ANCIENT EGYPTIAN TRANSPORTATION
carrying stuff on foot Most people got around on foot. Animals and wheeled vehicles were not widely used. Most goods and people traveled by river. Cattle, stone, grain and cedar from Lebanon were brought to Egyptian cities by Nile ships. A perfect scale model of a working glider was discovered in 2,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.
The Egyptians built canals and irrigation systems. They didn’t make so many roads. Roads were not so important because they relied on the Nile for transportation. In 2300 B.C. the ancient Egyptians built channels through the first cataract of the Nile, where the Aswan Dan stands today. This helped open the way for trade between the Pharaohs and Africa. Messages were sent along the Nile. Seals were the equivalent of signatures. They were applied on wet mud with a paint-roller like cylinder.
The Semitic Hyksos who briefly ruled Egypt introduced the horse and chariot around 1700 B.C. When hooked up to a pair of horses, an Egyptian chariot, weighing only 17 pounds, could easily reach speeds of 20 miles-per-hour (compared to two miles-per-hour with oxen). The chariots enabled the Egyptians to expand their empire. Camels were not introduced to Egypt until around 200 B.C. Until then donkey caravans were used to bring gold, ebony, ivory, rare stones for statues, incense and panther skins.
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Transportation in ancient Egypt entailed the use of boats and ships for water travel; for land transportation, attested methods include foot-traffic and the use of draft animals— especially donkeys and oxen, but also, from the first millennium B.C. onward, camels. Land vehicles, including carts, chariots, sledges, and carrying chairs, were dependent on the existence and nature of suitable routes, some of which may have been improved or paved along at least part of their extent. The transport of large objects, especially stone blocks, obelisks, and statues, required specialized techniques, infrastructure, and vehicles. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“Egypt is a large country. The distance along the Nile from the Mediterranean coast to the First Cataract is about 1,100 kilometers, or about 660 miles, and the straight-line distance from the Red Sea coast to the site of ancient Koptos, where overland transport routes from the Red Sea to the Nile Valley historically converged, is about 90 miles or145 kilometers. Egyptian merchants, messengers, and armies frequently traveled beyond the borders of Egypt to areas in which they had interests, especially Syria- Palestine and Nubia. Therefore, in order for Egypt to maintain cultural, political, and economic cohesion, reliable transportation was essential.”
Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “For journeys on water, vessels were used as early as the fifth millenium B.C.. They were an essential element of the Egyptian traffic system. A wide variety of ships and boats was used for transporting freight and passengers on inland waterways and at sea. For overland transport, pack animals were used as well as vehicles. The heaviness of the load influenced the means of transportation chosen. Lighter objects, such as luggage or supplies, were carried by the traveler himself or by servants, occasionally with the help of poles, such as are mentioned in the text of an expedition to Wadi Hammamat, and perhaps of yokes, as depicted in a hunting scene in Beni Hassan. Slightly heavier weight was transported by animals. The donkey was the typical pack animal of ancient Egypt, whereas the ox was the typical draft animal. Overland transport of heavier loads took place with vehicles such as sledges, carts, and wagons.” [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
See Separate Article TRAVEL 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
Means of Transportation in Ancient Egypt
donkeys carrying stuff Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “As means of overland travel, mount animals, sedan chairs, or chariots are known—and of course walking. For donkey riding, indirect evidence exists from the Old King-dom in the form of representations of oval pillow- shaped saddles depicted in the tombs of Kahief, Neferiretenef , and Methethi. These saddles were similar to the saddle of the Queen of Punt depicted in a New Kingdom scene in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. Similarly, representations of donkey riding are known from the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. The earliest pictorial evidence of a ridden horse dates to the reign of Thutmose III. Horse riding is proven in connection with scouts, couriers, and soldiers and is a mode of locomotion that had an obvious emphasis on speed.” [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Egypt’s most important, most visible, and best-documented means of transportation was its watercraft. However, pack animals, porters, wheeled vehicles, sledges, and even carrying chairs were also used to move goods and people across both short and long distances, and each played an important role. The regular transportation of stone from quarries that might lie far from the river, and grain from the countless large and small farms that existed throughout the Nile Valley, also required the organization and maintenance of integrated transportation facilities and networks that involved both land and water transport. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“Donkey and, later, camel caravans seem to have been the preferred mode of transport for goods along roads and tracks, as Pharaonic texts such as Harkhuf’s autobiography and the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant suggest, and as archaeological evidence—for example, the donkey hoof- prints from the Toshka gneiss-quarry road mentioned above—shows. The period in which the camel was introduced into, and domesticated in, Egypt remains controversial. Most faunal, iconographic, and textual evidence points to a date sometime in the first millennium B.C., but some have argued for an introduction of the camel as early as the Predynastic Period. The question is complicated because faunal or iconographic evidence for the presence of camels does not necessarily prove camel domestication.”
