The world’s oldest port has been discovered near the Red Sea town of Zaafarana and, as Nevine El-Aref shows, it reveals that contrary to common belief the ancient Egyptians were accomplished sailors
The long-held supposition that the ancient Egyptians avoided travelling by sea and had poor naval technology can be laid to rest. Early this week archaeologists discovered a port dating from the reign of the Fourth Dynasty king Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid and owner of the Solar Boats at Giza, in the Wadi Al-Jarf area south of Zaafarana on the Red Sea.
Little was known about the Pharaohs’ seafaring ways until 2001, when a joint Italian-American archaeological mission from the universities of Naples and Boston unearthed timbers, rigging and cedar planks in the ancient Red Sea harbour of Marsa Gawasis, 23 kilometres south of Port Safaga. The harbour was used during the 12th Dynasty to mount naval expeditions to the land of Punt (now in southern Sudan or the Eritrean region of Ethiopia) to obtain gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins and the frankincense necessary for religious rituals.
The hides of giraffe, leopard and cheetah, which were worn by temple priests, were imported along with live exotic animals — either for the priests’ own menageries or as religious sacrifices — including the sacred cynocephalus or dog-faced baboon. Little wonder that Punt became known as the “Land of the Gods” and the personal pleasure garden of the great god Amun.
Trade between Egypt and Punt appears to have been suspended after the 12th Dynasty and not resumed until early in the 18th, when the most famous expedition to Punt, that of Queen Hatshepsut, came about as an outcome of a consultation with the oracle of the god Amun in which she was instructed to send a fleet of ships there. The expedition is featured in relief in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir Al-Bahari.
In 2001, another joint French mission from the Sorbonne and the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) explored another port in the town of Ain Sokhna on the opposite shore of the Red Sea in Sinai, 60 kilometres south of Suez. There storage galleries used during the late Fourth Dynasty and the Middle Kingdom were uncovered. From this port vessels sailed to the copper and turquoise mines in South Sinai. Inscriptions left by Pharaonic expeditions revealed that the Ain Sokhna port reached its peak during the Fifth and 12th dynasties.
Gregory Marouard of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, the senior archaeologist at Wadi Al-Jarf, wrote that the point of departure from the Egyptian coast was certainly linked to the small fortress at Tell Ras Burdan on the west coast of Sinai, south of Abu Zenima. Mainly occupied during the Old Kingdom and on a smaller scale during the Middle Kingdom, this latter site was used as a landing point in Sinai.
“It may also have had a strategic function in view of its defensive architecture,” says Marouard.
Egyptologist Pierre Tallet, head of the archaeological mission from the Université Paris-Sorbonne, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the boats were dismantled and stored in the galleries between every expedition. “The site seems to have been used under conditions similar to those during the Middle Kingdom as two complete crafts from this period, which were burnt in ancient times, were also found inside two of the galleries,” Tallet said. “The sites of Marsa Gawasis and Ain Sokhna demonstrate very well, each in its own manner, the importance of the Red Sea coast throughout ancient Egyptian history.”
Tallet went on to say that the discovery of a new site at Wadi Al-Jarf brought further information to the general picture and scheme of this ancient occupation of the Red Sea coasts.
The port site is located at the mouth of the Wadi Araba, a pedestrian pathway connecting the Nile Valley to the Red Sea through which expeditions travelled with the copper and turquoise needed to produce jewellery and funerary ornaments.
Wadi Al-Jarf was first described by British explorer Sir John Gardner Wilkinson in 1832. Wilkinson said the site included a number of galleries which he believed to be catacombs built into the rocky hillock a few kilometres from the coast. A century later, in 1954, Wadi Al-Jarf site was mentioned in the field notes of two French amateur archaeologists, François Bissey and René Chabot Morisseau. These notes were published in Mémoire de Suez, written by Ginette Lacaze and Luc Camino and published by Société d’Egyptologie de Pau in 2008. They sketched out a provisional plan of the site galleries complex along with a number of photographs, and also gave illustrations of ceramics attributed to the Old Kingdom, probably the Sixth Dynasty.
In the Bulletin de la société d’études historique et géographique de l’isthme de Suez, Bissey provided additional information and a brief description of a port structure on the coast. However, because of the political situation at the time and after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, Bissey’s studies stopped until June 2011 when the joint French mission took over.
“All these documents have helped the French archaeological mission to uncover and locate Wadi Al-Jarf port,” maritime archaeologist Mohamed M. Abdel-Maguid told the Weekly, adding that remote sensing conducted on the Zaafarana area with Google Earth satellite imaging had also helped identify the site’s location, specially the long, L-shaped dock starting at the shore and extending under water more than 160 metres in an easterly direction. It runs on a more irregular path towards the southeast for another 120 metres. There the mission uncovered ceramic fragments showing that all installations dated to the reign of King Khufu, and a complex of 30 rock-hewn storage galleries containing fragments of ropes, textiles, pieces of wooden boxes and hundreds of worked wood fragments including the end of an oar. There were also several fragments of Lebanese cedar beams and a 2.7 metres-wide piece of boat timber.
The galleries were used to store dismantled boats between the expeditions, which were held regularly.
Three of the galleries house fragments of large globular storage jars used as water and food containers for boats. The surfaces of these jars are marked with large-scale hieroglyphic inscriptions in red ink indicating their destination and names of crews or docked boats. Tallet said the jars were locally produced, and the mission had discovered two potters’ kilns.
A number of Fourth-Dynasty stone anchors was also found submerged in seawater. The anchors are in triangular, rectangular and cylindrical shapes but all have rounded tops with a simple hole in the upper part and no vertical groove. “it is possible that these anchors were placed permanently in the water for mooring boats in transit,” Tallet said.
Almost 200 metres from the shore the mission uncovered the remains of an Old Kingdom structure where 99 stone anchors were stored. Some were inscribed with hieroglyphic texts bearing the names of boats.
Tallet told the Weekly that among the most important artefacts found were 40 papyrus fragments from the reign of Khufu detailing daily life for the crews in Wadi Al-Jarf and the food sent by the central administration to the officials and workmen involved in the expeditions departing from the port. These are the most ancient written papyri found so far in Egypt.
Tallet said one of the papyri was the diary of Merrer, an Old Kingdom official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid. “Merrer mainly reported about his many trips to the Turah limestone quarry to fetch blocks for the construction of the pyramid,” Tallet told Discovery News. “Although we will not learn anything new about the construction of Khufu’s monument, this diary provides for the first time an insight on this matter.”
The discovery at Wadi Al-Jarf is important because it not only shows the oldest port in history, but proves that the ancient Egyptians were good sailors.
“It also reveals economic conditions in Egypt during the early Old Kingdom and the state-of-the-art maritime techniques they used,” Abdel-Maguid said.
Tallet says the use of the site was probably limited to the early Fourth Dynasty, and more specifically the reign of King Khufu. This was, he says, the first Red Sea coastal structure, providing a function later taken over by the site at Ain Sokhna, which was closer to the administrative capital of Memphis. The question remains as to the essential purpose of a complex as vast as the one at Wadi Al-Jarf.
“Expeditions could clearly be sent to Sinai from this location, as attested by the discovery of abundant ceramic material produced at Wadi Al-Jarf on the southwest coast of Sinai, at Al-Markha,” Tallet said. “But the massive production of these water containers may also have been intended for the equipment of long-haul boats, and we think it possible, despite the absence of formal proof so far, that the site may have also served as a stopover point on the journey to Punt during an extremely ancient period of Egyptian history.”