In antiquity, boats represented the ultimate mode of travel in the Nile Valley, and they played a crucial role in Egyptian religious practice and belief from prehistory onward. The sun god was believed to traverse the sky by day and the underworld by night in his sacred bark (wἰʒ). Paintings on Naqada II pottery depict large ceremonial boats decorated with sacred emblems and figures. In dynastic times, both full-sized navigable craft and portable models—dragged or carried by priests—featured prominently in rituals and in festivals, when they were used to transport cult statues. Although no actual examples survive, their history can be traced in reliefs and inscriptions.

Among the most ancient examples was the Memphite god Soker's Ḥnw-boat. Although the earliest known representations date to the New Kingdom, its iconography suggests that it dates back to earliest times. The Ḥnw-boat resembles figures on Naqada II pottery, featuring a bank of oars along the front half of its impossibly curved hull. The cabin shrine has two mummiform falcons similar to the archaic gold and copper example found at Hierakonpolis, one projecting from the roof and the other from the front of the cabin. Its hull is supported by four pairs of posts attached to a sledge, with a rope secured to the front and sides of the sledge and running underneath the hull. A second rope, tied to the front of the sledge, was used to drag it in procession. Later, in Ramesses III's temple at Medinet Habu, the Ḥnw-boat was transported on carrying poles.

Other primitive barks, mounted on sledges with towropes, are shown in later reliefs. Some bear enthroned statues of the king or of Hathor as a cow with the king standing before her and again kneeling beneath her udders to suckle, with examples from Deir el-Bahri and Luxor and in Ramesses II's Abydos temple. These sledge-mounted barks predate those carried by priests on a platform with carrying poles. In New Kingdom barks, such carrying platforms are still represented in the form of the now obsolete sledge, an anachronism which betrays the original method of locomotion.

Another early bark, the Nšmt-boat of Osiris, is known from the twelfth dynasty at Abydos, where certain officials oversaw its construction. These texts probably refer to a large river-going craft rather than to a processional one, but later, in the temple of Sety I, a model vessel with carrying poles is depicted. The prow is decorated with a figurehead of the god emerging from a lotus stem, while the reliquary of Osiris protrudes from the top of the cabin shrine. A number of other sacred barks, rarely seen elsewhere, grace the walls of Sety I's Abydos temple, including those of Ptah, Re-Horakhty, Isis, and Horus.

From New Kingdom times onward, portable barks, heavily gilded and fitted at prow and stern with emblems of the gods and supported by carrying poles, became the standard form of processional shrine, the best-known example being that of Amun-Re of Thebes. From reliefs dating between the early eighteenth dynasty and the Ptolemaic era, it is possible to trace the Amun bark's iconographic development. The earliest datable representation comes from the alabaster bark chapel of Amenhotpe I at Karnak, but it is possible that this form existed earlier. A fragmentary relief from the temple of Nebhepetre-Montuhotpe II at Deir el-Bahri shows its prow, but this relief is a post-Amarna restoration dating to the Ramessid period. Still, it is most likely a replacement of an original relief depicting the bark. A pair of reused blocks from Karnak depict the craft's prow and cabin shrine. These could belong to a monument of Amenhotpe I or to the twelfth dynasty, as they are similar in style to that found on reliefs on blocks of Senwosret I. The evidence is sketchy, but it is likely that Amun's processional bark existed in the Middle Kingdom, perhaps as early as the eleventh dynasty.

Originally, the iconography of the vessel was simple; its slim hull was slightly upturned at prow and stern, each end having ram-headed figureheads with cobras emerging from their foreheads. The cabin, in the form of the Upper Egyptian pr-wr shrine, was decorated with a frieze of uraei along the top of its side panels, with two friezes of alternating pairs of ḏd and tἰt amulets below; the lower half was undecorated. The cabin was protected by a light canopy roof supported by poles. Otherwise, the decoration and fittings were quite sparse. A pair of oars and their steering columns had falcon-headed terminals. A sphinx on a standard was placed behind the prow.