Sedan Chairs and Palanquins in Ancient Egypt
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: ““One other vehicle used in Egypt, at least by the ruling and aristocratic classes, was the carrying chair. Carrying chairs appear in the First Dynasty, and images of aristocrats or rulers being carried in such vehicles—some exceptionally elaborate—can be found throughout the Pharaonic Period. Evidence for the use of these chairs beyond the Pharaonic Period is not commonly encountered, but carrying chairs certainly continued to be used—or at least remembered—into the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. A carrying chair figures in the Ptolemaic First Tale of Setne Khaemwas, in which the character Setne (following his hallucinatory sexual encounter with the femme fatale Tabubue) encounters a “pharaoh” (actually a manifestation of the dead Naneferkaptah, from whose tomb Setne had stolen the magic book that is at issue in the tale), who is being carried on such a chair by his entourage.” [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “The sedan chair was an elite means of transport. Primarily men appear as occupants; there are only a few depictions of, and texts referring to, women in carrying chairs. Very occasionally other types of chair, such as the donkey litter, are depicted, but these are only attested in the 5th Dynasty. Significantly, the carrying chairs of the New Kingdom were depicted only in a religious context; it therefore appears that a change in the chair’s function took place from a non-religious to a religious use. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
“Palanquins were used for short journeys and presumably for long distances as well, being the only suitable means of highly esteemed passenger transportation in the Old and Middle Kingdom . From their first appearance, the litter was a status symbol, used by the king and royal family. From the 3rd Dynasty, the group of users expanded to include high officials. In the New Kingdom, again the occupants were solely the pharaoh and his family. At this point the chariot replaced the carrying chair and the elite used it as a prestigious means of locomotion.”
Wheeled Vehicles in Ancient Egypt
Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “Roughly half a dozen two-wheeled carts and nearly 30 types of four- to eight-wheeled wagons, equipped with discs or spokes, are known from ancient Egypt. They were only used for the transfer of freight, and not for passengers. Carts and wagons transported the loads that were too heavy for donkeys and oxen, whereas sledges were used for even larger weights, thus avoiding the risk of broken axles . This explains why sledges were not replaced by carts and wagons: their different load capacities complemented one another. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “The Egyptians of the Pharaonic Period did have at least some wheeled vehicles. Most evidence for these comes from depictions or archaeological remains of chariots, which appear for the first time at the very end of the Second Intermediate Period and then come to be common military and royal vehicles in the New Kingdom. The use of carts for basic transportation in the Pharaonic Period is much harder to trace, either archaeologically or iconographically, but at least one Eighteenth Dynasty Theban tomb- relief fragment does show a wheeled cart or wagon drawn by oxen in an agricultural scene. [Source:Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“Whether the dearth of parallels to this scene shows that such carts were only rarely used in Egypt, or whether the motif was not taken up in other tombs simply because it was not part of the traditional iconographic vocabulary of agricultural scenes, is difficult to say. Supply carts are also shown in reliefs accompanying the account of Ramesses II’s battle against the Hittites at Kadesh, but of course the venue here is not Egypt proper. A cart drawn by four oxen in the middle of a war scene of Ramesses III’s account of the defeat of the Tjeker would similarly suggest the vehicle’s foreign origin. Wheeled vehicles from earlier periods are rare. As noted above, they became common in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian Chariots
Chris Carpenter to Minnesota State University, Mankato wrote: “The Egyptians didn't invent the chariot but as things go they did improve upon the idea... The Egyptian chariot was unique in that it was constructed to be handsome and light in weight. This was probably due to a lack of wood along the Nile River. [Source: Chris Carpenter, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com, Edwin Tunis, “Wheels: A Pictorial History,” Thomas Y. Crowell Company; New York, 1955 pg. 13-15. +]
Heidi Köpp-Junk of Universität Trier wrote: “The earliest written evidence for chariots dates to the 17th Dynasty. It was used for warfare, hunting, sports, and also for travel. Its application in warfare is well attested and often discussed. A number of hunting scenes displaying pharaohs on chariots are known; some are attested for private persons as well. A rare instance of its sportive role is shown in a representation of Amenhotep II at Karnak. Chariot races such as those known from ancient Rome are not attested in Pharaonic Egypt. [Source: Heidi Köpp-Junk, Universität Trier, Germany, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
“The chariot was the supreme mode of locomotion for the elite for private and public purposes and an important status symbol in the New Kingdom. It was used for visits and inspections by pharaohs, such as Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, and Akhenaton, as well as high officials. Women are also depicted in chariots.
