The people of the Nile Valley used many types of boats and barges as the principal means of transportation (until the advent of mechanized transport in the twentieth century). Roads in ancient Egypt have not been well researched; however, expeditions in the Western Desert near Luxor (ancient Thebes) suggest that much can be learned about the full extent of overland transportation routes.
Boats and Barges
As early as the Predynastic period, boats emerge as a major theme in Egyptian art. It is not always clear whether the boats portrayed are real or mythic craft, so it is not known how they were constructed. Nonetheless, archaeological evidence for wood-working techniques and for wood worked into planks suggests that wooden ships might have been constructed before the first dynasty. By the first dynasty, large wooden vessels were certainly being constructed, as is known from the boat graves near royal or elite tombs at Abydos and Saqqara. Although those vessels were ceremonial, from them it can be inferred that wooden vessels had become important to Egypt's social and economic development. A petroglyph of slain and captured prisoners near a boat dated to the reign of the first dynasty king Zer at Gebel Sheikh Sulliman, as well as a boat on the Narmer Palette, suggest that, in addition to whatever role ships may have played in the transportation of cargo, ships had also assumed a military role in the Early Dynastic period.
From the Old Kingdom, boats were essential to the transportation of bulk cargoes of all types, including, but not limited to, stone for major building projects. Transport ships were a common theme in the art of private tombs and public monuments; written texts (like the autobiography of the courtier Weni) record that the use and construction of wooden ships were essential to carrying out peaceful and military missions in the Nile Valley.
Mediterranean shipping to and from Egypt is suggested for the Early Dynastic period and is certain for the Old Kingdom. The importation of wood for ship construction during the first dynasty is suggested by a wooden label from the tomb of the Horus Aha at Abydos, showing ships accompanied by the Old Egyptian word mr, meaning “cedar.” In the fourth dynasty, the Palermo Stone reports ships of pine being imported, presumably from Syria-Palestine, under the pharaoh Sneferu. From the Old Kingdom, the first mention was made of kpn, or “Byblos” vessels—ships that clearly have some sort of connection with the Syrian city of that name; the earliest attestation for an expedition to Punt may be sixth dynasty, in the autobiography of Pepy-nakht. Reliefs from the sun temple of Sahure show Near Easterners on seagoing vessels that, although unnamed, were very likely such ships.
The peculiarities of Egyptian ship construction, which used no nails or pegs but planks lashed together with ropes of papyrus or halfa grass, made it theoretically possible for vessels to be disassembled, transported, and reassembled elsewhere. While absolute proof is not forthcoming, such a process seems to be indicated in Egyptian texts from the Middle Kingdom, which refer to land expeditions traveling overland to the Red Sea, where fleets were constructed for expeditions to Arabia or East Africa. A similar hauling of prefabricated boat parts for later reassembly may be alluded to in the Gebel Barkal stela of Thutmose III, in which the pharaoh reports that, during his campaign in Syria, “I caused that many ships of cedar be built upon the mountains of God's Land, in the area called ‘Mistress of Byblos’; [they were] placed on wagons, cattle dragging [them]; they proceeded before my majesty to cross this great river [i.e., the Euphrates].”
Typically, Egyptian transport vessels were approximately three times as long as they were broad, with a maximum width at midships about three times the depth of the hull. Although a summary of the great variety of names for ship types far exceeds the space available here, a few types should be mentioned. The wsḫ (feminine var. wsḫ.t) or “broad” vessel was the typical large bulk hauler. Papyri with accounts from the Ramessid period suggest that the largest such ships could hold almost 1,000 Ramessid ẖʒr-measures, or almost 50 metric tons (best information from the twentieth dynasty Amiens Papyrus). Dimensions for large wsḫ-vessels are given in the inscriptions of the “Piya (Piankhy) blocks” of the twenty-fifth dynasty; there it was recorded that wsḫ-vessels hauling cargo from Sais to Thebes were approximately 45 cubits in overall length and 15 cubits wide, or approximately 23.5 by 7.8 meters (75 by 25 feet). Other common ship types were the mnš-ships, known primarily from the New Kingdom in connection with shipping on the Mediterranean and Red Sea; qr or kr-ships were used from the New Kingdom into at least the Persian period and appear to have been typically smaller than wsḫ-vessels, at least in Ramessid documentation. The byr-vessels were a ship type that was in use during the New Kingdom; in New Kingdom documentation, byr typically refers to seagoing ships. By the Persian period, however, byr mainly refers to Nile River boats, and they were known to Herodotus and other Greek travelers, under the form baris, as the typical native Nile River craft.
Large building projects also created the need for special purpose barges. The autobiography of Weni records the building of an extraordinarily broad barge for the hauling of a stone altar from Hatnub to Memphis: 30 cubits in width by 60 in length, or a length-to-beam ratio of 2:1. From el-Lisht, fragments of twelfth-dynasty wooden transport ships, used as construction fill at the pyramid of Senwosret I, suggest the possibility of a vessel with an 8-meter (25.6-foot) maximum beam and a 1.5-meter (5-foot) hull depth, or a ratio of 5.3:1. The ships from which these timbers were taken were evidently strongly framed and strengthened longitudinally with a sort of keelson, or heavy internal beam low in the ship. The largest such barge known appears to have been the obelisk carrier of Hatshepsut, portrayed in a relief at her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. If the relief is an accurate depiction of this vessel, the barge was more than long enough to hold both of Hatshepsut's Karnak obelisks end to end, and massively reinforced with three layers of through-beams. A written description of an obelisk-hauling barge from the earlier reign of Thutmose I is to be found in the autobiography of Ineni. Smaller ships were, of course, engaged in building projects as well, hauling cargoes of only a few blocks at a time. A number of ostraca preserve cargo lists for ships hauling stone during the construction of the Ramesseum. Similar ostraca are known for the construction of the temple of Sety I at Abydos.
