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In prehistoric times there was no sugar. Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees). The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative. The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.
But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities. One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping. The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt. An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb. The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC. Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.
Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt. It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious. Wax tablets were used for writing. Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent. Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints. Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions. Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting. By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.
According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth. Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king). The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.
This blog has featured replicas of two ancient sailing ships–the Greek trireme Olympias and the Norwegian Viking ship Dragon King Harald—however the prettiest modern replica of an ancient ship is a reconstruction of a much older vessel. The ship Min of the Desert was hand built by 4 men and 2 teenage boys in the modern Hamdi Lahma & Brothers shipyard in Rashid, Egypt (which was called Rosetta in classical times). The builders used traditional tools and original techniques to craft the Min after a sea-going Egyptian trade ship from 3500 years ago.
Archaeologists know a great deal about the boats which sailed the Nile–since they have the actual ships (which were preserved in tombs in order that Pharaohs could sail in the next world). However sea-faring ships were not preserved in the same way and only trace evidence from underwater archaeological sights survives. To build the Min, the modern shipwrights looked to river ships from tombs for technique, but they looked at ancient Egyptian art for a design. A 3,500-year-old bas relief from the pharaoh Hatshepsut ‘s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, provided the basic design for the Min of the Desert.
The ships pictured on the bas relief were trade ships which participated in Hatshepsut ‘s trade expedition to Punt, which took place in the ninth year of her reign (Hatshepsut was a lady pharaoh who lived in the 15th century B.C. and reigned as the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty). From the time of the old kingdom onward, Egyptians had launched expeditions to the land of Punt, a kingdom rich in gold, frankincense, myrrh, and exotic timber. Numerous ancient Egyptian sources mention Punt (which was a trade destination for the Egyptians for over a thousand years) but none actually mention where it is—apparently everyone back then just knew. The actual location has eluded Egyptologists for 150 years. To get to Punt, ships were carried in pieces across the desert to the Red Sea port of Saww. Then the vessels sailed on the Red Sea…to where? Modern day Somalia and Arabia are the best guesses, but the issue remains in doubt.
When completed Min of the Desert measured 20 meters (66 ft) long and nearly 5 meters (16 ft) wide with a cargo capacity of about 17 tons. Held together entirely by mortise-and-tenon joints, the ship proved to be surprisingly seaworthy and fast. Sailors rowed the Min in to position to raise the sail (a labor which required substantial physical strength) and then traveled along at speeds between 5 and 9 knots. The ship handled 25 knot winds and 3 meter swells with ease. The modern sailors were surprised by the excellence of the 3500 year old ship.
In the desolate desert 150 kilometers southwest of Cairo there is a fearsome arid valley (wadi) of cliffs, carved buttes, and sandblasted erratic boulders. The bleached landscape has an otherworldly emptiness as though it were located on a lifeless alien planet, though if you look closely, the desert is filled with austere furtive life like dorcas gazelles, tiny sand colored lizards, cobras, scorpions, and fennec foxes. The name of the place is even more otherworldly—“Wadi Al-Hitan” which is Arabic for “valley of the whales” and although the great smooth rocks buckling out of the sand might momentarily be taken for the backs of huge whales, the utter absence of the ocean (or of water of any kind) makes the name seem fanciful. The nearby Mount Garet Gohannam (which means mountain of hell because of the way it glows like flames at sunset) seems to be more aptly named.
However the name of Wadi Al-Hitan is remarkably literal–for the valley contains the remains of hundreds of huge ancient cetaceans which died in the Eocene and were fossilized in the yellowish sandstone. Forty million years ago the valley was a marine lagoon. Although the remains of numerous sirenians, sawfish, sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, sea snakes, and even swamp dwelling moeritheriums have been discovered in the wadi, the valley takes its name from the most spectacular and numerous fossils which belong to four different species of primitive whales. The most commonly discovered fossils belong to Dorudon, which was 3-5 meters long (9-15 feet) and fed on fish and mollusks, and to Basilosaurus, which was 15-22 meter (50-72 foot) and fed on everything else in the ocean.
