Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egypt: Voyages of exploration and trade
Voyages to Punt by Henenu under the 11th dynasty and by Senenmut under Hatshepsut
The circumnavigation of Africa under Necho

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Queen of Punt
Queen of Punt
Tomb of Hatshepsut

(Art History Resources, Duke University)

Voyages of Exploration and Trade

    The Egyptians undertook major journeys from very early times. To get the timber for building their great ships they had to sail hundreds of kilometres north-east to the mountains of Lebanon, while the closest they could find incense indispensible to their divine services was in Punt reached by sailing south through the Red Sea along the East African coast.

The Punt connection

    Myrrh, which originates in East Africa is mentioned in Early Dynastic times and a son of Khufu owned a Puntite slave.[7] The oldest written record of a trade connection with Punt, a region somewhere near the Horn of Africa,[7] is on the Palermo stone, dated to the 5th dynasty, where 20,000 measures of myrrh, [6000] /// of electrum are recorded to have been brought from Punt in the 13th year of king Sahure.[1] An expedition to Punt under Isesi is referred to in a letter by Pepi II to Harkhuf.[4].
    These voyages were not without risk. Apart from the dangers of the sea, described graphically in the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, an expedition might be attacked on land, as happened to Anankhet, who was killed by Bedouin with all his soldiers, while building a ship for a Punt expedition on the shores of the Red Sea. Pepi II sent Pepinakht to retrieve Anankhet's body and bring it back to Egypt for burial.[5] In spite of such setbacks the relations with Punt seem to have been quite lively during this period. The director of the dining hall Khnumhotep took part in eleven expeditions to Kush and Punt and recorded in his tomb inscription:
I was brought back in safety after I had visited these countries.
Inscription in the tomb of Khui [6]
    The goods brought back from Punt were on the one hand luxury goods such as dancing dwarfs destined for the royal court, on the other hand substances used in temple worship. With the decay of the central authority after the collapse of the sixth dynasty, the royal expeditions seem to have ceased for two centuries–at least no records of any Punt journeys during this time have come to light–and were renewd only under Mentuhotep III.

The expedition of Henenu

    During the 11th Dynasty, Henenu (also Henu, Hennu) with three thousand men transported the materials for building ships through Wadi Hammamat to the coast of the Red Sea:
I went forth from Coptos upon the road, which his majesty commanded me. There was with me an army of the South from //// of the Oxyrhyncus nome, the beginning thereof as far as Gebelen; the end thereof as far as [////], every office of the king's house, those who were in town and field, united, came after me. The army [////] cleared the way before, overthrowing those hostile toward the king, the hunters and the children of the highlands were posted as the protection of my limbs.
    The Red Land they had to cross was desert and the provisioning of such a large army difficult. This was exacerbated by the fact that camels were unavailable until Persian times and donkeys had to be used.
I gave a leathern bottle, a carrying pole, 2 jars of water and 20 loaves to each one among them every day. The asses were laden with sandals ..... Now, I made 12 wells in the bush, and two wells in Idehet, 20 square cubits in one, and 31 [square] cubits in the other. I made another in Iheteb, 20 by 20 cubits on each side
    On reaching the Great Green they assembled the ship and after sacrificing wild bulls, African oxen and small livestock, they sailed south along the Arabian peninsula.
I executed the command of his majesty, and I brought for him all the gifts, which I had found in the region of God's Land.
    He returned to Qoseir and continued to the Valley of Rohanu, where he collected rocks for statues.[2]
    This expedition, like similar ones in the time of Pepi II (ca. 2300 BCE), had both economic and political aims: the desert tribes along the Arabian coast were traditionally opposed to the maritime activities of the Egyptians and interfered with their trade with Punt, defending the monopoly they enjoyed much of the time. But the advantages of cutting out the middlemen were great and the armed journeys to Punt continued under Amenemhet II
Giving divine praise and laudation to Horus [///], to Min of Coptos, by the hereditary prince, count, wearer of the royal seal, the master of the judgment-hall Khentkhetwer after his arrival in safety from Punt; his army being with him, prosperous and healthy; and his ships having landed at Sewew. Year 28.
Inscription of Khentkhetwer,[6] reign of Amenemhet II
and under Amenemhet III who dispatched trading missions to Punt and Bia-Punt.[13]

