Arriving at the goodly way into God's Land, journeying in peace to the land of Punt.
The Egyptians who sailed off to the land of Punt (Pwenet) are seen on the walls of Queen Hatshepsut's stupendous temple of Deir el-Bahri, a complex of terraces, ramps, colonnades and rock-cut chapels unique in the history of Egyptian architecture. Hatshepsut would have known the temple as Djeser-Djeseru, or "Sublime of the Sublimes". It really is sublime -- and not just for architectural reasons: texts chiselled on the walls tell us about this journey to this far-away God's Land, and row after row of painted reliefs picture the adventure all the way from its beginning to its triumphant conclusion.
The only thing that it doesn't tell us is where in the world is Punt.
Or, for that matter what is wrong with Eti, Queen of Punt (seen above; hobbling, we must imagine, behind her fashionably thin husband, King Perehu). Many different explanations have been offered for her strange appearance, ranging from suffering from an unknown disease (she's been given her own special 'Queen of Punt syndrome') to being simply overweight. None seems quite to fit the bill.
Scholars have argued for generations, too, about where Punt should be located.
Lots of texts mention Punt, but none gives detailed instructions for the voyage.
You could reach Punt by land or by sea or, more likely, a combination of both (see map). Occasional envoys from Punt are pictured in tomb paintings, but their images cannot be related to any known geographic region. Hatshepsut's reliefs give many clues: we see the Puntite village on the waterside, fish in the water (Red Sea varieties), trees on the shore (ebony, palms, and myrrh), animals (monkeys, donkeys, short-horned cattle, rhinoceros and giraffe). We see remarkably realistic looking people. In fact, no other representation from pharaonic times pictures a country outside Egypt so completely with its inhabitants and landscape. Punt is the only land whose geographic reality is expressed so clearly but -- paradoxically -- Punt exists as if in a void and its exact whereabouts remain unknown.
So, where is it: Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan?
As of today, we now know (or think we do).
But, first, some background on an extraordinary voyage.
It all began when Hatshepsut (Year 9 of her reign) received an oracle from the god Amun-Re, her putative father, who had made her pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Instructions were heard from the Great Throne. an oracle from the god himself.The Egyptians were not good sea sailors. Navigating the dangerous waters of the Red Sea to the very edge of the known world must have seemed to them as daunting as a mission to the Moon to us. Myrrh made it worthwhile. It was not just a sweet-smelling perfume (though it was that too: Hatshepsut rubbed it on her legs to impart a divine fragrance*), but an incense that was essential to the proper worship of gods and for the after-life.
"Explore the route to Punt, open the road to the Myrrh-terraces, and lead an expedition on water and on land to bring exotic goods from the God's land to this god who created [your] beauty."
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) was burned in vast quantities during the daily temple rituals, and used in embalming the bodies of pharaohs and for the mummification of lesser folk, too. As early as the Fifth Dynasty, a single expedition had brought back to Egypt no less than 80,000 measures of myrrh. Demand, however, was apparently insatiable.
Therefore, besides having orders to import the desired incense from Punt, the expedition also -- and this was Hatshepsut's innovation -- was to collect complete trees and bring them back to Egypt as well. These would then be cultivated in the temples of Amun at Thebes. At Deir el-Bahri itself, on the right and left sides of the ramp leading to the middle terrace, stumps of trees were found around artificial water basins, possibly the remnants of the myrrh-trees that were brought from Punt.
A Voyage to the Southern End of the Earth
So off they went, commanded by a high official, the state treasurer named Nehesj. He sailed with five ships, each manned by some 150 sailors and soldiers, and they probably spent a month at sea before they sighted the shores of Punt.
That made it possible for Hatshepsut to boast: My southern boundary is as far as the lands of Punt.
Coming ashore, the natives greeted Nehesj warmly. The Chief of Punt -- Perehu -- with his wife, Eti, right behind him (top left) steps forward to greet the Egyptian envoy. They express their amazement at the visit:
Why have you come into this land, which the people of Egypt do not know? Did you come down the ways of heaven, or did you sail upon the sea and upon the waters of God's land? Or have you trodden the path of the sun?
Nehesj stands opposite, on the other side of a pile of gifts intended for the Chief of Punt. He must have been a real 'bean-counter' (as Treasurer of Egypt) for the pile is a rather motley collection of merchandise: strings of beads, an axe, a dagger, some bracelets, and a wooden chest. He hopes to exchange this miserable stuff for the fabulous goods of Punt -- not only their own produce of myrrh, ebony and short-horned cattle, but also products from other African lands, including gold, ivory and animal skins.
Unsurprisingly, Nehesj has a well-armed escort behind him: confronted with such poor gifts, the natives might have turned nasty. But they didn't. They reached an agreement and Nehesj, Eti and Perehu went off to share a splendid banquet.
Nehesj seems to have made the best deal ever, prior to the Dutch buying Manhattan island from the Indians for $24 worth of tat.
Then the work began, surely many weeks of work. Egyptians must even have ventured into the interior since palm trees (lowest left) do not grow on the sea shore. Then, the great prize:
"...loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's-Land, heaps of myrrh resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold ..., with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with two kinds of incense, eye-cosmetics, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning."
