Transportation in ancient Egypt adapted over thousands of years as the civilization developed more sophisticated technologies for movement. Ancient Egyptians mastered diverse environments from the waters of the Nile River and Mediterranean Sea to the harsh climate of the Sahara. The ancient Egyptians used animals, wheeled chariots and ships for transporting people, commodities and troops.
Proximity to the Nile River ensured that ancient Egyptian civilization came to develop and heavily rely on many types of watercraft for commerce, ferrying, fishing and leisure. Conditions on the Nile River, with its current flowing north and winds typically blowing south, were ideal for watercraft. Early rafts constructed of papyrus were commonly used due to the availability of the reeds. Ships are depicted in Egyptian paintings dated to 4000 to 3100 B.C., and the shift to sophisticated wooden boats took place around 4500 B.C. The oldest known examples of complex watercraft were recovered from a funerary monument at Abydos dated to the First Dynasty, around 3000 B.C. Ancient Egyptians also developed seafaring capabilities to pursue trade and military actions along the Mediterranean, facilitated through the import of cedar, a timber heavy enough for ocean-faring ships.
Egyptian chariots were small, light and capable of reaching great speeds while carrying two standing people. The wheels and frame were designed in such a way that chariots were able to transport troops or hunters across open desert or mountainous roads. The manufacture of chariots rose to prominence during the New Kingdom era. Chariots were also used for official processions, and frequently buried with ancient Egyptian rulers such as Tutankhamen, whose tomb included six chariots.
Beasts of Burden
Beasts of burden were used for transportation in ancient Egypt beginning in predynastic times. Donkeys and mules performed this work in addition to serving as plow animals or pulling carts. One-humped camels were not commonly used in predynastic Egypt. Camels of the two-humped variety were introduced more widely as desert transport animals by foreign invaders, including Assyrians, Persians and Alexander the Great. Egyptians were introduced to horses around 1700 to 1550 B.C., but the animals were reserved for use by the military and ruling class.
Litters and Sedan Chairs
The use of litters and sedan chairs is frequently attributed to the Old and Middle Kingdom, but appears to fall out of use after those periods. A wooden funerary miniature of two porters bearing an elite was found in the burial site of Sedment, and dated around 2100 to 2000 B.C. Litters could be either carried by porters or suspended between animals such as donkeys. As in many other ancient world cultures, this means of transportation was reserved to transport kings, nobles and the statues of gods.
- British Museum: Building Pharaoh's Ships
- Digital Egypt: Ships
- Coastal Carolina University: Boat Building and its Social Context in Ancient Egypt
- Texas A&M University: Iconography and the Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Watercraft
- The Griffith Institute: Chariots
- Digital Egypt: Transport
- Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt; Ann Rosalie David
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images