Ancient Egypt was a civilization that flourished along the valley and delta of the NILE RIVER in northeastern Africa for more than three millennia, from before 3300 B.C. until 30 B.C. Many of the themes associated with ancient Egyptians are familiar: the great pyramids and their burial chambers; sphinxes and other statues combining human and animal forms; large temple complexes; and hieroglyphics. Their place in the history of exploration is not so widely known, however.
Egyptian history is divided into periods for purposes of study. In prehistoric times, the people who became the ancient Egyptians migrated from western Asia to the Nile and settled among indigenous Africans. By about 3500 B.C., in predynastic Egypt, two kingdoms competed with each other, referred to as Lower Egypt of the Nile’s northern delta area, and Upper Egypt to the south. Their unification in about 3000 B.C. led to a succession of 30 dynasties of native pharaohs (or monarchs) and an expanding empire.
For purposes of study, the dynasties are grouped into the Old Kingdom (or Old Empire), the First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom (or Middle Empire), the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom (or New Empire), the Third Intermediate Period, and the Late Period. In the Second Intermediate Period, the Hyksos, a Semitic people from Syria, ruled Egypt; and, in the last two stages, after a long-term war with the Hittites of Asia Minor, which weakened the Egyptian Empire despite a treaty in about 1290 B.C., other peoples held power for a time—the Libyans, Nubians, Assyrians, and Persians—but native leaders did manage to come to power once again. The conquest of the region by Macedonian ALEXANDER THE GREAT in 332 B.C. led to a hellenized culture in Egypt (that is, a culture influenced by the Greeks). A succession of Greek rulers known as the Ptolemies—Ptolemy I to Ptolemy XIV—ruled through 30 B.C., when the Romans annexed the region.
In the course of their history, the Egyptians developed their maritime skills on the Nile River and eventually ventured into the MEDITERRANEAN SEA and the RED SEA as well, although their GALLEY ships were not as seaworthy as those of other ancient exploring peoples in the region, and they did not apparently venture as far west as did the Minoans and Phoenicians. The Egyptians sought raw materials and products from ancient kingdoms to the east into Asia and to the south and west into Africa, such as lumber, precious metals, and spices, as well as slaves and exotic animals. They also engaged in conquest and, under Thutmose III during the 18th dynasty (during the New Kingdom) in the mid-15th century B.C., controlled territory eastward into Asia as far as the Euphrates River, including some Phoenician cities and all of what is now Syria.
The earliest recorded sea voyage (although there had no doubt been countless beforehand) involves the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom. In about 2780 B.C., according to their picture writing known as hieroglyphics, Snefru, the first pharaoh of the fourth dynasty (during the Old Kingdom), sent a trading expedition—probably across the eastern Mediterranean to the Phoenician city of Byblos near present day Beirut, Lebanon—to trade for cedar logs. Moreover, the earliest actual explorer on record was an Egyptian, HANNU, who in about 2450 B.C., during the fifth dynasty (during the Old Kingdom), journeyed southward for the pharaoh Sahure via the Nile to the land of PUNT—the exact location of which is unknown—for precious metals and spices. Another early explorer was HERKUF, an Egyptian governor of a southern province, who, in about 2270 B.C., during the sixth dynasty (of the Old Kingdom), led a trading expedition for the pharaoh Mernera from the upper Nile River southward to the interior of central East Africa. In about 1492 B.C., during the 18th dynasty (during the New Kingdom), Egyptian queen HATSHEPSUT (Thutmose III’s stepmother), who had assumed the power of pharaoh after the death of her husband, sent a trading expedition under her lieutenant Nehsi down the Red Sea to what is again identified as the land of Punt. And, in about 600–597 B.C., during the 26th dynasty (during the Late Period), the pharaoh NECHO II commissioned a Phoenician maritime expedition into the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, which perhaps circumnavigated Africa.
During the reign of the Ptolemies, there were other expeditions as well that helped unite the ancient world. In 120–115 B.C., EUDOXUS, a Greek navigator in service to Egypt, made two trips across the Arabian Sea to India. On the second journey, he made a landing on the coast of East Africa. Eudoxus also attempted a circumnavigation of Africa. And, in A.D. 45, HIPPALUS, another Greek in service in Egypt, located a more direct route from across the Arabian Sea out of sight of land to India.
Hannu (Hennu) (fl. ca. 2450s B.C.)
Egyptian mariner on the Red Sea
Hannu, also referred to as Hennu, the name of a sacred boat in Egyptian mythology, was an Egyptian mariner during the Fifth Dynasty. Based on hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, in about 2450 B.C. (although some sources indicate three decades earlier), Hannu and a force of some 3,000, sent by the pharaoh Sahure, traveled southward by way of the NILE RIVER, then overland, reaching the land of PUNT—possibly parts of what is now Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—and the Arabian Peninsula. He reportedly returned to Egypt by the RED SEA with precious metals and spices, including gold and silver, as well as ebony and myrrh. Hannu’s journey is the first recorded expedition for the purpose of exploration.
Herkhuf (Harkhuf, Harkhaf) (fl. 2270s B.C.)
Provincial governor in ancient Egypt
Herkhuf held the position as governor of one of ancient Egypt’s southernmost provinces during the reign of the pharoah Mernera of the Sixth Dynasty. In about 2270 B.C., Herkhuf undertook a trading expedition up the Nile into equatorial East Africa, which brought back a cargo of ebony, ivory, and frankincense, the latter commodity being highly valued for embalming and for use in religious ceremonies. Under Herkhuf ’s command, additional expeditions ventured into the regions south of Egypt, returning with more valuable items from the tropics. He also reportedly brought a native captive from the upper Congo River (Zaire River) region. Herkhuf ’s trading enterprises constitute some of the first long voyages to be undertaken by EGYPTIANS and provide an early record of the earliest known contacts between the ancient civilizations of the eastern MEDITERRANEAN SEA and those in the interior of Africa.