In very ancient times, the profession we now call prostitution was a sacred one. Representing the goddess of love, the priestesses offered themselves to worshipers as part of festivals and other rights of fertility. This kind of religious practiced morphed quickly when someone figured out there was money to be made in the skin trade. Of course, nothing different occurred in the temples, brothels and on the barges of Ancient Egypt. And yes, I did say barges.
Most people are at least familiar with the so called “flower boats” historically active in China. It was aboard one of these that the famed pirate Cheng I met his future wife in the late 18th century. The brothel girl, who would become known as Cheng I Sao, went on to rule her husband’s pirate kingdom and eventually retire to run her own flower boat complete with gambling, music, liquor and food and, of course, the usual entertainments.
Long before Mrs. Cheng claimed her small space on a six decked floating bordello, the Ancient Egyptians were making the Nile welcome for sailors and others who could pay.
The barges were originally something like holiday party boats. Decked out with fabrics and lotuses they sailed up or down the Nile heading for one religious festival after another. The ladies on board were at first priestesses doing their sacred duty but, as Egypt became more powerful and slaves began to be readily available from captive nations, these now less fortunate women became money making flesh for their masters. It is documented that by the 19th Dynasty women, particularly Israelites and Greeks, were a highly valued commodity for their potential economic return in brothels and on pleasure barges. This continued for several Dynasties. Zenon, the chamberlain of Ptolemy II’s palace and keeper of the Pharaoh’s business records, writing in the 3rd century BCE notes that women were on a par with oil, wine and grain as leading imports to Egypt from Israel.
By the reign of Alexander the Great’s descendants, the barges were strictly business and varied widely depending on clientele. There were the common papyrus boats that would pull up in rural areas after the harvest to service local men. Next on the scale were the more elaborate wooden barges that looked very much like monoremes and stayed on the water for the most part. These kept to the tourist trade and were also available for naval ships returning from or heading out to battle. Finally, there were the grand pleasure barges of royalty and the wealthy which were working the Nile delta well before Cleopatra put her famous floating diversion together.
Strabo, the Greek historian, is probably taking into account all three types of floating bordellos when he writes in the 4th century BCE:
… on the canal which runs from Alexandria to Canopus the traffic of ships journeying to and fro never ceases by day and night. Men and women dance, totally unembarrassed, with the utmost licentiousness which seems to make for riotous proceeding.
The relative freedom – even among slaves – of Egyptian women was part of the Greek outrage at such displays. Egyptian courtesans, if not their sisters of less aggrandized employ, bought and sold all manner of property, brought lawsuits and were sued in turn, and owned some of the finest homes in cities like Alexandria. Another Greek historian, Polybius, has his nose just as out of joint as Strabo did when he writes that the most elegant private homes in Egypt belonged to whores.
Allow me to end with the amusing tale of a working girl from a few hundred years before Strabo. Her name is listed in court records as Archidice and the story goes that she turned a man away because he did not have her fee, which the court implies may have been a bit steep. Understandably, the gentleman’s ego is bruised and he begins to gab to his friends that he dreamed of sleeping with the beautiful Archidice. Our girl will not stand for gossip, so she turned to the courts and files a lawsuit demanding her fee for this client’s imagined time with her. The judge, in a clever twist that doubtless did not set well with Archidice, informed the lady that she should settle up in dreams. The judge says, essentially, since the gentleman had you in a dream, you should go home and dream that you have been paid.
Proving once again that despite the millennia between us, our ancestors were very much like us.
Header: Cleopatra’s Barge by Frederick Bridgman