20120217-tarde African_products_presented_to_pharaoh.jpg
African products presented
to the pharaoh
The Egyptians carried out commerce by ships on the Nile and the Mediterranean. They also conducted overland trade. Way stations were set up at oases and along the Nile and other major trade routes. Money had not yet been invented but goods were collected at a central area and distributed by the government.

From the 3rd dynasty to the 20th dynasty, "expeditions were sent to the Sinai and the Eastern Desert to mine or trade for ores such as tin and copper and semiprecious stones such as turquoise, Egyptian alabaster and quartzite."

The ancient Egyptians obtained gold from Nubia beginning in the Middle Kingdom. Gold was called “ nub” in ancient Egypt and may be the source of the name Nubia. Ebony, ivory, leopard skins and incenses also came from Nubia.

Punt, a mysterious fabled land south of Egypt, supplied Egypt with myrrh, ebony, ivory, gold, spices, panther skins, live baboons and other exotic animals and frankincense. The exact location of Punt is still unknown. It may have been in modern-day Somalia, Yemen or Oman. Traders crossed the Eastern desert and sailed from the Red Sea to get there. Much of what is known about Punt is based on reliefs found on the wall of the Deir el Bahri temple, built around 1490 B.C. in western Thebes. The reliefs show trade between rulers of Punt and emissaries of Queen Hatshepsut.

The ancient Egyptians traded for cedar from Byblos (present-day Lebanon). Boats from Byblos hugged the Mediterranean coast and traveled up the Nile. They also obtained goods from India and China. A strand of silk has been found on a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy. This astonishing discovery provides evidence of trade between ancient China and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “Trade is at the core of modern economies, hence also of economy as a scholarly discipline. Industrial societies from the nineteenth century onward show rational patterns in collective demand, production, and labor. The value of these can be expressed in amounts of money, and this makes it possible to sell products and labor on the market. Thus virtually everything can be bought and sold, and the “rational” thing to do is to sell for a high price (or lower the price in order to sell more), and to buy, produce, and transport as cheaply as possible. This (modern) rational model however, proceeds from the assumption of considerable freedom of choice on the part of buyers and sellers. The degree of freedom may actually differ according to the type of society and its age, and is always restricted. Yet trade is eternal. The oldest economic texts from ancient Egypt concern sales of land (such as the inscriptions in the 4th-Dynasty tomb of Metjen) and houses or tombs. Texts referring to trade, local and long distance, from later periods abound. Depictions in Old and New Kingdom tombs show marketplaces and merchants’ ships.” [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “Trade is at the core of modern economies, hence also of economy as a scholarly discipline. Industrial societies from the nineteenth century onward show rational patterns in collective demand, production, and labor. The value of these can be expressed in amounts of money, and this makes it possible to sell products and labor on the market. Thus virtually everything can be bought and sold, and the “rational” thing to do is to sell for a high price (or lower the price in order to sell more), and to buy, produce, and transport as cheaply as possible. This (modern) rational model however, proceeds from the assumption of considerable freedom of choice on the part of buyers and sellers. The degree of freedom may actually differ according to the type of society and its age, and is always restricted. Yet trade is eternal. The oldest economic texts from ancient Egypt concern sales of land (such as the inscriptions in the 4th-Dynasty tomb of Metjen) and houses or tombs. Texts referring to trade, local and long distance, from later periods abound. Depictions in Old and New Kingdom tombs show marketplaces and merchants’ ships.” [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Traders in Ancient Egypt

20120217-tarde if giraffe.jpg
trade involving a giraffe
Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: Traders and merchants were certainly part of the urban population, perhaps a significant one, judging from Mesopotamian parallels and from the neighborhoods and harbor facilities in which they lived and worked. Although the opulence and splendor of cities were celebrated in many New Kingdom compositions, in some instances urban markets, “money,” business, and traders were also the objects of praise. Of the Ramesside capital Pi-Ramesse, for example, it was written: “Pleasant is the market-place with/ because of its money there, namely the vine tendrils and business. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ] “The chiefs of every foreign country come in order to descend with their products”. There the quays were bursting with the bu siness of foreign and Egyptian traders, and with women selling their products, while officials oversaw the arrival of cargo-laden ships and the activities that took place in the harbor areas (as we learn from Sarenput I, governor of Aswan in the early Middle Kingdom and superior of the harbor areas of Elephantine).

