Sinai Desert Expeditions

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Sinai Desert Expeditions


Raw Materials. The Egyptians exploited the Sinai Desert for raw materials, mining lead, tin, galena, some gold, and most important, turquoise. The first known turquoise jewelry was discovered in the tomb of Djer, second king of Dynasty 1 (circa 3000-2800 b.c.e.). Thus, Djer’s reign probably marks the beginning of Egyptian Sinai expeditions.

Permanent Settlements. The bedouin native to this region impeded Egyptian exploitation of Sinai. Beginning with King Den (fourth king of Dynasty 1), royal inscriptions mentioned pacification of the Sinai Bedouin. In Dynasty 3 (circa 2675-2625 b.c.e.), inscriptions continued at the mines in Sinai but it was only in Dynasty 4 (circa 2625-2500 b.c.e.) that the Egyptians established a permanent settlement there. King Sneferu received much of the credit for inaugurating a long period of peace in the region and establishing permanent installations at the copper, turquoise, and malachite mines of Wadi Nasb and Wadi Maghara. Later, in the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.), a Cult of Sneferu was established there, attesting to his importance for the Egyptians who worked and lived in Sinai. Four kings of Dynasty 5 (circa 2500-2350 b.c.e.)—Sahure, Nyuserre, Menkauhor, and Djedkare Isesi—left inscriptions at the Sinai mines. These inscriptions demonstrate that the Egyptians of this period made regular expeditions to the area.


When the New Kingdom was on the point of collapse around 1050 B. C. E., a story was written about an Egyptian envoy who had been sent to Lebanon to purchase timber for some restoration work on the great sacred river barge of the god Amun, Egypt’s national god during this period. Opinions have differed through the years as to whether the account of Wenamun’s voyage is a work of fiction or a genuine report produced by Wenamun himself; the balance of opinion today is that the tale is a literary work, not an administrative document. What is perhaps most surprising about the tale is that it contains unmistakable elements of satire directed at Egypt itself and its loss of influence in Syria-Palestine, an area which for the previous five hundred years had normally been under Egypt’s political and military thumb. The following passage provides unusual insight into the true nature of trade in the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian royal propaganda held that, because all the world outside of Egypt was under perpetual Egyptian domination, foreign products brought into Egypt were tribute, surrendered up by over-awed barbarians through fear of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Yet, in the tale of Wenamun, the reader sees that the mundane reality was far different: even when Egypt was militarily and politically strong, Egyptians normally paid for their imports, and Wenamun was going to have to do the same. In this extract, Wenamun speaks in the first person, reporting his conversation with the prince of the Lebanese city of Byblos:

He spoke to me, saying: “On what business have you come?” I said to him: “I have come in quest of the timber for the great noble barge of Amun-Re, King of the Gods. What your father did, what the father of your father did, you too will do it.” So I said to him. He said to me: “True, they did it. If you pay me for doing it, I will do it too. My relations carried out this business after Pharaoh had sent six ships laden with the goods of Egypt, and they had been unloaded into their storehouses. You, what have you brought to me?” He had the account books of his forefathers brought and had it read before me. They found entered in his book a thousand deben and all sorts of things. He said to me: “If the ruler of Egypt were the lord of what is mine and I were his servant, he would not have sent silver and gold. It was not a royal gift that was given to my father! I, too, am not your servant, nor am I the servant of him who sent you!”

Source: Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 224-230.

Maintaining Control. The lack of Egyptian inscriptions in the Sinai during the First Intermediate Period (circa 2130-1980 b.c.e.) shows that the Egyptians only exploited the Sinai when there was a strong central government. Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II reasserted Egyptian claims to Sinai when he established the Middle Kingdom. He had to resubdue the Bedouin in order to make the trade routes in Sinai safe for the Egyptians to use. Amenemhet or Ammenemes I also reported expeditions to subdue the Bedouin, a sign that Egyptian control was not yet complete at the beginning of Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.). However, by the reign of Amenemhet III, there was a permanent settlement at Serabit el Khadim including houses, fortifications, wells, cemeteries, and a temple for Hathor. Amenemhet IV constructed additional buildings there.

New Kingdom Rulers. Again in the Second Intermediate Period (circa 1630-1539/1523 b.c.e.) the absence of a strong central government in Egypt corresponded with the absence of contemporary Egyptian inscriptions in Sinai. As soon as King Ahmose established the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.), his wife Ahmose-Nefertari’s name was inscribed at Serabit el Khadim. She also had turquoise jewelry, showing that the mines were reopened at the beginning of the New Kingdom. Other New Kingdom rulers were attested at the Sinai mines. They include Hatshepsut, Ramesses I, Sety I, Queen Twosre (wife of Siptah), Ramesses III, and Ramesses V. Egyptian exploitation of the mines ended in the New Kingdom.


Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997).

Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London & New York: Routledge, 1991).

David O’Connor, “New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, 1552-664 BC,” in Ancient Egypt: A Social History, edited by Bruce G. Trigger and others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.)