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The Eastern Desert of Egypt during the Greco-Roman Period: Archaeological Reports

Jean-Pierre Brun
Thomas Faucher
Bérangère Redon
et al.

Port of Myos Hormos and its Relations to Indo-Roman Trade

Dr. Lucy Blue

Texte intégral

dedicated to Prof. David Peacock

1From at least the middle of the 2nd millennium BC Egypt was sending vessels to the mouth of the Red Sea, to Punt and beyond, to bring back myrrh and frankincense, along with other exotic artefacts of trade and tribute (Casson 1989, p. 11, n. 2). However, it was not until descriptions given by the Classical geographers and accounts in the 1st century AD Periplus Maris Erythraei (Casson 1989) of voyages within the Red Sea and beyond, that detailed evidence for these seafaring activities was forthcoming. From the late 1st century BC, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, Roman merchants plied the route to Arabia and India in ever-increasing numbers. Key to this development of trade and maritime activity was the role of harbours, providing an interface between land and sea and a conduit for the transfer and storage of goods, people and ideas. It is clear from both the archaeological and documentary evidence that one harbour in particular, Myos Hormos, played a major role in facilitating trade along the northern reaches of the Red Sea coast, and with its sister port Berenike to the south, acted as the departure points for exports from the Roman world (Sidebotham 1986; Casson 1989; Peacock and Blue 2006).

2This paper provides a summary of the work conducted to date at the site of Myos Hormos, modern day Quseir al-Qadim, through reference to the extant bibliography (see below). The site was first excavated by a team from Chicago University in the 1970’s (Whitcomb and Johnson 1982a, 1982b) and subsequently, between 1999 to 2003, five seasons of survey and excavation were conducted by the University of Southampton under the direction of Prof. David Peacock (to whom this paper is dedicated) and Dr. Lucy Blue. The results of this work have been extensively published largely but not exclusively, in two volumes (Peacock and Blue 2006, 2011).

3The exact location of Quseir al-Qadim as the ancient port of Myos Hormos, was first suggested by Peacock (1993) and finally confirmed by archaeological and epigraphic data in 1999 (Peacock and Blue 2006). The site occupies a crucial position on the Egyptian Red Sea coast (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Map of the routes to Berenike and to Myos Hormos at the end of the first century AD.

© J.-P. Brun

4It is located at the end of Wâdi al-Hammâmât, the route that connected the Luxor region of the Nile Valley some 180 km across the Eastern Desert to the west, with the Red Sea. The site was occupied in the Roman period from late 1st century BC to mid 3rd century AD, and it is clear from historical sources that Myos Hormos was a major Roman trading port; Strabo, for example (2.5.12), states that ‘Now 120 ships sail from Myos Hormos to India’ and the Periplus Maris Erythraei states that “Of the designated harbours of the Erythraean Sea, and the ports of trade on it, first comes Egypt’s port of Myos Hormos and, beyond it, after a sail of 1800 stades to the right, Berenike.” (Casson 1989, PME 1).

5Thus, the primary objective of this overview paper is to reinforce the significance of the port of Myos Hormos and the critical role it played in support of Indo-Roman trade. The publications (see below) demonstrate the connectivity of the port both within and beyond the Red Sea, to the Eastern Desert of Egypt, the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean world, but also East to the western Indian Ocean and ultimately to India. The extremely dry nature of the environment of the Red Sea coast of Egypt insures that archaeological sites have incredible organic preservation and as such, the huge range of materials that were discovered at the port of Myos Hormos provide an amazing insight into not only the objects and to a degree the nature, of trade at the port, but also the port as lived space, the different ethic groups that inhabited the space, the clothes they wore and the food they ate, thus further corroborating the textual sources.

6The University of Southampton’s research at Quseir al-Qadim very much focused on the maritime aspects of the site and as such, much is revealed through the excavations and subsequent publications, of the maritime nature of the Myos Hormos, the nature and scale of the harbour (Peacock and Blue 2006, pp. 65-94), but also some insight into the types of vessels that moored here, how they were built and rigged, repaired and maintained. The research conducted at the site of Myos Hormos to date, forms an impression of the connectivity of the port, reflecting on the practicalities of maritime trade, the range of vessel types, and the choices that sailors and traders alike made with regard to when to sail, where and when to anchor, which routes to navigate, and how amongst other considerations, the wind and the seasons were critical factors in this complex pattern of connectivity and contact between the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

7On all these aspects, see the presentation:​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2016-03-31-14h00.htm.



Blue L. 2006a. “Sewn boat timbers from the Medieval Islamic port of Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast of Egypt”. In Connected by the Sea. 10th International Symposium of Boat and Ship Archaeology. L.K. Blue, F. Hocker and A. Englert (eds), Roskilde, Denmark, Oxford, pp. 277-283.