You see in the middle of the ship (circled in red; click on photo to enlarge) one of the apes, a baboon to be exact. And therein lies the breaking news.
Sailing, arriving in peace, journeying to Thebes.
Three baboons were on board this ship, one of them -- as is clear in this close-up (left) -- squatting in their characteristic upright position. Very many baboons must have gone off into exile in Egypt in this way. When the Egyptians observed baboons barking at the rising sun, they imagined that the apes were worshipping the sun just as people did. That's why the baboon became an aspect of the sun god, Amun-Re, and whole colonies of these animals were kept in his temples.
When they died (and they didn't live long in the Egyptian climate**), they were mummified.
Now, thanks to mummified baboons (like this sad, partly unwrapped ape [left]) -- and some really smart, cutting edge science -- the search for Punt appears to be coming to an end.
At the 61st annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (23-25 April 2010), a team from the University of California Santa Cruz, led by Professor Nathaniel Dominy, presented the results of their analysing the hairs of three mummified baboons from Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, and comparing them with living specimens from Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The team took hair samples from baboon mummies in the British Museum and examined them by using oxygen isotope analysis. Oxygen isotopes act as a 'signal' that can let scientists know where the hairs came from.
It works like this: depending on the environment where an animal lived, the ratio of various isotopes of oxygen will be different. “Oxygen tends to vary as a function of rainfall and the water composition of plants and seed,” explained Prof. Dominy. One baboon from Thebes appears to have spent some time living in Egypt as an exotic pet. All that time, it consumed the local diet so its oxygen isotope value changed. That change means that researchers could not tell where it originally came from. But two baboons apparently died fairly soon after arrival in Egypt and retained the isotope values of their homeland.
So the winner for the place of Punt is....
When the researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren, they discovered that “all of our specimens in Eritrea and a certain number of our specimens from Ethiopia – that are basically due west from Eritrea – those are good matches,” said Dominy.
“We think Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”
Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique do not match.
But where in Eritrea?
Eritrea is a big place. Can they narrow it down further?
The team has a working hypothesis which they hope will locate exactly where the Treasurer Nehesj docked his ships in God's Land.
“If you have a map in front of you and you can zoom in on Eritrea there’s a major harbour there,” said Dominy. It's located near the modern port of Massawa.
Massawa is the so-called 'pearl of the Red Sea'. The town is located on two islands --absolutely perfect for a trading post, combining as it does, safety and accessibility. It should be clear by now that Punt was an early African trade emporium, not only trading its own products but other products of Africa, and probably Arabian frankincense as well. So an island location fits very well.
And the baboons agree.
The researchers say, "We have a specimen from that same harbour and that specimen is a very good match to the mummy.”
Welcome home, Queen Eti!
And I hope, one day, your fatness will be seen in this light, with you as a steatopygous princess of your people -- pictured through the prism of an astounded Egyptian artist.
*One of Hatshepsut's perfume flask on my blog post Hatshepsut Smells as Sweet.
** Though baboons were considered to be worshippers of the sun-god, and must have been given considerable care, investigations into the animal necropolises have revealed that their life expectancy in Egypt was very limited. Of the 200 or so specimens that have been examined, hardly any lived into their sixth through tenth years. Unfavourable living conditions resulted in undernourishment and the lack of freedom of movement and sunlight led to rickets, degenerative bone diseases and probably tuberculosis.
My thanks to Owen Jarus at Heritage Key's 'The Ancient World in London', 23 April 2010 (with a photograph of one of the British Museum baboons; under copyright) for the first report on the scientific breakthrough described above.
Other main sources include D. Meeks, 'Locating Punt' in (D. O'Connor and S. Quirke), Mysterious Lands, 2003, 53-80; R.S. Bianchi, Daily Life of the Nubians (Greenwood Press), 2004; and special mention for a paper by my friend, J. Phillips, 'Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa', Journal of African History, 1997, 423-57; more useful material available on-line at the website of Dr K.H. Leser; the website of tripod.com (with excellent plans and photographs of Deir el-Bahri); and the website of Exploring Africa: Timeline, Index and Other Issues .
Update: 9 May 2010
Readers who enjoy (as I do) intermingling ancient and contemporary visions in art may like to contemplate this image (left) kindly sent to me by Zenobia-blog reader, Hetty Boomkamp of The Netherlands.
From her collection: 'Double Pharaoh Portrait, Hatshepsut and the Queen of Punt' , a lithograph (1985) by my favourite Dutch artist, Gerti Bierenbroodspot.
I publish it with especial pleasure as today is Bierenbroodspot's birthday.
Top left: Queen Eti of Punt, King Perehu of Punt (AboveTopSecret).
Middle left: Men carrying myrrh trees with roots in pots (AboveTopSecret).
Centre: Egyptian ship being loaded with produce of Punt (maat-ka-ra.de).
Left: Close-up drawing of above (ExploringAfricaBlogspot).
Inset: Baboons worshipping the sun god with Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (R.Hiller, The Baboons and Monkeys of Ancient Egypt).
Lower left: Mummified baboon in Cairo's Egyptian Museum (Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 537).
Lowest left: A scene from Punt with ape climbing palm tree, short-horned cattle, head of giraffe (ExploringAfricaBlogspot).