Henenu, the Egyptian who opened a route to the legendary country of Punt

«I was sent to lead ships to the country of Punt to bring to the pharaoh aromatic spices that the princes of the Red country collect profusely since they excite all nations. And I left the city of Coptos because his Holiness ordered that the armed men who should accompany me should be from the southern country of the Thebans ».

This is a fragment of the review of the expedition that the ancient Egyptians made to the country of Punt in the words of their own chief, the nobleman Henenu (or Henu, or Hannu), left in an inscription. It is not known exactly what country that was (it is also known as Opone), of which we only have references in hieroglyphics, but it is believed that it would be located somewhere on the African coast of the Indian Ocean, probably in present-day Somalia, Eritrea or even Yemen.

Of what interest was it to the Egyptians? Much, given that it was considered a place of big wealth that gave rise to fantastic stories. Gold, minerals, lion and leopard skins (or even live animals), ostrich feathers, ivory, incense, baboons (reputed to be sacred animals), wood (a highly demanded product in Egypt due to its scarcity) and a thousand other things were attractive enough.

Punt’s fame as a place of wealth led Ancient Egypt to organize various trips to establish trade relations or try to conquer it. The most famous was the one ordered by the queen hatshepsut during the New Kingdom. As this sovereign she suffered a damnation memoriae Much information about her reign has been lost, but the beautiful temple of Deir el-Bahari, which she ordered to be built in front of Thebes, preserves an inscription that recounts what the adventure was like, putting it in the mouth of Hatshepsut herself:

“They bring many wonders and all kinds of typical products of God’s Land for which your majesty sent them: heaps of myrrh clods and fresh myrrh trees with root balls, planted in the ceremonial courtyard for all the gods to see. …
The chief of Punt, Palhu, his wife Aty, his two sons, his daughter and the donkey that he carries with his wife…
Heavy loading the ships with the wonders of the country of Punt: all the good aromatic woods of the Land of the god, lots of myrrh resin, young myrrh trees, ebony, pure ivory, green gold of Amu, cinnamon wood, wood- hesyt, frankincense-ibemut, frankincense, eye paint, monkeys, baboons, dogs, southern panther skins, and serfs and their children…”

However, there were already previous contacts. Much earlier, in fact, since the first documented dates back to 2500 BC (that is, approximately a millennium before), when Pharaoh Sahura, the second of the V Dynasty and very open to getting wealth from surrounding regions (diorite of Kush, Sinai turquoise…), sent an expedition that returned loaded with electrum (alloy of gold and silver), myrrh, monkeys, dwarves and exotic woods.

In the following dynasty, this line of exploiting resources from the surroundings was maintained and given the longevity of the pharaoh, who lived for nearly ninety years, there were several trips sent to Nubia, also maintaining contact with Punt, from where a ship loaded with merchandise.

Later, at the end of the second millennium BC, in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, Mentuhotep III insisted on that destination with another expedition of which, in addition, we have a reference in Wadi Hammamat, a valley that connected the interior with the coast from Thebes to the port of Qusayr and that centuries later would also be used by the Greeks and Romans; In one of the quarries that mark this corridor there is a petroglyph that is where Henenu’s adventure is described.

This was the younger brother of the pharaoh, who had appointed him royal steward and great steward, in what was a period of well-being and prosperity after the short reign of Mentuhotep II, the eldest of the family and whom he had already served. A stage that allowed the Egyptian borders to be established in the face of external threats and became famous for its architectural constructions; among others, he began the temple of Deir el-Bahari, which Hatshepsut would modify and conclude.

In this imposing monument, I said before, there is the inscription that she left about her expedition to Punt. But she is not the only one; there is another one that Mentuhotep III ordered to be put up and around it there is some confusion as it is not clear if they refer to the same protagonist that the one from Wadi Hammamat cites. As long as the matter is not clarified, it is only possible to describe what is known from the data in these texts: that Henenu was placed in command of a contingent of three thousand men, who escorted merchants and carriers.

They left the city of Coptos, crossing the eastern desert through the aforementioned Wadi Hammamat and reaching the Red Sea coast, where a fleet was built (something questioned by experts, given the scarcity of timber). Apparently, the journey there was made in five stages, thus giving rest to soldiers and donkeys, the pack animal that was used at the time:

Temple of Deir el-Bahari/Photo: Nowic talk on Wikimedia Commons

«I gave each man his rations: a bottle, two jugs of water, twenty loaves of bread. The donkeys carried the jars. When one got tired, another replaced him. I dug twelve holes in the wadi, two holes in Idahet, twenty cubits wide and thirty cubits deep. From another hole in Idahet of ten cubits in each direction, water gushed out.

As can be seen, the inscription speaks of the digging of wells to look for water but also of the cleaning of canals and the preparation of cultivation fields with a view to establishing that route. In fact, later these infrastructures would serve as the base to build a line of fortresses that would protect the region from external enemies. That the eighth year of Mentuhotep III’s reign was quite dynamic is evident.

The Wadi Hammamat/Image: Ancient Egypt on Wikimedia Commons

The inscription is damaged and a fragment is missing, but later the story goes on to explain that they arrived at the Great Green [sic] and they embarked a large number of cattle and gazelles, to later return and present themselves with the wonderful cargo before Pharaoh: «I brought for him all the products that I found on the shores of Tierra del Dios» He says; God’s Land was one of the more poetic names given to Punt, along with Incense Terraces.

It is known that Henenu also led an expedition specifically to Wadi Hemmemet with the aim of making those works cited and, incidentally, carrying large blocks of stone to carve statues; It was that time when he took the opportunity to order the registration of the previous trip. Likewise, he led military campaigns through the Libyan and Syrian territories.

As for the personal, a stele preserved in Moscow reveals that Henenu married a woman named Senet but in that sense there is nothing more about this character except his tomb, which is in the Theban necropolis of Deir el-Bahari. The tomb measures about forty meters and five and a half deep is the burial chamber, where an elegant polychrome sarcophagus was found.


Everything you need to know about Ancient Egypt (Luis González González)/Pharaonic Egypt. Politics, economy and society (Jesus J. Urruela Quesada)/The exploration of Africa in Egyptian texts. From Sahure to Neco II (Nelson Pierroti in Egyptomania)/Travel awareness: routes and mazes (Rosalía Torrent, Dora Sales and María Luisa Burguera. eds.)/Wikipedia / The Mystery of the Land of Punt Unravelled (Ahmed Ibrahim Awale).