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Throughout the Ancient Egyptian history, several, apparently non-military, expeditions were organised to a region the Egyptians themselves called Punt (pwn.t). Punt is often mentioned along with another region called Ta-Netjer (tA-nTr) "The Land of the God". It is believed that Punt may have been a part of Ta-Netjer. The region of Punt was renowned for its myrrh and is sometimes connected with the "Steps of Myrrh", a reference to the terrace-like landscape where myrrh-trees grew.

The oldest known certain contact between Egypt and Punt, as recorded on the Palermo Stone, dates to the reign of 5th Dynasty king Sahure, who received myrrh and electrum from the land of Punt. Fragments from the decoration of this king's mortuary temple at Abusir are interpreted as a representation of the inhabitants of Punt. It is, however, possible that a servant shown on the walls of a 4th Dynasty tomb, is of Puntite origin as well.

Some generations later, a pygmy was brought from Punt to the court of Djedkare, while a man named Pepinakht, who lived during the reign of 6th Dynasty king Pepi II, set up an expedition to punish a group of Asiatics who murdered the Egyptians building a ship to go to Punt. Another contemporary of Pepi II boasted of having visited Byblus in Asia as well as Punt.

With the end of the Old Kingdom, contacts between Egypt and Punt appear to have been stopped, only to be re-established during the Middle Kingdom. A man named Henenu organised a desert expedition during the reign of Mentuhotep II, and an expedition to Punt for Mentuhotep III. There were other expeditions to Punt during the reigns of Sesostris I and Amenemhat II of the 12th Dynasty.

Five centuries later, 18th Dynasty king Hatshepsut renewed contact with what may have been the largest expedition, comprising as many as five ships. The account of the expedition was carved on the walls of Hatshepsut's famous mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. It was commanded by a man named Nehesi, who was accompanied by Senmut.

Reliefs from the times of Hatshepsut's co-regent and successor, Thutmosis III and from later 18th Dynasty kings such as Amenhotep III and Horemheb show that there was an active trade between Egypt and Punt. Ramesses II of the 19th Dynasty boasted gardens with plants from Punt and Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty organised an expedition that returned to Egypt via the Wadi Hammamat and Koptos.

A stela from the 26th Dynasty mentioning rain on the mountains of Punt may indicate that there were still active contacts between the two countries, whereas the references to Punt made during the Greek-Roman Period are more of a mythological nature, probably indicating that there were no more expeditions to this land.

Several aspects of the contacts between Egypt and Punt are interesting:

  • The oldest known contacts are dated to the second half of the Old Kingdom, but it is not unlikely that there were older contacts as well. Apparently, the Egyptians always appear to have known the way to Punt, even after five centuries without contact between the 12th and the 18th Dynasty.
    Hatshepsut's claim that "no troop was sent to this foreign land ever since the time of the gods by the other (kings) who had been before, except for Her Majesty" may be typical exaggeration intended to show how much better the present king was, compared to those who came before her.
     
   
Egyptian soldiers arrive at Punt
 

The Egyptian soldiers arrive at Punt. It is interesting to note that they are led by an unarmed man, but that on the other hand, the military presence was notable. From the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.


 

  • The contacts all appear to have been of a more or less peaceful nature. Although Hatshepsut sent five ships and the reliefs in her mortuary temple clearly show armed men (see image above), there is no record of a military conflict. Still the Egyptians brought back the rich produce of Punt.
    However, it must also be noted that the submissive character of the Puntites is very much stressed in Hatshepsut's account of the event, which states that "they were obedient, like dogs are". The text does not really express the notion of peaceful exchange and trade between the two peoples, but states that the Egyptians "took (all) the myrrh they wished".
  • The products brought back by the members of the expedition are rich, exotic and very varied: myrrh, electrum, gold, throwing sticks, incense, ebony and ivory, different types of wood, different exotic animals such as monkeys and leopards, ... Not every expedition came back with the same products and Hatshepsut's may well have been the most successful one.
     
   
Tribute bearers
 

During the Punt-expedition of Hatshepsut, myrrh trees were dug up and brought to Egypt. From Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahari.


 

The rich produce of Punt was carried off to Egyptian boats by Egyptians and Puntites alike. During the expedition ordered by Hatshepsut, this consisted of every imaginable product.

The location of Punt is somewhat problematic. The expedition always appears to have travelled by land, via Koptos and the Wadi Hammamat, to the Red Sea. The fish represented on the reliefs from Hatshepsut's mortuary temple show that the sea was populated with fish typical for the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. From the shores of the Red Sea, the ships sailed to the south. The duration of this voyage is unknown, so it is impossible to determine how far they sailed before they reached Punt.
 

   
The Puntite chief and his obese wife
 

The Puntite chief and his rather obese wife bring gifts to the leader of the Egyptian expedition. From the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.


 

The Puntites are represented in Hatshepsut's reliefs as a brown-skinned people, many of them bearded. The wife of their chieftain is represented as a very fat lady (see image above). They lived in simple cone shaped pile-dwellings and their natural environment must have been a fertile and rich one (see image below).
 

   
village.jpg (73467 bytes)
 

The village of the Puntites was made up of simple, cone-shaped huts. It was built in the middle of a very rich environment. From the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari.


 

The products brought back to Egypt point to an African origin: giraffes, pygmies, baboons, myrrh, ... excluding south east Arabia, as has sometimes been suggested. Thus Punt must have been located somewhere along the African shores of the Red Sea, perhaps south Sudan or north Ethiopia.