History of Travel in Ancient Egypt
Let’s delve into the mysteries of the past and explore the untold story of ancient Egyptian travel. The ancient Egyptian civilization, one of the oldest and most magnificent in history, has captivated researchers and historians for centuries. But among all the investigations and publications on various aspects of ancient Egypt, one topic remains largely unexplored: ancient travel and tourism.
This article takes you on a journey through time, offering a glimpse into the travel perspectives of ancient Egypt. Many of these are not just ancient perspectives, they are modern constructions of archaeological and historical perspectives on how travel might have been perceived and experienced in ancient Egypt. By filling in this literature gap, I aim to provide a unique and compelling insight into this uncovered topic.
Travel was an integral part of Egyptian culture. Mobility was high among all classes of society and Egypt has been a destination for travelers since pre-dynastic times. We shall momentarily catch a glimpse of tales of traveling in ancient Egyptian history, hence, you shall step back in time and discover how ancient Egyptians traveled, and where they traveled to. The first few sections will be filled with informative and educational data that looks at the history of travel in ancient Egypt from a more insightful perspective; feel free to fast-forward to the section (Part II) on ancient tourism by clicking here on this link.
Travel in ancient Egypt was deeply intertwined with religion and beliefs. The concept of a symbolic journey through the temples, from the open-air courtyard to the inner sanctuary where the (idol) god’s image was housed, was seen as a holy pilgrimage from the mortal world to the divine. This journey was not just limited to the physical realm, as the Egyptians believed that the soul, represented by the bȜ (an immortal bird-headed element), also embarked on a journey to the afterlife.
To prepare for this journey, complex burial rituals were performed, including mummification by special priests. The wealthy were buried in grand tombs filled with objects and provisions for their journey, while the less fortunate were buried in the ground. The tomb was not seen as the final destination, but rather the starting point for the soul’s journey toward eternity.
This belief is reflected in the physical evidence of boats found in tombs, such as the one painted on the walls of the royal tomb at Saqqara, which was believed to have carried the deceased on their cosmic journey to the afterlife. From predynastic history, it is clear that travel was considered to be both important in life and in death for the ancient Egyptians, who believed in the concept of a resurrection and a continuous life in the next world.
Contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptian civilization was not isolated from the rest of the east Mediterranean nations and civilizations. The Nile River played a vital role in the daily life of ancient Egyptians and was the center of various activities, including travel. Recent discoveries have shown that the Nile provided ancient Egyptians with the means to travel within their own land and to other countries.
To Egyptians, travel was not only a means of transportation but also a prestigious mission, reserved for those chosen by the king. The honor of being sent on a journey was bestowed upon only the elite and high-culture members of society and was often connected to one’s official duty or position.
The ancient Egyptians were not known for their wanderlust, but rather for their desire to acquire rare and valuable goods. They ventured beyond their borders for trade, diplomacy, and sometimes warfare, to obtain commodities that were not readily available in Egypt. These commercial pursuits often took place within the country, where bustling markets in towns and villages served as hubs for internal trade. Additionally, it was not uncommon to see traveling salesmen traversing the Nile, visiting homes, and conducting business.
Despite their primarily practical motives, the ancient Egyptians’ travels allowed them to maintain strong ties with their neighboring nations in the Near East and Mediterranean. Overall, the ancient Egyptians were driven by a combination of economic necessity and a thirst for adventure, which led to a vibrant and well-connected society.
Despite the challenges and dangers of travel, the ancient Egyptians were determined to document their journeys and experiences. The harsh conditions of the Mediterranean and the long, arduous trek to coastal lands did not deter them. Instead, they turned to the art of inscription, carving their tales of adventure and trade onto stones and pottery shards. These works of art not only preserved their stories, but also served as a testament to the ancient Egyptians’ unwavering spirit of exploration.
Nevertheless, commerce and adventure were not the only reasons for their travels. The ancient Egyptians also sought leisure and pleasure through their journeys, particularly on the Nile River, for it was a source of entertainment, a way to escape the daily routine, and immerse themselves in new experiences. And while the concept of travel for leisure was not as prevalent before the Greek and Roman era, it was still present in ancient Egypt, and it is considered an important part of their culture and way of life.
The ancient Egyptians were not deterred by the natural obstacles that stood in their way of travel. Despite the presence of cataracts in the southern regions of Egypt, they still managed to navigate the seas to Nubia and continue their journeys to other African nations. Even their military campaigns, such as those led by King Aha and Khasekhemwy during the 2nd dynasty, were not hindered by such obstacles. This serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of the ancient Egyptians, who were able to overcome any challenge in order to travel and expand their reach.
