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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.


Jean-Pierre Brun, Thomas Faucher, Bérangère Redon et Steven Sidebotham

Texte intégral

1The Eastern Desert of Egypt extends over a vast area of mountains and sandy plains between the Nile and the Red Sea. Its natural riches –gold, gems and high quality stones (such as granite from Mons Claudianus, Tiberianè or Ophiatès, porphyry from Porphyritès, basanites [greywacke] from the Wâdi al-Hammâmât, etc.)– have, despite the difficulties due to harsh climatic conditions, been exploited since the Predynastic period. The Pharaohs, the Ptolemies and the Roman emperors often sent expeditions to extract these minerals and stones.

2The desert was also a passageway for all sorts of traffic coming from countries bordering the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Expeditions and commercial activities, which started from time of the Old Kingdom, greatly expanded during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Trade focused on spices initially, fragrant resins and gems, then in the Roman period, on a wide range of exotic products including pearls, precious stones, fabrics, etc.

3The archaeological sites of this region were practically inaccessible for logistical reasons until recently and they were, until now, exceptionally well preserved. Between the late 1970’s and 2012, American, English, Italian and French teams were able to explore or search hundreds of sites, significantly improving our understanding of gold mining under the Ptolemies and the Byzantine emperors, granite and porphyry quarries opened by the Roman emperors, and trade with Arabia and India through the ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike.

  • 1 See Brun J.-P. 2018. Dans le désert Oriental d’Égypte : d’un état de préservation exceptionnel à l (...)

4This phase of archaeological research ends in chaos because most of the archaeological sites are, since 2012, in danger of mass destruction by gold prospectors. Equipped with excavators, bulldozers and metal detectors, they systematically destroy ancient sites in the illusory hope of discovering treasures.1

5In order to present the state of our knowledge about the history of this region, a conference was organized at the Collège de France in Paris on March 30th and 31st 2016. Taking stock of the archaeological works of the last forty years, the goal was to bring together all field archaeologists to present a synthesis of their research on the occupation and exploitation of the desert from the Ptolemaic to the Byzantine periods.

6The oral presentations and screenings can be downloaded from the Collège de France website [​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2015-2016.htm]. But the researchers working in these fields also wanted to present bilingual French and English written versions of most of the lectures. The aim is to direct readers, especially archaeologists, historians, students and amateurs, towards more specialized studies, that provide indepth analysis of the topics through illustrations and bibliographies.

7The reader will find here, in full text, syntheses on ports, whose role was essential to desert trade (Koptos, Clysma, Myos Hormos and Berenike), on mines and quarries (Samût, Mons Claudianus, Porphyritès), on the networks of Ptolemaic and Roman military posts established along the caravan tracks to Berenike and Myos Hormos, on the plant environment, on the supply of military posts in the desert as well as on the clothes and dishes used by the occupants of the excavated sites.

8This journey through the desert begins at Koptos, the traditional gateway to the desert. Laure Pantalacci retraces history and archaeology from the Predynastic times to the end of antiquity. Then, following the caravan tracks from Apollonos Polis (Edfu) to Berenike, Bérangère Redon clarifies the chronology of the Ptolemaic road network. In addition to the strategic role played by these tracks for conveying war elephants hunted in East Africa, they served many mines: Thomas Faucher shows that mining, intermittent since Pharaonic times, enjoyed a renewal from the first Ptolemy, particularly at Samût Nord and Bi'r Samût where mining facilities were recently unearthed (galleries, crushing areas, forges, mills, mills, oven, sluices, basins).

9These tracks joined the ports from the Red Sea: the most important and best known are Myos Hormos, Nechesia and especially Berenike. This latter port, the best placed from a sailing point of view because of the monsoon, has been extensively surveyed and excavated by teams led by Steven Sidebotham who gives here a synthesis of the current state of our knowledge. This Hellenistic port city of the Roman Empire city is analysed, with its ramparts and temples, and dense commercial activity demonstrated through its shipyards, its official buildings and surrounding forts. In late antiquity it has multi-storey merchant houses, pagan temples and a Christian church. This presentation is complemented by an article specifically on the Great Temple of Berenike whose historiography is explored by Martin Hense along with its architecture and evolution. Berenike provided many inscriptions on stone and documents on ostraca which Rodney Ast summarises, focussing on cults and the commercial activities of the port city. Iwona Zych’s presentation of the funerary practices of the inhabitants of the city completes this picture of Berenike [​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2016-03-31-15h00.htm].

10The port of Myos Hormos, founded also in the Ptolemaic period, is the subject of a resumé of the excavations carried out by the late David Peacock and Lucie Blue. Wilfried Van Rengen, relying on papyrological documentation, offers an overview of the toponymy of the surroundings of Myos Hormos that raises several historical problems, in particular connected with the cult of Philotera, which was relatively widespread in this region.

11In a vast synthesis, Hélène Cuvigny studies the toponymy of the Eastern Desert during the Graeco-Roman period: all place names are discussed using inscriptions and documents on ostraca discovered in the desert sites. Quarries, mines, and way stations are precisely located and dated: desert life comes alive through its period names and its actors. Thus we know how Roman fortresses situated along the tracks were named; Jean-Pierre Brun presents the different phases of their implementation, of their completion and of their decommissioning between the time of Augustus and Late Antiquity.

