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The ancient Egyptian shipyard at Tel Abu Saifi, Sinai, Egypt.

Ptolemaic Era Shipyard Unearthed Near Roman Fortress in Egypt

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Archaeologists working in the Sinai province of Egypt have unearthed the remains of a workshop that was once used to build and maintain one of the most valuable forms of ancient Egyptian transport – the ships that sailed the Nile River.

Ptolemaic Era Shipyard

According to CTV News , the workshop was used during the Ptolemaic period (332 BC-30 BC). Tel Abu Saifi was also the site of the Roman fortress and town of Silla and the shipyard may have been used during that time as well.

Luxor Times reports that drydocks were found during excavations at the archaeological site of Tel Abu Saifi in Northern Sinai. They were two limestone buildings that were separated by a central rectangular structure. The larger of the two drydocks was 6 meters (19.69 feet) wide and 25 meters (82.02 feet) long, providing the needed space for ancient ships to have been pulled in and worked on.

Dr. Nadia Khedr, the Director of Lower Egypt Antiquities, told Luxor Times the drydocks fell into disuse when the nearby lake and branch to the Nile River had dried out. However, the large limestone blocks were moved and re-used for another project.

Ruins of the dockyard. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Ruins of the dockyard. (Ministry of Antiquities )

The Nile and Egyptian Ships

The Nile River was considered the lifeblood of ancient Egypt and some say the civilization would have never rose to such high levels without the extensive waterway. Ancient Egyptian culture and history are tightly tied to the Nile. On the spiritual side, it was believed to be a passageway from life to death, the location where the deity Hapi, brought fertility to the land with yearly flooding.

But the Nile was also the key to the socioeconomic development and success of ancient Egypt -  for crops, fishing, jousting, and trade. Much of the time, the slow flowing river was a pleasant choice for sailors. Small papyrus rafts , made from the reeds growing near the Nile, were later supplemented by larger and sturdier wooden boats, which continued the flat bottom and a square stern style of their papyrus predecessors. The addition of quadrilateral sails and at least one level of rowers with oars enabled the ancient Egyptians to expand their trading zone and increase their contact, and sometimes naval battles, with other cultures.

An ancient Egyptian ship. (Public Domain)

An ancient Egyptian ship. ( Public Domain )

Wood, Fish Bones, Nails, and Pottery

Evidence for trade and fishing have also been noted in the Tel Abu Saifi excavations. Archaeologists unearthed local and imported pottery as well as fish bones from Nile River fish at the site. A couple of discoveries in the workshop include decomposed wooden beams which are either the remains of a boat or were meant to fix one, and bronze and metal nails of various shapes and sizes to build and fix ships.

 Fishbones, nails, and pottery have all been found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities)

 Fishbones, nails, and pottery have all been found at the site. ( Ministry of Antiquities )

Previous Excavations

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that these are not the first excavations at Tel Abu Saifi. As Sada el Balad mentions, over 100 years ago, in 1911, Egyptian archaeologist Mohamed Shaaban led the first archaeological dig at the site. In 1914, a French mission with the Suez Canal company explored it too.

Unfortunately, Tel Abu Saifi lost many of its archaeological features in 1967 when it was used as a military base. But it was back in the hands of archaeologists from 1994 until 2000, the period when the Supreme Council of Antiquities were discovering the remnants of the Roman fortress.

And now the drydocks add another feature to the story of the ancient site.

Nails found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Nails found at the site. (Ministry of Antiquities )

Top Image: The ancient Egyptian shipyard at Tel Abu Saifi, Sinai, Egypt. Source: Ministry of Antiquities

By Alicia McDermott

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