Clay and stone models from Neolithic sites attest to the early development of river navigation in Egypt. Papyrus, tied in bundles, was used to form rafts or canoe-like craft that let people use the Nile in new ways. Illustrations of boat shapes more suited to wooden construction appear in the late Predynastic period, along with single masts with sails. Because the Nile current flows north to the Delta at up to four nautical miles per hour, and the prevailing wind blows from north to south, journeys on the river were relatively easy once the sail was in use. Portage around the rocky cataracts at Aswan and farther south overcame those obstacles. Major and minor canal works were part of Egyptian state projects from the earliest kings, culminating in a Persian-period canal between the Red Sea and the Nile wide enough to handle two ships passing. At sea, ships probably stayed near the coast on routes identified by landmarks passed on from generation to generation, at least until the Late period.

In the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, evidence for seafaring is mostly indirect. Simple drawings of wooden boats scratched on the walls of the Wadi Hammamat, a resting point on the route between the Nile and the Red Sea, may show vessels being carried across the desert as in later times. First dynasty boat depictions show mostly ceremonial wooden boats, but one label from Abydos differs: two blocky vessels are associated with the words for an imported wood (mrw) and Lebanon, leading some scholars to suggest that we are looking at either cargo ships or ships made from imported wood.

Large, long, coniferous timbers and many imported objects in first dynasty and later sites offer evidence for trade with the eastern Mediterranean, where the nearest forests belonged to the ancient Syrian-Palestinian cultures. Inscriptions at Byblos in Lebanon may be linked to the second dynasty ruler Khasekhemwy (c.2714–2687 BCE). Contact with Mesopotamian civilization seems to have come along this northern sea route during the late Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, because few artifacts can be traced along the proposed southern route through the Persian Gulf and around the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea.

The first secure written evidence for Mediterranean seafaring by Egyptians comes from the Palermo Stone, which mentions forty ships, loaded with cedar, in the early fourth dynasty reign of Sneferu. Also from the Old Kingdom is a gold Egyptian ax head found in Lebanon and inscribed “the boat crew ‘Pacified-is-the-Two-Falcons-of Gold’ port gang.” Both Khufu (fourth dynasty) and Sahure (fifth dynasty) used the “Two Falcons of Gold” epithet. Khufu's name is one vase fragments found at Byblos, and the 43-meter-long (135 feet) royal ship of Khufu is built almost entirely of imported cedar. The earliest detailed portraits of seaworthy ships come from decorated blocks in the mortuary temple for the fifth dynasty ruler Sahure (2458–2446 BCE) at Abusir. Twelve ships are illustrated, with careful attention to construction, rigging, and passengers, who include a mixture of Egyptians and Syrians.

In addition to a strong sewn girdle around the hull's bulwarks, the Sahure vessels include a massive hogging truss, invented to counter the physical stresses of seafaring. The hogging truss, looped around each end of the ship, was tightened with a device known as a Spanish windlass, which kept both ends under tension, thus maintaining the hull's integrity and shape. Like other Old Kingdom boats, this fleet relied on bipod masts—two-legged, fixed masts that spread the force of the sail across the hull. Although the sails are not set in these illustrations, they probably were long and narrow, like those commonly illustrated for river vessels of the same period. Large, forked spars helped spread the fixed sails, and helmsmen used quarter-rudders for steering.

Sahure also sent an expedition to the land of Punt in his thirteenth regnal year. Punt, probably modern Somalia or Eritrea at the southern end of the Red Sea, fed Egyptian appetites for incense, precious woods, and other raw materials. Pepy II (r. 2300–2206 BCE) also recorded an expedition to Punt, and there are stone fragments carved with seagoing ships from the time of Unas (r. 2404–2374). The Sahure text records eighty thousand measures of myrrh alone, so we must imagine fairly large ships with crews able to navigate the reef-lined shores of the Red Sea more than forty-five hundred years ago. These oceangoing, cargo ships were known as kbn.t (“Byblos”) or hʿw ships even until the Late period.

In the Middle Kingdom, there are no extant illustrations of seagoing ships, but there are other sources of evidence for seafaring. The cedar Dahshur boats and many fine cedar coffins point to abundant imports from Lebanon, and gold jewelry featuring Red Sea shells is fairly common and has been interpreted as an indication of seafaring. In addition, scraps of boatlike planks and carved limestone anchors at Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea testify to seagoing activity there. Abdel Monem el-Sayed of the University of Alexandria excavated shrines, anchors, and what seems to be a campsite on the ancient shore. His work shows that this site—rather than Quseir, for which there are no pharaonic finds—was the anchorage for travel to Punt.

In addition to fragments of limestone with the cartouche of Senwosret I (r. 1971–1928 BCE), el-Sayed found anchors, some inscribed with narratives describing voyages to Punt in ships built at “the dockyards of Coptos” and carried, in pieces, across the Eastern Desert by a crew of nearly thirty-eight hundred men. Cedar plank fragments from the site feature mortises and plank dimensions which correspond well with what we know of extant Middle Kingdom watercraft. Other finds show that Mersa Gawasis was used during the reigns of Amenemhet II (Year 28, c. 1900 BCE), Senwosret II (Years 1, 5, and 6, c. 1897–1891 BCE), and Senwosret III (r. 1878–1843 BCE). Inscriptions suggest that both Punt and perhaps mines in the Sinai were reached by sea from Mersa Gawasis during the twelfth dynasty.

