The Land of Punt is described in ancient Egyptian texts as "the land of the gods" and a region rich in resources. In the decades after Jean-Francois Champollion first deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822, and western scholars began reading Egyptian texts, questions arose as to where Punt was located and what it is called in the modern world.
Punt was almost certainly located in the modern-day region of North West Somalia based on the evidence of the ancient Egyptian inscriptions. According to historian Ahmed Abdi, the ancient city of Opone in Somalia is identical to the city of Pouen referenced as part of Punt by ancient inscriptions. The Egyptians called Punt Pwenet or Pwene which translates as Pouen known to the Greeks as Opone. It is well established that Opone traded with Egypt over many centuries.
The country is best known for Queen Hatshepsut's famous expedition in 1493 BCE in the 18th Dynasty of Egypt. This exchange between Egypt and Punt brought back living trees to Egypt, marking the first known successful attempt at transplanting foreign fauna. This voyage to Punt is only the most famous, however, and evidence suggests that the Egyptians were trading with the Land of Punt as early as the reign of the pharaoh Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2613-2498 BCE) and probably earlier.
Egypt grew as a nation as trade increased beginning in the latter part of the Predynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE). By the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt (c. 3150-2613 BCE) trade was firmly established with regions in Mesopotamia and Phoenicia. By the time of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2498-2345 BCE), Egypt was flourishing through trade with these areas and especially the Phoenician city of Byblos and the countries of Nubia and Punt. Punt was not only a significant partner in trade, however; it was also a source of cultural and religious influence and a land that the Egyptians viewed as their place of origin and blessed by the gods.
Location of the Land of Punt
The exact location of the Land of Punt is still disputed by historians, scholars, archaeologists, and others in the present day. Through the years it has been cited as part of Arabia, present-day Somalia or the Puntland State of Somalia at the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Eritrea, or in the present region of the de facto independent Republic of Somaliland but could refer to some other internal region of east Africa. The debate continues as to where Punt was located, with scholars and historians on every side offering plausible supports for their claims. The two best possibilities are Eritrea and North West Somalia with Eritrea so far gaining the most widespread acceptance.
It would seem, however, from the reliefs telling of the expedition carved on Hatshepsut's temple at Deir al-Bahri, that Punt was likely located in present-day Puntland State of Somalia or, at least, North West Somalia. According to historian Abdisalam Mahamoud, the ancient Somali name for their region was "Bunn", a name referenced in texts regarding trade with Egypt as "Pwenet" or "Pwene", and the region is known as "Bunni" in the present day. The culture of Puntland State of Somalia bears a number of striking resemblances to that of ancient Egypt including language, ceremonial dress, and the arts.
Hatshepsut's inscriptions claim that her divine mother, Hathor, was from Punt and other inscriptions indicate that Egyptians in the 18th Dynasty considered Punt the origin of their culture. The scholar John A. Wilson writes how Hatshepsut was very proud of the expedition she launched to Punt and he makes clear that it was "the land of incense to the south, perhaps chiefly in the Somaliland area, but also Arabia Felix" (176). Wilson seems to favor an interpretation of Somalia as Punt when he points out the "unusual prominence" of this expedition.
Punt could not have been in Arabia because the Egyptians traded regularly with that region which was not "to the south" and could not have been Nubia because the Egyptians knew that land well also and it would not have been represented as "mysterious". Further, trade was conducted by sea travel which rules both of those out. It is possible it was located above Somalia in Eritrea, however, and this region is the best contender for Punt after Somalia.
Those who favor an interpretation of Somalia as Punt point to the descriptions of Hatshepsut's and others' expeditions. The Egyptians traveled there by boat down the Nile, through the Wadi Tumilat in the eastern Delta and on to the Red Sea. There is evidence that the Egyptian crews would disassemble their boats, carry them overland to the Red Sea, and then hug the shores as they made their way to Punt.
