Looking for Punt

Some time in the 15th century BCE, the female Pharoah Hatshepsut sent ships to a place called Punt. But we don’t know where that place is, even now.

So elusive is the answer that, since the mid-19th century, a procession of scholars have, like erudite dart-throwers, stippled the map of the Red Sea area with their often strongly argued proposals for where Punt lay. (Refer to map at right throughout this article.) Syria. Sinai. Southern Arabia. Eastern Sudan. Northern Ethiopia. Somalia. Kenya. Each was Punt, insists this or that Egyptologist. New papers continue to appear regularly that try to put this question to bed once and for all. So far, all have failed.[NOVA | Building Pharaoh’s Ship | Where Is Punt? | PBS]

To resolve this issue, scientists are turning to two people who may know the answer: two mummified baboons in the British Museum

The team is conducting oxygen isotope tests on the preserved hairs of the baboons. Oxygen isotopes act as a ‘signal’ that can tell scientists where an animal is from.
To aid in narrowing down the location of Punt the team is also performing oxygen isotope tests on samples of modern day baboons from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda and Mozambique. If the oxygen isotope signatures of these baboons match their ancient counterparts the team will know where Punt was.[Mummified Baboons in British Museum May Reveal Location of the Land of Punt | Heritage Key]

Update (April 26): The Baboons have spoken. They say Punt was the land between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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.

Hatshepsut and Mistress of the Lioness

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut (via Wikipedia)

Recently the Public Radio Station in Boston had a one hour discussion on one of the rare female pharoah’s of Egypt — Hatshepsut (1479 to 1458 B.C.E.) — who ruled 150 years before Akhenaten, the monotheist pharoah. National Geographic had a cover story as well.

Though a woman, in one temple carving she is shown born as a boy. She would also walk in a striding pose, like males instead of keeping the legs close together, like other Egyptian women. Some statues depicted her with a beard. It was as if she was trying to convince the world that she was male. Her motivation for doing so is known.
Her mummy was discovered almost a century back, but remained unidentified. She was called KV60a.

KV60a had been cruising eternity without even the hospitality of a coffin, much less a retinue of figurines to perform royal chores. She had nothing to wear, either —no headdress, no jewelry, no gold sandals or gold toe and finger coverings, none of the treasures that had been provided the pharaoh Tutankhamun, who was a pip-squeak of a king compared with Hatshepsut.
And even with all the high-tech methods used to crack one of Egypt’s most notable missing person cases, if it had not been for the serendipitous discovery of a tooth, KV60a might still be lying alone in the dark, her royal name and status unacknowledged. [The King Herself]

Hatshepsut was not the first woman to rule Egypt, but she ruled more than all other women — for 21 years. She erected four granite obelisks at the temple of Karnak. This animation takes the viewer from eastern Karnak across the sacred lake to the shrine of Thutmose III, who would succeed Hatshepsut.

After her death, around 1458 B.C., her stepson went on to secure his destiny as one of the great pharaohs in Egyptian his­tory. Thutmose III was a monument maker like his stepmother but also a warrior without peer, the so-called Napoleon of ancient Egypt. In a 19-year span he led 17 military campaigns in the Levant, including a victory against the Canaanites at Megiddo in present-day Israel that is still taught in military academies. He had a flock of wives, one of whom bore his successor, Amenhotep II. Thutmose III also found time to introduce the chicken to the Egyptian dinner table.
In the latter part of his life, when other men might be content to reminisce about bygone adventures, Thutmose III appears to have taken up another pastime. He decided to methodically wipe his stepmother, the king, out of history. [The King Herself]

While Egypt had other female Pharoah’s, it was believed that Caanan had only male rulers. But now a recently found plaque depicts an image of the first female “king” of the region.

The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers — attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom. [Was A ‘Mistress Of The Lionesses’ A King In Ancient Canaan?]

This lady, a contemporary of Akhenaten, is displayed in male iconography as well. she is dressed as a male and archaeologists think she too ruled as a king.

See Also: Hatshepsut gallery in National Geographic, Digital Karnak: Animations from UCLA of the Karnak temple.