Shadowed by a support boat for safety, Ward and a crew of 24—including her two sons—sailed their 66-foot reconstruction, called Min of the Desert, on the Red Sea for two weeks, setting out from Safaga, a modern port not far from Mersa Gawasis. The team had low expectations; the professional long-distance sailor who captained the two-week-long voyage likened the wide, flat-bottomed craft to “a giant wooden salad bowl” the first time he saw it.
Yet once under way, the ship proved agile and fast. During an unexpected storm, it weathered 10-foot waves and winds over 20 knots, and the two massive steering oars trailing the ship’s hull helped keep it on course. “In stormy weather it just surfed,” Ward recalls, hefting the plank in her hands. At one point, the ship hit 9 knots, or about 10 miles an hour, with most of its sails furled. That’s about three times as fast as an average modern sailboat, not too shabby for a craft carved with stone and copper tools.
For all the skill and craftsmanship evident in the Mersa Gawasis caves, ancient Egypt’s ocean voyages were most likely an exception to the usual modes of trade, born out of necessity in order to obtain exotic raw materials. For most of Egypt’s history, goods from Punt moved along established caravan routes via the upper Nile and across the eastern desert before cutting through
modern-day Sudan. But around the time Mersa Gawasis came into use, it seems a hostile new kingdom to the south cut Egypt off from its supply of aromatic incense and resins. “If they could have gone overland, it was much easier than bringing timbers from Lebanon, building ships on the upper Nile, taking them apart and carrying them across the desert,” Bard says. “They weren’t stupid—no one wants to do things the hard way. But geopolitically, they had no
On the basis of the speeds Min of the Desert reached on its experimental voyage, Ward estimates that the endeavor would have taken at least four months, and probably more: a month to assemble the ships, a month to sail to Punt, a month and a half or more to sail back against the prevailing winds, and a month to disassemble the ships and prepare for the trek back across the desert. Fattovich suggests that there were probably just 15 to 20 expeditions over some 400 years, about one every two decades.
Even for a civilization that built the pyramids, these expeditions would have been a tremendous logistical challenge. The closest shipyards were in Qena, a city on the Nile not far from the great temples of Luxor, Karnak, and Thebes. Four hundred miles south of modern Cairo, Qena was the closest point on the Nile to the Red Sea and probably the starting point for voyages to Punt.
From Qena, expeditions would have had to trek east across 100 miles of desert, following channels cut by rare rainstorms—or wadis—until they arrived at the coast. Mersa Gawasis was an intermediate staging point where the expeditions could reassemble their ships and prepare for the long voyage south.
Today Egypt’s Red Sea coast is almost completely lifeless, as though the sandy beach is simply an extension of the desert that stretches 100 miles inland to the Nile. “Here we are, in the middle of nowhere,” Fattovich says. “For Egyptians this was the equivalent of what a moon base will be in 100 years—very strange, very difficult.”
The carefully chosen harbor met a number of requirements for ancient sailors. It was sheltered from the waves and wind, its mouth was deep enough to clear the reefs that line the Red Sea coast, and the fossilized coral cliffs could be dug out easily. To top it off, Mersa Gawasis was a sort of marine oasis. Organic remains excavated in and around the caves helped the archaeologists reconstruct an environment very different from the expanse of sand and stone that surrounds the dig today. The inlet was once lined with mangrove trees and reeds. Shallow, calm water would have been perfect for launching ships. “Four thousand years ago, this was an ideal harbor. It’s a perfect place for ships to be built,” Bard says. “And it’s the shortest distance between Qena and the Red Sea.”
Like a modern space mission, the expeditions had to be entirely self-sufficient. Though the team did find freshwater sources not too far from the caves, everything else would have been carried across the desert. The ships themselves were disassembled plank by plank and probably loaded onto donkeys for the long trek. And each expedition brought with it not just the ships themselves but months’ worth of food, rope, tools, and provisions for the voyage south.
All this took tremendous manpower. An inscription on a stone found atop the cliff commemorating a voyage that set sail around 1950 B.C. lists a labor force of 3,756 men, 3,200 of them conscripted workers. “These were complicated and expensive operations in Egyptian times,” Fattovich says.
After about 400 years, Mersa Gawasis fell out of use. It was probably abandoned because there was no longer enough water in the lagoon to float ships, and perhaps overland links improved or other harbors were used. The last sailors to use the lagoon sealed up their ropes and shelters behind mud brick and sand to await expeditions that never came. For four millennia, the caves remained perfectly intact.