Ancient Egypt: Main Index
Ancient Egyptian ships and boats:
The archaeological evidence
The state involvement
Ship construction
Sailing the ships
Constructions facilitating navigation
    Canals
    Dams
    Harbours
    Portages
Piracy

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oarsmen
Oarsmen
(State Museum, Berlin)
-

Ships and Boats

The archaeological evidence

Model ship - (North Carolina Museum of Art)
Model boat
Source: North Carolina Museum of Art

    The slow flowing Nile was almost ideal for transportation though occasional storms might endanger shipping or lack of wind hold it up. From earliest times Egyptians built boats for transportation, fishing and enjoyment.[14] Their importance in every day life is reflected in the role they played in mythology and religion.

    Little is left of actual boats. Remains of Old Kingdom boats were found at Tarkhan and Abydos, and King Khufu's ship is well known and demonstrates best how ships were built during that period.
    The first dynasty boats found at Abydos were about 25 metres long, two to three metres wide and about sixty centimetres deep, seating 30 rowers. They had narrowing sterns and prows and there is evidence that they were painted. They do not seem to have been models but actual boats built of wood too much decayed to analyse, some suspect that it was cedar, others deny this. Thick planks were lashed together by rope fed through mortises. The seams between them were caulked with reeds. The boats did not have any internal framing and were twisted when they were uncovered.

    Egypt abounds with pictures and models of boats and ships. The walls of temples and tombs at Deir el Bahri and Medinet Habu are covered with them, but very little is known, about how New Kingdom ships were actually put together.

List of boats offered
List of offerings of boats
Source: W.S.Smith, The Coffin of Prince Min-khaf,
Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volume XIX, 1933
 
    Sometimes we know what the boats looked like without knowing what they were called, at others we have their names but do not really have much of a clue what they looked like. On the coffin of the 4th dynasty prince Minkhaf, which was found in a mastaba in the eastern Giza cemetery, there are inscriptions of offerings and among them a list of boats:
1000 SAbt-boats, 1000 wAHt(?)-boats, 1000 sTr-boats, 1000 nHbt-boats
W.S.Smith, The Coffin of Prince Min-khaf, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volume XIX, 1933
    W.S.Smith surmised that the nHbt with its determinatives of 'lotus-flower' and 'boat' was probably a light reed boat.
    Models of logboats from a Giza tomb and from a site in the Delta have survived, but dugouts were probably very unusual, as trees of suitable size and timber quality were rare in Egypt [10].

The state involvement

    A number of pharaohs saw the need for a strong navy, i.e. Snefru who according to the Palermo Stone built 100-cubit ships of meru wood  [18] and 60 sixteen-barges before hacking up the land of the Negro, bringing of 7,000 prisoners, and 200,000 large and small cattle, Thutmose III, the architect of the empire in Asia, Necho II struggling with the Babylonians and Ramses III, who had to contend with the Sea Peoples. Ramses wrote a 'report' to Amen
I built you ships, freight ships, arched ships with rigging, plying the Big Green (the sea). I manned them with archers, captains and innumerable sailors, to bring the goods of the Land of Tyre and the foreign countries at the end of the world to your storage rooms at Thebes the Victorious.

    The royal fleet was supervised by the Chief of the Royal Ships, an important administrative rather than military position, which under the 26th dynasty seems to have included the responsibility for the taxation of merchandise transported on the Nile.
    Under Thutmose III the butler Nebamen and under Amenhotep II another butler, Suemniut, were given the office; and in a later era of economical and political growth, the Saite Period, the Overseer of the Scribes of the Magistrates Tjaenhebu, and, under Ahmose II, Hekaemsaf and Psammetik-mery-Ptah filled the post. A like title, Chief of the Ships of the Lord of the two Lands, was bestowed upon one Paakhraef.
    Temple fleets were similarly organized: The priests of Amen appointed a Chief of the ships of Amen, the servants of Ptah a Chief of the Ships of the House of Ptah [3].

    Egyptian seagoing ships were inferior to those used by other peoples, despite remarkable feats achieved, among them the expeditions along the eastern coast of Africa during the reign of Hatshepsut at the beginning of the 15th century BCE and the crossing of the Indian Ocean with seventy metre long ships in the times of Ramses III 300 years later. From the 20th dynasty onwards the Egyptians began to copy ships used by their rivals.
    Many trade and exploration ventures were initiated by the administration, such as the voyages to Punt under Hatshepsut and the circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenician sailors under Necho.

