ancient egypt: history and culture
Travel in ancient Egypt:
Travelling by land and by water
   By river
   By road
Paying for services
Meeting strangers
   Extending hospitality
Dignitaries on the road
Reasons for travelling
Destinations and travelling speed
Travel in the Beyond

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Travel in ancient Egypt

    The ancient Egyptians were no great travellers. Unlike the Phoenicians and Greeks who spread out all over the ancient Mediterranean, the Egyptians stayed home and left the foreign lands to the foreigners, much of the time at least. They did get around in their own country quite a bit though, be it on official business or for private reasons, but showed little interest in seeing the sights, let alone describing them. Fortunately for us, Egypt became a popular travel destination for Greeks and Romans from the second half of the first millennium BCE onwards, and some of their travelogues have survived, fascinating views of outsiders–but often short in deeper understanding of the culture which was so alien to them.

Travelling by land and by water

Nile mosaic of Palestrina, excerpt     The means of transportation were varied, but afforded little comfort to the traveller. And if life in an ancient Egyptian village or town was fraught with dangers, life on the road was much more so. Travelling in company reduced the risks. While an expedition numbering hundreds of men and often accompanied by armed soldiers had little to fear from wild beasts or robbers, a lone traveller in a region where he was unknown and the population sparse, was vulnerable. Kings and noblemen occasionally organized hunts in which at times hundreds of animals were slaughtered. While they did it for their own diversion, it had the happy result that, in the end, the wild animals which might endanger a traveller, became fewer in number.

Excerpt from the Nile Mosaic of Palestrina
circa 100 BCE
© Public Domain, Source:

The central government also fought against the nomads who ranged in the deserted regions east and west of the fertile Nile valley and were not disinclined to indulge in a bit of occasional brigandage. Amenhotep, son of Hapu, led such an campaign against them and also protected the traffic on the Nile from seaborne pirates:
The two regions were surrounded with a watch scouting for the Sandrangers. I did likewise at the heads of the river-mouths, which were closed under my troops except to the troops of royal marines.
    Every year during the flooding of the Nile travelling, whether by land or by river, became difficult, by land because many of the roads simply disappeared under the floods, by water because the Nile changed to such an extent, that even experienced pilots would have difficulties finding safe channels.

By river

Girl on papyrus raft     Travelling on the Nile was the preferred way to get around, certainly if distances were large or one had to transport goods. A peasant might make himself a papyrus raft to get to the market place, but to go farther one would join a more substantial craft plying its trade on the Nile. In one of the stories from the Westcar Papyrus Prince Djedefhor went to see the magician Djedi:
The prince went down to the Nile, boarded a boat, and sailed southward until he reached the town called Dedsnefru, where Dedi had his dwelling. He went ashore, and was carried in his chair of state towards the magician, who was found lying at his door.
    Few natural dangers threatened the traveller on the Nile. There were of course hippos and crocodiles, but if one kept well clear of them, one would be safe even in an easily overturned reed raft, let alone a riverboat. Then again one might run onto a sandbank, but that would hardly sink one's ship, unless one sailed recklessly. Sea journeys were a different matter. Travellers, who crossed the Mediterranean had to contend with storms, which might throw them onto the rocky Canaanite coast, a lack of good ports south of Tyre in which one could take refuge, with pirates [1] and, if the Tale of Wenamen is anything to go by, local rulers who treated travellers in an arbitrary and erratic manner.

