5 - 11 September 2002
Issue No. 602
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Along the gods' roadThe map of the Eastern Desert is streaked with trade and pilgrimage routes. Amira El-Noshokaty followed the oldest of the caravan trails between the Nile and the Red Sea
he Hamamat Road is the shortest route across the Eastern Desert, connecting Qift at the centre of the Qena curve in the Nile to the Red Sea port of Qusseir. The 170km asphalt road cuts through the widest valley in this desert, the Hamamat valley, formed by several millennia of heavy rainfall during the Late Paleolothic era. The terrain encouraged human settlement, and the valley witnessed the dawn of the New Stone Age (8000-6000 BC). Subsequently, however, the climate changed and the area slowly became dry. At about this time the valley was the cradle of the first and second Neqada civilisations (4600-3050 BC), identified by Flinders Petrie in the year 1894 in the Qena region through their unique coloured pottery and copper and silver ware.
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Clockwise from top left: Abdel-Mejid, attendant at the shrine of Sheikh Abdel-Aal; the sheikh's shrine; the stairs in the Roman well; the top of the well with a granite sarcophagus in the foreground
Throughout the passing of the centuries this old road has had religious associations. For the Pharaohs the Eastern Desert was one of the best sources of minerals and stone for the adornment of their temples. Later it became a major pilgrimage route for Muslims making the journey to Mecca. In between, in the Graeco-Roman era, it was a link to the major trading posts on the Red Sea.
The name Gibto, or Qift, meant "the town of caravans", and the town's main god was Mein, the lord of the desert, protector of caravans and the god of flash floods. Throughout the Pharaonic era -- even before the coming of the camel to Egypt in about 500 BC -- this was where the carts and caravans arrived and offloaded their gold and porphyry for temple-building. At least as far back as the Graeco-Roman era they brought frankincense, silk, ginger and cinnamon from Arabia, India, China and Indonesia, and left with goods from Africa and Egypt -- grain and honey, ivory and animal skins.
Qift kept its status as the eastern gate to Egypt through the Ptolemaic and Roman eras (332 BC- 395 AD) when it flourished under the name of Coptos, "the popular" or "Egyptian" town to Egyptians, Arabs and Indians. Contemporary descriptions say the town was "half Arabian".
Some information about the history of the road to Qusseir is recorded on a papyrus deciphered by Gardner and Lucas which shows that the road linking the Nile valley to the Red Sea was divided into five districts. Qift was the capital of the fifth district. Another name for the town was Nitroi which means "the two gods" -- hence the name "the gods' road". Ptolemy I Soter (310- 282 BC) paid special attention to Hamamat and rebuilt a Pharaonic temple originally constructed there by the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I, while Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-222 BC) built a temple to Mein in the valley.
The old road is paved now, which is the only thing that is modern about it. You can still drive through history, and some might say even pre- history. The road falls between mountains that contain all kinds of minerals, from gold to silver to phosphate. Red granite is found in massive quantities, as well as schist and sdiorite -- a kind of basalt. Along the road are 250 hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions. Stones have been cut here for use in temple-building since the time of the Neqada civilisation.
There were various activities besides stone cutting, the most famous of which was gold mining. Mining in this valley goes back to the time of the second Neqada civilisation during the predynastic era, and the mine at Umm Al- Fawakhir is thought to be the main source of the gold used in ancient Egypt. That gold was called "the gold of Qift". In an inscription dating from the reign of the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Mentuhotep III (2014-2001 BC) one of the royal employees wrote on a rock in the Hamamat valley: "Then I headed south to bring the gold nuggets to the city of Qift in the company of Prince Senostris."
Beside the Sed mountain, southeast of the well at Umm Al-Fawakhir, are the ruins of old mines used in the Pharaonic era. Ancient maps give evidence of a workmen's town dating from the New Kingdom. Some say this could be the earliest such community in the world.
Nearby is an old gold mine and a workshop dating from only 50 years ago. The workshop belonged to Count de la Fizion, a Frenchman who began working gold there in 1948. Since it closed in 1962 it has come under the authority of the organisation of mining, surveying and geology. We met the man in charge of the mine and the workshop, Dr Mosharaf Selim, who showed us round the old gates and buildings and the small chapel, all built in 1948.
Gold in its raw state hides modestly in sparkling grey threads amid white quartz crystals. In this workshop, stone was literally turned to gold. "Sadly the gold mining has stopped and all that is left is the factory, which welcomes faculty of geology students' field trips from time to time," Dr Selim said. Meanwhile it stays quietly facing the ambulance unit on the other side of the desert road.
The desert always has something to say, but this part has more than most. It has been a route to divinity throughout the whole of human history, and has somehow blended with the lives of those who passed through it. This has given it character. And as we moved more deeply into it we came to notice that here clouds pick their own shade. You can find a mountain blissfully shaded, while the rest are bathing in golden beams.
A few kilometres on, coasting along the asphalt road, we passed a dark and tall basalt mountain dotted with hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions. We stopped to touch them, feeling as though we had come face to face with our ancestors. It was as if the landscape was reciting its own history, and all the way it was not hard to imagine that the mountains had an eye on us. Among the inscriptions left by the Pharaohs appeared the name of Farouk, in English. Rumour has it that the former king engraved his name in the hope of becoming immortal.
