Ancient Egyptians: The Wonderful Land of Punt

The Wonderful Land of Punt
by Jimmy Dunn

The Houses in the Land of Punt

To the ancient Egyptians, the land of Punt, with its reed, beehive-shaped houses raised on stilts above water, was the most exotic and mysterious of places to visit, and from which to receive visitors, for more than once the Royalty of Punt came to the court of the Pharaoh in Egypt. It seems to have been considered by them a most unique haven; an emporium of goods for both king and gods, and gradually acquired an air of fantasy, like that of Eldorado or Atlantis. For this reason, it was sometimes featured in narrative tales such as the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor.

The people of Punt, at first are depicted with dark-reddish complexions and fin features wearing long hair, but by the 18th Dynasty, they had apparently adopted a more close cropped hair style.

We know of trading missions sent to Punt by the Egyptians dating from at least Egypt's 5th Dynasty, while our latest definite record of a Punt expedition comes from the 20th Dynasty reign of Ramesses III


Men delivering products of Punt

Punt indeed seems to have been a commercial center for goods not only from within its own borders, but from elsewhere in Africa. Here, the Egyptians sought and found many items that did not exist within the Two Lands. From Punt, they received the incense known as antyu, which was produced in considerable quantities near Punt in the region of Utjenet (God's Land), as well as ivory, ebony (hebny) and gum (Kemy). From this mystical place they also imported the skins of giraffes, panthers and cheetahs which were worn by temple priests, and sometimes the live animals themselves for their own amusement or religious purposes. For example, the sacred Cynocephalus baboons were imported from Punt. Because of the goods from Punt used by priests and to adorn temples, it was known as a region of God's Land, and considered a personal pleasure garden of the god, Amun. A stele in the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (18th Dynasty) records a speech delivered by the god Amun, stating:

"Turning my face to sunrise I created a wonder for you, I made the lands of Punt come here to you, with all the fragrant flowers of their lands, to beg your peace and breathe the air you give."

Men delivering products of Punt

However, the Egyptians may have brought back more than goods from Punt, for it has often been suggested that their well known pygmy god, Bes, may have also been a Punt import. It would seem probable that dwarfs and pygmies were indeed imported from Punt, for an inscription in the tomb of Harkhuf, and expedition leader under Pepy II, tells of his acquisition of a dwarf for that king.

The oldest surviving record of a journey to Punt comes from the Palermo stone, which dates to Egypt's 5th Dynasty. Later, during the 11th Dynasty, Henenu tells us of a journey to Punt ordered by Mentuhotep III with three thousand men who transported material for building ships through Wadi Hammamat to the cost of the Red Sea:

"I left Koptos on the road set by his majesty. The soldiers I had with me came from the south. All the king's officials, the men from the city and the village, marched behind me. The scouts opened up the road ahead repulsing the king's enemies. All the officials obeyed me. They were in constant touch with the runners... "

In order to transport the material to build their ships, donkeys were used, as camels were not available until after the invasion of the Persians much later:

To every man I gave his rations, a water-bottle, a staff, two jars of water, twenty loaves of bread. The donkeys carried the jars. When one of them tired, another was substituted. I excavated twelve holes in the wadi, two holes at Idahet, twenty cubits wide and thirty deep. One hole at Idahet ten cubits in every direction, at a place where water sprang.

Mentuhotep III was the first Middle Kingdom ruler we know of to send an expedition to Punt, though such expeditions became more frequent during the 12th Dynasty.

An old Egyptian postage stamp bearing an image of one of Hatshepsut's boats that traveled to Punt

We do know many of the routes taken to reach Punt. It could certainly be reached by boat from the Red Sea. During the Old Kingdom this involved crossing the desert east of Memphis to the Gulf of Suez, or setting off from the Sinai. It was here that one well-known expedition intent on a voyage to Punt was ambushed and massacred while building boats for the expedition (during Egypt's 6th Dynasty). During the Middle Kingdom and afterwards, the Red Sea journey to Punt usually originated from Coptos by way of Sawu or via Wadi Hammamat and Quseir. Later, during Egypt's New Kingdom, they may have even traveled from a port at Berenike, known then as Head of Nekheb.

After a suspension of trade between Egypt and Punt during the Second Intermediate Period, the most famous expedition to Punt was actually proposed by an oracle of the God, Amun. The Oracle instructed Hatshepsut, the well known 18th Dynasty Queen, to organize the first large scale expedition to that land of the New Kingdom:

It is the sacred region of God's Land; it is my place of distraction; I have made it for myself in order to cleanse my spirit, along with my mother, Hathor...the lady of Punt."

The Houses in the Land of Punt

Hatshepsut's mortuary temple in theWest Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor) includes detailed depictions of the expedition on its second terrace, including the sea journey and even the reception offered by the Chief of Punt. This depiction shows a bearded chief, accompanied by his excessively obese queen who shows signs of Lipodystrophy, or Decrum's Disease. She has a pronounced curvature of the spinal column.

The voyage was undertaken in the summer of Hatshepsut's eighth year as queen. She sent Senenmet (Senmut), her Chancellor, with a fleet of five ships that included thirty rowers each. They departed Quseir on the Red Sea for what was primarily a trading mission, seeking myrrh, frankincense and fragrant punguents used for cosmetics and in religious ceremonies. However, they also brought back exotic animals and plants that had no apparent economic value. We are told that the:

"...loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's-Land, heaps of myrrh resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold of Emu, with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with two kinds of incense, eye-cosmetics, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning"

Apparently the myrrh trees may have been planted in front of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple, where their roots may still be seen. The Egyptians left behind a shrine dedicated to Amun.

Men transporting live trees from Punt

Yet, Punt remains a mystery to us even today, for we do not precisely know its actual location. It has been suggested that Punt, because of its exotic "overseas" character, might be as far away as Somalia, Yemen or even the Horn of Africa. However, many modern Egyptologists place Punt much nearer to Egypt. We known that some of Punt's treasures were carried over land by way of Nmay and Irem (through the modern Sudan). We also hear of the children of the chiefs of Punt that were raised at the Egyptian court alongside the children of Kush (Nubia) and Irem. Therefore, it has been assumed that Punt was not so far away, and most modern scholars place it perhaps on Africa's East Coast perhaps only just south of Egypt. Furthermore, modern attempts to classify flora and fauna suggest that Punt may have been located in the southern Sudanese or the Eritrean region of Ethiopia. Yet this would place Punt to the east of Nubia and there is no evidence of military conflict between Punt and Egypt, as there was between Egypt and Nubia.

One even wonders whether Punt was indeed an actual political entity through all the years between Egypt's Old and New Kingdoms, or was rather more of a generalized, perhaps encompassing a rather large area of Eastern Africa.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt, The Manley, Bill 1996 Penguin ISBN 0-14-0-51331-0