Despite being geographically isolated, with the Mediterranean Sea to the north, deserts to the east and west, and river cataracts in the south, ancient Egypt was still connected to other nations through trade and immigration. They exported goods through the deserts and welcomed visitors from neighboring countries, both individually and in groups. This illustrates the impressive connectivity and cultural exchange that existed in ancient Egypt, despite the challenges posed by the natural landscape.
Travel in Ancient Egypt
While the ancient Egyptians valued a peaceful existence in their home villages and sought to live a simple life of cultivation and enjoyment, there were still instances where military campaigns required travel. These military excursions were well-documented throughout ancient Egyptian history, showcasing the mobility and adaptability of the people.
Their transportation system was extensive, comprising water (aka sea or river) and land routes, as well as various modes of transportation. This well-established system of travel dates back to the predynastic period and continued to evolve until the New Kingdom.
Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, is a land of contrasts that was divided into two distinct regions, the lush Nile valley and the barren desert of the Delta (stark contracts indeed!). Despite the harsh desert conditions, the Egyptians thrived, cultivating only a small portion of the land’s total area of 386,000 square miles. Transportation was primarily dependent on the Nile River and its canals, making travel outside of Egypt a rare occurrence during the early days. However, it is believed by some that only the privileged members of society were able to engage in such travel.
But modern Egyptologists have a different perspective, they believe that it was the king and high-ranking officials who made decisions about trade with foreign lands and that they were the ones who were eager to travel for state affairs. Regardless of the restrictions, travel was possible for those who could afford it, whether by chartering a ship or staying with friends in private homes. In Ancient Egypt, the demographic approach to travel ignored distinctions of gender and social status, allowing all Egyptians the opportunity to explore the world beyond their borders.
In ancient Egyptian society, women were not just relegated to the background, but were an integral part of society, often accompanying their husbands on various journeys along the Nile. Not just limited to the elite, everyday Egyptian women played a vital role in the culture and civilization, with even princesses traveling to pay tribute to the Pharaoh.
These trips were not just for leisure, but also for hunting and fishing expeditions, as depicted in the numerous scenes found in the tomb of Userhat. This emphasizes the significance of women in mobility and travel during this period. Furthermore, the criteria for permission to travel were based on principles of fairness and honesty, transcending social classes from the wealthy to the poor.
This is further evident in the ancient Egyptian text on the false door of nfr sḫm r’ at Saqqara from the 6th dynasty which states:
“Give bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and a boat to those without one.”
This highlights the high priority placed on travel, even over basic necessities such as food, water, and clothing. It also showcases the vital role that boats played as a means of travel and trade, especially for the poor. The journey from one end of Egypt to the other took weeks and trade expeditions could last for months, underscoring the importance of travel in ancient Egyptian society.
In the upcoming sections, I will delve into the different time periods of ancient Egyptian history, starting with the predynastic period and culminating with the end of the New Kingdom, and provide a glimpse into travel during the Greco-Roman times. This exploration will unveil the magnificent and illustrious history of travel in ancient Egypt, highlighting the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a civilization that has stood the test of time. But first, let’s take a quick look at the different reasons why ancient Egyptians needed to travel:
I – Commercial Travel
The scarcity of wood and other wooden materials in ancient Egypt was a pressing issue that propelled the Egyptians to embark on international trade expeditions. The need for wood to sustain their way of life was the driving force behind the ancient Egyptians’ desire to travel and engage in trade during the predynastic period.
In exchange for precious Egyptian gold from the mines of the eastern desert and Nubia, the Pharaohs received valuable princesses from Syria. Trade played a crucial role in shaping and advancing the ancient Egyptian civilization. The area now known as Iraq, or Bilad al-Rafidayn, had a significant impact on Upper Egyptian civilization through its trade routes along the Red Sea and in Wadi el-Hammamat during the predynastic period, as evidenced by the inscriptions found in tombs of Qena and Gerga.
As the politics in Upper Egypt developed during the fourth millennium BCE, exchanges along the Nile also became increasingly evident. During the late Neolithic period, the Egyptians imported goods from sites in northern Nubia, including the first copper tools.
The Red Sea route played a vital role in facilitating trade and increasing business, connecting Egypt with other cultures in Asia and the south. Trade also spread internally within Egypt through the Nile River, and externally with Asia through ships that sailed along the Red Sea to the port of Guibil, one of the Phoenician’s ports. As a result of these trade efforts, Egypt became one of the wealthiest countries in the ancient world.
The quest for other raw materials essential to building a great civilization propelled the ancient Egyptians to venture beyond their borders in search of scarce resources, and not just wood. For example, they obtained copper from the Wadi el-Allaqi mines in the south of Aswan and dolerite from quarries in the eastern desert.
