This is probably the world's oldest topographical map.
It was drawn about 1150 BCE by an Egyptian scribe named Amennakhte who prepared it for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat ('Valley of Many Baths') in the middle of the Eastern Desert. The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills. The fragment pictured above -- at the far left of the 280 cm (9'2") long papyrus -- shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls). Our scribe helpfully labelled the map's main features; for example, he tells us where the roads lead to, notes the distance between quarry and mine, and gives the locations of more scattered gold deposits in the hills. Unlike modern maps, however, the top of the map is orientated to the south-west; that is, to the source of the Nile river in Nubia, so we have to read it more or less upside down.
While the scribe's map was chiefly intended to be a guide to the gold mines and quarry, he also carefully indicated three separate roads that ran all the way from the Nile Valley, past the quarries and mines, onwards to the shores of the Red Sea (called Yam on his map).
The first of the roads is labelled 'The road that leads to Yam", which heads southeast towards the port of Quseir (now a scuba-diving hot-spot on the Red Sea Riviera; approx. at number 17 on the map). The second road is simply 'Another road that leads to Yam"; exact destination unknown. The third road is described as "road of Ten-pa-mer", which means "the road belonging to the harbour'.
That's the road we want!
For that is the road leading to the harbour of Saww/Mersa Gawasis on the Red Sea. As we now know, this port was the jumping-off point for deep-sea voyages to Punt, some 1,200-1,300 km (800 miles) away to the south. Punt itself has only been recently located -- thanks to some cutting edge science -- in what is now Eritrea: that's how Hatshepsut comes into this story, for it was she who sent the most famous naval expedition to Punt (read all about that voyage at Eti, the Eritrean Queen of Punt?).
|One of Hatshepsut's Punt ships setting sail, with red-painted Egyptian men at the oars and Red Sea fish in the waters beneath|
My southern boundary is as far as the lands of Punt.But she was not the first ruler to send a fleet to the very edge of the known world. Egyptians were sailing from Sww/Mersa Gawasis long before her time. First to take the plunge was Senusret I (ca 1956-1911 BCE), the second king of the 12th Dynasty who left a record of his achievement at Saww.*
The Harbour of Saww
Mersa Gawasis is located on a fossil coral terrace at the northern end of Wadi Gawasis, above what is now the dry remains of an ancient bay that once flowed through a channel into the Red Sea. When Senusret's men were here, the site was a sheltered lagoon, lush with mangroves, and deep enough for launching large ships to sail the Red Sea. Over the intervening millennia, 3 metres (9') of sand blew onto and covered the terrace slopes. After the sand heaps were removed, archaeologists discovered eight man-made caves cut about 20 metres deep into the terrace which had been used as harbour storerooms and workshops -- all much as they were left almost 4,000 years ago.**
Even before exploring the caves, there was evidence that Middle Kingdom sailors were putting out to sea from this harbour in their quest for the fabulous goods to be found at Punt -- myrrh, ebony, gold, ivory, live baboons, and exotic animal skins. An inscribed stela with the name of Senusret's vizier, Intef-iker, found in a shrine described ships built on the Nile at Coptos in Upper Egypt for a voyage to Bia-Punt ('the mines of Punt'***) involving more than 3,200 men. Those sea-going ships must have been dismantled for transport and carried by men and donkeys more than 150 km (95 miles) along the wadi routes of the eastern desert and then reassembled at the port.
More inscriptions were awaiting discovery.
Outside Cave 2, twelve niches cut into the rock once held inscribed stelae. One such stela was carved with an offering scene to the god Min ('lord of the eastern desert') and bore a cartouche with the royal name of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (ca 1831-1786 BCE). Under the god's image, the text recorded an expedition led by two royal officials to Punt.
Not to be outdone, the cartouche of his successor, pharaoh Amenemhat IV (1786-1777 BCE), was found on one of 43 wooden cargo boxes. Covered with gypsum plaster to protect its contents, an inscription in black ink, written on the box's side, (above left) described its contents as ... the wonderful things of Punt.
But even greater treasures were now about to be found....
Hatshepsut's Ali Baba Cave
This is what the archaeologists saw after they had cleared over 6 metres ( 17') of windblown sand from the entrance to Cave 2.
Two large wooden objects hove into view -- curved cedar steering-oar blades, each over 2 metres long. This may not look like much to normal people but it's quite enough to set an archaeologist's heart going pitter-patter. The oars may be the very ones used on one of the 21-meter-long (70') ships taking part in Hatshepsut's own 15th-century naval expedition to Punt. Well-preserved and intact, the oars are the first complete parts from a sea-faring ship ever to have been found in Egypt. Near the oars were found pieces of pottery dating from 1500 - 1400 B.C.
