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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.

Coptos, Gate to the Eastern Desert

Laure Pantalacci

Full text

1This conference demonstrates the vitality of research in the Eastern Desert and along the Red Sea coast in recent decades. Yet, our knowledge of Coptos, the subject of early excavations, remains incomplete. One could speak of “the invisible capital” of Upper Egypt, outshone by nearby Thebes. In museums and in the field, its monuments, scattered both through time and space, give only a faint idea of the grandeur and wealth of the city over four millennia.

2Despite the intensity of the human destruction in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth, excavations begun in 2002, now under the aegis of the University Lumière Lyon 2 and IFAO, have produced new data on the site from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. When complemented by the abundant information from desert sites, our Coptos excavations contribute to the history of the communication network that, across Egypt, connected the Indian Ocean to the Roman world.

A city connected to the desert and the Red Sea

  • 1 For bibliography on the subject, see S. Aufrère (Aufrère 1991, pp. 138 et 156, n. 302-306). The mea (...)
  • 2 Koenig 1979, pp. 200-201; Grandet 1994, pp. 66-67, n. 239, et pp. 197-198, n. 818.
  • 3 In particular in the Ritual of Embalming, of which two copies dating from the first century AD surv (...)
  • 4 Koenig 1979, p. 209 n. (cc). Expeditions to the galena mines of Gebel el-Zeit, on the Red Sea coast (...)

3At the dawn of Egyptian history, the city was located on a major road between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea via the Wâdi al-Hammâmât, which also gave access to various types of mineral wealth, either local or imported. It has been suggested that the sign of a small cloth bag that appears in the hieroglyphic spelling of the name of the city, Gbtjw, referred to the collection of precious minerals in the Eastern Desert.1 The New Kingdom texts speak of “the gold from the Coptos gebel.2 In Roman times, the name Coptos was regularly associated with the bitumen used for mummification,3 and with galena.4

  • 5 Petrie 1896, pp. 7-9; the researchers date them between the end of Naqada II and Naqada III, so jus (...)
  • 6 Most recently, Baqué-Manzano 2002, p. 33.

4Contacts between Coptos and the Red Sea are attested by the end of the fourth millennium BC, on very impressive, though now fragmentary, monuments: three colossal statues of the god Min, which were found by Petrie in the favissae inside the temenos of this god5 (Fig. 1). Some shells whose images are engraved on the thighs of these giants can only have come from the Red Sea,6 whose resources were, therefore, known by the Coptites.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

The colossi of Min at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

© L. Pantalacci, J.-P. Brun

  • 7 Petrie 1896, p. 4.
  • 8 McFarlane 1995, pp. 211-214.

5Besides, the production of these colossal statues indicates a developed, organized and unique community, rich in human and technical resources. They are the most visible archaeological evidence (almost the only one, due to the lack of evidence for pre-dynastic cemeteries or dwellings) of the importance of the site in the second half of the fourth millennium BC. But centuries later, while the large pre-dynastic power centres of Upper Egypt (e.g. Ombos and Naqada, just a few kilometers from Coptos) diminished, the Old Kingdom pharaohs endowed Coptos with sanctuaries that emphasized its importance7 and in the course of the Old Kingdom Min became a figure of the national pantheon.8 Access to mines and quarries in the Eastern Desert, and perhaps already trade with the East, are a likely explanation for this importance.

  • 9 So striking that it was later taken up by Amon, dynastic god from the 2nd millennium onward: see Ga (...)
  • 10 Munro 1983, p. 28.
  • 11 Baqué-Manzano 2002, pp. 45-46 for a recent point on the epithets.

6The appearance of the poliad divinity of Coptos remained unchanged throughout its history: an ithyphallic aspect unique in divine iconography.9 Min was also original in that he was always depicted standing on a pedestal or on a staircase, and was often followed by the representation of a cylindrical hut built around a central pole. Among several interpretations of this strange feature, it has been suggested that the hut was a house from the land of Punt.10 Later, in the Ptolemaic texts, the foreign character of the god was expressed by various geographical epithets such as “the Medjay”, “the Punt Hunter” or sr bj3yt n Pwnt (“the one who sees from afar the precious products of Punt”).11 Let us briefly discuss these terms.

  • 12 Herzog 1975. Several images taken by R. Weill at Coptos during the 1910 excavations show Bisharins, (...)
  • 13 Liszka 2011, pp. 149-171.
  • 14 Näser 2012, pp. 82-84. This attribution has recently been revisited by Liszka 2015, pp. 42–60.
  • 15 Rathbone 2002, p. 193.

7The Medjay, a nomadic population of the Eastern Desert, are attested in the pharaonic sources by the end of the third millennium. They were probably the ancestors of the current Beja, who are now divided into several groups with distinct languages.12 In the late third and early second millennium, they lived in the Eastern Desert of Lower Nubia and southern Egypt. Limited textual sources present them as nomadic herders, also trading with the Egyptians, or as mercenaries serving the chiefs of the nomes in southern Egypt.13 In addition to these references in the written documentation, some scholars have traditionally attributed to them circular graves (referred to as “Pan-graves”) from small cemeteries at the edge of the desert between the third Nile cataract and Middle Egypt, dating from the thirteenth to the eighteenth Dynasties (ca. 1750 to 1500 BC).14 For these or other nomads living in the desert east and southeast of the Valley, Coptos, simply because of its geographical position, has always been one of the major trade centres along the Valley. At the end of the first century BC, Strabo (XVII, 1, 44) said that the city was κοινὴν Αἰγυπτίων τε καὶ Ἀράβων “shared by Egyptians and Arabs”, an assertion corroborated by documentation.15

  • 16 Recent bibliography on the debate and full discussion of the evidence by Fr. Breyer (Breyer 2016) w (...)
  • 17 Undoubtedly a road frequently used, which justified the location of dockyards at Coptos in the Midd (...)
  • 18 At the beginning of the second millennium certainly Mersa Gawasis; for the New Kingdom, the archaeo (...)
  • 19 Naville 1898, p. 17 & pl. 78-79. Compare with the text of the Ramesside P. Harris I (Grandet 1994, (...)

