Did Ramses III visit the Arabian Peninsula?

Zahi Hawass
Tuesday 25 May 2021

New evidence suggests the existence of closer relations than had previously been thought between ancient Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, writes Zahi Hawass

I have always been astonished at the absence of archaeological evidence showing relations between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula during the Pharaonic era, and one reason for this is that when I travelled to Yemen on a trip to record some archaeological sites, I found that there was a lot of archaeological evidence showing relations between Yemen and Egypt in ancient times.

However, today there is great interest in Saudi Arabia in archaeological digs, and there is more need for cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on such digs and in training young archaeologists from the kingdom in the arts of excavation.

There is in fact much evidence showing that the kings of ancient Egypt established trading relations with other countries during the old and middle kingdoms, that is about 5,000 years ago, when Egypt imported oils from Syria and Palestine and cedarwood from Lebanon.

The Pharaohs also began about 3,000 years ago to expand the borders of Egypt and to conduct military campaigns in the eastern and southern regions of the country. Among the reasons for carrying out these campaigns was the fact that the Hyksos had entered Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, later living in Egypt for about 150 years and taking the capital of Awaris in the Delta as their headquarters. They wrote the names of their kings inside cartouches and lived like the Pharaohs, having come to Egypt with their own horses and chariots.

When planning his military campaigns, the ancient Egyptian king Seqenenre gathered his advisors around him in his palace in Thebes and asked for advice on how to expel the Hyksos from the Delta and pacify the south of the country. This great king then started the liberation war against the Hyksos and died as a martyr in the first military battle to liberate Egypt.

Recently, Sahar Selim, a professor of radiology at the Al-Qasr Al-Aini Medical School in Cairo, and I placed the Seqenenre mummy in a CT scan. We found through studying the mummy that the king had been captured by the Hyksos and stabbed seven times, his hands tied behind his back. We studied the weapons in the Egyptian Museum and compared them to the wounds that had befallen the king, concluding that he had been stabbed by the Hyksos. After his death, the king was transferred to Thebes so that he would be embalmed. His two sons, Kames and Ahmose, then expelled the Hyksos from Egypt using the same Hyksos weapons, the most important of which were chariots and horses.

The Pharaohs then secured Sinai and seized cities in what are now Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, but we have no evidence that they had any commercial relations during the Old Kingdom with Arabia. There is also no record of any military campaigns on the peninsula. However, a recent find bearing the name of king Ramses III from the Tabuk region of the Tayma governorate in Saudi Arabia now shows evidence of commercial relations between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. The find is a hieroglyphic inscription found on a rock bearing a royal signature (cartouche) from 3,000 years ago.

Saudi archaeologists have also discovered a trade route that once connected the Nile Valley with Tayma and northwestern Arabia during the reign of king Ramses III, the last great king of the 20th Dynasty. It turns out that this was used by the ancient Egyptians to trade with the peninsula, including in goods such as incense, copper, gold, and silver. The route once passed from the Nile Valley to what is now the port of Qulzum and the city of Suez. Then it went by sea to Serabit Al-Khadim near the port of Abu Dhuneima on the Gulf of Suez today, before crossing the Sinai Peninsula and the Wadi Abu Ghada near the Nakhl Oasis. The route then headed to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba through the Nahl River site and then to the Tameneh site.

In these locations, cartouches of king Ramses III have been found similar to those found in Tayma in Saudi Arabia.

There are thus some Pharaonic remains in the Arabian Peninsula, notably the hieroglyphic inscription on a rock in Tayma. Research has also indicated that King Ramses III also sent expeditions to bring copper from a “neighbouring country”. This instruction is recorded on a piece of papyrus from his era, and this neighbouring country has now been revealed to be Arabia.

The discovery of the Tayma trade route should now reveal new information about its use during the ancient and pre-modern eras, as well as other ways in which the two countries were once linked. Excavations are being carried out to uncover evidence of ancient Egyptian kings who sent missions to Arabia more than 3,000 years ago. Other Pharaonic antiquities have been found in the peninsula, including an important group of scarabs, and these are an indication of the existence of economic relations between Egypt and Arabia in ancient times.

Studies indicate that the site of Tayma is one of the most important located in the north of the kingdom and one that has seen many different civilisations pass through it. It has been announced that a German team will work on the site to shed light on the other archaeological sites in the area and to clarify relations between Egypt and Arabia in the ancient period.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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