African Archaeological Review

, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 395–405 | Cite as

Hatshepsut and the Politics of Punt

  • Pearce Paul CreasmanEmail author
Original Article


Most discussions regarding the relationship between pharaonic Egypt and the “land of Punt” have focused on the latter’s location (a subject of considerable debate) and exotic imports. The most famous of the ancient expeditions to Punt was launched by the Eighteenth Dynasty female pharaoh Hatshepsut, who boasted that she had reopened this prestigious trade route. If so, it would have been after a long hiatus possibly of some two centuries. Offering a new perspective in the discussion of Punt, this paper explores the rationale behind her particular expedition to this fabled land. Comparisons between the textual and iconographic evidence of Hatshepsut’s expedition and similar records from a distant predecessor (King Sahure) and those of later kings suggest the political nature of the endeavor, which is further underscored by its apparent timing in relationship with her coronation. Like any other Egyptian king, and perhaps more so because of her unorthodox rise to power, Hatshepsut had to prove her fitness to rule. She did so by economic means: international trade under the guise of an act of religious piety. This perhaps allowed her to obtain the cooperation of other influential entities within the Egyptian society.


Ancient Egypt Trade Politics Legitimization Kingship Punt 


La plupart des discussions concernant la relation entre l'Egypte pharaonique et le ‘pays de Pount’ ont porté sur l'emplacement de celui-ci (un sujet de débat considérable) et les importations exotiques. Le plus célèbre des anciens expéditions à Punt a été lancé par la dix-huitième dynastie femme pharaon Hatchepsout, qui se vantait qu'elle avait rouvert cette route commerciale prestigieuse. Si c'est le cas, il aurait été après une longue interruption éventuellement de deux siècles. Offrant une perspective nouvelle dans la discussion de Punt, cet article explore les raisons de son expédition particulière à cette terre fabuleuse. Les comparaisons entre les preuves textuelles et iconographiques de l'expédition d'Hatchepsout et un similaire à partir d'un lointain prédécesseur (le roi Sahure) et ceux des rois ultérieurs suggèrent la nature politique de l'entreprise, qui est en outre soulignée par son synchronisme apparente en relation avec Hatchepsout’s couronnement. Comme n'importe quel autre roi égyptien, et peut-être plus en raison de son lieu peu orthodoxe au pouvoir, Hatchepsout devait prouver son aptitude à gouverner. Elle l'a fait par des moyens économiques: le commerce international sous le couvert d'un acte de piété religieuse. Ce peut-être lui a permis d'obtenir la coopération d'autres entités influentes au sein de la société égyptienne.


Pharaonic Egypt engaged in direct and indirect trade with a number of foreign lands. Not all of these have been given precise geographic locations; the most famous of these is a land or region referred to as Punt (Pwnt). The location of Punt has been much debated (e.g., Bradbury 1996; Kitchen 1999; Meeks 2003; Balanda 2005/2006; Fattovich 2012b) and is not discussed here. For the present discussion, it is sufficient to note that Punt occupied a region to the south and east of Egypt, accessible by boat and by land. Being on the periphery of Egypt’s sphere of influence, Punt may be described, like the Aegean and some other distant regions, as a land “beyond the reach of the military capacities […] incorporated into the economic relations, but not the political scheme” (Warburton 2007, p. 81; cf. Kitchen 2012, p. 60). However, as will be demonstrated, Punt did play a role in Egyptian politics—not in terms of international relations but rather ideologically and within the domestic sphere.

The “wonders” of Punt, so desired by the ancient Egyptians, included foremost antyw/and and sn t r, particularly prized aromatic resins that were requisites for ancient temple ritual (e.g., Aufrère 2003; Wise 2009). These have not been identified botanically but are commonly thought to be myrrh and frankincense, respectively (Serpico 2000; Baum 2003). Punt also supplied other yet-unidentified resins and gums; metals such as gold; exotic woods, particularly “ebony” (African blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon, alternatively Diospyros sp.; Gale et al. 2000, p. 338); and a variety of other luxury goods. But it was the aromatics, so important to the temple rituals central to the functioning of the Egyptian state and society at large, from which Punt gained its lasting fame as “the God’s Land.”