“The suitability of the chariot for long-distance travel was limited since its fragile spoked wheels needed even and compact soil; it was not capable of being driven cross-country on uneven, sandy, or rocky ground, especially at high speeds. The oldest chariot found in Egypt, now in the Museum of Florence, has a total weight of only 24 kg, and the tread of its wheels is only 2 centimeters wide. With some accommodations, chariots were nevertheless brought on long-distance journeys: when the ground was prepared in advance or geologically solid enough, they could be used, even in the desert. According to a text from the reign of Ramesses IV, an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat consisted of 8,361 members, including one royal chariot-driver, 20 stable masters, 50 charioteers and, according to Schulman, the same number of chariots belonging to them. Papyrus Anastasi describes the crossing of a mountain pass leading from the coastal plain to Megiddo, with chariots being taken along. Over uneven, rough, or hilly terrain, a chariot could be carried on the shoulders of a single man; due to its light weight it did not need to be dismantled.
“The chariot was the fastest, but also the most expensive, means of travel. Apart from the chariot itself, horses had to be bought and maintained, and a staff needed to be employed for the maintenance and care of both. Therefore, at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, only the king and a few high officials could afford them. In contrast, about 2,000 chariots have been estimated for the Egyptian army of the 19th Dynasty. This gives an indication of the increasing use of the chariot. How many additional chariots were privately owned is uncertain.
Design of Ancient Egyptian Chariots
Chris Carpenter to Minnesota State University, Mankato wrote: “The Egyptians designed the chariot with the human standing directly over the axle of the chariot. By accomplishing this there was less stress put on the horse(s) because the rider’s weight was distributed to the chariot than to the horse. [Source: Chris Carpenter, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com, Edwin Tunis, “Wheels: A Pictorial History,” Thomas Y. Crowell Company; New York, 1955 pg. 13-15. +]
“The design of the chariot of two wheels and were squeaky and creaked. Basically they were heard wherever they went. The Egyptians didn’t like this idea, and they lined the hubs and covered the axle with copper or bronze plates. The design of the chariot consisted of a number of new and unique ideas to make their chariot stand out. The hub was long and slender, and the spokes were light and nicely shaped. The fellies were one to and held by a spoke. The fellies, inserted in the spoke, were bent, shaped, and joined with a long lap. The tires were made of wood and were shaped in sections. They were attached to the wheel lashing made of rawhide. This lashing technique was unique in that they passed it through slots in the tire sections. The reasoning for this was to keep the lashing from coming in contact with the ground, thus extending its life by lessening the wear and tear. +\
“A pole that is attached to a yoke pulls the chariots. The yoke is attached to the horses’ back by a saddle-pads using girths around the bellies to hold them in place. The Egyptian had two types of chariots, and according to the source the only difference seems to be in the wheels. The Egyptian war-chariot had six spokes while the carriage chariots had only four. The reasoning behind this difference is probably due to the extra support needed in the war-chariot based on the stress that can be put on them is higher than that of the carriage chariot.” +\
First Wheels and Wheeled Vehicles
The wheel, some scholars have theorized, was first used to make pottery and then was adapted for wagons and chariots. The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 B.C. Some scholars have speculated that the wheel on carts were developed by placing a potters wheel on its side. Other say: first there were sleds, then rollers and finally wheels. Logs and other rollers were widely used in the ancient world to move heavy objects. It is believed that 6000-year-old megaliths that weighed many tons were moved by placing them on smooth logs and pulling them by teams of laborers.
