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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.

The Control of the Eastern Desert by the Ptolemies: New Archaeological Data

Bérangère Redon

Texte intégral

  • 1 The most famous quarrying expeditions are those of Mentuhotep III and IV at the turn of the third a (...)
  • 2 The main archaeological operations (for surveys, see infra notes 11 and 12) in the desert were cond (...)

1Between the Pharaonic period (during which expeditions to exploit the mineral and metal resources in the region were initiated resulting in carefully listed inscriptions, widely reported in the literature)1 and the Roman era (whose sources describe the layout of the road networks linking the Nile to the Red Sea which hosted the flow of caravans carrying imports from India and has yielded well-preserved and thoroughly excavated remains)2 the Ptolemaic period is a somewhat obscure era in the history of the Eastern Desert.

2Very often, scholars see the Ptolemaic period as a transition before the developments of the Roman era (seen generally as a period of culmination of the development of the region and the peak of trade and activities in the area) or as an epoch reproducing the later Roman organization (notably the road networks) of the region (location of forts, roads).

  • 3 The bibliography is extensive and it is enough to refer to the most important and/or recent works: (...)
  • 4 On the Ptolemaic levels which are beginning to be brought to light at Berenike, cf. the article of (...)
  • 5 Callixenus of Rhodes, apud Athenaeus V, 197c-203c. On this great feast, cf. Rice 1983 and Thompson (...)
  • 6 Desanges 1978, pp. 252-279; Thiers 2001; Sidebotham 2011, pp. 39-53; cf. OGIS 54, Strabo XVI, 4, 5, (...)

3Not that the desert was on the margins of Egypt during this period. On the contrary, the Ptolemaic kings paid much attention to the desert, especially Ptolemy II, whose role is emphasized in the written sources.3 It is to this pharaoh that the foundation of the major ports of the Red Sea is attributed, notably the most famous of them, Berenike4 (Fig. 1). The ceremony which he organized in Alexandria in honour of his deified parents5 was an opportunity for the king to display the wealth of his kingdom, including elephants, which are said to be the reason for the foundation of the ports on the coast of the Red Sea6 (to take captured animals from Africa to Egypt), and gold, the flagship product exploited in the Eastern Desert.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Human settlements and axes of circulation in the Eastern Desert during the Ptolemaic period.

© MAFDO, Th. Faucher, A. Rabot, B. Redon, 2016

  • 7 They are listed in Gates-Foster 2012.
  • 8 Apud Diodorus, III, 12-14 and Photius, 250, 23-29.
  • 9 The Greek inscriptions were recorded by Bernand 1972.
  • 10 See L. Blue (Myos Hormos) and S.E. Sidebotham (Berenike) in this volume.
  • 11 See the list of desert travellers in Sidebotham, Hense and Nouwens 2008, pp.  33-35.
  • 12 Klemm and Klemm 2013; Sidebotham, Gates-Foster and Rivard, forthcoming. We should also cite the wor (...)

4However, for the Ptolemaic period, the sources are both few and difficult to use to write a more precise history of the Eastern Desert, its exploitation, its developments, and its traffic.7 The few written sources available to the historian are often subsequent to the Ptolemaic period, with the exception of the treatise of Agatharchides the geographer, written in the late second century BC, which describes in detail the work of the prisoners in the gold mines of the region.8 The Eastern Desert also yielded dozens of Ptolemaic inscriptions, especially at the Paneion at El-Kanaïs, which provides valuable information on travellers passing through the sanctuary, elephant hunting expeditions launched by the Ptolemies in the third century BC and the military presence in the region.9 On the other hand, on an archaeological level, until recently, we only had data obtained from surface surveys. Indeed, with the exception of the ports of Berenike and Myos Hormos10 no Ptolemaic sites in the Eastern Desert had been properly investigated before 2013. Yet they are relatively numerous and have been long reported by travellers of the nineteenth century,11 then through many surveys conducted in twentieth century, most notably those of Dietrich and Rosemarie Klemm, Henry Wright and Steven Sidebotham.12

5To correct this bias, the French Archaeological Mission of the Eastern Desert (MAFDO) has undertaken, beginning in January 2013, the exploration of the Ptolemaic sites of the Eastern Desert, in order to renew the data with information taken directly from fieldwork.

Surveys and excavations of the French mission in Samut

  • 13 I will not return to the current context in the Eastern Desert and refer, instead, to the introduct (...)

6Work began by exploring the Samut district, situated on the ancient road that connected Edfu to the Ptolemaic port of Berenike (Fort Bi'r Samut is ca. 120 km from the former city and approximately 200 km from the latter). In 2013, this district had the advantage of having well-preserved, numerous remains, apparently dated across a broad chronological range, the most remarkable of which dating back to the Ptolemaic period. They were quite severely damaged just before the beginning of our excavations in the summer of 2013 and then in 2014, by a mining company and illegal gold diggers, which turned the nature of the excavation into rescue archaeology.13

  • 14 Participants in the 2013 to 2016 campaigns: Bérangère Redon (Director of the mission, archaeologist (...)

7Work started in January 2013 through the identification of archaeological sites in the area, and three excavation seasons followed in January 2014, 2015 and 201614 which produced rich discoveries thanks to the excellent preservation of the remains including more than 1,300 Greek, Demotic and Aramaic ostraka.

8This paper does not set out to describe in detail the results of the four seasons, but instead offers some preliminary conclusions about the history of the region, including the policies of the Ptolemies in the Eastern Desert. The data for this synthesis is derived, for the first time, from fieldwork evidence, which will be compared with data from written sources. Initial results of our excavations confirm the general features of the history of the region as it emerges through the written sources, as well as adding significant, previously unknown, nuances and new perspectives.

  • 15 The results of this work are presented in Brun et al. 2013a.

