Hatshepsut and Punt: Trade or Tribute?
Engraved on the walls of the second column-hall in her temple at Deir el-Bahri are reliefs and texts relating the expedition sent by Hatshepsut to Punt. 1 These are an excellent source for the study of the interaction of ideology with the practical running of the transactions that take place between countries of different technological level and political organization. This difference is emphasized by the particularly remote location of Punt, 2 the difficulty of access to it and the nature of its products. These are generally referred to as ‘the marvels of Punt’, an expression that indicates just how rare and exotic they are believed to be. The location of Punt is also described in rather vague terms, more cosmological than topographical in nature, and suggesting that it is to be found at the extreme edge of the world; the Egyptians had no direct geographical experience beyond Punt.
The products of Punt were already reaching Egypt before royal trade expeditions like that of Hatshepsut were undertaken; myrrh and incense 3 in particular were necessary for the cult, and were consumed in large amounts. These products reached Egypt slowly and with great difficulty, by means of local caravans in East Africa and down the Nile, 4 with many detours and the intervention of many middlemen. The situation is well described by Hatshepsut:
No one trod the myrrh terraces, which the people (rmt = the Egyptians) knew not; it was heard of from mouth to mouth, by hearsay of the ancestors. The marvels brought thence under the fathers, the kings of Lower Egypt, were brought from one to another, and since the time of the ancestors, the kings of Upper Egypt who were of old, as a return for many payments; none reaching them except the carriers. 5