Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egyptian means of transportation: Walking, ferries, litters, chariots, carts, sledges, beasts of burden and ships.
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Woven Sandals
(source: mfa, Boston)
Bridge at Zaru Bridge at Tjaru (Zaru)

Means of transportation

Man carrying pot on his backTalatat


Left: Karnak talatat
Right: Statuette with cosmetics container
Extract. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    The major means of getting about was, not surprisingly, by foot, and literally so. The Egyptians used sandals, but when walking long distances, they seem to have carried them in their hands and put them on when arriving at their destination.
    Mostly elderly people used walking-sticks [9] at times, as did travellers. Do not walk the road without a stick in your hand exhorted the Late Period scribe Ankhsheshonq, the stick serving probably both as a weapon against robbers and as much as a walking aid.
    Men are generally depicted carrying loads on yokes, on their backs or on their shoulders. Women appear to have balanced them on their heads or supported them with their hips.
    Many of the roads were a result of canal digging: the embankment of excavated earth serving as road even in times of inundation. They were paved only when there were special circumstances which happened only rarely [3]. Thanks to the scarcity of rain even ordinary dirt roads above the highwater level of the Nile flood were passable all year long.
    A day's march was between 20 and 40 kilometres [11].


    The canals and shallower river arms could generally be crossed by wading or, if they were too wide and deep, by ferry boat [8]. Fording them was never completely without risk as hippos and crocodiles lived in the lower Nile in those days.
And Ra heard Bata's prayer, and caused a river to flow between them. The river was wide and full of crocodiles. The two brothers stood on opposite banks of the river.
The Tale of two Brothers
    During the season of inundation getting around was more difficult. One of the moral duties of the nobility and the wealthy in general was the ferrying across the river of people who had no boat. (Other duties were the feeding of the hungry and clothing of the poor, and, as happens with most moral obligations, probably rarely observed). Some made sure that the gods would know that they had obeyed them in this life. Living under the sixth dynasty an official called Sheshi claimed to have brought the boatless to land. He went even further and made a boat for him who lacked one. A few centuries later Qedes was more modest in his assertions:
I made a boat of 30 (cubits) and a small boat that ferried the boatless in the inundation season. I acquired these in the household of my father Iti; (but) it was my mother Ibeb who acquired them for me.
Stela of the soldier Qedes from Gebelein, First Intermediate Period
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p. 90
There is no mention that these services were provided free of charge.
    Bridges while not unknown (there is a picture of a bridge in a relief depicting the victorious return of Seti I from a campaign in Canaan) were rare and not long enough to span the Nile or even one of its major arms during much of ancient history. In later times they seem to have become more frequent, above all in places of strategic importance. [15].


Old Kingdom litter. Detail from the Narmer mace head; Source: V.Easy
Old Kingdom litter.
Detail from the Narmer mace head
Source: V.Easy
    In the Old Kingdom the better-off travelled occasionally in litters
When the mast had been lowered and the ship made fast to the river bank, Hordedef continued his journey by land. He was made comfortable in an ebony carrying chair with Snedjem wood poles plated with gold.
From The Magic of Djed Djedi translated by Francis Niedenfuhr
Papyrus Westcar
Urkhu     Carrying chairs were borne by men, but sometimes they were apparently adapted and strapped to the back of donkeys as a sort of primitive saddle.

Urkhu inspecting his fields
Excerpt, source: Georg Ebers, Aegypten in Bild und Wort, Vol. I, Stuttgart/Leipzig, 1879

    The tomb of Queen Hetep-heres I, mother of Khufu, discovered by G. Reisner in 1923 contained a much decayed carrying-chair, which was reconstructed (photo below).
Restored carrying chair belonging to Queen Hetep-heres I; Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston-

Reconstructed carrying chair belonging to Queen Hetep-heres I;
Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

    During the New Kingdom the litter was generally used for ostentation only, such as the time when Horemheb was celebrating his triumph. These ceremonial litters consisted of a canopy covered armchair to which four long poles were fixed, and they were carried by twelve men, an honour vied for by princes and nobles.


