Thousands of models, texts, and representations testify to more than 120 types of ancient Egyptian watercraft in use for several thousand years. Even more important, however, are the twenty full-sized vessels that provide evidence about how the Egyptians built and used their boats. The vessels from Abydos, Khufu's pyramid, el-Lisht, Dahshur and Mataria fall into two main categories: (1) elegant, ceremonial hulls or (2) working boats, as simple as a papyrus skiff or as complex as a freighter that could carry hundreds of tons. Building wooden ships and boats in a land with few trees required a tremendous investment of labor and resources and provided the state with comparable, often intangible, rewards.
When the first bundles of reeds or logs were made into simple Nile rafts is not known, but boat models from the Badarian culture (c.5500–4000 BCE) indicate canoe-like craft, probably constructed of reed bundles that were tied together. Representations dating to the Naqada II period (c.3500 BCE) suggest that several kinds of wooden boats were being built, in addition to large papyrus rafts; although skilled woodworkers could produce thin, flat boards, the fastening techniques were then simple and unsuited to boatbuilding. By the beginning of the Early Dynastic period (c.3100 BCE), worked wood included timbers with all of the major fastening techniques later used to build boats. The introduction of copper tools at about that time accelerated the construction process. Egypt's increased societal demand for warships, freighters, and ritual craft in pharaonic times hastened the development of their nautical technology. The ancient Egyptians relied so completely on the Nile River for moving about that the symbols for “north” and “south” are simple glyphs that anyone could understand: a boat with its rigging collapsed on deck, riding with the Nile's current, symbolized “north”; a boat with an upright mast and billowed sail to catch the constant north wind meant “south.” The first image of a sail in all the world comes from ancient Egypt. In their religious texts, boats were associated with regeneration and with the waters of the primitive and chaotic abyss. Watercraft also served as some of the earliest symbols for the nascent state and kingship, in part because until the Roman period, only a few roads extended more than a few kilometers beyond the Nile Valley. Therefore ships were used for taxation, redistributing goods, transporting warriors, and a hundred other sacred or mundane tasks. Even the dead depended on water transport to their tombs; then magical spells summoned a reluctant ferryman and his boat to carry the dead person to the gods in the sky.
Builders used a variety of tools including saws, axes, adzes, and chisels to work both imported and local woods. Imported cedar of Lebanon (ʿŠ) was preferred for ceremonial and seagoing vessels, but abundant supplies of locally available tamarisk and acacia woods were used to build the more numerous and economically significant freighters. Ceremonial boats had long timbers sculpted and carved to precise curvatures, wasting at least half of the original wood, while freight boats depended on flatter and shorter planks and frames that were frugally sawn from trimmed trunks, seemingly in standardized shapes and sizes that took advantage of a tree's natural curvature. Like most watercraft in the world until about 1000 CE, ancient Egyptian examples were built shell first; after laying down a central plank or keel, shipwrights built the shell of planking, by fastening timbers together along their edges, inserting framing last. More labor efficient, modern boatbuilding is skeleton first, in which a keel is laid down, framing attached, and the planking shell added last. Egyptian ships and boats relied on thick planks with joggled edges, fastened by a combination of mortise-and-tenon joints and ligatures or lashing. Mortise-and-tenon joints, called menkh, provided the primary means to join plank edges, both in carpentry and in watercraft. Unlike later Mediterranean craft, the known ancient Egyptian rivercraft do not use pegs to lock the tenons in place, perhaps to simplify the (documented) disassembly and reassembly of Egyptian ships.
Shallow-draft vessels were the rule on the Nile, with working boats about three times longer than they were wide. The known ceremonial boats are typically five to eight times longer than their maximum width. Both working and ceremonial hulls used framing, inserted after the planked shell was built, to support the vessel's sides. Longitudinal carlings and stringers, transverse beams and even the ultra-high ends of some ceremonial types were interlocked in an elaborate geometry, to create and maintain hull integrity. Freighters were built more sturdily and had added strength from hogging trusses, to balance massive loads—such as a 740-ton statue or a pair of 330-ton obelisks. When evaluating the technology of hull construction, it is important to remember that a thousand years of boatbuilding preceded the Old Kingdom. Although a number of boat graves (boat-shaped mud-brick structures) are documented outside the royal graves at Saqqara and Helwan, little is known beyond maximum possible dimensions for the vessels. In 1991, archaeologists at Abydos discovered the oldest known planked boats. Their initial investigations of the twelve boat graves (each 19–26 meters/60–80 feet in length) revealed flat-bottomed, canoe-like craft that date to the first dynasty.
