Peeps at Ancient Egypt - Jamse Baikie

A Voyage of Discovery

About 3,500 years ago, there reigned a great Queen in Egypt. It was not usual for the Egyptian throne to be occupied by a woman, though great respect was always shown to women in Egypt, and the rank of a King's mother was considered quite as important as that of his father. But once at least in her history Egypt had a great Queen, whose fame deserves to be remembered, and who takes honourable rank among the great women, like Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria, who have ruled kingdoms.

During part of her life Queen Hatshepsut was only joint sovereign along with her husband, and in the latter part of her reign she was joint sovereign with her half-brother or nephew, who succeeded her; but for at least twenty years she was really the sole ruler of Egypt, and governed the land wisely and well.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened in her reign was the voyage of discovery which she caused to be made by some ships of her fleet. Centuries before her time, when the world was young, the Egyptians had made expeditions down the Red Sea to a land which they sometimes called Punt, and sometimes "The Divine Land." Probably it was part of the country that we now know as Somaliland. But for a very long time these voyages had ceased, and people only knew by hearsay, and by the stories of ancient days, of this wonderful country that lay away by the Southern Sea.

One day, the Queen tells us, she was at prayers in the temple of the god Amen at Thebes, when she felt a sudden inspiration. The god was giving her a command to send an expedition to this almost forgotten land. "A command was heard in the sanctuary, a behest of the god himself, that the ways which lead to Punt should be explored, and that the roads to the Ladders of Incense should be trodden." In obedience to this command, the Queen at once equipped a little fleet of the quaint old galleys that the Egyptians then used, and sent them out, with picked crews, and a royal envoy in command, to sail down the Red Sea, in search of the Divine Land. The ships were laden with all kinds of goods to barter with the Punites, and a guard of Egyptian soldiers was placed on board.

Egyptian Galley


We do not know how long it took the little squadron to reach its destination. Sea voyages in those days were slow and dangerous. But at last the ships safely reached the mouth of the Elephant River in Somaliland, and went up the river with the tide till they came to the village of the natives. They found that the Punites lived in curious beehive-shaped houses, some of them made of wicker-work, and placed on piles, so that they had to climb into them by ladders. The men were not negroes, though some negroes lived among them; they were very much like the Egyptians in appearance, wore pointed beards, and were dressed only in loincloths, while the women wore a yellow sleeveless dress, which reached halfway between the knee and ankle.

Nehsi, the royal envoy, landed with an officer and eight soldiers, and, to show that he came in peace, he spread out on a table some presents for the chief of the Punites—five bracelets, two gold necklaces, a dagger, with belt and sheath, a battle-axe, and eleven strings of glass beads—much such a present as a European explorer might give to-day to an African chief. The natives came down in great excitement to see the strangers who had brought such treasures, and were astonished at the arrival of such a fleet. "How is it," they said, "that you have reached this country, hitherto unknown to men? Have you come by way of the sky, or have you sailed on the waters of the Divine Sea?" The chief, who was called Parihu, came down with his wife Aty, and his daughter. Aty rode down on a donkey, but dismounted to see the strangers, and, indeed, the poor donkey must have been greatly relieved, for the chieftainess was an exceedingly fat lady, and her daughter, though so young, showed every intention of being as fat as her mother.

After the envoy and the chief had exchanged compliments, business began. The Egyptians pitched a tent in which they stored their goods for barter, and to put temptation out of the way of the natives, they drew a guard of soldiers round the tent. For several days the market remained open, and the country people brought down their treasures, till the ships were laden as deeply as was safe. The cargo was a varied and valuable one. Elephants' tusks, gold, ebony, apes, greyhounds, leopard skins, all were crowded into the galleys, the apes sitting gravely on the top of the bales of goods, and looking longingly at the land which they were leaving.

But the most important part of the cargo was the incense, and the incense-trees. Great quantities of the gum from which the incense was made were placed on board, and also thirty-one of the incense sycamores, their roots carefully surrounded with a large ball of earth, and protected by baskets. Several young chiefs of the Punites accompanied the expedition back to Thebes, to see what life was like in the strange new world which had been revealed to them. Altogether the voyage home must have been no easy undertaking, for the ships, with their heavy cargoes, must have been very difficult to handle.

