DE-CODING THE ROSETTA STONE
Between 1798 and 1801, French statesman and military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte led his troops into Egypt in what was to become his almost legendary military and political campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Napoleon justified his incursion into Ottoman territory as a means of preserving French trade interests in the region while simultaneously establishing a strategic alliance with Tipu Sultan to weaken the British Crown’s connection to India.
Although Napoleon failed to realise his ambitions in the region, the presence of French soldiers certainly had a transformative impact on the native population, even sparking the Islamic world’s era of modern history according to historians. Yet perhaps one of the most memorable and historically significant outcomes of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt had occurred serendipitously when in July 1799 a French soldier by the name of Pierre-François Bouchard recovered a seemingly ordinary stone that had been used as building material for the construction of Fort Julien which was located in a port city along the Nile Delta some sixty-five kilometres east of Alexandria in what was locally referred to as Rashid – and translated into French as Rosette.
The stone, which came to be known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ - bore strange inscriptions which appeared to have distinctly unique and obscure characters. This discovery would only be appreciated after the British repatriated the artefact to the British Museum in London, following the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801.
However, the ancient secrets inscribed onto this stone would only be unravelled a couple of decades later - in 1822, when French Orientalist and Linguist Jean-Francois Champollion – famously opened a new and magnificent chapter in the long and arduous history of Egyptology with his momentous exposé of the cryptic inscriptions on the Rosetta-Stone, his findings presented to the world the very first successful transliteration of ancient Egyptian writing.
Still, it would take several more years for Orientalists to fully develop the science and accuracy necessary for ancient Egyptian scripts to be read and deciphered more fluently, Jean-Francois Champollion’s discovery was without doubt an important catalyst in the study of ancient Egyptian history, science and culture. His published work discussing the Rosetta hieroglyphs provided empirical evidence in support of the claim that Egyptian writing was a blend of phonetic and ideographic symbols.
In the decades following Champollion’s ground breaking discovery, a deluge of occidental scholars and orientalists flooded the corridors of Egyptology seeking out new and exciting information as more and more ancient transcripts and artefacts were being successfully decoded and deciphered.
Though ancient Egypt continues to captivate our modern imaginations, the study of its ancient hieroglyphs was not exclusive to Orientalists alone, in fact Dhun Nun-al Misri, one of the earliest proponents and leading figures within the Sufi branch of Islam has been noted to have had a deep interest and knowledge of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Ibn Nadim’s famous compendium of knowledge, al-Fihrist – the mention of Egyptian hieroglyphs is also found, in what is often described as ubiquitous symbols that were believed to hold keys to ancient science.
PUNT, THE GARDEN OF GOD
Archaeological discoveries have made it possible for us to decipher the ancient inscriptions left behind by the Egyptians, giving us a much clearer perspective into their lives, beliefs and societies. Yet despite the profound mystical appeal and the undeniable influence of Egyptian civilisations, the ancient Egyptians themselves - were equally intrigued and fascinated by the allure of the unknown, unexplored and unexplainable.
When Egyptian inscriptions became more accessible to Egyptologists following the discovery and decoding of the Rosetta stone, researchers began to take note of the fact that the Ancient Egyptians seemed to have been captivated by a sacred land, one to which they had made several references to in their native language, as Te Netjer – or ‘the land of the gods’. Many ancient descriptions of this magnificent land paint a picture of a luxurious realm, rich in natural resources, from which all good things came into Egypt.
To the ancient Egyptians, Te Nejter was a haven; an emporium of heavenly produce and exquisite commodities, which lends its name to fantastic tales and stories, comparable to Eldorado or Atlantis.
In fact, the Egyptians paid so much respect and reverence to this land that they gave it several names, one of which was Pwenet or Pwene - which the ancient Greeks translated as Opone. Later on, the Romans called it Cape Aromatica and Regio Cinnamafore - the land of Cinnamon. However, the Romans had mistakenly attributed the region with the cultivation and production of Cinnamon whereas it served only as a commercial hub and conduit for the trade and distribution of spices that were imported from the Indian subcontinent and transported elsewhere.
In modern historical terms, the land of Pwenet is most commonly identified as the Land of Punt and many studies have been conducted to identify which modern region is the direct descendent of that ancient and magnificent land from which the ancient Egyptians drew so much of their inspiration and resources.
However the interest was certainly not one-sided. In fact, historical accounts detail evidence of more than one occasion in which an Egyptian Pharaoh had hosted royal members and delegates from the land of Punt. There are also historical accounts of chiefs sending their children from Punt towards Egypt in order to attain an education in the Egyptian courts, alongside other citizens coming from the nearby kingdoms and regions such as Kush and Irem.
