Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Back issues Current issue

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East of Edfu

Porphyry, breccia verde, granite, gold -- and elephants: many treasures brought men to the Eastern Deserts. Rushdi Said explores the Roman roads that lead from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea
Rushdi Said The Eastern Desert played an important role in the history of Egypt. It was the source of gold, copper and many other minerals and precious stones that were highly sought after from the earliest of times. It was also the place through which trade with Arabia, Somalia and India was channelled. As a result, a large number of roads were built there throughout ancient times. These routes were especially important during the Roman occupation of Egypt, when many mines and quarries were reopened, and some new ones broken.

There were four main roads, starting from the Nile at Qena and Qift, crossing the Red Sea hills and terminating on the Red Sea at the Graeco-Roman ports of Myos Hormos (Abu Sha'ar Al-Qibli, 18km north of modern Hurghada, now the site of Al-Gouna resort), Philoteras (16km south of modern Safaga), Leukos Limen (modern Qusseir) and Berenice. The territory thus defined was covered by a veritable network of both main and subsidiary roads. All of them were unpaved -- merely cleared tracks from which the stones had been picked and arranged in a line on each side. Yet, they are still clearly visible at many places, especially along the Myos Hormos road, where many kilometres of road have been preserved intact (figure 1).

1. Cleared Roman road off Myos Hormos
2. Deir El-Atrash Station at the beginning of this century
3. Water tank, Deir El-Atrash Station
4. Quarry at Mons Porphyrites
5. Ramp of Mons Porphyrites
6. Pillars at Mons Claudianus
7. Inscriptions at Wadi Hammamat
8. Dump of tailings at Fawakhir gold mine
9. Wadi Kanayes Temple
10. Greek inscription on a rock
The Myos Hormos road
The Myos Hormos road connected Qena (Kainopolis) with the most northerly of the Red Sea ports. It was about 190km long and was controlled by at least eight garrisons, whose stations lay approximately 25km apart. At Al-Heita, the road left Wadi Qena, crossed its main tributary, Wadi Fatira, and followed the course of Wadi Al-Atrash to its source near a pass in the Red Sea mountain range between Gebels Gattar and Dokhan. From there, it descended along the course of Wadi Bili to the Red Sea.

The stations along the road were check points where taxes were collected, overnight travellers accommodated and beasts of burden watered. Each station compound contained a well, usually of considerable depth. Water was stored in a tank of burnt brick and mortar which occupied a good part of the compound. For this reason, they were known as hydreumata (watering stations).

The station was a square fortified walled enclosure with a single gateway flanked by twin towers, and bastions at each corner and against each side. Staircases round the outer walls would have led to parapet walks. Today, the walls still stand three or more metres high. Outside the enclosure were the usual rough-stone animal lines, forming a series of stalls set in parallel rows.

The larger stations of Deir Al-Atrash and Al-Heita had bath houses and a number of buildings made of sun-dried bricks. The picture in figure 2 shows the Deir Al-Atrash station, which is today in ruins, as it appeared to Barron and Hume of the Geological Survey of Egypt at the beginning of the century. The photograph in figure 3 shows the water tank of this fort as it survives today.

The quarries of Mons Porphyrites
On the Myos Hormos road lie the quarries of the celebrated Mons Porphyrites (Gebel Dokhan). It was here that the beautiful purple stone known as Imperial Porphyry, coveted by three centuries of Roman emperors, was quarried. The quarries stood high on the mountain side, while the quarrymen who worked out the stone lived and worshipped on the lower flanks of the mountain and in the wadi bed.

The quarry seems to have been worked intermittently between AD29 and AD335, after which it was lost to sight for many centuries. The scientific members of the French Expedition under Napoleon sought for it in vain, and it was only when the Eastern Desert was reopened for study under Mohamed Ali that the site was rediscovered by Bruton and Wilkinson in 1823.

The high flanks of the remote mountain of Gebel Dokhan was the only place in the entire Roman Empire where this burgundy-coloured rock, speckled with rosy or white feldspar crystals, was to be found (figure 4). The rock was quarried, chiselled and cut into roughly-shaped columns, and then slid 100 metres down a winding causeway or chute, to the dry bed of Wadi Al-Maa'mal.

From there, the columns were rolled, perhaps on tree trunks, down a stony course for another 15km, following the same path that is now used by motor cars. At the point where the wadi meets the plain, they were hauled up a large ramp which still exists to this day (figure 5). From there, they could be loaded on to carts or sledges for a desert journey of about 160km to the Nile at Qena, where they would be placed on barges and shipped to Italy.

The thousands of tons of Imperial Porphyry which were extracted from Gebel Dokhan mostly ended up in Rome, where they were fashioned into finished pillars (134 of which still stand today in Italian churches), as well as countless altars, fonts, basins and sarcophagi. Many pillars were also taken to Istanbul, where they were used by Constantine and his successors to embellish the new Imperial city. The largest of these porphyry pillars originally stood in the temple of the sun at Baalbeck (Lebanon), from where they were subsequently moved to Saint Sophia cathedral (later mosque) in Istanbul. In later times, much of the porphyry was recut to suit medieval and modern tastes, and made into busts and sarcophagi for the royal families and aristocracies of Europe.