Commercial travel, similar to modern business travel, was a prevalent practice in ancient Egypt dating back to around 3200 BCE when the country was united under one ruler. This necessitated the development of extensive travel networks for administrators, agents, and messengers along the Nile River from the capital at Memphis. Thus, the ancient Egyptians invested in building roads and canals to facilitate their movement and transportation.
Trade was evident in the predynastic period as evidenced by archeological findings of pottery with inscriptions depicting Egyptian travel to other countries for importing and exporting goods. The depiction of river journeys on monumental objects and the existence of a special category of pottery known as decorated ware, adorned with representations of boats with banks of oars carrying portable shrines of the gods, further attest to the importance of trade in ancient Egypt.
As the ancient Egyptian civilization progressed, the people expanded their travels to distant countries to continue importing and exporting the raw materials they needed. For example, during the New Kingdom, they crossed the Mediterranean to acquire silver from Syria and Crete and export their famous gold. The following paragraphs provide insights into the extent of ancient Egyptian business travel abroad and the commercial roads that were used.
II – Domestic Travel
In ancient Egypt, the Nile River served as a vital means of transportation for the people living in the Nile Valley. They utilized the river, along with pack animals such as donkeys and mules, to travel throughout the country. The presence of prospectors, miners, and traders crossing the eastern desert to Sinai from an early date demonstrates the existence of domestic travel within Egypt. The discovery of copper mines in Sinai dating back to 3000 BCE further supports this notion.
The reliefs of Wadi el-Hammamat rocks belonging to Imhotep, an executive administrator during the 3rd dynasty, reveal that he sent expeditions to this location to bring back precious stones from the quarries. This highlights the emergence of new functions that required travel within the borders of Egypt. At that time, Egypt and Nubia were unified under a single ruler, and thus, all movement activities within the country can be considered domestic travel.
III – Long-Distance Travel
In ancient times, international trade was a rarity, but in Egypt, it was particularly advanced and not uncommon, despite the lack of resources. As I mentioned earlier, the Egyptians needed timber, for example, and thus needed to trade with Lebanon and Syria. The need for materials motivated ancient Egyptians to travel overseas. The internal construction of the 1st dynasty tomb, the discovery of a few pieces of cedar and cypress in Egypt, and the fragments of vases of the 2nd dynasty that have been found at Byblos, all show evidence that ancient Egyptians traveled throughout the entire Phoenician coast (it was ruled by different civilizations before the Phoenicians existed).
Another purpose for the Egyptian treks that had been conveyed to other countries was to complete the internal erection of the 1st dynasty tombs and levers from the Old Kingdom monuments, which required imported wood from Syria and small pieces of cedar and cypress wood from Lebanon. These indications are considered to be clear clues of one reason for international travel in the predynastic period.
The purpose of international travel did not only involve the importation of goods but also exchanging gifts with others. Ancient Egyptians did journeys abroad to exchange gifts with foreign rulers such as the king of Babylon during the Old Kingdom, which could explain the great wealth Egypt had in ancient times. It is interesting to note that travels abroad were also undertaken for the sake of ancient Egyptians delivering messages to people outside Egypt, as there was no mail service in ancient Egypt; letters were usually entrusted to travelers for delivery.
The Fayoum civilization was one of the earliest northern civilizations in the Nile Delta, believed to have been settled by people from the west as early as 4000 BCE. This suggests that Egypt was a popular destination for travelers and settlers, with the origins of the Marmara inhabitants potentially tied to the Mediterranean race. This civilization is believed to have spread north along the African coast and even reached Europe by 3000 BCE. However, much remains unknown about the length of their stay in Egypt and the reasons for their migration.
The incoming movement to Egypt continued throughout prehistory, as evidenced by scenes on tombs in Thebes depicting visitors from various nations. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of such travel in predynastic Egypt. During the reign of King Narmer, travel became more difficult due to the presence of pastoral Euro-Asian barbarian tribes, likely drawn to the wealth of southern Egypt. These tribes, known as Tamahu by the Egyptians for their white skin, were referred to as Libyans later on and were also distinguished by their red or blond hair and blue eyes.
Methods of Travel
I – By Boat
The ancient Egyptians were a people who relied heavily on the Nile River for transportation and commerce. The Nile’s vast network of waterways provided the Egyptians with a quick and efficient means of traversing both short and long distances, as well as transporting goods and materials across the land.
As a result, boat building became a highly respected and skilled craft in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians utilized a wide variety of boats for different purposes, from fishing and trading vessels to pleasure boats for the wealthy, and even funerary barques for the transport of the deceased to their final resting place.
These boats were not only a means of transportation, but also held significant cultural and religious importance. Obelisks and other heavy stones used in pyramid and temple construction were transported by boat, and the bodies of royalty and the wealthy were ferried to their tombs in ornate funerary vessels. The Nile also played a crucial role in the Opet festival, in which the triad of Amun-Ra would travel by boat between the temples of Karnak and Luxor.
