The Ancient Egyptian Navy

The Ancient Egyptian Navy

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Troy Fox

Predynastic through Middle Kingdom

The use of river vessels and ships in Egyptian warfare is as old as conflict in Egypt itself, though probably at first there was little capability for sea travel. The Nile was always the principal means of transport in Egypt, and the sailing and construction of boats can be traced back to the papyrus rafts of the Predynastic Period. Boats (see also Bargues, Barges and Byblos Boats) were commonly depicted in red paint on the buff colored pottery of the Naqada II Period.

A knife from Gebel al-Arak showing a sea battle

The very earliest naval battle is depicted on the carved relief decoration of a Naqada II ivory knife handle that was found at Gebel al-Arak. It shows boats with high, straight prows and sterns, usually interpreted as foreign vessels. The early Nile boats used for military purposes seem to have been primarily used for the transportation of troops up and down the Nile, and indeed, Egypt's early conflicts were mostly internal control issues.

We do find reliefs in the 5th Dynasty mortuary temple of King Sahure at Abusir depicting a sea-borne fleet that is said to have transported his army to Syria, and in the 6th Dynasty, the official Weni is said to have taken troops to Palestine in vessels described as nmiw (traveling ships).

Keelless seagoing vessels like those during the time of King Sahure (2500 BCE) traded with the Phoenician cities, importing cedar wood, Asiatic slaves and other merchandise. They were also sent as the first Egyptian trade expedition to the Land of Punt. The bipedal mast carried a vertical sail, and the bow was decorated with an eye. It was steered by six oars and had. The bow was decorated with an eye.

" I went down on the sea in a ship of one hundred and fifty cubits long and forty cubits wide, with one hundred and fifty sailors of the best of Egypt who had seen heaven and earth, and whose hearts were stronger than lions."

Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, c. 2200 BCE

However, most Egyptian vessels were not suitable for sailing in the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. The idea of sea going ships was probably imported from the Levantine seaboard, and most likely from the region of Byblos. There was certainly a strong connection in the Egyptian minds between Byblos and naval activity, since the most common word for an Egyptian sea vessel was kbnt, literally meaning "Byblos-boat".

Sea going boats used by both the Egyptians and their neighbors were relatively simple, consisting of a rectangular sail and usually one or two rudder oars. However, the Palermo Stone records the construction of a ship fifty two meters in length during the reign of king Sneferu of the 3rd Dynasty, and in the 5th Dynasty tomb of Ti at Saqqara, boat builders are depicted at work on another very large vessel.

The Boat Construction in the Tomb of Ti at Saqqara

The Boat Construction in the Tomb of Ti at Saqqara

The New Kingdom

In the New Kingdom, we see a much reorganized Egyptian Army, becoming more professional, whereas before, it was often not a standing army, but rather an army mostly made up of conscripts. Prior to the New Kingdom, Egypt's navy was probably made up mostly of ships and boats that served a dual purpose, operating as commercial vessels when not utilized for war. We know most about the navy during the New Kingdom, when there was considerable activity, including actual sea battles. Yet even then, the "navy" was not seen as a separate service of the Egyptian military, and it was mostly used for amphibious operations.

During this period, Egypt's navy was extensive. Despite the fact that Egypt had a long history of building boats, including large sea going vessels during the New Kingdom, we find, for example in the Amarna Letters, a request from to the King of Alashiya (Cyprus) to built ships for the Egyptian navy.

Bigger ships of seventy to eighty tons suited to long voyages became quite common (In size they might be compared to Columbus's Santa Maria with a displacement of 100 tons or his smaller ships with about fifty).

Egyptian squadrons composed of speedy keftiu, kebentiu from Byblos and Egyptian transports patrolled the eastern Mediterranean.The very earliest New Kingdom pharaohs, specifically Kamose and Ahmose, conducted naval operations in their war against the Hyksos, and later Tuthmosis III had a large fleet built at the royal dockyard at Perunefer, near Memphis.

One of the Egyptian boats in Ramesses III battle with the Sea People

Those ships were used to transport elements of the army along the coast to ports in the Lebanon on a number of occasions in support of his operations against the city states of southern Syria and Mitanni. Many of those ships were actually converted cargo vessels. However, the best illustration of Egyptian warships in action are to be found on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu. These illustrate the defeat of the Sea People during the reign of Ramesses III, and probably represent the first properly documented sea battle.

Unlike the later Greeks who developed special naval techniques (used also by Late Period Egypt), maritime battles by New Kingdom Egyptians and their opponents, often the Sea People, were fought by seaborne land troops, who were trained in marine operations. The Egyptian deployment of archers and the fact that Egyptian ships could both be sailed and rowed, gave them a decisive advantage, despite the inferiority of the vessels themselves, which were at times quite sizable and carried up to two hundred and fifty soldiers.

Warship from Egypt's New Kingdom

However, most Egyptian ships carried a crew of about fifty marines. Though essentially all fighting men, about 20 members of the crew would be delegated to row the vessel while the remainder formed the combat troops for a seagoing battle. These battles would be fought at a very close range, as the marines would attempt to rake the enemy vessel with arrows and sling shots. Other elements would throw grappling hooks into the riggings of the opponent ships with the object of either capsizing or boarding the enemy ships. When boarding the enemy ship, the Egyptians would then use spears for close order thrusting while under cover of archery from their own ship.

Not all victories were the result of direct, brute force, however, for the Egyptians were also good tacticians. Hence, in one battle with the Sea People, the Egyptian success was effected by a carefully laid trap in which the Egyptians herded the enemy vessels towards shore, where ranks of archers poured arrows onto their decks.

The Egyptian Battle with the Sea People

The Egyptian Battle with the Sea People

Models of the ships used to defeat the sea people show Egyptian vessels with high bulwarks that could protect sailors and soldiers from enemy projectiles. In these examples, eighteen oars gave the ships the maneuverability which was a decisive factor in the Egyptian victory. Like all Egyptian ships of this period, it was not laid on a keel, but got its structural strength from a gangway connecting stern to bow. It had a single mast with a horizontal sail. The bow was decorated with a lion's head crushing a human skull. But usually the navy was little more than a means for getting land troops quickly to the Asiatic coast. It was a transport system that pharaohs such as Tuthmosis III employed with great success.

The Late Period

However, Egypt lost its role of maritime superpower after the end of the New Kingdom. Phoenicians and Greeks became the main players in the Mediterranean. Continental powers like the Persians used these sea-faring nations to impose their control on the seas. King Necho II (609-594 BCE) invested huge sums in the development of an Egyptian war fleet. According to Herodotus he had triremes built in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Some scholars think that the ships he built were biremes and the development of the trireme took place in the next century and was part of the Egyptian war effort against Persia. It was unsuccessful and thereafter its fleet was at the behest of the foreign power controlling the country. Dozens of Egyptian ships were incorporated into the Persian fleet fighting the Greeks.The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII joined forces with the Roman Marc Antony, in an attempt to preserve Egypt's independence. But her fleet was defeated at Actium, which spell the end of pharaonic Egypt.






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