—they also give the names of lands, cities, and villages in the exact geographical sequence in which the traveler passes through them. One geographical list is inscribed on a statue from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, describing the travel route from Mykene, via Pylos and Kythera, to Crete. Papyrus Anastasi I gives not only geographical lists but also some detailed information, important to the traveler, concerning Palestine and Syria, including background on the surroundings, and even a description of possible threats, like robbery. <>

“For orientation in nearer surroundings, route markers were used along the way, such as stone piles called alamat, solitary stone blocks, or stelae. Roads and paths served as guidelines as well.” <>


Ancient Egyptian mining map


Accommodation for Ancient Egyptian Travelers

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “In the desert, the traveler found primitive accommodations in the form of semicircular wind huts built with irregular stones. Two of these camps were found near the road from Gebel el-Asr to Tushka. Other options were to sleep outdoors or in tents. Even pharaohs lodged in tents on their military campaigns and expeditions, as did Thutmose III during his Megiddo campaign, Ramesses II during the battle of Kadesh, and also Pije. Akhenaton slept in a tent when he first visited Amarna. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“In the Hetepheres deposit, as well as in the tomb of Tutankhamen, royal travel equipment was found. The latter had a light folding bed. Hetepheres’s complete traveling ensemble was found in Giza, including a tent, traveling bed, chair, and even the palanquin. <>

“Special stations for the lodging of the king’s messengers are known from the New Kingdom at the latest. Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.) mentioned one hundred horse relay stations between Memphis and Thebes. At these stations the messengers found food and accommodations and exchanged their tired horses for refreshed ones, which improved the traveling speed. In contrast, the elite, the royal retinue, and those who journeyed on official duty were supplied by state-owned institutions, such as temples, chapels, and special storage facilities. The concept of hospitality existed in ancient Egypt in much the same manner that it appeared in the European Middle Ages: the traveler was supplied with food and water and accommodated by the local residents when passing through foreign but inhabited terrain. <>

Travelers took clothing, sandals, sticks, and weapons with them, as well as food and water for themselves and their pack or riding animals. If the journey was of any great length, the traveler had to consequently depend on wells, cisterns, or water deposits along the way. There is archaeological evidence for chains of water supplies along desert tracks, such as the Old Kingdom water depots in the Libyan Desert on the Abu Ballas Trail The route the traveler chose was of course determined by the existence of such water depots.” <>

Obstacles and Dangers Faced by Ancient Egyptian Travelers

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “ Traveling was dangerous. Natural obstacles such as cataracts, deserts, or mountains delayed or even prevented the traveler’s return. He could lose his way or find a watering place dried out, or he could run out of supplies in the event of hindrances. Further dangers derived from extreme weather, such as violent storms and intense heat. Diseases threatened as a result of hunger, thirst, bad weather, or overexertion. Papyrus A nastasi vividly illustrates how exhausting traveling could be in its description of a traveler, weary after crossing a mountain and the River Jordan , arriving home to Egypt with his tired horses, only to be robbed and to find his food supplies gone . The danger of being robbed while traveling was clearly very high. The Admonitions of Ipuwer , although a text of exaggerated literary form, shows that the occurrence of robbery was a known phenomenon. The text explicitly warns of plunderers along the road: “O, but the plunderer [rob]s everywhere” and “they sit in bushes until a night traveler comes to seize his load, and what he carried is taken; he is treated to blows of a stick, and is falsely slain”. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Due to the imminent dangers on the way, the undertaking of a journey implied the possibility of not returning home. The inscription of the second Hammamat stela of Ramesses IV mentions 900 de ad on an expedition of 8,368 members —that is, approximately ten percent of the total number of members. To the ancient Egyptian, it was very important not to die abroad or, even worse, be buried in a foreign land, for fear that an adequate afterlife would only be possible if he were buried in Egypt. This becomes clear from the tale of The Shipwrecked Sailor and of Sinuhe . In The Shipwrecked Sailor, the importance of dying in Egypt is explicitly mentioned: “Then, a ship shall come from the Residence with sailors that you (would) recognize. You shall leave with them to the Residence; you shall die in your city”. In The Tale of Sinuhe the protagonist states: “What could be more important than that my body be buried in the land where I was born?” <>