“Urban and rural markets were places where people exchanged products and news, frequented by peddlers from remote areas (such as the famous Eloquent Peasant, who came with his small caravan of donkeys from Wadi Natrun to Heracleopolis to trade), while small exchanges of gifts between neighbors cemented social relations within communities. Specialized workers and artisans, usually working fo r the king, also put their skills at the service of customers eager to afford high quality equipment for themselves —the sort of private, non-institutional demand so badly documented in administrative papyri.”

"Scenes of Asiatic Commerce in Theban Tombs (Rek-mi-Re)" from the Tombs of the Noblemen (15th-13th Century B.C.) reads: Coming in peace by the princes of Retenu and all northern countries of the ends of Asia, bowing down in humility, with their tribute upon their backs, seeking that there be given them the breath of life and desiring to be subject to his majesty, for they have seen his very great victories and the terror of him has mastered their hearts. Now it is the Hereditary Prince, Count, Father and Beloved of the God, great trusted man of the Lord of the Two Lands, Mayor and Vizier, Rekh-mi-Re (reign of Thothmosis III), who receives the tribute of all foreign countries...Presenting the children of the princes of the southern countries, along with the children of the princes of the northern countries, who were brought as the best of the booty of his majesty, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt: Men-kheper-Re (Thothmosis III), given life, from all foreign countries, to fill the workshop and to be serfs of the divine offerings of his father Amon, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, according as there have been given to him all foreign countries together in his grasp, with their princes prostrated under his sandals .[Source: James B. Pritchard, “Ancient Near Eastern Texts,” (ANET), Princeton, 1969, pp. 248]

Ancient Egyptian Trade Routes

John Noble Wilford wrote in New York Times, “Over the last two decades, John Coleman Darnell and his wife, Deborah, hiked and drove caravan tracks west of the Nile from the monuments of Thebes, at present-day Luxor. On these and other desolate roads, beaten hard by millennial human and donkey traffic, the Darnells found pottery and ruins where soldiers, merchants and other travelers camped in the time of the pharaohs. On a limestone cliff at a crossroads, they came upon a tableau of scenes and symbols, some of the earliest documentation of Egyptian history. Elsewhere, they discovered inscriptions considered to be one of the first examples of alphabetic writing.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, September 6, 2010 ++]

"The explorations of the Theban Desert Road Survey, a Yale University project co-directed by the Darnells, called attention to the previously underappreciated significance of caravan routes and oasis settlements in Egyptian antiquity. In August 2010, the Egyptian government announced what may be the survey’s most spectacular find: the extensive remains of a settlement — apparently an administrative, economic and military center — that flourished more than 3,500 years ago in the western desert 110 miles west of Luxor and 300 miles south of Cairo. No such urban center so early in history had ever been found in the forbidding desert. ++

"Dr. John Darnell, a professor of Egyptology at Yale, said that the discovery could rewrite the history of a little-known period in Egypt’s past and the role played by desert oases, those islands of springs and palms and fertility, in the civilization’s revival from a dark crisis. Other archaeologists not involved in the research said the findings were impressive and, once a more detailed formal report is published, will be sure to stir scholars’ stew pots. ++

"Finding an apparently robust community as a hub of major caravan routes, Dr. Darnell said, should “help us reconstruct a more elaborate and detailed picture of Egypt during an intermediate period” after the so-called Middle Kingdom and just before the rise of the New Kingdom.At this time, Egypt was in turmoil. The Hyksos invaders from southwest Asia held the Nile Delta and much of the north, and a wealthy Nubian kingdom at Kerma, on the Upper Nile, encroached from the south. Caught in the middle, the rulers at Thebes struggled to hold on and eventually prevail. They were succeeded by some of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs, such notables as Hatshepsut, Amenhotep III and Ramses II. ++

"The new research, Dr. Darnell said, “completely explains the rise and importance of Thebes.” From there rulers commanded the shortest route from the Nile west to desert oases and also the shortest eastern road to the Red Sea. Inscriptions from about 2000 B.C. show that a Theban ruler, most likely Mentuhotep II, annexed both the western oasis region and northern Nubia. ++

