Knowledge of Geography

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Knowledge of Geography



Limited Worldview. The Egyptians’ knowledge of geography was restricted to Egypt itself and the eastern Mediterranean. The primary sources preserving Egyptian knowledge of geography are lists of place-names and relief sculptures that depicted foreign countries.

Lists of Place-Names. Egyptian student scribes learned the names of Egyptian towns and foreign locations by

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memorizing lists. The best-known example of such a list was prepared on papyrus by a scribe named Amenemope during Dynasty 20 (circa 1190–1075 b.c.e.). The geographical list is included along with lists of names of things in the sky, earth, and water; names of persons, offices, and occupations; names of classes, tribes, and types of humans; names of buildings; and names of foodstuff, beverages, and types of meat. There is a logical order to the list. The towns of Upper Egypt are arranged in the list from south to north. The towns of Lower Egypt, however, have no order that modern scholars have recognized. This list was used by students to learn how to spell place-names and to learn where towns were located in relation to each other.

Inscriptions. The lists of foreign countries and towns were carved on temple walls and on statues. They first appeared at the beginning of Dynasty 18 in the reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 b.c.e.), though they might have been based on lists first made in the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980–1630 b.c.e.). Typically, the purpose of the lists was to allow the king or a god to magically protect Egypt from foreigners.

Accuracy. The lists were organized in sections that recorded the names of towns, regions, or ethnic groups. The sections grouped peoples in Africa, the Near East, or the Aegean Islands. Though some lists seem traditional, depending on earlier lists, King Shoshenq I (circa 945–924 b.c.e.) updated the older list of towns in Syria-Palestine used in the New Kingdom (circa 1539–1075 b.c.e.) to make a modern list of towns. As far as they can be verified, the lists appear to be accurate.

Translating the Text. The great difficulty with the lists of foreign names is to understand what the scribe was trying to convey. The names of foreign places, of course, were not in the Egyptian language. The hieroglyphic signs were used to try to convey syllables that represented a non-Egyptian language. It has sometimes proved difficult to understand their meanings unless they can be compared

to local texts. Thus, the Near Eastern names can sometimes be verified from the Bible or from texts written in Babylonia and Assyria. The Aegean and African place-names are more difficult to understand because the ancient languages of those places are less understood today.

Logical Arrangements. Even with this difficulty, it seems safe to assume that the lists were arranged in geographical order along roads or routes. The Near Eastern lists, for example, follow known routes from Egypt to Syria. The same organizing principle probably applied to lists of African place-names, perhaps following the Nile River southward.

Expeditions. Exploration in ancient Egypt was related to military and commercial expeditions. There is no recorded instance of exploration in search of knowledge, though some information on foreign lands and cultures was gained from these trips. In the late Old Kingdom (circa 2675–2130 b.c.e.) Harkhuf and Weni traded with Nubia and also made claims that they had explored new roads to the south. Trade expeditions to the land of Punt in Ethiopia were recorded in Hatshepsut’s reign (circa 1478/1472–1458 b.c.e.). The relief sculptures carved on the walls of her Mortuary Temple are keenly observed. They show the typical thatched huts on stilts of the area and the local flora and fauna. Military expeditions to Syria-Palestine led Thutmose Ill’s artists to record the unusual plants that they observed there, though the degree of fantasy in these representations is still debated. Herodotus’s claim that Necho II (circa 610–595 b.c.e.) sent an expedition around Africa is not accepted by scholars.


The Egyptians described foreign places in terms of Egypt. Thus, the rivers of Mesopotamia ran “backwards,” from north to south unlike the Nile, which runs south to north. Some parts of Syria-Palestine were described as “difficult” because they were hilly, unlike the Nile valley and delta. Sometimes, though, the Egyptians could appreciate the beauty of another place. In the epoch poem called Sinuhe, the hero described what he saw in the Land of Yaa, modern Syria-Palestine:

It was a wonderful land called Yaa. There were cultivated figs in it and grapes, and more wine than water. Its honey was abundant, and its olive trees numerous. On its trees were all varieties of fruit. There were emmer corn and barley, and there was no end to all varieties of cattle.

Sources: “The Story of Sinuhe,” translated by R. O. Faulkner in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 63.


Hermann Kees, Ancient Egypt, A Cultural Topography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

William J. Murnane, The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1983).

Ian Shaw, ed., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).