    Private ownership of ships existed at least during the First Intermediate Period, documented by biographical inscriptions. The weakness of the state and its consequent inability to build ships needed for the transportation of people and goods stimulated private enterprise.
    During the Late Period Greeks and Phoenicians spread along the Mediterranean coast, building colonies. The Ionians and Carians settled in the Delta and their centre of Naukratis became an important port and was encouraged by a number of pharaohs.

Model of ship with crew hoisting or trimming sail
Model of ship, with crew hoisting or trimming the sail.
(Source: Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Egypte)
 

Ship construction

   See also: Early ship construction

    As there was very little wood available, the first vessels were made of bundled papyrus reeds. Simple rafts in the beginning, they grew into sizable 'ships' and were, as Thor Heyerdahl proved with his ocean crossing, seaworthy–given luck [5]. They had a sickle shaped hull and often masts and sometimes deck houses.
    Small papyrus rafts served the population throughout much of Egypt's history, for as long as the raw material was readily available. They were cheap to make and did not require great expertise to build. Papyrus died out in Egypt and was reintroduced in the 20th century.

Bronze mast finial     Transportation of heavy loads, international trade and war required stronger ships than could be built from papyrus. These wooden vessels were similar in form to the old reed boats, had a flat bottom and a square stern. As they were without a keel onto which it could be stepped, the mast was often bipod, fastened to the gunwale. Later, under the influence of Byblos, with which they were in close contact, the Egyptians adopted a single central mast, which sometimes was topped with a bronze finial to which the ropes were tied.

Bronze mast finial

    Instead of fitting rowlocks on the gunwale to keep the oars in place, rope was used to serve as fulcrum. Smaller boats were paddled.

    Ships were constructed in ship-building yards (wxr.t), first mentioned in the Old Kingdom. During the New Kingdom the main ship yard was at Memphis. Specialized carpenters were charged with building the ships. A thirty metre long transportation barge took seventeen days to build [6]. The techniques do not seem to have changed over time. Herodotus' description of the construction of a ship could have been written centuries earlier:
Their boats with which they carry cargoes are made of the thorny acacia, of which the form is very like that of the Kyrenian lotos, and that which exudes from it is gum. From this tree they cut pieces of wood about two cubits in length and arrange them like bricks, fastening the boat together by running a great number of long bolts through the two-cubits pieces; and when they have thus fastened the boat together, they lay cross-pieces over the top, using no ribs for the sides; and within they caulk the seams with papyrus. They make one steering-oar for it, which is passed through the bottom of the boat; and they have a mast of acacia and sails of papyrus. These boats cannot sail up the river unless there be a very fresh wind blowing, but are towed from the shore: from this acacia tree they cut planks 3 feet long, which they put together like courses of brick, building up the hull as follows: they joined these three foot lengths together with long close set dowels; when they have built up the hull in this fashion they stretch cross beams over them. They use no ribs, and they caulk the seams from the inside, using papyrus
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
Building a boat     Cedar wood, imported from Lebanon as long ago as the Early Dynastic Period [1], was much more suitable for shipbuilding than the local acacia. Snefru's
Bringing of 40 ships filled (with) cedar wood
and
Building of a 100-cubit dewatowe-ship of cedar wood, and 2 100-cubit ships of meru wood [18]
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part One § 146f
was recorded on the Palermo Stone. Many other kinds of wood found use too. A 12th dynasty exemplary letter contains the following sentence:
A message for the lord, l.p.h., concerning me being sent a mast of conifer wood, a rudder of juniper, (and) a rudder post peg of ebony for the tackle (?) of the great Byblos ship of this servant (i.e. the writer).
Exemplary letter of In-su, MMA 28.9.4
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site
    During the second millennium BCE obelisks weighing 300 tons were transported from Aswan downriver in ships specially reinforced to carry such heavy loads.

figurehead Antelope figurehead
Tomb KV 11, 20th dynasty
From Champollion, Monuments de l'Egypte e de la Nubie

    Sometimes figureheads were affixed to the bow of the ship. Interestingly, in contrast to European usage, Egyptian figureheads faced backwards.

navigation in ancient egypt

Sailing the ships

Pulling a boat. Source: Lepsius
Old Kingdom boat being towed by boats and people
Source of drawing: C.R.Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien,1897

 
    The river ships were propelled either by oar or sail, sometimes they were towed or just left to drift downstream.
 
