The earliest records of boats in Africa come from the civilization of ancient Egypt. Because human origin and human civilization occurred first on the continent of Africa, it seems logical that Africa would be the place where humans first created river crafts. The nature of the Nile River, its absolute essentiality for ancient Egypt, made it the perfect laboratory for Africans to experiment with boat-making.

Boat Craft

So vast was the arena for the use of boats that the Egyptians used boats to carry everything from grain to stone, from lumber to the bark of the gods. Papyrus was used as one of the most common materials for boats around 4000 BC. However, the Egyptians soon turned to cedar wood, often conifers from Lebanon, as the most popular wood for boats, especially the sea-going vessels that carried troops, building equipments, and passengers. The papyrus boats were steered with an oar; the larger boats were often steered with two oars. Sail boats were the preferred type of boats on the Nile given that the winds were strong and powerful.
Boats sailed the Nile from Aswan to Men-nefer for ritual purposes when the kings wanted to build pyramids or take obelisks from the great quarries of the south. Funeral boats crossed the Nile from the east to the west to carry dead bodies and priests to the burial grounds. Many Egyptians saw their boats as the greatest possession they held; nothing could be as painful and pathetic as to be boat-less.
A record of a boat under sail is shown as early as 3200 BC in Egypt. There is no other example as early as this in human history, neither in Mesopotamia nor in China.
Boat making constituted a unique response to the need for transport and transportation; it was the way to maintain a stable society in ancient Egypt.
Boat-making evolved over the centuries. However, by the time of the Pyramid Age, the Egyptians had mastered the technique of creating boats that were fastened with ropes and wooden pegs rather than nails. Other areas of the continent also had strong boat cultures, particularly around Lake Chad. Yet it was in Egypt that the ancient boat was perfected for commercial and ritual purposes. Because all of the major towns were reachable by water, the making of boats constituted a great industry. Water and wind power combined to make the Nile one of the great working rivers of the world.

Boats in Ritual

It was as a ceremonial or ritual boat that the water-craft was most natural on the Nile. When a per-aa (pharaoh) died or when a god had to be moved, the boat had to be decorated for the purpose. Boats have been dug up from burial sites. Many boats were buried with the royal family members. In fact, Khufu's boat was 150 feet long. It was found in 1,224 pieces unassembled with matching signs in hieratic so that it could be reassembled.
It was believed that Khufu could use the boat in the afterlife. Obviously, it was part of the funeral cortege because it was found at Giza, the burial ground for the royals who lived at Men-nefer. The great king Khufu was not the only per-aa to be associated with a boat. It was the common practice of the ancient world for a person to have his own boat, but in the case of the king, he would have several boats.
During a dig in 1991 near the temple of Khentyamentiu, scientists found the remains of 14 boats that date to the first dynasty (2900–2775). It is easy to say that these boats had to be associated with King Aha, the first ruler of that dynasty. Each boat was 75 feet long, buried in parallel graves, and all made of wooden hulls. These are the world's oldest planked boats.
Ancient Africans made boats long before the presence of the wheel. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians who lived along the Nile simply used the technology of the people who lived above them. Light rafts made of bundled papyrus are thought to have been made by Africans who lived further south along the Nile. There is evidence of boats during the Naqada II culture, which came just before the dynastic period. Tomb reliefs show signs of boats being built.

[[File:|center|frame|Alabaster carving of a boat, from the tomb of Tutankhamen, displayed in the Cairo Museum. Source: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.]]

Boats as sacred vessels go to the heart of the invention of this mode of travel and transport. It is the use of the boat for the almighty god Ra that show him traveling on a reed float made of papyrus that is portrayed on the walls of temples and tombs. The religious significance of the boat may have been derived from the transportation of the god.



  • boats
  • burial
  • Egypt
  • sailing
  • ancient Egypt
  • dynasties
  • funerals


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Further Reading

  • Arnold, D. (1991). Building in Egypt: Pharaonic Stone Masonry. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
  • Bierbrier, M. (1984). Tomb Builders of the Pharaohs. New York: Scribner's.
  • Hobson, C. (1987). The World of the Pharaohs. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Vinson, S. (1999). Egyptian Boats and Ships. London: Shire Publications.