While this description does favor an interpretation of Eritrea, the other evidence weighs heavily in favor of North West Somalia. The Egyptians would have hugged the coast all the way to the Horn of Africa, present-day Puntland State of Somalia. Wilson cites the reliefs at Hatshepsut's temple as evidence of how amazed the Puntites were at the Egyptian's arrival as they were, seemingly, at the edge of the world. Wilson writes:
The people of Punt are flatteringly amazed at the boldness of the Egyptian sailors: "How did you reach here, the country unknown to men? Did you come down on the ways of heaven or did you travel by land or sea? How happy is God's Land (Punt), which you now tread like Ra!" (176)
Punt is also represented as quite foreign to the Egyptians. Scholar Marc van de Mieroop writes:
[The Egyptians] reached Punt by seagoing boat and found it a country very unlike their own. The representations of houses, animals, and plants suggest a location in northeast Africa along the Red Sea coast, possibly the region of modern Eritrea, although a locale farther inland has also been suggested. (169)
Some of the most compelling evidence for North West Somalia as Punt comes from work by archaeologists like Dr. Juris Zarins who argues convincingly that settlers from the Nile River Valley colonized the region of Somalia during the Neolithic Period and the two areas were linked by trade as early as the 2nd millennium BCE. Ancient architectural and cultural evidence strongly support the Somalian connection.
The Hatshepsut Expedition to Punt
Although trade had long been established between Egypt and Punt, the 1493 BCE expedition of Hatshepsut was given particular significance. This may be simply because this transaction was larger than any other but evidence suggests the way to Punt had been lost and Hatshepsut was directed by the gods to re-establish the connection. Wilson describes how the voyage was first commissioned by Hatshepsut, based on the reliefs from her temple:
Amun-ra of Karnak spoke from his sanctum in the temple and directed Hat-shepsut to undertake the commercial exploration of the land of Punt. "The majesty of the palace made petition at the stairs of the Lord of the Gods. A command was heard from the Great Throne, an oracle of the god himself, to search out ways to Punt, to explore the roads to the terraces of myrrh." (169)
Hatshepsut then commanded that the will of the god be done and five ships were outfitted for the journey while goods were gathered for trade. Historian Barbara Watterson describes the journey based on the inscriptions from Hatshepsut's reign:
Five ships set out from a port on the Red Sea (possibly Quseir) to journey southwards to Suakin, where the expedition disembarked. The voyage had taken between 20 and 25 days, covering on average about 50 kilometers a day, with the ships hugging the coast rather than risk the dangerous deep water of the Red Sea. From Suakin, the route to Punt was overland through the Red Sea hills. (101)
This description of an overland voyage to Punt following the passage down the Red Sea can argue for either Eritrea or Somalia but, again, must be weighed along with the other evidence. Wherever its exact location near the Horn of Africa, it was very highly regarded and sufficiently different from Egypt to lend itself to mystery. The villages of Punt are described as houses set on stilts and governed by a king who may have been advised by elders. Inscriptions indicate relations between the two countries were very close and the Puntites an extremely generous people. The Land of Punt is routinely praised for its riches and the "goodness of the land" by Egyptian scribes.
Egyptian Trade with Punt
A Fourth Dynasty relief shows a Puntite with one of Pharaoh Khufu's sons, and in the Fifth Dynasty documents show regular trade between the two countries enriching both. A tomb inscription of the military commander Pepynakht Heqalb, who served under the king Pepy II (2278-2184 BCE) of the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, narrates how Heqalb was sent by Pepy II to "the land of the Aamu" to retrieve the body of the warden of Kekhen who "had been building a reed boat there to travel to Punt when the Aamu and Sand-dwellers killed him" (van de Mieroop, 90).
The Aamu were the Asiatics of Arabia and the Sand-dwellers those of the Sudan, arguing for a departure point for Egyptian trade around the port of Suakin (as previously noted by Watterson) on the west coast of the Red Sea. Egyptians relied on trade with Punt for many of their most highly prized possessions.
Among the treasures brought to Egypt from Punt were gold, ebony, wild animals, animal skins, elephant tusks, ivory, spices, precious woods, cosmetics, incense and frankincense and myrrh trees. Watterson writes, "In return for a modest present of a few Egyptian weapons and some trinkets, the Puntites gave their visitors sacks of aromatic gum, gold, ebony, ivory, leopard skins, live apes, and incense trees" (101).
Trade between Egypt and Punt was not as one-sided as Watterson suggests, however, as the inscriptions make clear fair exchange by both parties. Wilson reports how the Egyptians arrived at Punt with "jewelry, tools, and weapons" and returned with "incense trees, ivory, myrrh, and rare woods" (176). There is also evidence the Egyptians traded metals available in their country for the gold of Punt even though Egypt had its own gold mines.
The incense trees mentioned were an especially impressive article of trade. As noted, this exchange is the first time in recorded history that fauna (plants and trees) was successfully transplanted in another country. This transplant was so successful the trees flourished in Egypt for centuries. The roots of the frankincense trees brought back from Punt by Hatshepsut's expedition in 1493 BCE can still be seen outside of her complex at Deir al-Bahri.
