Main Index
Ancient Egyptian river shipping: fishing boats, transportation barges, pleasure boats
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural Chronolgy Mythology Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian Terms Herodotus on the Pharaohs Ancient Egyptian Reader Apologia and Bibliography

For best results save the whole web page (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.

Two fishing boats Fishermen on papyrus rafts, netting fish
(Source: Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Egypte)

River shipping

Fishing boats

fishing boats

    While some Egyptians thought fish to be unclean, dried fish were nevertheless a staple food for most of the population. Reed rafts served for fishing. Nets and weir baskets were made from willow branches.


Transportation barges

Nile barges-     The Nile didn't just feed the Egyptians, it was both an obstacle and the main highway. Too wide to be bridged, there must have been a great many ferryboats carrying people and wares from one shore to the other. If you wanted to go anywhere, going by river would generally have been a good choice. We tend to forget that, until the invention of the steam engine, travelling by ship was generally faster and cheaper than any other kind of locomotion [1].
    The wind blowing mostly from the North, sailing upriver on the wide, meandering Nile was relatively easy and fast, with travelling speeds of between forty and seventy kilometres a day. But boats and ships often seem to have carried quite large crews, in case there was no wind, or it was blowing in the wrong direction, when they were rowed or towed.

Boat with pilot Riverboat with pilot, helmsman, oarsmen and sailor
Note one of the oarsmen helping himself to a drink of water from the Nile.
Tomb of Menna
Source: V. Easy

    Navigation on a slow-flowing river can be tricky. Above all in the Delta the Nile changed its course frequently, creating new channels and forming treacherous sandbacks [3]. The risk of running into a shoal existed during much of the year. Depictions show ships which carried a pilot [2], who stood in the bow holding a pole, measured the water's depth and shouted his orders to the helmsman.

    Substantial loads were transported on wooden barges. Because of the way they were constructed, Egyptian ships could carry heavy loads only in deck. Blocks of rock weighing many tens of tons and obelisks weighing hundreds were carried downstream from the quarries in Upper Egypt to the building sites of pyramids and temples.
    The vessel Ineni used to transport a 23 metre long obelisk for Thutmose I was about 60 metres long and 20 wide:
I inspected the erection of two obelisks ////// built the august boat of 120 cubits in its length, 40 cubits in its width, in order to transport these obelisks. (They) came in peace, safety and prosperity, and landed at Karnak ////// of the city.
Biography of Ineni
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §105
Barge transporting two obelisks, Deir el Bahari
    Hatshepsut's obelisks were taller, and her transporter accordingly larger. Breasted's estimate was 80 metres long and 27 wide [5]. The loading of the barge and the sailing downriver attracted crowds of spectators, as the inscription has it: the people in Aphroditopolis and the entire Two Lands were gathered in [one] place. The barge itself was built of local wood:
Give ye ////// sycamores from the whole land ////// the work of building a very great boat, finished //////.
////// sailed down-stream with gladness of heart ////// took the [tow-rope (?)], rejoicing ////// [rejoiced (?)] the marines and the crew ////// /// /// jubilee, the Two Lands ////// in peace
J.H.Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, §326 & 328

Model after the barge above (Source: Pharaonic village site) Model constructed after the drawing of the barge above
Source: Pharaonic village site [4]

    Egyptian depictions are notorious for their - to our eyes - strange pictorial conventions, thus, for instance, the image of two objects, one above the other, is often supposed to convey the idea of one of them being behind the other. There is also the possibility that they used two ships connected catamaran-like with beams onto which the obelisks were loaded. According to Pliny's Natural History
a canal was dug from the river Nilus to the spot where the obelisk lay; and two broad vessels, laden with blocks of similar stone a foot square, the cargo of each amounting to double the size, and consequently double the weight, of the obelisk, were brought beneath it; the extremities of the obelisk remaining supported by the opposite sides of the canal. The blocks of stone were then removed, and the vessels, being thus gradually lightened, received their burden. It was erected upon a basis of six square blocks, quarried from the same mountain, and the artist was rewarded with the sum of fifty talents.
Gaius Plinius Secundus, Historia naturalis, Liber XXXVI § 68
    How stable such barges were [6], how the obelisks were moved, loaded onto the boats and unshipped at their destination is subject of a hot debate. However it was achieved by the Egyptians, the Romans found a way to do it as well using similar means. They shipped a 32 metre tall obelisk to Rome. Their 16th century descendants moved it to the Lateran.

