Ancient Egypt and Africa by Dr Toby Wilkinson

By Toby Wilkinson

Ancient Egypt’s links with the eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia are well known and much studied, but its connections with the continent of Africa are more obscure. The Nile Valley’s geographical ties to Africa are obvious: and culturally, ancient Egypt owed much to its North African roots. Indeed, anthropologists of the early twentieth century remarked on the African-ness of some key aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, including its defining feature, the doctrine of divine kingship. Such views are rarely expressed today, yet the fact remains that Egypt had every reason, political as well as economic, to take an interest in its African neighbours. In an attempt to re-balance the accustomed view of pharaonic foreign relations, this article looks again at the evidence for ancient Egypt’s interactions with other parts of the African continent.

Relations with Libya can be traced back to the late Predynastic period. The so-called ‘Libyan Palette’ apparently recorded the results of a military skirmish or plunder mission launched by a pre-First Dynasty ruler (c.3100BC) against the Tjehenu. Over the course of pharaonic history, various different names occur in Egyptian texts to refer to the inhabitants of Libya. It is likely that Tjehenu referred to (the people of) eastern coastal Libya and the region immediately to the west of the Nile Delta, while Tjemehu designated the tribes people living further south, in the deserts of the west of Upper Egypt and Nubia. By the late new Kingdom, these names largely disappear from the Egyptian record, to be replaced by the new terms  Ma(shwash) and Libu, both apparently referring to the increasingly urbanised inhabitants of coastal Libya (classical Cyrenaica) with the later term the origin of the name ‘Libya’.

Despite the changing character of Libyan society, reflected in these  changes of terminology, Egypt’s relations with the region as a whole remained fractious: and successive generations of Egyptian rulers regarded their western neighbours with a mixture of condescension and suspicion. Hence, while Narmer (c.3000BC) asserted his superiority by having  himself depicted smiting the Tjehenu, Ramesses II (c.1279-1213BC) took the more practical step of building a series of fortresses along the approaches to the western  Delta (such as Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, currently under excavation)to prevent Libyan infiltration. Yet, despite these defensive measures, Egypt faced a large-scale military invasion by the Libu in the reign of Merenptah. The Battle of Perirer (c.1209BC) marked a turning point in Egyptian-Libyan relations, and sowed the seeds for the eventual take-over of political power in Egypt by Libyan military elite at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty. When a Libyan acceeded to the throne of Horus in c. 975BC, the histories of the two regions effectively became entwined, and remained so throughout the late and Ptolemaic periods.

The fringes of the Sahara may have been the abode of rebellious tribespeople, but that did not stop the ancient Egyptians from exploring the desert and exploiting its abundant mineral resources. The gneiss quarries at Gebel el-Asr in the southern Libyan Desert, 65 kilometres north-west of Abu Simbel, witnessed a frenzy of activity in the reign of Khafra (c.2500BC), when expeditions toiled to extract blocks of the distinctive black-and-white banded rock for the king’s statuary in his valley temple at Giza. Further into the Sahara, evidence has recently come to light for mining and mineral-gathering expeditions of an even more ambitious nature. Late in the reign of Khufu (c.2520BC), an expedition of 400 men left the Dakhla Oasis, heading south-westwards into the desert to collect ‘mefat’, probably a mineral pigment. On arrival at an isolated outcrop of rock, the two overseers in charge of  the expedition, Iymeri and Bebi, carved an inscription recording their exploits, while their men made camp and ate freshly caught and roasted locusts – a handy source of protein in such inhospitable environment.

But even this remote outpost did not represent the furthest reach of the pharaonic state. The desert explorer Carlo Bergmann has discovered a series of about thirty sites with Egyptian pottery from various periods, stretched out along a distance of 350 kilometres all the way from the Dakhla Oasis to Gilf Kebir/Uweinat in the extreme south-west corner of modern Egypt.  They include a site, dubbed Abu Ballas, 200 kilometres beyond Dakhla which, to judge from the quantity of pottery found there, was a re-victualling stop for Egyptian expeditions heading even further into the Sahara – perhaps as far as the Kufra Oaisis in south-eastren Libya or even the Ennedi Mountains of Chad. Clearly the ancient Egyptians of the Fourth Dynasty were seasoned desert explorers, possessed of great self-confidence and a pioneering spirit.

