31 Oct. - 6 Nov. 2002
Issue No. 610
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Stoned in the Eastern Desert

Those resourceful Romans would go to any lengths to keep the empire's subversive elements out of the way, even cutting 30-metre granite columns on a mountain. Jenny Jobbins gets lost in time

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The ruins of Mons Claudianus are dominated by a giant granite column
All you need is a case of water and a four-wheel drive and you can go anywhere. You can also get lost -- but until you run out of water and petrol you don't need to panic.

We encountered such a mild case of non-hysteria in the Eastern Desert -- not once, but three nights in a row. The fourth night we hit the Mövenpick on Crocodile Island in Luxor. The culture shock was profound, and as I flopped into the swimming pool and gorged myself on the best breakfast of my life the contrast with the previous few days seemed all the greater.

Not that we were in the desert for the entire time. We had drifted in on the first morning and become absorbed with hyrax tracks and wadi views, only realising too late that the sun was dropping and we had no time to find our way back to the road: it was all we could do to find a place to pitch a tent before darkness fell. All we had to eat were a few dried dates and some melted chocolate, but we had enough bottled water for a token shower.

The same thing happened on the second night -- though in the meantime we had driven back to the coast, filled up the petrol tank and the case of water and had a good fish lunch. That night, back in the desert again, we lost our bearings a bit and once more had to stop driving just before it got dark. For supper we shared a packet of crisps. On the third day we found our way back to the coast and up to Hurghada, where again we ate fish. We planned to cross the Eastern Desert to Qena before nightfall, but it was further than we expected...

Across the desert to Qena we ran alongside the Via Porphyrites, the old Roman route from the quarry at Mons Porphyrites, source of much of the beautiful red granite porphyry which the Romans prized and mined in great quantities. The stone-filled carts were pulled by oxen from the quarries to the Nile and floated by barge and ship to Rome and far corners of the Empire. Up to seven or eight years ago the old Roman cart ruts were still visible in some places, but these have now been obliterated by careless tyre tracks.

It was the search for quarries which took us into the desert on the first morning. We were driving up the coast from Ras Banas, 123kms south of Mersa Alam. At Port Safaga we turned off to look for the ruins of the quarrymen's town of Mons Claudianus, which lie somewhere at the end of a road leading north from the paved road running from Port Safaga to Qena. This road stops at Bir Abdel-Wahab, and from there you can easily find the way to Mons Claudianus. If you have a guide.

We didn't, on both counts.

But we did find a soft, wide nook in a sheltered wadi to make camp, and lying under a canopy of stars we almost didn't feel hungry on our meal of dates (the chocolate was for breakfast, after it had firmed up a bit). Waking to a still and perfect dawn -- with birdsong -- we felt quite content to be lost, although a little ashamed that in spite of a decent vehicle we had failed where others had gone before with more hardship -- but perhaps a tad better prepared.

Of course, we soon discovered that Mons Claudianu was just round the corner. The town is at the foot of Gabal Fatira (Mons Claudianus) in a small tributary of the Wadi Fatira Al-Beda (the white; another fork being called Al-Zarqa, the blue). Here the quarrymen -- convicts for the most part -- and their families lived, surrounded by quarries where a fine-grained light granite was cut. The local Bedouin call the place Umm Digal (Mother of Columns) after the columns which still lie around. Apparently the ancient semitic root deqel or deqala means date palm, but also pillar or column.

This and Mons Porphyrites, 50kms further north, have been visited by many intrepid adventurers over the last 200 years. Among them was George Schweinfurth, founder of the Royal Geographic Society in Cairo, who came in 1888 and wrote a detailed description of the town. But the sites cannot be found in most guidebooks published between the 1930s and 1980s. For half a century, while tour companies turned Nile cruising into a fine art, remoter corners of Egypt were forgotten. The advent of the four-wheel drive and the encouragement of Red Sea tourism, however, have rekindled interest in Eastern Desert antiquities.

The town's layout can be seen quite clearly and, since the area was unoccupied after the Romans abandoned it, the ruins are relatively undisturbed. The houses threaded with narrow alleyways are enclosed by a wall 70 metres square. Outside this wall are guardrooms, a private villa, an unfinished temple and stables to hold up to 400 head of draught oxen and their fodder. Water was held in a water tower.

The largest of the prostrate columns is 20.5 metres long and 2.6 metres in diametre. Because of their weight, the columns were dressed as far as possible before being loaded on the wagons, which were pulled by as many as 40 oxen. The teams would stop to rest at each of half a dozen stations on the way to the Nile Valley, each with a well, provisions and accommodation. We saw two of these stations later on when we followed the Via Porphyrites to Qena. One of them still contained a cistern of slimy green water, and beside it a length of frayed rope.

The Imperial porphyry of neighbouring Mons Porphyrites was much coveted and used to furnish palaces and temples; it was also often cut to order in situ, and was relatively easy to transport. But the granite cut at Mons Claudianus had to be moved in huge blocks; moreover it was not of the best quality, and the question has therefore been posed: why were so many men sent to quarry a stone inferior to that found in Italy? The answer, we are told, is that there was an abundance of convicts who needed to be put to good use. These were the men Pliny called "Damnati in metallum (damned to metal)", ill-fated Christians from the Empire in what is now the Middle East -- from Alexandria to Syria -- condemned to work in labour camps a long way from where they might get up to political mischief. Hence the numerous watch towers.

Several histories have been written about these wretched "criminals". The church historian Eusebius described their fate in "the quarries of Thebes". Under Diocletian the place where they were sent was referred to as the Mount of Fire, and it is believed this was Mons Porphyrites, now known as Gabal Al-Dukhan or Mount of Smoke.

Schweinfurth reported reading an inscription -- which has since disappeared -- in the temple, which said: "In the 12th year of the Emperor Trajan Caesar Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, by Sulpicius Simius, Prefect of Egypt, this altar was made." Granite found its way from the Mons Claudianus quarry to the Pantheon, to the Temple of Divus Traianus, to the Villa Hadriana in Tivoli, to the Springs of Diocletian and Caracalla and to the Mausoleum of Diocletian in Split. The Eastern Desert quarries are testament to the precision and organisation of the Roman Empire, which at this time, under the Emperors Trajan (98 to 117 AD) and Hadrian (117-138 AD) had reached its zenith. After that it was all downhill for the Romans. And merely another night lost in the desert for us.

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