Closest Contact . Probably the area of the ancient Near East to which the Egyptians traveled most often was Syria-Palestine, their neighbor to the immediate northeast. Inhabitants of this region were constantly coming into Egypt as well. Many of these people were nomads who were attracted to Egypt during times when climatic or political conditions in Syria-Palestine made life there difficult.
Earliest Contacts . It seems clear that contacts with Syria-Palestine began before the pharaoh Narmer created a united Egyptian state. The lower Egyptian site of Maadi (named for a nearby suburb of modern Cairo) showed that between 3600 and 3000 b.c.e., Lower Egyptians were heavily involved in trade with both Sinai and southern Palestine. Remains of houses at Maadi suggest that the buildings were similar to houses built in southern Palestine and point to the possibility that foreign traders lived there. Ceramics from Palestine have been found at Maadi, as well as some of the earliest remains of domesticated donkeys. This practice suggests the possibility of overland transportation between Maadi and southern Palestine. These traders may have come to purchase copper, which was being refined at Maadi.
Egyptians in Palestine . Traces of Egyptian interest in Palestine appear quite early, as far back as the Palestinian Neolithic period (sixth or fifth millenniums b.c.e.), when the first possibly Egyptian artifacts are found. Strong evidence for an identifiable Egyptian presence in Palestine, however, really begins around 3000 b.c.e. at the time of the transition to the Egyptian Dynasty 1 (the period called Early Bronze Age I by archaeologists of Syria-Palestine). Large numbers of Egyptian pottery vessels are seen in Early Bronze Age I Palestine, many bearing the name in Egyptian hieroglyphs of Narmer. Small ivory carvings from Egypt may well record these trade contacts between Egypt and Palestine—they show men with pointed beards, probably Palestinians, carrying pottery vessels that appear to represent imports from Palestine. It is difficult to say precisely how transportation between Egypt and Palestine was conducted in the early Dynasty 1/Early Bronze Age period. Most of the sites containing definite Egyptian artifacts have been discovered inland. Thus, it seems more likely that much of the trade between the two regions was conducted overland.
Syria-Palestine and Egypt after the First Dynasty. The nature of Egyptian relations with Syria-Palestine in the earliest phases of its dynastic history is not easy to reconstruct. It is not certain, for example, whether the Egyptians who brought jars inscribed with the name of Narmer were traders or conquerors. There is more definite evidence that Egypt, at least occasionally during the Old Kingdom, sent armies to Palestine. The most famous example of this activity is the autobiography of a Dynasty 6 official named Weni, an older contemporary of Harkhuf. Among Weni’s achievements was his generalship of an army that was sent out five times against the “Sand Dwellers,” who were either desert nomads or who lived on the desert fringes. The reference to a place called “Antelope Nose” as a target of Weni’s activities has led some to propose that his forces actually went far up the Palestinian coast to Mt. Carmel. This area is a projection into the Mediterranean that is about as far north as the Sea of Galilee, or about one hundred miles from the modern Egyptian frontier with Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Contacts by Sea. Weni’s army traveled north partly by land, partly by sea. The best evidence suggests that most contact between Egypt and southern Palestine was over land during Dynasty 1. But there was seagoing trade between Egypt and Palestine from an early date. The Sahure relief sculptures show ships that are probably “Byblos,” the type of vessels that were used in trade between Egypt and the city of Byblos in modern Lebanon. One of the most important commodities that the Egyptians wanted from Byblos was good Lebanese timber of pine and cedar. In fact, Lebanese cedar was being imported into Egypt as early as Dynasty 1. The easiest way to transport large logs from Lebanon to Egypt would have been by sea—was there, then, a regular seaborne trade in Lebanese timber from the earliest days of the unified Egyptian state? So far there is no proof, but it does not seem to be impossible.
The Middle Kingdom and Later. In the Middle Kingdom there was special concern on the part of the Egyptians to prevent too much infiltration of nomads from Syria-Palestine, and a series of border fortresses called the “Walls of the Ruler” was constructed to control the frontier. These fortresses were, however, unsuccessful in stopping Palestinian immigration, and ultimately these immigrants set up an independent dynasty (the “Hyksos” dynasty, or Dynasty 15) in the Egyptian Delta and exercised control over large areas of northern Egypt. During the Egyptian New Kingdom, the “Ways of Horus,” the road from Egypt into Palestine, carried many Egyptian traders, soldiers, and diplomats into Palestine. But sea trade flourished as well— several fine New Kingdom relief sculptures showing Syrian ships at port in Egypt have been found, and Egyptian texts refer to a lively trade being carried on between Egypt and its Palestinian vassal states. This trade continued until at least the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom, around 1050 b.c.e. From this time comes an amusing tale about an Egyptian envoy who booked passage on a ship to Lebanon in order to purchase wood for renovations to the sacred river barge of the god Amun.
Amnon Ben-Tor, “The Early Bronze Age,” in The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, edited by Ben-Tor, translated by R. Greenberg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992; Tel Aviv: Open University of Israel, 1992), pp. 81–125.
Michael A. Hoffmann, Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization (New York: Knopf, 1979), pp. 201–209.
Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 BC, volume I (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 161–182, 317-331.
Samuel Mark, From Egypt to Mesopotamia: A Study of Predynastic Trade Routes (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998; London: Chatham, 1998).