Monday, August 15, 2011
The discovery of an ancient harbor on the Red Sea proves ancient Egyptians mastered oceangoing technology and launched a series of ambitious expeditions to far off lands.
A relief at the temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt, carved ca. 1480 B.B., shows a merchant ship on a trading expedition. Vessel artifacts match this depiction.
The scenes carved into a wall of the ancient Egyptian temple at Deir el-Bahri tell of a remarkable sea voyage. A fleet of cargo ships bearing exotic plants, animals, and precious incense navigates through high-crested waves on a journey from a mysterious land known as Punt or "the Land of God."
The carvings were commissioned by Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt's greatest female pharaoh, who controlled Egypt for more than two decades in the 15th century B.C. She ruled some 2 million people and oversaw one of most powerful empires of the ancient world.
The exact meaning of the detailed carvings has divided Egyptologists ever since they were discovered in the mid-19th century. "Some people have argued that Punt was inland and not on the sea, or a fictitious place altogether," ( Oxford Egyptologist John Baines says.
Recently, however, a series of remarkable discoveries on a desolate stretch of the Red Sea coast has settled the debate, proving once and for all that the masterful building skills of the ancient Egyptians applied to oceangoing ships as well as to pyramids.
Archaeologists from Italy, the United States, and Egypt excavating a dried-up lagoon known as Mersa Gawasis have unearthed traces of an ancient harbor that once launched early voyages like Hatshepsut's onto the open ocean.
Some of the site's most evocative evidence for the ancient Egyptians' seafaring prowess is concealed behind a modern steel door set into a cliff just 700 feet or so from the Red Sea shore. Inside is a man-made cave about 70 feet deep.
Lightbulbs powered by a gas generator thrumming just outside illuminate pockets of work: Here, an excavator carefully brushes sand and debris away from a 3,800-year-old reed mat; there, conservation experts photograph wood planks, chemically preserve them, and wrap them for storage...