Inscriptions state that a communiqué from the king of the gods, Amun-Re, provided the official (recorded) reason for Queen Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty to reestablish direct trade with Punt, possibly after an interruption in Egyptian missions of some 150–300 years (Breasted 2001b, p. 116, §285; although there seems to have been direct military contact with Puntites ca. 150 years prior, when Puntites fought as allies of the Kushites against Kamose in Nubia [Davies 2003]). The widow and sister of King Thutmose II, Hatshepsut, first served as regent for a young male heir, Thutmose III (Murnane 1977; Keller 2005; Dorman 2006). The earliest official inscriptions in the reign mention only Thutmose III, but sometime during or after regnal year 2, Hatshepsut appears performing kingly functions even though she bears only titles appropriate to a chief royal wife, including “God’s Wife of Amun” (Dorman 2006, pp. 43–44). Later, she acquired the full titulary and regalia of a reigning king and claimed to be the heir of her father, King Thutmose I (Dorman 2005, p. 88; Dorman 2006, pp. 54–55). Scenes and texts credit her conception and selection as king to the chief god of state, Amun, whom she honored with the construction of new monuments perhaps to the point of obsession (Redford 1984, p. 359). In light of this preoccupation, this paper explores the possible ideological and political rationale for a major maritime expedition to Punt launched by a ruler evidently anxious over her own legitimacy.

Punt and its Wonders in Context: Old Kingdom through Middle Kingdom

How Egypt first came into contact with Punt or its “wonders” is lost to history, but it is possible that obsidian from sources in Ethiopia and southwest Arabia began arriving in Egypt during the Predynastic (Roy 2011, p. 264), and small ebony artifacts from the region are known from the First Dynasty (Gale et al. 2000, p. 339). The existence of an “inter-regional trading circuit” has been proposed for coasts on both sides of the southern Red Sea (Fattovich 2012b), which might have provided a means for such materials to enter early pharaonic Egypt.

The Palermo Stone preserves the earliest direct evidence of Egyptian knowledge of Punt at present; at some point late in the reign of Sahure, the second king of the Fifth Dynasty, a large quantity of goods, including 80,000 measures of antyw, were brought to Egypt from Punt (Strudwick 2005, p. 72). This inscription may relate to the returning maritime fleet and reception of Puntite goods depicted on this king’s causeway at Abusir (El Awady 2009, pp. 156–157, 159, pl. 5). A fragmentary text in an accompanying scene includes the incomplete phrase “never happened.” It is likely that the king was making a claim of “never had the like occurred” (El Awady 2009, p. 169). Noreen Doyle (personal communication, 30 September 2013; cf. Tait 2003, p. 12) suggests that this may be the oldest surviving example of what would later become a familiar pharaonic refrain used by, among many others, Hatshepsut.

In this suite of scenes, the king—attended by his mother, his wife, and a number of courtiers—obtains resinous gum from and trees brought back by his fleet (El Awady 2009, pp. 160–179, pls. 5–6.). The royal mother enjoys prominent mention here; El Awady (2009, p. 169) interprets the text as “refer[ing] to a special and precious gift from the king” to her and perhaps also others in attendance. Certainly other materials that likely came from Punt were given as official gifts during the Old Kingdom; for example, Sahure’s successor, Neferirkare, granted his vizier, Weshptah, a coffin of ebony (Breasted 2001a, pp. 112–113, §247). Other textual records attest to expeditions to or other contact with Punt during later reigns of the Old Kingdom (e.g., Newberry 1938; Breasted 2001a, pp. 160, §351; 163, §360; Strudwick 2005, pp. 332, 333, 335, 340 n. 245), and there is indisputable archeological evidence of even earlier Old Kingdom maritime activities on the Red Sea (e.g.,Tallet 2012, 2013; Tallet and Marouard 2012).