By road

    In the upper reaches of the Nile one could hardly lose one's way, The options were limited: either up- or downriver, left or right riverbank. The Delta with its great number of channels and canals was a bit more difficult to navigate. But on land one had best know one's way, above all when there was little to distinguish the road from its surroundings. In desert areas cairns were erected to mark the route, the Romans set up milestones, some of which were discovered by Petrie, [6] and created windrows along some of the roads. [2]
    People probably had a reasonably good knowledge of their vicinity, of the villages or towns that could be reached in a day's march or so. What lay much further afield was mostly of academic interest to them, as reasons for long distance journeys were few and far between, unless one was an official, a soldier or a merchant. But for these an education in geography may well have been indispensable. At least the writer of the so-called Satirical Letter composed in the New Kingdom thought so, when he enumerated towns and geographical features along the Canaanite coast. One would not be wrong to suppose, that such knowledge was not limited to foreign countries.
    Road maps could have helped travellers to find their way. The principle of cartography was known, but did not result in usable maps. The closest the ancients came to systematically collecting geographical data was in the composition of itineraries, which contained names of towns and distances between them. But at times the terrain was featureless and even maps would not have been of much use. Then the travellers had to rely on other means for navigation such as observing the stars which were visible most nights:
the camel-merchants travelled in the night, directing their course by observing the stars
Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, § 45
    In towns and villages one could ask locals for directions, but sometimes a messenger or carrier was told exactly how to proceed:
Consignment of Rufus' letters:
[From] the Moon gate walk as if towards the granaries and when you [come ] to the first street turn left behind the thermae, where (there is) a [shrine], and go westwards. Go down the steps and up [the others] and turn right and after [the] precinct of the [temple] on the right side there [is] a seven-storey house and on top of the gatehouse (a statue of) Fortune [and] opposite a basket-weaving shop. Enquire there from the concierge and you will be informed. And shout yourself; Lusius(?) will answer you [...]
Papyrus, Oxyrhynchus, 3rd century CE [41]

Paying for services

    Even on the road a person had to eat and drink. Travellers often carried their provisions with them:
Behold, two bushels of grain shall be left for bread for you and the children. But make for me the six bushels into bread and beer for each of the days that I shall be on the road."
Water was not hard to come by, as long as one travelled close to the Nile. In desert regions wells were excavated, [16] but frequently one had to carry water.
    When one could or would not travel encumbered by victuals, one had to purchase them along the road. Little is known about the economics of travel in ancient, moneyless societies. Unless one was part of an army which could force the local population to meet its needs, one's options were limited to carrying one's supplies with one, to relying on the hospitality of people along the road, to living on credit or to paying for the services one received right away. In the absence of money such payments would have been quite tricky to make, even though the economy in general did quite well with the barter-system in the marketplace, which was generally a straight forward exchange of goods and services: if one wanted to buy a goat worth two deben, one had to trade it for something of value to the seller, for example barley, of which about a sack full was needed. This amount, roughly sixty kilograms, one had to transport to the market, or some other place agreed upon with the seller of the goat, and unless one owned a donkey or could borrow one, one had to carry it on one's back.
    The problem with paying one's way when travelling in this manner is obvious: one had to carry with oneself something the value to weight ratio of which was high, which was not bulky, did not spoil, could easily be divided into small portions and would be widely accepted. Coined money would have been an answer, but that came into use only in the second half of the first millennium.
    It has been suggested that the ancient Egyptians used a proto-currency in the form of metal rings as early as the Old Kingdom[12] which would have rendered travelling much easier. But no positive, archaeological proof has been forthcoming.
    While quite a number of people wrote about their journeys, few seem to have thought of describing the mundane business of paying for the services they received on their way. Whatever the means of exchange used at the time, one had to be equipped with some of it, for travelling was not free. There may have been wealthy philanthropists like Sheshi, who claimed:
I brought the boatless to land.
probably meaning that he had them ferried over the river—apparently without asking for payment, as otherwise he could hardly have claimed it as one of the good deeds he had done in his life, strengthening Maat. But most ferrymen expected to make a living out of transporting people across the water. The teachings on the Chester Beatty IV papyrus therefore exhort the traveller:
Give for it (i.e. the use of the ferry) a fare
pChester Beatty IV = pBM EA 10684 [13]
But there was a social component. Amenemope considered requesting a fare from somebody poor a thing not to be done: [14]
Do not make yourself a ferry on the river and attempt persistently to require a fare. Take a fare from the owner of wealth and overlook payment from him who has nothing.
The Instruction of Amenemope [15]
    Bartering would have been simple for travelling merchants, who had to carry goods with them anyway. Official expeditions abroad, unless they intended to live off the land as did the New Kingdom armies in Canaan and elsewhere, carried with them merchandise which could be exchanged. Sebni, who lived under Pepi II, led an expedition into Nubia carrying with him expensive wares, but these were seemingly destined to be "gifts" for local potentates and for which he presumably expected to receive "presents":
[Then I took (?)] a troop of my estate, and 100 asses with me, bearing ointment, honey, clothing, oil (THnt) and [///] of every sack, in order to [make presents (?)] [in] these countries [and I went out to (?)] these countries of the Negroes.
    The Phoenician sailors sent out by pharaoh Necho II to circumnavigate Africa periodically interrupted their journey to grow their own food.


