A reticent Phoenician King. A bag of silver stolen from the ship’s Captain. A strange little god hidden by a merchant. A last moment evasion to fall in the power of a Cyprian Princess. All because of the precious Lebanon trees. The scenery is the bright, blue, legendary water of the Mediterranean Sea, and, unexpectedly, the story is true1: The report of Wenamon, written in Ancient Egypt around Around 3.100 years ago, it is considered the first documented trip in world history.
(Incipit of the Report of Wenamon)
Around 3.100 years ago, at the time of Pharaoh Ramesses XI, the tenth and last ruler of the Twentieth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, Hrihor, the High Priest of the god Amon and ruler of Thebes, dispatches Wenamon, one of his functionary, to the city of Byblos (present-day Lebanon) to procure cedar in order to construct a sacred vessel for the god Amon. At the time of his departure from Thebes, Wenamon did not know that a regular trade mission was about to become an incredible series of adventure that destiny will consign to the eternity as the first documented trip in world history.
The report of Wenamon is an official document (the original papyrus is now in the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow) our protagonist wrote to explain to his chief the long series of incidents and difficulties he met on the way. Lively and essential, fast and unpredictable, The Report of Wenamon is not a literature masterpiece yet is a curious entertaining reading for all travellers.
The story has a quiet beginning. Hrihor gives to Wenamon money to buy cedars, gifts for the king of Byblos, credentials, and a small statue of the god “Amon-of-the-way”. Therefore, Wenamon left Thebes to Tanis. Once arrived he shows his credential to the rulers of Tanis. The ruler sent Wenamon off with the ship’s captain Mengebet, entering the great sea of Syria.
Wenamon reach safely the city of Dor, a petty kingdom of Thakkara, and here troubles began. One of the sailor steals all Wenamon’s money and fled away. Wenamon goes to the Thakkara chief of Dor to ask for a compensation due to the fact that the theft was committed in the Dor‘s harbour. The king gives him a very, but very little compensation and Wenamon, after waiting 9 days, sails North to Tyre.
During the Journey somehow (the papyrus is incomplete) he met some Thakkara people and he sized their money. Finally, he arrives in Byblos four month after his departure. Here things does not turn good. Zakaar-Baal, king of Byblos, refuses to receive our unlucky hero. Wenamon waits. Every day he receives injunction to leave the harbour and he is threatened by the men of Zakaar-Baal. Wenamon hold up 19 days of waiting, and, in the exact moment he determines to leave, Zakar-Baal accepts to receive him. In fact, that very same day, one of the Zakar-Baal priest had fallen into a prophetic frenzy and told to the king to receive Wenamon.
Wenamon shows up to Zakaar-Baal without gifts, without the credential he forgot in Tyris, and without money for the timber. The king refuses to make any deal with him. Well, our smart hero, after a bad beginning, surprisingly convinces Zaaka-Baal to sell him the cedar but he has to dispatches one of his man back to Egypt to get some money. 48 days after Wenamon’s man comes back. The timber is loaded. Wenamon is ready to sail back when Thakkara’s ships enters the harbour to ask to Zakar-Baal the permission to arrest Wenamon for his seizure of the silver. Wenamon let himself go to discouragment but Zakar-baal, touched by his misfortune, send him reassuring messages, food, wine, and a female singer to wipe out his sadness.
The morning after Zaakar-Baal does not do much for Wenamon. The king simply tells to the Thakkara’s people he cannot arrest a man of the Pharaoh in his land, but he can force Wenamon to take the sea. Once Wenamon will be out of Byblos’ harbour Thakkara’ people are free to arrest him. Somehow (this part of the papyrus is missed) Wenamon evades the pursuers, but contrary winds lead him to Cyprus. Here Wenamon is about to be slaughtered but at the very last moment he manages to gain the favour of Hatiba, Princess of Cyprus. Unfortunately the report is broken: the end of the first documented trip in world history will be a mistery for ever.
(Meeting the Princess of Cyprus, theese are the last lines of the Report of Wenamon)
The reading is fascinating and not only because its historic value as the first documented trip in world history. Through the words and the adventures of Wenamon the Ancient Mediterranean sea comes to life. The report was’t written to entertatin, but to clearly report facts. This gives to it an unusual power, able to break time and reality and immerse the reader straight on the deck of a ship sailing the sea 3100 years ago.
We can clearly listen to the voices of the sailors, the sounds of the veils tensed by the wind, the roars of the waves of a sea that nourished never-ending legends: during the same time of Wenamon travels, the stories that will give birth to Ulysses began timidly to rise from the mist of the sea, a sea of merchant and sailors, adventures and wonders, cheaters and dreamers, travels and travellers. It is not surprising that the first documented trip in world history comes from the water of the Mediterranean Sea.
1) The veracity of the report is still debating. This article is not minted to go into detailes. At any rate who writes firmly believe that the report of Wenamon has been at least inspired by true fact (Erman 2005, pp. 174–175.)