Whatever the situation was in the subsequent First Intermediate Period, when Egypt was politically fragmented, the Red Sea port at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis preserves evidence for expeditions to Punt throughout most of the Twelfth Dynasty (Fattovich 2012a). Even as late as the Thirteenth Dynasty, there is a reference to a boat-borne ritual, “greatly flooded with the scent of Punt,” in which King Neferhotep I presented “myrrh, wine, and divine products” to the god Osiris (Simpson 2003, p. 342). How these aromatics were obtained—whether from contemporary direct or indirect trade or even from stores on hand from expeditions during previous reigns—remains unknown.

New Kingdom Expeditions to Punt Before and During the Reign of Hatshepsut

No record of trade between Egypt and Punt for the Second Intermediate period is known. During this time, native Egyptian rule was confined to Upper Egypt, caught between two hostile powers: the north governed from Avaris and Memphis by a succession of foreign kings (the Hyksos), and, in the south, a rising Kushite kingdom centered at Kerma. Hypothetically, the Theban kings might have retained access to the Red Sea (cf. Bourriau 1997, p. 160; Bourriau 1999, p. 46), but there is no evidence for use of Mersa/Wadi Gawasis during this period. Furthermore, they may have lacked sufficient resources (e.g., Levantine timber) to conduct the vigorous Red Sea trade of their Middle Kingdom predecessors. The blockage of trade with the Levant has even been proposed as a motivation for the Theban conquest of the north (O’Connor 1997, p. 62).

Immediately following the defeat of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt by Ahmose, imported materials—“real” lapis lazuli for jewelry and cedar for sacred barges and columns (Breasted 2001b, p. 14, §32)—were obtained from foreign sources to the north. Ahmose stresses that his building projects employ “new” cedar (Breasted 2001b, p. 14, §32) rather than engaging in the standard practice of reusing old timbers (Creasman 2013). The objects created from these imports were not (directly) for the king, or for his family members or courtiers, but specifically for the cult of Amun-Re, patron deity of Thebes, to whom the kings, no doubt, felt indebted for their victories. The cultic luxury consumption that would increase through the New Kingdom (Silver 1995, p. 34) thus began with such benefactions early in the Eighteenth Dynasty.

Egypt’s reassertion southward took root during the reign of Amenhotep I, who campaigned personally in Kush (Bryan 2000, p. 224; Breasted 2001b, pp. 33–35, §80–81). Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose I, delivered the fatal blow (Bryan 2000, p. 232). This may have brought Egyptians into second-hand contact with Punt, perhaps via an old Nilotic route used during the Old Kingdom, but evidence is lacking.

Although her co-ruler and eventual successor, Thutmose III, would choose to extend Egypt’s influence northward, Hatshepsut elected to continue a southern expansion. She actively continued to consolidate Egyptian rule in Nubia; surviving inscriptions attest to two campaigns during her reign, at least one of which she undertook personally (Davies 2005, pp. 52–53). Given that additional territorial conquest southward beyond that already achieved by her predecessors might have been unsustainable logistically, in order to continue an expansion of Egyptian influence, Hatshepsut had few choices, one of which was to dispatch a fleet to “the God’s Land.” That this choice could serve not only as a material end but a political purpose as well made it all the more valuable. Through the period of Hyksos domination of the north and the flourishing of Kerma in the south, Punt and its wonders had not been forgotten. An inscription at the queen’s temple at Deir el-Bahri announced that “a command was heard from the great throne, an oracle of the god (i.e., Amun-Re) himself, that the ways to Punt should be searched out, that the highways to the Myrrh terraces should be penetrated” (Breasted 2001b, p. 116, §285). Upon hearing this oracle, Hatshepsut replied, “I will lead the army on water and on land, to bring marvels from God’s Land for this god, the fashioner of her beauty” (Breasted 2001b, p. 116, §285). Although this would not (and could not) be an expedition of military conquest, Hatshepsut recognized the importance of not only displaying her ability to command the military but indeed also including the military in this sacred enterprise.

Hatshepsut’s Punt inscriptions are accompanied by an astonishing series of reliefs illustrating the expedition and the presentation of its cargo (Naville 1898, pp. 11–21, pls. 69–86). Sahure’s much older scenes have been proposed as a model for Hatshepsut; even apart from the Punt reliefs, Sahure’s causeway offers iconographic parallels with Hatshepsut’s temple (Roth 2005, p. 149). Unfortunately, if Sahure’s text recorded the impetus behind his expedition, it has not survived, nor have any from the Middle Kingdom, although the Eleventh Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahri may have once contained similar imagery (Doyle 2013, p. 139). To what extent Hatshepsut’s ancient predecessors may have inspired the queen or whether she was declaring a novel motivation for the launch of her expedition cannot now be determined.