Early wheeled vehicles were wagons and sleds with a wheel attached to each side. The wheel was most likely invented before around 3000 B.C.”the approximate age of the oldest wheel specimens — as most early wheels were probably shaped from wood, which rots, and there isn't any evidence of them today. The evidence we do have consists of impressions left behind in ancient tombs, images on pottery and ancient models of wheeled carts fashioned from pottery.◂
Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium B.C., near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe. The question of who invented the first wheeled vehicles is far from resolved. The earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle — a wagon with four wheels and two axles — is on the Bronocice pot, clay pot dated to between 3500 and 3350 B.C. excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland. Some sources say the oldest images of the wheel originate from the Mesopotamian city of Ur A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur — dated to 2500 B.C.”shows four onagers (donkeylike animals) pulling a cart for a king. and were supposed to date sometime from 4000 BC. [Partly from Wikipedia]
In 2003 — at a site in the Ljubljana marshes, Slovenia, 20 kilometers southeast of Ljubljana — Slovenian scientists claimed they found the world’s oldest wheel and axle. Dated with radiocarbon method by experts in Vienna to be between 5,100 and 5,350 years old the found in the remains of a pile-dwelling settlement, the wheel has a radius of 70 centimeters and is five centimeters thick. It is made of ash and oak. Surprisingly technologically advanced, it was made of two ashen panels of the same tree. The axle, whose age could not be precisely established, is about as old as the wheel. It is 120 centimeters long and made of oak. [Source: Slovenia News]
The wheel and axle were found near a wooden canoe. Both the wheel and the axle had been scorched, probably to protect them against pests. Slovenian experts surmise that the wheel they found belonged to a single-axle cart. The aperture for the axle on the wheel is square, which means the wheel and the axle rotated together and, considering the rough ground, the cart probably had only one axle. We can only guess what the cart itself was like. The Ljubljana marshes are a perfect place for old objects to be preserved. There have been many finds uncovered in this area. Apart from the wooden wheel, axle and canoe, there have been innumerable objects found which are up to 6,500 years old.
A wheel dated to 3000 B.C., was found near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Wheels with simialr dates have been found in germany and Switzerland. One very old wheel was a wooden disc discovered at an archeological sight near Zurich. The wheel now can be seen in the Zurich museum.
First Domesticated Horses
The first domesticated horses appeared around 6000 to 5000 years ago. The first hard evidence of mounted riders dates to about 1350 B.C. Uncovering information about ancient horsemen however is difficult. They left behind no written records and relatively few other groups wrote about them. For the most part they were nomads who had few possession, and never stayed in one place for long, making it difficult for archeologists — who have traditionally excavated ancient cities and settlements of settled people — to dig up artifacts connected with them.
For similar reasons it is difficult to work out how different horsemen groups interacted and how individuals within the group behaved. What little is known about group interaction has been learned mostly from the work of linguists. Most of what is known about their behavior is based on observations of modern groups or a hand full of descriptions by ancient historians.
Based on these sources, scholars believe that early nomadic horsemen lived in small groups, often organized by clan or tribe, and generally avoided forming large groups. Small groups have more mobility and flexibility to move to new pastures and water sources. Large groups are much more unwieldy and more likely to generate feuds and other internal problems. On the steppe there generally was enough land for all so the only time horsemen needed to unite was to face a common threat.
The Eurasia steppe is the only place that horses survived after the last Ice Age. Domestication is believed to have occurred around 3000 B.C. when horses suddenly appeared in places where they hadn't been seen before like Turkey and Switzerland. It is difficult to pin down when domestication took place partly because the bones of wild horses and domesticated horses are virtually the same. [Source: William Speed Weed, Discover magazine, March 2002]
Ramesses II on a chariot
Horses are believed to have been domesticated from wild horses from Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. Ancient men viewed horses primarily as a source of meat and hunted them like other animals. One effective method of hunting horses was driving them over cliffs.
The first domesticated horses are believed to have been horses that were herded rather than hunted. Later they were used as beast of burdens, and later still they were ridden. Horse are believed to have first been ridden to keep track of domesticated animals that ranged over large expanses on the steppe. Some people have speculated that the first horsemen drank the blood of their animals as cattle-herding tribes in East Africa do today.