8The location of Punt, which the Egyptians also called the “Country of God”, is still debated by researchers: some believe it was a region in Arabia, while others place it on the coast of Sudan or Eritrea.16 In any case, it must have been one of the coastal areas of the Red Sea, south-east of Egypt, which could be reached by boat. One of the itineraries to Punt left from Coptos17 to rejoin, via the Wâdi al-Hammâmât, one of the “intermittent ports” on the coast.18 Mentioned regularly in the pharaonic texts of the fifth to twentieth Dynasty, the Punt region supplied Egypt mainly with incense and other aromatic products. The famous reliefs of the “Punt portico” in the funerary temple of queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari depict an Egyptian expedition sent by the queen to procure, besides these odoriferous products, gold and electrum, and incense trees plants to acclimatise in Egypt.19

  • 20 Posener 1969, pp. 148-150; cited by Meeks 2003, p. 78. On the location of the kingdom of Hgr/Hagar,

9If the sources are scarce during the first millennium, a period of political fragmentation in Egypt, Coptos and its god Min continued to look to the East. A late epithet of the god, in a demotic document from the Persian period (P. dem. Caire 30799 vso), even calls him the “Lord of Hgr.20

The Hellenistic presence in Coptos

  • 21 A recent republication of a stela of Nectanebo I (380-362) commemorating the construction of this e (...)

10In modern Coptos, the most numerous and best preserved archaeological remains are later than Alexander's conquest. Within the perimeter of the great Nectanebo precinct,21 today heavily destroyed, the stages of architectural development can be seen mainly or exclusively in the temples and their enclosures (Fig. 2): a sanctuary of Min and Isis with a double axis to the north, and to the south the Netjery-shema, which encloses the remains of several buildings. From the first Ptolemies onward, the close correlation between monumental programmes in Coptos and the development stages of the roads shows that the city was an essential part of the trading system of the Eastern Desert.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Chronological map of the religious center.

© Coptos Mission: D. Laisney/C. Gobeil

  • 22 The text of P. Fouad 211 (Schérer 1941, pp. 43-73) suggests the presence of a hieron of this king a (...)
  • 23 Strabon XVII, I, 45; Préaux 1939, pp. 353-362; Hölbl 2001, pp. 55-58; Burstein 2008, pp. 135-147.
  • 24 Petrie 1896, pp. 19-22.
  • 25 Petrie 1896, pp. 19-21 and pl. XX; Derchain 2000, pp. 49-53. For the corrected reading of the anthr (...)
  • 26 For this sector, Traunecker 1992, pp. 44-48; Cartron 2012, pp. 257-258.
  • 27 Derchain 2000, p. 52; Guermeur 2003, pp. 286-287. The mention of a Northern pylon in brick could (...)

11The first of the Ptolemies, Soter I, is only mentioned in the Coptos region in a few textual or iconographic sources.22 By contrast, the scholars have long since recognised that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BC) made considerable investments in the development, for various purposes, of roads in the Eastern Desert and particularly of ports along the coast of the Red Sea, in Egypt and beyond.23 At the same time, the main temple of Coptos, dedicated to Min and Isis, was rebuilt and extended to the west. Remaining from the time of Philadelphus are the foundations of the inner temple, built on a high platform accessible from the west by several staircases, as well as the third gate on the axis of Isis, and probably the twin gates opened in the western facade wall.24 But the most important works took place in the southern part of the site, designated as the “southern sanctuary”, in Egyptian Netjery-shema. Today these works are only attested in the long inscription of the first Arsinoë's attendant, the Greek Zeno, mistakenly called “Sennousheri” by Petrie.25 The southern sector, where still stands a doorjamb of the temple of Geb built by Nectenabo II, one of the last native pharaohs, was occupied during his reign by several elite tombs.26 Connected with Osirian places of worship located further south, the Netjery-shema seems to have been more active and more important at that time than the great temple. In the same area, the shrine called “Castle of provisions”, ut-djefau, was renovated under the supervision of Zeno. He raised the ground level, completed its enclosure and erected monumental doors made of precious materials.27

  • 28 Derchain 2000, pp. 44-48.

12Zeno also worked extensively in the nearby town of Qus, which he furnished with new monuments.28 His major investment in the architecture at Qus, which eventually replaced Coptos as the head of the Upper Egyptian trade network several centuries later, may be due to purely private circumstances. But it could also indicate that this city already played a certain role at that time in the traffic between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea.

  • 29 The inscription, found at Coptos, of the diocete Apollonius son of Sosibios returning from the Red (...)
  • 30 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 59-63.
  • 31 Petrie 1896, p. 22. In the same reign, a little sanctuary of Min was built at Bi’r Umm Fawâkhir: PM (...)
  • 32 Pantalacci 2014a, pp. 397-418.
  • 33 Hölbl 2001, pp. 161, 170. It is also Ptolemy IV who began the temple of Edfu. Two stelae have been (...)
  • 34 Hölbl 2001, pp. 153-159; Veïsse 2004, pp. 5-6, 22-24.

13The evidence for activity on the desert roads in the third century BC is scarce.29 The number of imported ceramics in the Coptos assemblages of this period mainly demonstrates regular exchanges with the Mediterranean, unattested elsewhere in Upper Egypt,30 which might suggest the existence of wider exchange networks. Be that as it may, monumental activity continued in Coptos, but on a more modest scale. Petrie found a fragmentary statue of Ptolemy III.31 The mammisi of Ptolemy IV, recently identified,32 may reflect a peculiar devotion of this king to Harpocrates (Horus-the-child), to whom he also dedicated a shrine in the Serapeum of Alexandria.33 One can also see in these monuments a token of peace given to the indigenous communities, prone to rebellion, it is believed, after the military success of Raphia in 217 BC.34 Upper Egypt remained for some twenty years, between 206 and 186 BC, an independent territory. This secession could have undermined trade around Coptos, which was for a while, like the entire Southern region, under the control of rebel kinglets.