Sailing ships. Source: Lepsius
Old Kingdom ships being sailed
Source of drawing: C.R.Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien,1897
Down-stream they travel as follows: they have a door-shaped crate made of tamarisk wood and reed mats sewn together, and also a stone of about two talents weight bored with a hole; and of these the boatman lets the crate float on in front of the boat, fastened with a rope, and the stone drags behind by another rope. The crate then, as the force of the stream presses upon it, goes on swiftly and draws on the baris (for so these boats are called), while the stone dragging after it behind and sunk deep in the water keeps its course straight. These boats they have in great numbers and some of them carry many thousands of talents' burden.
Herodotus, Histories 2, 96
    During the Old Kingdom, ships were steered with two large unsupported oars held by helmsmen in both hands. Later the oars were connected to tillers [2]. Even with this improvement steering was hard work. Amenhotep II, a powerful man according to experts who examined his mummy, was described thus
His arms were strong and didn't get tired holding the oar and steering in the stern of the king's ship, heading a crew of 200 sailors. When the ship stopped after these men had traversed half an atur (about 5 km) they were left without breath; their limbs were weak , they choked. But His Majesty's strength didn't fail him steering with an oar twenty cubits long. When he dropped anchor  [15] and tied up the ship with a cable, he had traversed three atur steering the ship without resting during the preparations. The hearts of the people were glad seeing his achievements.
    In ancient Egypt sails were always rectangular. During the Old Kingdom only the top of the sail was tied to a spar, while the bottom was tied to the bulwarks. Later the sail was fastened between a top and bottom spar. In Akhenaten's time the advanced brailed sail with small ropes on its edges for trussing came into use, making the furling of the sail easier.
    There is archaeological and other evidence that Egyptians adopted many practices of other seafaring nations, such as the Phoenicians and Greeks. In the Late Period Egypt came to depend to a high degree on foreign ships and sailors.

Constructions facilitating navigation

Canals

    While the Mediterranean region was easily accessible to Egyptian maritime traders, Eastern Africa was less so. [Map: Wadi Hammamat] Under Senusret III (1850 BCE) and a number of other pharaohs, the last being Ptolemy II, a canal was being dug and re-dug connecting the Nile to the Bitter Lakes, falling into disrepair during times of trouble.
    When no canal was available ships had to be built so they could be dismantled, carried overland through Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea and reassembled. During the times when these ships were not in use, they were apparently taken apart and stored: in the Wadi Gawasis man-made caves were found which served for storage of timbers, cordage, and other ship's stores [7].
    The Nile cataracts were obstacles that had to be dealt with. A canal cut through rock enabled navigation beyond the first cataract, and a slipway near the fortress of Mirgissa at the second cataract has been found by archaeologists.

Dams

    Dams were built too, sometimes with military or commercial aims in mind, at others probably serving for flood protection or irrigation. Herodotus claims that Menes built a dyke diverting the Nile in order to protect Memphis from inundations. [12] The Sadd el-Kafara in Wadi Garawi, the oldest known dam in the world, collapsed not long after its erection in the early Old Kingdom. Its purpose is unclear. [11] Another dam was constructed at Semna probably during the reign of Amenemhet III (1841-1796 BCE) and was in use until the times of Amenemhet V, as the unusually high readings of the river level - 8 metres above normal - seem to bear out. It was apparently constructed in order to facilitate navigation. The dam of Senusret II in the Fayum was built to control the level of Lake Moeris. [13]

