The Land of Punt, referred to as Ta netjer, the "land of the god", was a trading partner of
Egypt, it was known for producing and exporting gold, aromatic resins, blackwood, ebony, ivory, and wild animals. The exact location of Punt is still debated by historians. Most scholars today believe Punt was located to the southeast of Egypt, most likely in the coastal region of what is today the African nations of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and northeast Ethiopia. The Egyptians were masters of trade in the ancient world. Egyptians and their trading partners sailed along the Nile River to trade their goods, but sometimes also traveled to and from the Eastern or Western Deserts. Egyptians bartered with their precious resources, including gold, papyrus, linen, and grain. While Nubia was well known to the Egyptians throughout their history, the remainder of Sub-Saharan Africa had much less contact with Egypt, yet significant trade was accomplished in the Land of Punt. The elephants inhabiting the grassy savannas of sub-Saharan Africa provided a source of ivory for the Egyptians, and Punt is recorded to provide them with incense, myrrh and oils. It has also been suggested the the Sub-Saharan Africans had cultural similarities and relations with the Ancient Egyptians.
The fringes of the Sahara may have been the abode of rebellious tribesmen, 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 kilometers 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 kilometers 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 kilometers beyond Dakhla which, to judge from the quantity of pottery found there, was a re-victualing stop for Egyptian expeditions heading even further into the Sahara perhaps as far as the Kufra Oaisis in south-eastern 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 characterized 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.
Samples of the Fauna and Flora
Of all the products of 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 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.