  • 35 Veïsse 2004, pp. 39-63.
  • 36 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 78-79.
  • 37 Traunecker 2000, pp. 138-140.
  • 38 Bernand 1977, I. Pan 86, pp. 253-261, stela dated 2 october 130 BC.
  • 39 Préaux 1939, pp. 364-365.

14Throughout the 2nd century BC the situation in Thebaid remained unstable with frequent troubles,35 while the conflicts within the ruling family escalated. Around the middle of the second century, a new peribolus of mudbrick, which has been recognised only in its eastern and northern parts, was built around the main temple of Coptos.36 A monumental gate decorated by Ptolemy VIII,37 now in the Boston Museum, may have been part of this building programme. Perhaps we should see in these new buildings a consequence of endemic insurgency and the damage it caused. However, the Eastern Desert roads remained active,38 as the infrastructure built in the previous century favoured the importation of spices to the Mediterranean via Egypt rather than via Syria.39

  • 40 Bernand 1984, I. Portes 49, pp. 169-172: dedication to Isis by two brothers who were strategoi on t (...)

15Thus, the importance of the city does not seem to be diminished under the last of the Lagids. Instead, because of the fragmentation of the Theban nome in the last quarter of the second century, the control of the desert roads was transferred to the strategos of Coptos, who bore from then on the title of “supervisor of the Red and Indian Seas”.40 This new administrative situation could only have the effect of focusing the attention of sovereigns on the city and its territory.

  • 41 Veïsse 2004, pp. 64-73.
  • 42 Rather than to the sole Harpocrates as hypothesised by Reinach 1910, pp. 48-49.
  • 43 Considering this important monument, until now ignored, the Coptite inscription I. Portes 51, dedic (...)
  • 44 Bernand 1984, I. Portes 104, pp. 268-270.

16Another seditious episode is attested in Thebaid around 88 BC.41 After its repression, during his second reign (88-80 BC), Ptolemy IX Soter II had a new temple built and decorated in Coptos; now completely dismantled, it was probably dedicated to Isis and Harpocrates.42 Whatever the motives –religious, political or economic– which gave rise to this ambitious project, one cannot fail to be impressed by the dimensions of the building, by its architectural quality and the care taken to execute its décor.43 In the territory of Coptos, another project of the same king took place, earlier in his reign, in the main temple of Qus and was dedicated in the names of the sovereign and his mother Cleopatra III.44

  • 45 Traunecker 1992, n° 23, 24, 33 for the door; on the socle Covington, Caire JE 40643, Covington 19 (...)
  • 46 Published by Traunecker 1992, pp. 218-303.
  • 47 We do not know the pharaonic titulary of the last two Ptolemies (but see the next note). Petrie (18 (...)
  • 48 Attribution discussed by Traunecker 1992, pp. 319-324. Despite the irrelevant epithet of Cleopatra (...)
  • 49 Weill 1912, pp. 77-86; Traunecker 1992, pp. 320-322.
  • 50 Hallof 2010, pp. 265-266.
  • 51 Weill 1911, pp. 128-129; Traunecker 1992, pp. 46-47.

17The last Lagids also built in Coptos. The southernmost door of the enclosure of Nectanebo was erected, and its facade decorated, by Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos, who also dedicated to Isis a bark stand in black granite.45 To the south, in the Netjery-shema, his daughter Cleopatra VII dedicated an oracular chapel of unique design indeed,46 set against the temple of Geb built by Nectanebo II (Fig. 3). There she is represented or named along with her father or one of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII47 or more likely Ptolemy XIV;48 on some loose blocks, she is mentioned together with her son Caesarion.49 Like his grandfather Ptolemy XII, the latter refers to their ancestor Soter II through the epithet “heir of the god Soter”, attested so far only in Coptos.50 The construction of the second monumental gate leading to Cleopatra's chapel is perhaps also a late Lagid work, but most of its decoration dates to Caligula.51 However, outside Coptos, no monumental activity in the name of the last Ptolemies has been found so far.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

The oracular chapel of Cleopatra VII.

© Cl. Traunecker

The Romans in Coptos

  • 52 Veïsse 2004, pp. 74-76; Hoffmann, Minas-Nerpel, Pfeiffer 2009, p. 139: Der grosse Doppeltempel dür (...)
  • 53 We have little information on the conditions of the taking of Coptos in AD 29. Cl. Traunecker (Trau (...)

18A final and brief rebellion in Upper Egypt took place in 29 BC, this time against the Romans, shortly after the battle of Actium and the extinction of the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Thebaid's resistance was rapidly reduced by Cornelius Gallus, and Coptos was taken –perhaps after a short siege.52 The numerous architectural reworkings and changes in the street network during the first decades of the conquest resulted from the endeavour to rationalise the urban space, perhaps combined with the need to refurbish some buildings after the Romans had damaged them.53

The beginnings of the Principate

  • 54 Tchernia 2011, pp. 62-73; Tran 2014, p. 8, § 17.
  • 55 I. Portes 56. The inscriptions and the pottery of Wâdi Menih support this date: De Romanis1996, pp. (...)
  • 56 Traunecker 1992, p. 53; Pantalacci, Traunecker 1990, p. 6.

19From the last century of the Republic in Italy, and then in the eastern provinces (especially in Egypt) during the first half of the first century AD, unprecedented commercial growth can be seen, that could be compared to a gold rush.54 If the inscription referring to the vexillation dates actually to the reign of Augustus, then the layout of the track from Coptos to Berenike would have been one of the first achievements of the imperial administration in the region.55 Still, the Pharaonic track to Myos Hormos via the Wâdi al-Hammâmât was not disregarded: according to the same text, the port was equipped with a new cistern. At Coptos, southeast of the great temple, a monumental gate in the name of Augustus, recently brought to light and rebuilt (Fig. 4), provided a new access to and from the east, at the end of a street running along the southern side of the temple. At the western end of this road, remains a large threshold probably placed at the same time, piercing the temenos enclosure. This opening marks a new use of the space around the temple, –perhaps to allow merchants to cross the city, while controlling them at the arrival point of the caravans– from the eastern gates of the city, up to a pier on the canal towards the Nile, to the west. Urban changes in Coptos and the development of road infrastructure in the desert are, thus, closely linked in the first decades of the conquest. Moreover, the completion of the decoration of Cleopatra's oracular chapel and part of that of the nearby temple of el-Qal'a, though not precisely dated, were certainly carried out in the course of the principate.56

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

The gate of Augustus, as reerected in 2016.

© Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci

  • 57 Probably the high level Roman wall of Petrie 1896, pl. I; Pantalacci, Gobeil 2016, p. 8 and Fig. (...)
  • 58 Reinach 1910, pp. 15-16.

20Even the interior space of the central temenos of the city was completely overhauled. The second century Ptolemaic enclosure of the temple of Min and Isis was levelled and on its top, at least on its north and east sides, was built a colonnade, closed by a thin brick wall57 (Fig. 5). It seems that a similar plan had been set up in the Netjery-shema.58 After the creation of this colonnade, hastily erected and unfinished, the old temenos must have looked like a Roman city in the eastern style.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

The northern colonnade.

© Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci

  • 59 On these famous documents, often revisited, see Vleeming 2001, pp. 170-197, n°179-202. More recentl (...)

21Though we are currently unable to give a precise date, we suggest placing these works around the middle of the first century AD. This is the time when documents point to significant alterations in the urban fabric, probably largely supervised by Parthenios son of Pamin, the manager of the temple of Isis. His records, which currently comprise no fewer than 27 epigraphic documents, spanned the reigns of four emperors, at least between 21/22 (the 8th year of the reign of Tiberius) and 66 (the 12th year of the reign of Nero).59 They are mainly stelae or lapidary inscriptions commemorating the construction of new or restored enclosures, doors and even new sanctuaries. The layout of doors and streets seems to have been the principal concern of Parthenios: even the eastern gate of Augustus, which had already been in place for several decades, was re-inscribed by him in the name of Nero in January 63 AD.

  • 60 Reinach, Weill 1912, pp. 17-18; on this inscription, see Vleeming 2001, pp. 188-189, n° 199.

22In this new street network marked by the dedications of Parthenios, on stelae or even on the cornices of doors, distinctions are clearly established between public streets and service paths for locals, through the use of three languages adapted to the recipients of the text: classical Egyptian (written in hieroglyphs), demotic and Greek. Thus, to the southwest of the Netjery-shema, the “painted door” dedicated during the reign of Claudius, is written in demotic,60 not in Greek like the southeastern Augustan door. It gave access to a corridor-street running between Nectanebo's wall and the enclosure wall of the Netjery-shema.

  • 61 Pantalacci 2015-2016, p. 114.

23Outside the walls of Nectanebo, the street layout is not apparent. Only a few slabs of a pavement oriented SE-NW were brought to light,61 in the southernmost part of the sector with Late Antique monuments (Fig. 6). This isolated evidence of the road network, situated between the ancient monumental heart of the city and the Nile, is not datable for the moment.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

Topographical map of the site.

© Coptos Mission: D. Laisney

  • 62 CGC 31101, 31114, 31146, 31160. The provenance is questioned by Vleeming, 2001 pp. 178-183, n°189-1 (...)

24At the regional level, the first Julio-Claudians also launched a programme of religious construction in the territory of Coptos: at El-Qal'a, whose Augustan decoration was completed by Caligula and Claudius, and at Shenhour and Qus, where two demotic stelae of Parthenios, one of which was dedicated under Claudius in AD 47, are said to have been found.62 These monuments presumably flanked a processional path or monumental entrance, now lost.

  • 63 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 101-107. This confirms the information from the archive of Nicanor, doing (...)
  • 64 A lot more, for example, than at some Alexandrian sites: Élaigne 2004, p. 139 (Ce phénomène semble (...)
  • 65 Pantalacci 2014b, p. 116. The organisation of the deposit and the abundance of cooking remains sugg (...)

25The few remains of civil occupation recently excavated at Coptos are strictly contemporaneous with this phase of development of construction and trade. A domestic settlement from the end of the first century BC to the first century AD, located outside the wall of Nectanebo, against its eastern face, was studied by the Egyptian-American ceramological mission (their area A). The ceramic evidence (assemblage R1b) contained imported pottery, which was almost exclusively Italic, datable between AD 10 and 60.63 Similarly, the collection of surface sigillata carried out by Reinach in 1910 revealed, for the Tibero-Claudian period, a high percentage of Arretine ceramics.64 This evidence supports the hypothesis of a Roman trading community, living, at least temporarily, under the walls of the central temenos at Coptos. Moreover, a brief survey to the southwest of the site, under the foundations of a Late-Antique structure, has yielded pottery dated similarly to the first half of the first century AD, in particular, almost intact amphorae (EA 3), on top of a dump rich in remains of culinary activities (pots with blackened bases, charcoal, bones).65

  • 66 Sidebotham 1986, p. 84; Rathbone 2002, p. 189. The prosperity of Parthenios could equally result fr (...)
  • 67 The transport insured by Nicanor meant that he must have had a number of camels, indicating his pro (...)
  • 68 Cp. the products found at Berenike: Sidebotham 2011, pp. 223-245. Admittedly, since antiquity, Copt (...)

