Trade in Ancient Egypt portrayed in ‘Israel in Egypt’ by Edward Poynter  Source: Edward Poynter / Public Domain

The Vagaries of Trade in Ancient Egypt


Along with a lust for building enigmatic and long lasting structures, trade was an important feature of Ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians traded with many lands that bordered their country, including Nubia, Libya, and the Levant. Additionally, trade in Ancient Egypt was also conducted with peoples from faraway lands, including Greece, Mesopotamia, and the mysterious Land of Punt. As a result of trade, the ancient Egyptians were able to obtain a variety of exotic goods from these foreign lands. More importantly, trade was one of the ways that allowed the ancient Egyptians to make contact with the wider world. Such contact not only facilitated the flow of goods into Egypt, but also people and ideas. Ancient Egyptian trade is attested in many forms, including archaeological remains, literary sources, and artistic representations.

Contact between Egypt and neighboring lands is seen as early as the prehistoric period. Graves from the Neolithic Badarian culture (which flourished between the 6 th and 5 th millennium BC), for instance, contain shells from the Red Sea. Additionally, copper ore from either the Eastern Desert or the Sinai have also been discovered. Although it is not entirely clear how the Badarians obtained these foreign goods, it may have been through trade in Ancient Egypt.

Procuring Exotic Goods in Ancient Egypt  (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Procuring Exotic Goods in Ancient Egypt  (Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Row, Row, Row the Boat

During the succeeding Naqada Period, which lasted from around 4000 to 3200 BC, trade with foreign lands seems to have intensified. During the second phase of this period (known as Naqada II), the boat became the predominant motif in representational art. One of the functions of the boat was to procure raw materials from distant lands, such as gold, ivory, and incense from the south, and oils, stone, and shells from the north and the east. Most of these exotic goods were meant for the elite, who used them to distinguish themselves socially from the rest of the population. Goods from the Naqada culture have been discovered in local Lower Nubian graves, which further supports the idea of ongoing trade in Ancient Egypt.     

Although trade with foreign lands continued after the formation of the Egyptian state, some differences emerged. This is seen, for instance, in the trade relations between Egypt and Lower Nubia during the Early Dynastic Period . The Egyptians were now in control of a large territorial state, and may have desired to control the trade with the Nubians more directly. As a consequence, military expeditions were sent into Lower Nubia. At the same time, the Egyptians were conducting trade with the Levant. At the site of Ain Besor, in southern Palestine, ceramics and seal impressions suggest that state-sponsored trade was directed by Egyptian officials residing there. The cedars of Lebanon, from which wood, oils, and resins were obtained, would have been one of the most valuable trade objects from the region.

All Giza Pyramids stacked in one shot. (Ricardo Liberato / CC BY-SA 2.0)

All Giza Pyramids stacked in one shot. (Ricardo Liberato / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Trade in the Age of the Pyramid Builders

During the Old Kingdom (known also as the ‘Age of the Pyramid Builders’), trade with foreign lands was boosted as a result of the monumental projects initiated by the pharaohs. In order to secure raw materials that were unavailable in Egypt itself, the pharaohs organized expeditions to foreign lands, not entirely unlike their predecessors during the Early Dynastic Period. For example, the names of the pharaohs Djoser, Sekhemkhet, Sneferu, and Khufu are found as rock inscriptions in the turquoise and copper mines of Wadi Mathura, in the Sinai. Egyptian goods from this period have also been found in Lebanon and Syria, which suggest that trade in Ancient Egypt was being conducted with these regions.

The Old Kingdom was succeeded by the First Intermediate Period, which began around 2160 BC. By this time, the central authority of the pharaohs had collapsed, and power was divided amongst the monarchs, or provincial governors. As Egypt was in a fragmented state, it was not in the best position to conduct overseas trade. The First Intermediate Period ended around 2055 BC, when Egypt was reunited under the 11 th Dynasty. This was the start of the Middle Kingdom , which ruled Egypt until around 1650 BC.

