Egypt: Barques, Barges, and Byblos Boats

Barques, Barges, and Byblos Boats

by Anita Stratos

Barques, Barges, and Byblos Boats

The ancient Egyptians once again reached out of the past to awe the world with another of their buried secrets - the Abydos ships. In 1991 in the desert near the temple of Khentyamentiu, archaeologists uncovered the remains of 14 ships dating back to the early first dynasty (2950-2775 BC), possibly associated with King Aha, the first ruler of that dynasty. These 75 foot long ships are buried side by side and have wooden hulls, rough stone boulders which were used as anchors, and "sewn" wooden planks. Also found within their desert graves were remains of the woven straps that joined the planks, as well as reed bundles that were used to seal seams between planks. The Abydos ships have the honor of being the worlds oldest planked boats.

Barques, Barges, and Byblos Boats

No one knows exactly when the first ship was built, but we do know that the ancient Egyptians were creating ships with technological skills far beyond their time, well before the invention of the wheel. Egyptologists suspect that simple light rafts made from bundled papyrus reeds may have been made by hunter-gatherers who moved to the Nile Valley during the Upper Paleolithic period; of course, no specimens remain today. However, there is evidence of the presence of boats in the Naqada II culture, which immediately preceded the dynastic period. Archaeologists have unearthed red painted pottery with designs that include boat motifs as important symbols, and some interpretations stress the boats were used in a religious or ritual capacity. Further evidence for the early use of boats lies in tomb reliefs (ship building scenes were among the most popular motifs in tombs), paintings, and model boats dating from predynastic times through the New Kingdom.

The most ancient Egyptian boat appears to have been the papyrus raft, which was originally used to travel on the Nile, but not in open seas or rough waters. These fragile rafts were made from the papyrus reeds growing along the Nile, but because the reeds were so delicate the rafts required constant repairs or replacement. Travel along the Nile with these rafts was ideal, since the river had a steady northerly wind to propel the rafts upriver, while rafts going down the river simply flowed with the current.

King tut on a papyrus boat

Papyrus rafts appeared to gain a somewhat sacred significance as far back as the first dynasty because of their association with the sun god. The earliest depictions of the sun god show him travelling on a reed float made of bound papyrus, a portrayal so ancient that it predated Egyptian knowledge of wooden ships. It is because of this connection with the sun god that the papyrus raft gained its religious significance, and even though it was used for more practical purposes in Egyptian civilization, the sacred and royal association stuck.

Over time, ancient Egyptians created and utilized three types of boats, each with its own purpose. Simple reed rafts were used mostly for hunting in marshes and as time progressed, they were used less frequently on the Nile. Wooden boats generally replaced papyrus rafts for Nile travel, and, since they were faster and more stable than rafts, they were also used for transport. Eventually stronger wooden boats were used for lengthy ocean excursions as well as to transport boulder blocks weighing many tons and obelisks weighing hundreds of pounds from quarries to pyramid and temple building sites. The third type of boat was the papyriform boat, made technologically similar to wooden boats but with the shape of an elaborate papyrus raft in order to maintain the connection to royalty and gods. These ships appear to have been used as pleasure boats and transportation for royalty; they were also used as funerary boats and burial boats, as well as in religious events like pilgrimages and transporting the statue of a god.

Sun Boat of Khufu

The famous Royal Ship of King Cheops (fourth dynasty ruler of the Old Kingdom), more formally known as Khufu, is a perfect example of a papyriform boat. Discovered around 1954, the Royal Ship is still considered to be one of the worlds most outstanding archaeological artifacts. The ancient boat had been dismantled into 651 separate parts, and its nearly perfectly preserved timbers were found in 13 scrupulously arranged layers that were buried in a sealed boat pit which was carved into the Giza plateaus limestone bedrock. It took years for the boat to be painstakingly reassembled, primarily by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities chief restorer, Ahmed Youssef Moustafa (later known as Hag Ahmed Youssef). Once completed, the Royal Ship measured approximately 150 feet in length. The timbers were made of Lebanese cedar while the pegs and other small parts were made from native acacias, sycamores and sidders.