Inscriptions on the walls of the site detail the Egyptian relationship with Punt and make clear that it was a mutually beneficial one and both parties held the other in deep respect. Reliefs on the walls of the temple show the chief of the Puntites and his wife receiving the envoys from Egypt with all honors. So precise are these depictions that modern-day scholars have been able to diagnose the Puntite wife of the Chief, Aty's, medical problems. According to historian Jimmy Dunn, the queen "shows signs of Lipodystrophy, or Dercum's Disease. She has a pronounced curvature of the spinal column" (3). The inscriptions mention King Perehu of Punt and his generosity which, judging from the goods brought back to Egypt, was vast.
Hatshepsut's reign was among the most prosperous in Egyptian history, but it is clear that she considered her expedition to Punt among her greatest successes. Watterson describes the importance of Punt to the queen in discussing the reliefs at the temple of Deir al-Bahri:
Reliefs depicting important themes from Hatshepsut's life decorate walls in the colonnades: her birth, the transportation of obelisks for the Temple of Amun in Thebes, the great expedition to Punt. (161)
Marc van de Mieroop also comments on this, writing:
Among the goods imported were complete incense trees as well as loose incense, an expensive fragrant tree extract that was used in [religious services] as an offering to the gods. The expedition gathered enormous heaps of it and the accompanying inscription asserts that such amounts had never before been acquired. The relief's prominence indicates how proud Hatshepsut was of the expedition's achievements. (169)
Thirty-one incense trees (Boswellia) were brought back to Egypt, in addition to all of the other valuable goods mentioned above, but it seems as though visiting Punt was just as important as the trade goods exchanged.
The Land of Punt was long associated with the gods and Egypt's legendary past partly because so many of the materials from Punt were used in temple rituals. The leopard skins from Punt were worn by priests, the gold became statuary, the incense was burned in the temples. A deeper association, however, sprang from the belief that the gods who blessed Egypt had equal affection for Punt. Hatshepsut, as mentioned, claimed Hathor came from Punt, and there is evidence that one of the most popular Egyptian gods of childbirth, Bes, (known as the Dwarf God) also came from Punt as did others.
Punt in Legend & the Modern Day
In the 12th Dynasty (1991-1802 BCE), Punt was immortalized in Egyptian literature in the very popular Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor in which a castaway Egyptian sailor on an island converses with a great serpent who calls himself the "Lord of Punt" and sends the sailor back to Egypt laden with gold, spices, and precious animals. The sailor in the story tells his master the tale to cheer him up after a failed expedition. He points out how his master may feel disappointed at his recent failure but how he once experienced a similar failure himself, only worse: his ship was actually lost and he feared for his life.
The Land of Punt is purposefully chosen in this story as the mystical on which the sailor washes up because it had already been linked to the gods in the past. The sailor is telling his master that, even though life may look bleak at a certain time, good can come out of even the darkest moments in life. He holds up the example of the Lord of Punt sending him home a richer man than when he had set out on his doomed voyage as the name of Punt would have reminded the master of the gods and their blessings and would have reminded an audience hearing the tale as well.
The Land of Punt eventually became a semi-mythical land to the Egyptians but was still understood as a very real place through the New Kingdom of Egypt (1570-1069 BCE). The vizier Rekhmira mentions accepting tribute from foreign delegations from Punt during the reign of Amunhotep II (1425-1400 BCE). Punt is mentioned during the reign of Ramesses II (the Great, 1279-1213 BCE) and that of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BCE).
Punt came to hold a deep fascination for the Egyptian people as a "land of plenty" and was known as Te Netjer, the land of the gods, from which all good things came to Egypt. Punt was also associated with Egyptian ancestry in that it came to be seen as their ancient homeland and, further, the land where the gods emerged from and consorted with each other. Exactly why Punt was elevated from reality into mythology is not known but, after the reign of Ramesses III, the land receded further and further in the minds of the Egyptians until it was lost in legend and folklore.
Today, the people of North West Somalia honor their ancient relationship with Egypt by keeping alive the language and customs. Historian Abdislam Mahamoud cites English linguist Charles Barber in describing how the language of ancient Egyptian belonged to the Hamitic group of languages which are still spoken "across a large part of North Africa and include Somali."
Mahamoud comments on this citing how people in modern-day Somalia continue to name their children after the ancient Egyptian gods, one example being the modern "Oraxthy" from the ancient Egyptian "Horakhty." Although the Land of Punt slowly vanished into ancient Egyptian mythology, its rich heritage continued on and is preserved in the present day by those who remember and honor their past.