It is clear that the Eastern Desert has been used, in spite of the absence of oases, from the earliest prehistoric period onwards. Although today it is arid, it clearly went through periods of much more forgiving environmental conditions, when semi permanent water sources were available. However, even today Bedouin tribes inhabit the Eastern Desert even with very isolated water sources and sparse vegetation, so it may be argued that the potential offered by the sparse natural springs, wells and occasional rainfall could always have supported human life.
The desert was used in the Middle Palaeolithic as a rich resource for hunter-gatherers. In the early Neolithic, it is possible that sheep and goat herders introduced these species into Egypt from the Near East and used the area for herding. Later in the Predynastic, it is possible that the desert was useful for pasturing herds which were a component of a mixed farming lifestyle.
Following the increasing aridification of the Sahara at the beginning of the Pharaonic period, it appears that the Eastern Desert was used only for its rock and mineral resources. The quarrying expeditions of the Pharaonic period, and the mining and quarrying settlements of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods, have provided a wonderful insight into how the desert was used and how life could be managed at these times. Wells were dug to support communities, real pride was taken in the work carried out, and in the Roman era, an isolated life was bolstered by a very good supply of food and wine. In the Roman period networks of roads connected the Nile with mines, quarries and ports, and these routes were policed by the military, with an infrastructure of sorts, watch towers and way-stations.
It is also clear that we are probably seeing only the surface of archaeological data in the desert and the hills in the past. Reading Hobbs’s account of the Bedouin Ma’aza who occupy a band of the Eastern Desert to the north of the Wadi Hammamat, I was struck by the number of times Hobbs mentions visiting sites with apparently prehistoric and Roman artefacts which, as far as I can tell, have never been recorded in any archaeological survey.
As discussed elsewhere on this site, one of the big gaps in knowledge is our understanding of how the Eastern Desert itself was occupied on a permanent basis by specialized desert-adapted groups, after the Prehistoric period. Although contemporary documentation is very poor with respect to the desert inhabitants, two legendary groups mentioned are the Medjay and the Blemmyes, and particularly during the Roman period, desert occupants appear to have provided a considerable barrier to unimpeded exploitation of desert resources.
Today the desert is occupied by Bedouin, visited by the more intrepid variety of tourist, and with slowly increasing frequency, is studied by archaeological teams.
Copyright Andie Byrnes 2007