THE PEOPLE OF PUNT
So what exactly did the Egyptians find so captivating and interesting about Punt? In their own accounts we have some distinct characteristics of the people and the land of Punt. For example, the villages of Punt have been described as containing honey-comb shaped houses that are held above water by stilts and the land was said to have been governed by Kings who acted upon the council and support of sagacious elders. Parahu, the only King of Punt to have been named and identified by the Egyptians - was described as having a long pointed beard which grew only on his chin. His attire consisted of a loin cloth that was held together by a belt in which a dagger was firmly fixed.
As for the inhabitants of Punt, they were characterised as having good qualities and attributes, with particular mention of their generosity, which was only matched by their courage and valour on the battlefield.
This description corroborates what the ancient Egyptian scribes depicted in their records as they characterised the people of Punt as a tall people with a dark-reddish complexion complimented by thin facial features and lank curly hair, however by the 18th Egyptian Dynasty, the natives of Punt were commonly depicted as having tightly cropped hair.
In the fifth century BC, Greek historian Herodotus, known as the Father of History in Western traditions, refers to a race called the Macrobians who dwelt in a region south of Egypt. These people reportedly had an average lifespan of one hundred and twenty years, which was attributed to their diet – which was primarily comprised of meat and milk. Some historians have concluded that Herodotus’s description of the Macrobians was in fact a direct reference people of Punt whom he had characterised as having been some of the tallest and most handsome of people.
EGYPTIAN EXPEDITIONS TO PUNT, TIMELINE
Seated strategically between two magnificent continents in close proximity to powerful civilisations, there is sufficient historical evidence to suggest that Punt was a commercial centre for several goods that were traded across various parts of the world, including mainland Africa and throughout the Asian continent. The luxurious items that were reportedly transported in and out of Punt included gold, ebony, elephant tusks, wild animals, exotic animal skins, spices, cosmetics, plants and incense including the biblically celebrated gifts of frankincense and myrrh.
Trade between Egypt and Punt was mutually beneficial as inscriptions make it very clear that a fair and equitable exchange was transacted on either side. The Egyptians were able to extract resources from Punt in exchange for the Jewellery, tools, and weapons from Egypt.
Punt had a special relationship with ancient Egypt as the latter had sent various expeditions towards Punt in as early as 2480 BC, with much earlier historic records evidencing the fact that ancient Egyptians had been trading with the people of Punt during the reign of King Khnum Khufu who reigned during the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty between 2613 and 2498 BCE and is historically credited with having commissioned the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza – a landmark that is now counted amongst the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
However the oldest surviving record of a journey to Punt comes from the Palermo stone, which dates back to the Old Kingdom during the 5th Dynasty, when Egypt was ruled by King Sahure in around 2500 B.C.
The exact period in which this mutual exchange between Punt and Egypt truly began cannot be qualified conclusively however it is most prudent to say that the earliest known trade missions between Egypt and Punt can be dated somewhere between the fourth and fifth dynastic rule.
Later, during Egypt’s 11th Dynastic rule, accounts of another fabulous Egyptian expedition to Punt were documented in two inscriptions found in Wadi Hammamat and subsequently attributed to the Egyptian Noble Henenu (who is also known as Hannu) whose writings inform us of the mission undertaken during the reign of Mentuhotep III who ruled Egypt approximately 2000 years before the advent of Christ. Accounts reveal several details of this voyage, including the number of men - estimated to be three thousand in total. Mentuhotep III became the first Middle Kingdom ruler known to have sent an expedition to Punt, though such expeditions became more frequent during the 12th Egyptian Dynasty.
However, later historic records indicate that trade relations between Egypt and Punt were temporarily suspended during the Second Intermediate Period however the pattern continued from 1478 BC under the reign of the legendary and much celebrated Queen, Hatshepsut – who reign over Egypt during its 18th Dynastic rule.
According to legendary accounts – the Queen was inspired to undertake this fabulous expedition by an oracle of the Egyptian god Amun-RA ,during the ninth year of her rule. She mobilised what was arguably the first large scale expedition to Punt during the reign of the Puntite King Parahu and his wife Queen Ati. Queen Hatshepsut’s expeditionary force was comprised of five ships and the voyage to Punt lasted between twenty to twenty-five days.
Details of this epic journey to Punt remain carved into the walls and artefacts found in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut which is situation in Deir el-Bahri, near Luxor - in Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings. The writings and depictions visible on the walls reveal clear illustrations of Punt’s beautiful scenery and beehive-shaped houses which were raised above the water by wooden stilts. There are also visible references to its palm trees and natural surroundings.
