Ancient Egypt: International trade relations. The trade routes, the goods, the merchants. Back to the Main Index
Ancient Egypt's overseas trade: Trade routes, the goods, the traders.
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Ancient Egyptian overseas trade

Trade between Egypt and Punt     During three millennia of pharaonic history Egyptians traded goods with other countries, while the Egyptian government tried to control this trade and profit from it.
    The conquest of Nubia was not just a response to incursions by Nubians, but made economic sense by bringing the rich Nubian gold mines and the overland routes to Kush and Punt under Egyptian authority.
    The Sinai desert was important for its copper and gem stone mines, and its trade routes through Arabia to the Horn of Africa, and later to Persia and India.
    Retenu (Canaan and Syria) was a buffer region against Asiatic attacks, but also a crossroads of trading routes and there is evidence of royal trade and exchange in the form of Egyptian style clay cylinder seal impressions and serekh signs from as early as Narmer's reign.
    Even the Egyptian attempts at ruling Libya were influenced by the profits to be made from the European trade with Africa.

During the Late Period much of Egyptian trade was in the hands of Phoenicians and Greeks, who had settled in the Delta. Naukratis on the western most arm of the Nile was for some time the only international port.

Now in old times Naucratis alone was an open trading-place, and no other place in Egypt: and if any one came to any other of the Nile mouths, he was compelled to swear that he came not thither of his own free will, and when he had thus sworn his innocence he had to sail with his ship to the Canobic mouth, or if it were not possible to sail by reason of contrary winds, then he had to carry his cargo round the head of the Delta in boats to Naucratis: thus highly was Naucratis privileged.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
The Persians under Darius I did much to further trade throughout their empire. The canal connecting the Nile and thus the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was re-excavated and remained in use until late Roman Times.

Trade routes

    Egypt had only partial success in controlling the flow of goods from Africa to Europe and the Near East. The cheapest and fastest way of transporting merchandise was by ship, despite the cataracts of the Nile and the storms on the Mediterranean and Red Sea and the difficulty and expense of keeping the canal connecting the Nile and the Red Sea in good repair. Because of the limitations of the ships' rigging which prevented them from sailing into the wind, the prevailing winds dictated the seasons when departure and return journeys took place.

    The alternatives were the routes crossing the Eastern and Western Desert. These caravan routes through the Negev and the Libyan Desert were impossible to interrupt and difficult to administer. Even during the times when Egypt was nominally in power in theses regions and sent officials there, their very distance from the central authority gave them an independence they often abused.
    How lucrative this desert trade was can be concluded from the rich tombs recently uncovered at Dakhleh and Baharie. Impressive mastabas were built by Egyptian officials during the reign of Pepi II, when corruption was rife. During the Middle Kingdom, when the central power was weak, trade with Crete flourished. Wall paintings at Knossos and Phaistos depict African slaves, ostrich eggs and ivory. Ahmose reaffirmed Egyptian control over the desert regions, and during most of the New Kingdom the borders were patrolled by frontier police using dogs.

    In the Late Period Kyrene was founded by Greeks who built a temple at the Siwa oasis and cooperated with the Libyan bedouins supplying the rapidly growing Greek diaspora with African luxuries. The huge profits the Egyptians made from their Africa trade, some speak of 300 percent and more, made this desert venture worthwhile again.
    The water supply problem was solved in two ways. In the Wadi Hammamat connecting the Nile near Thebes to Qoseir on the Red Sea, wells were dug which were replenished by the rare rains falling in the mountains. Between the oases of Dakhleh and Kufra a depot of water filled amphoras was created. A similar solution enabled Cambyses to cross the Sinai Desert
The Arabian [king] ... devised the following: Camel-skins were filled with water and loaded on his camels. They were driven into the waterless desert and waited for Cambyses' army.
Herodotus, Histories 3,9ff

Trade routes- Major trade routes in north-east Africa and the Middle East.
The direct overseas route to India was opened up by a Greek named Hippalus ca. 100 BCE. Before that traders had been hugging the coast line.

