Expedition Unknown: The Lost Land of Punt

“They arrived safely at the desert-country of Coptos: they moored in peace, carrying the goods they had brought. They [the goods] were loaded, in travelling overland, upon asses and upon men, being reloaded into vessels at the harbour of Coptos. They [the goods and the Puntites] were sent forward downstream, arriving in festivity, bringing tribute into the royal presence.” – description from the Harris Papyrus of an Egyptian voyage’s return from Punt during the reign of Ramses III (20th Dynasty)

[Egyptian soldiers and Puntite subjects carrying a live myrrh tree, along with ostrich eggs and feathers, Deir el-Bahari]

History is often delightful and frustrating in inventive ways. Considering the breadth of the human experience, it’s amazing how much we know about people who lived long before us. But a fragile historical record also exposes us to weird gaps in that knowledge that, with our benefit of hindsight, seem inexplicable. Like how despite its centuries of renown, we don’t have any drawings or even descriptions of what the Library of Alexandria actually looked like, or firm notions of how the city’s famed lighthouse appeared in life. But sometimes, history manages to lose a whole country, and in that line, I thought this week we’d look at one of ancient Egypt’s putative neighbors, the so-called Kingdom of Punt and figure out what we know about this mysterious land and its people.

Punt (Egyptian: pwnt) is first mentioned in the Egyptian historical record during the reign of Khufu (2589-2566 BC; he of the Great Pyramid of Giza) during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period. But despite an early and sustained symbiotic relationship with one of the largest and most documented of the ancient civilizations, historians and archaeologists don’t have definitive proof of exactly where Punt was located, which is why it is seen as a mysterious place. Some scholars hold that Punt is the biblical kingdom of Put (or Phut), ancient Libya, founded by the third son of Ham of the same name (Genesis 10:6; 1 Chronicles 1:8). There is also an argument that it is  another kingdom mentioned in Genesis called Havilah, which is also supposedly somewhere in Africa. It has also been thought that Punt was located wholly or in part on the Arabian peninsula since Puntite voyages are often mentioned in the same breath within Egyptian records of trading exchanges along the Gulf of Aqaba, and certain documents seem to imply that Punt was both to the north and south of Egypt, which could pretty much only apply to that land mass. Another fascinating, but less likely, theory is that Punt is an ancient kingdom from the island of Sri Lanka, based on some of the ebony found in Egypt belonging to a species of the tree believed to be only native to Southeast Asia. But it probably wouldn’t have been possible for Egyptians, not a serious seafaring civilization in their early history, to have made such a long ocean voyage so long ago and it is also unlikely they would have taken an established name for one place and transferred it to another at a later date. But the most broadly accepted possible location of the kingdom is that Punt was an ancient civilization on the Somali coast, covering a potential area as wide as from northeast Sudan to southern Somalia, encompassing modern Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia (or any amount in between). As you can see from the proposed map, this would place Punt on the coastal south of the more famous Kushan and Nubian kingdoms directly south-southwest of Egypt on the Nile.

[Possible location for Punt, if it did indeed straddled the Red Sea onto the Arabian peninsula]
[Another similar location view, with Egypt and Kush marked for comparison]

Punt’s main appeal to Egypt throughout their history appears to have been trade, as opposed to conquest. The kingdom was largely seen as a valuable source of luxury goods to Egypt—Khufu’s records specifically mention obtaining gold from them. As we know from our previous discussions of Nebut-Ombos, gold is heavily associated with Upper Egypt and the deserts south of the kingdom, which points to Punt being south of Egypt. However, plenty of ancient civilizations had some access to gold mines, so this alone is not conclusive. This commodity exchange must have grown increasingly lucrative in the following century during the Fifth Dynasty, because the pharaoh Sahure (2465-2325 BC) became the first Egyptian ruler to organize a trading expedition to Punt, which suggests that the earlier trade under Khufu must have occurred through middlemen or Puntite merchants traveling to Egypt. The need to organize such an expedition also points to Punt being considered further away than typical for trade from the administrative heart of the Old Kingdom, which would have been the city of Memphis. The Egyptians were expert navigators of the Nile, but during this period, as we mentioned earlier, Egyptian seafaring was still in its infancy; indeed, one might argue that it would take the arrival of the sea-loving Greco-Ptolemies for the idea of a true Egyptian navy to take off. Sea and ocean-going vessels for much of the truly ancient Egyptian period were more instruments of trade than of warfare, and as a result, even if Punt was in fact located just a little south of Egypt on the Red Sea, getting there would still be viewed as a significant undertaking. Historian Joyce Tyldesley compared it to modern humans traveling to the moon in terms of scope for ancient Egyptian sailors.