9The 2013 survey carried out by Th. Faucher and Fl. Téreygeol15 highlighted an occupation in Samut, stretching from the Pharaonic era to modern times (a British mining company worked in the area in 1904); there are several notable peaks of ancient occupation (Fig. 2): from the Pharaonic era (New Kingdom) to the early Ptolemaic period, and the medieval period (the Roman era is remarkable, in fact, for being a period of relatively low activity for gold mining in the area). It was undoubtedly during the Ptolemaic period that activity was the most notable and the most varied. The Samut district then has two main settlements, Samut North and Bi'r Samut, 4.3 km apart as the crow flies. The northern site, located in the mountains, is organized around a gold vein whose exploitation is at the origin of a major construction programme; the second, in a vast wâdi, has a fort that houses a well (hence the Arabic name Bi'r, “well”).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Remains of the Samut district excavated between 2014 and 2016.

© MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016, Bing Map base map

Samut North and gold mining in the Eastern Desert under Ptolemy, son of Lagos16

  • 16 The excavations at Samut North were led by J.-P. Brun, Th. Faucher and B. Redon and the exploration (...)
  • 17 Redon 2016.

10The site of Samut North is entirely dedicated to the exploitation of gold. The gold quartz vein was intensely exploited in the last quarter of the fourth century BC according to the study of the pottery undertaken by J.-P. Brun. The construction programme related to this site is large, complex and was conducted in a single operation. It includes, around the vein and according to a well-thought out distribution, buildings dedicated to the housing and supply of the troops and miners (presumably convicts and prisoners of war),17 and more or less complex constructions dedicated to the different activities of gold ore processing (Fig. 3-4).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

General view of Building 1 of Samut North, from the west.

© MAFDO, B. Redon, 2014

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Interior of building 1 from the north-west.

© MAFDO, G. Pollin, 2015

  • 18 B. Redon is studying the Greek ostraka from Samut North and M.-P. Chaufray the demotic ostraka. In (...)
  • 19 I shall not dwell on the Ptolemaic banks, which are known to be private or public; in the context o (...)
  • 20 P.Petrie II, 9 (3) = III, 43 (3) mentions copper mines in the Fayoum in 240 BC (workers from these (...)
  • 21 One could also think that the soldiers may have worked directly in the mines, but this is difficult (...)

11Looking at its scale and the specialization of its facilities, the mining complex at Samut North is certainly the result of a state investment launched by order of Ptolemy son of Lagos, perhaps while he was still a satrap (he proclaimed himself basileus in 305 BC), with significant means. Unfortunately, few ostraka have been uncovered on the site to confirm this, but one of them should be mentioned: this is O.Sam. 4 (= TM 706211), an amphoric titulus indicating that the vessel contained black figs that were sent to a banker.18 The presence of a banker in the mining installation is significant and suggests direct control by the Macedonians of the exploitation of gold in the region.19 The few documents relating to the exploitation of Egyptian natural resources by the Ptolemies20 also tend to suggest that mines and quarries were directly managed by the Ptolemaic state, and at the same time they demonstrate the important role of the military in the surveillance and exploitation of these resources.21 This is also our hypothesis for the Samut North mine.

  • 22 Estimates based on poor stratigraphic information observed in the buildings excavated on the surfac (...)
  • 23 On these sites and their exploration, cf. Redon and Faucher 2015a, pp. 29-31; Redon and Faucher 201 (...)
  • 24 On these sites, cf. Klemm and Klemm 2013, s.v.

12Our estimates suggest that the vein was exploited for less than a decade.22 It is also possible that the site was not occupied continuously during this short period of time, but that occupation was seasonal, as it was, for example, at the sites in the district of Samut where gold was exploited in the New Kingdom and medieval times.23 The reasons for the abandonment of the mine are difficult to establish, but several hypotheses can be put forward. It is possible, first of all, that the expedition, which had been sent by Ptolemy to Samut North to collect gold and supply the funds of the court, had reached its goal. It is also possible that the vein was difficult to exploit further and / or that other more profitable seams had been put into operation. These assumptions are not exclusive, but it is, in any case, too early to favour one over the other. Only the excavations of other large Ptolemaic mines in the region (Dunqash, Atud, Sibrit, Hamash, Daghbag / Kompasi)24 and fixing the chronology of their operations will allow us to draw more certain conclusions about the whole gold exploitation management and history in the Eastern Desert during the Ptolemaic period.

  • 25 This led historians to conclude that Ptolemy I had no interest in the region: Desanges 1978, pp. 24 (...)
  • 26 Apud Photius 250, 1.
  • 27 Pliny VI, 169, XXXVII, 24, 108, Diodorus III, 39, 5-9, Photius 250, 82, Strabo XVI, 4, 6. This date (...)
  • 28 Arrian Indikè XLIII, 4-5.

13It is important, in any case, to stress the role of the first king of the Ptolemaic dynasty in the exploitation of gold in the Eastern Desert, hitherto ignored in the sources25 which rather emphasize the role of his son in the development of the region (see below). However, Agatharchides, at the beginning of his description of the region, put forward the interests of the first Ptolemy, son of Lagos, in the region, not for the exploitation of gold, but for the elephants and their hunting in Africa.26 It was also perhaps under his reign (or at the very beginning of his son's reign, Ptolemy II Philadephus) that Philo explored the African coasts of the Red Sea.27 Finally, troops of Ptolemy I may have also crossed the desert and the Red and Arabian Sea to rescue Seleucus in Babylon in 311 BC.28

Bi'r Samut and the development of the desert roads under Ptolemy II and III

14The exploitation of the gold quartz ore in the Samut district did not stop when the Samut North site was abandoned. In Bi'r Samut, under the fort, excavated between 2014 and 2016, a first occupation, visibly linked to gold processing work, has been detected. It probably dates back to the early third century BC, according to the study of the pottery carried out by J. Gates-Foster.29 This first occupation is illustrated in particular by a thick layer of quartz flour (very white, heavy sand) which was used to level the area before the construction of the fort, and by nearly 600 millstones (with evidence of wear demonstrating that they were used to crush quartz) reused within the walls of the fort for its construction. A number of architectural elements were also discovered, including iron reduction furnaces and a large room with lime-covered floors and walls. All these elements attest intense mining and metallurgical activity in the area at the beginning of the 3rd century BC.