    From pre-dynastic times onwards Egypt had contacts with Mesopotamia, though they probably were of little economic importance, unlike those with Nubia and later the Sinai desert which were annexed during the Old Kingdom. Africa was reached both overland through Kush and by ship via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Arabia likewise had overland and overseas connections. The cities of the Levant, above all Byblos, were mostly accessed by ship, again since the Old Kingdom.
    Crete, where Egyptian artefacts were found at Knossos, could not be reached by coast-hugging. Mariners had to trust the stars and set out into a featureless sea.
    The Phoenicians and Greeks, who began to handle the Egyptian trade in the Late Period widened the country's commercial contacts over the whole of the Mediterranean. Persian traders rounded the Arabian peninsula by ship and Indian wares were carried over the Indian Ocean. After the Roman conquest much of Egypt's wealth flowed directly to Rome.
    Direct trade links to India were of small importance until Roman times. Strabo, the Greek geographer, noted that

as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from [the Red Sea] to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise.

The goods

He [the snake who ruled the island on which the sailor had been shipwrecked and who called himself Prince of the Land of Punt] gave me gifts of precious perfumes, of cassia, of sweet woods, of kohl, of cypress, an abundance of incense, of ivory tusks, of baboons, of apes, and all kinds of precious things.
    Much of what the Egyptians needed they had in their own country. Grain was generally plentiful and in Roman times Egypt was an important wheat growing area for the city of Rome. Beer, a less potent brew than its modern counterpart, was the daily drink of the people. Wine on the other hand was imported for a long time until vineyards were planted in the Delta and some of the oases. Bricks for building houses and palaces were made from the Nile mud, rocks for tombs and temples were found close to the Nile. Natron for embalming and salt were mined locally; flax and hemp grown for making clothes and ropes. Oil for lighting was pressed from the kikki seeds and later from olives. Papyrus grew abundantly in the Delta and was made into a kind of paper.

Wood

    But Wood, a necessity for the building of houses, ships, furniture etc. was in short supply and of inferior quality. Already during the Old Kingdom Egypt began developing a special relationship with Byblos on the Lebanese coast, which became one of its closest allies for almost two millennia. The cedar wood imported was critical to the development of a navy capable of defending the country against the incursions of the Sea Peoples. Different varieties of hardwood, among them ebony, and fragrant wood were imported from Africa.
    In order to pay the king of Byblos for timber Wen-amen's

... envoy who had gone to Egypt returned to me (i.e. Wenamen) in Syria in the first month of the Winter season, Nesbanebded and Tentamun having sent gold, 4 jars; 1 kakmen-vessel; silver, 5 jars, coverlets of royal linen, 10 pieces; fine Upper Egyptian linen, 10 veils; plain mats, 500; ox-hides, 500; ropes, 500; lentils, 20 sacks; fish, 30 baskets. And she sent to me coverlets, fine Upper Egyptian linen, 5 pieces; fine Upper Egyptian linen, 5 veils; lentils, 1 sack, and fish, 5 baskets.

Metal

Men carrying copper ingots     Egypt was not exceedingly rich in metal, but it had quite a few gold deposits, only a little silver, iron, lead and some copper, not enough to satisfy the country's needs. The conquests of Nubia and the Sinai and the exploitation of their gold and copper mines were a major improvement and had international consequences. Significant amounts of gold were traded with Asiatic kings for their political support of the Egyptian empire and its policies.
    Tin for the production of bronze, Asiatic copper which was a natural bronze alloy, and, from the New Kingdom onwards, small amounts of iron were imported. This was also the time when copper began to be shipped from Cyprus to Egypt and the country experienced occasionally shortages of the material.
Now I have sent 500 (talents) of copper to you; I have sent it to you as a gift - for my brother. Do not let my brother be concerned that the amount of copper is too little, for in my land the hand of Nergal, my lord, has killed all the men of my land, and so there is not a (single) copper-worker.
The king of Cyprus to the pharaoh, El Amarna letter 35
    From the Late Period on iron was mined in the eastern desert and worked in the Greek Delta town of Naukratis.

Incense

    Punt was the main source of myrrh, frankincense and fragrant woods. Ultimately unsuccessful attempts were made to produce frankincense locally by importing incense trees under Hatshepsut.

