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Ancient Ships: The Ships of Antiquity

Ancient Ships in art history: Egyptian Galleons in ancient Egypt and Egyptian art

Model made from sttudying Illustration from Egyptian history

Egyptian seafaring ships from the 5th Dynasty 2458-2446 BCE

Model made from sttudying Illustration from Egyptian historyThis ship is typical of the vessels used during the reign of Pharaoh Sahure over 4500 years ago in Egyptian history. During this time Egypt's expanding interests in trade goods such as ebony, incense such as Myrrh and frankincense, gold, copper and other useful metals inspired the ancient Egyptians to build suitable ships for navigation of the  open sea. They traded with Lebanon for cedar and traveled the length of the Red Sea to the Kingdom of Punt, which is modern day Ethiopia and Somalia for ebony, ivory and aromatic resins. Ship builders of that era did not use pegs (treenails) or metal fasteners, but relied on rope to keep their ships assembled.  Planks and the superstructure were tightly tied and bound together.

 Historical records and Egyptian art show that Pharaoh Sahure the second king of the 5th Dynasty established an ancient Egyptian navy and sent a fleet to Punt and traded with cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. His pyramid had colonnaded courts and relief sculptures which illustrated his naval fleet and recorded his military career consisting mostly of campaigns against the Libyans in the western desert. He is credited to have begun the cemetery complex at Saqqara and he also had a diorite quarry just west of Abu Simbel.
Model Picture Provided By Hobby World Of Montreal King Sahure's Ship 2458-2446 BCE 5th Dynasty
Ships of the Ancient Egyptians

King Sahure purchased cedar timbers and commissioned the ship builders from the area of the ancient city Byblos to create his ships; the importance of the Phoenician culture in seafaring technologies and trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean should not be underestimated. Bigger ships of seventy to eighty tons displacement suited to long voyages became quite common (In size they can be compared to Columbus's Santa Maria with a displacement of 100 tons or his smaller ships with about fifty tons of displacement). How and where these types of ships were used other than the expeditions where records are available is a matter for speculation and conjecture. The story of the shipped wrecked sailor is but one example that sheds some light on the matter.

Front View of Sahure's ships Circa 2500 BCE

The next ship is a model constructed from illustrations on wall panels at the funerary complex of Hapshetsut. One thousand years of Egyptian history and Egyptian art show the evolution of ship building in Egypt separates these two ships.  It is interesting to make a comparison of the results of shipwrights craft in the two different millennia. Hapshetsut recorded some of the oral history of the ancient Egyptians seafaring history in her funerary chapel, by citing that ancient trading routes had been lost and the trade of certain goods had fallen into the hands of middle men and was no longer under the control of the Egyptians themselves. This commentary gives insight into some of the history that had transpired during those one thousand years.

Egyptian Seagoing Vessel
XVIII Dynasty (1580-1350 B.C.)
August F. Crabtree Collection of Miniature Ships
Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia

A modern model of an Egyptian sea worthy ship created on the basis of information from the funerary temple of Hatshepsut. This model of a 15th century BCE merchant ship was made after  the wall relief at Deir el Bahri. The ship was about 22 meters long and 5 meters wide. It didn't have a wooden keel but got its stability from a thick rope fastened under tension at either extremity of the ship. There were fifteen rowing oars on either side, two connected oars used as rudder, a single mast and a 15-meter wide horizontal sail. The stern was decorated with a carved lotus flower. A major expedition to the Land of Punt (probably modern day Somalia) down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean was undertaken by Queen Hatshepsut.

Another story of seafaring trade is the journey of Wenamen in 2200 BCE, a trading expedition gone wrong in ancient Egypt. This story illustrates the extent to which cultures bordering the seacoasts relied on ships and boats for their transportation and trade. Seafaring was the cheapest , safest and fastest means of transportation, which probably meant the majority of trade in the Mediterranean basin and the red sea was conducted by shipping by boat. In the Eastern Mediterranean cultures generally established cities and towns close to coastlines in order to take advantage of this phenomenon.

    Egyptian Art: Wall Panel at Mendinet Habu showing battle with Sea People
Rameses III recorded his conflict and defeat of the sea peoples at Medinet Habu.

By looking at Egyptian Art it has been possible to reconstruct this model of a 13th century warship. It was made after illustrations on wall panels at Medinet Habu depicting the victory of Ramesis III over the Sea Peoples. One of the best examples of contemporary illustrations of ships in Egytian History, the high bulwarks protected sailors and soldiers from enemy missiles. The wall panels are a rich source of information about costumes weaponry and naval capabilities of the historic time frame of 125o BCE.

Egyptian Ship used during the conflict with the Sea Peoples 1250 BCE A  Galleon from  Ancient Egypt

Eighteen oars gave it the maneuverability, which was a decisive factor in the Egyptian victory.  Like many of ships of the ancient Egyptians, it was not laid up on a keel, but got its structural strength from a gangway-connecting stern to bow. It had a single mast attached to the gangway connecting stern to bow. The single mast was hung with a horizontal sail. The stern was decorated with a lion's head crushing a human skull.

The model below of a Philistine man of war was equally constructed according to the information gleaned from Medinet Habu wall panels. This is the kind of vessel the Sea Peoples would have used in their attempt to invade Egypt in 1280 BCE.  This implies that this kind of ship may have been used and available to the entire confederation of Sea Peoples, therefore this kind of vessel structure may have been used throughout the Aegean and Black Sea Regions.  Its lack of dependence on rowing oars may have been a distinct disadvantage in the confined space of the Nile delta where they must have been incapable of using their ram against the more maneuverable Egyptian vessels. This also indicates that this design was not created primarily for military use. The sea people depended heavily on land forces for the success of their military campaigns. Although not as effective in its design for Naval battles this ships overall structural design was superior to that of the ancient Egyptians ships, having a proper keel and body ribs to make the hull ridged.

Modern model of a ship of the sea peoples created after the illustrations on wall panels at Mendinet Habu. Circa 1250 BCE . The model is at the Haifa Naval Museum, Israel.

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