However, Sahure might have been uniquely qualified to raise such a voyage, because his thirteen-year reign appears to have been more focused on trade than military exploits. In addition to the Puntan expedition, we have documentation of envoys sent to the mines of Wadi Maghareh and Wadi Kharit on the Sinai peninsula, as well as northern neighbors such as Libya, Syria, and Lebanon. In terms of evidence versus reign length, archeologist Gregory Mumford considers Sahure to be the best attested Egyptian pharaoh in regards to international relations; a sizable accomplishment and one that suggests he ruled a very outward-looking Egypt hungry for foreign goods and exchange that could make a risky voyage to Punt worthwhile. The archeological record from monuments and stellae suggest that Sahure’s ships, if they indeed were sailing south toward the Horn of Africa, might have departed from Mersa Gawasis (Egyptian: Saww), a small ancient port on the Red Sea. Mersa Gawasis has been identified as a likely departure port for any Puntite travel based on stelae fragments from the reigns of Senusret I (1971-1926 BC) and Senusret II (1897-1878 BC), which mention Bia-n-Punt in connection with the port. It is also from the Sahure expedition that we get more information about the sort of items Egypt was able to obtain from Punt, perhaps giving us a clearer understanding of where it might be located. We’re told that the voyage gained large, but unspecified, measures of myrrh, frankincense, ebony, malachite, and electrum (an alloy metal primarily of gold and silver). The precious minerals possibly point to the Puntans as enthusiastic traders with the southern African interior and even Egypt’s northern neighbors, for while malachite is plentiful in many areas, a particularly large vein of the mineral can be found in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the ancient Greek world (the ancient Ionian kingdom of Lydia especially) was more well-known for access to large quantities of electrum. Ebony might also suggest Punt controlled or had relations with the island of Madagascar, which is one of the few indigenous environments for ebony on the eastern side of Africa.

[Relief of Sahure from his mortuary temple]

But frankincense and myrrh, both tree resins, were seen as the real coups of this expedition, and arguably the most important. As they were throughout antiquity, frankincense and myrrh were burned as pleasant aromatic perfumes, but in Egypt, they were also of vital religious importance. Both, along with the sodium carbonate compound natron, were the main processing agents in Egyptian mummification. Natron, a naturally-occurring salt compound was used to desiccate the body and remove its excess moisture; while myrrh, the ancient world’s original antiseptic, and frankincense, which has low-level anti-microbial properties, were applied to slow the decomposition process during the seventy-day mummification process. And as perfumes, they undoubtedly made the body smell a little better along the way as a bonus. The records of Sahure’s expedition show that in addition to the large measures of myrrh resin obtained by his officials, they also returned with full myrrh trees to transplant in Egyptian gardens. His mortuary temple contains a relief of the pharaoh tending one of these myrrh trees in his own garden, the only known depiction we have of an Egyptian king engaged in such an activity. But showing Sahure caring for a myrrh tree would have both advertised the legacy of his groundbreaking voyage to Punt for posterity, as well as pointed to his role as a conduit between his living subjects and the gods of the Duat through myrrh’s deep significance in Egyptian culture.

It was in part because of this connection with Egypt’s funerary rites, as well as being a source of the precious woods and metals that adorned Egypt’s temples, that led to Punt often being referred to as Ta netjer (transliteration: t3 nṯr), literally “God’s Land”. The god in question was most particularly Ra, because we are mostly certain that, if nothing else, Punt was east of Egypt and therefore the place, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, the sun god rose out of every morning. Punt was the home of Ra and its treasures were the god’s gifts to his favored children. This might also explain why the usually territorial Egyptians don’t appear to have ever attempted to conquer Punt, perhaps fearing to anger Ra with an attack on his lands (though it could also be that it was just too far away to be practical). An outdated theory from early Egyptology thought that ta netjer, as translated to “Holy Land”, or “Land of the gods” (read: “ancestors” since Egyptians believed their early rulers were the gods), that Punt was the predynastic home of the proto-Egyptians. There’s an argument to be made that if Punt is in south-central East Africa, often held to be the cradle of all humankind, that this is technically true, but the idea that the early Egyptians are specifically migrants from Punt is not currently the mainstream archeological line, mostly due to a lack of any evidence. And one must be very delicate when wading into the historical and cultural minefield that is any topic connected with pinning down the race of the ancient Egyptians. Because we honestly just don’t know (outside of them definitely not being white)—in part because “race” is a modern construct largely incompatible with the large, ethnically fluid groups of ancient North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, many of whom ruled Egypt for whole dynasties, even if they were from different tribal groups than the “native” Egyptians were.

