Ancient Egyptian Navy

Predynastic through Middle Kingdom

The use of river vessels and ships in Egyptian warfare is as old as conflict in Egypt itself, though probably at first there was little capability for sea travel. The Nile was always the principal means of transport in Egypt, and the sailing and construction of boats can be traced back to the papyrus rafts of the Predynastic Period. Boats (see also Bargues, Barges and Byblos Boats) were commonly depicted in red paint on the buff colored pottery of the Naqada II Period.

Ancient Egyptian Navy

Ancient Egyptian Navy


 Ancient Egyptian Navy

The very earliest naval battle is depicted on the carved relief decoration of a Naqada II ivory knife handle that was found at Gebel al-Arak. It shows boats with high, straight prows and sterns, usually interpreted as foreign vessels. The early Nile boats used for military purposes seem to have been primarily used for the transportation of troops up and down the Nile, and indeed, Egypt's early conflicts were mostly internal control issues.

We do find reliefs in the 5th Dynasty mortuary temple of King Sahure at Abusir depicting a sea-borne fleet that is said to have transported his army to Syria, and in the 6th Dynasty, the official Weni is said to have taken troops to Palestine in vessels described as nmiw (traveling ships).

Keelless seagoing vessels like those during the time of King Sahure (2500 BCE) traded with the Phoenician cities, importing cedar wood, Asiatic slaves and other merchandise. They were also sent as the first Egyptian trade expedition to the Land of Punt.  The bipedal mast carried a vertical sail, and the bow was decorated with an eye.  The bow was decorated with an eye.

However, most Egyptian vessels were not suitable for sailing in the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. The idea of sea going ships was probably imported from the Levantine seaboard, and most likely from the region of Byblos. There was certainly a strong connection in the Egyptian minds between Byblos and naval activity, since the most common word for an Egyptian sea vessel was kbnt, literally meaning "Byblos-boat".

Sea going boats used by both the Egyptians and their neighbors were relatively simple, consisting of a rectangular sail and usually one or two rudder oars. However, the Palermo Stone records the construction of a ship fifty two meters in length during the reign of king Sneferu of the 3rd Dynasty, and in the 5th Dynasty tomb of Ti at Saqqara, boat builders are depicted at work on another very large vessel.

The New Kingdom

In the New Kingdom, we see a much reorganized Egyptian Army, becoming more professional, whereas before, it was often not a standing army, but rather an army mostly made up of conscripts. Prior to the New Kingdom, Egypt's navy was probably made up mostly of ships and boats that served a dual purpose, operating as commercial vessels when not utilized for war. We know most about the navy during the New Kingdom, when there was considerable activity, including actual sea battles. Yet even then, the "navy" was not seen as a separate service of the Egyptian military, and it was mostly used for amphibious operations.

During this period, Egypt's navy was extensive. Despite the fact that Egypt had a long history of building boats, including large sea going vessels during the New Kingdom, we find, for example in the Amarna Letters, a request from to the King of Alashiya (Cyprus) to built ships for the Egyptian navy. Bigger ships of seventy to eighty tons suited to long voyages became quite common (In size they might be compared to Columbus's Santa Maria with a displacement of 100 tons or his smaller ships with about fifty). Egyptian squadrons composed of speedy keftiu, kebentiu from Byblos and Egyptian transports patrolled the eastern Mediterranean.

The very earliest New Kingdom pharaohs, specifically Kamose and Ahmose, conducted naval operations in their war against the Hyksos, and later Tuthmosis III had a large fleet built at the royal dockyard at Perunefer, near Memphis. Those ships were used to transport elements of the army along the coast to ports in the Lebanon on a number of occasions in support of his operations against the city states of southern Syria and Mitanni. Many of those ships were actually converted cargo vessels. Unlike the later Greeks who developed special naval techniques (used also by Late Period Egypt), maritime battles by New Kingdom Egyptians and their opponents, often the Sea People, were fought by seaborne land troops, who were trained in marine operations.