  • 30 Belzoni 1821, pl. 33.5. See the plan drawn by Wilkinson and published in Sidebotham, Hense and Nouw (...)
  • 31 Heavy destruction occurred in 2014: gold diggers damaged the northeast gate of the fort, and severa (...)
  • 32 Excavations carried out under the supervision of J.-P. Brun, Th. Faucher and B. Redon. On the remai (...)
  • 33 The fort of El-Kanais is 75x51 m max. The fort known as Apollonôs hydreuma is bigger, but it is not (...)

15After this phase of occupation and a first episode of abandonment, the fort of Bi'r Samut was built. It was well known by travelers from the early nineteenth century, including Belzoni and Wilkinson, who each made a plan (Fig. 5). Sidebotham and Wright established a more precise plan of the site in 1990, and in 2013 another rather sketchy plan was made using satellite photographs, published by D. Klemm and R. Klemm.30 Despite recent destruction31 the fort was well preserved and was completely excavated by us, except for six rooms32. It is the largest Ptolemaic fort in the Eastern Desert33 (71.50x58 m, excluding the towers, Fig. 6). Equipped with bastions at the corners, it is built of blocks of granite bound with earth mortar. In some places, the curtain wall was still preserved to a height of nearly 2.50 m, with an average thickness of 1.40 to 1.50 m. The main access (which probably opened onto the caravan track) was in the northeast corner, via a door with a lock; a postern was made immediately opposite.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

Map of Bi'r Samut by G. Belzoni (from Travels in Egypt and Nubia, Atlas, Paris, 1821, pl. 33.5).

© G. Belzoni

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

General view of the fort of Bi'r Samut from the north.

© MAFDO, G. Pollin, 2015

  • 34 Hume reports that it had water at his time (Hume 1907, p. 14); in 1912, in his book on the geology (...)

16No trace of the well that gave its name to the fort could be found during our work (it was undoubtedly swept away during the work that tried to clear the centre of the court of the fort of its alluvium) but it is reported until the early twentieth century34 and is probably even visible on the Corona satellite photographs taken in 1969 (a black, circular mark can be seen in northern centre of the courtyard). It certainly supplied the vast tank unearthed near the secondary gate, which could hold nearly 110 m3 (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Tank 15 viewed from the northwest.

© MAFDO, Th. Faucher, 2016

  • 35 Brun, Faucher, Redon 2017.

17Constructions inside the fort are arranged in a classical way along the curtain wall, in one, two or three rows of rooms. Results of excavations make it possible to determine the function of some spaces, if not all. Thus, the south-western bastion housed rooms equipped with silos, the north-western bastion contained baths35 while several bakeries and kitchens have been excavated in the northern wing. It is more difficult to determine the functions of other rooms, which were completely empty when we started our excavations, especially the largest of them, which is nearly 50 m long and 10 m wide along the western curtain wall. It probably was not covered and may have been used as stables for beasts of burden (donkeys, camels) and / or as a space for encampment for passing caravans.

  • 36 Study conducted by Th. Faucher.
  • 37 Information provided by H. Cuvigny and M.-P. Chaufray, in charge of the study and publication of th (...)
  • 38 See the J. Gates-Foster's contribution at this colloquium [http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/jea (...)

18The date of construction of the fort is not yet certain. Preliminary study of the material suggests that it might have occurred around or a little before the middle of the third century BC. We have several references to regnal years on ostraka, including an interesting hypothetical mention of the 30th year of a reign on a demotic ostracon deciphered by M.-P. Chaufray (O.Sam. inv. 572), which could refer to that of Ptolemy II and more specifically the year 256/255 BC. However, the reading of this date is not completely certain (one could also read “8th” or “20th” year). At most, it can be said that the majority of the coins discovered at Bi'r Samut belong to Series 3 and 4, dated 261-240 and 240-220 BC36 that the regnal dates on the ostraka tally with the reign of Ptolemy III and the beginning of the reign of Ptolemy IV37 and that the pottery show an intense activity in Bi'r Samut during the reign of Ptolemy III.38

  • 39 On the date of the beginning of the revolt, see Veïsse 2004, pp. 11-26 (early date); Depauw 2006, p (...)

19The fort was occupied for several decades and revisions were noted in its plan. It had to be regularly cleaned (which led to the formation of two dumps, against the northern and western curtain walls of the fort) so that we have little information on the different occupation phases inside the fort. On the contrary, it is possible to date fairly accurately the abandonment of the fort of Bi'r Samut. Indeed, almost all rooms have well-preserved abandonment levels, composed of objects left in place and littering the floor (Fig. 8), which show that the fort was evacuated suddenly, perhaps violently, but certainly definitively at the beginning of the Great Revolt of Thebes (which broke out between 208/207 and 206/205 BC and lasted twenty years).39 Thereafter, the fort was no longer occupied, except sporadically, during the Roman Empire.

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

Abandonment floor of room 45, with 33 loom weights on the floor.

© MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016

  • 40 Survey and excavations were conducted by Alexandre Rabot, Mariola Hepa, Isabelle Goncalves, Julie M (...)

20The exploitation of gold does not appear in the 1,300 or so ostraka discovered in Bi'r Samut, except on two occasions. The most explicit ostrakon (O.Sam. inv. 1202) mentions a mine (metalla) administrator. The continuation of mining exploration in the region is also demonstrated at the miner’s settlement (probably a small way station) located 10 km east of Bi'r Samut, at Abu Garaish, investigated by the French mission in 2016. The Abu Garaish settlement operated at the same period as the fort at Bi'r Samut (Fig. 9).40 But even if this mining activity continued in its vicinity, it is clear that the Bi'r Samut fort was not primarily responsible for its management, command or logistics.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

View of Abu Garaish building 1.

