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 world’s 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 plateau’s 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 country’s 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.
Ships used by the Egyptians have aroused great interest. Sources for our knowledge include inscriptions, detailed representations on tomb walls, pottery model boats placed in tombs, and rare examples of original ships such as the solar bark found at Giza. A technical vocabulary has also survived with details of the various types of boats and their equipment.
The Egyptians were skillful sailors and navigators who had extensive experience with the Nile, canals, lakes, and the sea. The earliest boats were papyrus skiffs for Nile transport, but even in predynastic times elaborate ships with oars and cabins were being built, and there was early trade with other lands. Evidence suggests that a variety of craft were developed for different purposes: There were squat transport ships incurved at prow and stern: long ships; funerary barks to transport the dead across the Nile to the necropolis or to make the journey to Abydos, sacred city of Osiris, or for sailing in the heavens; and barges to transport animals, corn, or stone.
In the New Kingdom, specialist warships were built and several innovations were introduced. After that time, the fleet did not alter much until Dynasty 26 (c.600 BC) when new features were introduced by the Greek and Phoenician mercenaries whom the Egyptians employed. In the New Kingdom, however, the so-called Knpwt (Byblos) ships and Keftiu (Cretan) ships played their part in the Egyptian navy. The Byblos ships may have been specially built in Egypt to go to Byblos on the Syrian coast, or this term may refer to some ships that were made at Byblos and other Syrian coastal towns. It is possible that these were modeled on ships that were captured by Tuthmosis III during his Syrian campaigns and subsequently used as the nucleus and prototype for his own navy. Although it is known that two Syrian ships were captured during his fifth campaign, however, these were probably taken for their cargoes rather than as technical prototypes. Even before the reign of Tuthmosis III the Egyptians had been sailing along the Red Sea to Punt for centuries; they had a long established reputation as excellent seafarers and traders, and they had constructed wooden seagoing ships since early times. It is likely that the name “Byblos ship” indicated its use for traveling to Byblos rather than its place of origin. Also, the Keftiu ship (often translated as “Cretan ship”) was probably the term for a type of vessel rather than any reference to its place of origin or source of influence.
Pits resembling the shape of boats have been found in early cemeteries alongside some royal tombs. These were probably the predecessors of the famous pits discovered in 1954 adjacent to Cheops’s pyramid at Giza. One of these pits has been opened and the contents carefully removed and reconstructed by staff from the Cairo Museum. The pit contained a boat, dismantled into pieces for burial in antiquity, that is now housed in a glass museum alongside the Great Pyramid. Over 130 feet long and made of carved pieces of cedar bonded with small cords, this complete vessel is one of the great sights in Egypt. The second pit will be opened in due course and may contain a similar bark.
The purpose of these funerary vessels is uncertain. One explanation is that they were included among the royal funerary equipment to provide the king with the means to sail the celestial sea in the company of the gods during his afterlife. They may have been funerary barks, however, used to transport the king’s body to his burial place on his last journey. The Giza example provides evidence of great skill in shipbuilding techniques early in the Old Kingdom.
During the Pharaonic Period boats were used for religious and funerary purposes, transporting festival crowds and funerals; for the transport of cargo around the empire (which stretched from Syria to Nubia) and beyond to Punt via the Red Sea; and for military exploits both to fight the enemy and to support the army by transporting soldiers and equipment. There were permanent dockyards inside Egypt as well as at Byblos on the Syrian coast where ships were built for Egyptian campaigns. Wood from Egypt and imported timbers from Lebanon, sent via Byblos, were used in the Delta dockyards.
The ships, sometimes 200 feet in length, were well built and had decks and cabins. In earliest times several large planks lain on each other were held together by pegs or ropes and then caulked with resin. Oars used to propel these vessels were arranged in a bank on either side; in the stern a single oar was mounted to act as a rudder, or two large oars were placed in the fork of the stern posts, and one or the other was raised by means of a rope to steer the ship. The vessel also had a trapezoidal sail.
Within Egypt and Nubia the Egyptian troops were transported by boat. In Egypt’s relations with its northern neighbors the Syrian coastal town of Byblos was of great importance, and Egypt’s close association with its inhabitants from Dynasty 2 down to the Ptolemaic Period was only interrupted when Egypt faced internal problems. Coniferous woods were imported from Byblos and environs (sea pine and parasol pine) and also from northern Lebanon (firs and cedars). The rulers of Byblos not only traded with the Egyptians but provided them with support and ships for their military campaigns.
Sea journeys were also undertaken to the land of Punt. This district, known as the “Terraces of Incense” or the “God’s Land,” was where the Egyptians sought incense for use in their temples. Egypt’s relations with Punt, which probably go back to the early dynastic period, may have involved some military coercion on the part of the Egyptians rather than reflecting a true trading partnership between equals.
The Egyptians were clearly excellent sailors both on the Nile and when they traveled to other lands. Their greatest naval victories over their enemies occurred not abroad, however, but when they were forced to protect the mouths of the Delta against the Sea Peoples and their allies in the late New Kingdom.