As the excavations continued, the archaeologists discovered more ship timbers, including a complete deck-level beam (3.29 m long, 0.28 wide, and 0.18 thick), planks and decking, and their fastenings. The precisely-bevelled deck beams, hull planks, and copper fittings belong to the oldest deep-sea vessels ever found anywhere. Extensive damage to the planks by marine worms or borers provide irrefutable evidence of seafaring.
Clearing the Decks
The finds suggest that Punt ships were being disassembled outside the caves.
What seems to have happened was this.
After a successful voyage, ships anchored on the lagoon's edge below the cave terraces. As the cargo was unloaded, shipwrights inspected the hulls, marking damaged timbers with red paint (traces of which remain). Shipbreakers then dismantled the hulls, pulling planks off the ship, and carried the timbers into the caves. There, they cleaned the planks and prepared them for storage or recycling, or even to be used as fuel for cooking or warmth.
About 25 limestone anchors (left) have been found, the largest ones weighing as much as 55 kg (120 lbs). The white limestone used for their manufacture comes from a quarry about 10 km (6.2 miles) to the west of the harbour. Those anchors which can be dated to the Middle Kingdom are the oldest certain anchors yet known from Egypt.
Sailing means sails and rigging, too. Completing the marine equipment in the caves are fragments of linen (cf.: the square sails pictured on Hatshepsut's ships [above] almost certainly of linen) as well as rigging ropes, and hanks of marine rope.
Money for old rope
About 30 coils of ship rope were found neatly laid and knotted on the floor of Cave 5 (left).
High-quality rope was expensive in ancient Egypt A coil of ship's rope 100 cubits long (45-50 m; 165') would have cost a silver deben -- equal to the price of two fine cattle. Why did the sailors leave so much valuable rope behind? Perhaps its worth was diminished by several months at sea. Yet the ropes had been carefully coiled lengthwise and wound in the middle as to allow easy storage for future use -- a technique for storing long ropes still used nowadays to prevent them from getting entangled. This suggests either that there were not enough bearers to carry it back to the Nile ... or that they had intentionally left the rope ready for an anticipated future sea-going operation.
But, as far as we know, the sailors didn't come back. For reasons unknown, after Hatshepsut's time they never returned to these caves at the port of Saww.
* Earlier expeditions to Punt took place but we don't know their port(s) of departure. The oldest known expedition was organized by Pharaoh Sahure of the 5th dynasty (2458-2446 BC). Around 1950 BC, in the time of King Mentuhotep III, 11th dynasty (2004-1992 BC), an officer named Hennu and three thousand men from the south transported material for building ships through Wadi Hammamat and on to Punt. Did either expedition leave from Mersa Gawasis? There are neither inscriptions nor pottery to suggest such early voyages in the areas excavated.
** Excavations since 2001 have been under the direction of the Archaeological Expedition of the University of Naples "l'Orientale" and Italian Institute for Africa and Orient (IsIAO), Rome, in collaboration with Boston University. The final report on the 9th season can be found at Archaeogate.
*** The location of Bia-Punt is unknown. It's thought to lie somewhere in the north of Sudan, perhaps near today's Port Sudan.
My thanks to the journalist Angelika Franz, whose article, 'Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt' in bild der wissenschaft 09/2011, stimulated my interest again in Saww/Mersa Gawasis. Also, have a look at the Min of the Desert project, which has reconstructed an ancient Egyptian seagoing ship using ancient techniques, many suggested by the Mersa Gawasis finds.
Other main sources include J.P. Delgado, 'Nautical and Maritime Archaeology, 2006-2007 Seasons', AJA 112, 2008, 307- 309; Abel Monem A.H. Sayed, "The Land of Punt: Problems in the Archaeology of the Red Sea" in Hawass & Pinch Brock (eds), Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, Cairo, 2003, 432-439; J.A. Harrell, the Turin Papyrus Map From Ancient Egypt, University of Toledo, Ohio website; C. Ward & C. Zazzaro, 'Evidence for Pharaonic Seagoing Ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt,' International Jrl of Nautical Archaeology (2009).
Top centre: left half fragment of Turin map. Photo credit: J. Harrell (via Wikipedia)
Upper left: map of Red Sea area via Geology Magazine
Middle centre: A relief at the temple of Hatshepsut in Thebes, carved ca. 1480 B.B., showing a merchant ship on the trading expedition to Punt. Vessel artifacts match this depiction. Photo credit: Stephane Begoin via Discover Magazine.
Lower middle left: Cave entrances on terrace, via Memphis Tours Egypt Blog
Next left: Inscribed wooden cargo box via Archaeogate
Lower centre: Steering-oar blades exposed on a deep deposit of windblown sand in the entrance to Cave 2. Photo credit: Ward & Zazzaro 2010, Fig. 2
Next left: Anchor and associated ceramics in WG 36 via Archaeogate
Lowest left: Coils of rope in Cave 5 via Archaeogate