The Promise of Egypt's Maritime Legacy
By Cheryl Ward, Ph.D.
From the INA Quarterly 20.2 (1993) 3-7
Each year, winter storms batter the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, washing away the sediment that is the Nile Delta. Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt, the mighty Nile no longer deposits great quantities of soil along its course through flooding. Instead, tons of rich earth that could replenish the land and enlarge the Delta remain behind the massive dam while the storms and sea currents carve away one to twelve feet of the Delta every year.
While this erosion is potentially catastrophic for villages and both ancient and modern cities near the Delta coastline, it also brings tremendous opportunities to explore the nautical heritage of Egypt. Ancient Egypt's commercial and political clout brought pirates and merchants, slaves and kings, and mercenaries and warriors to its harbors. And each year, the cycle of Nile floods brought sediment to envelop ships that met violent ends through battle, treachery, ignorance or storms, ships that now lie exposed on the seabed.
Waterborne commerce, exchange, and warfare played crucial roles in the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. Egypt's history is intertwined with exploitation and control of water transport, and her Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts and the Nile thoroughfare offer an incredibly rich collection of Mediterranean and eastern Arab riverine, shipbuilding, and seafaring traditions. Yet this highly developed maritime transport network remains virtually unexplored except for hulls that have been discovered in funerary complexes on the Nile's western bank.
The Institute of Nautical Archaeology's dedication to the worldwide exploration, protection, and preservation of maritime cultural heritage has resulted in shipwreck surveys, support for newly established museums of underwater archaeology, training for American and foreign archaeologists, and excavation, conservation, study, and exhibition of shipwrecks in Turkey, Cyprus, Kenya, Jamaica, Bermuda, Panama, the Bahamas, Mexico, and the United States. Now, the Institute is poised to open a center in Egypt that will coordinate survey and excavation projects in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
With seed money provided by The Amoco Foundation, I will be devoting the next twelve months to organizing a shipwreck survey of part of Egypt's vast coastline. We envision this survey as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a Middle Eastern partnership modeled on the extensive cooperation between INA and the Turkish government that has resulted in hundreds of scholarly and popular publications describing artifacts now housed in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, described by the Turkish press as one of Turkey's two premier museums.
The survey will also give us a glimpse of Egypt's links with the world during the last five millennia: the vessels that brought tribute, cargo, trading partners, conquerors, even destruction from her subjects, as well as ships that embarked upon dangerous trading ventures to far lands and warships built by native Copts for the newly established Muslim rulers of Egypt in the seventh century AD.
The Nautical Heritage of Egypt
We know most about Egyptian river craft because during prosperous times full-sized hulls were buried with kings.Hundreds of paintings, models, and even gigantic mudbrick watercraft have been found at sites throughout Egypt, reflecting the importance of the Nile as a liquid superhighway and boats as the key to the afterlife. But the kings, priests, queens, and nobles buried with these representations also lived lives of lavish elegance and wealth acquired through tribute and trade with other lands.
Ancient Egyptian sailors sailed to Nubia, the Levant, the Sinai peninsula, and south to pwnt (Punt), or "God's Land" (probably modern Somalia), in search of luxury items that ranged from cedar trees, spices, perfumes, metals and exotic animals to dancing dwarfs, semi-precious stones, and obsidian, a black volcanic glass highly valued for making stone tools. The redistribution of these high-status goods to people favored by a divine ruler helped fuel a political system based on patronage and tribal allegiance. Along the Nile, cities that controlled access to trade routes could accumulate power and influence.
Hierakonpolis, Abydos, and Koptos in Upper Egypt, just north of Luxor, have provided archaeologists with temples, graves, and goods from the period that marked the organization of Egyptian society that lasted more than 3000 years. Long a shipbuilding center, the area was a launching station for journeys that began with a trek across the Eastern Desert.
