Trade Routes of the Ancient Mediterranean

For thousands of years Bronze Age merchants traversed the Mediterranean Sea.

Some of the earliest accounts of Bronze Age trade in the Mediterranean Sea is dated to the rise of the Kingdom of Egypt. After consolidating control over the Nile valley, around 3,000 BCE, early Egyptian kings sent trade expeditions northwards along the Palestinian coast. These expeditions were likely looking for supplies of timber but they also came into contact with the overland trade routes that extended westward to Mesopotamia and beyond.

The Water of Egypt

The Egyptians would slowly come to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean and centuries later, during the height of the New Kingdom Empire, the sea would become known as the Water of Egypt. Although Egypt was the dominant political power on the waves for at least one thousand years it shared the waterborne trade routes with merchants from across the Bronze Age world.

Traveling north, along the Palestinian coast, Egyptian ships made an average sped of 55km per day. The Ships would bring gold, amethyst, jasper and turquoise to trade for timber and luxury goods like the prized lapis-lazuli from distant Afghanistan. As southern Palestine had few ports most Egyptian ships traveled north to Byblos to conduct their business.

From Byblos ships could travel on to Ugarit and southern Anatolia or they could sail west to Cyprus which was known for its copper ore and olive oil. Such journeys would take as little as two weeks when sailing out of the Eastern Nile Delta region. Travel south again from Cyprus was much quicker in the right season where southerly winds could push the ships southward at speeds of hundreds of Kilometers per day. This southerly journey from Cyprus could be treacherous as it relied on travel across open water; this made ships susceptible to storms.


During the New Kingdom Egyptian shipping was based out of Perunefer(Good Departure/BonVoyage), the port of the capital city of Memphis. It was here that much of the timber from the Syrian coast was brought for shipbuilding. Ships masts were brought in ranging from 6-17 meters in length. The ships themselves were up to 5.5 meters wide and 30 meters long. Although Egypt built many vessels for trade it is possible that some of the longer range vessels were actually built in foreign lands.

Byblos and Keftiu Ships

Egyptian accounts tell of long range trade vessels known as Byblos ships and Keftiu ships. Keftiu was the ancient Egyptian name for Crete. Some theories suggest that theses ships were so named because of their destinations but depictions of these vessels indicate they were often had crews of non-Egyptians and therefore may have actually originated in Byblos or Keftiu and were merely sanctioned by Egypt to trade in its territory.

The Trade Network

With Egypt as its linchpin a trade network grew to encompass all of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea as well. While some ships made the journey from Egypt between the Syrian and Palestinian coasts and Cyprus, primarily bringing timber to Egypt, other ships made a much longer journey that circumnavigated the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theses long distance traders would begin their journeys in a trading Emporium like Ugarit on the Syrian coast. In cities such as Ugarit merchants had warehouses full of raw materials and agricultural goods. Agents from the Great Kings (Egyptian, Hittite, Mitanni, Babylonian and occasionally others) would place their orders to be sent to the homeland. Other items were loaded onto merchant vessels to be taken and traded for other goods not readily available at the port of origin.

A merchant in Ugarit would have a wide variety of trade goods available to them. From Egypt, Gold and precious stones from the Eastern Deserts as well as dyed woolen textiles and fine linen garments. From Hatti (the Kingdom of the Hittites), Gold and Silver. From Canaan grain and wine. From West Asia, carnelian and lapis-lazuli as well as tin and other metals in the form of oxhide ingots. (See attached photo). Other goods, such as slaves, horses, ivory, incense and perfumes were also in abundance.

To the Aegean and back again.

From Ugarit most traders would then go west to Cyprus to trade some of their goods for olive oil or copper. The merchants would then sail north to Ura along the south eastern Anatolian coast which was the main port of entry for goods making their way into the Hittite heartland to the north. Here, during the later years of the Hittite Empire grain was regularly imported from Egypt and Canaan.

After leaving the port of Ura the journey along the south Anatolian coast was fraught with dangerous seas and the risk of pirates. However, despite the dangers, the profits to be made in the Aegean Sea outweighed the risks. The raw materials available from the east were much prized by the craftsmen of the Aegean islands and Minoan Crete. Merchants would typically trade items like jasper and turquoise for figurines, finger-rings, earrings and bracelets made from the same materials.

On the island of Crete merchants would trade for large two handled amphora filled with wine and olive oil and decorated with marine and floral motifs. These containers were not only valued for their contents but they were kept as collector’s items for their artistic appeal. Also from Crete came little ceramic containers of salves and perfumes.

These items would then be loaded on ships that would sail south to the Libyan coast and then eastward along the shoreline until they made their way to the Nile Delta. Once in Egypt they would be restocked with that lands trade goods and once again the ships would sail north finding their way to Ugarit.

For thousands of years this trade network flourished until around 1200 BCE when migrations of the so called “Sea Peoples” ended the Bronze Age world system.

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