Beyond practical considerations, the Nile also held spiritual significance for the Egyptians. It was believed that the river was a pathway to the afterlife and that the souls of the deceased could travel on it to reach the realm of the gods. The Nile was also seen as a source of life and fertility, and many religious ceremonies and rituals were performed on its banks.
In addition to its cultural and spiritual significance, the Nile played a key role in the expansion of the Egyptian empire. The river provided a means for the Egyptians to defend their borders, conduct trade with neighboring lands, and even launch military campaigns. The Nile was truly the lifeblood of ancient Egypt, providing not only sustenance and transportation but also shaping the culture, religion, and society of this wonderous ancient civilization.
II – By Land
In ancient Egypt, traveling by land presented a number of challenges. The lack of proper roads and the annual flooding of the Nile made it difficult to maintain and construct efficient land routes. This, combined with the precious nature of arable land and the exhausting distances involved in land travel, made it a less desirable mode of transportation.
Land journeys were typically limited to short distances between villages and were primarily used to transport goods. Nobles often chose to travel in chairs carried by donkeys or in horse-drawn chariots, but for the majority of the population, travel by foot was the norm. The use of the wheel was almost non-existent due to the lack of proper roads, and heavy goods were typically transported by mules or donkeys.
Despite these challenges, there were still instances where travel by land was necessary. Crossing the eastern desert to reach the mines in the Red Sea was one such example. Additionally, soldiers often had to travel by land to engage in battle and return with spoils of war.
However, even in these instances, the Egyptians were not deterred from their love of travel. They were known to walk and discover sites by themselves, as depicted in the paintings on the walls of tombs, much like modern individual travelers. Overall, while land travel was not the most efficient or desirable mode of transportation in ancient Egypt, it was still an important aspect of daily life and the expansion of the empire.
Walking sticks were primarily used by the elderly and kings during their long journeys. Regarding the methods, donkeys were considered the primary mode of transportation on land. Despite their slow speed and need for constant food and water, travelers relied on donkeys to traverse the treacherous desert. These hardy creatures were able to carry not only their own sustenance, but also luggage and assist with domestic and farm duties. In addition, donkey rides were a popular leisure activity, dating back to the Old Kingdom.
However, some scholars argue that the use of donkeys and horses as transportation did not become widespread until the New Kingdom. Diplomats and couriers also used chariots for faster travel during this time period.
Land transportation for commercial purposes was mainly carried out by donkey caravans. Donkeys were used for long expeditions to reach local sites in Egypt, such as the mountain valleys of the eastern desert, and distant oases in the West. A notable example is the use of donkeys for the journey to Sinai.
While donkeys were the primary mode of transportation, the ancient Egyptians also utilized horses, particularly (and primarily) for military purposes. The horse first appeared in Egypt during the invasion of the Hyksos at the end of the Middle Kingdom. They were also used by Thutmosis III and Ramses II during their military expeditions.
The use of wheeled vehicles was relatively uncommon in ancient Egypt, as the wheel was originally invented in Mesopotamia and only spread to Egypt by 2500 BCE. It was not until the 18th dynasty that wheeled transport vehicles, such as wagons to haul boats or boat components, were described in Egypt.
Travel During the Predynastic Period
(5500 – 3200 BCE)
During the Predynastic Period (5500 – 3200 BCE), travel was a necessary aspect of daily life for ancient Egyptians. With an unstable living situation, they were constantly on the move in search of food and shelter. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were the primary means of survival until the invention of agriculture allowed for settled communities. As civilizations developed and local administration was established, travel evolved to include business, healing, and entertainment at festivals.
Despite its primitive nature, travel during this time played a crucial role in shaping the relationships between Egyptian cultures and those of neighboring regions. The desire to see other communities and the simple lifestyle of the Egyptians motivated them to travel, and as a result, both Delta and Upper Egypt civilizations were heavily influenced by neighboring cultures during the Stone Copper Age and beyond. The connection with peoples from Palestine, Syria, the Mediterranean, and North Africa for Delta civilization, and African cultures from the south and Semitic people in the East through the Red Sea for Upper Egypt civilization, had a great impact.
The gentle flow of the Nile River inspired the ancient Egyptians to craft boats for fishing, transportation, and leisure. As early as 3500 BCE in the predynastic period, the Egyptians began to paint Sickle-shaped boats (or crescent-shaped boats) on pottery and other artifacts, providing evidence of their love for travel. These early boats were likely constructed from planks of wood and propelled by oars or paddles.
