Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Tomb inscriptions of Harkhuf
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Copper statue of Pepi II or Merenre
Copper statue of Pepi II or Merenre

Tomb inscriptions of Harkhuf

    I came today from my city, I descended from my nome, I built a house, I set up the doors. I dug a lake , and I planted trees. The king praised me. My father made a will for me, (for) I was excellent ......... [one beloved] of his father, praised of his mother, whom all his brothers loved. I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him who had no boat.
    O ye living, who are upon earth, [who shall pass by this tomb whether] going down-stream or going up-stream, who shall say: "A thousand loaves, a thousand jars of beer for the owner of this tomb." I will [...] for their sakes in the nether world. I am an excellent, equipped spirit, a ritual priest, whose mouth knows.
    As for any man who shall enter into [this] tomb [as his mortuary possession, I will seize] him like a wild fowl; he shall be judged for it by the great god.
    I was one saying good things and repeating what was loved. Never did I say aught evil, to a powerful one against any people, (for) I desired that it might be well with me in the great god's presence. Never did I judge [two brothers] in such a way that a son was deprived of his parental possession.
- Autobiographical tomb inscriptions often begin with a very positive self-appraisal. The mentioning of a close relationship with the pharaoh, righteousness, and benevolence towards the poor are hallmarks of such texts.
Harkhuf served under Merenre (ca. 2279-2270) and his successor Pepy II (ca. 2279-2181)
    Count, sole companion, ritual priest, chamber-attendant, judge attached to Nekhen, wearer of the royal seal, caravan conductor. privy councilor of all affairs of the South, favorite of his lord, Harkhuf, ......... who brings the products of all the countries to his lord, who brings the tribute of the royal ornaments, governor of all countries of the South, who sets the terror of Horus among the countries, who does that which his lord praises, .......... the revered by Ptah-Sokar. Harkhuf.
    He says:
The majesty of Mernere my lord, sent me, together with my father, the sole companion, and ritual priest Iry, to Yam, in order to explore a road to this country. I did it in only seven months, and I brought all (kinds of) gifts from it [..........] I was very greatly praised for it.
First expedition
gifts : instead of trading in luxury goods rulers exchanged 'gifts'. Whether Harkhuf traded or, backed up by his troops, extorted goods from the local rulers on this expedition is open to interpretation.
    His majesty sent me a second time alone; I went forth upon the Elephantine road, and I descended from Irthet, Mekher, Tereres, Irtheth, being an affair of eight months. When I descended I brought gifts from this country in very great quantity. Never before was the like brought to this land. I descended from the dwelling of the chief of Sethu and Irthet after I had explored these countries. Never had any companion or caravan-conductor who went forth to Yam before this, done (it). Second expedition
alone i.e. without his father
Irtjet (here Irthet), and Setju (Sethu) were seemingly located in Lower Nubia, Yam was further south or, as Yoyotte suggests (cf. below), in the Libyan desert.
    His majesty now sent me a third time to Yam; I went forth from [...] upon the Uhet road and I found the chief of Yam going to the land of Temeh to smite Temeh as far as the western corner of heaven. I went forth after him to the land of Temeh and I pacified him, until he praised all the gods for the king's sake.
    .............t, Yam who followed ..... ..... in order to inform the majesty of Mernere, my lord, ............ after the chief of Yam. Now when I had pacified that chief of Yam ........... below Irthet and above Sethu, I found the chief of Irthet, Sethu, and Wawat ..... ..... ..... ..... .....
    I descended with three hundred asses laden with incense, ebony, heknu, grain, panthers, .... ..... , ivory, [throw-sticks], and every good product. Now when the chief of Irthet, Sethu, and Wawat saw how strong and numerous was the troop of Yam, which descended with me to the court, and the soldiers who had been with me, (then) this [chief] brought and gave me bulls and small cattle, and conducted me to the roads of the highlands of Irthet, because I was more excellent, vigilant, and ....... than any count, companion, or caravan-conductor, who had been sent to Yam before. Now, when the servant there was descending to the court, one sent the ..... , sole companion, the master of the bath, Khuni, up-stream with a vessel laden with date-wine, [cakes], bread and beer. The count, wearer of the royal seal, sole companion, ritual priest, treasurer of the god, privy councilor of decrees, the revered, Harkhuf.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I §§ 328ff
Third expedition
Setting out from Wehat (Uhet) he followed the chief of Yam to Tjemeh (Temeh) and returned via Irtjet (Irthet) and Setju (Sethu).
According to J. Yoyotte [1] Wehat (wHA.t =oasis) lay west of the Nile and Yam was therefore a region in the Libyan desert.


Royal seal, year 2, third month of the first season, day 15.
    Royal decree (to) the sole companion, the ritual priest and caravan-conductor Harkhuf.
    I have noted the matter of this thy letter, which thou hast sent to the king, to the palace, in order that one might know that thou hast descended in safety from Yam with the army which was with thee. Thou hast said [in] this thy letter, that thou hast brought all great and beautiful gifts, which Hathor, mistress of Imu hath given to the ka of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Neferkere who liveth forever and ever. Thou hast said in this thy letter, that thou hast brought a dancing dwarf of the god from the land of spirits, like the dwarf which the treasurer of the god Burded brought from Punt in the time of Isesi. Thou hast said to my majesty:"never before has one like him been brought by any other who has visited Yam.


Fourth expedition
Harkhuf received this royal letter from the 8 year old Pepi II, when he was on his way back from his fourth expedition to the south. He had it engraved on his tomb.
Isesi : Djedkare (ca. 2413-2381) who ruled about a century before Pepi II
Neferkere : Pepi II (ca. 2279-2181)
year 2, third month of the first season, day 15: Julian date: May, ca. 2277 BCE
    Each year [....] thee doing that which thy lord desires and praises; thou spendest day and night [with the caravan] in doing that which thy lord desires, praises, and commands. His majesty will make thy many excellent honors to be an ornament for the son of thy son forever, so that all people will say when they hear what my majesty doeth for thee: "Is there anything like this which was done for the sole companion, Harkhuf, when he descended from Yam, because of the vigilance he showed, to do that which his lord desired, praised, and commanded.
    Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If thou arrivest at court this dwarf being with thee alive, prosperous and healthy, my majesty will do for thee a greater thing than that which was done for the treasurer of the god Burded in the time of Isesi, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see the dwarf.
    Commands have been sent to the chief of the New Towns, the companion, and superior prophet, to command that sustenance be taken from him in every store-city and every temple, without stinting therein.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I §§ 351 ff


[1] Jean Yoyotte: Pour une localisation du pays de Iam, BIFAO 52 (1953), p.173ff.

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-Merenre, 3rd Ruler of Egypt's 6th Dynasty
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