"With further investigations at Umm Mawagir, Dr. Darnell said, scholars may recognize the desert as a kind of fourth power, in addition to the Hyksos, Nubians and Thebans, in the political equation in those uncertain times. It was perhaps their control of desert roads and alliance with vibrant oasis communities that gave the Thebans an edge in the struggle to control Egypt’s future. In any case, the ruins at a desert crossroads are another wonder of the ancient world. “People always marvel at the great monuments of the Nile Valley and the incredible architectural feats they see there,” Dr. Darnell said in the Yale alumni magazine. “But I think they should realize how much more work went into developing Kharga Oasis in one of the harshest, driest deserts.++

Expeditions in Ancient Egypt

Hatshepsut's expedition
to the Land of Punt
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 ]

“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.”

Harkhuf: an Ancient Egyptian Explorer


John Ray of Cambridge University wrote for the BBC: “The life of Harkhuf is known entirely from the inscriptions in his tomb at Aswan, near the First Cataract of the Nile. Harkhuf ended his days as an honoured courtier, and his importance lies in his early adventures, and the way that he attracted the attention of the royal court. [Source: John Ray, Cambridge University, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Old Kingdom Egypt took a keen interest in the affairs of its southern neighbour, Nubia. The region was rich in gold, controlled trade with Africa, and was vast and unexplored. The task of Harkhuf's family was to explore it. Harkhuf records how, as a youth, he accompanied his father into the upper country, at the request of King Merenre (c.2287-2278 B.C.). He travelled a considerable distance to a land called Iyam, which probably corresponds to the fertile plain that opens out south of the area of modern Khartoum, where the Blue Nile joins the White. |::|

“On his second expedition Harkhuf travelled alone, bringing back with him exotic gifts, which must have enhanced his status at court. On his third journey, Harkhuf was entrusted to track down the ruler of Iyam, who had gone on a campaign against the southern Libyans, and persuade him to abandon his ambitions. The pharaohs were reluctant to see the expansion of Iyam, which could threaten Egyptian control over the north of Nubia. |::|

“This may have been the high point of Harkhuf's career, but pride of place in his tomb is given to a letter he received from the new king, a boy known to history as Pepi II. Among the treasures brought back from Africa was a pygmy who could do exotic dances. Harkhuf knew this would delight the young ruler. |::|

“The little king's letter about this gift would have been written on papyrus, and perished millennia ago. But the text was transcribed and carved on the wall of the tomb, and is there to this day. It is a combination of official jargon, shot through with schoolboy enthusiasm, and it is clear why Harkhuf chose to take it with him into eternity. It is one of the most vivid letters to survive from the ancient world.” |::|

Transport and Trade in Ancient Egypt

Trade could be conducted without money. Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “Payment and storage in kind often necessitated the transport of goods in large quantities. Long-distance trade, especially, depended heavily on the infrastructure available. Given the absence of paved roads in ancient Egypt, transport on land (in the Nile Valley and in the desert) entirely depended on manpower and huge numbers of donkeys (camels did not make their appearance in Egypt before the Late Period). Most transport of any substantial scale was by ship; administrative records mention ships capable of loading forty tons of grain or more. Navigation on the Nile meant rowing downstream when heading north, and making use of the wind from the Mediterranean Sea when going south. Traveling from Memphis to Thebes could take two weeks or more. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Ramesside texts specify the costs of grain transport on the Nile as approximately 10 percent of the cargo. Apart from the costs of transport itself, there were tolls and customs to be paid. Tolls had to be paid when passing military strongholds in Egypt and Nubia, although temple ships could be exempted by royal decree. A scene in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmira depicts the collection of dues from towns and fortresses in southern Egypt; among these we find the fortresses of Biga and Elephantine. Customs are associated with international ports of trade. Possible early references are made in two letters from Cyprus in which the pharaoh and the vizier are asked not to permit any claims being made against Cypriotic merchants.

20120216-trade Elephant_tusks_(KV11).jpg
trade of elephant tusks

“Unambiguous documentation on customs is present from the Persian Period, but it may reflect practice already current in the preceding 26th Dynasty. Moreover, Herodotus informs us that that dynasty concentrated trade with Greek merchants in the settlement of Naukratis in the western Delta, which is a further indication of government concern with (and possibly revenues from) foreign trade. This does not mean that trade with foreign merchants was restricted to government institutions, since New Kingdom tomb scenes show Levantine merchants engaging in trade in local markets on the banks of the Nile. These merchants were apparently permitted to trade in Egypt (to export their oil and wine, as well as the all-important silver for everyday economic traffic)—perhaps after the payment of customs.