Throughout history, various models and representations of boats were used by the ancient Egyptians, including the small “skiffs” depicted on predynastic pottery. These skiffs, made of papyrus reeds or wildwood, were used to navigate quiet or fast-moving waters, and were likely used by fishermen or to transport livestock. The pottery discovered dating back to 3500 BCE, demonstrates the earliest desire of Egyptian artists towards travel and their ability to create boats that would fit in the natural water of the Nile. The Nile’s easy and slow flow encouraged the Egyptians to build boats from the very beginning of their history, and these boats continue to be a fascinating and important aspect of ancient Egyptian culture.
The ancient Egyptians were not isolated from the rest of the world during the early period of their history. They were eager to establish relationships and connections with their neighbors, with the goal of discovering new sites within and outside of Egypt, as well as exchanging goods with other cultures. One of the earliest examples of this can be seen in the first diplomatic mission that was sent to the north in the Levant and south in Sudan, at the beginning of the Old Kingdom.
It is fascinating to see that these international relationships, which were established in ancient Egypt, are similar to certain customs and traditions that are still practiced by African tribes today. For instance, the close customs between Badarian inhabitants and East African tribes, as well as the similarities between the Somali people and those of the Sinai Peninsula, can be traced back to this early period of history. Additionally, headrests, which were first known in Egypt, are still used in Kenya and other parts of Africa.
However, this cultural uniformity began to disappear as a result of the increasing cultivation of cereal, sedentism, and water transport during the early Naqada period, which marked a significant transformation in the way of life in the Egyptian Nile valley. Despite this, many aspects of ancient Egypt and Nubia culture remain unchanged to this day, even after five millennia.
Contemporary jewelry, hairstyles, pottery decoration, and even certain sports can be traced back to the days when the great kings and queens ruled these lands. This is evidence of a long-standing relationship between Egypt and Nubia, with Egyptian kings organizing expeditions to Nubia, and Nubian people becoming familiar with Egyptian culture. Furthermore, ancient Egyptian travelers organized cruises to assist with overseas travel, five thousand years ago.
Travel During the Early Dynastic Period
(3050 – 2686 BCE)
Archaic Egypt, or the Early Dynastic Period, was a time of great change and development. Beginning around 3000 BCE, it marked the start of the 1st and 2nd dynasties and saw the emergence of basic political and administrative structures, religious beliefs, funerary practices, and symbolic encoding. The early days of the 1st dynasty were marked by increased travel to Sinai to mine copper and turquoise, as evidenced by primitive ivory objects belonging to King Djet. The walls of fortresses in the south of Palestine also attest to early Egyptian travel to the east.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the tomb of King Djer at Abydos was the tomb of Osiris, and so the site became a pilgrimage destination for people from all over Egypt. Inscriptions at el-Sheikh Suleiman in the Eastern Desert reveal that travel during this time was not limited to religious purposes, as the name of King Djet (also known as Uadjit) inscribed there demonstrates that travel also occurred for military purposes, specifically to commemorate the king’s victory over the Nubian inhabitants.
Other inscriptions found on the rocks of Wadi Maghara at the Sinai Peninsula, believed to belong to King Sekhemkhet, the immediate successor of Djoser, also attest to the extent of ancient Egyptian travel during this early dynastic period, however, the inscribed name belongs to King Sekhemkhet (ca. 2649-2643 BCE) of the 3rd dynasty.
This early period of Egyptian history was a time of great exploration and expansion, as the ancient Egyptians pushed the boundaries of their known world and laid the foundations for the powerful civilization that would come to dominate the region for centuries to come.
Travel During the 2nd Dynasty
The 2nd dynasty was a time of great movement and expansion for the ancient Egyptians. Inscriptions belonging to King Semerkhet at Wadi Maghara in Sinai indicate that the region was highly valued and frequently visited. This era also saw the beginning of the practice of transferring objects from one place to another, which would continue to grow and evolve in the centuries to come.
Archaeological finds, such as identical seal impressions discovered at different sites like Abydos, Abu Rawash, Zawiyet el-Aryan, and Saqqara, support the idea of a large-scale transport center connecting various locations throughout Egypt. One such hub was believed to be Hierakonpolis, the ancient city of Nekhen, located on the west bank of the Nile and dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus. Today, the site of this early dynastic town is known as Kom el-Ahmar.
This period of Egyptian history was marked by a significant increase in mobility and connectivity, as the ancient Egyptians established a network of trade and communication that would become the backbone of their civilization. The discovery of identical inscriptions and artifacts at multiple sites across Egypt is a testament to the extent of their reach and the level of organization they had achieved.
Travel During the Old Kingdom
(2686 – 2181 BCE)
The Old Kingdom was a time of great advancement and expansion for the ancient Egyptians. A strong central government, led by the powerful and divine Pharaoh, paved the way for a surge in travel and exploration. The policies, arts, and projects of this period allowed for free movement within Egypt, and beyond its borders. Aswan, for example, became a popular destination for travelers, as it was the official southern border of Egypt. This increased travel led to the formation of outbound travel, as many Egyptians ventured outside of their country’s borders.
