Land of Punt

by Kester

The Importance of Punt in the Ancient World

The Land of Punt, also known as God’s Land or the Red Land, was in ancient times a region rich in exotic woods, curious animals, and, of especial interest to the Egyptians, the gums and resins used for incense and ointments. The land itself was a fascination, with red soil and myrrh trees growing in terraced groves. Punt was ruled by local chiefdoms, and it isn’t known whether they were all self-ruling, or whether one was superior. Punt appears in Egyptian sources from 2600-600 B.C.E., and particularly flourished from 2400-1170 B.C.E.

Punt’s Location

The exact location of Punt was lost with time, yet we have been left with some clues as to its whereabouts, as well as intriguing stories from contact with the ancient Egyptians. Punt was long thought to have been in South Arabia, but when the Punt reliefs from Hatshetsup’s temple (c. 1470 B.C.E.) were found showing African flora and fauna, the location was then thought to be in present-day Somalia. Most modern sources give Somalia as the probable location, but a lot of evidence still points to other regions. For instance one text from 600 B.C.E. mentions rain falling on the mountain of Punt and draining into the Nile, which would rule out Somalia and lead to an Ethiopian or eastern Sudanese location. And one Egyptologist puts the location of Punt much farther north, just east of Sinai. The map at the right shows the most likely locations for Punt.

Getting to Punt

For centuries before the first recorded expedition, traders brought goods overland from Punt to Egypt. When the pharaohs tired of paying the middlemen to carry the goods by caravan, they decided to undertake their own expeditions. There were two primary ways to reach Punt: by land and by sea. Even when a sea route was chosen, part of the journey still entailed a journey over land.

Given a southern location, the journeys to Punt were likely undertaken between June and August, when the winds were favorable. The return trips probably occurred between October and December. Depending on where Punt actually was, the round trip probably took one or two years. The expedition involved more than simply jumping on a ship and sailing south. It began with an 8-day march from the Nile to the Red Sea, through a desert valley which today is known as Wadi Hammamat. The Red Sea coast was barren so any supplies and ship materials had to be hauled across the desert. Once the ships were built and launched, the hazards of the open sea had to be contended with. Henu, vizier under Pharaoh Mentuhotep, inscribed his account of one such journey on rocks at Wadi Hammamat.

My lord sent me to dispatch a ship to Punt to bring for him fresh myrrh from the sheiks over the Red Land… There was with me an army of the South… The army cleared the way before, overthrowing those hostile toward the king… I went forth with an army of 3,000 men… I gave a leather bottle, a carrying pole, 2 jars of water and 20 loaves to each one among them every day… I made 12 wells…Then I reached the Sea; then I made this ship, and I dispatched it with everything, when I had made for it a great oblation of cattle, bulls and ibexes.1

In the 1980s B.C.E. the way was made slightly easier when Pharaoh Sesostris had a canal dug from the easternmost arm of a Nile estuary to the Red Sea. This was done primarily to make it easier to reach the stone and copper mines in the Sinai Peninsula, but the expeditionists to Punt also benefitted.

1Ancient Records of Egypt – Part One, p. 209-210.

Map by Kester, inspired by a map in The Quest for India.