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Where Is Punt?

Despite heaps of evidence and decades of debate, scholars are not certain where or even what ancient Punt was. Why?

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 12.01.09
  • NOVA

Sailing on the sea, and making a good start for God's Land. Making landfall safely at the terrain of Punt....
—from Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri

You can almost imagine the Pharaoh Hatshepsut smirking from the other world. "We've got you, haven't we?" she might be saying, a twinkle in her bold eye. For Hatshepsut, along with all other ancient Egyptians, has left us a puzzle that we just can't seem to solve with any certainty. It's the mystery surrounding the location of Punt ("Poont"). Also known as God's Land, Punt was a faraway realm rich in incense, ebony, and gold with which the Egyptians traded for over a thousand years.

A time-worn bust of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

The female pharaoh Hatshepsut told us more about Punt than anyone else in ancient times. But even she is silent on its exact location. Enlarge Photo credit: © Sandro Vannini/Corbis

The Egyptians left us mountains of evidence for Punt, none more so than Hatshepsut, whose 3,500-year-old temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes contains a veritable book in stone describing Punt. Hatshepsut and other pharaohs sent huge expeditions to Punt—flotillas of robust, seagoing ships with thousands of men. But neither Hatshepsut nor anyone else from ancient times left us any map, any directions or distances, or anything else that definitively pinpoints Punt's location.

So elusive is the answer that, since the mid-19th century, a procession of scholars have, like erudite dart-throwers, stippled the map of the Red Sea area with their often strongly argued proposals for where Punt lay. (Refer to map below throughout this article.) Syria. Sinai. Southern Arabia. Eastern Sudan. Northern Ethiopia. Somalia. Kenya. Each was Punt, insists this or that Egyptologist. New papers continue to appear regularly that try to put this question to bed once and for all. So far, all have failed.

As one scholar who has ventured into this labyrinth, Dmitri Meeks, has phrased it, "Punt 'exists' as if in a void ... the exact whereabouts of which remain more or less unknown."

Why? How can an entire realm or region go missing, as it were? With a steady stream of references across nearly 2,000 years of ancient Egyptian history and highly focused scholarship for 150 years, how can we not know? Where is Punt?

Map of Egypt and the Red Sea

Proposed locations for Punt are literally all over the map. As one Egyptologist put it, "The variety of geographical placing of the Land of Punt is quite awesome...." Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Evidence from the ancients

The first clear mention of Punt comes from the Old Kingdom. As the so-called Palermo Stone tells us, about 2500 B.C. during the reign of King Sahure, an expedition to Punt returned with 80,000 measures of 'ntyw, which scholars believe to be myrrh. Derived from a tree of the same name, myrrh is a resin used to make incense, which the Egyptians coveted for temple rituals; myrrh was the most prized commodity from Punt. Sahure's expedition also brought back 23,030 staves—wood being precious to a desert country like Egypt—and 6,000 measures of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, among other items.

What the Palermo Stone doesn't tell us—launching a tradition of vagueness that lasted two millennia—is where Punt lies or how to get there.

By the Middle Kingdom, expeditions to Punt had become pyramidal in scope. One inscription from about 1985 B.C. mentions an expedition of 3,000 men; another a half century later boasted 3,700 men. Again, Punt's location is not given.

Where did the ships go on the Red Sea after they set sail from Saww? No one knows.

Hatshepsut's expedition in the New Kingdom, if not the largest, was far and away the most thoroughly chronicled. Dispatched in the 15th century B.C., during the ninth year of her reign, the crusade is meticulously recorded on her bas-relief (see The Expedition to Punt). One large scene portrays Punt itself, including beehive-shaped houses on stilts shaded by palm and possibly myrrh trees. Another scene depicts Hatshepsut's flotilla of ships departing for and arriving at the distant country, where they're "loaded very heavily with the marvels of the land of Punt" for the return voyage. A final scene shows dignitaries from Punt presenting their "marvels" to Queen Hatshepsut.

The last expedition to Punt that we know of occurred under Rameses III, in the 12th century B.C. An ancient papyrus records that Rameses III "constructed great transport vessels ... loaded with limitless goods from Egypt. ... They reached the land of Punt, unaffected by (any) misfortune, safe and respected." And they returned safe and respected. But from where exactly? The papyrus doesn't say.

A wall relief of ship setting sail.

One of Hatshepsut's Punt ships setting sail, with red-painted Egyptians at the oars and Red Sea creatures swimming in the waters beneath Enlarge Photo credit: © Sandro Vannini/Corbis

Which way?

