“Egyptian Ship, circa 1480 BCE,” 1925-1950, by August F. Crabtree, The Mariners' Museum (1956.15.1).

Egyptian Ships

The Egyptians built some of the very earliest boats ever recorded. Paintings of boats appear on ancient Egyptian vases and murals as early as 6000 B.C.E. Egyptian civilization developed along the Nile River; it follows that the Egyptians living along this important river would develop vessels with which to ply it. The early boats were constructed of papyrus reeds and propelled by rowing. At first they were simple rafts, made of the papyrus reeds bundled together. As these vessels evolved, they became very large ships designed for ocean crossing. Papyrus was not sturdy enough for all purposes, however, and wooden boats began to be built. The wooden boats were modeled after the papyrus boats: they had flat bottoms, no keels, and square sterns. The wooden planks were held together with rope, and the spaces between the planks were caulked with reeds. These were sailed in addition to being rowed. Ancient Egyptian sails were square.


Decorative ingot of Queen Hatshepsut’s Ship traveling to Punt, Part of “The Great Sailing Ships of History” series, 1973, The Franklin Mint, The Mariners’ Museum.

Most of these ships were ships of trade; they carried Egyptian goods to other Mediterranean lands, and brought back goods from those lands to Egypt. Other Egyptian boats were part of an Egyptian navy. The Royal Fleet fought Egypt’s enemies, and enforced shipping law on the Nile. Individual religious temples sometimes had fleets of ships. Egyptians also used their ships for exploration. During the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, explorers visited the eastern coast of Africa. Under Rameses III, Egyptians made a crossing of the Indian Ocean.