“Travelers nevertheless died abroad. The inscrip tions of the Old Kingdom expedition leaders Sabni and Pepinakht state that both went on a journey to bring back the bodies of Egyptians who died far from home on expeditions. It was therefore not unusual, in this period at least, to bring deceased members of the elite or high-ranking officials home to be buried in Egypt.” <>


cattle rescued from flooding


Expeditions in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Two important categories of travelers were members of expeditions and members of the army, both consisting of a variety of occupational categories. Expeditions to Sinai could include “twenty-five different types of government officials, eleven types of specialized local mining officials, eight types of artisans and nine types of laborers”. The same range is evidenced at the Wadi el-Hudi and the Wadi Hammamat in the Middle Kingdom. The officials referred to in the expedition texts are not only high- ranking but from lower ranks as well . Hunters, fowlers, brewers, sandal makers, bakers, scribes, millers, servants, physicians, priests, and mayors are mentioned in the texts. In the New Kingdom, professions connected with horses and chariots, such as charioteers, were attested. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Expeditions differed in size and in the profession of their members, depending on the type of material they were sent out to retrieve, or on the goods they were going to trade. For example, quarrying expeditions for precious stones and gems required a greater number of specialists, whereas expeditions for large, heavy blocks required a majority of lessor- skilled workers for the quarrying, and especially the transport, of the stones. In the Old Kingdom, the number of expedition members lies between 80 und 20,000. Senusret I sent to the Wadi Hammamat an expedition that included “18,660 skilled and unskilled workers”. A mission under the reign of Ramesses III counted 3,000 members, including 2,000 common workers and 500 masons. An expedition under Ramesses IV consisted of 408 members in total, among them 50 stone-carriers and 200 transport-carriers. Already from these few pieces of evidence it becomes clear that expedition members came from various professions with a sizable number of common workers among them. <>

“A calculation of the figures given in the expedition texts reveals that there is evidence for approximately 23,400 members of expeditions in the Old Kingdom, nearly 40,000 in the Middle Kingdom, and 13,622 in the New Kingdom. The explanation as to why the number of expedition members in the New Kingdom is lower in comparison with that of the Old and Middle Kingdoms lies in the fact that there are fewer expedition-related inscriptions from the New Kingdom that survive and they are less detailed than those from the Middle Kingdom. It is assumed nevertheless that the number of travelers increased with the expansion of the Egyptian empire in the New Kingdom, since the expansion promoted a higher degree of mobility within several professions, such as the military and the administration. “Not every expedition that took place is documented; thus the total number of travelers who were on the move as members of expeditions is higher than the documented figures we possess. Furthermore, since the expedition texts frequently mention only the higher ranking members, while the lower grades are often not mentioned, the total figures may conceivably have been much higher.” <>

Workers on the Move in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Apart from members of expeditions and of the army, other travelers with a variety of occupations are mentioned in the texts. Egyptian physicians not only took part in expeditions, but they were sent out by the pharaoh on building projects and to foreign royal courts, due to the considerable repute they enjoyed. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]



“Architects were on the move for professional reasons and on behalf of the pharaoh to supervise official building projects. One such architect was Nekhebu of the 6th Dynasty. He was sent out several times by Pepy I to Upper and Lower Egypt to oversee the digging of a canal in Qus and the royal building projects in Heliopolis, where he stayed for six years. During this time, he made a few official trips to the residence in Memphis. <>

“The mobility of scribes arose from the fact that, being part of the bureaucracy, they were transferred by official order to new places of employment as required. This could be sent within Egypt but abroad as well. Such a widely traveled scribe was Nebnetjeru, whose graffiti is found between Kalabsha and Dendur, near Tonkalah, and possibly even at Toshka. <>

“Craftsmen were also on the move. There is evidence of craftsmen in the service of private individuals and of pharaoh. They were not necessarily tied to a particular workshop but were sent out on expeditions and large-scale royal building projects. Even higher-ranking craftsmen with titles such as Hmw wr, jmj-rA kAt, and jmj-rA nbjw n pr Ra are among those whose project-related work orders caused them to travel. <>

“Priests traveled not only as members of expeditions but also in order to fulfil special duties for temples or to organize religious festivities, as did Ikhernofret at Abydos in the 12th Dynasty. A high official’s occupational move to a different location is frequently mentioned. Mayors , viziers, as well as the pharaoh traveled on official government business—e.g., inspections, and diplomatic or military missions. Royal journeys are shown to have taken place beginning in Predynastic times from several sources including annals. Furthermore, the so-called Smsw 1rw, the “following of Horus,” took place every two years and led the king through the whole land . In the New Kingdom, Pharaoh traveled yearly for religious reasons to Thebes to celebrate the Opet Festival. Royal travels are further attested in the annals of Thutmose III reporting his war campaigns or the inscriptions at the temple of Kanais recording a visit by Sety I to the Eastern Desert.” <>

Personal Travel in Ancient Egypt Rare?