From Koptos, ship's crews hauled their vessels through the Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea. Like all work crews throughout Egypt's history, these sailors were divided into groups named for the quarters of the ship and the helm. They left records of their passage and of its sacred mission to obtain offerings for the gods pecked, scratched, and carved into the rock walls lining the dry streambed.
At nearby Abydos, University of Pennsylvania archaeologists recently uncovered 12 watercraft more than 20 meters long. Buried in white-plastered mudbrick graves outside huge, rectangular funeral monuments to the earliest kings of Egypt (see INA Quarterly 19.2, pp. 12-13), these are the world's most ancient planked hulls. David O'Connor and his team from the University Museum, where George Bass had his start, have invited me to join their excavation at Abydos in January, 1994.
The boat graves at Abydos date to the dawn of Egyptian civilization. The long and narrow hulls played a vital role in establishing an economic system based on warfare, taxation, and redistribution of goods among the peoples of the Nile Valley and a religious cosmology that included the boat as one of its supreme symbols.
For example, more than 30 different kinds of boats are described in the Pyramid Texts covering the inside of Old Kingdom tombs of about 2400 BC. Different gods have their own boats, each with a special determinative that shows a different kind of hull shape or decoration. There are also "justice" boats, probably used by the king for the administration of taxes and adjudication of disputes, and solar vessels.
Khufu, who built the great pyramid of Giza, had at least five ships buried south or west of his pyramid. Three empty boat-shaped pits, one unexcavated pit filled with stacked hull components, and the reassembled royal ship of Khufu (or Cheops as the Greeks called him) are known.
This royal ship, magnificently conserved and restored by Hag Ahmed Youssef and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, is displayed in a glass museum beside Khufu's pyramid. When I first saw it, I caught my breath in appreciation. Reading about a 145-foot-long ship more than 4,500 years old did not prepare me for a confrontation with a work of art and supreme technical craftsmanship just less than half the length of a football field. About 500 years after the Khufu ships were buried, five, or perhaps six, cedar boats paid tribute to the recently dead king and honored, through emulation, the legendary rulers of the Old Kingdom. A planked model only a five the size of the Dashur hulls buried outside the tomb of a highly respected official at Lisht suggests that the Dashur hulls represent a significant investment.
Also at Lisht, planking from a freighter or freighters was used as foundations for construction ramps and roadways at the early Middle Kingdom pyramid complex of Senwosret (Greek: Sesostris) I. Metropolitan Museum of Art excavations at Lisht under the direction of Dieter Arnold and earlier this century revealed about 90 timbers, including parts of a massive frame assembly.
Planks with similar shapes are reported from several other Middle Kingdom pyramid sites over a 100-year period. This broad distribution, in combination with the hull construction techniques used, may hint at standardized, prefabricated hull designs and timbers. Old hulls ultimately were recycled as building materials, a purpose planned for in their manufacture.
The traditions of hull construction seen in all the excavated vessels continued through the end of the sixth century BC and, with the substitution of nails for mortise-and-tenon joints, into the present. An abandoned freighter, stripped of its internal timbers and left on a small branch of the Nile near Mataria (ancient Heliopolis, north of modern Cairo) provides the first instance of pegged mortise-and-tenon joints in an Egyptian hull. Not all joints were through-fastened, and the pegs, or treenails, may also have fastened frames to the hull, but for this marks a dramatic departure from previous shipbuilding techniques.
The remains of 20 different ancient Egyptian vessels probably represent only five, of more than 100, documented types of watercraft that carried people, cattle, gods, obelisks, and foreign traders on the Nile between 5,000 and 2,500 years ago. By studying how these hulls were built, and where they fit into the fabric of society, we can gain some sense of the complex solutions to practical problems developed by Egyptian shipwrights.
For example, Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled about 1500 BC, built a river boat large enough to carry two obelisks about as long and heavy as a transatlantic jet airplane loaded with 40 elephants. Studying how riverine ships were built answers some questions about how this task might have been accomplished, but provides few clues to life aboard such behemoths or where Egyptian rulers obtained the resources demanded for their construction.