Evidence for trade in Ancient Egypt during the Middle Kingdom has been found at Egyptian sites from this period. At the site of Lahun, in the Faiyum, for instance, a few sherds of Minoan pottery have been found, which may suggest trade contacts between Egypt and the Aegean region.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the pottery may indicate the presence of foreign workers from Crete, since the objects are not luxury goods but common items that would have been used by the workers.

At the other end, Egyptian stone vases have been found on Crete. In addition, Egyptian styles and iconography were imitated by the island’s craftsmen. The Egyptians also maintained their trade links with the Levant and Nubia during the Middle Kingdom.

Ancient Best Sellers (National Museum in Warsaw / Public Domain)

Ancient Best Sellers (National Museum in Warsaw / Public Domain )

The Golden Age of Ancient Egyptian Literature

The Middle Kingdom is often considered to be the golden age of Ancient Egyptian literature, as many of the civilization’s greatest literary works were produced during this period. One of these works is entitled The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor , which has a trade expedition as its backdrop. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is considered to be oldest surviving ancient Egyptian story, and is preserved in a single manuscript, a papyrus (pHermitage 1115, known also as P. Leningrad 1115) housed in the Hermitage Museum , St. Petersburg, Russia. The tale is written in hieratic, i.e. the cursive form of the hieroglyphic script. Based on the grammar of the text, and the paleography of the hieratic script, the text is believed to have been composed during the early Middle Kingdom, between 2000 and 1900 BC.

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor begins with the return of a sailor to Egypt after a supposedly failed expedition to Nubia. Although the people greeted the expedition with great joy, the sailor was anxious about his upcoming meeting with the pharaoh, as he had to provide an explanation for the expedition’s failure. In order to calm his master’s nerves, one of the sailor’s servants, the eponymous shipwrecked sailor (who remains unnamed throughout the tale) tells him a story. In his tale, the shipwrecked sailor embarked on an expedition to a place called ‘the Mines of Pharaoh’, which involved travelling by sea. During the voyage, the ship sank in a storm. The shipwrecked sailor was the only survivor, and he was eventually washed up on an island.

On the island, the shipwrecked sailor encountered a giant serpent, who brings him back to his cave. After hearing the shipwrecked sailor’s story, the serpent allows him to live on the island. The serpent tells the shipwrecked sailor that it was the gods who allowed him to live, and it was also they who brought him to the island. Additionally, the serpent told him that after four months, he would be rescued, and returned to his homeland. The serpent consoles the shipwrecked sailor further by recounting a tragedy that had befallen him; the death of his family when a star fell to the island, and burned them all to death.

After hearing the serpent’s story, the shipwrecked sailor promised to tell the pharaoh about his greatness. Moreover, he would bring the serpent valuable gifts, and offer him sacrifices once he returned home. The serpent merely smiled at the shipwrecked sailor’s speech and revealed that he was in fact the prince of the Land of Punt. The serpent added that when the shipwrecked sailor leaves the island, he will not be able to return to it, as it would disappear under the waves. Finally, when the time came for the shipwrecked sailor to be rescued, the serpent gave him “gifts of precious perfumes, of cassia, of sweet woods, of kohl, of cypress, an abundance of incense, of ivory tusks, of baboons, of apes, and all kinds of precious things,” which he brought back to Egypt.  

The Prince of Punt with His Family  (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Prince of Punt with His Family  ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The Land of Punt is not merely a fictional location in a work of literature. Expeditions to this legendary place are recorded to have been conducted by the ancient Egyptians. The earliest references to the Land of Punt date to the Old Kingdom. As an example, Pepi II , one of the last pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, made an expedition to the Land of Punt around 2200 BC. Such expeditions were also undertaken during the Middle Kingdom during the reigns of Mentuhotetp III, a pharaoh of the Eleventh Dynasty, and Senusret I, a pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty. Arguably, the most famous account of an expedition to the Land of Punt comes from the New Kingdom, during the reign of Hatshepsut.

