Pharaoh Sneferu: A Master Craftsman and More


By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Pyramid building was one of the many things Pharaoh Sneferu did. But even more importantly, he helped turn Egypt into an international power by bringing in cedars from Lebanon. Sneferu did it all via international expeditions and was surely the first one to enter the international realms.

An image of a boat standing on the River Nile.
Traveling by boats was a sign of the rich in ancient Egypt. (Image: Kimberlyblaker/CC BY-SA(

Egyptians Were Not Good Sailors

People with wealth used to travel long distances in Egypt by boat, which was the only way to do it. There were lots of representations of boats on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples. But the Egyptians were not skilled at sailing because they were spoiled by the River Nile.

It was very easy navigation to do because the current always used to flow from south to north. The reason a river flows in one direction rather than the other is simply plate tectonics because plates perhaps slipped under when the earth was being formed and water just flew downhill as a result.

The Nile always used to flow from south to north while the prevailing wind was always north to south. So if someone wanted to go one way, up the river, they would have got the wind at their back, with them sailing along. Looking at the tomb paintings, one could tell if a boat was going north or south by whether its sails were up or down in the artworks.

Learn more about the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Sneferu Introduces International Trade

This easy sailing spoiled the Egyptians. They really weren’t good sailors as a result. They did not like to go out on the Mediterranean, calling it, ‘the waj-wer‘, ‘the great green’. So for Sneferu going to Lebanon to get cedars was a big deal. A bold thing to do because he was the first one to not be afraid of going beyond the borders of Egypt.

Egypt was not a tree-rich country. They needed wood for Nile boats and a whole host of other things. Hence, Sneferu’s organizing of trading expeditions to Lebanon helped change the course of Egypt’s history.

Learn more about the Rise of the Old Kingdom.

Sneferu and Expeditions to the Sinai

Besides doing many other things, Sneferu also sent mining expeditions to the Sinai, a foreign land, which was a major thing to do. The reason to go to the Sinai was that they had turquoise which was not found in Egypt. Turquoise was a beautiful blue stone that they liked for jewelry. Due to Sinai being a foreign territory, Sneferu went with an army. All along Sinai, he carved inscriptions of himself, “Sneferu, smiter of barbarians”, showing Sneferu in a smiting pose: the right hand up with a mace (the rock on a stick), ready to smite the enemy.

An image of turquoise stones found in the mines of Sinai.
Women were fond of turquoise jewelry in ancient Egypt. (Image: Grafnata/Shutterstock)

Sinai, a Tough Expedition

Going to the Sinai, especially in the summers when it would become very hot, was a tough expedition to take because it needed organization from boats to go across. There were inscriptions in Sinai from Sneferu’s men which said, “The mountain branded our skin”. Working in and entering the turquoise mines was very difficult and hot because they had to follow a vein through a little tunnel, often on their belly, carving away at little bits of turquoise.

It is said that about twenty years ago, probably one of the last miners by the name of Solom used to work in the turquoise mines to avoid 9-5 job, where self-discipline was the first requirement. Solom used to collect little chunks of turquoise in the mine to sell it for a small monetary value. Additionally, some would sell them in the bazaars of Cairo.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Sneferu Builds a Temple For Miners at Sinai

A monument of Goddess Hathor in Sinai, Egypt.
Turquoise miners worshiped Goddess Hathor in Sinai. (Steve F-E-Cameron(Merlin-UK)/ Public domain)

The turquoise mines went up and down a mountain and then tunneled in. Being a dangerous expedition, many people died. But what Sneferu did was that he found a temple on top of the mountain for the miners to worship at, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, sometimes shown as a cow-headed goddess. Her name was ‘Our Lady of Turquoise’. She was the patron saint of the turquoise miners, so now Sneferu was no longer afraid of sending expeditions out into the foreign lands.

The Temple at Sinai, or ‘Serabit el-Khadim’

The temple on top of the mountain was called Serabit el-Khadim, which was an Arabic name. The Arabs and the locals called it by that name. It was excavated by Flinders Petrie, who found a small sphinx, about five feet long. But he couldn’t get it down from the mountain. He never wanted to leave it there because he was afraid it would be broken. He buried it up on top of the mountain, forgetting to put the ‘X’ on the map marking where the sphinx was, so that it may be found by some excavator someday from the top of the Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai.

Common Questions About Sneferu’s International Expeditions

Q: Why is Sneferu famous?

Sneferu is famous because he went on to build Egypt into an International power through foreign trade, apart from building the first true Pyramid.

Q: Where is Sneferu buried?

Sneferu is buried in Red Pyramid at a place called Dahshur which was built by Sneferu himself after a few failed attempts.

Q: What is unique about Sneferu’s reign as a pharaoh?

Sneferu‘s uniqueness lies in the fact that he was fearless to try tough things. Amongst many was to send his mining expeditions to Sinai.

Q: What is Sneferu known for?

Sneferu is known to be an approachable and good human being who showed the Egyptians how true pyramids are built.

Keep reading
Investigate Art History in Ancient Egypt
Egypt and the Gift of the Nile
Isis and Osiris: Death and Rebirth in Ancient Egypt