Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 June 2005
Issue No. 745
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sailing to distant lands

New finds are bringing added understanding to the way ancient communities in Upper Egypt functioned, and to the importance of commerce and cultural development. Nevine El-Aref has been finding out about a pre-dynastic funerary complex and new evidence concerning trade with the legendary land of Punt

Click to view caption
Reproduction of a bas-relief of a ship loading the products of Punt; a worker brushing the sand off a predynastic clay vessel

The mysterious Land of Punt, at one time identified with the Somali coast and now thought to be located in the southern Sudan or the Eritrean region of Ethiopia, was Ancient Egypt's source of luxury products, the place from where they imported valuable items not available in their own country.

Regular missions set sail southwards through the Red Sea from the Fifth Dynasty or earlier, returning to Egypt with gold, ivory, ebony, gum and incense to be burned in temple rituals. The hides of giraffe, panther and cheetah, which were worn by temple priests, were imported along with live animals -- either for the priests' own menageries or as religious sacrifices -- as well as the sacred cynocephalus or dog-faced baboon. Little wonder, then, that Punt became known as the "Land of Gods", and as the personal pleasure garden of the great god Amun.

The oldest surviving record of a journey to Punt is inscribed on one of the fragments of what became known as the Palermo stone, which dates from the Fifth Dynasty. Egyptians appear to have brought pygmies from this remote region, judging from inscriptions by the expedition leader Harkhuf on his funerary monument. By the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) there was regular trade with Nubia, and an 11th-Dynasty record reveals that Mentuhotep III ordered no fewer than 3,000 men to sail to this source of plenty -- a place also mentioned in contemporary poems.

Trade between Egypt and Punt appears to have been suspended after the 12th Dynasty and not resumed until early in the 18th, when the most famous expedition to Punt, that of Queen Hatshepsut, came as an outcome of a consultation with the oracle of the god Amun in which she was instructed to send a fleet of ships there. The expedition is featured in relief in Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir Al-Bahri, which shows, in different registers, the finest representations of ships we have from the New Kingdom.

The relief portrays a total of 10 ships, five entering harbour and five loading and departing. It is assumed that the ships were prefabricated on the Nile at Coptos, a point where it most closely approaches the Red Sea, then were stripped down and the components transported through Wadi Al-Hamamat by donkey caravan to Qusseir where they were reassembled. On completion of the mission to Punt, an often dangerous journey, and the equally dangerous return journey to the Egyptian port, the ships had to be stripped down again and their parts carried back through the desert valley along with their rich cargoes to the Nile, where they would be re-assembled, re- loaded, and set sail to Thebes.

There are few material remains of this necessarily well-organised procedure and the arduous but necessary journey to Punt. Early last month, however, at the ancient port of Marsa Gawasis, south of Hurghada, an American-Italian team stumbled upon interesting evidence of trade between the two regions.

They discovered a large, man-made cave. Just inside the entrance they unearthed two cedar steering oars, limestone block-anchors, rigging ropes and other items, Zahi Hawass secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) described the discovery as the first complete parts of a Pharaonic seafaring ship ever to be discovered. Pottery dating from the early 18th Dynasty (1500-1400 BC) was also found, possibly linking the discovery to Hatshepsut's expeditions to Punt. Substantial evidence of copper smelting was found in the area below the cave, though its source has yet to be determined.

The walls of the cave were reinforced with re- used stone anchors, two large cedar beams, mud brick and plaster. To the north a curved antechamber led to two rectangular rooms about 12 metres long, while a smaller antechamber led to yet another rock-cut chamber to the south.

A number of small carved niches were found outside the cave entrance, four of which still bore limestone stelae. A preliminary examination of one of the stelae revealed that it was divided into two parts, the upper section bearing the cartouche of Amenemhet III -- who ruled in about 1800 BC -- above an offering scene to Min, the god of fertility. The lower section was inscribed with hieroglyphic text relating the story of two expeditions to Punt and Bia-Punt. Based on early studies of the stelae, Rodolfo Fattovich, head of the Italian team from the University of Naples, said that Amenemhet III had ordered hitherto unknown expeditions to both lands.

The ships built for voyages to Punt, although shaped, according to surviving reliefs -- like ordinary travelling vessels on the Nile with keels and stem and stern-post -- appear to have been more securely constructed for fast voyages in dangerous waters, and are more correctly described as trading galleys.

Along the shoreline of Wadi Gawasis, a roughly oval platform made of stone slabs and rocky coral has been excavated, along with hundreds of conch shells that had been left on its surface. "These were probably the sailors' offerings to their gods," Fattovich suggests.

Fattovich has given two presentations on the caves found by him and his co-leader of the mission, Kathrym Bard of Boston University, one at the 56th annual meeting of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) in Cambridge, Mass. USA, and last week's lecture at the Italian Institute in Cairo.

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