In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a large variety of ship names appear in connection with cargo transportation. Aside from byr, Demotic documents record the far commoner rms- and ḏy-vessels, and perhaps also the qr, known from Ramessid documents. In Greek documentation from Ptolemaic Egypt, the largest-known vessels are called kerkouros-ships, which might hold up to 10,000 artabas (approximately 250 metric tons) of grain. In Roman documentation, common types are the Hellenikon, or “Greek” boat, and the pakton, possibly “lashed” boat; the contrast may be between ships built using Greco-Roman and indigenous Egyptian ship construction techniques.
While Egyptian sea connections with other Mediterranean lands seems assured from at least the Old Kingdom, the extent to which Egyptian ships sailed beyond the Red Sea is less clear. Sea travel to Punt, probably on the horn of Africa, is attested from at least the fifth dynasty, under Sahure. The suggestion of Predynastic or Early Dynastic sea connections with southern Mesopotamia seems dubious; the first actual proof of a sea route from Egypt to Mesopotamia comes in the Persian period, with the Red Sea canal stelas erected by Darius I documenting shipping to Persia. In the Greco-Roman period, however, sailors based in Red Sea ports routinely traveled to India.
Trade connections between Egypt and neighboring lands in the Near East and southern Africa are known from at least the Predynastic period. A number of Egyptian sites in southern Palestine from the first dynasty of the Early Dynastic period are built inland, suggesting that they were reached by land rather than water. Whether Nubian settlements to the south of Egypt were at this period more often reached by land or by river is more difficult to say, but numerous petroglyphs of boats in Upper Egypt and Nubia, many of Predynastic date, suggest that boats were much used. Rock inscriptions from the Predynastic period in the Wadi Hammamat and at other desert sites confirm expeditions into the desert; Egyptian expeditions left inscriptions in the Sinai peninsula by the third dynasty. Certainly caravan routes were already well established in the Old Kingdom, when the autobiography of the sixth dynasty HorKhuf records expeditions along Elephantine and oasis roads; this last was a desert route connecting the oases of the Western Desert. Probably the same route figures in the Second Kamose Stela of the transition to the eighteenth dynasty, which reports the interception of a message being carried “beyond the oases” from the Hyksos ruler in the Egyptian delta to his Nubian allies.
A northern route from the Nile Delta into the Near East, called the “Ways of Horus,” became the principal route by which Egyptian armies, traders, and diplomats entered Egyptian possessions in Syria-Palestine during the New Kingdom; the route was well equipped with fortifications, wells, and way-stations.
An extensive network of roads in the desert west of Thebes is being explored by the Luxor-Farshût Desert Road Survey, led by John Darnell of Yale University; the survey is beginning to yield a picture of the routes by which traders, pilgrims, and soldiers traveled by land from the Predynastic period onward. Throughout Egyptian history, mining and trading expeditions traveled through the Wadi Hammamat; vast expeditions are claimed, with one comprising as many as seventeen thousand men. Desert routes required regular watering stations, and the finding of wells might be portrayed as a miraculous event; likewise, the provision of wells can be advertised as an act of royal beneficence, as in the Wadi Mia inscription of Sety I. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a desert route leading southeast, from Coptos to the port city of Berenice on the Red Sea coast, became active. Persons traveling through the Eastern Desert during the Roman period were at least occasionally taxed, evidently to support security forces in the area.
Land transportation was mainly carried out by donkey caravan. Wheeled transport vehicles are not attested before the eighteenth dynasty (i.e., the use of wagons to haul boats or boat components in Syria, under Thutmose III). The camel is not attested as a beast of burden in Egypt before the Ptolemaic period, and it becomes a true economic asset by the Roman period.
- Casson, L. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton, 1971. The classic and indispensable introduction to the subject, although the discussion of ancient Egypt is not as strong as the discussion of the Greco-Roman world.
- Casson, L. The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Princeton, 1989. A specialized but still accessible work on trade in the Greco-Roman Red Sea.
- Gardiner, A. H. “Ramesside Texts Relating to the Taxation and Transport of Corn.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 27 (1941). Classic contribution to the study of Egyptian grain transportation in the late New Kingdom.
- Gophna, R. “Egyptian Trading Posts in Southern Canaan at the Dawn of the Archaic Period.” Egypt, Israel, Sinai, Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period, edited by A. F. Rainey, chapter 1. Jerusalem, 1987.
- Jones, D. A Glossary of Ancient Egyptian Nautical Titles and Terms. London, 1988. A specialist work, but the first place to begin building bibliography on most nautical subjects.
- Jones, D. Boats. Austin, 1995. A popular introduction to boats and ships of ancient Egypt.
- Lipke, P. The Royal Ship of Cheops. BAR International Series, 225. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Archaeological Series, 9. Oxford, 1984. A comprehensive and extremely useful archaeological and naval-architectural study of the fourth dynasty Khufu (Cheops) ship.
- Oren, E. “The 'Ways of Horus' in North Sinai.” In Egypt, Israel, Sinai, Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period, edited by A. F. Rainey, chapter 5. Jerusalem, 1987.
- Partridge, Robert. Transport in Ancient Egypt. London, 1996.
- Vinson, S. The Nile Boatman at Work, 1200 bce–400 ce. Munich, 1998. A socioeconomic study of Nile boat captains and their crews.
- Vinson, S. Egyptian Boats and Ships, Shire Egyptology Series, 20. Princes Risborough, 1994. A popular introduction to ships and boats in ancient Egypt.