The oldest known harbor in the world has been discovered by archaeologists diving off Egypt's Red Sea coast at Wadi el-Jarf. The site was found near a huge archive of papyri – which is also the oldest known to date, and which describe how the harbor was built and used by the great King Cheops to import materials to build his flagship monument, the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The monumental harbor discovered under the waves at Wadi el-Jarf has been dated to 4,600 years ago, right in Cheops' time.
Cheops, also known by his Egyptian name Khufu, reigned from 2580 to 2550 B.C.E. He had the harbor erected 180 kilometers south of Suez, in the foothills of the desert mountains.
The site is nowhere near Giza: it seems it served mainly to import relatively lighter copper and minerals, which were used to manufacture the tools that were employed to build the pyramid.
The mere fact of the monumental harbor's existence gives us insight into the efficiency of the administration and its ability to organize highly complex logistical operations nearly five millennia ago, says Prof. Pierre Tallet of Sorbonne, the head of the excavations.
Riches in the Sinai
The area of Wadi el-Jarf was first identified as being of interest in 1823 by the British explorer Sir John Gardner, who noted the rock-hewn galleries in his diary. Now marine archaeologists from the French Institute of Archaeology in Cairo and Sorbonne University have discovered the monumental submerged harbor complex built by Cheops.
Over the millennia, the ancient Egyptians traded briskly with peoples around the region, operating from coastal towns on both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. (Ancient Egyptian wares have been found as far north as Scandinavia, but could have reached there through middlemen in Europe.)
King Cheops himself was not only a great pyramid builder but evidently also a great businessman, trading along the Canaanite coast up to Byblos (today in northern Lebanon), and inland to the Sinai Desert and Jordan. The ancient Egyptians may have built the harbor to secure their supply of strategic resources, such as copper and turquoise, which were mined in the southern Sinai.
Indeed, the entire history of pharaonic Egypt was inextricably linked with use of boats and ships. Sail boats augmented with oars could travel 80 kilometers in a day, convenient not only for trade, but to quickly deploy troops.
Among the astounding discoveries beneath the waves at Wadi el-Jarf was a monumental 200-meter long L-shaped pier built of large limestone blocks. The pier also functioned as a breakwater, offering sheltered anchorage for the boats moored within.
The diving archaeologists discovered 22 limestone ship anchors in situ in the mooring area, which probably fell off ships, since no wrecks have been found.
Several large storage jars lying on the seabed next to the anchors were also found underwater.
In addition to dock structures, the archaeologists also discovered several pottery kilns, attesting to local ceramic production.
Thousands of locally made globular storage jars were found everywhere throughout the site – and also on the opposite bank of the Suez Gulf, at the Egyptian coastal fortress of Al-Markha. The fortress protected Egyptian trade in Sinai and was evidently supplied with provisions from the harbor.
Enviably efficient administration
Next to the wharf, the archaeologists found the remains of large stone structures, measuring 30 meters long by 8 to 12 meters in width. Tallet postulates that these were administrative centers for the port's operations, and were also used to store material and foods for the miners working in Sinai. They may have also provided accommodation to teams briefly staying on the coast.
Between two of these structures, the archaeologists found a deposit of 99 stone anchors, some of which still had ropes attached. A significant number bore inscriptions in red ink with the name of the boat to which they belonged. That is truly an impressive level of organization for nearly 5,000 years ago.
The galleries hewn from the rock where the papyri were found lie six kilometers from shore. The tunnels carved into the hill average three meters in width and 15 to 20 meters in length, though some galleries were over 34 meters long. Each gallery was narrowed by a series of large blocks of limestone and was finally sealed by a last block, arranged as a sort of gate.
The galleries were used for storage, from oars to tools to food and water supplies: Three of the galleries were crammed with several dozen large locally made storage jars, which probably served as water containers.
Most of the jars were inscribed with destinations, also in red ink, and the upper parts of each pot bore the name of the work team to which it belonged.