In the surviving Hieroglyphic engravings, we also read the following message:
“Sailing on the sea, and making a good start for God’s Land. Making landfall safely at the terrain of Punt….”
The Egyptian expeditionary forces returned home with some of the most exotic imports including trees, in particular thirty-one incense trees (Boswellia) from the land of Punt. This importation of foreign fauna which included plants and trees was reportedly the very first time in recorded history wherein crops were successfully transported from one geographic region and cultivated in another. In fact, the plants survived in Egypt and flourished for several millennia, this is evidenced by the fact that the same type of trees can still be seen outside Queen Hatshepsut’s complex at Deir al-Bahri. Queen Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt was arguably one of the greatest and most documented journeys to Punt.
The Egyptian trade relations with the people of Punt was an ancient and tremendously powerful one. Dating back to as early as the fourth or fifth Dynasty. The commercial, cultural and spiritual exchange continued through to the end of the nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty during the reign of Ramesses the Great (II) who ruled Egypt between 1279 to 1213 BCE and continued through to the earlier part of the twentieth Egyptian Dynasty resulting in the last of these expedition known to historians – which was reportedly during the rule of Rameses III, who reigned over Egypt in the 12th century BC.
And in an ancient papyrus record, Egyptian scribes describe how Rameses III "constructed great transport vessels ... loaded with limitless goods from Egypt. ... They reached the land of Punt, unaffected by misfortune, safe and respected."
Punt was the land of luxury - offering Ivory, Ebony and Gum. The Egyptians were also very fond of animal skins and leather, which Punt exported in large varieties and in abundance, ranging from giraffe skin to the more exotic varieties including panther and cheetah skins. Leather was highly prized and very fashionable amongst Egyptian priests who also imported live animals for the purpose of entertainment and religious ceremonies. Specimens included Cynocephalus baboons which were considered sacred in Egypt.
Punt’s steady supply of luxury produce into Egypt’s ancient temples had earned it a sanctified status with the priestly class who referred to the region as the personal garden of their god, Amun-RA. The Land of Punt was long associated with Egyptian deities due to the fact that many of the items used for their offerings and veneration, originated from Punt.
However, the two civilisation may have shared a more profound religious and spiritual connection based upon the belief that the gods of Egypt had an affinity and appreciation for the land of Punt. There is evidence that one of the most popular Egyptian deities Bes, also known as the Dwarf God, originated from Punt.
PUNT, THE ATLANTIS OF AFRICA
Although ancient Egyptian archives are replete with glorious tales making explicit reference to the land of Punt, Archaeologists and Egyptologists are yet to find a single answer that they can all agree upon as the definite and irrefutable answer to this question because the Ancient Egyptians told us almost all that we need to know except the most important detail, it’s location. It would seem as if the ancient Egyptians had a cruel sense of humour – or perhaps they had conspired to keep this consecrated land sanctified and enshrouded by perennial mystery.
As a matter of fact, not even the glorious queen, Hatshepsut – reveals anything about the location of Punt despite the detailed and elaborate accounts of the magnificent trade envoys she had sent there, the inscriptions on the walls of her tomb tell us about the number of days, vessels, labourers, distances travelled, types of plants, quality of produce and many other intricate minutiae but does not make mention of one word about the geographical location of their magnificent destination.
To this very day, modern scholars and researchers are filtering through thousands of years’ worth of Egyptian artefacts and inscriptions in search of clear indications for the location of Punt. Yet, since the mid-19th century, not one of these scholarly endeavours has resulted in a conclusive answer to this ancient riddle. For over one hundred and fifty years the higher ranks of academia have scoured through maps, scribbling and circling over modern countries that may potentially be the true location of ancient Punt. A multitude of elaborate theories have been advanced favouring a colourful collection of potential locations ranging from places such as Syria, Sinai, Yemen, Eastern Sudan, Northern Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and even Sri Lanka.
Though the land of Punt has now become a semi-mythical place, somewhat comparable to Atlantis in European terms. To the ancient Egyptians it was indeed a very real place as they wrote about its exploits and virtues from the earliest dynasties through to the New Kingdom.
Interestingly, the exact reasons as to why the legacy of Punt gradually faded out of reality and was subsequently re-introduced within the confines of legend and mythology is not known - however, following the reign of Ramesses III, Punt gradually became more and more obscure in the texts and records of Egyptian chroniclers, until it was eventually resigned to legendary tales of mythological status.
