ancient egypt: history and culture
Roads in ancient Egypt: Physical evidence - Textual evidence - Specific roads and routes - Roadmaps - Road construction - Maintenance - Ownership of the roads
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The roads in ancient Egypt

    Most Egyptians lived close to a waterway. If one had the equipment, travelling on the Nile was generally quicker and more comfortable than walking on the dusty roads under the hot Egyptian sun, certainly if distances were significant. Landbased means of transportation were mostly confined to walking and, more rarely, riding donkeys.

Physical evidence

    Roads existed of course, but the physical evidence is slim and pictorial testimony practically non existent. There are some short stretches of streets and roads which have survived, having lain above the level of the Nile floods, generally causeways and streets which were part of temple complexes, some paved with mud-bricks or even with stone: At Dimai in the Fayum the temple was reached over a stone paved road [1], a mortuary temple at Abydos near the tomb of Senusret III was surrounded by a street paved with mud-bricks, or the Mentuhotep II temple complex at Deir el Bahri had a mud-brick paved ramp almost a kilometre long. [2]
Herodotus describes the access road to the Temple at Bubastis:
The entrance to it is by a road paved with stone for a distance of about three furlongs, which passes straight through the market-place with an easterly direction, and is about four hundred feet in width. Trees of an extraordinary height grow on each side the road, which conducts from the temple of Bubastis to that of Mercury.
Herodotus, Histories 2.138, transl. by George Rawlinson
    The streets in the Middle Kingdom town of Hat-Senusret-Hotep were paved with baked clay tiles. The surface sloped towards the middle of the street, where a drain made of stone ran down the street. [17][16] Why such drainage was deemed necessary is unclear, given the rarity of rain in Egypt.

Textual evidence

    Many texts mention roads, but these generally refer to the paths in the beyond which the deceased have to travel on on their way to an eternal life:
May he wander in peace on the beautiful paths, where the revered one encounters the Great God.
Inscription in the tomb of Kai-sedjau at Giza [4]

Specific roads and routes

    Some real life streets, roads and routes are known by name. At Thebes we know of a Mrs. Tadineferhotep who lived on King's Road, but the most famous of roads was the one through Horus Road (wA.t-Hr.w), a fortification in the northern Sinai desert from which emanated the route that connected the Delta to southern Canaan. A number of important roads led through Wadi Hammamat and other wadis in the mountains of the eastern desert, connecting Coptos in the Nile valley with the Red Sea coast. Another route connected the Mediterranean coast with the oases in the Libyan desert and Nubia. As traffic along these roads was sparse little was invested in their development and they had few amenities to offer the traveller. There may have been the occasional cairn erected to mark the way and in a few places wells were dug. But it would have been easy to get lost and the wise traveller would not set out by himself, but join a caravan led by a guide. The (probably) fictitious Sinuhe, being on the run, had to cross the Sinai desert on his own and almost died of thirst.
Map

Roadmaps and itineraries

The Turin Papyrus: a New Kingdom map of a goldmining region.

The notion of maps was not alien to the ancient Egyptians, but most of their cartographic efforts dealt with what was truly important to them: How to find one's way in the Beyond. Concerning the here and now there are occasionally hints of topographical interest on their behalf. The kings' depictions of their martial exploits for instance showed at times the landscapes they happened in: Kadesh, where Ramses II narrowly avoided defeat, was shown as a fortified city in the middle of the Orontes river. Probably almost as important as the afterlife and victory over enemies was gold. The closest the Bronze Age Egyptians came to drawing a map was the map of a gold mining region, drawn in the Ramesside Period and kept today in the Museo Egizio at Turin. The purpose of the map is not quite clear, but if one had some prior knowledge of the area one would probably have had little problems getting around with the help of this map, even though it was not drawn to scale: it showed roads, wadis, mountainranges, and other landmarks. [5]
 
peutinger table

Section of the Peutinger Table showing Egypt
Licence: Public Domain

    As Egypt opened up to foreigners knowledge of how to get around became more and more important. In Roman times milestones, a few of which were uncovered by Petrie, [6] were set up in some places to mark important roads. Travel itineraries were written, three of which have survived. One of these records was composed by the official Theophanes, who used the cursus publicus, the public road system. But while such itineraries were useful, supplying information about distances and lodgings, they were not maps giving directions. The knowledge from such itineraries was in later years collated and we now known of them as the Antonine Itinerary, the Peutinger Table and others. [7]

Road construction

    Most roads were dirt roads, and paved roads were the exception. Only rarely were they the result of construction work. Generally they came into being as people used certain trajectories time and again to get from one place to another. Where they existed for an extended time and were well used, the ground became compacted and began to differ significantly from the terrain on either side. In the floodplain some roads were on top of dykes. [3] These generally survived the Nile floods and were usable all the year round, unlike those which were covered by the inundation and washed out. Dirt roads made economic sense and served the Egyptians well. [10] [11]     Even the Romans, who built paved roads throughout their empire as one of the first steps in the conquest of a region and many of which were used well into the Middle Ages, refrained from improving the viae terrenae (earthen roads) in Egypt in this way because of the local conditions. They saved thus for every mile of road much of the 125'000 denarii (a Roman legionary earned about twenty denarii a month in the early Roman period), which a mile of paved road would have cost.
    When building the Via Nova Hadriana in the eastern desert they may have marked the route with stone cairns first, and then they removed the débris from the path piling it on either side of the road, forming windrows. The smoothness of the road surface may be the result of wooden beams, serving as graders, having been dragged along the road. The width of this road ranged from a few metres to 46.5 metres at its widest. [14]
    Milestones appear to have been rare in ancient Egypt. The first ones, with hieroglyphic inscriptions, were possibly erected under the Ptolemies, later the Romans marked the Saqqara road with them. [15]

