Egypt and the Mediterranean World

By Gaballa, Gaballa Aly | UNESCO Courier, September 1988 | Go to article overview

Egypt and the Mediterranean World


Gaballa, Gaballa Aly, UNESCO Courier


HISTORIC Egypt emerged as a unified country, with its own system of writing, towards the end of the fourth millennium BC, It rapidly became the seat of a brilliant civilization in which flourished philosophy and literature, architecture and art, science and medicine, administration and social organization. From ancient times, thanks to the country's situation on the Mediterranean coast, the Egyptians made increasingly numerous contacts with Europe. The contribution made by Egypt to Western culture enriched civilization as a whole.

Around the same time, the Minoan civilization (named after Minos, the legendary king), came into being on the shores of the Aegean, centred on the island of Crete.

Although the Mediterranean was no obstacle between Egypt and the Aegean, contacts between Egyptian and Aegean traders and emissaries were made first of all in the Phoenician coastal ports, Byblos in particular. Egyptian trading vessels no doubt set sail from these ports to Crete, and called at Cyprus, Rhodes, Karpathos and Kasos before returning directly to Egypt (some 270 nautical miles from Crete), carried along by the north winds that blow in summer. The voyage then took three days and two nights.

There is no lack of archaeological evidence for relations between the two peoples. Many Egyptian cylindrical stone jars have been found in Crete and eventually the Cretans adopted the Egyptian technique of manufacturing these jars. On the island of Kithira, an alabaster vase has been found bearing the name of an Egyptian king of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2465-2323 BC). From the twenty-second century BC, Egyptian writings began to mention Kaftiou, an Egyptian adaptation of the Semitic name for Crete, Caphtor, which also appears in the Bible.

At the beginning of the second mtllennium BC, there was a thriving trade between Middle Kingdom Egyptians and Cretans of the period known as Middle Minoan. Many Egyptian objects from that era, including everyday utensils, scarabs used as seals and a diorite statuette, have been found in Crete, while Minoan pottery in the Kamares style, and silver vases showing an Aegean influence, have been discovered in a temple near Luxor.

Around 1500 BC, Egypt cast off the yoke of the Hyksos(1) and emerged from its traditional isolationism to become an international power, strengthened by a series of military victories. Phoenicia and Syria fell under its sway, and the Egyptian fleet controlled the Phoenician ports, probably extending its influence as far as Cyprus. This Egyptian presence created a new situation in the eastern Mediterranean basin. The Aegeans of the Late Minoan period and the Mycenaeans of Hellas(2) had thereafter to deal directly with the Egyptians if their merchant ships were to have access to the traditional markets of Palestine and Syria. In all probability, the Cretans and the Mycenaeans came to an agreement with the powerful Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (c. 1479-1425 BC). The tomb of his vizier Rekhmire, at the necropolis of Thebes, depicts Cretan emissaries bearing tribute from their island. The Egyptian inscription describes the scene: "The arrival of the princes from Kaftiou and the islands in the midst of the sea, submissive and with bowed heads before the might of His Majesty Tuthmosis III". There is every reason to believe that thes"islands in the midst of the sea" were those of the eastern Mediterranean and the city of Mycenae in the Peloponnese.

Brown-skinned Aegeans, wearing brightly coloured loincloths and with thick manes of hair hanging to their shoulders or worn in one or more plaits bound around their foreheads, became a familiar sight to the Egyptians as they threaded through the streets of Thebes to bear their gifts, called "tribute" by the Egyptians, to Pharaoh: large, ornate goblets with handles shaped like animals, or elongated vases with small handles, decorated with floral motifs or horizontal polychrome lines. …

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