Possibly inspired by Sahure’s importation of living and trees, Hatshepsut’s expedition also took from Punt trees small enough to be dug up with sufficient roots to keep them alive for eventual transplanting in Egypt (Dixon 1969). This feat also appears in Theban Tomb 67, belonging to Hapuseneb, who served as the high priest of Amun under the queen (Davies 1961). Besides these trees and probably several tons of antyw (Hikade 2001, p. 77) which she “owed to the lord of gods” (Breasted 2001b, p. 121, §294), her expedition returned with other luxuries for which Punt was known, including Puntites (Wicker 1998, p. 157; cf. Breasted 2001b, p. 109, §265). The success of the expedition allowed Hatshepsut to give the god “a Punt in his garden” at Thebes (Breasted 2001b, p. 122, §295).

Punt and its Wonders after Hatshepsut

If Hatshepsut was the first New Kingdom monarch to trade with Punt (a consideration not to be ignored or exaggerated [Saleh 1972b, p. 157]), she was not the last. Her coregent and successor, Thutmose III, continued to benefit from the renewed trade. Interestingly, in the earliest surviving mention in Thutmose III’s Annals (year 31), the importation of antyw does not occur via Punt but rather from the Gnbtyw (Breasted 2001b, p. 201, §474), who were possibly an Arabian people (Saleh 1972a). It is entirely possible that the appearance of Hatshepsut’s ships in Punt spurred interest among the inhabitants of the region to seek out trade with Egypt through whatever means at their disposal. Once aware of the new market, they would have no reason to remain passive partners awaiting the arrival of another Egyptian fleet. Despite scholarly assertion of “trade expeditions to Punt” in years 33 and 38 (Panagiotopoulos 2006, p. 373), the ancient texts do not spell out the means by which “marvels” of Punt arrived in Egypt later in Thutmose III’s reign (Breasted 2001b, pp. 204, §486; 210, §513; cf. Saleh 1972a, pp. 246–247).

Some later texts are straightforward on the matter of Egyptian travel to Punt. An inscription of Rameses II at Aksha (Serra West), which parallels an inscription at Amara West, records that an “expedition reached Punt” and received some of the usual “marvels,” including and “incense trees” (Breasted 2001d, p. 203, §407; Rodrigo 1985). Rameses III sent a fleet to Punt on a voyage famously described in the Papyrus Harris I (Bongrani 1997). This is likely how he obtained not only the antyw mentioned in the papyrus but also the “myrrh sycamores” planted at a temple of Ptah in Memphis (Breasted 2001d, p. 169, §333). However, unlike the case of Hatshepsut’s ostensible offerings to Hathor and establishment of a shrine, the Punt-bound fleet of Rameses III consisted simply of ships “laden with the products of Egypt without number, being in every number like ten thousands” (Breasted 2001d, p. 203, §407).

Some New Kingdom texts give Amun or Amun-Re credit for “gathering” tribute from Punt (Seti I; Nineteenth Dynasty) (Breasted 2001c, p. 57, §116; cf. Saleh 1972a, p. 257) or “mak[ing] the countries (pl.) of Pwenet come to [the king]” with their tribute (Amenhotep II; Eighteenth Dynasty) (Saleh 1972a, p. 257; cf. Breasted 2001b, pp. 361–362, §892). This god also “opened” for Seti I “the highways of Punt” (Saleh 1972a, p. 257, n. 3; Breasted 2001c, p. 76, §155), but it is not specified who is traveling on them: Puntites, Egyptians, or intermediaries. The means by which the tribute-bearing Puntites who appear in Eighteenth Dynasty tombs (e.g., de Davies N 1922, p. 84, pls. 32, 33B; de Davies N 1944, pp. 18–20; cf. Panagiotopoulos 2006, p. 395) came to Egypt is not stated. It is certainly possible that these delegations arrived aboard an Egyptian fleet, as Puntites accompanied their products aboard the ships of Sahure, Hatshepsut, and Rameses III.