26If such objects make the Roman presence a little more tangible, the data on the native Coptites remain rare. The few ostraka and graffiti citing the most visible sacerdotal family of the first half of the first century AD, that of Parthenios, with his father and his son bearing the same name Pamin, are modest evidence as compared to their numerous monuments, which show indefatigable euergetism. It is difficult to explain their prosperity without linking it to the Indian Ocean trade66 and it is assumed, according to Nicanor’s records, that Coptites themselves, though not involved in the luxury trade, drew some profit from international traffic.67 But the fact is that excavations, both earlier and more recent, have hardly found any traces in Coptos of imported materials or products which were the raison d'être of this great international trade, and which are better represented in the harbours at the other end of the desert roads.68

  • 69 I. Portes 65, pp. 193-195; Bricault 2009, pp. 136-137.
  • 70 Sidebotham, Wendrich 1996, pp. 229-236.
  • 71 Pantalacci, Gobeil 2016, pp. 8-9. Although Isis is mentioned together with Hera in the text, it is (...)
  • 72 Brun 2003b, pp. 197-198.
  • 73 Following the interpretation of F. Burkhalter-Arce (Burkhalter-Arce 2002, pp. 199-233).
  • 74 I. Portes 68; Rathbone 2002, pp. 182-183. The inscription I. Pan 68 is not dated to Domitian (pace (...)

27A little later, the Flavians pursued an investment policy in the Coptos region. Vespasian stayed in Egypt in AD 70.69 In Coptos, our recent work has enabled us to contextualise a well-known epigraphic document, the dedication of Hermeros, a merchant from Aden, probably linked to this imperial visit. It adorned a base, all the blocks of which are preserved in situ, for a colossal statue. The holes visible on the upper surface of the stones show undoubtedly that it was a metal statue, larger than life, perhaps of the same type as that discovered at Berenike a few years ago.70 It was installed in a chapel inserted into the new colonnade, near the northeastern corner (Fig. 7).71 Possibly the appreciation of Hermeros of Aden was in connection with the emperor's projects to develop the caravan trade. It is known that the reign of Vespasian corresponded to a new phase of development on the road to Berenike, and probably also to Myos Hormos.72 Once again, desert roads and the urban landscape of Coptos are connected. Two decades later, under Domitian, the Coptos Tariff gives us some insight into the control of the traffic that moved along the roads, and on the travellers who were embarking at the ports of the Red Sea.73 To promote this, the city's infrastructure was improved and a bridge was built in Coptos by the same emperor.74

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Restitution of the eastern colonnade and of the statue dedicated by Hermeros.

© Coptos Mission: S. Louvion

Coptos in the second and third centuries AD

  • 75 Brun 2003a, pp. 201-203.
  • 76 On the prefects and their residence, Cuvigny 2003a, pp. 295-305.
  • 77 For the third century, see Cuvigny 2000, pp. 172-173.
  • 78 Sidebotham 1986, pp. 95-96. The residents engaged in trade commuted seasonally between Coptos and t (...)

28The sources become more scarce and scattered for the following centuries, but the archaeological and epigraphic material shows that the desert tracks continued to be used and the praesidia more or less occupied until the third century.75 Coptos, as the residence of the Prefect of the Desert of Berenike (title known from AD 11)76 remains a major economic and administrative centre throughout the Roman period.77 The presence of foreign communities in the city is a sign of its commercial vitality.78

  • 79 Brun 2003a, p. 198; the reliefs on the door jamb west of the northern entrance to the Netjery-shema(...)
  • 80 Peribolus: stele CGC 9286, in the 12th year of Antoninus’ reign; garden: I. Portes 74. The meaning (...)
  • 81 Reinach 1912, p. 57; statue E 501-357 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon.
  • 82 Petrie 1896, p. 23; Reinach 1910, pp. 32-33; id., 1912, pp. 57-58.

29Trajan was interested in the city and its roads: we owe to him the foundation of the new fort of Abu Qurayya on the Myos Hormos road, and in Coptos new inscriptions on the north gate of the Netjery-shema.79 The street south of the great temple remained an important artery in the second century. An inscription of Antoninus Pius, on the eastern gate already inscribed in the names of Augustus and Nero, must be contemporary with the partial rehabilitation of the peribolus due to another administrator of Isis, Paniskos son of Ptollis, who also created (?) a garden (of the temple?).80 Reinach found a statue base of Antoninus Pius by the third pylon of Min's temple.81 Epigraphic evidence from the Severan period came from the same sector.82 All this evidence demonstrates that the temple was still in use in the second century.

  • 83 Herbert, Berlin 2002, p. 85; Herbert, Berlin 2003, p. 107.

30One of the most massive remains on the site is a large, ruined, building, on top of the northeast corner of the Hellenistic enclosure, whose walls were lined by new, thick retaining walls to form a strong platform (Fig. 8). Given its dominant position and its plan, which includes a large hypostyle hall, it is certainly an official building. Soundings in this structure (Area B of Herbert and Berlin) allowed its construction to be dated from the first half of the second century and it seems to have remained in use until the early fourth century.83 The related ceramic assemblage, R2, comprised entirely local pottery.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

The Roman official building.

© Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci

31Transformations continued to occur within the precinct of Nectanebo. Southeast of the temple, the eastern colonnade of the High Empire was partially dismantled, and its stones were integrated into the foundations of a rectangular building, set on top of the Hellenistic enclosure wall on a thick layer of backfill, dated to the second to third century. Along the southern street are the foundations of a series of small brick structures on platforms accessible by a few steps.

  • 84 Rathbone 2002, p. 190 and n. 38.
  • 85 Fournet 2000, pp. 197-198; Rathbone 2002, p. 194.
  • 86 St Jerome, cited by Reinach 1912, p. 59 n. 1: Busiris et Coptos contra Romanos rebellantes ad solu (...)
  • 87 Reinach 1912, pp. 51-56; Rathbone 2012, p. 195 et n. 60.

32The second half of the third century was a period of instability in the Thebaid. But despite pressure from nomads in the Eastern Desert, the city continued to trade in exotic products.84 Uprisings and conflicts, in which Coptos seems to have been in the front line, marked the last decades of the century.85 So the repression of these troubles by the emperor Diocletian himself in AD 293/4 is reported to have caused the total destruction of the city.86 The pre-Roman precincts must have survived, however, and it seems that they were the basis for the fortifications undertaken by Diocletian in 298.87 But the segments of extant isolated walls do not make it possible to trace their outlines.

