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Ancient Kingdom of Yam.

Where Was the Mysterious Kingdom of Yam?

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Yam was an African kingdom that existed in ancient times. Not much is known about this ancient kingdom, and what little we do know about it comes from a few Egyptian texts belonging to the Old Kingdom period. Based on these texts, we know that the people of Yam had contacts, specifically trade and military, with the ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom. Other than that, nothing much can be said with certain about this kingdom.

Where Was the Kingdom of Yam?

The main mystery about Yam is its exact location. There are some clues in the ancient sources as to where Yam is situated. Nevertheless, these are not clear enough, and modern scholars have disagreed with each other as to how such clues should be understood. The clues for Yam’s whereabouts can be found in a tomb inscription known as the Autobiography of Harkhuf. As the title of this text suggests, this inscription belonged to a man named Harkhuf, a governor of Upper Egypt who lived during the 6th Dynasty (around 2345 BC – 2181 BC), and served under the pharaohs Merenre and Pepi II.

Harkhuf in a relief from his tomb at Qubbet el-Hawa.

Harkhuf in a relief from his tomb at Qubbet el-Hawa. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Harkhuf’s account, the governor stated that he had made four expeditions into Nubia during his lifetime. During the first expedition, Harkhuf travelled to the south with his father, the “ritual priest Iry”. The two men were there to “explore a road into this country [i.e. Yam]”, which they managed to do “in only seven months”. At the end of the expedition, “all (kinds of) gifts from it” were brought back to Egypt, for which he was “very greatly praised”.

Harkhuf Pacifies the King of Yam

Harkhuf’s second expedition is said to have been a solo one, in which the governor “went forth upon the Elephantine road”. Like his first expedition, the purpose of this one was also for trade,

“His majesty sent me a second time alone; I went forth upon the Elephantine road, and I descended from Irthet, Mekher, Tereres, Irtheth, being an affair of eight months. When I descended I brought gifts from this country in very great quantity. Never before was the like brought to this land. I descended from the dwelling of the chief of Sethu and Irthet after I had explored these countries. Never had any companion or caravan-conductor who went forth to Yam before this, done (it).”   

The third expedition to Yam by Harkhuf was slightly different in nature from the first two that the governor had conducted. Harkhuf does not mention the duration of this expedition, but says that he took the “Uhet road”. Trade was probably the initial purpose of this expedition. Nevertheless, when he arrived in Yam, he discovered “the chief of Yam going to the land of Temeh to smite Temeh as far as the western corner of heaven.”

Map of the possible location of Yam.

Map of the possible location of Yam. (Tour Egypt)

For one reason or another, Harkhuf decided that the action of the “chief of Yam” was not suitable, and decided to interfere in the affairs of Yam. Perhaps he was aware that Yam would be no match for Temeh, or that a stronger Yam would be a threat to Egypt, or Temeh was one of Egypt’s trade partners as well. Whatever the reason(s), Harkhuf “went forth after him to the land of Temeh and I pacified him, until he praised all the gods for the king's sake.” Harkhuf used diplomacy, rather than military might to pacify the chief of Yam.

On his return to Egypt, Harkhuf brought back a great amount of goods from Yam yet again,

“I descended with three hundred asses laden with incense, ebony, heknu, grain, panthers, .... ..... , ivory, [throw-sticks], and every good product.”

The Soldiers of Yam

In addition to such precious objects, Harkhuf also brought the soldiers of Yam with him to Egypt, which impressed the “chief of Irhet, Sethu, and Wawat” whose territory they were passing through,

“Now when the chief of Irthet, Sethu, and Wawat saw how strong and numerous was the troop of Yam, which descended with me to the court, and the soldiers who had been with me, (then) this [chief] brought and gave me bulls and small cattle, and conducted me to the roads of the highlands of Irthet,”

The soldiers of Yam are also attested in a text known as the Autobiography of Weni, which belonged to another court official of the 6th Dynasty. In this text, the soldiers of Yam served as mercenaries during the pharaoh’s war against the “Asiatic sand-dwellers”,

“When his majesty took action against the Asiatic sand-dwellers, his majesty made an army of many tens of thousands from all of Upper Egypt: ...; from Lower Egypt: ...; and from Irtjet-Nubians, Medja-Nubians, Yam-Nubians, Wawat-Nubians, Kaau-Nubians; and from Tjemeh-land.”

A Fourth Expedition

Harkhuf’s fourth expedition to Yam was also for the purpose of trade. The difference between this expedition and his previous ones was that the governor had received a royal letter from the 8-year-old pharaoh, Pepi II, whilst on his way back to Egypt. The contents of this letter was engraved on Harkhuf’s tomb, and the main point of it is that the pharaoh wanted to see a dwarf that Harkhuf had acquired during his expedition,

“Come northward to the court immediately; [...] thou shalt bring this dwarf with thee, which thou bringest living, prosperous and healthy from the land of spirits, for the dances of the god, to rejoice and [gladden] the heart of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, who lives forever…. My majesty desires to see this dwarf more than the gifts of Sinai and of Punt.”

Ruins of the pyramid complex of Pepi II.

Ruins of the pyramid complex of Pepi II. (Cc- Zero)

Whilst Harkhuf’s account provides a considerable amount of information about Yam, it has been pointed out that there are two questions which have divided scholars as to the location of Yam. The first is about the total distance covered by the round trip between Egypt and Yam (Harkhuf only provides the number of months required for his journey), and the routes followed by Harkhuf to Yam and back to Egypt (what exactly were the Elephantine and Uhet roads?).

As a result of differences in opinion, the area occupied by Yam has been placed in several different places, including “the desert west of Upper Nubia”, in Lower Nubia, further south below the six cataracts of the Nile, and even further west in Chad.

Featured image: Ancient Kingdom of Yam. Photo source: Listverse

By Wu Mingren                               


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Muhammad Shawky's picture

"Yam" in Arabic means Nile river

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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