Although during the reign of Rameses III trade with the God’s Land to the southeast may have shifted to land routes through the Arabian Peninsula (Somaglino and Tallet 2011), as late as the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, Egyptian expeditions were still reaching Punt. After this, it persists only in literary and mythical contexts (Kitchen 1982, p. 1199).

Discussion: Hatsepsut’s Politics of Punt

The belief that Hatshepsut was the first New Kingdom monarch to trade with Punt is not new (Naville 1898, p. 11). While the veracity of this claim has been called into question (e.g., Säve-Söderberg 1946, pp. 16–30; Wachsmann 1998, p. 18), it appears to be largely accepted by the field.

The phraseology associated with later New Kingdom references to Punt contrast sharply with those of Hatshepsut. Later texts make the god Amun/Amun-Re the actor who “makes” Punt bring its products or who “opens the highways to Punt” for the king. However, in Hatshepsut’s texts the god commands the queen “to send to the Myrrh terraces, to explore his ways [for him], to learn his circuit, to open his highways” (Breasted 2001b, p. 121, §294). Rather than being the beneficiary of divine effort, Hatshepsut acts on behalf of the god, opening the highways to Punt herself by means of her fleet.

Both Sahure and Hatshepsut make equivalent statements that no former ruler had ever accomplished an expedition to Punt. Whether this was literally true for Sahure in the Fifth Dynasty is impossible to say at present (a speculative case can be suggested for the Fourth Dynasty under Sneferu’s reign [e.g., El Awady 2006, pp. 42–43]); the use of the Red Sea harbor at Wadi el-Jarf, which has been speculated relates to the Punt trade, predates him by a century (Tallet et al. 2012). Hatshepsut’s claimed motivation—namely, the oracle of Amun—could reflect “the predominance of god as direct cause (actor) and the elimination or, to be more correct, reduction in the role of social mores (conformity; acting according to Ma’at [i.e., universal order]) in determining the body politic” that contrasts the early Eighteenth Dynasty with the Middle Kingdom (Spalinger 1998, p. 298). That is, the importance of Hatshepsut’s expedition might arise not from its being another iteration of an ancient pattern, but rather from the expedition itself and its results (cf. Assman 1989, pp. 75–76).

This need not mean that Hatshepsut was not consciously emulating her illustrious ancient predecessors. That she did so in certain respects is clear, for example, from the architecture of her temple, which reflected the Eleventh Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep, beside which it was built (Roth 2005). Nonetheless, the pretext for her Punt expedition was a specific, contemporary divine request. The return of her fleet would not be celebrated for bringing back aromatics subsequently presented to the queen mother and members of the court. Hatshepsut instead dedicated the aromatics directly to the god. It is this act that most greatly contrasts her expedition with Sahure’s. This specific dedication is critical to understanding the motivation behind the venture.

Punt had valuable goods to offer those in charge of the divine estates and rituals. An expedition to Punt offered the priests of Amun the opportunity to partake of the bounties of Punt, cultic luxuries perhaps not available directly, in sufficient volume, or possibly at all for some two or three centuries. Not coincidentally, a high priest of Amun during Hatshepsut’s reign, Hapuseneb, even included a Punt scene in his tomb (Theban Tomb 67) (Davies 1961). This was probably not, however, merely royal largesse.

The timing of Hatshepsut’s venture to Punt is revealing. The inscription indicates that the fleet returned in year 9 (Breasted 2001b, p. 120, §292); given that the voyage would have taken 10–12 months (Hikade 2001, p. 76), the expedition likely launched in year 8. It would have required a great deal of preparation before departure: conversion of wood into timbers, constructing and equipping the ships, assembling (and training?) crews and support personnel who might number in the thousands (Kitchen 1993, p. 589; Hikade 2001, pp. 76–77; Kitchen 2012, p. 62), etc. This process might have begun a year or more before the launch.