Precious stones and other luxury goods

    Lapis lazuli, mined in Bactria, was imported since pre-historic times. An East Iranian lapis lazuli statue was found in Egypt and dated to around 3000 BCE, preceding the first dynasty. Tapur, called Tefrer by the Egyptians [3], a fortified town on a canal between the Euphrates and Tigris, was their main trading centre for this gem. Turquoise found in Khorasan, gold, agate, carnelian and other precious stones were also carried on the Oxus road from Tepe Yahya near the Persian Gulf overland to Retenu and Egypt or by ship around the Arabian peninsula to Qoseir or the Nile-Red Sea canal. Vegetable oils, eye paints and other cosmetics also had their origins in eastern Iran and Afghanistan.
    During excavations at Memphis and Amarna (see Smith, Bourriau and Serpico) amphorae were discovered and analysed. They originated from the northern Levant. Residue of pistacia species resin was found in vessels coming from central and northern Canaan, while the amphoras originating in Lebanon, coastal Syria and southern Turkey were used to transport oil.
    Glass products manufactured in Alexandria were one of the major export items during the Roman era.

Slaves

    Slaves were captured or bought from the Levant, from Nubia and further south. This trade in humans was apparently of insignificant proportions.

Animals and animal products

    Ivory from elephants (the Egyptians had local ivory from hippopotami), ostrich feathers and eggs, leopard and lion skins came from the west and south.
    A number of domesticated animals were indigenous to Egypt or had been living there since prehistoric times: donkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, dogs and cats. Horses appeared first during the 13th dynasty, but gained importance during the reign of the Hyksos, a horned breed of cattle was brought from the south, as were pet monkeys. A new variety of sheep was introduced during the Middle Kingdom, chickens from India were still a rarity during the New Kingdom. Camels were introduced in significant numbers into Egypt only from the Persian conquest onwards.
    The only domesticated animal traded in significant numbers was the horse. During the New Kingdom Egypt imported horses while in the Late Period horses were shipped to Assyria and other Asiatic countries.
Only, four mines of beautiful lapis lazuli have I sent to my brother as a gift, and also five teams of horses.
From a letter by Burnaburiash to Amenhotep IV
In return the king of Babylon hoped to get much gold, that I need for my work. In another letter Burnaburiash, dissatisfied with the amount of gold received, writes
As a gift, I send you three mines of beautiful lapis lazuli and five teams of horses for five wooden chariots.
From a letter by Burnaburiash to Amenhotep IV
    Officially cats were not to be sent abroad, but they spread over the whole region carried on ships for pest control and as pets and probably sold quite often.

Agricultural produce

    One of Egypt's main export products was grain, at first to the Lebanese coast, where often not enough corn could be grown locally, and later in large quantities to Rome, more than 100,000 metric tons per year under Augustus. Fruit, such as dates, were also sold abroad. At Camulodunum in Roman occupied Britain amphoras which had been filled with fruit of the doum palm were found, quite possibly of Egyptian origin.

Papyrus

    Egypt was the only Mediterranean country where papyrus grew and a sort of paper was produced from it. It was marketed in the form of long rolls between ten and forty centimetres wide. It superseded the clay tablets used in the Akkadian speaking region and remained the main writing material in Europe until the Middle Ages, when its availability decreased and locally made parchment began to be used.

Artefacts

    In addition to agricultural produce and raw materials like gold and precious stones Egypt exported artefacts. At Byblos sarcophagi and statues have been found, at Malta amulets, rings, scarabs and beads made from faience, statues and torch holders. In Punt weapons, jewelry, mirrors and the like were exchanged for exotic woods, ivory and frankincense.

The traders

 
    Some of the trade was certainly an exchange of goods between merchants, but a considerable amount took the form of exchanges of "presents" between the pharaohs and the rulers of foreign countries. Until the end of the New Kingdom - for as long as Egypt was perceived by its neighbours to be a power of consequence in the region - such "exchanges" were generally in Egypt's favour and dealt with by bureaucrats. These could conveniently be blamed when anything was not to the recipients liking:
I have started an undertaking, and for this reason I write to my brother. My brother should send me much gold, that I need for my work. But the gold that my brother sends me, do not leave it to some official. Let the eyes of my brother inspect it, and let my brother seal it and send it! Because as far as the previous gold is concerned, which my brother did not inspect personally, but which was sealed and sent by an official of my brother, of the 40 mines which I put in the furnace, there was barely anything of value left.
From a letter by Burnaburiash to Amenhotep IV