[Egyptian soldiers or Puntites transporting herbs and tools, Deir el-Bahari]

We do know that the Egyptians of the New Kingdom, specifically of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1292 BC), portrayed themselves as looking largely similar in appearance to the Puntites, though obviously Egyptian art outside of the brief Amarna period of this dynasty is very stylized and probably shouldn’t be taken as gospel. This is in large part due to the other most famous Puntite expedition, the one commemorated by the great Egyptian pharaoh-queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BC). Egypt had continued to trade with Punt during the Middle Kingdom period up through the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1803 BC), as it is specifically mentioned in The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a popular Egyptian folk story originally from the time. But the following two hundred years from the end of the Middle Kingdom and through what is generally referred to as the Second Intermediary Period mark an era of civil war and fragmented sovereignty in Egypt. This includes the rule of the first known foreign power in Egypt, the Semitic Hyksos, who comprised the Fifteenth Dynasty, which ruled simultaneously with the native Sixteenth, then Seventeenth, dynasties. The New Kingdom marks the final expulsion of the Hyksos pharaohs and the return of united Egyptian rule. Understandably, during the upheaval of the Second Intermediary Period, Egyptian trade dropped off generally and with Punt very specifically, as the competing dynasties’ resources were far too tied up in fighting one another to launch such costly voyages as the ones to the God’s Land would have been deemed.

Hatshepsut came to power in Egypt as most ancient women did, as a powerful regent for an underage male pharaoh—in this case, her husband Thutmose II’s son (the future Thutmose III) by another royal wife. As with many Egyptian royals, Thutmose II and Hatshepsut were half-siblings, and it has been argued that Hatshepsut was both born of a higher-ranking queen of their father (Thutmose I) and in higher favor with him, so Thutmose II married her in order to have a more secure claim on the throne. This view is supported by the uncertainty of the reign lengths of both Hatshepsut’s father and her brother, both of which she might have served as an official co-regent, which in turn might explain the overall ease she had assuming the regency of her stepson. Thutmose III’s reign is listed in the Egyptian record as fifty-four years, having become pharaoh at the age of two, but although he would become one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, the first twenty-two years of his reign were fully ruled by Hatshepsut.

[A fact he would never fully get over, considering how much of his solo reign he’d spend haphazardly scribbling his dad’s cartouche over his stepmother’s defaced monuments]

Thutmose III would be able to expand the Egyptian empire to its greatest territorial reaches, but the groundwork for much of the success of his reign would be laid by Hatshepsut, who would dedicate most of her reign to rebuilding Egypt after the turmoil of the Second Intermediary Period by reestablishing trade routes and spearheading massive domestic projects. Her most enduring architectural legacy is the temple complex she built and expanded upon at Deir el-Bahari. The main temple, Djeser-Djeseru (“Holiest of Holies”), is Hatshepsut’s great monument to herself and her reign, and among its many reliefs dedicated to the gods, we find detailed depictions of an expedition to Punt, possibly the first royally organized one in three hundred years.

[Djeser-Djeseru at Deir el-Bahari]

Recognizing that trade was crucial toward reestablishing the wealth of the dynasty, in the ninth year of her reign, Hatshepsut outfitted five ships thought to be about 70 ft (21 m) long, making them capable of bearing as many as two hundred men each. This trading fleet, able to navigate the Red Sea, would also reopen Egypt’s longstanding trade in the Gulf of Aqaba, but its official voyage to Punt would be its most famous achievement. The trade with Punt was so important that it is possible Hatshepsut herself made the trip, though this is difficult to verify. At the very least, she sent her chief treasurer, the Nubian-born Nehsi, as a special envoy to the Puntite royal family. The voyage is portrayed as a specific invitation by Ra to Hatshepsut to claim his fabled land, thereby reinforcing the pharaoh’s connection to the gods and her right to rule: “Said by Amun [Ra], the Lord of the Thrones of the Two Land: ‘Come, come in peace my daughter, the graceful, who art in my heart, King Maatkare [Hatshepsut’s ruling praenomen, meaning “Truth is the soul of Ra”]…I will give thee Punt, the whole of it…I will lead your soldiers by land and by water, on mysterious shores, which join the harbours of incense…They will take incense as much as they like. They will load their ships to the satisfaction of their hearts with trees of green incense, and all the good things of the land.’” This casts the expedition in a quasi-military light aimed at exacting tribute from Punt, but like many Egyptian monuments, this is a propaganda framing, and Hatshepsut’s intent was always peaceful. The Egyptian soldiers pictured carrying away Puntite riches are nothing more than convenient manpower and the typical escorts of a dignitary like Nehsi or the pharaoh herself. 

