The ancient Egyptians were the "Kings of the Nile", but more than 4,500 years ago they were also the "Monarchs of the Seas".
Widespread seafaring trading began in earnest when Queen Hatshepsut became Regent, or Head of State, of Egypt after her husband, the Pharaoh, died and she then took over the Pharaoh's role from her son. The temple Amen priests were upset with her power and she appeased them by building huge cargo ships to bring back rare and scarce incense from the Land of Punt. The grateful priests used the incense in their ceremonies, so they granted the Queen the right to rule as a Pharaoh, and she ruled the Land of Kent (Egypt) for over 22 years, during a time of peace and prosperity.
At Hatshepsut's funerary temple at Luxor on the way to the Valley of Kings are carved bas relief scenes of the various stages of constructions of her magnificent cargo ships that were about 66 feet in length. The highly detailed pictographs showed the ships had a single mast with 12 hoops running down each side of the mast for the unusual rigging that held either one large rectangular sail or a shorter, square sail.
Carvings at Queen Hatshepsut's funerary
temple left clues to ancient ship building.
The shipwrights built Hatshepsut's ships on the Nile and then disassembled them and carried the pieces by donkey train 90 miles NE to the empire's Red Sea port at Mersa Gawasis.
Recently, archaeologists unearthed two of Pharaoh Khufu's ceremonial ships in a limestone pit near the Great Pyramid at Giza. Khufu's (Cheops) two ships were in pieces, but perfectly preserved and modern shipwrights were able to garner valuable information on how the Egyptians built their ships.
A modern felucca.
Cedar trunks were imported from Lebanon. A keel was laid but they built their ships with no ribs or skeletons, but used a double mortise and tenon method for the skins or outside planking; Hatshepsut's cargo ships had 45 planks to a side. The planks were not bended like today, but each plank was hand carved to fit in place with the tool of the day — the adz. Holes were drilled for ropes, threaded through the planks to keep them interlocked in place.
Even though cedar is high in resin, the space between the planks was caulked with beeswax and strips of linen cloth (also used in caulking furniture and coffins) and then the cargo ships were sunk in sea water to swell the wood, making them water tight when refloated. There are few surviving ancient Egyptian shipwrecks because sea worms (a type of mollusk) ate the wood, but stone anchors are frequently discovered.
Feluccas ply the tourist trade on the Nile.
Hatshepsut's ships were beamy, tubby, rounded at the beam, and heavy. Horizontal beams supported the deck. The single mast had two yardarms with the sail lashed between them. The ships swayed and rocked due to a high center of gravity, but once the sail was furled it stabilized due to the sand ballast. The merchants used no pulleys to raise the sail, it was hard, tedious work by hand. Rope is still manufactured in the streets of Cairo the traditional way with fibers twisted together.
A pair of giant steering oars were lashed to the stern. Trade winds blew from the north at certain seasons and from the south in certain seasons. It was 800 miles to the wonderful land of Punt (thought to be modern Sudan) and the voyage took about two months going and longer coming back. The merchant ships could hit a speed of about 12 knots with a steady wind.
Sailing below Valley of Kings cliffs.
The prominent boat built for the Nile trade was the felucca, still used today because of its shallow draught and lightness and maneuverability in the whimsical winds. But the ancient temple builders also had large cargo ships on the Nile, as evidenced again by carvings at Pharaoh Hatshepsut's temple. These huge ships could carry two large obelisks or columns down river from the granite quarry at Aswan. The length to width ratio was 2:1 and they apparently worked — the temples at Luxor are the evidence.
Felucca sailing is a must do adventure when visiting Egypt. Great Safaris (www.greatsafaris.com) arranged a day trip out of the Luxor Sonesta Hotel's felucca dock and I was off for an afternoon on the Bob Marley with my sailing fellâhs, Saheed, the helmsman, and his cousin, Simbel, the navigator.
Saheed, the helmsman, Simbel the navigator.
The river stretches away before us, smooth as a pond. Saheed used a pulley and flung out the big triangular lateen sail which caught the first puff of a light but fitful breeze. The sail shook her wings free, the felucca shot ahead, and in fewer minutes than it takes to tell, we all three were scudding along with big grins on our faces.
The lateen sail (meaning Latin) was developed during the Roman era and sometimes feluccas sported two sails on a single mast that angled, or raked, forward sharply, with the triangular sail hanging down from a long, two-piece yardarm. The ancient feluccas were also built in the style of the double mortise and tenon method. Most feluccas today cater to the tourist trade, but it was the workhorse of the Nile in ancient Egypt.
A lateen or Latin sail.
No ancient or modern felucca sailor counted the Nile by miles, but he counts by time, and by the reaches in the river. We had no priority, but if we had, it takes a short two days to sail from Luxor to Aswan and about a week from Luxor to Cairo.
The breezes set a silent automatic course to the luxury Luxor suburb — Rumbah Island, which means beach in Arabic. Simbel pointed out enormous and expensive flats and villas that are rented to the upper crust. Young Egyptian boys swam in the shallows, with no fear of crocs, they had all been shot or trapped out below the Aswan high dam. The Nile was shallow around Rumbah Island because the spring floods (now a controlled release) had not been vented yet from the dam.
A Nile ferry berths near a Rumbah Island palace.
A lazy day on the Nile.
In ancient times the highest rise of the Nile each year at Semneh was registered by a mark indicating the year of the king's reign, cut in granite, either on one of the blocks forming the foundation of the fortress, or on the cliff, and particularly on the east or right bank, as best adapted for the purpose. Of these markings 18 still remain, 13 of them having been made in the reign of Mœris (Amenemhat III) and five in the time of his next two successors. The highest recorded flood was about 24 feet above the natural embankment.
The Bob Marley bumped up on a sandbar but a felucca can sail in any direction, even backwards. Simbel pulled out a punt pole but before he could act a breeze blew us back into higher water — about two feet.
We enjoyed high tea in style.
Saheed rushed about and prepared sweet high tea spiked with mint, a hot and welcome refreshment even in a hot clime, but we were protected by the sun by a canvas bimini; the breezes across the Nile kept us comfortable.
There were numerous powerboat ferries rushing about this part of the Nile but we were in no hurry. "It is a lazy day," I stated. "What is lazy?" asked Saheed. "Lazy is when you don't have to work," I said. Saheed said, "Simbel is always lazy." Simbel's smile was a sign of agreement and we all laughed.
The boatmen later dropped me off at the Grand Corniche, where the luxury cruise ships are berthed, opposite the Luxor Temple. Saheed and Simbel grew up in a small village on Rumbah Island and they quietly sailed home into the Nile shimmer with Saheed doing most of the work, I am certain; I made a note in my mental journal to return for fishing for Nile perch on the Bob Marley. I also had the great opportunity for felucca sailing in Aswan to Lord Kitchner's Island. Make it a point to sail with Great Safaris somewhere on the Nile; it is a modern history lesson of ancient Nile-faring. Great Safaris includes Queen Hatshepsut's Temple in their tours around Luxor.
Felucca sailing in Aswan.
Great Safaris’ Great Egyptian Discovery package takes all-inclusive to the next level, adding a full time private Egyptologist escort to the standard inclusions of accommodations, meals, and activities. Great Safaris takes care of all the planning and logistics, all travelers need to do is make it to the airport on time. Pricing for the Great Egyptian Discovery is based on double occupancy, depending on level of accommodations and seasonality. Check out Great Safaris at www.greatsafaris.com
Historic sailing on an ancient river.