    Official Egyptian trade was handled by scribes as representatives of the king or by priests if a temple was involved [1]. Egyptian reports generally describe these ventures as glowing successes; a rare exception is the story of the journey of Wenamen, a trading expedition gone wrong. But while Wenamen was in difficulties, dozens of other Egyptian traders were doing business in the ports of Byblos and Sidon, as the ruler of Byblos reminded him:
Are there not twenty menesh ships here in my port, who have commercial ties with Smendes? Sidon is another place you have passed through. Are there not fifty more ships who have commercial ties with Warkatil who have sailed for his domain?
    When trade was organized by the central authority, there were no middlemen to profit from the exchange of luxury goods, dear to the hearts of the elite, an advantage not lost on Hatshepsut:
The marvels brought thence (i.e. from Punt) under thy fathers, the Kings of Lower Egypt, were brought from one to another, and since the time of the ancestors of the Kings of Upper Egypt, who were of old, as a return for many payments; none reaching them except by carriers.
From the Punt Reliefs of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 287
Traders from Punt, NK, Source: N. de G. Davies, Trading with the Land of Punt, Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts 1934-1935

Watercraft from Punt.
Source: N. de G. Davies, "Trading with the Land of Punt", Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts 1934-1935

    But there were times, when the king was weak and preoccupied with other matters, yet the temples will have wanted incense for their worship. They may well have bought it from Arabian traders carrying it overland or from Puntites trading by sea.
 
    The Asiatic merchants who imported Iranian goods into Egypt were often accompanied by their families and settled for lengthy periods in Palestine and Egypt. The Egyptians knew them as Amu and Mantu (Martu) and thought that they came from "northern countries". Their lifestyle was at first nomadic. When they had to pay tribute the goods they provided were mostly of Iranian origin: Lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, silver and copper which contained arsenic and was almost as hard as bronze. Bearded Asiatic traders at Beni Hassan

Asiatic traders wearing striped garments
Beni Hassan

    Traders ran not only the risk of being waylaid by outlaws, but were sometimes robbed by members of the local nobility. If they were lucky their own king interceded on their behalf
... my merchants who travelled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business. After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan, Shumda, son of Baluma and Shutatna, son of Shartum, from Akko sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money. Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you. Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed. Bind them and return the money they robbed.
Burnaburiash King of Babylon in a letter to Akhenaten
The Amarna tablets
    Kings were thus held responsible for the deeds of their subjects, even if pleas for indemnification were often ignored, as - the probably fictional - Wen-amen learnt in the city of Dor when its king, Beder, refused to accept responsibility for a crime committed on his territory because the supposed criminal was not his subject.
If it had been a thief belonging to my land who had gone down into your ship and had stolen your money, I would have replaced it for you from my storehouse, until your thief had been found, whoever he may be. But in fact the thief who robbed you, he is yours, he belongs to your ship. Spend a few days here with me, that I may search for him.'
Beder, king of Dor to Wen-amen
    Robbers waylaid caravans in the deserts, pirates intercepted ships in the straits of the Gulf, and there was not always a state nearby with sufficient military power to interrupt their activities
... Next is the Aelanitic Gulf (the modern Gulf of Aqaba) and Nabataea, a country well-peopled, and abounding in cattle. The islands which lie near (modern Jazirat Tiran and Jazirat Sanafir), and opposite, are inhabited by people who formerly lived without molesting others, but latterly carried on a piratical warfare in rafts against vessels on their way from Egypt. But they suffered reprisals, when an armament was sent out against them, which devastated their country.
Strabo, Geography, Book XVI chapter 4

    During the Late Period international trade was dominated by Phoenicians and Greeks who founded colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean. The influence of the Ionians on Egypt was especially important. After the foundation of Alexandria, this Hellenistic city became a centre for the exchange of knowledge and merchandise for the whole Middle East.


[1] One should not place too much importance on these modern distinctions. People generally considered government officials nowadays, often had a priestly rank too, while men better known to us as priests, were frequently serving the king as administrators.
[3] Tefrer: tfrr - lapis lazuli, tfrr - be blue, tfrr.t Lapislazuliland

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Egypt's Acquisition of Foreign GoodsEgypt's Acquisition of Foreign Goods (and Labor-Power) Mainly in the Old Kingdom: Trade Versus Plunder (by Morris Silver, Economics Department, City College of New York)
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