Today, three of the towns where the quarrymen lived survive in ruined form, each a cluster of houses crowded within a fortified wall. The town on the terrace opposite the temple housed the officer (who held the rank of centurion), the garrison of the quarry and probably the administrative staff. One eloquently built house, complete with plunge bath, is indicative of the luxurious lifestyle which expatriated officers enjoyed.

The two other towns are much more modest, with little huts divided by narrow lanes. It seems likely these were labourers' houses. Their lives must have been hard and difficult to bear. Many of them were convicts, lower-class criminals, slaves, or even captives from the Jewish and Christian revolts. Greek inscriptions, evidently Christian in origin, can be seen on the quarry walls, confirming the words of Eusebius of Caeseria in his classic Church History (written ca. 303AD) concerning "the vast number of persecuted Christians sent to work in the porphyry quarries of the Thebaids."

The mines and quarries of Ancient Egypt were all the property of the state, but on occasion they could be leased to contractors for a limited period of time and for a specific purpose. Whoever was in charge, however, working conditions were atrocious, as is attested by written records found in this quarry, mostly in the form of ostraca (inscribed pottery shards).

To the northeast of the town, on a granite knoll, lie the ruins of the temple of Serapis, the god invented by Ptolemy I as part of his attempt to reconcile the Egyptian and Greek religions.

The quarries of Mons Claudianus
None of the Roman settlements in the Eastern Desert can match the town and granite quarries of Mons Claudianus, either in size or in state of preservation.

Mons Claudianus, a major source of white granite spangled with tawdry mica, lies some 40km to the southeast of Mons Porphyrites along Wadi Fatira. The stone was used for fashioning large single-piece columns. Examples as long as 12 metres and as heavy as 200 tons are known to have been cut from the mountain face and many are still to be found lying nearby.

The settlement is the largest walled enclosure (castellum) in the desert and the buildings inside it still have their roof slabs in place. Everything is made of granite: pillars, rafters, seats and wash basins. Outside are a complex set of animal lines and a temple of Serapis, of which little remains.

The castellum was home to the garrison and to craftsmen, foremen, clerks and shopkeepers. The labourers who worked the quarry lived outside in hovels. Mons Claudianus was worked intermittently during the first three centuries AD, at the same time as Mons Porphyrites and probably under the same management. Working conditions were so bad that the quarry may well have been used to punish convicts.

The stone was transported to the Nile on wagons drawn by beasts of burden to be placed on barges at Qena. From there, it was floated down to the sea and trans-shipped to the galleys which bore it across the Mediterranean to the port of Rome. Because of their enormous size, the columns were dressed and finished on the spot, so as to reduce their weight as far as possible. This may explain the scale of the town of Mons Claudianus compared with that of Mons Porphyrites, for it was home to skilled masons and engineers, as well as quarrymen.

The temple lies outside the town on the hillside to the north. A flight of ruined steps leads up to a terrace on which stands a broken altar. Nothing remains of the walls of the building now save for piles of rough stones, but when they were still standing and sealed with plaster, they must have been an impressive sight.

To the northeast of the town a great causeway leads up to the main quarries. At its foot lie several huge columns, already trimmed, as well as many smaller blocks that have been left in the rough (figure 6). Most of these are numbered or otherwise marked, and on one enormous block, hewn into the form of a capital, there is inscribed: "The property of Caesar Nerva Trajan".

The well from which the inhabitants of Mons Claudianus drew their water lies in a valley nearly a kilometre away, and is connected to the town by an aqueduct down which the water travelled under the force of gravity.

The quarries of Hammamat
These well-known quarries produced the green ornamental stone known in antiquity as the Bekheny stone, and since Roman times as Breccia verde antico. They lie midway along the road which connected Coptos (Quift) with Leukos Limen (Qusseir). This is a very ancient route. Coptos, where the road starts, is an old city dating from the First Dynasty, if not even earlier. In the ancient temple of the god Min (Pan), the protector of the desert, are drawings of materials which would have been traded along the road: shells, horn, ivory, incense, feathers and skin.

The town was an important entry port for the Nile Valley during the Roman occupation, as can be attested from a document discovered in the ruined guard house listing the tariff of taxes imposed on persons using the road. It is dated 90AD, that is, the "ninth year of the Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus on the 15th of the month of May". Its preamble reads as follows: "By order of the governor of Egypt -- the dues which the lessees of the transport service in Coptos, subject to the Arabian command, are authorised to levy by the customary scale, are inscribed on this tablet at the instance of myself, Antistius Asiaticus, prefect of the Red Sea slope."