Might the queen have initiated the process immediately after, or even immediately before, the formal coronation that recognized her as not mere regent but king? This event took place no later than year 7 and possibly as early as year 2 (Murnane 1977, pp. 33–34). Critically, it is not until after the Punt expedition returned that “official dates often include both Pharaohs, with Hatshepsut occurring first more often than not” (Spalinger 1998, p. 275; emphasis added). The voyage to Punt may have been an important element of political theater. It is not surprising, then, that other such events are also recorded at Deir el-Bahri, including Hatshepsut’s journey with her father to the chief sanctuaries of Egypt (Naville 1898, pp. 2–3) and Thutmose I presenting Hatshepsut dressed in men’s clothing as his associate and heir to high-ranking officials (Naville 1898, p. 6). It is tempting (if cynical) to see the Punt expedition and its luxuries offered as a reward/promise for those who supported her accession to the throne, including the powerful priesthood of the god whose support was essential to pharaonic legitimacy. In a speech recorded in an inscription at Deir el-Bahri, the queen herself proclaims that the antyw of Punt was “owed to the lord of gods [i.e., Amun], in order to establish the laws of his house” (Breasted 2001b, p. 121, §294). To give to the god, one gives to the cult and its personnel.

The politics of dispensing such favors may have been a factor in the choice of expedition leader as well. Hatshepsut’s fleet was not commanded by anyone with titles related to Amun but rather by the overseer of the seal and chief treasurer Nehesy (Breasted 2001b, p. 119, §290). His burial at Saqqara suggests a close association with the vizier of the north at Memphis, a place that may have served as the real administrative center during the period (Bryan 2006, p. 77). Although electing a commander with affiliation(s) in the north for such a prestigious voyage may have been a matter of practicality—Egypt’s best seafarers were, at this time, likely concentrated in the north to serve Egypt’s Mediterranean fleet—it could have engendered vital goodwill in Lower Egypt. Hatshepsut may have used this appointment to evidence her favoritism beyond Egypt’s spiritual center, Thebes, and the cult of Amun, to encompass the geographic and political whole: Upper and Lower Egypt, cult and bureaucracy, along with the important third element of New Kingdom governance, the army, which accompanied, or even constituted, the expedition.

Furthermore, Thutmose III makes an appearance in the scene, thus “acquiring some share in his coregent's display” (Murnane 1977, p. 37); even within her own temple, Hatshepsut could not forget who would remain on the throne upon her death.


Whether the decision to attempt to reach Punt originated with the queen or with the priesthood cannot be known for certain. Certainly, so complex and costly a decision would not be undertaken without politico–economic—and perhaps genuinely pious—reward. A successful expedition to Punt and back again would achieve two inseparable and entirely practical goals: reestablishing trade in aromatics and other exotics, many of which would have been highly desirable for cultic luxury consumption (and a tool to curry favor), and demonstrating possession of the administrative wherewithal, personal charisma, and perhaps even the moral superiority (Warburton 2007, p. 80) necessary to organize and implement such an undertaking. Even when occupying the throne (or half of it), Hatshepsut had to prove her abilities to perform all of the functions expected of a king.

The expedition to Punt demonstrated that Hatshepsut’s reach was not limited to the borders of Egypt. Although she might have decided to showcase her Nubian conflict and performance on the battlefield like other kings, Punt gave her a greater novelty, a deed that her (immediate) predecessors could not claim. It also more directly benefited the cult of the god whom, to legitimize her kingly status, she claimed as her divine father.

The political opinion and influence of Amun’s priesthood, which could scarcely have disregarded the symbolic and practical implications of her donations, would have been a key element in the political base of her unorthodox kingship. Favoring an official from Lower Egypt with the appointment as expedition commander, and including a military contingent, may have been intended, likewise, to encourage support among the bureaucrats in the north and officers of the army. Hatshepsut’s Punt expedition, undertaken in the period of her coronation, and its depiction were calculated elements of her legitimization.



The author is especially grateful to the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful suggestions, which have significantly strengthened this work. Furthermore, Noreen Doyle is owed a great debt of gratitude for ensuring that this work came to press and for her intellectual contributions to it.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and Egyptian ExpeditionUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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