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “The most frequent reason to start a journey, according to the texts, was not of a personal nature, but rather occupational and on behalf of the king. Constituting an exception were traders, who had high occupational mobility and traveled because of their own work- related interests, without having been explicitly sent out by the king. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Evidence for private journeys is rare. One of the few known pieces of evidence for private travelers is in a tomb biography of Sabni, the 6th-Dynasty governor of the territory of Aswan . Upon being informed of his father’s death, Sabni embarked on a journey to fetch the corpse . The text does not mention an explicit royal order that Sabni undertake the journey. During his voyage, Sabni sends out a courier with a message. Although the recipient of the note is not mentioned, it is to be assumed that it was addressed to the royal residence, for a high-ranking official like Sabni was certainly not allowed to leave his position and travel abroad without official permission. It appears, therefore, that his journey was undertaken for private reasons (the death of his father), but that he needed official dispensation to leave. Another private traveler was perhaps Heqanakht of the 11th Dynasty, who owned land near Lisht but sent letters to his family in Thebes, where he was working; it is not known, however, whether he was traveling for governmental purposes or for private reasons. <>

“The fact that private travels are seldom attested in textual material does not imply that they did not take place (we have seen above that they did), but only that they have not been recorded. For example, private travel surely did occur for family reasons, including marriage. Travels for private reasons are therefore indirectly proven by the marriages themselves and the resulting family visits. Moreover, visits to the tombs of deceased relatives are widely attested. The factual extent of private mobility, highlighted by these traces of evidence, can only be surmised at best, since much concrete proof for its range and diversity is lacking.” <>

Social Implications of Travel in Ancient Egypt

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Travel and mobility had fundamental implications for Egyptian society, for they played an essential role in the exchange of ideas and innovations, and in the self-definition of a culture. Only when perceiving and accepting the existence of other cultures did Egyptians begin to see themselves as belonging to one entity, thus leading to the development of Egyptian identity. Moreover, in the interaction with the foreign, the traveler left his everyday radius of action and expanded his knowledge and broadened his horizons. This happened not only through travel in foreign lands but even on Egyptian terrain that was unfamiliar. The Tale of Sinuhe makes reference to this feeling of foreignness by evoking the experience of an Egyptian within Egypt: “It was like the nature of a dream, like a Delta man seeing himself in Elephantine, a man of the marshy lagoons in southern Egypt. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Through comparison with medieval Europe one could assume that it was predominantly the Egyptian nobility and clergy who traveled, and therefore the elite and higher social levels. In fact, in medieval society, the mobility of craftsmen, traders, and students surpassed that of the nobility and clergy. An analogous situation applies to ancient Egypt, for in addition to the travels of the elite, the mobility of professions of the middle and lower class is proven in the texts. A group of travelers not to be ignored consisted of lower-ranking soldiers and workers, i.e., under- privileged people, because they played a major role in expeditions and armies. Furthermore, the mobilizing effect of the so-called corvée labor should not be underestimated. Up to two percent of the population was sup- posedly involved in building the pyramids, and was therefore on the move. Mobility was therefore obviously independent of social or financial background and not a status symbol. <>



“No texts have been handed down that were composed directly by travelers from the lower social strata; rather, we possess only indirect references to them. Biographies of elite members of society, however, often include portrayals of travel. Although traveling and mobility were de facto not indicators of status, Baines stresses that travel was regarded as prestigious within the elite and was therefore emphasized in their biographies. <>

“The means of transportation depended on the social status of the traveler. The lower classes traveled by foot or, at best, by donkey. Well-to-do people, probably including dignitaries, traveled mounted on donkeys in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the donkeys also serving to transport the travelers’ belongings. The elite traveled in the most prestigious ways—namely, by carrying chairs transported by servants or donkeys in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and by chariots in the New Kingdom. Luggage was borne by donkeys or by carriers with the help of poles and yokes. <>