Maintenance

    The Egyptians performed public works by enlisting the populace during and after the season of inundation. Dykes and irrigation canals were being repaired after the Nile floods on an annual basis. A shipping canal through the first cataract is known to have undergone repair work during the Middle Kingdom and later the canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea was maintained for generations before it fell into disrepair and was abandoned. About the roads the sources are mostly silent. They were compacted dirt tracks, whose surface was baked almost rockhard by the Egyptian sun and, if they lay above the level of the Nile flood, probably needed little maintenance. There was practically no rain to soften the surface and wheeled vehicles, which tend to drive in the same tracks cutting deep ruts, were scarce throughout history, even in Roman times. If a road was covered by the rising waters of the Nile it was mostly obliterated and after the flood had receded and the topsoil dried out, the road was probably recreated by the people using a similar trajectory as before.
    Still, some maintenance work was done occasionally. In the desert areas wells were redug or new ones excavated[12], rocks blocking a mountain road must have been removed, damage caused by flashfloods must have been repaired or new milestones set up for those which had disappeared. In the latter part of the third millennium BCE an official reported that the repair work on the road at Rudjet had not begun yet, but there is no hint in his communication about the kind of work that needed to be done:
The servant (i.e. I) is speaking: I am making known to the assistant scribe in the Djadjat-authority that the builder has not yet reached Rudjet, in order to prepare the road for the governor of Demiyou. May the Ka (?) of the assistant scribe order the builder to be dispatched.
Balat tablet no. 3686 [13]

Ownership of the roads

    In the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant one Dehuti-necht tried to rob a peasant by blocking the public way. He spread his clothes out on the road forcing the traveller to enter his field:
The peasant came along the path which was the common highway (lit. the road of all people). Then said Dehuti-necht: "Look out, peasant, do not trample on my clothes!" The peasant answered: "I will do as you wish; I will go in the right way!" As he was turning to the upper side, Dehuti-necht said: "Does my grain serve you as a road?" Then said the peasant: "I am going in the right way. The bank is steep and the path lies near the grain and you have stopped up the road ahead with your clothes. Will you, then, not let me go by?"
The peasant's donkey ate a mouthful of the farmer's grain. As 'reparations' for the damage the peasant had caused, Dehuti-necht confiscated his belongings. It took the peasant a long time to receive justice when he complained to the authorities.
    The name "King's Road" mentioned in a contract dating to the early Ptolemaic Period suggests that at least some of the roads were public at that time. From Roman times too there are documents referring to public and royal roads, which indicates that there were private roads as well [8]

Bibliography:
Colin Adams, Land Transport in Roman Egypt: A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province, Oxford University Press, 2007
Colin Adams, Ray Laurence, Travel and Geography in the Roman Empire, Routledge, 2001
Kathryn A. Bard, Steven Blake Shubert, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1999
John Brian Harley, David Woodward, The History of Cartography: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, Humana Press, 1987
Herodotus, Euterpe, translated by Rawlinson
John Ruffle, The Egyptians: An Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, Cornell University Press, 1977,
Steven E. Sidebotham, Martin Hense, Hendrikje M. Nouwens, The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt's Eastern Desert, American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2008
Strabo, Geography, Book 17, translated by W. Falconer, London, 1903
Eric P. Uphill, Egyptian Towns and Cities, Shire Publications LTD 2001
W.M.Flinders Petrie, Illahun, Kahun, Gurob 1889-1890, David Nutt 1891
 
Footnotes:
[1] Bard & Shubert, 1999, p.368
[2] Bard & Shubert, 1999, p.283
[3] Adams & Laurence, 2001, p.140
[4] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Gisa => Central Field (PM III, 230-293) => Felsgrab des Kai-sedjau => Opferkapelle => Westwand => Scheintür => oberer Sturzbalken
[5] Harley & Woodward 1987, pp.117ff.
[6] Adams & Laurence, 2001, p.141
[7] Adams & Laurence, 2001, pp.159ff.
[8] Adams 2007, p.25f
[10] Ruffle, 1977, p.117
[11] Adams, 2007, p.26
[12] Strabo mentions in the 17th book of his Geography that in the eastern desert caravans used to carry with them a supply of water, but that in his time watering-places were provided, that water was also obtained by digging to a great depth, where rain-water was found, although rain rarely fell and that it was also collected in reservoirs.
[13] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, I. Hafemann ed. => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Alten Reiches und der 1. Zwischenzeit => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Balat => Balat-Täfelchen n. 3686 => Täfelchen 3686
[14] Sidebotham et al. 2008, pp.44ff.
[15] Sidebotham et al. 2008, pp.46.
[16] Uphill 2001, p.29
[17] Petrie 1891, p.8

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© May 2009
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June 2009

 

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