Flourished Circa 2485-2472 b.c.e.
King, Dynasty 5
Trade Promoter . Sahure, the second king of Dynasty 5 (2500-2350 b.c.e.), commissioned the earliest known oceangoing ships. Sahure’s reign is credited with the earliest detailed representations of the types of seagoing vessels that were in use on the Mediterranean during the years of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Early Egyptian annals mention that Sahure promoted trade all over the Egyptian world. He sent expeditions to the Sinai Peninsula and to the fabled East African land of Punt (probably in the vicinity of modern Somalia). Inscriptions also show that he sent miners for special hard stone far to the south of ancient Egypt, to the vicinity of the modern Egyptian-Sudanese border.
“Byblos” ships? What was the Egyptian name for the ships seen on Sahure’s relief sculptures? It is often assumed that these vessels are the type called “Byblos” ships, named after the Lebanese city of Byblos with which the Egyptians had close trade relations. Inscriptions over the ships do not identify them by type—the main reason they are identified as “Byblos” ships is that there are men aboard them with pointed beards, a non-Egyptian style of wearing facial hair that in Egyptian art is usually associated with men from Syria-Palestine. But there are still a few questions that scholars would like to answer. They really have no idea why certain ships were called “Byblos.” Was it because they were built in or near Byblos? Or was it because they were the type of ship that customarily traded with Byblos, much like in nineteenth-century America, when ships that sailed from the United States to east Asia were called “China Clippers”? One thing that can be said about Byblos ships in the Old Kingdom is that they were not confined to the Egypt-Byblos route. In fact, the earliest reference places them on the Red Sea, heading toward the East African land of Punt.
Anatomy of a Ship . What were these seagoing ships like? A plausible estimate suggests that they were fifty feet long, if the human figures aboard are drawn approximately to scale— if they are too big, then the ships might have ranged up to one hundred feet in length. The ships probably did not have any keel, or backbone, to make the hull rigid and keep it from bending and sagging as it traveled over the moving surface of the water. (This flexing of a wooden hull as it passes over waves and troughs is called hogging.) Instead, the Egyptians held the ends of their ship up with a heavy rope cable (called a “hogging truss”), tied to each end of the vessel, which they could twist to maintain proper tension. Another unusual aspect of these ships, from the point of view of modern sailing-vessel construction, is that they had “bi-pod” masts. The masts had two legs, unlike the single-pole masts that were more common in Egypt and are in almost universal use today for sailing craft. The bi-pod mast had the advantage of not putting all the weight of the rigging onto a single point in the bottom of the hull. Finally, although this detail is not completely visible in the Sahure relief sculptures, scholars know that Egyptian wooden boats and ships were literally sewn together, rather than nailed like modern wooden vessels. Channels were cut into the interior surfaces of planks, and heavy ropes were threaded through them to tie planks to each other—a practice that is rare but was actually still in use in the twentieth century c.e. for the construction of local freighters on the Indian Ocean.
Björn Landstrom, Ships of the Pharaohs: 4000 Years of Egyptian Shipbuilding (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970; London: Allen & Unwin, 1970), pp. 63–69.
Steve Vinson, Egyptian Boats and Ships (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, U.K.: Shire Publications, 1994), pp. 23–24.
Cheryl A. Ward, Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats (Boston: University Museum for the Archaeological Institute of America, 1999).