    Roads may have been public and the Nile accessible to all, but their use was not necessarily free. The traffic itself was at times taxed. In an attempt to fight corruption Ptolemy  VII forbade illegal tolls levied from travellers on foot:
...persons who travel on foot up the country from Alexandria by the land-route which leads ... and persons crossing from one tongue of land to another shall have no payment of any kind demanded or exacted from them except the legal duties.
P.Tebt.0005, decrees of King Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, 28th April 118 BCE copied by the village scribe of Kerkeosiris., accessed 17th May 2009
    In the Great Mendes Decree Ptolemy II Philadelphos waived his rights to a navigation or ship toll. Customs duties were levied on merchandise, and remitted under special circumstances:
They remitted considerable taxes, in order to save men's lives, and took care for importations of corn into Egypt from the Eastern Rutennu,
as were inland tolls:
Then follows the Hermopolite Castle, a place where is collected the toll on merchandise brought down from the Thebais.
Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, § 41
    In the correspondence from the times of Ramses II concerning a toll road which the Egyptians maintained in today's Lebanon the Egyptian supervisor was ordered to charge what the traffic would bear. [9]

Meeting strangers

Extending hospitality

    Hostelries were rare in the ancient world, [17] and probably mostly found in port cities and other commercial hubs. Strabo recounts about Eleusis:
This is a settlement near Alexandria and Nicopolis, and situated on the Canobic canal. It has houses of entertainment which command beautiful views, and hither resort men and women who are inclined to indulge in noisy revelry, a prelude to Canobic life, and the dissolute manners of the people of Canobus.
Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, § 16
    Much of the time a traveller had to rely on the hospitality of the local population, which in all ancient cultures was a virtue, but was not automatically extended to all, as an unknown stranger might well pose a threat.
    A reflection on these traditions of hospitality is to be found in one of the tales about Egyptian deities. When Isis and Osiris came to Egypt they were befriended by an old man, a priest who recognized the deities and invited them to stay with him. This must surely count as an exceptional occurrence, as one did not meet gods on the road on a daily basis. But even if the traveller was just a human, as most strangers presumably were, he was often received hospitably. Thus Sinuhe, who, according to the tale, had left Egypt in secrecy, was first saved from death by a tribe of nomads whose chief had known him in Egypt, found later in Canaan time and again people who gave him shelter, and after settling down extended his hospitality to other travellers:
The messenger who fared north, or south to the Residence, tarried with me, for I caused all men to tarry. I gave water to the thirsty, and set upon the road him who was strayed; I rescued him who was plundered.
    In many cultures religious institutions gave shelter to travellers, and one may suppose that the temples in Egypt did likewise.


    On his way into exile Sinuhe had been living rough, He had, as the tale has it, tarried there in the open fields for a while, and his appearance may have suffered for it. So the reaction of a man he met by chance would not have been unexpected:
I met a man who rose up in my path; he showed dismay of me and feared.
    Interest and wonder was one possible reaction to the arrival of strangers who might bring with them strange treasures and marvellous tales from far-away places, another was fear and a third greed, aroused by the sight of defenseless way-farers:
Eratosthenes says, "That to repel strangers is a practice common to all barbarians, but that this charge against the Egyptians is derived from fabulous stories related of (one) Busiris and his people in the Busirite Nome, as some persons in later times were disposed to charge the inhabitants of this place with inhospitality, although in truth there was neither king nor tyrant of the name of Busiris: that besides there was a common saying: 'The way to Egypt is long and vexatious,' which originated in the want of harbours, and in the state of the harbour at Pharos, which was not of free access, but watched and guarded by herdsmen, who were robbers, and attacked those who attempted to sail into it. The Carthaginians drown [he says] any strangers who sail past, on their voyage to Sardinia or to the Pillars. Hence much of what is related of the parts towards the west is discredited. The Persians also were treacherous guides, and conducted the ambassadors along circuitous and difficult ways."
Strabo, Geography, Book 17, Chapter 19
    The kings were ultimately responsible for the well-being and protection of foreigners, but they were often far away and their anger was little feared. Still, if one survived an attack by robbers, one might complain to the authorities and if one was important enough, diplomatic pressure might be brought to bear on the ruler who had been remiss in his duty to protect. Thus the king of Babylon wrote a letter in which he let Akhenaten know in no uncertain terms, that he was not pleased by his merchants having been robbed in the pharaoh's realm, and demanded satisfaction. In the Tale of Wenamen the protagonist ends up in Cyprus:
The wind drove me to the land of Alasa, those of the city came forth to me to slay me.
He was saved by the intervention of the queen. One cause for hostility towards strangers may have been the inability to communicate. Foreign languages were even less often spoken then than they are today. Wenamen was lucky in this respect:
I asked the people who stood about her: "There is surely one among you who understands Egyptian?"
One among them said: "I understand (it)."