Middle Kingdom texts, particularly the Instructions of Ipuwer from the end of the period, and the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, deal with seafaring. Comments by Ipuwer indicate unhappiness with the lack of Egyptian ships trading with Byblos for resin and other goods related to rituals, while the Shipwrecked Sailor mixes fact and fantasy about a Red Sea trip to the Sinai that resulted in his spending months on an island with a lapis lazuli and golden snake after his 54-meter-long (180 foot) ship sank. Spells from the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) also provide us with a glimpse of Nile-based navigation and practice during this time.

Seafaring in the New Kingdom seems a more common occurrence, with refinements in rigging and steering gear traceable through images and models of ships. No physical remains of New Kingdom hulls have been found as yet. The most spectacular images come from the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (r. 1502–1482 BCE), at Deir el-Bahri where a fleet of kbn.t ships sets sail for Punt and returns loaded with all kinds of cargo, including incense trees, monkeys, and natives.

Hatshepsut boasts that she reopened the ways to Punt, and this extraordinary series of illustrations suggests that she invested heavily in the expedition. Five ships with upright bows and curved papyriform sterns, hogging trusses, and single masts with broad sails are shown entering and leaving the anchorage at Punt. Only one includes an illustration of beam ends; otherwise, artistic attention was lavished on the rigging. Fifteen oarsmen shown on the side facing the viewer would have required about a meter of room each, suggesting the ships were at least 22 meters (70 feet) long. We have no indication of width, although the standard reported for Egyptian (and other) cargo ships is three times longer than broad.

Thutmose III's reign provides us with dockyard records that monitored the movement of ships as well as single goatskins and reused timbers, the first use of menesh for a ship type (in the expedition to Syria-Palestine, Year 30, c. 1474 BCE), and further records of cedar acquired and goods stored at harbors for Egyptian use. An Amarna tablet refers to the king's ships in Tyre, and seagoing ships seem to be illustrated by Ramesses III in the Sea Peoples' battle scene at Medinet Habu. Egyptian grain was exported to Palestine and Anatolian Egyptian vassals, according to cuneiform texts there, but whether Egyptian or local ships were used is not known.

A number of authors argue that the keel was introduced during the New Kingdom, but there is little evidence to support this hypothesis. There are central, longitudinal timbers at the ends of models and in depictions which extend beyond the planked sides of the hulls, but these stop short at the waterline. The Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Uluburun, Turkey (c. 1306 BCE) has no frames, and its “keel” provides longitudinal stiffening but protrudes only about 2 centimeters (0.75 inch) beyond the planking on what was undoubtedly a seafaring ship of the highest quality.

During the Late period and on into Roman times, a number of textual references make it clear that there was a continued investment in seafaring by the rulers of Egypt. In addition to trading vessels and warships, Egyptian shipwrights built enormous cargo ships, including obelisk carriers for Roman emperors from Augustus to Constantine. One that was built for Caligula was so immense that Claudius filled it with cement and sank it as a significant part of the foundations for harborworks at Ostia, the port of Rome.

The ancient Egyptians began traveling on the Nile at least seven thousand years ago, and probably had started sea voyages in wooden boats by about fifty-five hundred years ago. Although no seagoing ship has been excavated, abundant evidence for Egyptian routes to the Levant and the Red Sea points to an active merchant fleet and a competent navy for much of Egyptian history, particularly from the New Kingdom onward.



  • Jones, Dilwyn. A Glossary of Ancient Egyptian Nautical Titles and Terms. London, 1988. Comprehensive collection and translations.
  • Jones, Dilwyn. Egyptian Bookshelf: Boats. London, 1995. General overview of evidence for Egyptian watercraft.
  • Kemp, Barry. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989.
  • Landström, B. Ships of the Pharaohs. London, 1970. Unsurpassed collection of pictorial evidence for Egyptian watercraft, but the interpretations are dated.
  • Lipke, P. The Royal Ship of Cheops. Oxford, 1984. Detailed report on the reconstruction of the Khufu ship.
  • Patch, D.C., and C. Ward Haldane. The Pharaoh's Boat at the Carnegie. Pittsburgh, 1990. Investigation of the Middle Kingdom Egyptian boat at the Carnegie Museum.
  • el-Sayed, Abdel Monem A. H. “New Light on the Recently Discovered Port on the Red Sea Shore.” Chronique d'Égypte 58.115–116 (1983), 23–37. Summary of finds and interpretation of the Mersa Gawasis anchorage.
  • Vinson, Steve. Egyptian Boats and Ships. Buckinghamshire, 1994. Specialist information in an accessible, well-illustrated format.
  • Ward, Cheryl. Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats. Boston, 1999. This volume for specialists and nonspecialists examines the cultural context and the physical characteristics of twenty ancient rivercraft.

Cheryl Ward