The same sense of adventure characterised the exploration of Upper Nubia (modern Sudan) later in the Old Kingdom, as described in the famous autobiographical inscription of Harkhuf. In the reigns of Merenra and Pepi II (c.2260BC}, Harkhuf made four epic journeys to the far-off kingdom of Yam, a land on the Upper Nile, some 900 kilometres south of Elephantine, perhaps in the vicinity of modern Khartoum – or even further south, along the Shendi Reach of the Nile. As in the Sahara, so in Yam, Egypt’s interest was primarily commercial: although, on the return leg of his second expedition, Harkhuf took the opportunity to report on political developments, too. His third journey is perhaps the most interesting, for instead of following the Nile Harkhuf took the oasis road – the Darb el-Arba’in still used by camel-drivers today. On arrival at Yam, he discovered that the ruler ‘had gone off to Tjemeh-land to smite the Tjemeh to the western corner of heaven’: clearly the Tjemeh had enemies besides the Egyptians. Harkhuf followed the ruler of Yam all the way to Tjemeh-land – a major detour on an already long journey – before returning to Egypt with a Yamite escort for his caravan of 300 donkeys laden with precious products: incense, ebony, precious oil, panther skins and elephants’ tusk.

Of all the products of ‘god’s land’ (the Egyptian name for tropical Africa), none was more precious, however the incense. Made from the resin produced by a species of the Boswellia tree, incense played an important role in ancient Egyptian religious ritual and was both a valuable and a sacred product. At least as early as the Fifth Dynasty, Egypt established a reciprocal trading partnership with the kingdom of Punt on the Red Sea coast (near the modern border between Sudan and Eritrea). Where incense trees grew in abundance. Expeditions to Punt, departing from ports on the Red Sea, are attested throughout pharaonic history, from the reign of Isesi (c.2350BC) to that of Ramesses III (c.1167BC). The most famous expedition was led by the treasurer Nehsi (‘the Nubian’) in the reign of Hatshepsut (c.1460BC), scenes from which are carved on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. The lively tableaux included the Puntites’ stilt-houses, the exotic fauna and flora of their tropical homeland, and the all-important incense trees, taken on board the Egyptian sailing-ships in specially made baskets.

The voyages to Punt underline the ancient Egyptians’ sea-faring skills and their willingness to travel long distances in search of precious commodities. The culmination of these two trends may have occurred in the reign of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty king Nekau II (610-595BC), if the fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus is to be believed. According to his account of Egyptian history, Nekau II’s interests in expanding Egyptian trade were not confined to the digging of a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea. Herodotus recounts how Nekau II sent a fleet of Phoenician sailors – unsurpassed mariners of the ancient world – on a circumnavigation of the Africa. They departed from a Red Sea port, sailed past the Horn of Africa and southwards down the Indian Ocean coast, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and returned to Egypt via the Straits of Gibraltar. The expedition is said to have kept itself fed by landing periodically to sow and harvest crops. According to Herodotus, the whole journey lasted nearly three years.

As with many of Herodotus’ stories, there are compelling cultural and literary arguments against the circumnavigation actually having happened. However, it is striking that, whenever archaeology has illuminated an event or circumstance from Egyptian history described by Herodotus, the Greek historian has invariably been proved right. It is tantalising to consider that he may have been right about Nekau II, too, and that the ancient Egyptians – or at least the Phoenicians in their employ – may have accomplished the feat of sailing right around Africa, two thousand years before Vasco da Gama. If so, the ancient Egyptians knowledge of their continent may have extended beyond Libya, the Sahara and Sudan to encompass the distant shores of Cape Agulhas and Table Bay.

Further reading

Rudolph Kuper and Frank Foster, ‘Khufu’s ‘mefat’ expeditions into the Libyan Desert’’                                        Egyptian Archaeology 23 (2003), pp. 25-28


David O’Connor, ‘Where was the Kingdome of Yam?’, and Dominic Montserrat, ‘Did Necho send a fleet around Africa? in Bill Manley (ed.), The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt {London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), pp. 155-157 and 254-255.                                                                                                                                                            Toby Wilkinson, ‘Egyptian explorers’, in Robin Hanbury-Tenison (ed.), The Seventy Great Journeys in History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), pp.29-32

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