The first horseback riders and domesticated horses were originally believed to have come from Sredni Stog culture, a site in the steppe areas east of the Dnieper River and north of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine, dated between 4200 and 3500 B.C. Russian archeologists excavated Sredny Stog in the 1960s and found scraps of bone and horn that resembled the cheek pieces of bridles plus wear and tear on the teeth of an excavated horse that resembled the wear and tear caused by wearing a bit. Archeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in New York examined horse teeth found at Sredni Stog sites and concluded the horse teeth dated to 400 B.C., and the site not the home of 6000-year-old riders.
Roads in Ancient Egypt
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Although land transportation is less visible to us in the iconographic record than travel by boats or ships, there is an abundant and growing archaeological inventory of formal roads and informal overland routes that show the crucial importance of land transport for the functioning of Egypt’s economy and culture. In the area of the flood-plain itself, ancient routes are often difficult to trace, with the exception of paved, ceremonial roads like the avenue of sphinxes linking the Karnak and Luxor temples. The ubiquity of canals, basins, and dykes will certainly have complicated land-travel, particularly during flood season; although dykes will also have provide raised routes that could be traversed to avoid fields, especially in times of high water. Outside of the flood plain, archaeological exploration of Egypt’s desert transportation networks is an extremely promising field. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“Comparatively few paved roads have been discovered from Pharaonic Egypt, but they are not unknown: a paved road linking Widan al-Faras and Qasr al-Sagha in the northern Fayum appears to have been constructed in the early third millennium B.C., and was described as the world’s earliest paved road. The road, 2.4 meters wide, was paved with slabs of sandstone and logs of petrified wood. Another early paved road was constructed to link quarries at Abusir to the Fifth Dynasty pyramids about 1.2 kilometers away. This more-substantial road was approximately ten meters (or 20 cubits) wide, built on a 30- centimeter-deep bed of mud-brick and local clay, and finished off with a paving of field- stones mortared together with clay.
“Although road surfaces were not often paved along their entire route, stone fill at least may have been used to even out the surface of a path; one example comprises the stone causeways constructed on a 17- kilometer route linking Amarna and Hatnub. Over relatively short distances, reinforced and stabilized tracks for hauling heavy loads of stone to pyramid construction sites were laid using heavy wooden members from derelict ships, then covering them over with limestone chips and mortar. In other cases, roads might simply consist of a track systematically cleared of gravel and debris, and marked with stelas, cairns, and campsites. Among the most impressive of these early roads are two routes that appear to begin near the Mastaba el-Faraun at Dahshur and lead to the northern and southern Fayum, respectively. These routes were discovered in 1887 by Petrie, who reported that each is remarkably broad—on average more than 25 meters in width—marked along each side with mounds of rubble that had been swept from the road surface, which is otherwise unpaved. The more southerly road is also furnished with distance markers, regularly placed at intervals of about 3.3 kilometers.”
Many of the roads in the desert, mountains, and rural areas are tracks. Some tracks are surprising hard and smooth. Generally, though, they are bumpy and in poor condition. After it rains they often become impassable. Off the beaten track, people on the move have to deal with quagmires (during the rainy season), deep sand, deep ruts, big rocks, dust, steep hills, landslides, and washed out surfaces. They also presumably had to deal with various animals in the roads.
World's Oldest Paved Road Found in Egypt
The world's oldest known paved road is a 7½-mile-long, 6-foot-wide road made of slabs of limestone and sandstone, located near the Danshur pyramids, 43 miles southwest of Cairo. Built between 2600 and 2200 B.C. the road was used to transport basalt on human-drawn sleds from a quarry on the Nile to building sites. Similar roads have not been found near other quarries. Scientist speculate the paving stones made rolling the basalt stones much easier.
John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, a time of grand architecture beginning about 4,600 years ago, demand for building stones for pyramids and temples led to the opening of many quarries in the low cliffs near the Nile River. To make it easier to transport the heavy stones from one of these quarries, the Egyptians laid what may have been the world's first paved road. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, May 8, 1994]
Research geologists mapping the ancient Egyptian stone quarries have identified a seven-and-half-mile stretch of road covered with slabs of sandstone and limestone and even some logs of petrified wood. The pavement, they concluded, facilitated the movement of human-drawn sleds loaded with basalt stone from a nearby quarry to a quay for shipment by barge across the lake and on the Nile to construction sites.