The Egyptian deployment of archers and the fact that Egyptian ships could both be sailed and rowed, gave them a decisive advantage, despite the inferiority of the vessels themselves, which were at times quite sizable and carried up to two hundred and fifty soldiers. However, most Egyptian ships carried a crew of about fifty marines. Though essentially all fighting men, about 20 members of the crew would be delegated to row the vessel while the remainder formed the combat troops for a seagoing battle. These battles would be fought at a very close range, as the marines would attempt to rake the enemy vessel with arrows and sling shots. Other elements would throw grappling hooks into the riggings of the opponent ships with the object of either capsizing or boarding the enemy ships.

When boarding the enemy ship, the Egyptians would then use spears for close order thrusting while under cover of archery from their own ship. Models of the ships used to defeat the sea people show Egyptian vessels with high bulwarks that could protect sailors and soldiers from enemy projectiles. In these examples, eighteen oars gave the ships the maneuverability which was a decisive factor in the Egyptian victory.  Like all Egyptian ships of this period, it was not laid on a keel, but got its structural strength from a gangway connecting stern to bow. It had a single mast with a horizontal sail. The bow was decorated with a lion's head crushing a human skull.  It was a transport system that pharaohs such as Tuthmosis III employed with great success.

The Late Period

However, Egypt lost its role of maritime superpower after the end of the New Kingdom. Continental powers like the Persians used these sea-faring nations to impose their control on the seas.  King Necho II (609-594 BCE) invested huge sums in the development of an Egyptian war fleet. According to Herodotus he had triremes built in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Some scholars think that the ships he built were biremes and the development of the trireme took place in the next century and was part of the Egyptian war effort against Persia.

It was unsuccessful and thereafter its fleet was at the behest of the foreign power controlling the country. Dozens of Egyptian ships were incorporated into the Persian fleet fighting the Greeks. The last of the Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII joined forces with the Roman Marc Antony, in an attempt to preserve Egypt's independence. But her fleet was defeated at Actium, which spell the end of pharaonic Egypt.

Tutankhamun's vulture necklace

When the kingdom of Upper Egypt conquered predynastic Lower Egyptian kingdom and the two crowns were united, it was natural that the principal deities of the conquerors should accompany and expand their kingdoms accordingly. One of these deities Nekhbet was the vulture-goddess, whose shrine was Nekheb (Elkhab) on the eastern bank of the Nile, opposite Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), the capital of the Kings in Upper Egypt, whose patron god was Horus.

 Most likely, it was the proximity to the capital of Nekheb the first that it is desirable that local leaders to recognize the goddess in return for recognition, they received his protection. In his capacity as protector royal, she could not fail to gain kudos from the successful conquest of his protege, Menes. His position as patron goddess of the kings of United Egypt was firmly established in the early Dynastic period and was unchanged by political and religious changes, except in the Amarna period, throughout history Egyptian.

The flexible gold necklace, which represents the vulture Nekhbet, the goddess was placed on the chest of the mummy of King so it covered the whole of the chest and extended upwards on the shoulders. The long wings, set in a circular, are divided into districts, which are composed of 250 segments, with feathers on the back engraved and inlaid on the front with colored glass in imitation of turquoise, jasper and lapis lazuli. The segments were held together by son who passed through small golden eyes protruding from their upper and lower edges.  

On one side of each segment, except in the district known as blankets least - at the top of the wing near the body - there is a border of gold beads that divides minute feathers of those of its neighbor . The bird's body is embedded in the same way as the coverts, while the tail feathers resemble the primary and secondary districts wings. Both the beak and the eye in the head are made of delicately carved obsidian. In each of the bird's talons grasps the hieroglyphic sign shen, reading and inlaid blue glass. A counterweight shaped flowers mankhet, which was attached by the son of Gold eyelets at the rear wings, attached to the back of the mummy.

Necklaces and collars were placed on Egyptian mummies, not as ornaments, but to provide magical protection. They were also represented on the cartonnage covers of mummies and on the lids of anthropoid coffins. Among the many charms collar painted on the walls of rectangular wooden coffins dating from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC) are four gold and encrusted on the outer surface shaped to represent a hawk, vulture, cobra wings, combined and the vulture and the cobra.  

Tutankhamun's mummy, which was more than half a millennium later in the date of these coffins, was equipped with all these necklaces inlaid with the exception of the neck of the cobra, in addition to all the four leaf necklaces gold without inlay. They were purely funeral of character and very different from that of pearl necklaces or gold worn in life.

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