    For their daily use even the pharaohs preferred the chariot. Horses were introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos in the 17th century. Although the art of riding was known and occasionally practiced, horses were generally not mounted until half a millennium later, but were harnessed to chariots. Expensive to keep, they never became a popular means of transportation and served only the elite and the military.


    Wheeled vehicles other than chariots are very rarely depicted. Some talatat from Karnak show waggons used for transporting cattle running on disk wheels, with the axle and lynch pin clearly displayed. Occasionally barques and boats were also transported overland on wheeled carts, though what looks like wheels may have been rollers at times.[18]


sledge and wheeled hearse

Sledge and wheeled hearse
Tomb of Petosiris
Source: Lefebvre Le tombeau de Petosiris

    Wheeled vehicles were never widely used and for heavy loads they were not strong enough anyway. Giant statues and the like were loaded onto wooden sledges and dragged by large numbers of men. Smaller loads were also often transported by sledge. In the tomb of Petosiris (ca.300 BCE) there is a depiction of a mummy being transported to its tomb on a wheeled hearse, which was, even in this late era, unusual. The little naos following the hearse on the other hand was loaded onto a sledge.
    To facilitate the movement of sledges on packed, sunbaked soil, small amounts of water were poured on the ground before them, turning the top layer into a slick, smooth surface. More rarely the sledges were placed on rollers.
(Excerpt from a picture on the site of the Royal Ontario Museum [2])

Beasts of burden

    Donkeys were domesticated in prehistoric times and employed extensively for carrying loads and, less commonly, for riding.[16] Even kings appear to have made use of them, as recent excavations of Aha's tomb at Abydos, where ten donkey skeletons were found, indicate [5].
    They were kept in large numbers throughout Egypt in spite of their not very docile character. In Ramesside times the temple of Amen alone had 11 million donkeys on its lands. Mules, taller than donkeys and more amenable, are known since the New Kingdom. [17]
    During the Graeco-Roman period horses were more available than they had been in earlier times and were occasionally used as beasts of burden, as some customs receipts show.
    Camels have been known in Egypt probably since the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, but there is practically no evidence of their existence, let alone of their use as domesticated animals. Foreigners seem to have used camels in their trade with Egypt the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C. when Abraham [4] and his immediate descendants appear to have lived, camels were already known in small numbers in the northwestern corner of the Arabian desert where the western Arabian trade route branched out to go to Egypt or further into Syria.
Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, 1975 [6]
    During the 'time of Jacob' [4]
25     .... a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.
Genesis, 37
This passage is used as an illustration of (possibly anachronistic)
traditional views of transportation held by the Hebrews,
not as evidence of an historic event.
    Camels were introduced into Egypt in larger numbers by the invading Persians in the 5th century BCE.
Egyptian ship
Model (Naval Museum, Haifa, Israel)


    Rafts, boats and ships were the main means of transportation. Apart from a few exceptions people lived in a narrow stretch of land alongside the Nile, a slow flowing river without major obstacles in the lower regions of the country. Where needed, canals were cut. The Fayum, a major agricultural region west of the Nile, could be irrigated thanks to such a canal, which, at least in times of high water, must have served for navigation as well.
    The virtual absence of animals suited to desert travel such as camels until Persian times, was a major inducement for the excavation of a shipping canal connecting the Nile and the Red Sea. But during the times when the canal was not navigable, caravans of people and donkeys crossed the Wadi Hammamat to Qoseir on the Red Sea and the Wadi Tumilat to the Bitter Lakes. The logistical problems of such traffic were enormous.

