SOMALILAND AND THE LAND OF PUNT A number of ancient Egyptian documents refer to maritime trade with a distant country known as Punt or Ta Netjer (‘Land of God’). The earliest such expedition took place C2480BC, during the 5th dynasty reign of Sahure, and other visits to Punt were recorded during the 6th, 11th, and 12th dynasties. It seems all maritime trade fell victim to the general disarray that gripped Egypt C1775BC following the death of Queen Sobekneferu. But it was resumed under Queen Hatshepsut, who dispatched five ships to Punt C1525BC. Irregular trade continued for another four centuries, with one final large-scale expedition being dispatched during the reign of Rameses III, whose death in 1167bc initiated a long period of decline in Pharaonic Egypt. Subsequently, the memory of distant Punt was reduced, in the words of Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, to ‘an unreal and fabulous land of myths and legends’.
The parochial nature of Egyptian trade records means they contain few clues as to the precise location of Punt. What is known for certain is that the Egyptian ships sailed to Punt via the Red Sea, then connected to the Nile by a navigable seasonal canal through the swampy Wadi Tumilat. Furthermore, seasonal factors – it would have been imperative to sail from Egypt to Punt between June and August, when the wind blew southwards, and to embark on the return leg in November – make it unlikely the relatively slow ships of the era sailed further afield than the eastern tip of the Horn of Africa. This places Punt somewhere along the Gulf of Aden and/or the Red Sea and, while minority academic opinion leans towards the Arabian shores of this oceanic divide, the greater consensus goes to the east coast of Africa. In other words, Punt most likely comprised some or all of the coastline of present-day Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland.
An African as opposed to Arabian location for Punt is strongly indicated by the selection of items traded with Egypt. This list includes gold, ebony and ivory, livestock, ostrich feathers and eggs, skins of wild animals such as giraffe and leopard, all of which originate in Africa, as well as a small number of Puntite slaves. To the Egyptians, however, the single most important trade item, still cultivated in Somaliland today, was aromatic resins such as frankincense and myrrh – indeed, in a failed attempt to initiate the domestic cultivation of these highly prized funerary items, 31 live myrrh trees were shipped home by the Hatshepsut expedition and planted in the courtyard of the Deir el-Bahari, the queen’s mortuary temple on the West Bank of Luxor.
A Somali location for Punt is supported by the remarkable set of reliefs that adorn the walls of Deir el-Bahari, the only such expedition records with something of a Puntite perspective. There is, for instance, a village scene that shows the natives of Punt living in stilted beehive huts, reachable by ladders, guarded by what appears to be a solitary dog, and set in a grove of date palms and myrrh trees where a long-tailed bird (consistent with the Nile Valley sunbird) is depicted in flight. Other scenes show typical African animals, such as giraffe, rhinoceros and baboon.
The most famous panels at Deir el-Bahari depict the ruler of Punt, named as Parehu, and his family. Perahu holds a staff in some pictures and is dressed in a loincloth, with a small dagger in his belt, a decorative beaded collar around his neck, and an upward-curving beard suggestive of contemporary representations of the Egyptian gods and deceased Pharaohs. His wife Ati, dressed in a light skirt and adorned with bracelets, anklets and a beaded necklace, is strikingly obese, and her prominent buttocks have been the subject of considerable debate – some authorities cite their distended appearance as evidence that the queen was afflicted by elephantiasis, while others believe it reflects a Puntite ideal of feminine beauty that prevails in many traditional African societies to this day. Egypt’s maritime forays to Punt were probably too irregular to sustain organized trade outposts such as those evidently encountered by Hatshepsut’s expedition (which took place after a 250-year lull in trade). In addition, not all of the items accumulated on these expeditions could be sourced along the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden coastline. Gold, for instance, must have come from the African interior, while elephants, the sole source of ivory, are relatively uncommon along the arid coastal belt. Other exports, such as cinnamon bark, most likely came from Asia. It is clear from an Egyptian mural dating to the reign of Amenhotep that the people of Punt used dhow-like boats – propelled by a combination of triangular sails and oars – at least as early as the 15th century BC.
All of this points to the likelihood that the sporadic Egyptian forays to Punt form the only, and somewhat incidental, record of a substantial and well-organized (but otherwise undocumented) Afro-Arabian maritime trade that dates back at least 4,000 years. In all probability, this trade centred upon a string of ports along the coast of present-day Sudan, Eritrea and Somaliland, but it also extended deep into the African interior, to the Arabian shores of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden – and possibly even further afield, to Madagascar and Asia.