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Kingdom of Punt: When Ancient Egypt Envied Somalia

The kingdom of Punt is described in great detail in ancient Egyptian texts as the “Land of the Gods” – Ta Netjer.  The history of Punt is connected intimately with the ancient Egyptian kingdoms and was a valuable trading partner of the kingdoms.

In pre-dynastic era (c6000 – 3150 BC) signs of trade had already begun to appear in material evidence of Egypt. Evidence of trade with Mesopotamia and Phoenicia appears during the early dynastic era (c3150 – 2613 BC). It was during the Fifth Dynasty of the Egyptian civilization (c2498 – 2345BC) that they began to grow trade with Punt. In the material evidence, one of the places that is mentioned frequently in their Temples and other drawings is the Kingdom of Punt, one of the most esteemed trading partners of the Egyptians, and a seemingly affluent empire in its own right.

Evidence of trade and diplomatic relations also continued to appear during the reigns of Pepy II (2278 – 2184 BC), in the tomb inscription of the military commander Pepynakht Heqalb, Amunhotep (1425-1400BC), Rameses II (1279-1213BC) and Rameses III (1185-1155BC).

Punt exports to Egypt

Punt supplied the materials for Egyptian temples: leopard skins for priests to wear; gold was used for statue-making; incense imported from Punt by Egypt was burned in temples; scenes of Punt were used to decorate the walls of Egyptian rulers; and myrrh was imported from Punt.

Punt also exported to Egypt skins from cheetahs, panthers and giraffes, wild animals, live apes, elephants, ivory, spices, precious woods, cosmetics, aromatic gum, frankincense and 31 incense trees (Boswellia).

Marc Van de Mieroop writes in his book (Van De Mieroop, M. A History of Ancient Egypt) that, “Among the goods imported were complete incense trees as well as loose incense, an expensive fragrant tree extract that was used in [religious services] as an offering to the gods. The expedition gathered enormous heaps of it and the accompanying inscription asserts that such amounts had never been acquired. The relief’s prominence indicates how proud Hatshepsut was of the expedition’s achievements”

From these extracts, it was concluded Punt was a great trading empire and also that Hatshepsut herself was stunned by the riches in Punt.

Plant transplant

Egypt imported Boswellia trees from Punt and were successful in domesticating them in Egypt, due to an expedition sent by Queen Hatshepsut.

Punt import

Punt imported from Egypt tools, weapons, metals and jewellery.

Location

No one knows exactly where the Punt Empire is located, but based on evidence, historians have been able to narrow it down to somewhere in Northeastern Africa. Richard Pankhurst has researched products that were depicted in ancient Egyptian paintings about trade with the empire included gold and quite aromatic resins. Along with this, they also depicted animals such as Lions, giraffes, which would place Punt somewhere in the Eastern Part of North Africa.

While no one has been able to find Punt, ancient Egyptian records confirm that the Kingdom did exist, and was a thriving empire in its own right, and gave us a lot on information about their customs, their lifestyle, and their own trade.

However, others disagree with this point of view, and feel that Punt could be located in what is now Yemen. There is some evidence for this view as well, but recent evidence shows that this is unlikely.

The recent evidence comes from a group of Polish archaeologists led by Dr. Fillip Taterka, an Egyptologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences. He found a depiction of the secretary bird at the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. This bird is shown to be a bird native to Punt. That bird is only found in Africa, so adds strength to Richard’s argument about location[1]. More recent evidence has emerged that Punt may perhaps be in Modern Day Somalia, but we can not be certain of the evidence so far. What we do know is that it was an African Empire.

punt_proposed location
Possible location of Punt, with trade routes from Egypt to Punt via rivers, wadis, and by sea. Mennefer is Memphis, Waset is Thebes and Irem and Nemyw are lands that supposedly border on Punt. (source)

Time Period

The time period of the kingdom of Punt is estimated to be from around 2400-1069 BCE. We know that Egypt began trade with Punt around this period, and it is possible that it is an even older Empire than that estimated so far. However, the lack of remains of the Empire itself mean that is hard to gauge the exact date of the Empire. Some have even gone as far as to wonder if Punt is nothing more than an Ancient Egyptian depiction of an imaginary Utopia, as the alternate name of Punt translates to Land of the Gods.

