There was ceaseless activity in ancient Egypt. Grain and industrial products were brought to the capital from the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt. Journeys were made from village to village and to and from oases for commercial exchange. Excursions were organised to distant areas in search of raw materials. Pilgrimages were regularly made to the shrines of important deities. And from the settlements in the valley to the burial grounds on the desert plateau the ancient Egyptian people bore their dead for burial, or offerings to place at the shrines of departed friends and relatives.
In the rural areas the Egyptian people travelled on foot, and donkeys were the most common beasts of burden. As they made their way to the granaries and storehouses, laden with produce, their routes were trodden into firm dirt-track roads. These were used by the peasant community, by herdsmen and their cattle, by female offering-bearers from the estates, and as playgrounds for children.
Almost the whole of the cultivable soil of Egypt was used for crop-growing and the land was irrigated through a system of large and small canals. The farmer who dug a canal to regulate the flow of water to his crops simultaneously constructed a dyke with the excavated earth, and this served as a path between the fields. Since regular attention was given to canals to guide water to land that would otherwise remain barren, and precautions were intermittently taken to prevent overflooding, the paths were kept in good order, and were used by the farmers and their livestock. Larger dykes beside deep canals could serve also as towpaths for small Egyptian boats. There were no bridges: when a canal had to be crossed a herdsman simply guided his animals through the shallow water.
A provincial nobleman was borne around his estates in a carrying-chair on the shoulders of pole-bearers. From this vantage he could inspect granaries, fisheries and agricultural lands. With his chair placed on the ground at his destination, he could watch in comfort the progress being made in the glass-making, copper, leather and Egyptian papyrus factories, in carpentry shops, ateliers and the shipyard.
The Egyptian Nile, the vital artery that linked Upper and Lower Egypt and contributed to national unity, since it made all parts of the land easily accessible, was the main means of communication. When the pharaoh carried out his annual tour of inspection, known as the ‘Following of Horus’, he travelled the watery highway in his royal barge. It was the most practical method of transporting crops and industrial products destined for the royal treasury and of transporting giant monoliths from distant quarries to the necropolis.
There were many different types of vessel, ranging from royal barges to ocean-going vessels and papyrus craft for hunting and fishing on the Nile. The ships in which noblemen and officials travelled had deck-houses and single sails, and were usually steered by rudders shaped like oars. The cargo vessels, with the goods placed on deck, sometimes transported granite blocks weighing hundreds of tons. Egyptian Boats travelling northwards were helped by the current, those southbound by the prevailing north wind: Nile traffic was facilitated by natural conditions. Since waterways were the main means of communication it is interesting to observe that the ancient Egyptians regarded the ferrying of a boatless traveller across a canal or marshy area as a good deed, of the calibre of giving food to the hungry and clothing to the poor.
No effort was spared to build the most beautiful and enduring monuments and no distance was too great to travel in search of wood, metal and stone of the finest quality. The extent of internal movement and communication can best be realised by considering the widely separated areas from which the raw material came. Copper and turquoise from the mines in Sinai; basalt from the eastern delta, limestone from the Mokattam Hills near Cairo; alabaster came from Hat-Nub in Middle Egypt, fine-quality granite from the quarries of Aswan near Egypt’s southern border; and the diorite quarries were in the western desert of Lower Egyptian Nubia.
Sarcophagi and statues were roughly shaped before transportation in order to reduce the weight, and the method of transportation is graphically depicted in a Middle Kingdom representation of a colossal seated statue, 22ft high, being towed by 172 men in four double lines. As they drag the securely bound statue with ropes, a man pours water in front of the sledge to ease the friction. In a Egyptian New Kingdom representation in Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, two obelisks are being transported by river. We have no such representations dating to the Old Kingdom but can assume that stone was similarly transported. The blocks were probably eased on to wooden sledges and towed by gangs of men to the river; they would then be levered on to barges and, having sailed to their destination on the swift-flowing currents during the inundation, would again be transferred to sledges, for dragging to the necropolis. Although there is a representation of a scaling- ladder on wheels in a 5th-dynasty tomb, wheels were not used for transportation in the Old Kingdom.
It is not surprising that a powerful and cultured state should conserve its natural wealth and seek to augment supplies from regions around it, as well as seek out materials not available within its borders. One such region lay beyond the First Cataract in the south, and was a difficult area to reach. At low water the river Egyptian Nile struggled through a six-mile course of sinuous, tortuous passages dividing round rocks, dashing over protusions and fermenting and gurgling its way northward. During the inundation the danger would be under water, but the turbulent eddies betrayed the presence of the bed of reefs. Beyond lay Nubia.