The journeys to Punt under Hatshepsut

Expedition to Punt     In the summer of the eighth year of her reign, Queen Hatshepsut (1498-1483 BCE) sent Senenmet with a fleet of five ships with thirty rowers each from Qoseir, on the Red Sea, to the Land of Punt,[3] often also called "God's Land".
    It was primarily a trading expedition busy with buying myrrh and myrrh saplings, frankincense and fragrant unguents used for cosmetics and in religious ceremonies, but some animals and plants of no economic importance were also collected, brought back to Egypt and realistically depicted on Hatshepsut's temple walls at Deir el-Bahri, near Luxor in the Valley of the Kings.[3]
Stamp displaying a ship from the period of Hatshepsut- ... loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's-Land [the East], heaps of myrrh resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold of Emu, with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with two kinds of incense, eye-cosmetic, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning
Hatshepsut's Punt reliefs [11]
    The incense-trees were planted before the temple at Deir el-Bahri and their roots can still be seen.
    Apart from tangible goods the Egyptians brought back from Punt their impressions of the country and its inhabitants, immortalizing them in reliefs in Hatshepsut's Deir el Bahri temple. They also took note of the marine life in the Red Sea and depicted it faithfully.[12]
    The contacts with Punt continued throughout the New Kingdom. Great chiefs of Punt were received by Horemheb,[8] Seti I makes offerings of myrrh from Punt to Amen,[9] and in the Harris Papyrus the Punt expedition under Ramses III is described.[10]

The circumnavigation of Africa

The Mediterranean in the 7th century BCE     While the reason for Hatshepsut's voyage had mainly been economical - an attempt to corner the lucrative frankincense and myrrh trade, none is given by Herodotus for the expedition sent by Necho with the aim of sailing around Africa. But considering the control of the northern shores of the Mediterranean by the Greeks and of the southern coasts by the Phoenicians, the only region where Egypt, with its inferior fleet, might acquire some influence and wealth would have been eastern Africa. A canal through Wadi Tumilat and the Bitter Lakes would give Egypt control over the trade in frankincense, myrrh, ivory and other African and Arabian commodities by undercutting the overland caravans, even if the trade itself were conducted by Greeks and Phoenicians.
Libya (Africa) clearly is bounded by the sea, except where it borders on Asia. Nekhau king of Egypt first discovered this and made it known. When he had abandoned the digging of the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, he sent Phoenicians in ships, with orders to sail on their return voyage past the Pillars of Heracles (the straits of Gibraltar) until they came into the northern sea (the Mediterranean) and so to Egypt.
Herodotus, Histories 4.42
    Whether the circumnavigation of Africa was the result of the failure to complete the Tumilat canal - a search for an alternative route to east Africa, or an attempt to explore other possibilities the African continent might offer, one cannot be sure. Herodotus himself doubted the veracity of at least part of the account
Thus the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea (the Indian Ocean); whenever autumn came they would put in and plant the land in whatever part of Libya they had reached, and there await the harvest; then, having gathered the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the pillars of Heracles and came to Egypt. There, they said - some believe it, but I do not - that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand.
Herodotus, Histories 4.42
    Sailing around Africa was certainly possible; Phoenician ships of the period were ocean worthy, they had sailed through the straits of Gibraltar and down the African coast. No navigational aids were needed as long as the expedition kept in sight of the coast. The fact that the sun was reported to have changed its position is good evidence that it did happen. This and the disappearance of the familiar stellar constellations must have left a deep impression on the sailors' minds.
Kathryn A. Bard, Steven Blake Shubert, Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1999
J. H. Breasted: Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906,
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Times or a History of the Early World, Part 1, Kessinger 2003
Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian borderlands: essays in regional history from ancient times to the end of the 18th century, The Red Sea Press, 1997
[1] Breasted 1906, Part One, § 161
[3] Breasted 1906, Part Two, §§246-295
[4] Tomb inscription of Harkhuf
[5] Breasted 1906, Part One, §360
[5] Breasted 1906, Part One, §361
[6] Breasted 1906, Part One, §605
[7] Pankhurst 1997, p.4
[8] Breasted 1906, Part Three, §38
[9] Breasted 1906, Part Three, §116
[10] Breasted 1906, Part Four, §407
[11] Breasted, 2003, p.84
[12] Bard & Shubert 1999, p.819
[13] A dig at Wadi Gawassis led by Kathryn Bard uncovered a stela with records of expeditions to Punt and Bia-Punt. cf. accessed 5th December 2009

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-The tomb inscription of Harkhuf, who undertook expeditions to Kush
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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
-Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to the Land of Punt: The first oceanographic cruise?
-[2] Mentuhotep III , contains the account of Henenu expedition to Punt

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© August 2000
November, December 2009