"Here is another technological triumph you can attribute to ancient Egypt," Dr. James A. Harrell, a professor of geology at the University of Toledo, Ohio, told the New York Times. Dr. Harrell and Dr. Thomas Bown, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey in Denver, mapped the road in 1993 and reported their findings at a meeting of the Geological Society of America. They said that pottery fragments at a quarry and a camp for the ancient stone workers, both discovered near the road, helped date the site to the period of the Old Kingdom, about 2600 to 2200 B.C., when major technological advances were being made, but before Egypt's political zenith. The oldest previously known paved road, made of flagstone and dated no earlier than 2000 B.C., was in Crete.
The Egyptian paved road, with an average width of six and a half feet, ran across desert terrain 43 miles southwest of modern Cairo. Remnants of the road were first observed early this century, but its full extent and significance were not recognized until last year, when Dr. Bown and Dr. Harrell discovered a large basalt quarry at one end of the road.This dark volcanic stone was favored in monumental construction for pavements inside mortuary temples at Giza, the site of the Great Pyramids, and also for royal sarcophagi. Egyptologists have suggested that the black rock was popular for funerary uses because it symbolized the dark, life-giving Nile mud. Water Link to Nile
The road ran from the quarry to the northwest shore of ancient Lake Moeris, now vanished, which would have provided a water link to the Nile each summer in flood time. The only surviving trace of the lake is a much-reduced body of water called Birket Qarun.As the two geologists reported, the pavement stones bore no deep grooves or other marks that might have been made by direct contact with the wooden runners of the stone-laded sleds. They speculated that logs were laid over the stones.
No similar paved roads have been found near other quarries, Dr. Harrell said, noting that perhaps the distances involved made pavement impractical. Apart from some construction ramps associated with the pyramids, the geologists said, there are no other paved roads known from ancient Egypt. Wheeled wagons were not generally used there until many centuries after this road was built.
Road Networks in Ancient Egypt
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Overland routes branched off from the Nile Valley to take Egyptian work crews to quarrying regions in the eastern desert, from which building stone, semi-precious stones, and gold were obtained for Egyptian elite consumption and for export; the same routes continued on to the Red Sea coast, and so constituted a vital link between the Nile and the maritime routes in the Red Sea and Indian Oceans. Westward overland routes linked the Nile Valley to the oases in the western deserts, and the oases to each other. As we read in the Sixth Dynasty autobiography of Harkhuf, one of these routes, designated the “oasis road,” appears to have left the Nile Valley around Abydos, and then to have continued south towards Nubia, thus complementing the Nile River route. At the very end of the Second Intermediate Period, this oasis route was the venue of one of the world’s first recorded espionage missions: agents of the Seventeenth Dynasty Theban king Kamose intercepted a message from the Hyksos king in the Delta city of Avaris to a newly crowned Nubian king, south of Egypt, urging him to join the Hyksos in an alliance to crush Kamose’s bid to re-establish a united monarchy in Egypt. Clearly, the Hyksos had hoped that use of the desert routes would enable their couriers to bypass the Egyptians. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“In the north, the “Way (or Ways) of Horus” was the name for a road along the northern Sinai Peninsula leading into southern Palestine, but other desert routes penetrated the peninsula itself . Archaeological evidence, including incised Egyptian storage jars, shows that the north Sinai route was already in heavy use in the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, connecting Egypt with both Canaanite communities and what appear to have been Egyptian settlements . Indeed the appellation “Way of Horus” (wAt 1r) occurs in the Pyramid Texts. The route was certainly used at all times by merchants, but in periods in which the Egyptian state had interests in Palestine, it was a strategic military route as well. This was especially marked in the New Kingdom, particularly in the reign of Thutmose III, who launched repeated campaigns in Syria-Palestine. Throughout the New Kingdom there is substantial evidence of Egyptian military traffic along the route. In the Ramesside Period, the route was marked by fortified garrisons and way stations, depicted in a relief of Sety I on the northern exterior wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. Even further afield, merchant caravans traveled overland between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
“Desert routes in Egypt tended to follow natural wadis, such as the Wadi Hammamat, which connected the Nile Valley to the Red Sea. Routes were often marked with stone cairns to keep travelers on their way, as well as stelas, huts, and small shrines. The provision of water along desert routes was important and the discovery of water sources could be seen as an act of divine favor. In all periods, heavily used routes gradually accumulated debris in the form of potsherds or other trash left by travelers, and are also often marked by rock-art sites. Much such evidence has been discovered and admirably published by the Theban Desert Road survey under the direction of John Darnell of Yale University, who has intensively explored the network of roads used to short-cut the Nile’s Qena Bend with a number of routes running from the vicinity of Thebes/Luxor in the southeast, northwest towards Hu, and from there, eastward towards the oases. Darnell has established that this area was well traveled during multiple periods of Pharaonic history, and his results suggest how much more there is to learn about Egyptian road networks.
