for National Geographic News
Massive wooden planks, ropes, and cargo boxes found in a series of caverns near the Red Sea have been identified as parts of the oldest seafaring ships ever discovered.
The find supports evidence that ancient Egyptian mariners set sail on ocean waters as much as 4,000 years ago on voyages that spanned about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) each way.
Previously, the world's oldest known seafaring ship dated from 1300 B.C., and only small fragments of it are left.
The newly found ships likely carried sailors on missions to obtain incense and other treasures from a mysterious place the Egyptians called God's Land, or Punt.
"It's very exciting," said Steven Snape, an Egyptologist at Britain's University of Liverpool, who was not involved in the work.
Historians have long known about the Egyptians' visits to Punt, he says, but there has been "huge debate" about whether they got there by land or sea.
"It looks as though they created ships in kit form, carried them over the desert, sailed to Punt, got what they required, and abandoned the ships," Snape said.
Ancient Egyptians are often depicted as a river people, plying the Nile in flat-bottomed barges that hauled everything from pharaohs to construction materials up or downstream.
But periodically pharaohs would send thousands of soldiers across the forbidding deserts east of the Nile to a temporary port on the Red Sea (see map).
This port lay at a location known as Wadi Gawasis, about 13 miles (21 kilometers) south of the modern city of Port Safaga.
The ancient port's location had been known for some time, but prior surveys had led to the conclusion that there was no hope of finding sunken vessels in the offshore waters.
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