But Aswan was not the only place that captured the imagination of the ancient Egyptians. Kings such as Sahure and Snefru were frequent travelers, with records of their voyages to places such as Byblos (near present-day Beirut) and other cities on the Phoenician coast. Snefru, the founder of the 4th dynasty, even led a campaign with a navy of 40 ships to bring back cedar wood for the construction of levers for Old Kingdom monuments.
In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, the ancient Egyptians were also known for their seafaring abilities. The discovery of Cheops’ boat, a papyriform vessel made of 1200 pieces of cedar and 141 feet long, indicates that they were able to sail on the high seas and reach distant countries. This boat is now displayed in a special chamber next to the Great Pyramid of Giza, a testament to the maritime achievements of this ancient civilization.
The funerary boats and boat pits of the Old Kingdom offer a glimpse into the rich history of travel in ancient Egypt. Despite the confusion and questions surrounding the exact function of these boats and graves, one thing is clear: they were used to transport the deceased to the four corners of heaven, as directed by the king. The discovery of four boats near Cheops’ pyramid and the assumption of an additional fifth boat, suggest that the ancient Egyptians placed great importance on the journey to the afterlife, as I briefly mentioned in the starting section of this article.
The Old Kingdom inscriptions also provide evidence of increased mobility during this time. However, the reasons for this increase in travel are not fully understood. Some scholars believe that it was driven by economic and political concerns, as the pyramid workers were often given tax and conscription exemptions as a reward for their hard work. These rewards could have motivated them to seek out new opportunities and experiences through travel.
But while the ancient Egyptians may have viewed travel as a practical matter, it’s worth noting that there are no existing narratives that describe incredible journeys as a rite of passage, or that delve into the emotional dimensions of travel. The Old Kingdom’s autobiographical narratives focus mainly on the economic or political concerns of travel. It is a knowledge gap in our understanding of the motivations behind the increased mobility during this time. It is an intriguing mystery that invites us to explore deeper into the rich history of ancient Egypt.
Weni, governor of Upper Egypt, embarked on a journey of discovery, visiting new destinations such as Yebu, now known as Elephantine Island, and Ibhat, a quarry site in Nubia. His trips were strategically planned by his successor Mernere to bring back a granite false door and pyramidion for the pyramid. He accomplished this feat in a single expedition, something that had never been done before. Details of his expedition was described in his tomb; he stated:
“I traveled north with (them) to the pyramid ‘Mernere-appears-in-splendor’ in six barges and three tow-boats of eight ribs in a single expedition. Never had Yebu and Ibhat been done in a single expedition under any king. Thus, everything his majesty commanded was done entirely as his majesty commanded”.
This rise in provincial power, at the expense of central authority, was a sign of decline during the Old Kingdom and particularly the 6th dynasty. The progress and expansion of ancient Egypt in all areas of life led to an increase in commercial travel. Trade in Africa was particularly booming, evident in the journeys of Harkhouf, who expanded trade with Nubia by excavating channels through granite obstructions in the cataract region.
As trade prospered, leisure travel also expanded, a trend that is worth highlighting during this period of ancient Egyptian history, as it will be discussed further in Part II of this article. Weni’s trips were not only a demonstration of his power and influence, but also a testament to the thriving culture and economy of ancient Egypt.
Travel During the First Intermediate Period
(2181 – 2040 BCE)
The First Intermediate Period was a tumultuous era of civil war and chaos that ravaged Egypt for several decades. Mobility and travel within the country were greatly hindered by the widespread weaknesses and instability. This period also marked a striking dark age in the ancient Near East, affecting regions from Crete to Mesopotamia, Elam (Iran), and even as far as Anatolia. The Akkadian Empire, Byblos, and other sites in Syria and Palestine were left in ruin, devastated by fire and political turmoil. This devastation spread far and wide, reaching as far as western and southern Anatolia. The internal conflicts and insecure atmosphere that plagued Egypt during this period greatly impacted travel and mobility.
Despite the unstable conditions, some inhabitants of Lahun still traveled to Abydos to participate in the annual festival dedicated to the god Osiris-Khenty Amentiu. Additionally, trade between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean was not greatly affected. The western Delta region, in particular, played an important role in continuing commercial and business trips despite the hard political circumstances. Journeys by the western Delta princes during the reign of Ekhoty IV, who was in charge of trade relations, are proof of this. However, there was some level of mobility during the reign of Ahnasya kings in the 10th and 11th dynasties.