  • 88 Reinach 1910, pp. 25-26; ; Seeliger, Krumeich 2007, pp. 78-81 and Abb. 21-22, s.v. Coptos.
  • 89 Van der Vliet 2002, pp. 61-72. For recent references, see Pisenthios bishop of Koptos, https://ww (...)
  • 90 Pantalacci 2014a, p. 402.
  • 91 Reinach 1912, pp. 18-19.
  • 92 Sidebotham 1986, p. 47 and n. 94; Sidebotham 2011, pp. 263-279.
  • 93 Brun 2003a, p. 99; https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/bir-umm-fawakhir-project and lastly Me (...)

33For the Late-Antique period, archaeological sources are rare and poorly known. The western sector that Weill and Reinach designated as “Western churches” (Fig. 6) preserves the foundations of large buildings entirely made of reused Hellenistic and Roman blocks. The architecture of the baptistery, the sole monument that has been preserved to a certain height, is original and impressive88 (Fig. 9). At the beginning of the seventh century the bishopric of Coptos was held by the renowned Pisenthios, whose abundant correspondence has been preserved.89 It seems that the city remained relatively prosperous and the desert routes continued to be used. While Byzantine settlements extended to the north and west, the decommissioning of the pagan cults changed the occupation of the Nectanebo precinct. At the end of the fourth or early fifth century, an industrial area (bakery, metallurgy) was installed in the main temenos, over the ruins of the mammisi of Ptolemy IV, which had been violently destroyed.90 Reinach also mentions Late Antique houses on the northern Netjery-chema.91 The history of the city then becomes lost, the latest archaeological layers having been completely destroyed by sebakh hunters or covered by the modern city. But we know that maritime trade in the Red Sea began to prosper again from the fourth century onwards, and the port of Berenike experienced a real revival.92 The big mining village of Bi’r Umm Fawâkhir near the gold veins of Wâdi al-Hammâmât, was very active in the sixth to seventh century93 and it is likely that the “gold of Coptos”, the Indian Ocean trade and caravan traffic continued for some time to support the economy of the city. It was not until the tenth century, when the caravan route was definitively diverted towards Qus, that the multi-millennial prosperity of Coptos came to an end, before the hoes of the sabbakhin almost completely destroyed the last evidence of its history.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

The baptistery in 2015, view north-south.

© Coptos Mission: C. Gobeil

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Notes

1 For bibliography on the subject, see S. Aufrère (Aufrère 1991, pp. 138 et 156, n. 302-306). The meaning of the toponym Gbtyw (The-people-related-to-the-gbt-bag) and its grammatical form will thus be parallel to the term smntyw, prospectors (The-people-related-to-the-smnt-bag), studied by J. Yoyotte (Yoyotte 1975, pp. 44-46).

2 Koenig 1979, pp. 200-201; Grandet 1994, pp. 66-67, n. 239, et pp. 197-198, n. 818.

3 In particular in the Ritual of Embalming, of which two copies dating from the first century AD survive (Sauneron 1952, 3, 6 (p. 7, l.4) and 7, 7-8 (p. 24, l.6); trad. Goyon 1972, index p. 335 s.v. Coptos). Osiris and Isis of Coptos are cited in this text as protectors of the deceased.

4 Koenig 1979, p. 209 n. (cc). Expeditions to the galena mines of Gebel el-Zeit, on the Red Sea coast, left from Coptos: Castel, Soukiassian 1985, pp. 290-292.

5 Petrie 1896, pp. 7-9; the researchers date them between the end of Naqada II and Naqada III, so just before or at the beginning of the Dynastic Period: Baqué-Manzano 2002, p. 40.

6 Most recently, Baqué-Manzano 2002, p. 33.

7 Petrie 1896, p. 4.

8 McFarlane 1995, pp. 211-214.

9 So striking that it was later taken up by Amon, dynastic god from the 2nd millennium onward: see Gabolde 2013, pp. 31-32. But ithyphallic figures already occur in the repertoire of Naqada II: McFarlane 1995, pp. 166-169.

10 Munro 1983, p. 28.

11 Baqué-Manzano 2002, pp. 45-46 for a recent point on the epithets.

12 Herzog 1975. Several images taken by R. Weill at Coptos during the 1910 excavations show Bisharins, a Bedja tribe then established not far from Coptos but who today reside further south on the Egypto-Sudanese border.

13 Liszka 2011, pp. 149-171.

14 Näser 2012, pp. 82-84. This attribution has recently been revisited by Liszka 2015, pp. 42–60.

15 Rathbone 2002, p. 193.

16 Recent bibliography on the debate and full discussion of the evidence by Fr. Breyer (Breyer 2016) who concludes that Pount was Abyssinia.

17 Undoubtedly a road frequently used, which justified the location of dockyards at Coptos in the Middle Kingdom: Gabolde 2002, pp. 142-145. During other seasons or periods, the expeditions starting from Memphis could travel by boat through the Wâdi Tumilat to the Red Sea, or walk across the Sinai peninsula: Meeks 2002, pp. 271-272, 308-309.

18 At the beginning of the second millennium certainly Mersa Gawasis; for the New Kingdom, the archaeological sources currently fail. A summary of recent evidence is in Tallet 2015, pp. 33-36.

19 Naville 1898, p. 17 & pl. 78-79. Compare with the text of the Ramesside P. Harris I (Grandet 1994, pp. 255-260, n. 931).

20 Posener 1969, pp. 148-150; cited by Meeks 2003, p. 78. On the location of the kingdom of Hgr/Hagar,

21 A recent republication of a stela of Nectanebo I (380-362) commemorating the construction of this enclosure by Lombardi 2011-2013, pp. 93-110.

22 The text of P. Fouad 211 (Schérer 1941, pp. 43-73) suggests the presence of a hieron of this king at Coptos still active in AD 160, but on the field, the only trace of Ptolemy I is a scene in his name in the entrance to Isis's temple, perhaps dedicated by his son Ptolemy II (Petrie 1896, p. 19; Gabolde 2000a, pp. 74-75). The attribution of the stela I. Portes 51 (Bernand 1984, n° 51, pp. 173-175) to Soter I, considered as definitive by J. Schérer, should perhaps be reviewed (infra, n. 43).

