The Nile River was the Interstate 80 of ancient Egypt. Traffic of all kinds went by the Nile. Kings on tours of inspection and officials on royal errands traveled by ship. Both kings and noblemen dispatched cargo boats to collect agricultural produce from their scattered estates up and down the Nile. This produce included barley for beer, emmer wheat for bread, and linen made from flax.
Land transportation was much more difficult. In Upper Egypt, it was impeded by a system of dikes and canals. By contrast, the "papyrus land" of the delta was difficult to cross because of numerous marshes and lagoons.
Ordinary people traveled, of necessity, by foot, but high officials sallied forth on inspection tours in carrying chairs or more elaborate palanquins (covered litters). The carrying chair of Queen Hetepheres I, wife of King Sneferu and mother of King Khufu, survives. Wall scenes in tombs clearly show that the queen would have been carried around on the shoulders of four husky young men in a chair with a high back, curved armrests, and a foot rest with low sideboards. The queen would have sat on the floor of the chair on a thick cushion with her knees drawn up before her.
Made of costly woods, the flame was ornamented in a mat pattern embossed in gold, while the back was inlaid with little gold hieroglyphs set into ebony strips giving the name and titles of the royal lady. The tops of the carrying poles were capped with elegant, gold, palm-shaped coverings.
Over time, carrying chairs developed into more elaborate palanquins, surmounted by an ornate vaulted or rectangular canopy of openwork design (to let in breezes) and supported on light wooden columns. Such elaborate structures could require as many as 28 porters. The latter sometimes chanted a song as they marched along, which included the words (perhaps with ironic intent): "I like it [the palanquin] better full than when it is empty!"
Individuals of less exalted rank might travel in a chair fastened on the backs of two donkeys (below right). Such a donkey-back chair was probably comfortable enough when the ground was even or when one of the donkeys did not decide to stray. Curiously, no representations survive of anyone riding on the back of a donkey, a common way of getting around today and undoubtedly in antiquity as well.
HORSE-DRAWN CHARIOTS WERE INTRODUCED INTO EGYPT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE SECOND INTERMEDIATE PERIOD (C. 1782-1570 B.C.) AND BECAME THE PREFERRED MEANS OF TRANSPORTATION FOR KINGS AND COURTIERS IN THE NEW KINGDOM (C. 1570-1070 [B.C.) AND LATER.
Edward Brovarski first became interested in Egyptology at 11 years of age. He received his training and a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. In 1974, he joined the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, becoming in 1986 Curator of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art and then Research Curator in Egyptian Art in 1988. At present, as Adjunct Research Scholar, he devotes his time to the publication of the excavations of the joint Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Egyptian Expedition at Giza and at a number of other sites.
Brovarski has participated in several field expeditions, among them the Joint Iranian Expedition of the Oriental Institute and the University of California at Los Angeles in Iran. In 1987, he became co-director of the Yale University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Giza Mastabas Project, and has since spent several seasons at Giza copying reliefs and inscriptions in the mastaba tombs surrounding the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Since 1997 he has been Adjunct Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at Brown University and, since 2000, co-director of the Cairo-Brown Expedition with Professor Tohfa Handoussa. Brovarski is currently at work on a book about daily life in the Age of the Pyramids.