“In the Roman Period especially, desert routes are also marked by guard-posts and watch-towers , and along some routes, at least, tolls were charged for people and goods; presumably this was to provide revenue to support the cost of maintaining and protecting the routes. The famous “Koptos Tariff” was inscribed near Koptos under the Roman emperor Domitian in his ninth year (89 – 90 CE). The inscription lays out charges assessed for 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.”
Roads at Amarna
Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: “The city incorporated several thoroughfares, generally running north-south, the most important of which is now known as the Royal Road. It linked the palaces at the north of the Amarna bay to the Central City and then continued southwards, with a slight change of angle, through the Main City. It is just possible that part of its northern span was raised on an embankment, a mud-brick structure north of the North Palace, cleared briefly in 1925, perhaps serving as an access ramp. [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org ]
“The line of the road from the North Palace through the Central City, if projected southwards, also passes directly by the Kom el-Nana complex near the southern end of the site, suggesting that it was used in laying out the city. Thereafter, the Royal Road probably remained an important stage for the public display of the royal family as they moved between the city’s palaces and temples.
The low desert to the east of the city was crisscrossed by a network of roadways : linear stretches of ground, c. 1.5-11 meters in width, from which large stones have been cleared and left in ridges along the road edges. The most complete survey of the road network is that of Helen Fenwick; its full publication is pending. The roads probably served variously as transport alleys, patrol routes, and in some cases as boundaries, and suggest fairly tight regulation of the eastern boundary of the city. Particularly well-preserved circuits survive around the Workmen’s Village and Stone Village. The roadways are among the most vulnerable elements of Amarna’s archaeological landscape, although protected in part by their isolated locations.”
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 in an interview last week 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.
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, escholarship.org ]
“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.”
Transportation Costs in Ancient Egypt
Steve Vinson of Indiana University wrote: “Payments for transport-vessel crews are sporadically attested in Pharaonic documentation, but precisely what the costs were intended to cover, and how they related to the actual personnel and operational costs involved is seldom if ever made absolutely clear. The best example is the payments recorded in Papyri Amiens and Baldwin. Since the payments bear no obvious relationship to the size of the cargoes, it seems likely that they were related to the size of the crew. [Source: Steve Vinson, Indiana University, Bloomington, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2013, escholarship.org ]
“In Ramesside documentation, specific expenses other than crew expense are seldom accounted for in detail. The Ramesside ship’s log, Papyri Turin 2008 and 2016, includes items like a net, papyrus rope, fish, and water-birds as payments for lower- ranking crew members. In the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, costs for river transportation are better documented. Operational expenses might have typically consumed thirty percent of gross vessel income, with the net divided between crew, owner, and taxes. Crew payments attested in the Ptolemaic Period include the 8.5 drachmas per month for crew members and ten per month for the captain, according to one of several payment plans proposed in the contract P. Cairo Zenon IV 59649.
“Costs of land transport in Roman Egypt are discussed by Adams. One calculation suggests that in the first century CE the transport of 100 artabas (about three metric tons) over a distance of 100 kilometers would cost about 39 drachmas, including six drachmas for donkey drivers. At this price, the cost of transport was between 5 and 13 percent of the value of the wheat itself . The price fluctuated considerably, however, throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods—with monetary inflation and deflation, and with the varying costs of human and animal labor. Those responsible for transporting grain could economize by using their own donkeys, boats, and personnel, rather than hiring labor. In all periods, preserved price data suggest that transport cost per unit of cargo-distance declined as the volume of cargo and distance of transport increased, although this advantage will have been more obvious with the use of large transport vessels, for two reasons: both construction costs and crew requirements as a function of vessel volume declined as vessel volume increased.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo
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