Dozens of blocks from Hatshepsut's Red Chapel indicate that by her reign, the bark sported a veil partly shrouding the cabin shrine, to which it was attached by a large clasp in the form of a vulture with outstretched wings. The pattern of decoration on the exposed part of the cabin now consisted of two friezes of uraei supported on nb-baskets and wearing ʒtf-crowns; a šn-sign protruding from its chest separated each cobra from its neighbor. The ram figureheads fore and aft had aegises in the form of wsḫ-collars with falcon-head terminals. The deck was peopled with a number of figurines, including ones of Hathor and Maat standing near the prow; in front of the cabin shrine were a statuette of a kneeling king proffering nw-jars, and a royal sphinx with human arms extending a nmst-jar. The four poles supporting the canopy over the cabin shrine were each steadied by a kneeling king. Finally, another royal figure acting as helmsman stood behind the oarlocks, steering by means of a tiller in the form of a uraeus. Other embellishments included a wḏʒt-eye near the front of the hull and two clasps on each side of the hull in the form of winged scarabs that secured it to the carrying platform. The iconography of the bark remained largely the same before the Amarna period, but under Thutmose IV, šbyw-collars, consisting of two strands of biconical beads, were placed on the ram figureheads.

Sacred Barks

Sacred Barks. A relief depicting a sacred bark, from the eighteenth dynasty Red Chapel of Hatshepsut at Karnak. (Courtesy Peter Brand)

Since the bark was perhaps the most visible avatar of Amun-Re's cult, Akhenaten's partisans systematically expunged representations of it wherever such images appeared. Doubtless the gilded icon itself was likewise destroyed, since Tutankhamun's Restoration Edict dwells at length on the replacement of this costly and prestigious cult object. He claims to have refashioned it on thirteen carrying poles (nbʒw), whereas formerly it had been on eleven. This statement has been puzzling to scholars, since there is no room in the confined inner recesses of the temples to accommodate so many carrying poles and their bearers. In fact, no more than five poles could have fit, even this increase being made possible only by a widening of the doorways in various temples and shrines. Although it has been thought that the larger bark with five poles appeared under Thutmose III, it is more likely that Tutankhamun was responsible. The reference to thirteen poles is probably hyperbole.

In the wake of the Amarna heresy, embellishments to the bark became increasingly complex. The figureheads were fitted with ʒtf-crowns, large floral wʒḥ-collars and triple-stranded šbyw-collars; kneeling figurines of the king and the souls of Nekhen and Pe making jubilation and standing ones of the “Mrt-goddess” were set along the runners of the carrying platform. The formerly plain veil was now encrusted with hieroglyphic appliques forming parts of the royal titulary, arranged in rebus patterns. Two Maat goddesses with interlocking wings protecting a rebus of Tutankhamun's prenomen were most prominent among these.

This practice of incorporating titulary rebuses on the veil, and later on the exposed upper part of the cabin shrine, continued well into the Ramessid period and beyond. Certain elements, such as the winged goddesses, were retained for centuries. Others, specific to an individual king's titulary, were either discarded or altered so that they no longer referred explicitly to that king. Under Sety I, for example, the winged Maat figures knelt on mn-boards and had sun disks on their heads, thereby rendering his prenomen Menmaatre. In later reigns, rebuses were modified to depict the names of other kings, but temple reliefs indicate that some of these mn-signs, distinctive of Sety's name, were retained until the reign of Ramesses III. In this way, the rich iconography of the veil and cabin shrine underwent a continuous but gradual evolution.

Amun-Re also had a huge river barge called the Amun-Userhet, or “Amen-is-Mighty-of-Prow.” Under Ramesses III, it was 130 cubits long (about 70 meters/224 feet). The barge itself closely resembled the processional bark, having elaborate ram-headed aegises, huge oars and steering columns, and even large versions of the crew of statues populating its deck. Its great cabin served as a floating temple complete with flagstaves and obelisks on its façade. All these fittings were plated with gold; from Amenhotpe III's reign on, even the hull was clad to the waterline with large gold sheets embossed with ritual scenes. During Theban religious celebrations, such as Opet and the Festival of the Valley, this dazzling floating temple was towed by ships and by men pulling dozens of tow ropes from shore, along canals and up the river, along with Amun's consort Mut and their son Khonsu, who were provided with river barges of their own as early as Tutankhamun's reign. Other gods had similar barges, but none are as well known as those of the Theban triad.


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Peter Brand