Harbours

    The Pharos [4] lighthouse of Alexandria, perhaps not the first Egyptian lighthouse, Alexandria harbour though no records of any earlier ones have been found, was built under Ptolemy Soter from about 290 BCE till 270 at the entrance to what was to become one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean. Its height of more than 100 metres made it visible at distances of about fifty kilometres. During day time a mirror was used to reflect the sun, at night a fire was lit.
    The island of Pharos was later connected to the mainland by the Heptastadium an artificial isthmus which afforded better protection for the Port of Pharos, later the East Harbour.
    Harbours and quays were built along the Nile and the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts [8]. Especially important were well constructed quays in places where heavy loads were shipped, near Qasr el Sagha on the shore of Lake of Moeris for instance. From the quarry at Widan el Faras blocks of basalt were transported to the quay on a road with flagstone pavement. As the height of the Nile differed greatly between the various seasons, at times more than one pier was constructed to serve the same site, thus at Luxor, the low water landing site has two stairs leading to a small platform, five by two and a half metres big, while the high water pier was much more massive, having to serve for the unloading of heavy wares, which were preferably shipped during the inundation season. [17]
    At times harbour buildings seem to have reached the water's edge. Piye described how he captured all the ships and boats at anchor in the harbour of Memphis, how he was brought
...the ships, as many as there were, which had moored in the harbor of Memphis, with the bow-rope fastened among its houses.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906, Part Four, § 836
    Often harbour constructions were rudimentary or non-existent. In the first millennium BCE Ionians settled at first on the Pelusian arm of the Nile, where they beached their ships with the help of windlasses as they were accustomed to do.
... in the land from which they were removed there still remained down to my time the winches with which their ships were drawn up and the ruins of their houses.
Herodotus, Histories: Euterpe 2.154.1

Portages

    In order to get to the Red Sea or pass the Nile cataracts, the Egyptians established slipways for the transportation of their river and sea craft overland. The ships were constructed in such a way, that the could be taken apart and reassembled with relative ease, but at times they were loaded whole on sledges or waggons and dragged to the launching site. Most of these slipways were probably just levelled stretches of dirt road baked stone hard by the sun, but some of them were reinforced with mudbricks, slabs of stone, or wooden logs. The length of these slipways could be considerable. At Mirgissa, where the second cataract had to be overcome, the strategically important "boat way" was more than a kilometre long und built on an infrastructure of timber and mud brick.[19]

Piracy

    Robbers infested the waterways, as much of the wealth of Egypt was transported on the river, and without an effective police force to oppose them, they often succeeded. A skipper was robbed of 12 silver pieces belonging to the temple of Amen-Re and he made a report:
[/// of ///] the mariner, [and of ///], as they are speaking unanimously [to the /// of] /// and of Amen-Re, lord of the Udja land, when he was on duty: [///] You have given us 12 pieces of silver, making 60 stater. [/// ///]; they (i.e. the pieces of silver) were on our ship, into the /// of which they forced their entry. [/// They threatened us and said:] "Give all silver and all of the world, which has come into [///]!" [/////] and the 12 pieces of silver, which have been made a note of above. [/////]. [//////]
Demotic Papyrus, late Ptolemaic or Roman
P.Giss. Inv.Nr. 174
After Ursula Kaplony-Heckel, Die Giessener hieroglyphischen und demotischen Texte, Giessen: 1986
    On the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean sailors had even less protection. There were peoples, such as the Sea Peoples during the Late Bronze Age, specializing in piracy and it was only in Roman times that there was a naval power strong enough to enforce at least a semblance of law on the seas. But Pliny warned travellers to India not to disembark at Muziris:
This, however, is not a very desirable place for disembarkation, on account of the pirates which frequent its vicinity, where they occupy a place called Nitrias
Pliny, Natural History, Book 6, Chap.26: Voyages to India

 


