The Egyptian-Phoenician expedition that circumnavigated Africa more than 2,500 years ago

Replica of a Phoenician ship built in 2008 to commemorate the circumnavigation of Africa / Image: Pinterest

The fact that the African continent was for the most part an unknown place until the second half of the 19th century does not mean that it did not gather several exploratory missions attempting to unravel its mysteries. And not only in Contemporary Age because the list of them goes back to Antiquity. For instance, we have mentioned here the expedition sent by Nero to Ethiopia and the five ones, also Roman, that crossed Sahel to Senegal, Niger and Chad. But there were attempts even before and one of the most famous is the Egyptian-Phoenician expedition that had the mission of circumnavigating Africa.

Bust of Herodotus / Image: Konstantinos Stampoulis – Wikimedia Commons

Herodotus relates it -there are no other documentary sources- in Melpomene, the fourth chapter of his Nine Books of History. He starts in epigraph 41 reviewing the coordinates of the continent, then known as Libya and which did not include Egypt itself. The famous Greek historian says:

Such then is the shape, and such the size of Asia. Libya belongs to one of the above-mentioned tracts, for it adjoins on Egypt. In Egypt the tract is at first a narrow neck, the distance from our sea to the Erythraean not exceeding a hundred thousand fathoms, in other words, a thousand furlongs; but from the point where the neck ends, the tract which bears the name of Libya is of very great breadth.

And in epigraph 42 he refers to its huge size:

For my part I am astonished that men should ever have divided Libya, Asia, and Europe as they have, for they are exceedingly unequal. Europe extends the entire length of the other two, and for breadth will not even (as I think) bear to be compared to them. As for Libya, we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necos, the Egyptian king

Bronze statuette of the Pharaoh Necao II / Image: Christie’s

This Necos was Necao II, pharaoh of the XXVI dynasty, son of Psametic I, who ruled Egypt between 610 and 595 BC. Necao’s period was characterized by his military victory against the Kingdom of Judah, which he managed to maintain as a vassal state, and by his conflicts with Babylonians, against whom he was first defeated at the Battle of Carchemis but managed to reject their invasion attempt later, ensuring control of the strategic Syrian-Palestinian strip.

This means Phoenicia was also under his control and, as they had developed unequalled navigation and shipbuilding skills in the known world, Necao decided to appeal to Phoenicians for an ambitious plan: circumnavigate Africa in search of a path from East to West. It was not a mere whim; the pharaoh intended to connect both worlds in order to improve commercial contacts.

The so-called Channel of the Pharaohs / Image: RedTony – Wikimedia Commons

In fact, it was not the first initiative in this matter. Shortly before, he had ordered the completion of a canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea to enable shipping, continuing the idea of some of his predecessors who had left it unfinished. Under Ramses II, in particular, a hundred kilometres were made which remained unfinished after calculation errors were discovered. Necao resumed the works linking Lake Timsah with the Bitter Lakes but also stopped when he was warned that this canal could facilitate an external invasion.

Later on, Persian Darius I and Roman Trajan finished the work linking the canal with Suez, although Caliph Al-Mansur ordered it to be blinded for the same strategic reasons that were invoked before the Pharaoh. But that is another story. Now we have to go back because Necao did not give up and he thought that if that artificial route was not recommended, there would perhaps be another natural one far away enough not to fear from the military point of view but, at the same time, close enough to be useful from the commercial one.

Map of the Ecúmene or land known in the 5th century B.C. according to Herodotus / Image: dominio público – Wikimedia Commons

Let Herodotus recount it:

on desisting from the canal which he had begun between the Nile and the Arabian gulf, sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean sea, and so sailed into the southern ocean. When autumn came, they went ashore, wherever they might happen to be, and having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they again set sail; and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home

As it can be appreciated, that voyage followed the opposite direction to those that the Portuguese would do centuries later: instead of sail south the Atlantic Ocean and round the Cape of Good Hope to the east, they had to sail from Egypt in summer, cross the Red Sea (the Arabian Gulf which Herodotus says) taking advantage of the north wind and leaving behind the Horn of Africa. The whole area was not unknown to Egyptians (who would lead the campaign even when the crew was Phoenician) because they traded with the country of Punt (probably located in today’s Ethiopia) and Saba (what is now Yemen).