© MAFDO, A. Rabot, 2016

  • 41 Cuvigny forthcoming a.
  • 42 Cuvigny forthcoming b; Chaufray, forthcoming.

21Similarly, the important role Bi'r Samut played in defending the Eastern Desert is not obvious in the ostraka (the soldiers are quite discreet in the documentation and the region was not in danger). In fact, most of the documentation relates to food distributions in and around Bi'r Samut41 and provisioning of caravans, including camels42 crossing the desert. Like the Roman road praesidia leading to Berenike and Myos Hormos, the fort at Bi’r Samut was primarily a stopover on the road leading to the Red Sea.

  • 43 Cuvigny forthcoming a.
  • 44 The well of Apollo, never excavated, is mentioned from the middle of the first century by Pliny, HN(...)

22The information in the ostraka provides some clues to the organization of the surveillance and traffic (of messages, but also of officials and caravans) in the Eastern Desert. This organisation can be seen through a network of stopping points in the region, which are called way stations (stathmoi) and / or wells (hydreumata). Many of them are mentioned in the Bi'r Samut ostraka, which were spread along the road leading to Edfu and Berenike.43 Their identification, somewhat difficult, is still ongoing, but many of them are already known such as the hydreuma at the foot of the Paneion at el-Kanaïs (referred to as ὕδρ⟨ε⟩υμα τὸ ἐπὶ τοῦ Πανείου in I.Paneion 12) or the hydreuma of Apollo, near Berenike, if the place name Apolloniou read by H. Cuvigny on an ostrakon found Bi'r Samut refers to this place.44

  • 45 A dedication to Queen Arsinoë, attributable to BC 270, is reported by J.G. Wilkinson (Wilkinson 183 (...)
  • 46 Bagnall et al., 1996. The site has an 8x10 m building and two independent tanks of medium size (ca (...)
  • 47 The identification of Marsa Nakari with Nechesia was suggested by S.E. Sidebotham (Sidebotham 1997b (...)

23The construction of the fort near the Paneion (Fig. 10) can be attributed to the reign of Ptolemy II,45 which is also the origin of the foundation of the port of Berenike at the maritime end of the Edfu-Berenike track, and that of the small unfortified way station of Bi’r ‘Alayyân46 located on the road from Edfu to Marsa Nakari (Nechesia?).47 This latter site produced an inscription alluding to its construction during the 28th year of Ptolemy II (258/257 BC), ie two years before the hypothetical year 30 which may have appeared on a demotic ostrakon at Bi'r Samut (see above).

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

Satellite view of some forts or fortified wells of the Ptolemaic road between Edfu-Berenike, presented at the same scale.

© MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016, Bing Maps

  • 48 Map produced in collaboration with Alexandre Rabot and Thomas Faucher from the list of Sidebotham 2 (...)

24On the ground, several Ptolemaic way stations were identified during surveys of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the map made for this article48 indicates them (Fig. 1). Although it is still provisional (particularly because of the lack of reliable chronological information on these sites without excavation), a quick glance is enough to see that the main Ptolemaic amenities in the Eastern Desert punctuated the road that leads from Edfu to Berenike and, to a lesser extent, that connecting Edfu to Marsa Nakari.

  • 49 For a useful review, although old, sources on the Edfu-Berenike road and visits and other archaeolo (...)
  • 50 Assessment by J.-P. Brun and J. Gates-Foster during a visit in January 2016.
  • 51 The shape of the letters (Σ with a broken bar, square Ε and Ξ, letters without apices, alpha with h (...)
  • 52 Masson 1990, p. 613; Clarysse, Thompson 2006, p. 320.
  • 53 The excavations were carried out by the French archaeological mission in the Eastern Desert in Janu (...)
  • 54 See the map of Abu Midrik in Sidebotham and Zitterkopf 1995, Fig. 15.
  • 55 See the distribution maps in J. Gates-Foster's contribution. See note 44 about the hydreuma of Apol (...)

25On Edfu-Berenike route49 the stopping points are very frequent and there are way stations (forts or wells, often fortified: Fig. 10) every 20 to 30 km, as on the roads from Berenike to Myos Hormos in Roman times. The forts near the Paneion at el-Kanaïs and Bi'r Samut and the small stopping point at Abu Garaish were active from the mid third century BC, which is probably the case with three other way stations located on this road. Indeed the surface pottery at the fortified well of Abu Midrik is contemporary to the finds from Bi'r Samut and Abu Garaish.50 Moreover, an inscription from the first half of the Ptolemaic period51 was spotted about 50 metres south of the fort: it is engraved on a sandstone block (perhaps a tombstone?), and bears the name of Aristis son of Philoxenos, a typical anthroponym of Cyrenaica.52 Similarly, the excavations of the fort of Abbad showed that it was built around the mid-3rd century BC and abandoned by the end of the same century.53 Finally, the Abu Rahal way station is very similar in its plan to that of Abu Midrik (these small way stations include two very large circular cisterns within their walls).54 One can certainly conclude that the development of the western part of the Berenike-Edfu road can be dated to the second and third quarters of the third century BC, which is probably also the case for the eastern part of the road which we have not investigated yet, but the surface pottery dates to the early Ptolemaic period.55

  • 56 This is also confirmed by the small quantity of pottery from the surface of other road stops: Sideb (...)
  • 57 The concentration of gold mines apparently used in the Ptolemaic period between the Barramiya regio (...)
  • 58 Bagnall et al.1996, p. 320.
  • 59 Seeger 2001, pp. 77-88.

26The inscription at the Bi’r ‘Alayyân way station suggests a similar date in the reign of Ptolemy II, for the construction of facilities along the Edfu to Marsa Nakari road56 as well as some sort of state intervention for this development. However, this secondary route did not see the same level of activity as the main Edfu-Berenike route: the Ptolemaic sites identified along this route are rarely forts or fortified wells, but simply stopping points fitted with water supplies, without substantial facilities. Exploitation of the gold mines located on either side of the track (Barramiya, Atud and Sokkari)57 was likely the main reason for their construction,58 although it would be necessary to have more information on the remains located along this road (especially on its end point, which has for the moment yielded only vestiges dated from the beginning of the Roman era)59 to be certain.

