Egypt: The Yam of Egypt's Old Kingdom

The Yam of Egypt's Old Kingdom

by Jimmy Dunn

Scene from the tomb of Huy depicting Nubian officials presenting typicall Nubian products to the court of the Egyptian king

Because, of course, ancient place names do not always, if even often, make it through the ages to our modern era, they frequently become problematic to our study of ancient times. Even within Egypt, we often have problems identifying from ancient texts various cities and sites. More difficult even then this is perhaps the places outside of Egypt to which the Egyptians refer to in their texts. The Land of Punt, for example, has never been positively identified, though various Egyptologists seem to have strong opinions about its location. Another region, featured in Egypt's oldest narrative of foreign travel dating to the 23rd century BC, is that of Yam. Apparently, Yam was a transfer point for trade with the Sudan and other african regions and a source of tropical precious wood and ivory.

This account was recorded on the tomb facade of Harkhuf, the governor of Elephantine, who recorded his adventures during the 6th Dynasty. He traveled, not once, but four times to yam, leading an expedition apparently into Nubia south of Egypt. These visits were made for trade, using donkey caravans in which Egyptian goods were exported and traded for those of Yam. On one journey, we are told that some 300 asses brought back "incense, ebony...leopard skins, elephant tusks and boomerangs".

Part of the Travel narrative of  Harkhuf

These expeditions were not always routine. On his third trip to the land, Harkhuf tells us that "...I found the chief of Yam going to the land of Temeh to smite Temeh (probably a Libyan group) as far as the western corner of heaven. I went forth after him to the land of Temeh and I pacified him, until he praised all the gods for the king's sake." During his return to Egypt, he also seem to have encountered some potentially hostile forces, but due to the size of his expedition and the soldiers who accompanied him, he was instead given bulls and small cattle and was escorted to the "roads of the highlands of Irthet (Irtjet)."

His most famous trip to Yam, and the one which appears to have pleased his young master, King Pepi II, the most, was his fourth. This time, he obtained a pygmy (deng), which caused the boy-king of Egypt to write a feverishly excited letter to the returning governor, ordering him to bring the pygmy immediately and safely to Memphis, the royal capital at that time. His instructions were to:

"Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever. When he goes down with thee into the vessel, appoint excellent people, who shall be beside him on each side of the vessel; take care lest he fall into the water. When he sleeps at night appoint excellent people, who shall sleep beside him in his tent, inspect ten times a night. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt. If thou arrivest at court this dwarf being with thee alive, prosperous and healthy, my majesty will do for thee a greater thing than that which was done for the treasurer of the god Burded in the time of Isesi, according to the heart's desire of my majesty to see the dwarf."

So Harkhuf was apparently richly rewarded for his efforts by the young Pharaoh, but this passage also points out that Harkhuf was perhaps not the first Egyptian to visit Yam, but other sources also appear to show the importance of Yam during Egypt's Old Kingdom. In fact, Yam was not always considered to be on such friendly terms as Harkhuf's account might imply. It was included among other Nubian lands in the "Execration Texts", inscribed on figures of bound enemies deposited in cemeteries and elsewhere to abort or prevent, through magic, any attack upon or resistance to Egypt. And even though it was remote enough that its ruler did not have to formally submit to the Egyptian King as did other Nubian rulers, at times Yam sent men for Egyptian ordered labor and military levies.

Dancing Pygmies carved in ivory  and dating to the Middle Kingdom

The location of Yam is important to scholars because it helps to determine how far into Africa Egyptian penetrated and also to asses the relative size and strength of various Nubian territories during the Old Kingdom. Harkhuf's first and second journeys are particularly relevant in locating this ancient land. He tells us that they took, respectively, seven and eight months to travel to Yam and back. We also are told that on one journey he returned by way of Setju and Irthet, and another time via the frontier between the land of Setju and its southern neighbor, Irthet. The name, Wawat also is mentioned. Obviously, all of these territories were to the north of Yam, since they were on the return route. These references have led to considerable scholarly debate about Yam's location.

Some scholars believe that Harkhuf's donkey caravans began their journey at Memphis, to which they also returned. Given the length of the journey, these scholars therefore belive that Wawat, Setju and Irthet were located in lower, or northern Nubia and that Yam was therefore in upper, or southern Nubia. Other scholars see Elephantine as the starting and end point for each caravan, with the trade goods then being shipped between this southern city and the more northerly capital. They believe that Yam lay further south, perhaps on or near the Shendi Reach of the Nile (above the fifth cataract, near where it divides into the White and Blue Nile). This would permit Wawat to comprise all of Lower Nubia, as it in fact did in later times, and Setju and Irthet to be in Upper Nubia.

Map showing possible locations  of Yam

These two theories have considerable implications. According to the first, Wawat, Setju and Irthet would each be small in territory and best described as chiefdoms. At one point, Harkhuf found them to be combined under a single ruler, but even then they would represent only a fairly small kingdom. However, in the second case, each territory would have been much larger, and if combined, would represent a substantial kingdom that could be quite threatening to southern Egypt, as well as creating substantial problems with access tot he desirable goods available in Yam.

Though we have some idea of where the Yam of Egypt's Old Kingdom might have been, its exact location remains a mystery with with obviously important implications. If indeed it was located in the Shendi Reach, which is archaeologically under-explored, future work in the region may supply us with some answers, and there is always the chance that excavations in Egypt may someday yield additional information. However, for now, we must contend ourselves with opposing theories and questions.

In later Egyptian history, the territory known as Yam disappears from the ancient textual sources. However, another place name, Irem, may be relevant. Irem is first attested during the New Kingdom, and it is possible that this name may apply to the same region. Irem was significant to Egypt's New Kingdom, which for over three centuries controlled all of Lower and much of, if not all of Upper Nubia. During the 19th and 20th Dynasties, and even earlier, there were periodical hostilities, sometimes on a large scale between Egypt and Irem. Also, in between the conflicts there was also peaceful trade and even tributary relationships between the two political regions.

Like Yam, scholars also disagree about the location of Irem and as with Yam, its location has serious geopolitical implications as concerns Egypt's relationship with Nubia. Some scholars would place Irem in Upper Nubia as one of several occasionally rebellious lands that nevertheless lay within the Egyptian empire. However, at least one campaign record of Seti I seems to indicate that Irem lay further south, or at least outside of Egyptian controlled Upper Nubia.

Once again, travel narratives provide intriguing, though not conclusive indications about Irem's location. Specifically, the famous trading expedition dispatched by Queen Hatshepsut to Punt, a country believed to be on the African shores of the Red Sea provide us with some clues to the location of Irem. Punt could have been in the general region of the modern frontier between the Sudan and Eritrea.

During this expedition, a joint party from Punt and Egypt went inland to collect the desired products. According to the reliefs recorded at Deir el-Bahri, this expedition crossed two zones. One of these regions included natives that appear to be different from those of Punt, and funa such as giraffe and rhinoceros that are more typical of savannah lands closer than punt to the Nile Valley. We also know that the products acquired by the expedition came from not only Punt, but Amu and Irem as well. Hence, it is possible that Amu or Irem or both were located in the savannah lands and close to or even on the Nile. Given Punt's possible location, this could place Irem, like Yam, on or near the Shendi Reach. However, it should be pointed out that this is somewhat of a reach, placing theory upon theory, as even Punt's location continues to be hotly debated.






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