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Egyptian Red Sea Trade: An International Affair in the Graeco-Roman Period

Egyptian Red Sea Trade: An International Affair in the Graeco-Roman Period

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Published by Debborah Donnelly
History of trade on the Red Sea.
History of trade on the Red Sea.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Debborah Donnelly on Mar 11, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Egyptian Red Sea Trade:An International Affair in the Graeco-Roman Period
Debborah Donnelly, MA
   M  u  r  r  a  y   &   W  a  r  m   i  n  g   t  o  n   (   1   9   6   7   )  p .   2   9
Donnelly 2
Although trade on the Red Sea increased substantially during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods,this waterway had been used since the earliest history of dynastic Egypt. I will investigate howtrade changed from the earliest known accounts, along with the establishment of the Nile to RedSea canal and various ports along Egypt’s Eastern Desert shore, concentrating on the sites of Myos Hormos and Berenike. In addition to examining accounts of the classical authors, I willpresent a cursory analysis of Egypt’s trading partners and what material evidence has beenfound. I intend to present some of the objects of foreign origin in the archaeological record,which prove contact with India, Arabia and Africa. The process of trade not only included theability of ships to reach far-off destinations but also the capacity to deal with merchants,governments and foreign languages and cultures.
Early History of Red Sea Trade
Trade on the Red Sea existed long before the Graeco-Roman period. Evidence comesfrom the distant Old Kingdom of expeditions to Punt to gather incense and other exotic items.Egyptian association with the land of Punt begins with a mention of a Puntite slave of one of thesons of Khufu of the Fourth Dynasty.
The first recorded expedition to the land of Punt was inthe Fifth Dynasty by King Sahure.
This was followed by a retainer of King Isesi, Harkhuf,governor of Aswan, who brought back a pygmy. In the Sixth Dynasty, Pepi II wrote a letter toHarkhuf,
which Harkhuf subsequently included into his funerary autobiography:
Breasted (1962: 102-103) lists the earlier associations with Punt.
Sahure’s expedition is the oldest known specific contact between Punt and Egypt as recorded on the PalermoStone. He received electrum and myrrh from the land of Punt. Fragments from the decoration of his tomb at Abusirare interpreted as a representation of the inhabitants of Punt. Tarek el-Awady reports that newly discovered blocksfrom an SCA exploration around the causeway of Sahure in 2002/2003, depict the King planting myrrh trees in hisroyal palace. See also Hawass, Z.; M. Verner (1996) Newly Discovered Blocks from the Causeway of Sahure(Archaeological Report).
52, 177-186.
Breasted, Ancient
Records of Egypt 
Part I § 328f.
Donnelly 3
“You have said...that you have brought a pygmy of the god's dances from the landof the horizon-dwellers, like the pygmy whom the god's seal-bearer Bawerdedbrought from Punt in the time of King Isesi. You have said to my majesty that hislike has never been brought by anyone who went to Yam previously...Come northto the residence at once! Hurry and bring with you this pygmy whom you broughtfrom the land of the horizon-dwellers live, hail and healthy, for the dances of thegod, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of King Neferkare who lives forever!When he goes down with you into the ship, get worthy men to be around him ondeck, least he fall into the water! When he lies down at night, get worthy men to liearound him in his tent. Inspect ten times at night! My majesty desires to see thispygmy more than the gifts of the mine-land and of Punt! When you arrive at theresidence and this pygmy is with you live, hale and healthy, my majesty will dogreat things for you, more than was done for the god's seal-bearer. Bawerded in thetime of King Isesi.” (Breasted, Part I)Pepi II became fascinated with these deeds carried out by his father’s retainer, andordered his own expeditions to Punt. Breasted (1962:103) records that an officer of this pharaoh,“Enenkhet, was killed by Sand-dwellers on the coast, while building a ship for the Punt voyage,and another expedition under the same king was led by the assistant treasurer, Thethy.”In the Middle Kingdom, the Eleventh Dynasty king Mentuhotep III, sent his stewardHenu to obtain incense from Punt, and this detailed the route taken.
 “My lord sent me to conduct seagoing ships to Punt, to bring for him fresh myrrhfrom the chiefs ruling the Red Land…Then I set out from Coptos
…with an armyof 3000 men…I also made twelve wells on the valley floor…Then I reached thesea, and then I built this fleet…When I had returned from the sea I had done whathis majesty had commanded me, bringing for him all kinds of gifts that I had foundon the shores of god’s land.”
(Lichtheim, 1988)In looking for this Middle Kingdom port, A.H. Sayed, director of the University of Alexandria excavations in 1976, discovered evidence of a Twelfth Dynasty port at the outlet of the Wadi Gâwâsis (Map 1). He surveyed this route to verify a site defined by two steles
As described in sixteen lines of hieroglyphs on a rock face in the Wadi Hammamat (Lichtheim, 1988: 52-54).
This is extremely important for showing that the usual route was through the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea wherethe ships would be reassembled to make the voyage south.
Lichtheim correctly notes that ‘this sentence indicates that Henu led the fleet. That he did not describe Punt is theusual practice. No other expedition leader described Punt, or Nubia, or Sinai’ (1988: 53 n.21).

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