The majestic royal ship of Khufu (c.2640 BCE) from late in the fourth dynasty (Old Kingdom) serves both to enchant and confound modern scholars. At more than 43 meters (135 feet) in length, its imported cedar hull is perhaps the most complex artifact of its time. Its shortest plank is 7 meters (22 feet) long; hundreds of tenons and nearly 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) of rope were required to assemble it. By the time that models made to accompany Tutankhamun's body to the grave were carved during the New Kingdom, about 1325 BCE, the shape of the Khufu hull had become the standard form of solar boats. No one knows how early that association began, however, and it is likely that several meanings were conflated. The sun god Re possessed two watercraft: one for traversing the sky by day and one for night; that became an important part of divine mythology shortly after the fourth dynasty, according to the Pyramid Texts. Known today as solar boats (barks; in British, barques), models of the long and narrow vessels included a specific roster of accessories—such as mats, a seat or throne, and hawks and other emblems. Khufu's reconstructed vessel shares general features (cabins, mats) but none of the specific items consistently associated with solar boats. It may be a vessel type strongly associated with the pharaoh, whose own association with Re was so strong that the boat became inseparable from the growing worship of the sun god.
Wooden hulls that imitated the shape of papyrus rafts came to play important roles in funerary practices, such as transporting the newly mummified person to Egypt's most holy pilgrimage sites. Gods had their own sacred boats, and the sacred boat could be a divine manifestation of the god. Almost 120 words for boats and ships exist, with 32 used in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts. “Byblos” ships (kbn.t) and “Cretan” ships (kf.t.u) were special terms for seagoing craft believed to reflect either the origin of the raw materials (e.g., cedar from Lebanon) or a style of building associated with that cultural group. Thutmose III used jmw.w-ships and Wenamun, a late New Kingdom priest, sailed to Lebanon in a traveling ship (br.bjr). The most common words are jmw (ship or boat) and wjʒ, used to designate ceremonial ships until the New Kingdom, when this word became used for warships and ships of the king. The general word for freight ship, or freighter, is ḥʿw.
The ancient Egyptians developed advanced nautical technology fairly early—to move people and royal officials from one place to another, as well as distribute raw materials and grain. Egyptian rivercraft seem always to have carried their loads on deck, as their method of construction relies on spreading the weight of cargo across the hull, rather than concentrating it in the hold. Some scholars suggest that artistic convention is responsible for the many images of deck cargo, but structural reasons make deck loads imperative for the river freighters. Sea-going hulls may have more closely resembled undecked Mediterranean ships, but until one is found, it will be difficult to make accurate interpretations of the paintings showing sea travel.
During the fourth dynasty, the 4-ton granite plug for Khufu's pyramid had been loaded aboard a ship at Aswan and shipped down river. By the eighteenth dynasty, gigantic monoliths weighing 740 tons and more could be moved from one end of the country to another. In addition to such spectacular feats, the nation's food supplies moved up and down the Nile from field to town to temple, accompanied by scribes and officers of the pharaoh. Thousands of images and models of watercraft attest to both the expertise of ancient shipwrights and the importance of watercraft within the Egyptian economy, society, and culture—roles emphasized by any study of monumental art and architecture, international contact and exchange, and the administration and protection of the kingdom.
- Jenkins, N. Boat beneath the Pyramid. New York, 1980. Dated but well-illustrated look at the royal ship of Khufu and cultural context for watercraft.
- Jones, Dilwyn. A Glossary of Ancient Egyptian Nautical Titles and Terms. London, 1988. This volume collects references to watercraft, their operators, and their operation from ancient texts.
- Jones, Dilwyn. Egyptian Bookshelf: Boats. London, 1995. General overview of evidence for Egyptian watercraft.
- 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.
- 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. Examines cultural context, as well as physical characteristics, of twenty ancient hulls for specialists and nonspecialists.