  • 60 See the article by J.-P. Brun in this volume.
  • 61 Already noted by Sidebotham 2011, p. 29.
  • 62 Moreover, most of the Ptolemaic inscriptions refer rather to the exploitation of gold in the region (...)
  • 63 Fournet 1995.
  • 64 Klemm and Klemm 2013, pp. 140-141.
  • 65 Id., pp. 160-161.
  • 66 Id., pp. 161-168.
  • 67 See note 2.

27The roads leading from Coptos to Myos Hormos and Berenike –the busiest roads in Roman times60 are even less well equipped than the Edfu-Marsa Nakari road and of course of the main road of the period, Edfu-Berenike.61 The network is loose and the few sites for which a Ptolemaic occupation has been detected on these two hypothetical routes coming from Coptos are not stathmoi or hydreumata. These are somewhat undeveloped stopping points where passing travellers left graffiti such as at Al-Buwayb62 or Abu Ku',63 while Umm Fawâkhir / Persou,64, Sigdit-Wâdi Miyah65 and Daghbag / Kompasi66 are mining sites rather than way stations on a caravan route. There have been many surveys in the northern part of the Eastern Desert, as well as excavations on the Roman forts67 and Ptolemaic remains could hardly have escaped the attention of researchers. Their absence in the area is definitely not a result of a bias in our information.

  • 68 We should not conclude that Coptos had no role in the management of the Eastern Desert at the begin (...)
  • 69 The Coptos-Berenike axis probably did not exist in the Ptolemaic period: De Romanis 1996, pp. 731-7 (...)
  • 70 Hypothesis already mentioned by De Romanis 1996, pp. 132-136. If this date is proven, perhaps the d (...)
  • 71 If the road and its organization apparently centralized by the Ptolemaic administration was abandon (...)

28In summary, it seems pretty clear that the systematic development –with forts, stables for the beasts of burden, cisterns and wells, all evenly distributed– of the road from Edfu to Berenike was favoured under the rule of first three Ptolemies, at the expense of roads starting from Coptos.68 Of the two sides of isthmus mentioned by Strabo (XVII, 1, 45) when he describes the network of caravan routes of the Eastern Desert, the Edfu-Berenike axis is the oldest and most dynamic. In his time, at the beginning of the Roman era, the Coptos-Myos Hormos route took over69 (ἀλλὰ νῦν Κοπτὸς καὶ Μυὸς ὅρμος εὐδοκιμεῖ, “nowadays, it is Coptos and Myos Hormos which are renowned”) but Strabo does not locate this northern bias over time. The final abandonment of Bi'r Samut at the beginning of the revolt of Thebes and the absence of a Ptolemaic reoccupation in the district of Samut following the takeover of the area by the Ptolemies might suggest a shift to the Coptos-Berenike route at the turn of third/second centuries BC.70 The rulers then intentionally redirected the traffic from the Red Sea caravans towards Coptos, north of restless Thebes, near Ptolemais and the Ptolemaic representative in Upper Egypt, to avoid being cut back from this region, since it had become clear to the Ptolemaic rulers that the Edfu-Berenike road was too insecure in the event of the secession of Upper Egypt.71

  • 72 This development in the equipping of the routes of the Eastern Desert could be explained by the aba (...)

29The Coptos-Myos Hormos track does not, however, suffer the same type of occupation as the Edfu-Berenike axis, since no Ptolemaic fort has been identified there72 (Fig. 1). In this way, Strabo's testimony (XVII, 1, 45) asserting that there were no way stations on the Coptos-Myos Hormos road before his time, and that merchants travelled at night carrying their water with them, could be confirmed: it was, in fact, only in the Flavian period that well-equipped and fortified way stations, identical to the stathmoi and hydreumata of the Edfu-Berenike route of the third century BC, were built.

Conclusion

30These preliminary remarks on the Ptolemaic investment in the region as it emerged through the excavations of Samut North and Bi'r Samut confirm what written sources and survey data indicate about the history of the occupation of the region in the Ptolemaic era. But they also allow us to refine the micro-history of the southern part of the Eastern Desert, give it substance, and bring out facts, until now, unknown.

31The excavation of Samut North has brought to light the first development in the area under Ptolemy I, whose major role in the exploration and exploitation of resources of the Eastern Desert had escaped historians before and been neglected in favour of that of his son Ptolemy II. As for excavation of Bi'r Samut, they have shown the development of the road linking Edfu to Berenike, which was clearly quite busy during the reign of Ptolemy III, and equipped, perhaps as early as the reign of Ptolemy II, with stopping points regularly spaced to facilitate travel between the Nile Valley and the Red sea. The change of traffic between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea towards the north of the region (on the Coptos-Myos Hormos axis) might have been the result of the great revolt of Thebes.

32Despite their interest, these comments cannot be confirmed until we have explored other forts and other Ptolemaic mines in the region; this is the programme that we have set for the coming years, hoping that the remains will survive the current wave of vandalism.

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Notes

1 The most famous quarrying expeditions are those of Mentuhotep III and IV at the turn of the third and second millennia BC in the Wâdi al-Hammâmât (Murray 1955, p. 175; Breasted 2001, pp. 208-213) and we should also cite the famous map of the Wâdi al-Hammâmât drawn at the time of Ramesses IV (Harrell and Brown 1992). A recent work gives a relatively complete panorama of the Pharaonic inscriptions of the Eastern Desert: Rothe, Miller, Rapp 2008.