Transporting Goods in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Among the most important and most difficult items to transport in Egypt were large cargoes of stone and wood for monumental building projects, and large cargoes of grain collected as in-kind taxation and turned over to the state or to the temples. The transportation of both classes of cargo called for an integrated transportation system that combined both land- and river-transport, including the construction and maintenance of specialized infrastructure and vehicles. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, ]

“Vessel accounts and tomb illustrations illustrate a wide variety of cargoes on Nile vessels: gold, bricks, sand, reeds, cattle, fish, bread, cabbage, fruit, slaves, and tomb- robbery loot are all placed aboard. Exotic, high- prestige products from the Near East, Europe, and Africa imply far-flung and complex transport networks involving sea-going shipping, land-transport within and beyond Egypt itself, and Nile-river shipping.

“Arrival of exotic tribute from sub-Saharan Africa is famously portrayed in the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Huy, viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamen, and the Sixth Dynasty tomb autobiography of Harkhuf illustrates not only donkey-caravan-based trade with the area of what is now Sudan, but also includes a copy of a letter to Harkhuf from the child-king Pepy II, excited over the impending arrival of a pygmy at the Egyptian court. Young Pepy’s pygmy suggests Egypt’s connections to transport networks that extended deep into tropical Africa, and whose exact nature and extent can only be speculated upon.”

20120216-trade Leopard_skin_(KV11).jpg
trade of leopard skins

Transporting Stone in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Egypt’s quarries required an extensive network of specialized loading docks, roads, and quays, and in some cases specialized vehicles, in order to get large building-stone out of the ground and to its designated construction sites. Massive objects like obelisks and monumental statues were even more difficult to handle. Although these operations cannot be reconstructed in detail and the methods used to carry them out no doubt varied considerably across space and time, various aspects of the process of moving stone are documented in, or inferable from, wall reliefs, documentary texts, or archaeological remains. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, ]

“Over relatively short distances, small loads of stone might be carried by donkey or even human porters. A road linking a gneiss quarry at Toshka in Nubia to the Nile River consisted of a track systematically cleared of gravel and debris, and marked with cairns and campsites, as well as the hoof-prints of the countless donkeys that had hauled gneiss along the 80-kilometer route . Very large stones, whether building blocks or finished objects like colossal statues or obelisks, were moved in the Pharaonic Period by sledges, which might have been used in conjunction with prepared hauling tracks. The most famous scene of such transport in action is the Middle Kingdom image of a colossal statue being hauled on a sledge to the tomb of Djehutyhotep at el-Bersha. This operation involved hauling the 80-ton statue no less than fifteen kilometers. The relief also shows another important detail: water being poured to lubricate the track over which the sledge is being hauled. However, sledges were, themselves, occasionally fitted with rollers or even wheels, and they might have been hauled by either men or draft animals.

“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.

“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.”

Transporting Wood 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, ]

“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 in Ancient Egypt

Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “While wood and stone were important for monumental construction and hence for the prestige of pharaoh and of the gods, the transportation of bulk commodities like grain was of fundamental economic importance and is much more thoroughly documented, especially in the Ramesside and Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Typically grain would have been hauled, presumably by donkey, from farmsteads to embarkation points, where it would have been accounted for and loaded onto ships by local workers. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, ]

“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. From the New Kingdom tomb of Paheri at Elkab, a work-song sung by stevedores loading grain onto transport vessels is recorded:
‘Loading the cargo ships
with barley and emmer. They say:
Will we spend the whole day hauling barley and white emmer?
The full silos are overflowing; piles reach their openings.
These ships are heavily loaded; the grain is spilling out.
We are continually hurried on our way. Look, our hearts are made out of bronze!’

“Extensive documentation, particularly from the Twentieth Dynasty, illustrates the process of hauling grain in large quantities. Among the most important documents in this respect is Papyrus Amiens, originally published by Gardiner, and more recently supplemented by a lost portion known as Papyrus Baldwin, published by Janssen. Here we see the records of 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.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; 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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