Dignitaries on the road

    When dealing with administrative concerns it was mostly the underlings who did the travelling, but occasionally their superiors felt the need to look after things in person. The people along their way would have a busy time getting everything ready for their coming. A mayor of Thebes planning a trip had doubts as to the effort his tenant would be willing to invest:
It is the mayor of Thebes Seni-neferu who speaks as follows to the tenant Baki, the one of Kysen: This letter has been sent to you in order to announce that I shall be with you the moment we will land at Hut-sekhem in three days' time. Do not give me reason to rebuke you in your official position....
Letter from the mayor of Thebes Seni-neferu to the tenant Baki [8]
He ordered Baki to get herbs and timber ready for him and a quantity of milk, which was probably to be consumed on the spot, as milk did not keep long in the hot Egyptian climate. In the third millennium BCE, when the governor of Demiyou was about to visit, an official at Rudjet voiced his concern that the builder in charge of the road repairs had not yet arrived, [3] and when two millennia later a Roman senator was about to visit the Fayum, people were getting ready to give him the VIP treatment which, at Crocodilopolis, included feeding the crocodiles:
Hermias to Horos, greeting. Appended is a copy of the letter to Asklepiades. Take care that its instructions are followed. Good-bye. The fifth year, Xandikos 17, Mecheir 17. To Asklepiades.
Lucius Memmius, a Roman senator, who occupies a position of great dignity and honor, is making the voyage from Alexandria to the Arsinoite nome to see the sights. Let him be received with special magnificence, and take care that at the proper spots the chambers be prepared and the landing-places to them be got ready, and that the gifts of hospitality below written be presented to him at the landing-place, and that the furniture of the chamber, the customary tit-bits for Petesouchos and the crocodiles, the necessaries for the view of the Labyrinth, and the offerings and sacrifices be provided; in general take the greatest pains in everything that the visitor may be satisfied, and display the utmost zeal...
(here the papyrus breaks off)
Official letter from Hermias : copy, 5 Mar. 112 B.C., [4]
    Dignitaries were generally accompanied by rather large entourages and were waited on hand and foot, but nobody could equal the royal style of travelling. The landscape was dotted with provincial palaces of varying sizes, which often had a domain attached to them and also served as regional grain storage centres. They were therefore well equipped to receive the pharaoh at all times.
The chief of the desert police Min-inuy greets the lord, supervisor of Thebes and Wesit Khai: Life, prosperity, health!
This is a message to inform my lord. Further, the great seat of Pharaoh, l.p.h. which is under the authority of my lord, is in excellent condition and the surrounding walls are intact. The annual taxes have been delivered and everything is in very good condition, such as wood and feed, fish and fresh beer...
oToronto A 11, New Kingdom [40]
The kings stayed in these royal pieds-à-terre, known as the mooring-places of Pharaoh, when travelling up- or downriver.[5] Most have since disappeared without leaving a trace, but some of them are known from the Wilbour Papyrus and they appear to have been sizeable places. The palace at Hardai for instance had about 400 aruras of land (110 hectares) attached to it. If the king's entourage was very large–as for instance on the occasions when he was accompanied by chariotry–if the demands were excessive or if he revisited a place before the stores could be refilled, victuals and other necessities had to be brought from farther afield. Letters with lists of the required commodities were sent ahead to the supervisor of the resthouse.[7] Weni the Elder as superior custodian of the domain of Pharaoh Pepi I had to oversee the preparations for royal journeys:
While I was judge attached to Nekhen, his majesty appointed me as sole companion and superior custodian of the domain of Pharaoh, and [///] of the four superior custodians of the domain of Pharaoh who were there. I did so that his majesty praised me, when preparing court, when preparing the king's journey (or) when making stations. I did throughout so that his majesty praised me for it above everything.
On land royalty was transported in litters, the use of which became restricted to representative purposes after the Middle Kingdom. With the introduction of the chariot the pharaohs generally preferred to use those.

