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Ancient Egyptian seagoing vessels: merchant vessels and men of war
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Seagoing vessels: warships and merchant men

Old Kingdom vessels

Model of a seagoing vessel, 2500 BCE     Keelless seagoing vessels like the one the right [1] from the time of King Sahure (2500 BCE) traded with the Phoenician cities, importing cedar wood and other merchandise, and were sent as the first Egyptian trade expedition to the Land of Punt.
    The bipedal mast carried a vertical sail. It was steered by six oars and had sixteen rowing oars. The bow was decorated with an eye. A rock served as anchor [2]. Being rounded its action was solely based on its weight and the friction created when dragging over the bottom of the sea. When winds were strong it was mostly useless and the seamen were forced to seek shelter in the lee of some land or even beach the vessel.
    I went down on the sea in a ship of one hundred and fifty cubits long and forty cubits wide, with one hundred and fifty sailors of the best of Egypt who had seen heaven and earth, and whose hearts were stronger than lions.
    Crews on Egyptian ships were large, as their sailing capabilities were low and they had to be rowed often. Ancient ships and not just Egyptian vessels, could not sail into the wind so that tacking was impossible. If the wind was unfavorable rowing was the only means to get anywhere.
 

New Kingdom vessels

Model of a seagoing vessel, ca.1500 BCE     This model of a 15th century merchant ship was made after the wall painting (below) at Deir el Bahri. The ship was about 22 metres long and 5 metres wide. It did not have a wooden keel but got its stability from a thick rope fastened under tension at either extremity of the ship. There were fifteen rowing oars on either side, two connected oars used as rudder, a single mast and a 15 metre wide horizontal sail. The stern was decorated with a carved lotus flower.
 

Expansion during the New Kingdom

Journey to Punt
 
    A major expedition to the Land of Punt (probably in the Horn of Africa) down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean was undertaken under Queen Hatshepsut.
 
    Bigger ships of seventy to eighty tons suited to long voyages became quite common (In size they might be compared to Columbus's Santa Maria with a displacement of 100 tons or his smaller ships with about fifty).

 

Warship     This model of a 13th century warship was made after wall paintings at Medinet Habu depicting the victory of Ramses III over the Sea Peoples. The high bulwarks protected sailors and soldiers from enemy missiles. Eighteen oars gave it the manoeuvrability which was a decisive factor in the Egyptian victory.
    Like all Egyptian ships of this period, it was not laid on a keel, but got its structural strength from a gangway connecting stern to bow. It had a single mast with a horizontal sail. The bow was decorated with a lion's head crushing a human skull.

 

Philistine man of war     This model of a Philistine man of war was equally constructed according to the Medinet Habu paintings. Its lack of rowing oars may have been a distinct disadvantage in the confined space of the Nile delta where they must have been incapable of ramming or boarding the more agile rowed Egyptian vessels. Its design was superior to that of the Egyptian ships, having a proper keel.

The Late Period

Greek bireme     King Necho II (609-594 BCE) invested huge sums in the development of an Egyptian war fleet. According to Herodotus he had triremes built in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Some scholars think that the ships he built were biremes and the development of the trireme took place in the next century and was part of the Egyptian war effort against Persia.

 



 
Footnote:
{1] The models are modern made after ancient depictions. They are at the Haifa Naval Museum, Israel.
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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
 
The Berenike Project[2] Rodolfo Fattovich and Kathryn A. Bard editors, Mersa/Wadi Gawasis 2006-2007 Report, contains a picture (Fig. 15) of two anchor stones.
The Berenike ProjectSteve Vinson, "Seafaring" in UCLA's Encyclopedia of Egyptology (UEE)
 
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© August 2000
Latest update: March 2005


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