Head North, or rather ḫd North


To the Egyptians, ‘travel’ was synonymous with ‘water travel’, and the Nile acted as the country’s superhighway. Since Egypt was entirely strung out along the fertile riverbanks of the life-giving Nile that served as the country’s backbone, the majority of travel and transportation was north-south oriented and much time and energy was saved by using boats. Therefore the words used to indicate north or southward movement were written with boat symbols.

The word ḫnti, a verb meaning “to sail upstream, travel southward” (definition from Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian 1962, 195), was written like this:hnti

beginning with the phonetic sound ‘ḫnt’—a symbol of three (or four) jars in a rack, the wavy water symbol that stands for the letter ‘n’, a loaf of bread for the letter ‘t’, and a determinative symbol to give a visual clue to the word’s meaning, in this case a hieroglyph of a boat with a raised sail.

The word ḫdi, a verb meaning “to travel downstream, northwards” (according to Faulkner 1962, 199), was written like this:


with the symbol for the letter round ‘ḫ’, a circle filled with horizontal lines, the letter ‘d’ which was written with a hand, and a determinative depicting a boat with oars.

You may have noticed that while both these words designate travel using boat determinatives they differ slightly, one being shown with oars and the other with sails. This is because the Egyptians reflected the realities of travel in how they wrote—the word for southern travel is written with a sail because the prevailing wind in Egypt comes from the north and people travelling south would always make use of the helpful wind, harnessing its energy with sails, while the word for northern travel is written with oars, since anyone going north by boat would have had to travel against the wind, but following the flow of the river downstream towards the Mediterranean, using the water current and oars to propel the boat. Beautifully logical, isn’t it?

The visual dimension of Egyptian words means that they can often give us much more information about the culture beyond a literal reading and it’s worth reading between the lines.

Solar boat
A full-sized boat built from cedar wood that was buried beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rebuilt and now on display at Giza.

Egyptian word of the week

I’ve decided that it might be interesting to share some of my favourite Egyptian words each week, so that even if you don’t read hieroglyphs, you can enjoy some of the flavour and character of the language that is often lost in translation.

The basis of certain words and the special ways in which they were used can give us key insights into Egyptian culture and the way the people thought. For example, the Egyptians were very keen on puns or play-on-words, which often formed a key symbolic part of religious and political ideology. Also, although hieroglyphs weren’t just simplistic representative pictures, their pictorial form was still significant and often exploited in art and texts. And sometimes it’s not just our understanding of Egyptian culture that can be enlightened by examining Egyptian words—sometimes it’s our own culture as well. Some Egyptian words have made it into modern languages, including English.

I remember learning one of my favourite examples of an Egyptian loan word into English back during my undergraduate degree in Toronto when we read an inscription about Queen Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt (which some argue is modern Eritrea). The word is hbny and you might be able to guess what the English loan word is!

hbny is written like this:hbny

with the phonetic ‘h’ symbol—a walled courtyard, the symbol for ‘b’—a leg, a plow sign that is the phonetic symbol for ‘hb’, the squiggly line depicting water that is the phonetic ‘n’ sign, two dashes representing the sound ‘y’, and a branch symbol acting as a determinative to the word to specify it’s wood-related meaning. hbny is the word for the dark tropical hardwood that we call ‘ebony’. We’ve just simply dropped the ‘h’ sound from the Egyptian word.

The word was borrowed by the Greeks and entered into English. So whenever you say ‘ebony’, bear in mind that you’re speaking ancient Egyptian!

Some examples of the word’s use in Egyptian texts can be found in lists of luxury products from foreign countries, such as in the autobiographical inscription in the rock-cut tomb of the official Harkhuf, describing the products he acquired during his travels:


Here is my translation of the above text transcribed in Sethe 1932, 126: ‘I returned with 300 donkeys, which were laden with incense, ebony, hekenu-oil, sat, moringa oil, panther skins, ivory tusks, throwsticks, and all good products’.

hbny is also used in the Punt expedition text that I mentioned above. A relief from the temple depicting Punt is pictured below:


In the temple of Hatshepsut (the Egyptian queen who ruled as king) at Deir El Bahri, over an image of ships being loaded with the products of Punt, is the inscription:
‘The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God’s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory…Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning’ (translation from Breasted 1906-7 vol.2, 263-5).

hbny and ivory’. So it turns out that that old Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder lyric is actually over three thousand years old!