Reasons for travelling

The trouble indeed is not little
wrote a daughter to her father, telling him that she would come to see him herself together with Persion. Most people needed a good reason for leaving home, as travelling was uncomfortable, dangerous, time consuming and expensive. Women had a special problem as, apparently, they could only travel in the company of a man, at least there is little evidence to the contrary. [29]
    Still, people have always moved about for various reasons, economic, political, administrative, military or personal. In ancient Egypt where most of the population lived settled lives, there were groups of people for whom travelling was part of their job. Soldiers would preferably be stationed in the vicinity of their enemies. While in periods of civil war locals were often recruited and deployed within the region they lived in, the forces of the Empire had to counter threats from abroad, which required them to travel quite some distances to meet them. The Egyptians made major incursions into Nubia as early as the reign of Snofru and Weni the Elder campaigned against the Sanddwellers in the eastern desert, where the hostile environment probably posed a greater threat to the Egyptians than the nomads themselves. The logistical problems of military campaigns were great and wherever feasible the army lived off the land, leaving a swathe of destruction behind them like a swarm of locust.
    The administration of as vast a kingdom as Egypt depended to quite some extent on the mobility of its officials. There were of course local authorities who would deal with the daily business, and a corps of messengers kept them up-to-date with the latest edicts, but ever so often high officials and even the king himself would visit regional centres to supervise, put things right and generally strengthen the bond between ruler and ruled, during periods of consolidation as the Early Dynastic probably even more so than in later, more settled times. [18]
    Citizens too had to travel, at times quite some distances, in order to settle business they had with the authorities. Relevant officials could generally be found locally or in the capital of the nome which meant in most cases trips of less than three days. A directive from Kahun encouraged local officials to deal with the citizens themselves in order not to cause any to come to the Residence[37]
    Some people like the fictitious eloquent peasant or the priest Pediese travelled in order to receive justice, others did so as a result of justice, when they were deported to places like Rhinocolura after having their noses cut off as punishment.
    Messengers played an important role in the administrative, economic and social life of the country. They were the most reliable means for conveying letters, but were an expensive way of communicating which only the state and the rich could afford. The scribe Djehuti-mesu wrote to Bu-teh-Amen:
I listened to all the matters concerning which you sent me (messages) by the retainer Nesu-Amen.
    Most people who wanted to send a message would have to entrust it to an acquaintance or even a stranger, who was going in the right direction anyway. [20] And even the wealthy were at pains to keep expenses low by using the services of someone sent for a different purpose and by keeping an eye on their couriers:
The divine adoratrice of Amen, my lady Hor-iwi-tawi, has sent this fowler. He has been dispatched downstream, to the place where you are, following the fowlers. When he gets to you then you shall assign them (i.e. the fowlers) to him and prevent him from leaving. Give him a man chosen from suitable men, such as have been with him before. And you shall let him go, sending him ////// he will really rush and prevent him from delaying. Behold, I have dispatched him on the 15th day of the 2nd month of the peret-season in order to let him join you. Mark the time of his departure which you will decide upon in order to send him south. And you shall put it in writing in your letter, which you shall have him bring (to me)....
Correspondence of Hor-pa-en-Aset from el Hibeh [19]