In addition to goods we’ve already discussed like gold, frankincense, and myrrh (aka, The Magi Trifecta), the reliefs in Djeser-Djeseru show Hatshepsut’s soldiers bearing spices like cinnamon, slaves, live animals and their skins (including giraffes, hippos, pards, and baboons, in addition to a breed of short-horned cattle Punt was known for), and many live aromatic trees, whose roots were kept alive in baskets for transport. But what is interesting is that Punt itself was considered important enough that many of Hatshepsut’s murals are dedicated to them, and not just the Egyptian delegation. Puntite houses are shown as rounded huts on stilts with ladders for access, and the ruling Puntite family is named as it is shown greeting the visiting Egyptians.

[The Puntite royal family greets the Egyptians, Deir el-Bahri]

The Puntite chief, King Parahu, welcomes the Egyptians alongside his queen, Ati, and three labeled young people who are likely two sons and a daughter. The royals and their subjects behind them look similar to Egyptians (as opposed to other foreigners such as Nubians or Semitics, who are drawn with noticeably different characteristics), although Puntite women appear curvier than Egyptian women (evidenced by their wider hips and almost S-shaped stance). But what’s really interesting is the way Queen Ati of Punt is depicted; she looks like her daughter with the same wide-hipped, S-stance, but she is also, for lack of a better word, lumpy. Some archeologists suggest this is meant to show that the queen may have suffered from elephantiasis, or a similar disease, but it is equally possible that these are meant to be fat rolls and the queen is just amply-built. That seems like a less than complimentary way to show Punt’s queen, but if modern conjecture is correct and Punt was on the East African coast, many indigenous tribes of the region traditionally hold larger female forms in higher esteem than thin ones; bigger women being seen as well-off enough to be heavy and having more access to resources that can boost fertility. She is also shown with another unheard-of embellishment in Egyptian art: she has wrinkles alongside her mouth. This could be an indication of age, but it could also symbolize wisdom or experience. Taken together with her full figure, this depiction of Queen Ati might be an Egyptian artist’s attempt to convey a Puntite cultural ideal of the highest-ranking woman in the kingdom as a wealthy, fertile, mother-goddess—emblematic of Punt’s wealth. This might feel far-fetched, but given the Deir el-Bahri reliefs’ attention to other Puntite cultural artifacts, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility. The rather generic portrait of King Parahu next to this very specific and memorable one of his queen might also be Hatshepsut’s way of indicating that perhaps Ati was the real power in Punt, just as Hatshepsut was in Egypt. It’s certainly cool to think of these two powerful African sisters meeting under these unique circumstances for the purpose of reestablishing a peaceful exchange with one another.

[Puntites bringing panthers or cheetahs to Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahari (despite the engraving’s inscription, these were being traded, not taken as war trophies)]

Egyptian trade with Punt would continue until the end of the New Kingdom period in the 1070s BC, after which the nearly 1,500-year relationship between these two lands appears to have come to an end and the already somewhat fabled Punt passed into myth even among the Egyptians. It would remain a cultural byword for wealth and riches—a late era love song would include the lyrics, “When I hold my love close, and her arms steal around me, I’m like a man translated to Punt, or like someone out in the reedflats, when the world suddenly bursts into flower”—but even the Egyptians would forget where it had been located before someone thought to write it down. This suggests that Punt as a kingdom may have decentralized or changed hands at the same time as Egypt itself during yet another intermediary period, but we’re not sure what became of them. For all its wealth, Punt may have been a purely oral or limited literacy culture and it doesn’t seem to have left records in East Africa (or anywhere else), or been invested in demonstrating its power through architecture as the Egyptians did. But this doesn’t diminish their achievements or their importance to the region, if they did in fact reside there. Unlike similar nearby cultures like the Kushite empire, Punt appears to have been far enough away from Egypt to avoid its territorial ambitions, and that distance made them a more ideal trading conduit between Egypt and the rest of Africa than, say, the Nubians. This mutually beneficial arrangement proved to be a durable friendship between these two kingdoms, but ironically without the tedious, long-standing hostility Egypt evinced toward much of the rest of Africa, which resulted in ample military records, the peaceful nature of the Egypto-Puntite exchange may have been the very thing that doomed the mysterious homeland of Ra to its half-remembered fate.

[The root remains of a tree planted in the courtyard of Djeser-Djeseru that may be one of the aromatic Puntite trees brought back from Hatshepsut’s expdition]

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