Cedar was not new to the Egypt of Cheops' time - it had been found in predynastic graves, indicating to modern archaeologists that trade had occurred with Lebanon at least as far back as the end of the fourth millennium BC. Egyptians had what has been termed as an "emotional need" for trade with Lebanon because of that countrys large supply of the invaluable resinous woods and oils so necessary in Egyptian funerary customs. Trade with Lebanon had to be conducted over water, because the Egyptians had neither wheeled transportation nor heavy draft animals, and the brutal desert regions through which they would have had to travel hosted hostile tribes.

The supposition is that heavy ships and smaller trading ships were most likely constructed in the Nile Valley, then dismantled and carried piecemeal to Qoseir where they were reassembled and put in the sea. In general, sea-going boats were referred to by the ancient Egyptians as "Byblos boats" because the earliest seaworthy boats initial trade was with the Lebanese port town of Byblos.

Transportation and trade were not the only reasons for seaworthy boats to be built in ancient Egypt. The pharaohs also recognized the need for a powerful navy, as is evidenced in this account written by Ramses III to Amen:

I built you ships, freight ships, arched ships with rigging, plying the Big Green (the sea). I manned them with archers, captains and innumerable sailors, to bring the goods of the Land of Tyre and the foreign countries at the end of the world to your storage rooms at Thebes the Victorious.

Many pharaohs achieved incredible feats with their fleets, such as Queen Hatshepsuts voyage to Punt, but from the 20th dynasty on, they improved their ships even more by copying some of the more advanced models used by other cultures. Herodotus describes the Egyptians as having boats "in great numbers" and carrying "many thousands of talents burden".

Equally important was the funerary boat, which transported a mummy to its final resting place or, if buried with the deceased, took soul of the dead on its eternal journey. Ahmed Youssef Moustafa believed that the Royal Ship was specifically built as a funerary barque for Cheops and was never part of the royal fleet. Part of the reason for this belief is that ocean-going vessels were usually painted green on the body with yellow ochre at the ends and the protective wedjat eye painted on both sides of the bow. This is in direct contrast to the hull of the Royal Ship, which is unpainted, indicating that the ship was built quickly and specifically for the kings burial.

Papyriform boats were also used to transport images of important gods, but these vessels were never intended to be put in the water. The image of the god would be placed upon a gold encrusted papyriform barque studded with gems that was carried on the shoulders of priests who took it to its place of honor. If this journey included a trip on the Nile, the golden barque was put on a papyriform transport boat and taken to its destination.

From boat pits such as those of Cheops and at Abydos, we know that actual full-sized boats were buried with the dead to take them on their journey in the afterlife, but by the twelfth dynasty this practice became too expensive. So instead, models of boats were placed in the tombs, which would serve the same purpose as the full-sized vessels. In addition to models of boats, there were also miniature models of daily life, including bakeries, butcher shops, and potters studios. These models have given archaeologists wonderful glimpses into ancient life.

While royal papyriform vessels remained relatively unchanged throughout the centuries, the hundreds of model boats found in private tombs show a tremendous variety of shapes. Unlike court artisans who were strictly held to tradition, private artists could customize their clients models according to their wishes or they could produce models with their own creative touches, as long as they stayed within certain basic limits.

Even lighthouses were developed in ancient. Egypt under Ptolemy Soter (circa 290-270 BC).The Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria may have been the first Egyptian lighthouse, as there are no records describing earlier ones. The Pharos lighthouse was over 100 meters high and contained a mirror that reflected the sun during the day, while at night the light of a fire was used to warn incoming and passing vessels. The light could be seen at a distance of 50 kilometers.

Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria

For ancient Egyptians, the Nile could have been an obstacle that kept them pinned to one location. But with their seemingly endless creativity and resourcefulness, they turned their watery boundary into an open highway of opportunity.