    In Roman times there were the hyperetai who carried official messages, but higher placed officials too would be sent on such errands. From the 4th century CE on express deliveries were entrusted to the cursus velox, which was part of the cursus publicus services. [21]
    Travel was vital to the economy, and the involvement of the state in such activities was heavy. The exploratory voyages to Punt and into Nubia had economic aspects and even the forays into regions as unpromising as the eastern desert brought economic benefits in the form of turquoise and copper mines. Merchants, by the very nature of their business, were much of their time on the road. Asiatic traders brought their wares to Egypt by sea and by land. Later it was more and more the Greeks who controlled a large part of Egypt's overseas trade. Egyptians too went abroad to buy goods unavailable in their own country, as did the fictional Wenamen, who specially sailed to Byblos to buy cedar wood. Many ordinary citizens had to travel to make their living, even if distances were typically not great: peasants took their surplus produce to the market, workers were drafted at times from far away to work on pyramids and temples, fishermen brought their catch from the Nile to their clients in places like Deir el Medina etc. There were economic refugees, people fleeing from famine in their homeland and looking for work in Egypt, and, as it still frequently happens, they were often refused asylum and sent back:
May your heart be informed, you being hale and well, that 2 men of the Medja, 3 women of the Medja and 2 children have come down from the desert in the 3rd year of the reign, 3rd month of the Peret-season, on the 27th day and they have said: We have come in order to serve the house of the great house (i.e. the pharaoh), l.p.h. Asked concerning the desert they said: We do not hear anything, but the desert is dying of hunger. So say they all. This servant (i.e. the writer of the dispatch) ordered them to be sent back to their desert the same day.
Semna dispatch no. 5 [24]
Reign of Amenemhet III
    Religious holidays were often a reason for public outings and pilgrimages. Ikhernofret was sent by Senusret III to Abydos, where he organized the Osiris mysteries, though we do not know whether all the other participants were locals. Until the Ptolemaic period travelling to religious sites was for administrative purposes or pilgrimage, not sight-seeing [23]
    Personal reasons for going places were manyfold, a large number of them family related. Women travelled to join their husbands, men to be with their wives at the time of delivery, children to visit their parents. Didyme, a pregnant woman, wrote home to announce, that she would not be coming home to give birth after all, as she was not well enough. [29] Saturnilus, a soldier stationed at Pselkis in Nubia at the beginning of the second century CE wrote to his mother Aphrodous, who lived at Karanis:
.... I wish you to know that another male child has been born to me, whose name is Agathos Daimon. The gods willing, if I find an opportunity of putting my plan into effect I am coming to you with letters. I wish you to know that it is now three months since I came to Pselkis, and I have not yet found an opportunity to come to you....
Private Letter, 114-116 A.D. (October 22)[28]
When away from home one often stayed with friends and acquaintances:
[Year] 28, Peritios 28.; Sosipatros to Antimenes greeting. If [you are well] in body and everything else is to your mind, it would be excellent. We too are well. Ariston and the sister arrived here, reporting that they had been handsomely treated by you in every way. You do well then to show yourself friendly towards us; for we too will try to pay you all attention in any matter that you are keen about and write to us about. Know that they were driven in to Patara by the storms; from there they hired a boat and sailed along to Arsinoe to join us. The fare has been paid . . . amounting to 35 drachmai. I have therefore written to let you know. Farewell.
APIS record: michigan.apis.1813[27]