2 The main archaeological operations (for surveys, see infra notes 11 and 12) in the desert were conducted from 1994 to 2013 by the French Archaeological Mission of the Eastern Desert, created by Hélène Cuvigny, which, in line with excavations of Mons Claudianus, explored the area between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea with a team of papyrologists and archaeologists. Its aim was to study two aspects of the Roman presence in the region linked to the exploitation of quarries by the central government on the one hand and to the development and supervision of the two large caravan trails leading to the ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike on the other. See also the articles by J.P Brun, A. Bülow-Jacobsen, H. Cuvigny, M. Leguilloux and M. Reddé in this volume.

3 The bibliography is extensive and it is enough to refer to the most important and/or recent works: Desanges 1978, pp. 252-279; Sidebotham 2011, chap. 4; Gates-Foster 2012, pp. 199-201.

4 On the Ptolemaic levels which are beginning to be brought to light at Berenike, cf. the article of S.E. Sidebotham in this volume.

5 Callixenus of Rhodes, apud Athenaeus V, 197c-203c. On this great feast, cf. Rice 1983 and Thompson 2000, pp. 365-388.

6 Desanges 1978, pp. 252-279; Thiers 2001; Sidebotham 2011, pp. 39-53; cf. OGIS 54, Strabo XVI, 4, 5, Pliny VI, 167.

7 They are listed in Gates-Foster 2012.

8 Apud Diodorus, III, 12-14 and Photius, 250, 23-29.

9 The Greek inscriptions were recorded by Bernand 1972.

10 See L. Blue (Myos Hormos) and S.E. Sidebotham (Berenike) in this volume.

11 See the list of desert travellers in Sidebotham, Hense and Nouwens 2008, pp.  33-35.

12 Klemm and Klemm 2013; Sidebotham, Gates-Foster and Rivard, forthcoming. We should also cite the work of Murray and Meredith, who have documented many Roman but also Ptolemaic remains in the Eastern Desert (Murray 1925; Meredith 1952 and 1953).

13 I will not return to the current context in the Eastern Desert and refer, instead, to the introduction of this volume.

14 Participants in the 2013 to 2016 campaigns: Bérangère Redon (Director of the mission, archaeologist, CNRS-HiSoMA, Lyon); Thomas Faucher (Deputy Director, Director of the Ifao's “Egyptian Gold” programme, archaeologist, numismatist, CNRS-IRAMAT-CEB, Orléans); Adrien Arles (mining archaeologist, Arkémine Sarl); Bailey Benson (student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA); Charlène Bouchaud (archaeobotanist, CNRS-Museum of Natural History, Paris); Jean-Pierre Brun (archaeologist, ceramologist, Collège de France); Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (papyrologist, photographer); Marie-Pierre Chaufray (papyrologist, CNRS-Ausonius, Bordeaux); Hélène Cuvigny (papyrologist, CNRS-IRHT, Paris); Jennifer Gates-Foster (ceramologist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA); Joseph Gauthier (mining archaeologist, post-doctoral student of Bochum); Isabelle Goncalves (student in Egyptology at the Université Lumière Lyon 2); Mariola Hepa (archaeologist, doctoral student at the University of Cologne, Germany); Martine Leguilloux (archaeozoologist, Var Archaeological Centre); Julie Marchand (ceramologist, PhD student at the University of Poitiers); Olivier Onézime (topographer, IFAO); Gaël Pollin (photographer, IFAO); Alexandre Rabot (specialist in GIS, HiSoMA, University of Lyon 2); Florian Téreygeol (mining archaeologist, CNRS, IRAMAT-CEA); Khaled Zaza (draftsman, IFAO). To ensure its annual campaigns, the mission receives its main support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development and the French Institute of Eastern Archaeology. In 2015 and 2016, we obtained sponsorship from the Fondation du Collège de France, to whom we are indebted.

15 The results of this work are presented in Brun et al. 2013a.

16 The excavations at Samut North were led by J.-P. Brun, Th. Faucher and B. Redon and the exploration of the vein was carried out by Fl. Tereygeol, A. Arles and J. Gauthier. For more details, refer to Th. Faucher article in this volume, and Brun et al. 2013a; Brun et al. 2013b; Redon and Faucher 2014; Redon and Faucher 2015a, pp. 27-29; Redon and Faucher 2015b; Redon and Faucher 2016.

17 Redon 2016.

18 B. Redon is studying the Greek ostraka from Samut North and M.-P. Chaufray the demotic ostraka. In this article, the already or soon published ostraca have a publication number (O.Sam. 1 to n) and, when already available, a Trismegistos (TM) number; the so far unpublished ostraca have a field inventory number (O.Sam. inv. 1 to n).

19 I shall not dwell on the Ptolemaic banks, which are known to be private or public; in the context of a mine, I would tend to see it as a public bank. R. Bogaert (Bogaert 1998, p. 165) placed the earliest mention of a trapezites in Egypt around 270 BC (P.Hib. I, 110 recto). The ostrakon of Samut North, dated to the last quarter of the fourth century BC is now the oldest document to mention a banker in Ptolemaic Egypt.

20 P.Petrie II, 9 (3) = III, 43 (3) mentions copper mines in the Fayoum in 240 BC (workers from these mines, probably located near Philoteris, are asking to be transferred to Alabanthis, another mine in Middle Egypt). An inscription mentions the harvest of gems in the Eastern Desert (I.Pan du désert  86, l. 7-8, 130 BC) and, of course, we can also use the text of Agatharchides, quoted by Diodorus and Photius, concerning the gold mines of the Eastern Desert (see note 8).

21 One could also think that the soldiers may have worked directly in the mines, but this is difficult to prove: Préaux1939, p. 259.

22 Estimates based on poor stratigraphic information observed in the buildings excavated on the surface and on the limited volume of quartz extracted from the mine.

23 On these sites and their exploration, cf. Redon and Faucher 2015a, pp. 29-31; Redon and Faucher 2016a, pp. 15-17, and Marchand et al., forthcoming. See also the reports published by A. Rabot and I. Goncalves on the mission blog: https://desorient.hypotheses.org/421 and https://desorient.hypotheses.org/495.

