Ships and watercraft in ancient Egypt were an important factor in the development of maritime trade and transport throughout the span of the civilization. Egyptian shipbuilders advanced from the most basic rafts to learning how to navigate the open sea, using their skills to gather food, conduct trade along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, and engage in warfare. Ships also served as symbolic representations of power that are frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian art.
Early Ship Evidence
Ships are represented in ancient Egyptian paintings dated as early as 4000 B.C., but the artistic depictions do not reveal clear information on their details or construction. These early canoe-like boats or rafts made of papyrus were used for fishing and transportation, and influenced later wooden designs for timber construction. Timbers discovered at the Tarkhan site and dated to 3000 B.C. are believed to be the earliest known ship fragments, reused as roofing for the Tarkhan tombs .
The use of wooden ships developed around 3500 B.C., as depicted in drawings of large boats incorporating oars and structures built onto the deck. This coincides with the implementation of stone tools and other examples of advanced woodworking which took advantage of native species such as acacia, tamarisk and sycamore fig. Carpentry developed even further over the next 1000 years, with finds of copper axes, adzes and saw growing more frequent after 3500 B.C. Imported cedar from the Mediterranean also served as an important source of timber for boat building.
The Funerary Ships of Abydos
The remains of 14 wooden ships recovered from the funerary complex at Abydos are the most ancient examples of complex watercraft. Excavations of this First Dynasty burial site revealed a sophisticated level of craftsmanship developed to lash the planks together that formed the hull. The ship design demonstrates how the ancient Egyptians developed a process to design their ships in a standardized way that allowed for them to be disassembled, transported and recycled if necessary. Whether for basic functions, advanced trade or warfare, watercraft were a part of ancient Egyptian culture for seven thousand years, and the burial of these and other funerary boats served as a symbolic expression of state power.
Routes and Destinations
Conditions on the Nile River were highly advantageous for ship movement due to the current flowing north and the steady winds blowing south. High water levels during the river's annual inundation also benefited ships by allowing for shipping of heavy stone from the southern quarries for use in monuments built downriver. Ancient Egyptians explored and traded with other Mediterranean cultures as their proficiency with ocean navigation increased. Ancient Egyptians also reached "the land of Punt," possibly located near modern day Eritrea or Ethiopia, by transporting boat kits across the desert to the Red Sea coast and sailing south. Chronicled expeditions to Punt throughout the Pharaonic era traded for gold and aromatic resins.
Ancient Egyptian Boats and Warfare
The Egyptian state throughout the pharaonic era established the major (if not only) naval power of the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, a necessary development considering the amount of maritime commerce generated through their society. In addition to protecting against pirates, ships were also used to defend against immigrants and invaders, escort diplomatic envoys, protect mining expeditions into Nubian territory, and combat internal threats during periods of weakened centralized state control.
- Digital Egypt: Ships
- Digital Egypt: Timber from Tarkhan
- The Philosophy of Shipbuilding: Frederick M. Hocker, Cheryl A. Ward
- Coastal Carolina University: Boat Building and its Social Context in Ancient Egypt
- Texas A&M University: Iconography and the Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Watercraft
- Ancient Egyptian Sea Power and the Origin of Maritime Forces: Gregory P. Gilbert
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