History and museums
Wadi al-Jarf is the present name for an area on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, 119 km (74 mi) south of Suez, that is the site of the oldest known artificial harbor on the world. It is located at the mouth of the Wadi Araba, a major communication corridor between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea, crossing the Eastern Desert. The site is also right across the Gulf of Suez from the small Sinai fortress of Tell Ras Budran. A somewhat similar ancient port is at Ain Sukhna, a little north of Wadi al-Jarf.
The site was first discovered by J. G. Wilkinson in 1832. It was rediscovered by a French team in the 1950s, who named it Rod el-Khawaga, but archeological work was quickly abandoned when the Suez Crisis broke out in 1956. A joint French–Egyptian team resumed excavation in 2011.
The harbor at the site dates to the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt, approximately 4,500 years ago. Also discovered at the site were more than 100 anchors, the first Old Kingdom anchors found in their original context, and numerous storage jars. The jars have been linked with those of another site across the Red Sea, indicating trade between the two sites. A large number of papyri fragments were found at Wadi al-Jarf, providing insight to life during the Fourth Dynasty. The papyri are the oldest ever found in Egypt.
Ancient structures have been known to exist at Wadi al-Jarf since at least 1832 when J. G. Wilkinson noted their existence. He discovered a series of galleries cut into the stone which he believed to be Greek catacombs. In the 1950s, a group of French amateurs in archeology began to explore some parts of the site, which they named Rod el-Khawaga, but were expelled during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Their notes were published in 2008, spurring interest to resume work. Systematic excavation resumed in 2011 by a joint Egyptian–French archeological team led by Pierre Tallet (University Paris IV-La Sorbonne) and Gregory Marouard (The Oriental Institute, Chicago). In April 2013, archaeologists announced the discovery of an ancient harbor and dozens of papyrus documents at the location. Those are the oldest papyrus ever found in Egypt (ca. 2560-2550 BC, end of the reign of Khufu).
The harbor complex consists of a ca. 150 m (492 ft) long mole or jetty of stones that is still visible at low tide (28.8888°N 32.6815°E / 28.8888; 32.6815), an alamat or navigational landmark made of heaped stones, a strange 60 m × 30 m (197 ft × 98 ft) building of unknown function that is divided into 13 long rooms, and a series of 25 to 30 storage galleries carved into limestone outcrops further inland. The building of unknown function is the largest pharaonic building discovered along the Red Sea coast to date. The storage galleries are between 16 and 34 m (52 and 112 ft) long, and are usually 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall.
Inside the galleries lay several boat and sail fragments, some oars, and numerous pieces of ancient rope. Twenty-five stone anchors were found under water, and 99 anchors were found in an apparent storage building. The discovery of anchors in their original context is a first in Old Kingdom archeology. Many of the anchors bear hieroglyphs, likely representing the boat's names from which they came.
The port was the starting point for voyages from mainland Egypt to South Sinai mining operations. It is speculated that the harbor may have also been used to launch voyages to "the mysterious Land of Punt", a known trading partner of Egypt. The harbor dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.), whose name is inscribed on some of the heavy limestone blocks at the site. That means the harbor predates the second-oldest known port structure by more than 1,000 years. There is some trace evidence of use during the early part of Fifth Dynasty, after which the harbor was likely abandoned.
Numerous stone food and water storage jars, textile and wood fragments, and a collection of hundreds of papyri fragments were also found at the site. Many of the jars feature people's or boat's name in red ink, indicating their owners. The jars are characterized by a very particular marl composition which had previously been identified in Fourth Dynasty contexts at other sites, including across the Gulf of Suez at Tell Ras Budran.
Ten of the papyri are especially very well preserved. The majority of these documents date to the 27th year of Khufu's reign and describe how the central administration sent food and supplies to Egyptian travelers. One document is of special interest: the diary of Merrer, an official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Using the diary, researchers were able to reconstruct three months of his life, providing new insight into everyday lives of people of the Fourth Dynasty. The papyri are the oldest ever found in Egypt.
500 m (1,600 ft) to the northwest of the harbor three groups of buildings were found. The rectangular construction and organization of rooms into a cell-like pattern indicated the buildings served as dwelling places.