24 On these sites, cf. Klemm and Klemm 2013, s.v.

25 This led historians to conclude that Ptolemy I had no interest in the region: Desanges 1978, pp. 247-248.

26 Apud Photius 250, 1.

27 Pliny VI, 169, XXXVII, 24, 108, Diodorus III, 39, 5-9, Photius 250, 82, Strabo XVI, 4, 6. This date is rejected by Desanges 1978, pp. 248-249 who prefers to place the expedition in the reign of Ptolemy II, due to the lack of interest, according to him, of Ptolemy I in the desert.

28 Arrian Indikè XLIII, 4-5.

29 See the Gates-Foster's contribution at this colloquium [http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/jean-pierre-brun/symposium-2016-03-31-10h45.htm].

30 Belzoni 1821, pl. 33.5. See the plan drawn by Wilkinson and published in Sidebotham, Hense and Nouwens 2008, p. 333, fig. 14.3. Klemm and Klemm 2013, pp. 238-248; Sidebotham, Gates-Foster and Rivard, forthcoming.

31 Heavy destruction occurred in 2014: gold diggers damaged the northeast gate of the fort, and several mechanical shovels were used in the neighbouring dump, and especially at the northwest corner of the fort, destroying one of the towers. While excavating the fort of Abbad, a visit paid to the fort of Bi’r Samut in January 2017 was the occasion for us to assess the recent and dreadful damages made on the curtain wall and north tower of the fort.

32 Excavations carried out under the supervision of J.-P. Brun, Th. Faucher and B. Redon. On the remains of Bi'r Samut, cf. Redon, Faucher 2014, pp. 13-14; Redon, Faucher 2015a, pp. 25-27; Redon, Faucher 2016a, pp. 10-14.

33 The fort of El-Kanais is 75x51 m max. The fort known as Apollonôs hydreuma is bigger, but it is not certain that the visible remains are Ptolemaic. See infra note 44.

34 Hume reports that it had water at his time (Hume 1907, p. 14); in 1912, in his book on the geology of the Eastern Desert, John Ball said that it was the centre of the fort (Ball 1912, p. 30). G.W. Murray (1925, p. 145) refers to a well depth of 20 m at the time.

35 Brun, Faucher, Redon 2017.

36 Study conducted by Th. Faucher.

37 Information provided by H. Cuvigny and M.-P. Chaufray, in charge of the study and publication of the Greek and Demotic ostraca of Bi’r Samut.

38 See the J. Gates-Foster's contribution at this colloquium [http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/jean-pierre-brun/symposium-2016-03-31-10h45.htm]. This confirms the writings of Agatharchides and Diodorus, evoking numerous expeditions launched by the king to recognize the coasts of Arabia and bring Ethiopian elephants: Desanges 1978, pp. 292-298.

39 On the date of the beginning of the revolt, see Veïsse 2004, pp. 11-26 (early date); Depauw 2006, p. 106 (late date).

40 Survey and excavations were conducted by Alexandre Rabot, Mariola Hepa, Isabelle Goncalves, Julie Marchand and Bérangère Redon. Cf. Redon and Faucher 2016a, pp. 15-16. This site has already been reported by Sidebotham 1997(a), p. 386. It comprises, besides a tank (19 m3) near the wâdi where the ancient road passed once, miners huts and several larger buildings, including a wide building with a dormitory of the same type as those unearthed in Samut North (see above). It is a site dedicated to the exploitation of gold, but its location on the Edfu-Berenike road and the presence of the tank also give it the role, de facto, of a small stop on the road.

41 Cuvigny forthcoming a.

42 Cuvigny forthcoming b; Chaufray, forthcoming.

43 Cuvigny forthcoming a.

44 The well of Apollo, never excavated, is mentioned from the middle of the first century by Pliny, HN VI, 26, 102, then the Antonine Itinerary 173, 1, the Peutinger Table 8C4 and by the Anonymous of Ravenna, 2, 7. The surface sherds date from the Roman period (first to third century, with a few sherds of the fifth to sixth century, Brun 2014, p. 500) but a Ptolemaic foundation is likely.

45 A dedication to Queen Arsinoë, attributable to BC 270, is reported by J.G. Wilkinson (Wilkinson 1835, p. 421). The oldest Greek inscription at the Paneion dates to the same decade (I.Paneion 9) and a list of soldiers was engraved in 254 BC (I.Paneion 10). Cf. Meredith 1953, p. 99, footnote 4.

46 Bagnall et al., 1996. The site has an 8x10 m building and two independent tanks of medium size (ca 2.8 m in diameter and 1.7x3.8 m). The new transcription of the Arabic name of the site is due to Hélène Cuvigny. See her article in this volume.

47 The identification of Marsa Nakari with Nechesia was suggested by S.E. Sidebotham (Sidebotham 1997b, p. 505) and supported by Bagnall et al. 1996, but this remains a hypothesis, in the absence of written or archaeological confirmation.

48 Map produced in collaboration with Alexandre Rabot and Thomas Faucher from the list of Sidebotham 2011, pp. 129-135 (Table 8.1). It remains at this stage very preliminary and there is much to be done on the dating of the sites (which is still too often based on the analysis of surface pottery), but also on the route of the roads. This project will be carried out in the following years, in the frame of the ERC project “Desert Networks”.

49 For a useful review, although old, sources on the Edfu-Berenike road and visits and other archaeological work on the sites along it, see Meredith 1953, p. 98, note 3. Also Sidebotham 2011. pp. 28-31 for the results of the survey of the University of Delaware on the Ptolemaic routes.

50 Assessment by J.-P. Brun and J. Gates-Foster during a visit in January 2016.

51 The shape of the letters (Σ with a broken bar, square Ε and Ξ, letters without apices, alpha with horizontal bar) indicates that the stele was engraved in the third century BC, even the next century.

