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Sailing Like an Egyptian

12 - 18 March 2009 Issue No. 938 How did the ancient Egyptians import goods by sea or travel to the fabled Land of Punt in search of gold, ebony and leopard skins? Nevine El-Aref finds out


sailing in egypt


Clockwise from top: the Min of the desert crossing the Red Sea; the crew on board; the reconstruction of Min


The ancient Egyptians pioneered the development of river craft for various uses, including agricultural and for transporting troops, cattle and building materials, as well as for funeral processions. But what about seafaring vessels? Until a few years ago, there was a widely held belief that the ancient Egyptians did not travel long distances by sea because of their poor naval technology. However, this view is changing.


People in the past tended to assume that the ancient Egyptians did not make long-distance trips because little evidence of such journeys has been found. Based on this belief they also thought that the Land of Punt, the fabled source of many ancient Egyptian imports, could not have been located in the Horn of Africa, but must have been in southern Sinai.


However, these views have changed as a result of the unearthing of timber, rigging and cedar planks dating from the Middle Kingdom to early New Kingdom periods two years ago in the ancient Red Sea port of Marsa Gawasis, 23km south of Port Safaga. This discovery has shed light on ancient Egyptian naval technology and on the elaborate ancient Red Sea trade network.


Sailing to Punt required a tremendous investment of manpower, ship archaeologist Mohamed Mustafa told Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that ancient Egyptian shipbuilders harvested cedarwood from the mountains of Lebanon and transported it up the Nile to the site where the vessels were first assembled and then disassembled into travel-ready pieces that could be carried on a 10-day journey across about 100 miles of desert to the coast.


Based on texts discovered more than a century ago, researchers have long known that the ancient Egyptians mounted naval expeditions to Punt as far back as the Old Kingdom to obtain gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins and the frankincense necessary for religious rituals. The hides of giraffes, panthers and cheetahs, worn by temple priests, were imported along with live animals either for the priests' own menageries or as religious sacrifices, including the sacred cynocephalus or dog-faced baboon. Little wonder, then, that Punt became known as the Land of the Gods and as the personal pleasure garden of the god Amun.


When the ancient Egyptian ruler Queen Hatshepsut came to the throne, she sent a fleet of ships to Punt, and this is featured in relief in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir Al-Bahari. It portrays a total of 10 ships, five entering the harbour and five loading and setting sail. It is assumed that the ships were prefabricated on the Nile at Coptos, a point where the river is closest to the Red Sea, and were then stripped down and transported through Wadi Hammamat by donkey caravan to Qusseir, where they were reassembled.


On completion of their mission to Punt, the ships had to be stripped down again and their parts carried back through the desert together with their rich cargoes. Once they reached the Nile, they would be reassembled and set sail for Thebes. However, despite these reliefs Mustafa said that in general little is known about ancient Egyptian maritime technology.


Remains of Old Kingdom boats have been found at Tarkhan, Abydos and on the Giza Plateau in the shape of the Pharaoh Khufu's solar boats. Evidence of later New Kingdom vessels is engraved on the walls of temples, for example those at Deir Al-Bahari and Medinet Habu. However, very little is known about how these New Kingdom ships were put together.


So how did the ancient Egyptians sail to the Land of Punt, and how did they use their maritime technology to resist the destructive forces of the sea?


In order to try to answer such questions, a team of French, Italian, American and Egyptian archaeologists working with shipping experts have reconstructed an ancient Egyptian ship of the first quarter of the second millennium BC called "Min of the Desert". The idea was to set sail across the Red Sea in order to experience how the ancient Egyptians sailed to Punt and to expand the data available from archaeological evidence and the technical study of ships in ancient Egypt.




Min of the Desert was built in Rosetta using techniques that the ancient Egyptians would have used and then transported to Marsa Gawasis on the Red Sea, from where it started its sea voyage. Before starting the trip, the 24-strong crew paid a visit to the Giza Plateau where Khufu's solar boat is located and to the Egyptian museum where the funerary boats of Senwosret III, unearthed at the Dahshour necropolis, are exhibited, in order to prepare them for the unusual aspects of sailing in an ancient Egyptian ship. Such ships were built without using nails, and the planks used to construct them were designed to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.


The purpose of the expedition was to understand the capabilities of a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian ship, said ship archaeologist Cheryl Ward of Florida State University, adding that the ship used the same technology as that used 4,000 years ago, as shown by discoveries at Marsa Gawasis.


The rigging of the ship was reconstructed from models and from the bas reliefs at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Al-Deir Al-Bahari. Our primary goal was to demonstrate the extraordinary capability of the Egyptians at sea, as many people, including fellow archaeologists, have thought of the Egyptians as tied to the Nile and lacking the ability to go to sea, Ward said.


In order to save time, the team did not only use ancient shipbuilding techniques but was assisted by modern technology, such as electric saws to rough cut the planks. However, following this phase most of the work was done using hand tools following ancient examples, though these were made of iron rather than hammered copper. The construction phase lasted eight months.


The completed ship was 20m long, 4.9m wide, and 1.7m high under the beams. Its construction made it possible to check that the design (shell first) and its method of construction (the absence of a frame and assembly by non-pegged tenon joints), based on the interpretation of the archaeological and iconographic evidence, were technically realisable and effective. According to Mustafa, the ship's rigging can be operated by a crew of 15, and it is possible to sail at an average speed of 5.5 knots in favourable conditions. When using the oars, it is possible to reach a speed of 2.5 knots using 14 oarsmen. The ship's steering system proved to be effective, but heavy to operate, he said.


The completed ship confirms the most recent hypothesis on the construction of the ships of ancient Egypt, Ward said, adding that tests were made in the shape of short trips on the Nile, then in the Red Sea, and then in the shape of a longer trial voyage south towards the Sudan from Safaga along the route used by the ancient Egyptians. Min of the Desert is the only experimental reconstruction of a ship from the ancient Egyptian period that has yet been carried out based on scientifically validated archaeological evidence.


Those who made the test voyages were generally full of praise for the technology of the ancient Egyptians. At first, it seemed to me to be a crazy project, said Mahrous Lahma, an Egyptian worker who worked on the ship, but then I grew to respect the technology and to have faith in the ship, and I was with them every minute of the voyage.


The crew were worried that the ship would not be able to withstand the strong sea waves, particularly since it was held together by wooden joints alone, as was ancient Egyptian practice. However, even in swells of up to three metres, the ship handled well, corkscrewing through the waves smoothly and taking only one small splash of a wave over the rail even when the wind was blowing at 25 knots.


Although it took brute strength to haul up the sail and to row the ship, once the sail was set all of us remarked on the efficiency and simplicity of the ship when manoeuvring and steering, and on its responsiveness, Mustafa commented. "We did not have any particular problems with the navigation. In fact, the ship was easy to sail. We did not practise anchoring, though it would have been possible to do that, but our intention was not to imitate the voyage entirely."


Many people helped to make the project work, notably Sombrero & Co., a documentary film production company based in France, which sponsored the project and made a film about it that will now be broadcast internationally and on NOVA/WGBH in the United States.


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