Destinations and travelling speed

    In Roman Egypt almost half the journeys were shorter than about ninety kilometres, 17% about 260 kilometres and 13% longer than that, including trips to foreign destinations. The average native Egyptian, not having many family connections outside his own region, travelled less far, and probably also less often, than the Greeks and Romans living in the country. When the people of Karanis travelled they stayed inside the Fayum in up to three quarters of the cases; between one and two journeys had Alexandria as destination and 6 to 10% of the travellers went abroad. [25]
    By land the average travelling speed was about thirty kilometres a day in desert areas, [26] while travelling on the Nile was significantly faster. Even sailing upriver one could achieve speeds of forty to seventy kilometres a day.


    "They beat my merchants and stole their money" complained the King of Babylon in a letter to Akhenaten, accusing Canaanite rulers of highway robbery and murder. Banditry on land and piracy at sea were widespread, above all in regions where the central power was weak. But it could happen to anybody and anywhere. In the year 117 CE Pasion and Onesimus, two pig-merchants at Arsinoe complained to the strategus of Themistes and Ptolemon, Megalonymus, that they had been robbed when on their way home to Theadelpheia. [30] Ipuwer, in his descriptions of a world in chaos complained:
One sits in bushes, till a night-traveller comes, to seize his load; what is on him is to be taken away, (he is) to be treated with blows of the stick, and (he is) killed wrongfully.
    A measure of safety could be found in numbers. Being accompanied by a large number of healthy men who had at least a notion of how to defend themselves, lowered the risks a traveller incurred. Of course it might happen, as it did to the fictional Wenamen, that one was robbed by one's own shipmates or sold into slavery by one's own brothers, as was the lot of the equally fictitious Joseph in the Bible.
    As the weapons of the bandits was generally very basic, a stout stick might well ward off a footpad or one of the drunks who seem to have become somewhat of a problem on the roads of Roman Egypt.[32] Amulets, divine statuettes and other magical objects might do wonders for the self-confidence of the traveller. Whether they were more than just a physical burden is open to doubt, the "Amen of the Road" Wenamen had with him did not prevent the theft of all his valuables. Min, the god of Koptos, was also a wayfarer's friend affording special protection to travellers, who crossed the eastern mountains by way of Wadi Hammamat[33] Of course the gods may have been more effective in protecting against other mishaps that might befall a traveller, such as losing one's way in a remote mountain region, not being able to find a well in a desert, being attacked by hyaenas or lions or having an accident and breaking a leg.
    Setting out on a journey was a momentous occasion and to ensure that the trip would not end in disaster one might ask an oracle for advice:
[May one inquire] after my fate before Isis, as follows: Should I go into the country on the day of receiving the money for (the) grain, or will it be better to remain here on Elephantine? The destiny is known through you. It is not something that should be ruined. May one ask (the oracle) to be certain.
Written year 2, 29th Mechir
Macedonian-Ptolemaic Period [34]


    Egypt was a vast country, separated from neighbouring lands east and west by deserts, and bordering in the north on the Mediterranean Sea. The only immediate link with other cultures they had for a long time was with their southern neighbours in Nubia and from earliest times contacts developed despite the Nile cataracts which made navigation on the river above Elephantine difficult. For much of its history Egypt attempted to control traffic with foreign countries. Above all the incursions of nomadic peoples were every now and then cause (and excuse) for military campaigns, but during much of the time it was enough if forces of the border police patrolled the frontiers. [35]
    When there was a functioning central government scribes were stationed in border posts who made records of the travellers entering and leaving the country. One of these was one Pa-ebpasa who lived at Djaru during the reign of Merneptah and wrote in his report of the 15th Pakhons [36]
Baal-/////, the son of Zippor of Gaza, passed through with a letter to Baal-marom(?)-ga[b]u, the prince of Tyre; another that Thoth, the son of Zakarumu, and the policeman Duthau, the son of Shem-baal, as well as Sutekh-mes, the son of Epher-dagal, had come from Gaza with a message to the king.
    But even in the most settled of times the frontier was not impenetrable. Slaves might escape from their masters and try to make it through the desert, [38] and, according to the tale, so did Sinuhe, fleeing from the wrath of Pharaoh.

Travel in the Beyond

    The ancient Egyptians had a number of different visions of the afterlife. The mwt enjoyed a sedate afterlife style in the necropolis, not very exciting perhaps and holding few surprises, but with possibly minor outings and visits to the homes of the living to look forward to. The akh on the other hand strove to rise to the heavens where it would join the eternal stars, a journey of cosmic dimensions:
To say the words: ‘Re-Atum, Unas comes to you, an Imperishable Spirit, Lord of Dispensation in the site of the four papyrus columns. Your son comes to you, this Unas comes to you, that you (both) may stride over the sky, united in darkness, that you may rise on the horizon in the place where you like to be [podium, pyramid].
Seth and Nephtys, hurry! Announce to the gods of the South and their spirits: He comes indeed, this Unas, an Imperishable Spirit, Lord of Dispensation in the site of the four papyrus columns. Your son comes to you, this Unas comes to you, that you (both) may stride over the sky, united in darkness, that you may rise on the horizon in the place where you like to be.
Pyramidtexts utterance 217 [39]
    The Book of the Dead was the vade mecum no wise deceased person would leave behind on his journey through the underworld, a place so full of dangers that without the spells in the book one could hardly hope to win through. Additional aids were the maps of the underworld which the dead were at times provided with and various good luck charms nobody with a grain of sense would leave home without.
    Just as people did in this world, the dead got around on foot and by boat; as ba-birds they could also fly, but did not travel, always staying close to the body. They joined Re in his bark on his daily journey through the underworld
Thou risest and settest, thou risest up with Re and ascendest with the great reed float
Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, Courier Dover Publications, 2000, p.106
and by defending the sungod against his enemies proved that they were worthy of eternal life.

