We Egyptians have been sailing ships since before Menes' time, and we pride ourselves on being on the forefront of ship technology. After all, we have much more than just papyrus-reed ships, many of our ships are made of wood and are long and graceful, with tall bows and high sterns that look like fans.

By 2650 B.C. we have had a busy trade with Nubia, Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, and Keftiu or Crete. The trade brings our rulers fragrant cedar wood for coffins, embalming oil, and timber for more ships. Of course, most of us see more of the rivercraft than we do the ocean-going vessels.

Let me tell you the story about how our ships have evolved from papyrus-reed ships to our graceful wooden boats. Even the common papyrus-reed boat has an interesting story.

Mesopotamians only sail small craft on their rivers because there, the prevailing wind blows from the north, in the same direction as the current. They drift downstream, but they must be towed upstream. The fact that they must be towed limits the design of their ships. Our prevailing wind also blows from the north, but here it means that the wind blows against the current. This lets us drift down the river but sail up the river. (If the wind does not blow hard enough, we break out oars). Also, unlike Mesopotamian rivers, our Nile is an excellent river, offering a clear shot at 500 miles of sailing from the beginning of the Delta to the First Cataract. Because of the wind and our wonderful Nile, our river craft are much finer, if I do say so myself. However, our native timber is acacia wood, which is admittedly brittle and short. Because of this, we have used reed bundles from the dawn of time. Later, we developed beautiful wooden ships, but more on that later.

Papyrus reeds have always been plentiful in our country. The reed ship is made of bundles of reeds lashed together to form a hull. Another bundle is lashed on top to keep the crew dry. One end is looped back and tightly lashed so the hull will not sag when the cargo is loaded on. But we have improved upon the humble reed ship until it also is a beauty to behold.

We now shape our reed ships into long, narrow ships with graceful bows. Stories from long ago say we first used paddles to guide the ships, and then we learned to turn a paddle into a rudder. The little ships grew until they could hold deck cabins. In the beginning, they did not have masts, or the masts were a frond, but as you can imagine, those did not work well. Eventually, we learned to make square sails, at first probably out of woven reeds or leaves.

Reed ships improved until the prow and stem came together as a point, which could be decorated by a lotus bud. The ships were, and still are, light, shallow, and easy to maneuver.

But by Menes' time, we needed ships that could carry stone. So we began to build ships of wood.

The ships I enjoy watching are the large, lovely wooden-hulled ships with their beautiful linen sail. They, too, have an honorable history behind them.

The first wooden ships were square and were more like barges, because that was easier for the carpenters to build. But we were not satisfied with that. Soon, carpenters were replicating the graceful form of the reed ship. Because they used local acacia wood, they learned to build up the ship hulls by treating the short plants like bricks.

Workers fasten short pieces of planking together with rope made from braided grass, and then they add ribs and timbers. Ships can be 70 or even 140 feet long. We make our ships watertight by weaving halfa grass ropes through seam holds in the planking. Then the hull is soaked, and the ropes shrink, the planks swell, and the seams between them are closed. The planks are also caulked with papyrus. Ribs are put on top the planks for extra strength.

The hulls built this way are not very strong, but they are strong enough for river traffic and can support cabins. A truss, made of a heavy rope, goes from bow to stern. For ocean-going ships, the center of the rope has a bar that is twisted to brace the ends of the hull against the fury of the sea.


Soon after the time of Sneferu, Cheops, and Chephren (2500 B.C.), rowing replaces paddling. Nowadays, only the crew of smaller craft paddle. To be able to row, vertical pins are put in the gunwhales, and each oar pivots around the vertical pin, and is tied to the pin or thole by leather or rope. Our oars are short and set at a steep angle. Rowing is hard work. Rowers stand to put the blade in the water, and then they throw themselves back onto their bench and sit down to complete the stroke. Their loincloths have leather sections for extra protection.

The helmsmen steers the ship with several large steering oars. At first, the helmsmen simply held the oars, but after Chephren's time (after 2500 B.C.), we developed a tiller bar that was socketed to the oar. Now the helmsmen hold the tiller bar. Large ships can have five steering oars, while smaller craft may have only one.

Masts and Sails

We have double masts because our ships cannot stand the stress of having all of the mast secured in one place. Our masts have two legs to distribute the pressure, and the legs are joined up top. We use backstays and a forestay to keep the mast in place. Because the double mast is locked down with two legs, the sail can only catch the wind when it is off the quarter or astern. When the wind does not cooperate, the crew undo the mast, and the oarsmen row. Both reed boats and wooden ships use the double mast, which is set forward on the ship (it is not in the middle of the ship).

Some say we should have only one mast, so we could move the sail to catch the wind in whichever direction it comes from. However, this is ridiculous, because the ship could never support such a mast. They say we need stronger ribs and a thing called a keel. However, words are cheap; you'll notice they haven't built such a vessel.

For my predictions of the future, look here

Our linen sails are square, and are between the yard at the top and the boom on the bottom. Small ships have papyrus sails, but larger ships have linen sails made of several horizontal strips sewn together. The boom is so heavy that men can stand on it, and because the sail alone cannot bear the weight of the boom, a network of lines help support the weight. The boom does not move. The sail is is raised or furled by moving the yard on top. Running rigging helps the crew hoist the yard and sail, and swivel and trim the sail. The lines were of grass, or palm or papyrus fiber. While I find this all very complex, some have suggested we need something called "block and tackle" which would make it easier to move the sail. I dared them to build such a thing, and they have not.

People graphics are courtesy of the Chihuahua Pharaohs.

Casson, Lionel. ( 1994). Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Thubron, Colin. (1981). The Ancient Mariners. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.

The history of the sailing ship. (1975). New York: Arco Publishing Company.

Note: By 1500 B.C., Egyptian ships still did not have a keel, but they were strong enough to support a single mast. Other changes after the Old Kingdom include the short, wide sail by 2000 B.C., and the mast being set amidships by 1900 B.C.).

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