What the papyrus does make clear is that Rameses III's expedition journeyed to Punt at least in part via the Red Sea. Today, scholars have convincingly shown that Middle and New Kingdom pharaohs bent on Punt constructed their ships on the Nile, then disassembled them and carried them 100 miles across the desert from Koptos, the place where the Nile comes closest to the Red Sea. They then reassembled them at the ancient Red Sea harbor of Saww (today Mersa Gawasis) and sailed to Punt. On the return, they unloaded the ships at Saww and transported the goods by donkey caravan back to the Nile, where they loaded them onto other ships for the journey south to the capital at Thebes.

But where did the ships go on the Red Sea after they set sail from Saww? No one knows.

To confuse matters further, other references indicate that the Egyptians didn't always go by way of the Red Sea. Certain inscriptions imply that another option to reach Punt was to travel south along the Nile, through Nubia just to the south of Egypt, and beyond. Some scholars believe the Egyptians opted for this route when friendly peoples ruled Nubia (as during the Old Kingdom), and only chose the Red Sea option—and the much more involved desert crossing—when hostile kingdoms blocked the overland route to the south (as during the Middle and early New Kingdoms).

Early theories

The debate over Punt's place on the map began in the 1850s, when the newly formed Antiquities Service of Egypt began clearing the great temples in and around Thebes. Based on newly revealed hieroglyphic texts that described Punt as a source of aromatic substances situated to the east of Egypt, Heinrich Karl Brugsch first suggested, in the late 1850s, that Punt lay on the Arabian Peninsula. It seemed straightforward enough. After all, the Greeks had glorified the "perfumes of Arabia," a land that lies due east of Egypt.

Any signs of Punt itself in the dirt? Not yet.

Auguste Mariette changed this thinking with two discoveries. One was a hieroglyphic list that the Pharaoh Tuthmosis III left at Karnak Temple in Thebes that included Punt in those lands south of Egypt. The other was Hatshepsut's bas-relief, which, among other evidence it bears that points to Africa, shows distinctly African animals as products or natives of Punt, including the giraffe and rhinoceros, neither of which is found in Arabia. For the location of Punt, Mariette settled on the Somali coast, which also is known for its aromatics, including the fabled frankincense and myrrh. (Interestingly, the very tip of the Horn of Africa, a semi-autonomous region within modern-day Somalia, goes by the name Puntland.)

An ancient wooden oar in sand.

A modified steering oar from pharaonic times found at the ancient Red Sea harbor of Saww (today's Mersa Gawasis) Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Kathryn Bard

The argument for Africa

Mariette's hypothesis held well into the next century. Then, in the 1960s, Rolf Herzog upset the applecart yet again. Based on a detailed study of the flora and fauna and other elements of Punt represented in Hatshepsut's bas-relief, Herzog placed Punt along the Upper Nile south of Egypt, specifically between the Atbara River and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles. Punt, Herzog felt, was reached overland and by river, but not by sea.

Yet Hatshepsut's relief appears to contradict that stance, as Kenneth Kitchen pointed out in a 1971 review of Herzog's work. Most indisputably, Kitchen notes, the fish that Hatshepsut's carvers depicted beneath the Punt ships, along with other marine creatures such as spiny lobster and squid, are clearly recognizable as species that swim to this day in the Red Sea.

Kitchen, in nearly four decades of writing on the subject of Punt, has succeeded in establishing what today is the most widely accepted position on the location of Punt. It was situated, he proposes, in what is today eastern Sudan and northern Ethiopia, extending from the Red Sea to the Nile. Arabia was out of the question, Kitchen says. Perhaps the most contrary evidence is linguistic, he writes: "As for Parehu, the only named chief of Punt, the consonant p in his name and that of Punt itself also firmly excludes Arabia." Why? Because Old South Arabian languages possess an f but no p. Thus, Kitchen writes, "Arabia would have had a Farehu, chief of Funt!" Egyptian has both consonants, so the transcription is reliable, he adds.

A relief of Parehu and his wife.

Parehu, the only chief of Punt ever named in ancient records, appears here in Hatshepsut's relief next to his obese wife. Enlarge Photo credit: © Sandro Vannini/Corbis

Back to Arabia?

