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Africa Chronology

Egyptians develop Square-rigged Ships

3000 BC

       The history of modern day sea going ships can be traced back to ancient Egyptian prototypes and their squared sails. As the idea of water transportation was being developed, the Egyptians first turned to a simple watercraft known as the reed ship. This primitive vessel consisted of bundles of reeds, since timber was scarce in the Nile valley. Although there were many unique shapes to these reed ships, each variety had one significant commonality – the square sail. This alternative form of power decreased the amount of man-labor on these vessels. Once this watercraft was constructed, it evolved into a number of differing ships, varying in shape and function. One of these variations was used for transportation, which was developed around 2700 BC. These cargo ships were primarily utilized in the shipping of stone. With the development of these square sailed variations, the needs of the society were more easily met.

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  Prior to the development of the square sails, the function and maintenance of vessels was not ideal, thus placing a great deal of strain on the time and work load of the people. However, with the rise of square sails, there was a drastic increase in productivity and accommodation of the people of this society. One way productivity was increased dealt with the speed of transportation. With the development of square sails, the rate at which the vessel could travel increased. Therefore, the amount of time it would take to perform trades and such was greatly reduced. A second aspect of productivity dealt with war. Since the newly developed square sails were very useful in propelling the vessels, fewer men were needed to oar. Thus, a larger number of soldiers were able to load onto the war crafts for battle. Square sails also accommodated the Egyptians in charge of oarsman, since the amount of labor needed was reduced. Before sails were developed, the wind and choppy seas would hinder the movement of the boat. However, once sails were invented, the wind and the water were utilized to increase the productivity of the society.

    From the initial reed boat, a plethora of boat constructions were formed, meeting the needs of various aspects of the Egyptian society. One of these models was the Nile Boat. This vessel was a small square sail ship with a single rudder on the stern. This rudder was the main navigation device, since this vessel did not have oars on either side to steer. It was mainly propelled by the wind. The Nile boat could not carry a large number of people and was used primarily for trading and funerals. Another form of Egyptian vessel was the merchant ship. This was significantly larger than the Nile boat and functioned as a main source of trade. Essentially, merchant ships, or merchant galleys, were developed to transport people, cargo or dispatches. Large galleys depended mainly on the sails of the ship for movement. War galleys and sea going ships were also frequent within the Egyptian culture.

    The Egyptian development of the square sail greatly influenced the formation of vessels from many different societies. This basic structure that was formulated by the Egyptians was adapted and expanded upon in a multitude of ways. Even today, the use of square sails is used to propel ships of all kinds. Although modern day technology has shifted the direction of such water vessels, the ancient Egyptians had a major impact on the history of ships with the development of the square sail.


Casson, Lionel, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1971)

Hawthorne, Daniel, Ships of the Seven Seas (Garden City, New York; Garden City Publishing Co. Inc., 1930)

Holland, Rubert S., Historic Ships (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Macrae Smith Co., 1926)

Torr, Cecil Ancient Ships (Chicago, Illinois; Argonaut Inc., 1964)

Verrill, Hyatt A., The Book of the Sailboat (New York, New York; D. Appleton and Company, 1916)

Edited, Researched and Written by
Susan Johnson
Andy Beckstrom
Laura Green
September 1999

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