“The distances traveled varied considerably. There is evidence of short trips as well as journeys covering almost 1,400 kilometers, as was attested for the priest Horemkhauf, who traveled from Hierakonpolis to JTj-tAwj, near Lisht, and back (of course some people never traveled, their range of movement encompassing only their own village and its vicinity). Some travelers moved perhaps as far as 14,000 kilometers, such as Harkhuf, if we surmise that the one-way distance to Yam is 1,725 kilometers. In Harkhuf’s biography three journeys to Yam are explicitly mentioned, and there is indirect evidence of a fourth in a letter from Pepy II. The location of Yam is nevertheless controversial.” <>

Travel as a Motif in Egyptian Literature

Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “A number of Egyptologists have worked on the motif of travel in Egyptian literature. The travel motif represents the crossing of borders in a dual sense: as transgressing the border from fact to fiction and from the known into the unknown. Traveling to unfamiliar, far-off places, the protagonist undergoes a process of identity- questioning and finds himself in the end. The travel motif is sometimes used didactically to demonstrate how a protagonist breaks free from society and tradition, but is “re-educated” by isolation and returns repentant to adapt to the norms of his social group. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“The Egyptian travel narratives exhibit the motif of the protagonist as a traveler leaving home. Starting a journey into unknown spheres, the traveler transgresses borders and must undergo life- threatening dangers and risks, forcing him to re- evaluate his own identity. The experience allows him to return to Egypt with a reaffirmation of being an Egyptian living according to the concept of maat. The outside journey is a metaphor for his journey inside himself. The unknown spheres in the travel narratives of the Middle and New Kingdoms were foreign lands, such as Asia Minor. In later times, when these lands were no longer exotic, they were replaced by the Egyptian underworld, as in Demotic texts such as Papyrus Vandier and The Tales of Setne . <>

“Old Kingdom texts dealing with travel, such as biographies, official documents, and expedition texts, differ from travel texts of later times, for they portray travel “as a matter of economic or political concern”. The journeys within these texts do not lead to foreign and unexplored places, nor do the protagonists show any fear of transgressing borders. In the texts of the Old Kingdom, the travel motif is not developed fictively as it is in later times. They are no travelogues written to entertain the reader. Instead of fiction, facts are stated to emphasize the traveler’s outstanding personal achievements, such as we see in the text of the expedition leader Harkhuf. <>

“The travel narratives from the Middle and New Kingdoms constitute a genre of their own. They display their fictionality via the topic of transgressing boundaries and the motif of traveling abroad: “Since, if fiction is ... an act of transgressing boundaries such as the one between reality of the world and a hypothetical reality, the traveling-abroad motif becomes the ideal and predestined vehicle of literary fictionality”. The protagonist of fictional literature transgresses borders that separate the known world from what lies beyond, manifested in woodland or water. It is exactly where danger is lurking. Water, in its boundlessness and associated perils such as tempest and tidal wave, is a particular motif in the stories of The Shipwrecked Sailor, Sinuhe, and Wenamun. In the tale of The Shipwrecked Sailor, it is said: “A tempest came when we were at (high) sea. Before we could reach land, the wind rose, it got stronger and there were waves eight cubits high. It was a beam that struck me. When the ship died, none was left that were on board”. Sinuhe had to cross the Nile: “At the dinner hour, I had reached the town of Negau. I crossed the river on a rudderless raft, with the wind from the West”. He ran the risk of being swept away because the boat had no rudder. The story of Wenamun vividly expresses the dangers of water and sea journeys, e.g., “Do not come to look for danger in the sea. If you look for danger in the sea, look also at me” and “If the sea carries (me) and the wind pushes me towards the land where you are, will you allow that I am received to be killed, I being a commissioner of Amun?”. <>

“The same attitude towards water is found in The Letter of Wermai. Since overland travel is a metaphor for the path through life, sea journeys represent an individual’s way of life and the dangers and unpredictability of life per se. By transgressing the borders of the geographically known world and leaving his culturally predetermined life, the traveler becomes guilt-laden, for his traveling abroad implies the rejection of traditional norms and of Egyptian cultural identity . “It is exactly this aspect of individuality that is evaluated as being especially negative”. With the travel motif, the reader is advised to live his life in accordance with the principles of maat, for living outside of it and beyond the traditional sociocultural norms of Egyptian society leads to failure. The risks the traveler is exposed to while abroad are the sanctions of that individuality. The traveler’s guilt is released upon his return—namely, his return not only to Egypt but to his place in society.” <>

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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