23 Strabon XVII, I, 45; Préaux 1939, pp. 353-362; Hölbl 2001, pp. 55-58; Burstein 2008, pp. 135-147.

24 Petrie 1896, pp. 19-22.

25 Petrie 1896, pp. 19-21 and pl. XX; Derchain 2000, pp. 49-53. For the corrected reading of the anthroponym, see the bibliography in Guermeur 2006, p. 105 n. 2.

26 For this sector, Traunecker 1992, pp. 44-48; Cartron 2012, pp. 257-258.

27 Derchain 2000, p. 52; Guermeur 2003, pp. 286-287. The mention of a Northern pylon in brick could designate the north entrance of Netjery-shema, or a new access to the Isis axis in the main temple.

28 Derchain 2000, pp. 44-48.

29 The inscription, found at Coptos, of the diocete Apollonius son of Sosibios returning from the Red Sea (I. Portes 48, p. 166-169) is dated from Ptolemy II: Bingen 1984, p. 365. On the other hand, the Greek name of the praesidium of Bi’r Sayyâla, Simiou, may derive from a courtisan of Ptolemy III: Bülow-Jacobsen 2003, p. 56.

30 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 59-63.

31 Petrie 1896, p. 22. In the same reign, a little sanctuary of Min was built at Bi’r Umm Fawâkhir: PM VII, p. 337; A. Weigall, cited by Bernand 1972, p. 71.

32 Pantalacci 2014a, pp. 397-418.

33 Hölbl 2001, pp. 161, 170. It is also Ptolemy IV who began the temple of Edfu. Two stelae have been dedicated to this ruler and his wife Arsinoe III by the strategos Lichas, sent to hunt elephants; one was found at Edfu [Bernand 1977, I. Pan 77, pp. 193-198]; the second is of unknown provenance (Bernand 1977, I. Pan 84, pp. 244-245). A third stela, also without provenance, names several other military persons, with an identical mission (Bernand 1977, I. Pan 85, pp. 246-252).

34 Hölbl 2001, pp. 153-159; Veïsse 2004, pp. 5-6, 22-24.

35 Veïsse 2004, pp. 39-63.

36 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 78-79.

37 Traunecker 2000, pp. 138-140.

38 Bernand 1977, I. Pan 86, pp. 253-261, stela dated 2 october 130 BC.

39 Préaux 1939, pp. 364-365.

40 Bernand 1984, I. Portes 49, pp. 169-172: dedication to Isis by two brothers who were strategoi on the lintel of a well that dates to 74/73 BC.

41 Veïsse 2004, pp. 64-73.

42 Rather than to the sole Harpocrates as hypothesised by Reinach 1910, pp. 48-49.

43 Considering this important monument, until now ignored, the Coptite inscription I. Portes 51, dedicated to a Soter, could perhaps refer to Ptolemy IX rather than Ptolemy I, as suggested by late paleography (after Bernand 1984, I. Portes, p. 173). In this very fragmentary text the references to the town, the Coptite nome and its eclogist are equally interesting.

44 Bernand 1984, I. Portes 104, pp. 268-270.

45 Traunecker 1992, n° 23, 24, 33 for the door; on the socle Covington, Caire JE 40643, Covington 1910, pp. 34-35 et pl. II-III, and Daressy 1910, pp. 36-40.

46 Published by Traunecker 1992, pp. 218-303.

47 We do not know the pharaonic titulary of the last two Ptolemies (but see the next note). Petrie (1896, p. 22) credits Ptolemy XIII with a considerable rebuilding in the main temple, but this applies in fact, to Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos. The drawing of his cartouches seen by Petrie (1896, pl. XXVI, 4, 5, 10) gives no idea of the shape of these architectural remains, now vanished.

48 Attribution discussed by Traunecker 1992, pp. 319-324. Despite the irrelevant epithet of Cleopatra royal wife, the cartouches of the king who accompanies her in her oracular chapel of Coptos could belong to his father Ptolemy XII: Traunecker 1992, p. 121; Hölbl 2001, p. 278 and p. 298, n. 98.

49 Weill 1912, pp. 77-86; Traunecker 1992, pp. 320-322.

50 Hallof 2010, pp. 265-266.

51 Weill 1911, pp. 128-129; Traunecker 1992, pp. 46-47.

52 Veïsse 2004, pp. 74-76; Hoffmann, Minas-Nerpel, Pfeiffer 2009, p. 139: Der grosse Doppeltempel dürfte den Rebellen als gut befestiger Stützpunkt gedient haben.

53 We have little information on the conditions of the taking of Coptos in AD 29. Cl. Traunecker (Traunecker 1992, p. 138) proposes that this event damaged the gate of Ptolemy VIII, repaired under Claudius, even though this cannot be proven.

54 Tchernia 2011, pp. 62-73; Tran 2014, p. 8, § 17.

55 I. Portes 56. The inscriptions and the pottery of Wâdi Menih support this date: De Romanis1996, pp. 203-217 and 241-257. There are several inscriptions on the road dated to around the beginning of the first century AD or attributed to the High Empire: Cuvigny et al. 1999, pp. 137-154. In the official nomenclature, the name desert of Berenike replaced, from the end of the reign of Augustus, the Ptolemaic term desert of Coptos (Cuvigny 2000, p. 164). However, Rathbone (Rathbone 2002, p. 182 and n. 14) suggests a later dating of this vexillation text, under Domitian.

56 Traunecker 1992, p. 53; Pantalacci, Traunecker 1990, p. 6.

57 Probably the high level Roman wall of Petrie 1896, pl. I; Pantalacci, Gobeil 2016, p. 8 and Fig. p. 9.

58 Reinach 1910, pp. 15-16.

59 On these famous documents, often revisited, see Vleeming 2001, pp. 170-197, n°179-202. More recently Pasquali 2007, pp. 187-192; Pantalacci 2007, pp. 86-287, Fig. 19; Grenier 2009, pp. 171-176; Pasquali 2009, pp. 385-395.