    The speed of travelling on the river depended on the direction of the journey, the strength of the wind and the current, the boat and its crew. Generally, one did not travel on the Nile in the dark. Nitocris covered the distance between Sais in the Delta and Thebes in about 16 days [14]. Herodotus needed 9 days to reach Thebes from Heliopolis, a distance of about 630 km. Pliny travelled upriver from Juliopolis on the Mediterranean coast to Thebes in 12 days [13]. In antiquity, the average speed sailing up-river was between 40 and 70 kms per day [12].
Prevailing summer winds     While navigation on the Nile was quite safe, the open sea was a different matter. Even on the quiet Mediterranean early sailors preferred to sail close to the shore, landing at nightfall. Once navigation over the open sea had been mastered, ships crossed the Mediterranean reaching Crete and later Greece and Italy.
    In summer northwesterly winds prevail between Egypt and Rome. As ancient ships could not sail into the wind, a more southerly route, closer to Africa than Europe, was generally chosen for Rome bound trips. These journeys were quite dangerous in the fragile little ships of the time. They therefore often took place from late spring to early autumn, when conditions were most favourable with the trip occasionally taking as little as five days [10]. The greatest part of the Egyptian grain for instance was shipped to Rome during May and June.
    The East African Punt could best be reached in early summer when the winds were northerly to north-westerly. In autumn they shifted to southerly to south-easterly in the southern part of the Red Sea facilitating the return journey.[17] In the northern part of the Red Sea, where mostly northerlies blow all year round, they must have used their oars quite a bit.
    The winds were similarly favourable for journeys in the direction of India [13], westerlies and south-westerlies in summer and east-north-easterlies in winter. Indian sailors were seemingly the first to explore these seas and used the monsoons to establish trade links with Mesopotamia, and like the Arab dhows, lateen rigged ships able to sail into the wind, they plied the coastal waters. Around 100 BCE Hippalus, a Greek, set out in August, sailing into the wide Arabian Sea directly towards the Malabar coast.
    Ships sailing before the wind could reach speeds of about 10 kilometres per hour [1], i.e. at best somewhat more than 200 km a day—if they sailed through the night. Bab el Mandeb is at 2250 km from Suez, the Horn of Africa a further 900. From there, crossing the Arabian Sea one reached India in the region of today's Bombay after a journey of about 2400 km. If they kept in sight of the coast the route would be about 40% longer.

