Egypt: Ships and Boats in Egypt, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Ships and Boats of Egypt

By Marie Parsons

When men live by water, whether marsh, river, or sea, they eventually discover ways to build vehicles to move across that water. Egypts life has always turned around its River, the Nile, and its marshes in the Delta.

The cheapest form of primitive boat was the pot boat, simply a clay container large enough to accommodate a passenger. It was meant for places free of rocks and was ideal for getting around the marshy areas of the Nile delta. Egypt was fairly treeless and it would be difficult to find other means of building boats. The Egyptians did find enough wood to make planked boats. There is evidence that the Old Kingdom of Egypt had the first planked boats ever made. These were used even in burial rituals. Fourteen have recently been found buried in the region of Abydos.

The boat made out of planks was an improvement on the dugout which was hollowed out of a single log. In southern Egypt, archaeologists have found a multitude of pictures of boats that, shortly before 3100 BCE, were drawn on rock outcrops or were included as part of the decoration on pottery. Among them, are some that show a mast with a broad square sail hung from it. The tombs of Egypt have yielded pictures and even models of a variety of river craft, from tiny rowboats through swift yachts and dispatch boats to enormous barges large enough to carry huge obelisks weighing hundreds of tons from the quarries.

The earliest surviving example of a sewn boat, one which had the side planking sewn together with fibers, cords, or thongs, was found beside the great pyramid of Giza. It is most probably a descendant of boats going back into Egypts predynastic times.

The Nile River was the catalyst for these and more early boats. It is a perfect waterway, running some 500 miles from the beginning of the delta near Cairo to the First Cataract at Aswan (Elephantine). Since the prevailing wind blows against the flow of the water, boatmen could drift downstream (or with the current), and when returning they could raise sail and be gently driven back home. The Egyptians were also the first recorded people to use sails on their craft.

If wood was scarce in Egypt, reeds were not. For their first water transport, the Egyptians turned to these bulrushes. By the middle of the fourth millennium BCE they were building rafts of bundles of reeds tied together, eventually learning to shape them, making them long and narrow and gracefully bowed. They fashioned paddles to propel the rafts and mounted paddles to serve as rudders. They built craft large enough to accommodate two deck cabins and require a long line of rowers to move them.

The first sail was probably a large leafy frond set up in the bow. This method was actually still being used in some places in Africa by the 19th century ACE. By about 3500 BCE the Egyptians had replaced this leaf frond with a true sail, made of woven reeds or leaves set on a vertical mast, shaped square.

By the Old Kingdom, reed ships were now taking on a more boat-like shape, with a spoonlike form and a prow and stern that came together into a point, often finished off with an ornament shaped like a lotus bud. But with the new pyramid-building program, stone was requiredstone which could only be obtained from quarries on the other side of the river or upstream at Aswan. Riverboats were needed that could transport huge limestone blocks. Boats now had to be made of wood.

These first wooden boats were more or less replicas of the earlier reed boats. They were built square at each end, more barge than boat. Since Egypt lacked good timber, the shipwrights devised a special technique. They used the acacia tree, with brittle wood which only comes in short lengths. But they cut planks three feet long, put together like brick, building up the hull from a central plank laid for the bottom. They would join the three foot planks together edge to edge by means of long close-set dowels, and when the hull was built up they stretched crossbeams over it. They made no ribs or frames, and caulked on the inside, using papyrus fibers.

The Pharaoh Snefru, who ruled Egypt about 2600 BCE, was reported to have imported forty ships filled with cedar logs to build more ships. Cedar came from Phoenicia in what is now Lebanon. In the tombs of pharaohs and nobles in earlier dynasties, archaeologists have found jars and pitchers made in Palestine and Syria, and in those lands, they have dug up artifacts that were unquestionably Egyptian. Were these transfers of objects done by land or by sea?

Egypt also needed myrrh for unguents and embalming, and frankincense to burn with myrrh in its temples. These products came from southern Arabia and parts of what is now Ethiopia and Somalia. The only alternative to the overland route with all its middlemen and increase in prices and costs was by water down the Red Sea. But the Nile was separated from the Red Sea, the closest place between being an eight-day march across desert, near the Wadi Hammamat. A minister of Mentuhotep III, named Henu, inscribed how he was assigned the job of dispatching a ship to the land of Punt to gather myrrh. But first he had to take 3000 men to the Red Sea and build the ship.

In the Western or European world, boats have been built starting with a skeleton of keel and ribs, with a skin of planking attached. The Egyptians constructed their vessels, whether small or large, without keel, and with few, very light ribs. They had no violent storms, winds ripping currents or waves; they mostly sailed a river. The only stiffening provided beyond a handful of ribs consisted of beams run from side to side on which the deck was laid.

When Sahure in 2450 BCE wanted to transport men to the Lebanon coast, boats were needed that adapted this river-design to sea sailing. Around one end of the vessel was looped an enormous hawser, which was carried along the centerline above the deck and looped about the other end. A stout pole was then placed through the strands of the hawser, where it passed over the deck, and by twisting, one could tighten the entire harness just like a tourniquet. This served for internal stiffening, as the hawser kept the ends from sagging when the boat rode heavy waves. An elaborate netting was also added, which ran horizontally about the upper part of the hull. This may have been another aid for holding the ship together, or merely gear to protect the sides from rubbing.

A two-legged mast rather than the single mast was also designed, and it served to distribute the pressure, steadied by lines fore and aft. A tall, slender square-sail was mounted with two spars spreading it, a yard along the head, and a boom along the foot. When there was no wind, sail was taken in, the mast lowered, and rowers could power the ship along.

A thousand years later, shipbuilders were designing the ships that were shown on Hatshepsuts reliefs. These had graceful lines and were faster than Sahures ships. The sail was broader, not as tall as before, extremely wide. There were fifteen rowers along each side, the overall length of these ships must have been about 90 feet. This gave not only more strength but was easier to construct., and permitted the use of a much shorter mast. Trade with Punt was steady and enriching.

Also, obelisks for her temple needed to be transported from Aswan quarries. These obelisks were each almost 100 feet high, and the barge built to ferry them was some 200 feet long with a beam of 70 feet. The barge had three rows of crossbeams instead of just one. It required almost 30 oar-driven tugs, each with 30 rowers, to tow that barge.

During the reign of Tuthmosis III, Hatshepsuts successor, Egypts trade increased still more. Punt provided incense, ivory, and rare woods. Copper was brought from Cyprus and silver from Asia Minor. One king of Cyprus in turn requested horses, chariots, a wooden gold plated bed, jars of oil. In another letter he requests a sorcerer who is expert with eagles. These things all could only be shipped by sea. A record of such trade activity stands as a painting on the wall of the tomb chamber of Kenamun, official under Amenhotep III.

The decades just before and after 1200 BCE were politically troubled for Egypt. A wave of invading peoples came out of the eastern Mediterranean right to their very shores. Ramesses III repelled this invasion, celebrating his victory by carving on the temple wall an account accompanied by reliefs describing the sea battle. The description of the Egyptian ships shows that their warships at least have become shorter and heavier in the hull, the anti-sagging truss has disappeared, indicating that some other method of inner strength had been utilized. The elegant curved stern, too delicate for war, was replaced by an undecorated sloping stern and the sternpost replaced by a simple projection ending in a lions head. Egypt had joined the rest of the Mediterranean in building its watercraft for war.


The Ancient Mariners by Lionel Casson
Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times by Lionel Casson