Although not conclusively agreed upon, some researchers have advanced very convincing theories about the actual location of Punt. It was not long after Egypt’s Antiquities Service began clearing the great temples in and around Thebes in the 1850s, that a number of scholars began to formulate nascent theories about the actual location of Punt. The early theory of Punt having links to the Arabian Peninsula was first presented by Heinrich Karl Brugsch in the late 1850s, he derived his theory from the hieroglyphic texts describing Punt as a source of aromatic substances situated to the east of Egypt.
However the theory was not rigorous and would soon enough be rebuffed by more substantial information presented by Auguste Mariette who advanced significant counter-arguments. One of which was that the inscriptions and images on the walls of Queen Hatshepsut's tomb depict animals that were native to the East African coast – with examples such as giraffes and rhinoceros, neither of which could be found anywhere in Arabia. Furthermore, Mariette concluded that Punt was most likely to be somewhere near the Somali coast given the region’s long association with and reputation for trading spices and incense, including frankincense and myrrh.
Auguste Mariette's hypothesis was predominantly accepted amidst Egyptologists for nearly one hundred years, up until the 1960s when Rolf Herzog brought forth another competing theory for the location of Punt. Herzog’s study was predicated on the careful study of animals and vegetation attributed to the land of Punt based on the vivid depictions and descriptions on the artefacts discovered in Queen Hatshepsut's tomb. Herzog’s conclusion therefore highlighted a third alternative, the Upper Nile - south of Egypt, specifically between the Atbara River and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, according to Herzog’s theory.
Following on from this methodological approach to the research, Kenneth Kitchen raised the bar yet again in 1971 when he published a critical review of Herzog's study of the wildlife and vegetation of Punt. Although Herzog was right in his approach he had failed to draw his study to the logical conclusions necessary as Kitchen would point out clearly by highlighting the fact that the ancient pictures of Punt featured marine creatures such as spiny lobster and the squid, both of which are known species of fish that can be found in the Red Sea region and not the river Nile.
With this new contribution towards the ongoing study of Punt, the theory of its original location was gradually advancing and had finally drawn much closer towards a more realistic and plausible answer to the ancient Egyptian riddle.
At last, following decades of research after the theory of Punt’s East African origins had been popularized by Auguste Mariette and further advanced by Rolf Herzog, Kenneth Kitchen was able to draw a widely acceptable argument in favour of the East African origins of Punt.
However, now that a region was identified – new questions were being raised as to which country within that region was the true location of Punt. According to Kenneth Kitchen’s study, Punt was situated between Eastern Sudan and Northern Ethiopia, extending from the Red Sea to the Nile.
And while that classification became the subject of further study and theories, what remained almost unanimously clear was that Punt could not have been in Arabia. In order to conclusively rule that option out, Kenneth Kitchen referenced the linguistic evidence present in the Egyptian chronicles that mentioned the only ruler of Punt who was identified by name. King Parehu, who was described by the Egyptians as the chief of Punt, Kenneth Kitchen used this to prove that Punt could not have been an Arab civilization given the fact that the language of the Arabs did not contain the letter p. Had the Arabs made any reference to Punt or their leader Parehu – one could expect them to have been pronounced as “Funt” and “Farehu”, while the Egyptians could not have made an error in translation as their language already incorporated both the letters F and P.
Another school of thought posits that Punt could have been synonymous with the ancient Kingdom of Kush also known as Nubia. However this is most unlikely given the fact that the ancient Egyptians were already very familiar with Nubia – in fact there were several military conflicts between the two civilisations. It is unlikely for the Egyptians to have held Nubia in such high regards given their history, yet even less likely that they would have described Nubia in foreign and mysterious terms. Furthermore, unlike its history with Nubia, there are no written accounts of any military conflicts between Egypt Punt.
Given the elaborate and much debated studies on this subject it remains impossible to name any one of these modern countries as the exact location of Punt however according to a number of scholarly positions on the subject, the most plausible candidates are Eretria and Somalia, with the stronger of the two being the one that identifies the modern location of Punt somewhere in Somalia.
· Tour Egypt: Ancient Egyptians: The Wonderful Land of Punt, Jimmy Dunn http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/punt.htm
· Where is Punt? NOVA, PBS, Peter Tyson https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/egypt-punt/
Punt, Joshua J. Mark, Published by Ancient History Encyclopedia on August 1st 2011 https://www.ancient.eu/punt/
· Countries and their Cultures: Somalia
· Owen Jarus ,"Baboon mummy analysis reveals Eritrea and Ethiopia as location of land of Punt". The Independent. 26 April 2010.
· K. A. Kitchen, "Punt and how to get there", Orientalia 40 (1971), 184–207:190.
· Joyce Tyldesley, Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, Penguin Books, 1996 hardback