One of Eight Colossal Statues of Hatshepsut Recovered from Deir el-Bahri. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of Eight Colossal Statues of Hatshepsut Recovered from Deir el-Bahri. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Hatshepsut was a pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and one of the most remarkable female figures in the history of Ancient Egypt. Her expedition to the Land of Punt is perhaps one of Hatshepsut’s proudest achievements, and is portrayed on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, in the Theban Necropolis. The last expedition to the Land of Punt was undertaken about 500 years before Hatshepsut came to power, so this was indeed a feat worthy of being immortalized in stone. The Punt Reliefs, as they are sometimes known, provide a pictorial depiction of the expedition. Scenes from the reliefs include the sea journey, the reception by the Chief of Punt and his family, and of course, the return journey to Egypt.

The reliefs are accompanied by inscriptions, which provide additional detail about the expedition. According to the inscriptions, the Chief of Punt, at that time, was a man named Pa-rehu, with a wife named Ati. The inscriptions also mention that the Egyptians made the voyage to the Land of Punt in order to exact tribute from the natives. In reality, it is more likely that it was a trade expedition. The goods obtained from the Land of Punt are mentioned in the inscriptions as well. These items included incense, animal skins, ivory, myrrh resin, and myrrh trees. The last of these is depicted in the reliefs. Interestingly, there is a withered tree stump in front of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. It is claimed that this was one of the trees brought back by Hatshepsut from the Land of Punt.

The exact location of the Land of Punt is still a matter of debate. It is generally agreed that this land is situated to the south of Egypt, somewhere along the coast of the Red Sea. It has been suggested that the Land of Punt may correspond to the area around the Horn of Africa (modern day Somalia and Eritrea), or perhaps the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen). Some have gone so far as to assert that the Land of Punt was in fact Sri Lanka, or the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia.

Collapse of the New Kingdom

One of the factors that led to the collapse of the New Kingdom was the invasion and migration of Libyan tribes from Egypt’s western border. One of the dynasties of the succeeding Third Intermediate Period , i.e., the Twenty-Third Dynasty, consisted of a series of kings of Libyan origin. Prior to this, the Egyptians and the Libyans were trade partners. During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians and Libyans were more regularly in contact with each other. Unlike Nubia, Libya had little to offer in terms of trade to the Egyptians. Still, the Libyans did have some exotic goods that the Egyptians desired, such as ostrich feathers and ostrich eggs.     

By the 7 th century BC, Egypt had entered into the Late Period, and native rule came to an end three centuries later. During this period, Egypt and Greece were more regularly in contact with each other. Although contacts between the two civilizations had already occurred during the 2 nd millennium BC, not much is known about these early contacts. During the Late Period, however, there is much more evidence of Graeco-Egyptian contacts. The site of Naucratis, for instance, is one of the best examples of the Greek presence in Egypt during the Late Period. Although the site was established by the Milesians during the middle or late 7 th century BC, it was soon settled by Greeks from other parts of the Greek world. Amongst other things, excavations at the site have uncovered sacred enclosures dedicated to Greek cults, Greek pottery , and a scarab factory producing material for export.

To conclude, trade in Ancient Egypt was an important feature of ancient Egyptian society, and was conducted throughout the civilization’s history. Although dynasties rose and fell, trade continued, though its nature may have changed, so as to reflect new political realities. Trade continued in Egypt long after it fell to foreign rulers. Although Ancient Egypt was first conquered by the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans, trade continued. Of course, the nature of trade during these periods would have been somewhat different from the time Egypt was ruled by native pharaohs.

Top image: Trade in Ancient Egypt portrayed in ‘Israel in Egypt’ by Edward Poynter  Source: Edward Poynter / Public Domain

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     


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