Some of these travels were intended for taking revenge on Bedouin bands that used to steal passengers when they traveled from one place to another. King Akhtoy IV, for instance, traveled to Delta to deal with the spreading confusion and chaos caused by Bedouins, and later to the Thebes region to get rid of Thebes’ princesses. Despite the chaos and destruction that defined the First Intermediate Period, the determination and resilience of the people of Egypt allowed for some level of mobility and trade to continue.
Travel During the Middle Kingdom
(2040 – 1782 BCE)
During the Middle Kingdom, a powerful Theban family rose to the throne, leading the 11th and 12th dynasties (ca. 2130-1780 BCE) and bringing stability and prosperity to Egypt. This era saw increased relations with the Eastern Mediterranean as the Egyptians sought to import goods and defend against Asian Bedouins. The most notable king of this period, Mentuhotep II (ca. 2060-2010 BCE), completed the reunification of Egypt and restored its international prestige. Other powerful rulers, such as Amenemhat I and Senusret III, led military campaigns to Asia and expanded Egyptian control over neighboring territories, including Libya, Nubia, and the passageway to Asia east of the Nile Delta.
The Middle Kingdom was a time of great expansion and growth for Egypt, both politically and economically. The Egyptians established strong ties with neighboring Near Eastern countries, traveling to the region to import materials and exchange goods. For example, during the reign of Amenemhat I, the first king of the 12th dynasty, Egyptian ships were built using Syrian woods and funerary objects were crafted from the same materials. This expansion brought prosperity and progress to the land and set the stage for even greater achievements in the New Kingdom.
This era also saw the ancient Egyptians embarking on ambitious expeditions to the south of Egypt for commercial gain. They traded with the land of Punt, obtaining valuable goods such as myrrh, incense, gold, ebony, and rare woods, as well as exotic animals. These expeditions moved along the Red Sea and were not just limited to trade but also had religious significance. The Egyptians of this period were deeply interested in visiting the holy sites of Osiris, and this is evident from the depiction of these events on the walls of the tombs of the nobles.
In addition to trade, the Middle Kingdom also saw a flourishing of diplomatic relations and cultural exchange. Egyptian nobles and kings would exchange statues and scarabs with visiting kings of other countries, and this tradition played a crucial role in spreading Egyptian artistic influence and customs beyond the borders of Egypt. This cultural exchange can be seen in places like Guibil (aka Byblos) port, where princesses wrote their names in hieroglyphs, prayed to Egyptian gods and goddesses, and even used Egyptian oils in their crowning ceremonies.
The frequent travels and interactions with other cultures during this period were not just a source of economic benefit, but also played a critical role in linking cultures and expanding horizons. The Middle Kingdom was a time of great exploration and exchange, and this legacy continued even into the New Kingdom.
King Mentuhotep II was a trailblazer in terms of domestic/internal travel in ancient Egypt. His Nile journey, which occurred in the 39th year of his rule, was a remarkable feat that demonstrated the king’s interest in traveling both domestically and abroad. Beyond doing his own journey, the king also took his family and officials with him to a place further than the southern border of Egypt. Additionally, his voyage is believed to have taken him to a location called Shad el-Regal where he waited for his eldest son, Inyotef, who was leading a campaign to Nubia.
The journey of King Mentuhotep II also revealed that Egyptians during this period also relied heavily on the Nile for domestic travel, as did their ancestors. And it’s likely that as a result of the kings of the Middle Kingdom building bridges and canals, the people often took advantage of leisurely trips along the banks of the Nile to relax and appreciate the scenery. Furthermore, numerous Sinai inscriptions suggest that Asian people who visited Egypt preferred to do domestic travel and work with Egyptians to explore the Sinai mines.
These events show that domestic mobility was an important aspect of ancient Egyptian life and that the kings had an active interest in internal travel. King Mentuhotep II’s voyage was remarkable and served as a reminder of the power of exploration and the importance of domestic mobility during this period in history.
Travel From the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom
The New Kingdom (dynasties 18 to 20) was a time of unprecedented military expansion, with Egypt’s borders reaching their widest ever extent and her influence reaching far into the Near East. This era was also marked by a rise in international travel and trade, which saw Egypt’s wealth and power swell to heights it had never before known.
This newfound peace and stability was largely a result of the treaty Tuthmosis IV signed with the Mitanni people, which provided a more secure atmosphere for the Egyptians to venture abroad and bring back goods needed to build and decorate monuments, temples, and tombs.
(N.B. The Mitanni state was a Hurrian-speaking state in northern Syria and southeast Anatolia; the Hurrians were considered members of an ancient people that are said to have originated from Armenia who settled in Syria and northern Mesopotamia during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE; they were later absorbed by the Hittites and Assyrians.)