Pleasure boats

Pleasure boat -

    The pharaohs prided themselves on their pleasure boats with multiple decks containing cabins, kitchens, dining rooms and lounges.
    At times the attraction may not have been the journey itself but rather the atmosphere. When in the Story of the Green Jewel Snofru was bored his advisor suggested an boat trip:

... twenty virgins who were fair to behold went into the boat, and they rowed with oars of ebony which were decorated with gold. His Majesty took pleasure in the outing, and the gloom passed from his heart as the boat went hither and thither, and the girls sang together with sweet voices
Westcar Papyrus


[1] About 40 to 80 kilometres per day, depending on many conditions such as the wind speed, the velocity of the Nile, the sailing direction (up- or downstream) etc. Sailing in the dark was dangerous and consequently rare.
[3] These difficulties also made night navigation difficult. But the risks to large ships were significant even during day time.
When last year's watercourse is gone,
Another river is here today;
Great lakes become dry places,
Sandbanks turn into depths.
The papyrus of Any
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.142
According to Diodorus Siculus even entering the mouths of the Nile from the Mediterranean was fraught with danger:
Moreover there is a sandbank along the whole coast of Egypt, invisible to the ignorant when approaching. Therefore when one thinks one has escaped the dangers of the sea and sails happily towards the land without having knowledge of it, the ship suddenly strikes a shoal and is wrecked.
After Julius Friedrich Wurm Diodor's von Sicilien: Historische Bibliothek, chapter 31
[4] The model from the Pharaonic Village, is quite possibly be wrong. It is difficult to conceive how they could have loaded obelisks on a ship almost 150 metres long, which got much of its structural strength from hawsers stretched between stern and bow and suspended on poles above the deck. A shorter, wider boat or even a double-hulled construction are more likely. Unfortunately there is no archaeological evidence to support the latter theory.
[5] According to Björn Landström 1970, Ships of the Pharaohs, others give similar estimates for Hatshepsut's barge. It is generally felt that the drawing is somewhat misleading and that the obelisks were not loaded end to end, in which case the barge would have reached a length of 140 metres - unlikely in Landström's opinion, but rather side by side. His estimates differ significantly from those of others because of his assumption that the obleisks weighed 2.4 tons each:
  Length  Width  Deadweight  Displacement  Draught 
August Koster 84 m 28 m 1916 tons 2664 tons 1.9 m
Carl Solver 63 m 25 m 800 tons 1500 tons 2 m
Björn Landström 95 m 32 m 2500 tons 7300 tons 3 m
[6] Harold L. Potts, P.Eng., sent me the following e-mail on 7th April 2007:
Referring to your material, and also Bjorn Landstrom's "Ships of the Pharaohs", page 133, the longitudinal views of the conceptual barge, and also the cross-sectional view Fig. 388 on the same page [133], it is clear that the metacentric height of the vessel would be negative. This would ensure that a small perturbation would cause the craft to turn turtle - that is flip over upside down. I refer to your reproduction of Queen Hatshetsup's obelisk barge which closely resembles Landstrom's picture.
Landstrom writes "My reconstruction of [ the barge ] hardly convinces even me."
A more likely configuration is hinted at in your quotation from Gaius Plinius Secundus who describes a method whereby an obelisk is to be transported using "two broad vessels". I think this is a more viable method. Further, the specific gravity of granite can be taken as 2.3-2.6. Therefore the weight of a granite obelisk submerged in water would be lessened in the ratio (2.6-1)/2.6= 0.61, taking the upper value of s.g. Thus an obelisk roughly 2 meters square base and 20 meters in length would weigh about 200 metric tonnes on land and only 122 tonnes submerged. The natural way therefore to transport an obelisk down river is to submerge it.
Plinius' scheme of two vessels lends itself perfectly to submerged transportation, since it takes advantage of the weight reduction and allows for a positive and therefore stable metacentric height for the configuration.

  Ships and BoatsShips and Boats
Index of TopicsIndex of Topics
Main IndexMain Index


Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites


The tomb of Menna[2] The tomb of Menna, view 48
Transport und Aufrichten von Obelisken Techniken : Transport und Aufrichten von Obelisken (in German)
Pliny the ElderPliny the Elder: The Natural History


Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. Thanks.

© August 2000
Latest updates:
April 2007
October, March 2005

CSE xhtml validated