The excavators postulate that the galleries also served to store boat parts, based on the discovery of hundreds of pieces of wood, fragments of oars, and sections of ropes found inside. Among the wood bits were long wooden hull boards cut from logs of cedar from Lebanon, further evidence of the ancient Egyptians' long-distance trading in the 2nd millennium B.C.E..
Factory for boats?
Tallet goes one further. He is convinced that the galleries were not only used to store these parts but also for reassembling ship kits that were transported over the desert roads to the Red Sea.
His theory is supported by the discovery at a different pharaonic harbor, Ayn Sukhna, some 120 kilometers up the coast, by the same archeologists a few years ago.
At Ayn Sukhna, which is also believed to have been connected with the mining operations in Sinai, two complete boats (which however were burnt in antiquity) were found inside the rock-hewn galleries.
“Ayn Sukhna probably replaced Wadi el-Jarf," postulates Tallet. "We can determine that Jarf was probably closed at the end of the reign of Cheops, and that Ayn Sukhna was opened about 10-15 years later, under the reign of Khaefre, his second successor. Ayn Sukhna is closer to the administrative city of Memphis, which is probably the reason why it was finally selected. Jarf was in use only for a few decades, but Ayn Sukhna was regularly used by the Egyptian for more than a thousand years."
Possibly, Jarf's use was intermittent, Tallet speculates: it might have only been used for expeditions to secure a supply of natural resources. “In between expeditions, sometimes for years, the place would be closed and the boats would be stored in the galleries. This is the 'raison d'être' of the caves,” he told Haaretz.
Whispers of a pyramid inspector
Perhaps most astounding was the discovery in summer of around 800 pieces of papyri, dating to the reign of Cheops´s 27th regnal reign. This is the oldest papyrus archive ever found in Egypt, according to the Egyptian Institute of Antiquities.
These ancient documents were extraordinarily well preserved: some sheets were as much as a meter long.
The excavators believe that the papyri are the archive of a team of sailors, and includes two categories of documents. One is accounts organized in tables, corresponding to daily or monthly deliveries of food from various areas including the Nile Delta: mostly bread and beer for the port workers.
Sign up below and receive them directly in your inbox
The other documents are logbooks recording everyday activities of a team led by an inspector named Merer, an official from Memphis.
Merer, who oversaw a team about 40 men, was in charge of building the Great Pyramid in Giza. The documents describe transportation up the Nile River and the work at the limestone quarries, in the form of a time table.
Every fourth day, blocks would be delivered to a pyramid construction site on the Giza plateau called the “Horizon of Cheops”, the papers explain.
Did Herodotus libel Cheops?
Merer's journal also mentions his passage through an important logistic and administrative center, ‘Ro-She Khufu' - which seems to have functioned as a stopping point near the Giza plateau.
It is especially emphasized that Ro-She Khufu was under the authority of a high-ranking official, Ankhhaef – none other than the half-brother of Cheops himself. Ankhhaef was the pharaoh's vizier and by the end of his reign, had achieved the status of "chief for all the works of the king".
Other logs in the same archive provide information on other missions accomplished by the same team of sailors during the same year, including building a harbor on the Mediterranean Sea coast.
Taller postulates that the harbor installations at Wadi el-Jarf served the Great Pyramid project by obtaining the vast amounts of copper necessary for tools (the pyramid was built millennia before the Iron Age), and some specific equipment used at Giza.
Whatever the case, the Greek historian Herodotus describes Cheops as a harsh taskmaster, who forced all Egyptians to devote 20 years of their lives to dragging stone to the Great Pyramid he was building for his own aggrandizement. Cheops employed so many workers that it cost 1600 silver talents just to keep them supplied with black radish and onion, Herodotus reports (Histories 2.124).
Today many Egyptologists suspect that the “black legends of Cheops” are exaggerated and that Herodotus inflated and the number of workers needed to build the pyramid.
Recent calculations estimate that actually building the pyramid required 5,000 men, or, 15,000 if one includes people bringing the raw material to Giza, says Tallet, and adds, “They were not slaves, but specialists who were employed all the year long by the royal administration - and, from the records that we have on the papyrus, they were rather privileged.”