12The enormous quantity of ostraca uncovered at Mons Claudianus (about 8000 ostraca) help us to understand how these quarries worked: Adam Bulow-Jacobsen teaches us the technical vocabulary, the functions of the different professions as well as methods for extracting blocks and forging tools. We can complete this panorama with Valerie Maxfield’s synthesis on the quarries of Mons Claudianus and Porphyritès, well known thanks to the explorations and excavations conducted in collaboration with David Peacock in the 1980s and 1990s [​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2016-03-30-14h30.htm].

13In a coastal area north of Safaga, a team from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” surveyed the Wadi Gasus area; the report written by Irene Bragantini, Giulio Lucarini, Andrea Manzo, Rosanna Pirelli presents the historic potential of this sector, which unfortunately was recently ravaged by looting and acts of vandalism.

14The archaeological remains give a counterpoint to the papyrological documentation, nuancing it from other points of view and filling documentary gaps. Michel Reddé details the architecture of the Roman forts, including their barracks, their sanctuaries, their baths and their facilities (wells, cisterns, praetoria, granaries, stables). John Peter and Felicity Wild present the textile fragments found at Berenike, showing the proportions of imported fabrics from India and from the Nile Valley from the Hellenistic period up to the Late Antique period. Lise Bender Jørgensen lists weaving techniques and observes changing modes of clothing during the Roman Empire relying on the huge corpora of fabrics discovered at Myos Hormos, Mons Claudianus, Porphyrites and 'Abu Sha'r. The picture can also be supplemented by the oral presentation of Dominique Cardon on the fragments of clothing discovered in the fort of Didymoi [​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2016-03-31-09h30.htm].

15The food supply of the soldiers and workers who used to live in these extreme conditions of aridity are known thanks to the studies of plants, including seeds, by Marijke Van der Veen, Charlene Bouchaud, René Cappers and Claire Newton, while the study of animal bones by Martine Leguilloux informs us about the consumption of meat, especially pigs, camels and donkeys during the Early Roman Empire, as opposed to sheep and goats during Late Antiquity. The supply of fuel for cooking and heating rooms and baths can be retraced by analysing samples of wood and other plants studied by Charlene Bouchaud, Claire Newton, Marijke Van der Veen and Caroline Vermeeren.

16The study on ceramics found on the sites is twofold: on the one hand, vessels constitute chronological markers, the most abundant discovered on surveys and excavations; on the other hand, they provide information on official supply and private trade, including imports from Arabia, India and Axoum. Jennifer Foster-Gates gave an oral presentation on Hellenistic ceramics [​site/​jean-pierre-brun/​symposium-2016-03-31-10h45.htm]. Roberta Tomber offers here a synthesis on the ceramics of the Roman period. Pascale Ballet publishes the objects uncovered during excavations carried out in 1987 and 1989 in workers’ dwellings grouped around a small sanctuary dedicated to Min in the Wâdi al-Hammâmât.

17The nature of the occupation the Eastern Desert changes during Late Antiquity. eastern trade restarts at Berenike in the 4th century, but the caravan routes previously marked and guarded by the army are not commonly used anymore. Imported goods travel through capillary ways using in particular small boats that could sail northbound, despite the dominant winds, up to Clysma in the Gulf of Suez. This military site, which, since the time of elephant hunting, played an essential role as a port of departure for journeys across the Eritrean Sea, is gaining importance, and new readings of some papyri proposed by Jean Gascou confirm the eminent role of the port of Clysma in the Byzantine era. Other parameters change: the emperors still exploit the quarries of porphyry (until the beginning of the 5th century) and they decide to reopen the gold mines of the Wâdi al-Fawākhir. The work led by Carol Meyer dates this reopening of mining operations to the 5th century; during almost half a century, miners are sent there to extract gold that the Emperors vitally need; they build hundreds of rudimentary dwellings that have been mapped and partly excavated. Other newcomers, the anchorites, had even more basic shelters: Jean-Luc Fournet reminds us of the motivations of these eremitic settlements which experienced vicissitudes particularly in relation to movements of the nomadic Blemmyes populations.

18With the end of the exploitation of the Wâdi al-Fawākhir gold mines, the abandonment of the hermitages for the benefit of some big monasteries, the desertion of Berenike towards the middle of the 6th century, the decadence of trade with the Far East, and the ravages of the 6th century plague, there is a break in the history of the Eastern Desert. Other than some very special sites like the monasteries of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, the city is abandoned to the hostile environment and nomads who know how to deal with it. One page is turned.


1 See Brun J.-P. 2018. Dans le désert Oriental d’Égypte : d’un état de préservation exceptionnel à la destruction totale des sites archéologiques. In Patrimoine partagé ou patrimoine à usage identitaire, Fournet J.-L., Mouton J.-M., Paviot J. (ed.), Byblos, CISH, pp. 143-166.


Professor at the Collège de France, Chair of Techniques and Economies in the Ancient Mediterranean
Researcher CNRS, IRAMAT-CEB, UMR 5060 Orléans
Researcher at CNRS, HiSoMA, UMR 5189 Lyon
Professor of Ancient History at Delaware University (USA)

© Collège de France, 2018

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