60 Reinach, Weill 1912, pp. 17-18; on this inscription, see Vleeming 2001, pp. 188-189, n° 199.

61 Pantalacci 2015-2016, p. 114.

62 CGC 31101, 31114, 31146, 31160. The provenance is questioned by Vleeming, 2001 pp. 178-183, n°189-193, but the strong theological links between Coptos and Qus makes it quite plausible.

63 Herbert, Berlin 2003, pp. 101-107. This confirms the information from the archive of Nicanor, doing business with Roman citizens of elite families: Sidebotham 1986, pp. 84-86; De Romanis 1996, pp. 241-257. According to A. Tchernia (Tchernia 2011, p. 70), these rich Italians remained in their homeland, and entrusted their interests to expatriated freedmen or slaves.

64 A lot more, for example, than at some Alexandrian sites: Élaigne 2004, p. 139 (Ce phénomène semble lié au caractère militaire et commercial du site où étaient installées des garnisons romaines) and p. 144, Fig. 11 and n. 12.

65 Pantalacci 2014b, p. 116. The organisation of the deposit and the abundance of cooking remains suggests collective activity.

66 Sidebotham 1986, p. 84; Rathbone 2002, p. 189. The prosperity of Parthenios could equally result from the popularity of the Isiac cults with the inhabitants and visitors of Coptos, benefiting thus indirectly from the caravan traffic.

67 The transport insured by Nicanor meant that he must have had a number of camels, indicating his prosperity: Adams 2007, pp. 222-223, 232. Among his clients, about 1/3 are Egyptians from Coptos: Fuks 1951, pp. 210-211.

68 Cp. the products found at Berenike: Sidebotham 2011, pp. 223-245. Admittedly, since antiquity, Coptos suffered repeated pillaging.

69 I. Portes 65, pp. 193-195; Bricault 2009, pp. 136-137.

70 Sidebotham, Wendrich 1996, pp. 229-236.

71 Pantalacci, Gobeil 2016, pp. 8-9. Although Isis is mentioned together with Hera in the text, it is difficult to imagine that actually a dyad had been represented.

72 Brun 2003b, pp. 197-198.

73 Following the interpretation of F. Burkhalter-Arce (Burkhalter-Arce 2002, pp. 199-233).

74 I. Portes 68; Rathbone 2002, pp. 182-183. The inscription I. Pan 68 is not dated to Domitian (pace Bernand 1977, p. 68), but to Vespasian, as proved by a parallel from recent excavations (Cuvigny 2003b, p. 302).

75 Brun 2003a, pp. 201-203.

76 On the prefects and their residence, Cuvigny 2003a, pp. 295-305.

77 For the third century, see Cuvigny 2000, pp. 172-173.

78 Sidebotham 1986, pp. 95-96. The residents engaged in trade commuted seasonally between Coptos and the Red sea, according to the navigation calendar: Rathbone 2002, pp. 191-192; Gibbs 2012, p. 49.

79 Brun 2003a, p. 198; the reliefs on the door jamb west of the northern entrance to the Netjery-shema, mentioned by Reinach 1912, pp. 14-15, and Weill 1911, p. 120, have since disappeared.

80 Peribolus: stele CGC 9286, in the 12th year of Antoninus’ reign; garden: I. Portes 74. The meaning of the second text, full of lacunae, is doubtful.

81 Reinach 1912, p. 57; statue E 501-357 in the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon.

82 Petrie 1896, p. 23; Reinach 1910, pp. 32-33; id., 1912, pp. 57-58.

83 Herbert, Berlin 2002, p. 85; Herbert, Berlin 2003, p. 107.

84 Rathbone 2002, p. 190 and n. 38.

85 Fournet 2000, pp. 197-198; Rathbone 2002, p. 194.

86 St Jerome, cited by Reinach 1912, p. 59 n. 1: Busiris et Coptos contra Romanos rebellantes ad solum usque subversae sunt (Ad ann. Abr. 2309). D. Rathbone (Rathbone 2002, p. 195) strongly doubts this radical destruction, considering the contemporary documents, and the prosperity of the town in the following centuries.

87 Reinach 1912, pp. 51-56; Rathbone 2012, p. 195 et n. 60.

88 Reinach 1910, pp. 25-26; ; Seeliger, Krumeich 2007, pp. 78-81 and Abb. 21-22, s.v. Coptos.

89 Van der Vliet 2002, pp. 61-72. For recent references, see Pisenthios bishop of Koptos, https://www.trismegistos.org/archive/194.

90 Pantalacci 2014a, p. 402.

91 Reinach 1912, pp. 18-19.

92 Sidebotham 1986, p. 47 and n. 94; Sidebotham 2011, pp. 263-279.

93 Brun 2003a, p. 99; https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/bir-umm-fawakhir-project and lastly Meyer 2014.

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1
Caption The colossi of Min at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Credits © L. Pantalacci, J.-P. Brun
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 136k
Title Fig. 2
Caption Chronological map of the religious center.
Credits © Coptos Mission: D. Laisney/C. Gobeil
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 152k
Title Fig. 3
Caption The oracular chapel of Cleopatra VII.
Credits © Cl. Traunecker
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 228k
Title Fig. 4
Caption The gate of Augustus, as reerected in 2016.
Credits © Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 216k
Title Fig. 5
Caption The northern colonnade.
Credits © Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 220k
Title Fig. 6
Caption Topographical map of the site.
Credits © Coptos Mission: D. Laisney
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 252k
Title Fig. 7
Caption Restitution of the eastern colonnade and of the statue dedicated by Hermeros.
Credits © Coptos Mission: S. Louvion
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 72k
Title Fig. 8
Caption The Roman official building.
Credits © Coptos Mission: L. Pantalacci
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 320k
Title Fig. 9
Caption The baptistery in 2015, view north-south.
Credits © Coptos Mission: C. Gobeil
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5247/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 282k

Author

Professor of Egyptology, University Lumière Lyon 2-HiSoMA

© Collège de France, 2018

Terms of use: http://www.openedition.org/6540