With Solomon's fleet to the land of Ophir
The monsoon blows for six months in one direction and for six months in another. The voyage from Ezion-geber, at the entrance to the Red Sea could have been effected in a year, provided no time was lost. Now the expedition took three years to sail to Ophir and return. There seems to have been no hurry.
The Scripture gives no details at all about what happened on the voyage, a silence that the historian regrets. Nor does it say anything about the ships of which the fleet was composed. Fortunately on this point we are better informed from other sources. A Theban painting of the eighteenth dynasty (1567-1320) provides an interesting reproduction of the cargo vessels used by the Phoenicians (see illustration). Note the squat shape of the hull and the vertical bow and stern. The vessel was steered by two oars; it was fitted out to be navigated almost exclusively by sail.
Of course the Phoenicians did not send out these heavy rather slow-moving vessels without due precaution; they were too obvious a prey for the numerous pirates in the Mediterranean. The Red Sea, too, could rival the Mediterranean in this matter, for it was a long corridor between Arabia and Egypt and was well known as a haunt of pirates. It was important for this reason to ensure the protection of the merchant fleet by an escort of warships. In reality, the Phoenicians were men of peace, their principal interest being in trade. With their well-armed cruisers sailing in company with their trading vessels they sought to avoid all incidents by their show of strength.
Some idea of these men-of-war, which sailed with the merchant fleet from Ezion-geber, can be obtained from the bas-reliefs (now in the British Museum) which were formerly used as ornaments in the royal palace of the Assyrian king of Sennacherib (704-681) see illustration below. The vessel was powered by sail, but in order to maneuver more rapidly against a possible enemy it could be propelled by oars. There were two rows of oarsmen. In the bow, at water level, was a ram for the purpose of holing and sinking enemy ships. Above the galley slaves was an open bridge. Above the breastwork there were men at arms ready to act as a boarding party. Hiram knew all about organizing a trading voyage; Solomon had no cause for anxiety.
PHOENICIAN ESCORT VESSEL
This galley, also equipped for sail, was used to accompany trading vessels to protect them against possible attack by pirates. This type of ship resembled to some extent the mode! used at that time by the Aegeans; at a later date the Greeks were influenced by it. Notice the two staggered lines of oarsmen, an arrangement which has caused difficulty to archaeologists who have not been able to solve with any certainty the problem raised by the spacing of the galley slaves. The rudder was formed by two oars situated at the stern. Soldiers were carried on the upper deck ready to form a boarding party. In the bow there was a ram for holing an enemy vessel. (After a fragment in the British Museum).
The spectacular results of the Ophir expedition
The Phoenician sailors, assisted by a small Yisraelite contingent, went to Ophir and from there they brought back four hundred and twenty talents of gold, which they delivered to King Solomon (1 Melechim 9:28). They brought Algummin wood and precious stones (2 Divre Hayamim 9:10). Once every three years the fleet of Tarshish would come back laden with gold and silver, ivory, apes and baboons (1 Melechim 10:22). Some clarification and comment on these statements is needed.
'Four hundred and twenty talents of gold', are mentioned by 1 Melechim. 'Four hundred and fifty', states the parallel passage in Divre Hayamim (2 Divre Hayamim 8:17-18). If we take the talent at seventy-five pounds this would mean that some fourteen tons of gold was brought back -an obvious exaggeration. It looks as if the writer was endeavouring to astonish us by the enormous amount of gold imported by this first expedition.
'Algummin wood'. Very probably it was red sandal wood from India. Of the algummim the king made floorboards for the Temple of YAHWEH and for the royal palace, and lyres and harps for the musicians (2 Divre Hayamim 9:11). The mention of this wood coming from India has encouraged one group of writers, botanists rather than historians, to site Ophir on the coast of Malabar. Now there was no need to travel as far as India to obtain this rare wood. It was mentioned above that the products of these remote countries arrived by caravan and by sea in the great trading centres of Arabia. It should be added that this cargo of algummim was of relative importance only, since this wood was used, as the Scripture tells us, as floorboards and for certain musical instruments.
'Ivory'. The Hebrew word (shen, tooth) used here enables us to conclude that it was elephants' tusks that were meant. These came from Africa which, at this period, was the principal source of supply of this product, greatly sought after for making luxury furniture in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Phoenicia. 1 Melechim 22:39 mentions Ahab's ivory house, and the prophet Amos inveighs against the house of ivory...the houses of ebony (3:15) and ivory beds (6:4). Certainly there were still some herds of dwarf elephants in the forests of Syria and Mesopotamia, but they were growing increasingly rare through over-hunting. In addition, owing to their small size, they were not greatly esteemed.
'Apes and baboons'. These also came from the east African coast. Several kinds of monkeys represented on Egyptian monuments have been identified by zoologists who have concluded that they came from the land of Pount. The monkeys landed at Ezion-geber must also have been African.