There follows a list of taxes which were levied on persons and articles which passed between the Nile and the Red Sea: helmsmen (10 drachmas), seamen (5 drachmas), shipyard hands (5 drachmas), skilled artisans (8 drachmas), wife of a soldier (20 drachmas), head of household if mounted (1 drachma) and all his women (4 drachmas each), a prostitute (108 drachmas), a camel (1 obol), a donkey (2 obols), a wagon (4 drachmas), a ship's mast (20 drachmas).

The drachma was the basic unit of Greek currency. Originally a silver coin, it was divided into 6 obols. It was repeatedly devalued by Roman emperors seeking fiscal advantage. At the time of the Coptos text, the price of an acre of land was about 150 drachmas, the price of an Artaba (Ardeb) of wheat 8 drachmas, and the daily wage of a farm labourer 1 drachma. In view of these prices, the tax imposed upon a prostitute was clearly extremely high. It is not known whether this was because of the lucrative nature of the profession in desert communities, or because the authorities wanted to reduce the flow of these undesirable women.

The rocks on both sides of Wadi Hammamat, for a distance of about two kilometres, are covered with hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions (figure 7). From Predynastic times until the Roman period, the Bekheny stone was cherished and considered sacred. This rock is in reality a breccia -- a predominantly green matrix containing fragments of many different kinds and colours of rocks. It was used to make many beautiful bowls and other objects which have been found in the graves of these periods.

The quarries seem to have been extensively worked in the second to sixth dynasties and during the Middle and New Kingdoms, and inscriptions on the valley walls dating back to these times are common. Most are dedicated to the patron God of the desert, Min or Pan. Thus, an expedition sent by Pepi I (Sixth Dynasty) lists the names of the chief architect, master builders, artisans, scribes, treasurers and ship captains. These men were at the quarries to procure the stone for the decoration of the king's pyramid at Saqqara. Of the other expeditions recorded here, the most impressive is that of King Amenhotep, which comprised 1,000 workers, 100 quarrymen, 1,200 soldiers, 200 donkeys and 50 oxen.

There are also inscriptions describing the trading expeditions which passed through on their way to the distant land of Pont (Somalia) to procure myrrh for King Mentuhotep (XIth Dynasty). And it was Mentuhotep's son who sent a large party to procure "an august block of the pure costly stone which is in this mountain for a sarcophagus, an eternal memorial, and for monuments in the temples." Various kings of the XIXth and XXth dynasties are mentioned on the rocks, and King Ramses IV (1160BC) visited the quarries in person. "He led the way to the place he desired; he went around the august mountain; he cut an inscription upon this mountain engraved with the great name of the king."

Names of later kings which can be found here include the Persian rulers Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. Ptolemy III (240BC) built a temple near Bir Fawakhir at the end of the valley. The quarry was still being worked during Roman times, but the rock seems to have lost its lustre: many blocks addressed to the Caesars are strewn over the wadi and were never dispatched to them.

In addition to the ornamental Bekheny stone, the area also supplied the Pharaohs with gold which was worked in nearby Wadi Fawakhir (figure 8) as well as in many other mines in the central Eastern Desert.

The Berenice road
Berenice, the now totally deserted seaport on the Red Sea, was named by Ptolemy II (285-247 BC) after his mother, the queen of Egypt. It was built at the head of a gulf, the Sinus Immundus or Foul Bay of Strabo, sheltered to the north by Ras Benas (Lepte Extrema). The port is now filled in and can be reached from the sea only by small craft.

For four or five centuries, Berenice was the main port of entry for trade between India, Arabia and Egypt. From there a road with watering stations leads northwest across the desert to the Nile at Coptos (Qift) or Contra Apollinopolis (Edfu). The Apollinopolis road is an old road that had been used by gold miners since the earliest of times. The gold of Edfu was one of the major sources of the wealth of the rulers of Hierakonpolis who, under Menes or Narmer, finally unified Egypt, and it continued to be highly prized by their successors.

Coming from Edfu, just after Bir Abad stand the ruins of a large station and a temple, some 45km from the Nile, at Kanayes (figure 9). The temple is small, consisting of a rectangular hall excavated in the rock with four pillars of live rock and three shrines at the far end. The inner part of the temple is now closed to the public, but the outer section, consisting of a built portico with lotus-bud capitals, can be visited. The temple was built by Seti I (XIXth Dynasty), apparently to commemorate a visit he made to the mines, but was never finished.

The walls of rock around the temple have abundant hieroglyphic, Greek and Arabic inscriptions left by the stream of travellers, soldiers, miners, traders and officials who visited the place. Of these, the most interesting are those made by traders bringing riches from the east via the port of Berenice or importing elephants to be used in the wars of Ptolemy III and Ptolemy IV (figure 10). The latter is said to have deployed at least 73 African elephants in a battle at Rafah on the Palestinian border, where they were ranged against 102 Indian elephants belonging to Antiochus the Great. Although victory went to Ptolemy IV, it cannot be credited to the elephants, who stampeded back through the ranks of their own army.

(Photos:Traute Steltzer)

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