Egyptians were accomplished sailors, and shipbuilding was one of the most important and oldest industries, the result of the need to travel both within the country, along the Nile, across the Mediterranean and down the Red Sea. The Egyptian tomb of Ti contains two shipbuilding scenes, Ti presiding over them both, inspecting every stage of the work being carried out. One shows the entire shipbuilding process, from the early stages of shaping and sawing the wooden planks to the last stages of completion, with workmen milling over the curving hulls, carving, hammering, sawing and drilling. Seafaring vessels usually had a curved prow and high stern, each decorated in the form of a papyrus bud. The centre of the ship often had an awning. All hinges, nails and bolts were made of copper, as were the workmen’s tools.
One of the oldest texts to survive mentions that during the reign of Senefru, the 4th-dynasty pharaoh, a fleet of 40 ships sailed to Lebanon and returned to Egypt laden with timber. The text mentions that the ships were 100 cubits in length (179 feet). The nobleman Uni, ordered by royal command to transport alabaster, constructed a ship ‘6o cubits in length and 30 cubits in width’ and recorded in his tomb that it was ‘assembled in seventeen days’. The so-called Solar Boat of Khufu, discovered in 1954 in a rock-hewn tomb to the south of the Great Pyramid, is a magnificent barge 145 feet long constructed of cedar from Lebanon. It had been completely dismantled to fit into the tomb, but careful reassembly disclosed a flat-bottomed boat with a massive curving hull rising to elegant prow and stern posts. Poles on the deck proved to be the supporting palm-shaped columns of a large roofed cabin. Steering oars, each 16 feet long, were also found, and coils of rope. This was the first royal barge discovered other boat pits dating to the early dynasties were empty.
Examination of the vessel indicates that it actually sailed and the planks were ‘sewn’ together by a system of ropes through holes that met in pairs on the inside. The term ‘Solar Boat’, coined when it was first discovered in the belief that it was for funerary purposes (to take the departed pharaoh across the sky to join the heavenly gods), is somewhat misleading. Such ships probably served the pharaoh in his capacity as King of Upper and Lower Egypt during his lifetime, and were buried with him as part of his funerary equipment after his death. Another pit is known to exist to the south of the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Khufu Pharaoh: not yet excavated, it is believed to contain a second vessel.
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