Other experts, while acknowledging the p problem, are not so quick to dismiss Arabia as the Land of Punt. In a 2003 paper—one that Kitchen himself called "a brilliant, most impressive tour de force" even as he challenged its premise—Dmitri Meeks advanced the notion that Punt lay along the entire western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, from the Gulf of Aqaba to Yemen. Meeks says that when one takes all ancient references to Punt into account, the picture becomes clear. "Punt, we are told by the Egyptians, is situated—in relation to the Nile Valley—both to the north, in contact with the countries of the Near East of the Mediterranean area, and also to the east or southeast, while its furthest borders are far away to the south," he writes. "Only the Arabian Peninsula satisfies all these indications."

In one of the most recently proposed hypotheses, Stanley Balanda, in a 2005-2006 paper, offers a sort of compromise between the Kitchen and Meeks theories. Balanda argues that a key expression within Hatshepsut's text has been misinterpreted as saying "by the sea" or "along the sea front" when it really means "on both sides of the sea." If Hatshepsut's expeditionaries had indeed, as Balanda translates one bit of hieroglyphs, "pitched tents for the king's representative and his expedition to the myrrh terraces on both sides of the sea [my italics] in order to receive the chiefs of this land," then one place on the Red Sea presents itself above all others. This is the straits of Bab el Mandeb at the sea's southern end, where today Djibouti and Yemen face each other across narrows no wider than the English Channel. Punt, Balada proposes, was a region of indeterminate size stretching out on both sides of the strait, which lay at the heart of Puntite commercial activities.

A view of Egypt and the Nile from space.

Does Punt lie somewhere in this view, remaining to be discovered? Perhaps on the Upper Nile (left in image), or along the African or Arabian coast of the Red Sea (in distance)? Only time will tell—or perhaps not. Enlarge Photo credit: © Corbis Images

Archeology yet young

And what of corresponding archeological evidence? Any signs of Punt itself in the dirt? Not yet. As Jacke Phillips has written, "no archeological remains have ever been identified even tentatively as Puntite."

The closest archeologists have come to unearthing actual evidence of trade with Punt—if not Punt itself—occurred during excavations beginning in 2001 at the ancient harbor site of Saww on the Red Sea. Here, a team led by Kathryn Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich revealed ship timbers, stone anchors, ropes, and other artifacts dating to the Middle Kingdom. They also uncovered actual products presumably brought from Punt, including ebony (identified by charcoal) and obsidian (a volcanic glass), neither of which occurs in Egypt. They even found cargo boxes bearing painted hieroglyphic text describing the contents as the "wonders of Punt."

In the absence of the physical Punt, perhaps we should content ourselves with the metaphysical.

But no actual Punt site has turned up so far. This may be a case of absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence, for the archeology of both Red Sea coasts as well as the north coast of Somalia remains in its infancy. Who knows? One day soon, some archeological site, newly revealed tomb text, or other remains may well do what Hatshepsut's humblest sailor could have done in a few words—tell us where Punt is.

A landscape of the mind

In the meantime, in the absence of the physical Punt, perhaps we should content ourselves with the metaphysical. The Egyptians themselves did. Although Punt was quite real to the Egyptians, writes Stephen Harvey, "from early times Punt also maintained a separate but related existence as a literary landscape synonymous with wonder." An ancient Egyptian love song captures this notion in a declaration almost haiku-like in its conciseness—even as it remains blissfully silent on Punt's locale:

When I hold my love close, and her arms steal around me, I'm like a man translated to Punt ... when the world suddenly bursts into flower.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

Sources

Balanda, Stanley. 2005-2006. "The so-called 'Mine of Punt' and its location." Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 42: 33-44.

Bard, Kathryn A., et al. 2007. "3.2 Excavations." In Harbor of the Pharaohs to the Land of Punt. Archaeological Investigations at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis Egypt, 2001-2005, Kathryn A. Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich, eds. Naples: Università degli Studi di Napoli "l'Orientale," 38-78.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. 2004. "The elusive land of Punt revisited." In Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region, Paul Lunde and Alexandra Porter, eds. Oxford, 25-31.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. 1993. "The land of Punt." In The Archeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns, Thurston Shaw et al, eds. Routledge, 587-608.

Meeks, Dmitri. 2003. "Locating Punt." In Mysterious Lands, David O'Connor and Stephen Quirke, eds. UCL Press, 53-80.

Harvey, Stephen P. 2003. "Interpreting Punt: Geographic, cultural, and artistic landscapes." In Mysterious Lands, David O'Connor and Stephen Quirke, eds. UCL Press, 81-91.

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