Donkeys, The Helpmeet Of Humankind In Pharaonic Egypt

Donkeys had long been domesticated in ancient Egypt and may have come from the family of Equus africanus known in Nubia. An illustration painted on a pre-dynastic (ca. 3000 BCE) schist plaque shows a donkey among the booty taken in Libya. The Egyptians used donkeys as pack animals and they were among the livestock of the great domains, as indicated in the illustrations in the tomb of Ti, a high-ranking dignitary in Saqqarah (Old Empire). They were also utilized in threshing after the grain harvest, where they trod out ears of barley or wheat by walking round on a threshing floor.

From Emile Prisse d’Avennes, Atlas de l’histoire de l’art égyptien, d’après les monuments depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à la domination romaine, Paris, 1867, vol.I.

Donkeys were indispensable for long-distance expeditions, as they were highly appreciated for their capacity to carry heavy loads in relation to their own weight, such as on the trade expedition of Hirkouf, the Treasurer Royal, sent to Nubia. That caravan was made up of 300 donkeys bearing incense, ebony and panther skins.

In the Middle Empire, 12th Dynasty (around 1990 BCE), painted illustrations in the tomb of the Governor Khnoumhotep show a rare example of people from Asia led by their chief, Ibcha, taken captive and brought into the valley by a royal administrator (see illustration). The cortege includes a total (according to the associated inscription) of 38 people who accompanied the tribute required by the Pharoah, followed by women and children, some of whom are riding on a donkey, with a second donkey carrying arms. Use as pack animals is not yet clearly defined and a sort of blanket is folded over the animal’s back.

By the New Empire (1580-1085 BCE), documents from the village of Deir-el-Medineh, where craftsmen were working on temples and necropolises in Thebes refer to donkeys used in everyday transportation (for water, food rations, tools).

Catherine Chadefaud, Agrée d’histoire, Egyptologist