Picture sources:
[  ] The restored carrying chair belonging to Queen Hetep-heres I: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; vol.XXVII, 1929
[3] In the Fayum an Old Kingdom road paved with flagstones facilitated the transportation of stone from the basalt quarries at Gebel Qatrani to Lake Moeris, where it was loaded onto ships. This perfectly straight road was 11.5 kilometres long and had a width of more than 2 metres.
At Buhen in Lower Nubia some roads were paved with burnt-clay tiles.
[4] Abraham, father of Isaac, and his grandson Jacob have been claimed by various people to have lived during the Middle Kingdom, the Second Intermediate Period or even the New Kingdom. They cannot be considered as historic persons, nor bible accounts concerning them as reliable, scientifically acceptable testimony. On the other hand, these stories reveal that their composers had some knowledge of Egyptian society and can therefore be used for illustrative purposes.
[8] The eloquent peasant asks rhetorically in his fourth petition:
If the ferry is grounded, wherewith does one cross ? ......
Is crossing the river on sandals a good crossing?
M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.177
[9] Kings, too, possessed walking sticks, though one may doubt that they were used for walking large distances. Quite a collection of them were found in Tutankhamen's tomb, and among the plunder Thutmose III brought home from Syria were decorated walking-sticks and litters, duly listed:
Walking sticks with human heads.
Carrying chairs of that enemy of ivory, ebony, and
ssnDm-wood worked with gold.
M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.34
[10] The distance between Egypt and the south of Italy is about 1,500 km, and the sailing speed averaged about 10 to 15 km/h in Roman times. The plant Pliny talks about in the following quote is flax, used for making sails:
To think that here is a plant which brings Egypt in close proximity to Italy!--so much so, in fact, that Galerius and Balbillus, both of them prefects of Egypt, made the passage to Alexandria from the Straits of Sicily, the one in six days, the other in five! It was only this very last summer, that Valerius Marianus, a senator of praetorian rank, reached Alexandria from Puteoli in eight days, and that, too, with a very moderate breeze all the time!
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
[11] Thutmose and his army crossed the the Sinai Desert in 9 days, a distance of about 200 km. (cf. Account of the Megiddo battle.)
[13] Pliny's description of the journey to India up the Nile, through Wadi Hammamat, across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean:
Two miles distant from Alexandria is the town of Juliopolis. The distance thence to Coptos, up the Nile, is three hundred and eight miles; the voyage is performed, when the Etesian winds are blowing, in twelve days. From Coptos the journey is made with the aid of camels, stations being arranged at intervals for the supply of fresh water. The first of these stations is called Hydreuma, and is distant twenty-two miles; the second is situate on a mountain, at a distance of one day's journey from the last; the third is at a second Hydreuma, distant from Coptos ninety-five miles; the fourth is on a mountain; the next to that is at another Hydreuma, that of Apollo, and is distant from Coptos one hundred and eighty-four miles; after which, there is another on a mountain. There is then another station at a place called the New Hydreuma, distant from Coptos two hundred and thirty miles: and next to it there is another, called the Old Hydreuma, or the Troglodytic, where a detachment is always on guard, with a caravansary that affords lodging for two thousand persons. This last is distant from the New Hydreuma seven miles. After leaving it we come to the city of Berenice, situate upon a harbour of the Red Sea, and distant from Coptos two hundred and fifty-seven miles. The greater part of this distance is generally travelled by night, on account of the extreme heat, the day being spent at the stations; in consequence of which it takes twelve days to perform the whole journey from Coptos to Berenice.
Passengers generally set sail at midsummer, before the rising of the Dog-star, or else immediately after, and in about thirty days arrive at Ocelis in Arabia, or else at Cane, in the region which bears frankincense. There is also a third port of Arabia, Muza by name; it is not, however, used by persons on their passage to India, as only those touch at it who deal in incense and the perfumes of Arabia. More in the interior there is a city; the residence of the king there is called Sapphar, and there is another city known by the name of Save. To those who are bound for India, Ocelis is the best place for embareation. If the wind, called Hippalus, happens to be blowing, it is possible to arrive in forty days at the nearest mart of India, Muziris by name.
Pliny, Natural History, Book 6
By the way, Pliny recommended not alighting at Muziris, as it was infested by pirates.
[14] Psammetic I installed his daughter Nitocris as God's Wife in his 9th year
Year 9, month one of Inundation, day twenty-eight: going forth from the royal apartments by his eldest daughter clothed in fine linen and ornamented with new turquoise. Her retinue was with her, great in number, while police cleared her paths. Taking the beautiful path to the quay in order to head southwards to Thebes. Ships were with her in great numbers, the crews being of mighty troops
Year 9, month two of Inundation, day 14. Putting to land at the quay of the city of the gods, Thebes.
Donation Stela of Psammetic I
Betsy Bryan Property and the God's Wives of Amun
[15] Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) reports
At every mouth (of the Nile) a fortified town has been built which is divided by the river, and furnished on either bank with the appropriate defensive installations on the bridges.
Diodorus Siculus Historical Library, Vol.1, Chapter 33
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm
[16] In Egyptian depictions it was mostly foreigners who were shown riding donkeys.
[17] Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopian borderlands: essays in regional history from ancient times to the end of the 18th century, The Red Sea Press, 1997, p.4
[18] Pearce Paul Creasman, Noreen Doyle, Overland Boat Transportation During the Pharaonic Period: Archaeology and Iconography, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, Vol. 2:3, 2010, pp.20ff.

-Index of Topics
Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
-[1] Old World Trade Routes
-[2] Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, Royal Ontario Museum
-[5] Viajaba la realeza egipcia en burro
-[6] ...was the Bible wrong about Abraham having camels that early?
Journey times on the Nile[12] Journey times on the Nile
Donkeys and Mules[17] Donkeys and Mules


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