The arrival of the squadron at Thebes, which they must have reached by a canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea, was made the occasion of a great holiday festival. Long lines of troops in gala attire came out to meet the brave explorers, and an escort of the royal fleet accompanied the exploring squadron up to the temple quay where the ships were to moor. Then the Thebans feasted their eyes on the wonderful treasures that had come from Punt, wondering at the natives, the incense, the ivory, and, above all, at a giraffe which had been brought home. How the poor creature was stowed away on the little Egyptian ship it is hard to see; but there he was, with his spots and his long neck, the most wonderful creature that the good folks of Thebes had ever seen. The precious incense gum was stored in the temple, and the Queen herself gave a bushel measure, made of a mixture of gold and silver, to measure it out with.

So the voyage of discovery had ended in a great success. But Queen Hatshepsut's purpose was only half fulfilled as yet. In a nook of the limestone cliffs, not far from Thebes, her father before her had begun to build a very wonderful temple, close beside the ruins of an older sanctuary which had stood there for hundreds of years. Hatshepsut had been gradually completing his work, and the temple was now growing into a most beautiful building, very different from ordinary Egyptian temples. From the desert sands in front it rose terrace above terrace, each platform bordered with rows of beautiful limestone pillars, until at last it reached the cliffs, and the most sacred chamber of it, the Holy of Holies, was hewn into the solid wall of rock behind.

This temple the Queen resolved to make into what she called a Paradise for Amen, the god who had told her to send out the ships. So she planted on the terraces the sacred incense-trees which had been brought from Punt; and, thanks to careful tending and watering, they flourished well in their new home. And then, all along the walls of the temple, she caused her artists to carve and paint the whole story of the voyage. We do not know the names of the artists who did the work, though we know that of the architect, Sen-mut, who planned the building. But, whoever they were, they must have been very skilful sculptors; for the story of the voyage is told in pictures on the walls of this wonderful temple, so that everything can be seen just as it actually happened more than three thousand years ago.

You can see the ships toiling along with oar and sail towards their destination, the meeting with the natives, the palaver and the trading, the loading of the galleys, and the long procession of Theban soldiers going out to meet the returning explorers. Not a single detail is missed, and, thanks to the Queen and her artists, we can go back over all these years, and see how sailors worked, and how people lived in savage lands in that far-off time, and realize that explorers dealt with the natives in foreign countries in those days very much as they deal with them now. When our explorers of to-day come back from their journeys, they generally tell the story of their adventures in a big book with many pictures; but no explorer ever published the account of a voyage of discovery on such a scale as did Queen Hatshepsut, when she carved the voyage to Punt on the walls of her great temple at Deir-el-Bahri, and no pictures in any modern book are likely to last as long, or to tell so much as these pictures that have come to light again during the last few years, after being buried for centuries under the desert sands.

Queen Hatshepsut has left other memorials of her greatness besides the temple with its story of her voyage. She has told us how one day she was sitting in her palace, and thinking of her Creator, when the thought came into her mind to rear two great obelisks before the Temple of Amen at Karnak. So she gave the command, and Sen-mut, her clever architect, went up the Nile to Aswan, and quarried two huge granite blocks, and floated them down the river. Cleopatra's Needle, which stands on the Thames Embankment, is 68-1/2 feet high, and it seems to us a huge stone for men to handle. Our own engineers had trouble enough in bringing it to this country, and setting it up. But these two great obelisks of Queen Hatshepsut were 98-1/2 feet high, and weighed about 350 tons apiece. Yet Sen-mut had them quarried, and set up, and carved all over from base to summit in seven months from the time when the Queen gave her command! One of them still stands at Karnak, the tallest obelisk in the temple there; while the other great shaft has fallen, and lies broken, close to its companion. They tell us their own plain story of the wisdom and skill of those far-off days; and perhaps the great Queen who thought of her Creator as she sat in her palace, and longed to honour Him, found that the God whom she ignorantly worshipped was indeed not far from His servant's heart.