The abundance of imported items, including gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones, was a testament to the artistry and architecture of the period, and also to the thirst for knowledge and progress that inspired the ancient Egyptians to travel. As the inscriptions of the time indicate, vast amounts of goods were brought back to the country, signifying the importance of international trade to Egypt’s continued prosperity.
After the New Kingdom
The Third Intermediate Period saw a decline in travel, with Libyans settling in Egypt and Nubians dominating the country in the 25th dynasty. This was followed by invasions by Assyria and the plundering of Thebes, which led to an influx of foreign visitors such as Greeks and Romans.
The 26th dynasty marked the last period of independent Egyptian rule and a resurgence of artistic activity, before being conquered by the Persians in 525 BCE. Greek traders and mercenaries kept visiting Egypt during the 27th dynasty, providing us with valuable insight into the era through the writings of great historians such as Herodotus. Egyptian history has always been shaped by powerful forces both within and outside of the country. Despite periods of great upheaval, foreign travelers have been welcomed in Egypt for centuries, leaving behind a cultural legacy that still lives on today.
So, as we can see, the ancient Egyptians were not alone in their fascination with the Nile and the land of Egypt. From as early as the Greco-Roman period, foreign visitors left their mark on the monuments of Egypt, scrawling graffiti on the Colossi of Memnon and even inside Theban royal tombs. The Great Pyramid, before it was stripped of its casing stones, also contained graffiti dating back to earlier than the Greco-Roman period, further evidence of the allure of Egypt to outsiders.
Greek and Roman historians also attest to the presence of foreign visitors in Egypt, with accounts of travelers and explorers visiting the land. One notable example is Emperor Nero’s expedition in 60 CE, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, to search for the Nile’s source. Though the expedition was unsuccessful, a Greek merchant named Diogenes would later report a journey inland from the east coast of Africa where he claimed to have seen two great lakes and a range of snowy mountains, leading him to believe that this must be the source of the Nile.
These various pieces of evidence paint a vivid picture of Egypt as a destination for travelers and explorers throughout its history, a land that continues to captivate and inspire even to this day. It’s not just the monuments, but also the stories of those who ventured forth to explore the Nile and its surroundings that have added to the allure of Egypt. It’s a land of mystery, an irresistible draw for the curious, the adventurous, and the ambitious.
As we delve deeper into the history of ancient Egypt, we uncover a fascinating glimpse into the world of travel and accommodation during these time periods. Despite the lack of extensive documentation on the subject, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians had a nuanced understanding of the various types of accommodations required for different journeys and distances.
For shorter, less regular routes, temporary accommodations such as tented encampments were utilized. This was the case during King Akhenaten’s prospecting visit to el-Amarna in the New Kingdom. However, for longer journeys with overnight stops, more sophisticated lodging was provided. These structures, often small round huts similar to tents, were commonly used in the desert and were also used to accommodate servants.
It’s worth noting that travel during ancient Egyptian times was primarily for official and commercial purposes, but it was also undertaken for personal reasons such as religion and entertainment. The need for an accommodation was a crucial consideration in trip planning, and the ancient Egyptians were strategic in their choices.
When it came to food and beverages during travel, the ancient Egyptians were also strategic in their provision planning. The quantities of food and drink varied depending on the level of difficulty and distance involved in reaching a destination. For example, reaching the quarries of Sinai was a difficult undertaking due to the poor water quality and the need to bring in all food and fodder for pack animals. As a result, large quantities of food and drink were necessary for the expedition. This is evident in accounts of Sinai quarrying expeditions, where around 734 men and 284 donkeys were supplied with food and drink for the entire journey.
Overall, as we can see, the ancient Egyptians were masterful in their planning and execution of travel and accommodation, and their methods serve as a testament to their resourcefulness and ingenuity over the centuries. Despite the limited information available, we can appreciate the complexities of travel during these time periods and marvel at this wonderous civilization’s ability to navigate these challenges.
As we delve even deeper into the history of ancient Egyptian travel, one aspect that stands out is the cuisine consumed during these journeys. Inscriptions such as that of Harkouf reveal that ancient Egyptians enjoyed a variety of foods and beverages while on the road. These included staples such as bread, dates, and beer, as well as delicacies like wine and cake.
This highlights an interesting parallel between ancient Egyptian travelers and contemporary tourists. Both groups were curious to taste the local food and drink of the host country. The tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a story from ancient Egypt, also provides insight into the delicious foods enjoyed by travelers. This not only demonstrates the importance of food and drink in the daily lives of ancient Egyptians but also the similar human desire for new and diverse culinary experiences.
It’s also worth noting that the ancient Egyptians were well-equipped to provide for themselves (under different circumstances) on their journeys. They had a variety of food items that could be stored and transported easily. This allowed them to have a varied and satisfying diet while traveling. The fact that food was an important aspect of their travels highlights the importance of sustenance and comfort during their travels.