Egyptians arriving at Punt (Herbert M. Herget) / Image: Pinterest

They would sail south parallel to the east African coast, benefiting from the northeast monsoon (which started blowing in autumn), and as they passed the equator they would enter the Indian Ocean taking advantage of the Needle Current (a warm and strong sea flow that bathes the southeastern African strip). This current made it easier for them to quickly cross the Mozambique Channel and turn westward. This way they would round the cape, heading for the Atlantic and catching the tradewinds from southeast.

Before that, the place where they anchored and sowed (probably wheat) must have been St. Helena’s Bay, in what is now South Africa. By then they would already have been travelling for a year, so it would be summer again. In fact, the real reason for stopping was not as much for harvesting as for caring for the boats. Once they harvested, around November, they resumed the journey, that still would take them another two years until they reached their destination. The Benguela Current, which runs parallel to the coast in northward direction, helped them sail up the Atlantic along with the impulse of the aforementioned trade winds.

Main marine currents / Image: dominio público – Wikimedia Commons

They may have been surprised to see that the coastline entered the sea towards the west forming the Gulf of Guinea but it was not an insurmountable obstacle because another current, which we precisely call Guinea, helped them to cabotage. But then, in spring, it changes direction, and when they resume their northern course, they would found the trade winds of the northeast – which not blow favourably – and another opposing current, that of the Canary Islands. There are doubts about the viability of the adventure, since all this, some experts believe, would prevent them from advancing beyond Cape Boxer (in Western Sahara).

This does not mean that everything would end there because they might continue by land, following the trade routes that Phoenicians had opened from their North African colonies (Carthage, Tangier, Mogador, Lixus, etc.) and, when they reach them, reembark for Egypt. Or, if we insist on believing the story literally, they could use oars to reach, possibly, Arguin Bay, in Mauritania, where they made another stop to repair the ships and sow once more.

Main winds / Image: public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

It was there where they may have made contact with the Berbers and learned of the existence of gold in the Bambuque region (between Senegal and Mali), news that probably prompted the later establishment of the Kerne factory and would be one of the incentives of the Carthaginian expedition to Hannu. In May they would harvest and sail up the Moroccan coast, taking advantage of the colonies listed above. As we have seen, Herodotus says they crossed the Columns of Hercules, in other words the Strait of Gibraltar, in whose surroundings there were also Phoenician cities such as Gadir (Cadiz) or Malacca (Malaga).

Sailing through the Mediterranean to Egypt must have been very simple compared to the previous odyssey. In short, either by sea or by land, the expedition would have managed to return to the starting point at the end of the summer season, thus completing the round of Africa in three years. Herodotus ends his story saying:

And they told what for me is not credible, although for another perhaps it is: that sailing around Libya they had had the sun on the right.

Reconstruction of the Ptolemy map in a 15th century atlas / Image: public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

He is obviously referring to the Atlantic part of navigation, where they would see the midday sun to the north. This fact paradoxically gives credibility to this episode despite the Greek historian being skeptical because he did not know about the earth’s roundness. But exactly because of that. There were still two centuries before Eratosthenes was born, who was the first to calculate earth’s circumference and moreover, at that time, it was thought Africa’s size was much smaller than the real one (see map 1); Portuguese navigators were the ones who demonstrated that the southern end of the continent was below the Tropic of Capricorn, agreeing with Ptolemy, who claimed that the dimensions of the continent were enormous.

At the same time, for Ptolemy circumnavigation was not only impossible because of its size but also because it was not clear that there was a Southern Sea at the southern part of Africa (map 2) and, therefore, like Strabo, Pliny and Polybius, he believed Herodotus’ account to be false… until Bartolomeo Diaz showed that both the Atlantic and the Indian were connected and, consequently, that the land could be surrounded, although he did it the other way around.

Sources: Los nueve libros de la Historia (Heródoto de Halicarnaso)/La exploración de África en los textos egipcios. De Sahure a Neco II (Nelson Pierrotti)/Phoenicia: History of a Civilization (George Rawlinson)/The Science of Navigation: From Dead Reckoning to GPS (Mark Denny)/The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (Lincoln Paine)/Wikipedia