52 Masson 1990, p. 613; Clarysse, Thompson 2006, p. 320.

53 The excavations were carried out by the French archaeological mission in the Eastern Desert in January 2017 and 2018 (unpublished).

54 See the map of Abu Midrik in Sidebotham and Zitterkopf 1995, Fig. 15.

55 See the distribution maps in J. Gates-Foster's contribution. See note 44 about the hydreuma of Apollo.

56 This is also confirmed by the small quantity of pottery from the surface of other road stops: Sidebotham 1997a, p. 390.

57 The concentration of gold mines apparently used in the Ptolemaic period between the Barramiya region and Marsa Alam is striking in Klemm and Klemm 2013, p. 613, Fig. 7.6. See also Figure 1.

58 Bagnall et al.1996, p. 320.

59 Seeger 2001, pp. 77-88.

60 See the article by J.-P. Brun in this volume.

61 Already noted by Sidebotham 2011, p. 29.

62 Moreover, most of the Ptolemaic inscriptions refer rather to the exploitation of gold in the region (such as  I.Ko.Ko 158 which evokes “Pan Gold Giver and of the good journey”: Cuvigny and Bülow-Jacobsen 2000, p. 244).

63 Fournet 1995.

64 Klemm and Klemm 2013, pp. 140-141.

65 Id., pp. 160-161.

66 Id., pp. 161-168.

67 See note 2.

68 We should not conclude that Coptos had no role in the management of the Eastern Desert at the beginning of the Ptolemaic period. The city retained the important role it held during the Pharaonic era (Vercoutter 1959, pp. 120-153) and is the subject of the attention of the first rulers of Alexandria (see the article by L. Pantalacci in this volume). A large coin hoard (more than 438 silver tetradrachms) was buried there around 295 BC (IGCH 1670), which demonstrates the economic and / or strategic value of Coptos from the reign of Ptolemy I, and its importance which is also evidenced by the inscription relating to the passage of the Dioiketes Apollonios in the city around 246 BC (I.Portes 47). Later, an inscription dated from the reign of Ptolemy VIII mentions the “Coptos Mountains”, through which goods were imported from the Red Sea: I.Pan du desert 86 l. 10-11 (130 BC). The inscription could have been found at Coptos and indicates that the roads culminated at that time at Coptos.

69 The Coptos-Berenike axis probably did not exist in the Ptolemaic period: De Romanis 1996, pp. 731-745; Cuvigny and Bülow-Jacobsen et al. 1999, pp. 134-135 and 165 for the only attestation of the presence of a merchant on this axis in the Ptolemaic period.

70 Hypothesis already mentioned by De Romanis 1996, pp. 132-136. If this date is proven, perhaps the date of the foundation of Myos Hormos –still uncertain– should be fixed at that time. The city is mentioned for the first time by Agatharchides in the late second century BC and by Artemidorus in the following century, quoted by Strabo (XVI, 4, 5). The excavation of the Qusayr el-Qadim site has not yielded Ptolemaic levels (see the article by L. Blue in this volume). However, sporadic findings suggest that the Ptolemaic Myos Hormos is under the modern city of Qusayr (ditto).

71 If the road and its organization apparently centralized by the Ptolemaic administration was abandoned, it should be pointed out that the southern part of the Eastern Desert was not deserted after the revolt of Upper Egypt. Thus, the site of El-Kanaïs was still in use in the second part of the Hellenistic period (but inscriptions are significantly fewer than in the third century BC. A number of entries dated by A. Bernand of the “late Ptolemaic period” are based on palaeographic criteria that would have to be reviewed). Several other way stations listed on our map may also have experienced some traffic (see J. Gates-Foster's contribution), but only their archaeological exploration will make it possible to confirm this. The excavations of the fort of Abbad in January 2017 and 2018 proved that it has been systematically reoccupied after its abandonment at the end of the 3rd century BC, during the second half of the Ptolemaic period, at the beginning of the Roman era and during the Late Byzantine period (unpublished).

72 This development in the equipping of the routes of the Eastern Desert could be explained by the abandonment of hunting expeditions for elephants at the end of the third century BC, by the withdrawal (or part) of the Ptolemaic troops from the desert or by a change in the nature and organization of Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade. However, our sources are too evasive –and the exploration of the Samut district did not provide any really useful information on this– so that we can study this phenomenon more precisely at this stage of our research.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Human settlements and axes of circulation in the Eastern Desert during the Ptolemaic period.
Crédits © MAFDO, Th. Faucher, A. Rabot, B. Redon, 2016
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 232k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Remains of the Samut district excavated between 2014 and 2016.
Crédits © MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016, Bing Map base map
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Fig. 3
Légende General view of Building 1 of Samut North, from the west.
Crédits © MAFDO, B. Redon, 2014
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 308k
Titre Fig. 4
Légende Interior of building 1 from the north-west.
Crédits © MAFDO, G. Pollin, 2015
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 848k
Titre Fig. 5
Légende Map of Bi'r Samut by G. Belzoni (from Travels in Egypt and Nubia, Atlas, Paris, 1821, pl. 33.5).
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
Titre Fig. 6
Légende General view of the fort of Bi'r Samut from the north.
Crédits © MAFDO, G. Pollin, 2015
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 368k
Titre Fig. 7
Légende Tank 15 viewed from the northwest.
Crédits © MAFDO, Th. Faucher, 2016
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 288k
Titre Fig. 8
Légende Abandonment floor of room 45, with 33 loom weights on the floor.
Crédits © MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 344k
Titre Fig. 9
Légende View of Abu Garaish building 1.
Crédits © MAFDO, A. Rabot, 2016
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Titre Fig. 10
Légende Satellite view of some forts or fortified wells of the Ptolemaic road between Edfu-Berenike, presented at the same scale.
Crédits © MAFDO, B. Redon, 2016, Bing Maps
URL http://books.openedition.org/cdf/docannexe/image/5249/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 263k

© Collège de France, 2018

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540