Basilosaurus was first discovered in Louisiana in the early 19th century. Its immense size and serpentine form initially convinced naturalists that it was a marine reptile and they misnamed the creature Basilosaurus (which means “king lizard”). The mistake soon became obvious and Basilosaurus was classified among the Archaeoceti, a paraphyletic suborder of the cetaceans, however the giant kept its dinosaur name. Different species of Basilosaurus flourished in oceans worldwide during the wet, tropical Eocene and, even though they were obviously very adept at ocean living (indeed rising to the top of the food chain) the creatures betray vestiges of terrestrial living which modern whales have entirely dispensed with. Not only do Basilosaurus fossils have teeth and jaws which retain reatures from their artiodactyl ancestors, they also have tiny vestigial back legs a mere half meter in length (which would scarely help a 22 meter animal get around). Additionally Basilosaurus was different from modern whales in that it probably moved with eel-like horizontal thrashing of its long tail (modern whales move their flukes vertically). Basilosaurus probably did not dive very deeply, but moved about near the surface of the oceans hunting for smaller marine animals.
Although Wadi Al-Hitan was discovered by Europeans in 1902-1903, some archaeologists and anthropologists have speculated that it was known long before that and have been irresistibly drawn towards comparing basilosaurus with the giant crocodiles and earth spanning serpent gods which populate ancient Egyptian cosmology.
In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue. The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive. To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).
Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals. Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects. Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares. Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds. As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved. Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:
Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…
The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments). It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.
Welcome to Egypt week at Ferrebeekeeper! All of this week’s posts will share an Egyptian theme. To start out Egypt week, we cast our gaze deep into the underworld beneath the Nile and the burning desert. The dark river passages beneath the world are said to be the home of the principle ancient Egyptian god of chaos, the great serpent Apep (AKA Apopis or Apophis).
According to myth, the sun god Ra carried the sun across the heavens on a mystical solar boat every day. Then every evening Ra returned from west to east via an unseen river path through the underworld. As night covered the world and the sun god struggled to return to the farthest point in the east in time for sunrise, the great serpent would appear from the dark waters to attack the boat.
Apep would try with all of his might to devour the sun in the manner than a serpent eats an egg. Some myths maintain that Apep was the sun god before Ra and wanted the sun back out of dynastic bitterness. In other sources the great demon is not ascribed with a back story and is only a huge snake who wants to eat the sun. Sources agree that Apep was not so much worshiped as “worshiped against.” Many prayers and liturgies from ancient Egypt are magical incantations to help the gods stave off attacks by the huge poisonous snake.
Ra was assisted in fighting off the nightly attack by an unlikely figure, the powerful god Set–a fratricidal maniac with the head of an unknown animal (who doubles as the god of evil and the desert). Whatever Set’s other faults might be, lack of vigilance against giant chaos serpents was not among them. In several passages from ancient literature, Set is heard to boast about his prowess and bravery in making sure the sun gets past the serpent in order to rise on time. The spirits of the devout who had passed to the next life could also help out by rowing the beautiful boat. In later Egyptian myth, the battle goddess Bastet would also assist Ra and Set in fighting the demon.
Of course despite the best intentions of the gods, Apep would occasionally get the upper hand and temporarily run off with the sun. Such (rare) days were marked by storm and overcast skies. Additionally the wily snake demon would sometimes leave the underworld and try to devour the sun as it gloriously made its way across the heavens. According to Egyptian superstition, these occasional daytime attacks were responsible for solar eclipses. Fortunately Ra and the other protectors of the sun could always rely on a reservoir of spiritual energy to drive back the snake (helping the gods defeat Apep was one of the purposes of worship in ancient Eypt). Because of the power of prayer, Apep, dreadful demon snake of the underworld, never did succeed in devouring the sun.