The Pharaoh's Ship

On Dec 29, 2009, archaeologists found the eighth in a series of lost chambers at Wadi Gawasis in Egypt. Previously seven chambers had revealed pieces of an Egyptian sea faring vessel.

Inside they found a network of larger rooms filled with dozens of nautical artifacts: limestone anchors, 80 coils of knotted rope, pottery fragments, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that likely are steering oars from a 70-foot-long ship. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions, the ship was dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt by Queen Hatshepsut during the 15th century B.C. [Archaeologist Kathryn Bards Amazing Egyptian Digs]

This is not the oldest ship remains in Egypt; that credit goes to Khufu’s ship (2500 B.C.E), but then Khufu’s ship probably never sailed.

The ship that was found at Wadi Gawasis was sent to Punt by the female Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508 B.C.E – 1458 B.C.E). But even now no one knows where Punt it. We know that it was south of Egypt, was accessible through the Red Sea and from there Egyptians obtained an alloy of gold and silver, wood, slaves and animals like giraffe and rhino. 

The most important export of Punt was a tree resin  used to make incense. Then incense, during those times, could be obtained from Arabia, Sindh, Baluchistan, Gujarat, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. In fact among all these places, the Arabian one was considered the best. But looking at various other factors, Punt is believed to be in the Saudi/Yemen border or Eastern Sudan/Eritrea area.

The importance of incense during that period can be seen in the story of Queen Sheba who visited King Solomon. She came either from Ethopia or Yemen and bought bales of incense as gift. This is the same queen who had a Duryodhana effect and converted and whose son stole the Ark of the Covenant

Egyptians were known for their land trade, but when the King of Kush became powerful and hostile, Queen Hatshepsut had no option other than navigating the choppy waters of the Red Sea. The design of her ship can be seen in the frescoes of her tomb and based on that archaeologists and ship builders made an exact replica which was the subject of the new PBS documentary Building the Pharoah’s ship. This ship,  made of wood, tied with rope and sealed with beeswax, performed well. It was able to survive a small storm as well.

But then sailing across the open ocean was quite common by that period. A millennia before Hatshepsut, Sargon of Akkad boasted about the ships of Magan, Dilmun and Meluhha lying in his harbor. To prove that ancient ships could do such long distance travel Thor Heyerdahl made a 60 foot reed ship called the Tigris and sailed from the Tigris delta to the Indus delta and returned back to Djibouti. It was in such ships that Queen Puabi got her carnelian beads, Gudea got his wood and the Meluhhans arived to settle in Guabba.

5 thoughts on “The Pharaoh's Ship

  1. Interesting that you mention Hatshepsut’s boats to Punt. Recently, there was a TV programme about a reconstruction of such a boat and its sailing down the Red Sea; you can see further information about the archaeology and ship-design at Cheryl Ward‘s website.

  2. Ha! Silly of me. I was referring to a French programme shown on BBC4 (which is where I saw it). Didn’t realise the same thing was shown on PBS too…

  3. Some historians are of the opinion that Punt and Ophir are synonymous and are probably relate to the Malabar coast. I had briefly covered it earlier..
    The temple of Solomon at Jerusalem and the land of the Ophir – Once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes & peacocks. They sailed to Ophir and brought back 420 talents of gold, which they delivered to King Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28). Since historic times, this sentence has made many a treasure seeker set out for the land of the Ophir. While historians point out a few candidates in Africa, one strong contender for this locale was Malabar and the main reason was the presumption that no other location in the world but Malabar can provide all 5 articles above (Francis Ford – The planting industry in S India).

  4. Maddy, I read a paper published last year I think, which was a detailed analysis of the sea trade of the ancient world and in their analysis they narrowed it down to the two places I mentioned. They never mentioned Malabar regarding Punt, even though they mentioned the peppercorn up Ramses’ nose. They mentioned that the incense could have come from Sindh or Gujarat.

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