[4] Ptolemy Lagus (Ptolemy Soter I, Meryamun Setepenre), 305-282 BCE, was the first Ptolemy to rule Egypt. He began the construction of the Pharos.
There is another building, too, that is highly celebrated; the tower that was built by a king of Egypt, on the island of Pharos, at the entrance to the harbour of Alexandria. The cost of its erection was eight hundred talents, they say; and, not to omit the magnanimity that was shown by King Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy Lagus) on this occasion, he gave permission to the architect, Sostratus of Cnidos, to inscribe his name upon the edifice itself. The object of it is, by the light of its fires at night, to give warning to ships, of the neighbouring shoals, and to point out to them the entrance of the harbour. At the present day, there are similar fires lighted up in numerous places, Ostia and Ravenna, for example. The only danger is, that when these fires are thus kept burning without intermission, they may be mistaken for stars, the flames having very much that appearance at a distance. This architect is the first person that built a promenade upon arches, at Cnidos, it is said.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXVI, §18
The inscription of Sostratus read: Sostratus son of Dexiphanes of Cnidos to the Saviour Gods on behalf of seafarers.
[5] Which is not proof that the ancient Egyptians reached America. Moreover, Heyerdahl appears to have rebuilt an ancient Egyptian wooden ship, turning it into a boatlike raft by using reeds.
[6] Helk, W.; Otto E. : Kleines Lexikon der Ägyptologie, entry "Schiffe"
[7] The precise location of the pre-Roman port in the region of modern Quseir is unknown. During Roman times the port of Myor Hormos was a bit to the north of the modern town.
[8] Supplying water to large populations on the Red Sea coast was difficult. The number of towns remained accordingly small. The port of Berenike, founded by Ptolemy II near today's border between Sudan and Egypt served for the importation of elephants used in war [9]. According to Aldsworth et al. it appears that the water had to be brought in from a well more then 8 km from the city.
[10] Sean Macgrail, Boats of the World: from the Stone Age to Medieval Times, 2002 Oxford University Press, p.23. The models are held at the Israeli National Maritime Museum, Haifa.
[11] Willi H. Hager, Glenn Owen Brown, Jürgen Garbrecht, eds, Henry P.G. Darcy and Other Pioneers in Hydraulics: Contributions in Celebration of the 200th Birthday of Henry Philibert Gaspard Darcy, ASCE Publications 2003, pp.130f.
[12] Herodotus, Euterpe, 2.99.2
Eighth millennium drawing of a Nile boat [13] Miroslav Verner, The Pyramids: The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments, Grove Press 2002, p.386
[14] The oldest depiction of a Nile boat dates to the 8th millennium and shows the stern of the boat with an oar affixed to a tiller and a cabin amidships. The part of the stone showing the prow is broken off. (D. Usai & S. Salvatori, "The oldest representation of a Nile boat," Antiquity Vol 81 issue 314 December 2007)
After an illustration in Antiquity Vol 81 issue 314 December 2007

[15] Anchors were stones, pierced at one end, tied to a rope. [16] Their action depended on the friction they created, when being dragged over the the river bottom.
[18] mrw, translit. mrw, Wb 2, 108.14-109.1: cedar wood
[19] Pearce Paul Creasman, Noreen Doyle, Overland Boat Transportation During the Pharaonic Period: Archaeology and Iconography, Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, Vol. 2:3, 2010.

- -Seagoing vessels
-River boats
-Solar ships and funerary boats
-Early ship construction and Khufu's solar boat
-Navigable canals
-Voyages of exploration
 
-Index of Topics
-Main Index and Search Page

 

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 sites

 

Abydos boats[1] Abydos boats
Helmsman on a boat[2] Helmsman on a boat in the tomb of Niankh-Pepi and Pepi-ankh
A Funerary Statuette of Hekaemsaf[3] A Funerary Statuette of Hekaemsaf, Chief of the Royal Ships in the Saitic Period by Gun Björkman
The Berenike Project[9] The Berenike Project
The Berenike Project[16] Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn A. Bard editors, Mersa/Wadi Gawasis 2006-2007 Report, contains a picture (Fig. 15) of two anchor stones.
Decouverte d'un nouveau port a Louxor[17] Découverte d'un nouveau port à Louxor (French)
History and archaeology of the shipHistory and archaeology of the ship - lecture notes by John Illsley
Ships in EgyptShips in Egypt: Pottery with pictures of ships (Naqada Period), Timbers from Tarkhan, Old Kingdom scenes, wooden models ( Site of the UCL)
-Bibliography for preclassical seafaring
A Selection of Model Boats from the tomb of MeketreA Selection of Model Boats from the tomb of Meketre.
Abydos BoatAbydos Boat
The Ships of AntiquityThe Ships of Antiquity
Ship construction terminology in HerodotusShip construction terminology in Herodotus by Steve Vinson
royal boatsAfter 5,000 year voyage, world's oldest built boats deliver (Archeologists' first look confirms existence of earliest royal boats at Abydos) by Richard Pierce

 

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