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
Jan Assmann, Ma'at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten, C.H.Beck, 2001
Roger S. Bagnall, Raffaella Cribiore, Evie Ahtaridis, Women's letters from ancient Egypt, 300 BC-AD 800, University of Michigan Press, 2006
Kathryn A. Bard, Steven Blake Shubert, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1999
George A. Barton, Archaeology and The Bible, 3rd ed., Philadelphia 1920
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906
A. Rosalie David, Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press US, 1999
Adolf Erman, H. M. Tirard, Life in Ancient Egypt, Kessinger Publishing, 2003
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
Barry Kemp, Ancient Egypt, Routledge 2006
Amélie Kuhrt, Ancient Near East C. 3000-330 BC, Routledge, 1995
Richard G. Lipsey, K. Alec Chrystal, Economics, Oxford University Press, 2007
S. R. Llewelyn, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1982-83, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001
John Ruffle, The Egyptians: An Introduction to Egyptian Archaeology, Cornell University Press, 1977,
Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman, Colin Duriez, Douglas Penney, Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of biblical imagery, InterVarsity Press, 1998
Archibald Henry Sayce, The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotus, 1896, p.91
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
John Gardner Wilkinson, A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians, 1854
Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt, Routledge, 2001
John Albert Wilson, The Culture of Ancient Egypt, University of Chicago Press, 1956
[1] Michael Heltzer, Edward Lipinski, "Society and economy in the eastern Mediterranean, c. 1500-1000 B.C.", Proceedings of the international symposium held at the University of Haifa from the 28th of April to the 2nd of May, 1985, Peeters Publishers, 1988
[2] Sidebotham et al., 2001, p.140
[3] Roads
[4] Source:, accessed 10th May 2009
[5] Kuhrt, 1995, p.220
[6] Adams & Laurence, 2001, p.141
[7] Kemp, 2006, p.281
[8] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches und der Dritten Zwischenzeit => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => pBerlin 10463 => Brief des Bürgermeisters von Theben Sennefer an Baki
[9] Lipsey & Chrystal, 2007, p.169
[10] Breasted 1906, Part One, § 309
[12] As early as the 19th century Egyptologists like John Gardner Wilkinson in his A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians, 1854, p. 149, suggested this theory based on textual and pictorial sources.
[13] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre von pChester Beatty IV => pChester Beatty IV = pBM EA 10684 => pChester Beatty IV, Verso
[14] Greed was one of the worst character traits a person could have (Jan Assmann, 2001, p.239)
[15] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Neuägyptische Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Amenemope => 1. pBM EA 10474
[16] 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.
[17]Ryken et al. 1998, p.402
[18] Wilkinson, 2001, p.135
[19] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches und der Dritten Zwischenzeit => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus El-Hibeh => Briefwechsel des Hor-p(a)-en-Aset => pStrasburg 25 => Brieffragment
[20] Adams & Laurence, 2001, p.151
[21] Adams & Laurence, 2001, pp.99f.
[23] David 1999, p.257
[24] 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 Mittleren Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => pBM 10752 recto (Semna Dispatches) => Dispatch 5
[25] Adams and Laurence, 2001, p.158
[26] Adams, 2007, p.45
[27], accessed 9th May 2009
[28], accessed 9th May 2009
[29] Bagnell et al. 2006, p.81f.
[30] P.Fay,,P.Fay.:108 accessed 18th May 2009
[31] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 2. Reden und Dialoge => Der Dialog von Ipuwer mit dem Allherrn (die "Admonitions") => pLeiden I 344 Recto => Admonitions = Ipuwer
[32] Adams & Laurence, 2001, p.154
[33] Erman & Tirard, 2003, p.23)
[34] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Briefe => Berlin P 15637+15803
[35] Wilson, 1956 chapt.12
[36] Sayce 1896, p.91
[37] Petrie Papyri: Official journal found at Kahun
[38] The Pursuit of Runaway Slaves
[39] After a translation by Faulkner, accessed 20, May 2009
[40] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => oToronto A 11 => [rt.12-30]: Brief des Min-iniuy an den Wesir Chay
[41] Llewelyn 2001, p.31

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August, June 2009


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