Blue L. 2007. “Locating the harbour: Myos Hormos/ Quseir al-Qadim: A Roman and Islamic port on the Red Sea coast of Egypt”. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 36.2, pp. 265-281.

Blue L. 2011. “The Red Sea”. In Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology. A. Catsambis, B. Ford & D. Hamilton (eds.), Chapter 22, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 295-512.

Blue L., Cooper J., Thomas R.I. and Whitewright J. (eds.) 2009. Connected hinterlands: Proceedings of Red Sea Project IV. BAR International Series 2052. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Blue L., Hill J.D. & Thomas R. 2012. “New light on the nature of Indo-Roman trade: Roman period shipwrecks in the Northern Red Sea”. In Navigated Spaces, Connected Places. Proceedings of Red Sea Project. V. Agius, D.A. Cooper, J. Trakadas, A. & C. Zarraro. (eds.), BAR Int. Series. Oxford: Archeopress, pp. 91-00.

Blue L., Whitewright J. and Thomas R.I. In press. “Roman Imperial Ships – An Eastern Perspective”. In 8th International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity. H. Tzalas (ed.), TROPIS 8. Athens.

Casson L. 1971. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton.

Casson L. 1989. The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Princeton.

Davies S. and Morgan E. 1995. Red Sea Pilot. London.

Peacock D. 1993. “The site of Myos Hormos: a view from space”. Journal of Roman Archaeology 6, pp. 226-232.

Peacock D. & Blue L. (eds) 2006. Myos Hormos – Quseir al-Qadim: Roman and Islamic Ports on the Red Sea. Volume 1: Survey and Excavations 1999-2003. Oxford.

Peacock D. & Blue L. (eds) 2011. Myos Hormos – Quseir al-Qadim Roman and Islamic port on the Red Sea coast. Volume 2: The finds from the 1999-2003 excavations. Southampton Monograph Series No. 6. Archaeopress. Oxford.

Sidebotham S.E. 1986. Roman economic policy in the Erythra Thalassa 30 BC–AD 217. Leiden.

Sidebotham S.E. and al. 2008. The Red Land. American University in Cairo. Egypt.

Thomas R.I. 2007. “The Arabaegypti Ichthyophagi: Cultural connections with Egypt and the maintenance of identity”. In Natural resources and cultural connections of the Red Sea. J. Starkey, C.M. Markey, P. and T. Wilkinson (eds.), BAR International Series 1661. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 149-160.

Thomas R.I. 2010. “Fishing equipment from Myos Hormos and fishing techniques on the Red Sea”. In Proceedings of the International Workshop on Nets and Fishing Gears in Classical Antiquity: A first approach. T. Bekker-Nielsen, and D. Bernal (eds), Cadiz: Servicio de Publicaciones; Aarhus: Aarhus University Publications, pp. 139-160.

Thomas R.I. 2012. “Port communities and the Erythraean Sea”. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 18, pp. 169-199.

Thomas R.I. and Tomber R. 2006. “Vessel stoppers”. In Mons Claudianus 3: Ceramic vessels and related objects. V.A. Maxfield and D.P.S. Peacock (eds.), Cairo: IFAO, pp. 239-260.

Tomber R. 2008. Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper. Debates in Archaeology Series. Bloomsbury Academic‬‬‬‬‬‬.

Tomber R., Blue L. & Abraham S. (eds.). 2010. Migration, Trade and Peoples. Part 1: Indian Ocean Commerce and the archaeology of western India. BASAS. London:

Van Der Venn M. 2011. Consumption, trade and innovation: exploring the botanical remains from the Roman and Islamic ports at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt. Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series 6. Africa Magna Verlag.

Whitcomb D.S. and Johnson J.H. 1979. Quseir al-Qadim 1978. Preliminary Report. American Research Centre in Egypt, Cairo.

Whitcomb D.S. and Johnson J.H. 1982a. Quseir al-Qadim 1980. Preliminary Report. American Research Centre in Egypt, Volume 7, Cairo. Malibu.

Whitcomb D.S. and Johnson J.H. 1982b. “Season of Excavation at Quseir al-Qadim”. American Research Centre in Egypt, Newsletter 120, pp. 24-30.

Whitewright J. 2006. Roman Rigging Material from the Red Sea Port of Myos Hormos, IJNA 36.2.

Whitewright J. 2011. “Berenike and the Indian Ocean trade”. Journal of Roman Archaeology 24, pp. 799-802.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Map of the routes to Berenike and to Myos Hormos at the end of the first century AD.
Crédits © J.-P. Brun
Fichier image/jpeg, 312k


University of Southampton, UK

© Collège de France, 2018

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