Not far away and still on the road we came across the Roman well, the well with a staircase so often referred to by travellers. The well was circular in shape, and oddly it was set on a higher piece of ground. The staircase, which had its own side entrance, led in a coil round the well. As one descends one passes small, arched windows through which light pours into the stairwell, which ends with a big metal bar marking the quantity of underground water. The stairs amount to 366, probably representing the days of the year, and are used by local people in a fertility ritual. Anyone wanting a child descends the staircase and drinks from the water. They say, though, that the last man to do this never came up. It seems that as he was preparing to pray at the bottom he slipped on the long metal bar and perished.
Further on we passed the shrine of Sheikh Abdel-Aal, a Muslim pilgrim who passed away on the road. His tomb is covered with a red and green cloth, and outside the blue wooden door lies a cardboard box with traces of melted wax on a plastic plate. Hung beside the zir, or water tank, is a notice bearing the polite request: "Please do not light any candles." The shrine is tended by Abdel-Mejid, an Ababde from the Al- Adwa district. Beside it is a modest cafeteria, the only one on this road.
We wondered if the sheikh was called on to intervene over flash floods. The last one was in 1996. It has not rained since. About eight kilometres before Qusseir is an old well, said to be one of the oldest on this road. It is hard to miss it, for all at once among the barren mountains here is a green spot with grass going from dark green to gold. This is the Ambagi well, the water of which was used by the phosphate factory to clean the phosphate. Now only the Bedouin use it to water their flocks.
The Hamamat valley ends at the city of Qusseir, which is marked by an Ottoman fortress built in 1516 by Sultan Selim I to protect the port and the trade and pilgrim caravans (Al- Ahram Weekly, 15-21 August).
Another eight kilometres to the north lies the old port and town of Qusseir, excavated in 1978- 1982 by a team from the Institute of the Near East at Chicago University. Since 1999 excavations in this area have been conducted by the community archaeology team from the department of archaeology at Southampton University under the direction of David Peacock.
Leukos Limen (the White Harbour), the sea port of the Hamamat valley road in the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, was 26.6kms north of the new town of Qusseir. The creation of a major port by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC) so near the beginning of the Ptolemaic era was the dawn of the Red Sea's trade with Europe, and led to the construction of several other ports along the coast. Under the Romans, Albus Portus -- its Latin name -- provided an important trade base for the Roman Empire.
Across the road from the dive centre at the Mövenpick Hotel lies a small knoll which could easily be mistaken for a piece of the desert. This is actually part of the ancient Roman port, and here the whole lifetime of the harbour is unfolding from beneath the layers of sand. We climbed a rocky hill to view a vast, flat valley which was once the sea. Among the pebbles and fossilised shells lie the foundations of a Roman villa, the rooms neatly laid out in typical style. Not far from the villa is the ship-building area. A narrow channel brought the seawater close enough for the hot metal for making the ship ornaments to be dipped. Nearby was the market place where goods were traded.
Pottery shards lie scattered on the surface all over the Roman site. The red glazed pieces are imported from India, yellow means they are Egyptian. The Southampton team has found pottery with Greek and Roman inscriptions, including a piece inscribed with the name of a Ptolemy. They have also found a horde of coins dating from the Mameluke era.
The Roman relics provide evidence of the development of the port and its trade, with special reference to the trade with India and the East through the Hamamat valley to the Nile and on to Alexandria and western Europe.
For the Pharaohs, too, old Qusseir was an open gate. In those days the Qusseir area was called Sago. It was named on the list drawn up by Tuthmosis III (1479-1424 BC) of 20 locations between two towns which later went by other names -- Abu-Shaar Quibli (Ptolemaic Myos Hormos) in the north and Ras Banas (Berenice) in the south.
Over the centuries the town has moved and has now settled at present-day Qusseir, near the small fortress built by Selim and from which the modern town probably derives its name. Locals, however, say Qusseir means "the shortest" in Arabic, with reference to the fact that the road from Qusseir to Qift is the shortest link between the Nile and the Red Sea. Whether or not this is true, it is a road well worth exploring.
AMONG the countries trading with Egypt through the Red Sea was the land of Punt, first mentioned Old Kingdom (2663-2195 BC) during the reign of the second Pharaoh in the fifth dynasty, Sahure. An inscription in the valley states that the commander Heno, in the reign of Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Mentuhotep III (2014-2001 BC) went to the land of Punt through the valley of Hamamat. It says:
During the eighth year, in its first month, my master has sent me to send a ship to the land of Punt to bring him the scents from the chiefs who have supreme control over the red land. ...And I have turned the road into a river, for I have dug 12 wells and have reached the Red Sea, built a ship and sent it and it sailed. I have fulfilled his Majesty's command and brought precious stones and grand stones for the statues in the temple.
The name of the 18th-Dynasty Queen Hatshepsut (1472-1457 BC) is associated with the largest known shipment from the land of Punt. On the walls of her temple on the west bank at Thebes are paintings of the Egyptians imports: ebony, ivory and exotic animals. Inscriptions tell us that Hatshepsut herself was transported from Thebes north along the Nile to Manf and from there took the Hamamat valley road, continuing to present day Suez. It seems that later, after the Hyksos invasion, this way to Suez was overshadowed by the northeast road.
See The Old Trade Routes in Egypt and the Impact of its Civilisation by Ibrahim Dessouqi Mahmoud, Faculty of Arts, Minya University, 2000.
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