One feature of Somalia that confuses scholars is that the ancient Egyptians and Somalians shared similar words in both languages. Most scholars usually infer from this that Egypt influenced the Somalians, although it may be possible influences went both ways.

Grandeur of the Punt Empire

Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Punt Empire that can be paid was paid by the Egyptians when they named it Ta Netjer, or Land of the Gods. It is depicted as a land of plenty and a land where many luxuries can be found. From valuable metals such as gold, to many aromatic incenses, it seems that Punt was a land of luxury.

One of the most famous exchanges involving Punt is perhaps that involving Queen Hatshepsut’s expedition in 1493 BCE in the eighteenth Dynasty of the Egyptian Empire.[2],[3] The exchange between the Egyptian and Punt Empires brought back living trees to Egypt. This is also the first example of foreign plants or fauna being transplanted into another nation.

Origin of Egyptians?

Hathor is an important Egyptian goddess, considered the symbolic mother of the pharaohs – the earthly counterparts of Horus and the sun gods Ra. As the eye of Ra, she is the counterpart of Ra. Her vengeful side protects from enemies. Her benevolent side inspired music, dance, fertility, joy, love, sexuality, maternal care and helped the souls of those deceased transition to the afterlife. Where pharaohs identified with other male gods in the old and intermediate era, Hathor was identified as the mother of those gods and consort of the father of those gods.

Hathor was depicted with a headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. In animal form, she was depicted as either a cow, a lioness, cobra or sycamore tree. In later times, Hathor was overshadowed by Isis. Many temples include Dendera Temple in Upper Egypt were dedicated to Hathor. With such wide ranging responsibilities, Hathor was invoked in many kinds of prayers and gained popularity beyond Egypt in Canaan and Nubia. Inscriptions by Hatshepsut and from Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty Period identify the origin of Hathor as Punt.

Present Day Descendants

There are many reasons to believe that Somalians may be the current day descendants of the Punt Empire. For one thing, the ancient Somali name for one of their cities is Bunn, which is a huge marker that this could be Punt. Beyond this, all the luxuries and trade that took place between Egypt and ancient Punt can be found in Somalia. This makes it very likely that Somalia is the location of the Punt Empire.

Adding to this, some Somali culture bears huge relation to that of the Egyptian Empire of old, such as the Dhaanto, a dance that bears great resemblance to an Ancient Egyptian dance, as can be seen by the picture below

There are also many linguistic similarities between Somali and ancient Egyptian Vocabulary, which do suggest the area was highly influenced by Egypt, and as a trading partner, Punt too would be vastly influenced by the Egyptians.

The Puntites wore similar costumes to the Egyptians, the “Gundhate” or “Gunti” – a white royal loincloth.

punt_reliefs

World first

Donkey were first domesticated in Northeast Africa. The ancestors of the modern donkey are the Somalian and Nubian subspecies of the African wild ass. [4],[5]

Decline?

No one knows what happened to the Punt Empire, but as more and more is uncovered, one thing is clear, that this is one of the great Empires in the world, with a history that is worth uncovering. It is also obvious that they must have also had a good military, as the Egyptians may have conquered them otherwise, especially keeping in mind the vast riches the Empire had.

Bibliography

[1] Zdziebłowski, Szymon (June 20, 2018). “Polish Egyptologist discovered a secretary bird in the Temple of Hatshepsut”Science in Poland.

[2] E. Naville, The Life and Monuments of the Queen in T.M. Davis (ed.), the tomb of Hatshopsitu, London: 1906. pp.28–29

[3] Joyce Tyldesley, Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, Penguin Books, 1996 hardback, p.145

[4] J. Clutton-Brook A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals 1999

[5] Albano Beja-Pereira, “African Origins of the Domestic Donkey”, in Science, 2004

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