At first sight these imports look spectacular enough, but it is to be wondered whether they were sufficiently valuable to cover the high costs of the undertaking. It may well be doubted. This point will be dealt with below.
Before embarking on this discussion it may be worth while to inquire how many of these voyages were made in the Red Sea by the Yisraelite-Phoenician fleet.
It looks as if the answer to the question is given by a short phrase of the Book of Melechim: Once every three years the fleet of Tarshish would come back laden…The remark is a little too summary. No further explanation is given, neither in this chapter nor in those which follow, about succeeding expeditions at regular intervals from Ezion-geber to the land of Pount. At the frequency indicated, during the twenty years of Solomon's reign still remaining, we might expect to hear of six or several expeditions to Ophir. But in the ordinary way after this number of voyages detailed accounts could have been expected, especially with chroniclers who were disposed, as we have seen, to do their best to astonish their readers with the deeds of Solomon.
Careful consideration of all the evidence forces us to the conclusion that the great expedition to the land of Ophir took place on one occasion only.
Why did Solomon confine himself to only one expedition? An objective analysis of the text does not reveal any very extraordinary results. There was of course the fourteen tons of gold, but the obvious exaggeration of the writers inclines one to think that in the circumstances they were attempting in some sort to falsify the balance sheet.
On the other hand, the scribes are careful to provide a highly coloured description of the extraordinary merchandise brought back from Ophir. What did it amount to? A small stock of red wood; elephant tusks which the Phoenician craftsmen would carve to form the decoration of the state furniture of the royal palace. And then there were the monkeys whose gamboling and grimacing gave considerable amusement, we may be sure, to the onlookers in Yerusalem.
To achieve these spectacular, but financially disappointing results, Solomon had sacrificed thousands of men. The servitude of many of the people of Yahudah and Yisrael, the heavy taxes imposed on all the nation, so much effort, so much sorrow and blood, had ended in the commercial failure of the expedition to the Red Sea. For, on a last analysis, we are forced to this conclusion: far from improving the financial position of the country, as it was hoped at the start, the expedition to Ophir was largely responsible for emptying the national treasury.
It is probable that the reasons for the abandonment of the undertaking were essentially financial, and seem almost to have a modern ring about them. There could be no hope of covering the considerable cost of the construction of Ezion-geber and the building of the fleet, from the profits of a single voyage. Several expeditions to Ophir would have been necessary before the enormous outlay on the whole undertaking had been recovered. As we know Solomon was running daily deeper into debt with the building of the palace, government buildings and fortresses. While the expedition to Ophir may well have resulted in some profit, it must at once have been swallowed up in the kingdom's huge deficit. Hiram, who was acting as Solomon's banker, can hardly have found this to his taste; he was unused to working at a loss. His principle was no money, no goods, and just like a supplier who stops deliveries at the first unpaid account, Hiram found excellent reasons, no doubt, for bringing his industrial and maritime collaboration in the Red Sea to an end. It is likely that Solomon, whose financial situation at this time was growing steadily worse, was unable to make the payments that had been agreed. In addition, business relations between the two monarchs were becoming increasingly difficult.
The great port of Ezion-geber still remained, but it was left dormant. And so it continued. In addition there was Egypt, which hardly favoured the appearance of the Hebrews in the Red Sea. Pharaoh Sheshonk, who shortly afterwards came to the Egyptian throne (945), was by no means inclined to let Solomon's national port resume activity, as we shall have occasion to observe very shortly. Sheshonk, before intervening personally, gave support to the raids of Hadad, a descendant of that king of Edom overthrown by David.
For the transport of merchandise for export the Phoenicians possessed slow and heavy vessels which can be compared with cargo vessels of the present day. These vessels carried full sail, were solidly built and especially made for carrying heavy cargoes. The bow was similar to the stern in all respects: thus the vessel was much easier to handle. In these ships also the rudder was composed of two oars in the stern. Most of the trading fleet was made up of these heavy vessels which were protected by fast-moving escort vessels. (After Revue archeologique, XXVII, plate XIV.)
Solomon The Magnificent Index Solomon Sitemap Scripture History Through the Ages Solomon The Historian RADIANT DAWN Solomon's Wisdom SOLOMON IN ALL HIS HONOR David's role in building the Temple Dates of the building of the Temple Division of the Temple The Ark of the Covenant The most Kodesh Place Dedication of the Temple SOLOMON Prince of Peace SOLOMON THE TRADER Solomon's Ophir expedition The queen of Sheba LITERARY ACHIEVEMENTS OF SOLOMON First historical works of the Hebrews What did Solomon write THE SHADES OF NIGHT Political and social failure Solomon's spiritual failure The moral failure of Solomon CONCLUSION of Solomon