Ships and Boats in Ancient Egypt

As I currently swelter in a heatwave, I began to daydream about being on a boat with a nice breeze cooling me down. And that got me thinking about boats and ships sailing up and down the river Nile with a gentle river breeze – yes, I know very romanticised but just give me this one.

Figure 1: Men building papyrus skiffs from a fragment of carved wall from Abu Gurob now in the Neues Museum Berlin. Authors own photo.
Figure 2: A Naqada II phase pot showing an elaborate many oar vessel. British Museum EA65367 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA65367

Given the integral role that the river Nile played in the life of the ancient Egyptians from a practical and religious standpoint, it is no wonder that boats and various modes of water transportation have been used as early as the Gerzean period or Naqada II period (c.3500-3100)[1]. Papyrus skiffs made by binding the long stalks together were used from the Predynastic era for local transport and hunting (Figure 1). As shown in tomb art, the boats used for pilgrimages and funerals take a distinctive elongated U shape with upturned ends; these may originally have been made from reeds and were perhaps translated later into wood[2]. Painted pottery of the Naqada period also shows more elaborate boats, in all likelihood made using papyrus, boasting multiple sets of oars (Figure 2).

Figure 3: The stances of the boats used in hieroglyphs to describe the direction of travel. Top to travel south Bottom to travel north. Faulkner, R., 1991. A concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford: Griffith Inst., pp.195,199.

The prevailing winds of Nile valley come from the North and so the sailing boats could propel boats travelling south by those winds whilst those travelling north would rely on the use of oars and the currents[3]. The use of boats as a form of travel was so ingrained in the psyche of the ancient Egyptian that it was natural for boat travel to form part of the hieroglyphic language and religious rhetoric. In hieroglyphs travelling north even in the case of overland travel consists of a boat with sails down and lowered oars whilst travelling to the south the boat with its sails up (Figure 3).  In the religious views of the ancient Egyptians, the boat was the mode of transport for the sun god Ra as he travelled a night through the underworld to sail the sky ushering the sun across the sky during the day(Figure 4).  

Figure 4: Ra in his solar barque journeying through the underworld. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1062/ships-of-the-gods-of-ancient-egypt/

Old Kingdom

Moving on from papyrus skiffs the Old Kingdom saw boats being made of wood, likely obtained from local sources of Syria Palestine. These boats continued to have the characteristic curving hull and were usually furnished with several steering oars, mast and a long narrow sail. The most well-known surviving example of an Old Kingdom boat is that of the Pharaoh Khufu that was found beside his pyramid (Figure5). The boat was discovered in 1954 alongside a smaller vessel and had been dismantled in ancient times then placed into a pit south of the pyramid[4]. here is a difference of opinion as to how these two boats function are they symbolic solar barks for the king to use in his afterlife, or funeral boats used to transport Khufu’s funerary equipment to his pyramid? The boat has been reconstructed over 13 years and is now on display at a dedicated museum at Giza. The construction of this boat gives us great insight into shipbuilding technology used by the ancient Egyptians. The planks of wood used to create this boat have been ‘sewn’ together with ropes. Just to give you a sense of how large this ship the Egyptian archaeological service reconstructed its approximately 38 tons of Lebanese cedar into a vessel roughly 140 feet long, 18.5 feet in width, 6 feet deep, using roughly 700 tenons and 3 miles of rope[5]. 3 miles of rope!  

Figure 5: The reassembled boat of Khufu
https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1062/ships-of-the-gods-of-ancient-egypt/

Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom vessels are similar to those of the Old Kingdom although one key difference being that the steering oar was operated as a rudder utilizing ropes. The mast also became collapsible and rest on a stand placed on the stern (Figure 6- Manchester Examples). This period also saw the introduction of painted wooden model boats designed to magically undertake the journey to Abydos[6] the supposed burial place of Osiris increasing the chance of a successful resurrection. The model boats were made of wood, with oars, deck cabins, crews, linen sails and painted details all of which would magically come to life after the Opening of the Mouth ceremony was completed[7]. Wealthy individuals often included a variety of crafts in their tombs for different purposes including; a boat to transport the deceased across the river for burial, fishing expeditions, and making the important journey to Abydos[8].

Figure 6: Two model boats from the Tomb of Two Brothers.
Top model shows a boat of ten rowers at the oars, a look-out man, a steersman, and another man seated on a chair in front of the cabin. The mast is laid across the top of cabin, with the sail rolled up, indicating that the boat is travelling upstream (south) Manchester Museum 4741. http://harbour.man.ac.uk/mmcustom/Display.php?irn=100268&QueryPage=%2Fmmcustom%2FEgyptQuery.php
Bottom model shows a boat with four sailors hauling sail and four sitting at the sides of the cabin. There is also a lookout man, and a steersman seated on a chair in front of the cabin. Manchester Museum 4742 http://harbour.man.ac.uk/mmcustom/Display.php?irn=100267&QueryPage=%2Fmmcustom%2FEgyptQuery.php

 New Kingdom

Building on the established vessels of the Middle Kingdom vessels of the New Kingdom appear to have become more specialised. These ships now usually boasted two cabins one at the stern and prow in addition to the main central cabin[9]. In addition to this, the helmsmen operated double steering oars by a system of ropes and levers as before and the width of the sail had been increased to be more than its height[10]. The Egyptian navy at this point was also at the height of readiness during this period as they had been tested with the attempted invasion of the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples is a loose term referring to a confederation of people of the eastern Mediterranean who attempted to settle in Syria-Palestine and Egypt between the 13th and 12th centuries BC[11]. The use of ships as part of trade missions also grew at this time. The female pharaoh Hatshepsut is famous for her sea born expeditions to the mysterious land of Punt recorded on the wall of her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri (Figure 7). The location of Punt remains a mystery that is yet to be solved.

Figure 7: Laden boat with cargo leave Punt. Plate LXXV https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/naville1898bd3/0007

Late Period

Boats of the Late Period seem to have followed in the same vein as their predecessors, the only difference seems to have been the stern being generally higher. With increasing Greek influences during this period, the vessels naturally began to take on more attributes of those built by the Greeks and Phoenicians. By the time of the sea battle of Actium between Cleopatra VII (51-30BC) and the Roman consul Octavian, later becoming Emperor Augustus the ships of the Egyptians appear to have been similar to those of the Romans [12]. At the battle of Actium specifically a key type of shipped used by the Romans was a ship named the Liburne, that originated from Liburnian pirates it was used to great affect by the Roman with the addition of an archer tower at the front, a wide-open bridge for two rowers and ‘combat’ lateral bridge and high corvus[13] (Figure ). With the battle lost ned the fall of Egypt to the roman the ships of the Egyptians became assimilated with those of the Romans.


Figure 8: The Liburne from the Battle of Actium https://www.naval-encyclopedia.com/antique-ships/roman-ships

References

[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 302

[2] https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/papy/hd_papy.htm Accessed 22/07/2021

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 302

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20140623210914/http://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/MUS_Khufu-Boat.htm Accessed 23/07/2021

[5] Stein, S.,(ed) 2017. The Sea in World History : Exploration, Travel, and Trade, Volume II Ancient Egypt Through The First Global Age. Greenwood Press. Page 19

[6] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 303

[7] David, A.R, (2015), A year in the life of Ancient Egypt. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword. Page 231

[8] David, A.R, (2015), A year in the life of Ancient Egypt. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword. Page 231

[9] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 303 Page 303

[10] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 303

[11] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Pages 285/6

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 303

[13] https://www.naval-encyclopedia.com/antique-ships/roman-ships Accessed 23/07/2021

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