Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine


Special Paper

Thanks very much to Tony Judd for contributing this paper to the site.  It is an analysis of inscriptions made at Site 24, and provides a fascinating insight into some of the travelers who made use of the route between Berenice and the Nile.  The paper is in PDF format.

The Trade with India through the Eastern Desert of Egypt under the Roman Empire

Tony Judd – University of Liverpool

Click here to view the paper


The Graeco-Roman period was established when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. Alexander left Egypt in 331 B.C. to  continue with his Empire building plans.  His death in 323 B.C. triggered the division of his Empire, and Egypt was taken by the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who declared himself king in 305 B.C. with the title Ptolemy I Soter, (which means saviour).  The first three Ptolemies oversaw an Egypt which was prosperous and strong, but its stability deteriorated from the late third century onwards, with Rome playing an increasingly important role in the management of Egyptian affairs. The Ptolemies are represented on Egyptian monuments as pharaohs with all the conventional motifs.  However, sites can be easily distinguished by stylistic differences, inferior stone carving techniques and new hieroglyphic symbols.  The Ptolemies were responsible for expanding the agricultural potential of Egypt, introducing new technologies and foods, and for a number of building projects.

The Ptolemies were just as interested as their predecessors in obtaining the valuable resources of the Eastern Desert, and improved efficiencies by establishing proper roads.  Although the Ptolemies never attempted the levels of quarrying for stone that their Roman predecessors achieved, they did carry out significant quarrying and mining activities, which required improvements of the existing infrastructure. Resources extracted include stones, galena, green beryl (emerald) and amethyst.  Details of raw materials found in the Eastern Desert can be found in Appendix K.

Trade was of considerable importance to the Ptolemies, and the establishment of ports on the Egyptian Red Sea coast enabled expeditions over large areas.  The two most important appear to have been Berenice and Myos Hormos.

At Quseir al-Qadim (old Quseir), eight kilometres north of the modern town of Quseir, on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, four seasons of fieldwork have now been completed. The current project, directed by David Peacock, Lucy Blue and Stephanie Moser from the University of Southampton has revealed new information.  The site has been confirmed to be the port of Myos Hormos, referred to by Pliny, Strabo and other ancient authors, and thus a very important component in the movement of people and goods between the East and the Mediterranean. The fieldwork programme for 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 had three aspects: excavation of the ancient town, a study of the sabkha behind the site, which was once the ancient harbour, and a study of the immediate hinterland in order to understand connections with Coptos (Qift) and the Nile.  The 2000 season located the 1st Century AD harbor of Myos Hormos with a wharf and empty amphorae lined up, most of which were Italian but others were of Nile silt.  A few were from Rhodes or Croatia.  An important archive of ostraca charting the activities of a trader called Maximus were also recovered.

Berenice has also been the subject of an excavation project which has helped to paint a detailed picture of the port in Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Berenice was founded in 275 BC, Ptolemy II (Philadelphos), who named it after his mother, Berenice I. According to the Project’s website, “one of the most important reasons for creating this new harbour was the need of the Ptolemies for elephants. These were used in the wars against the Seleucids in the Near East, who blocked the import of Indian elephants. The Ptolemies decided to catch African elephants in what now is eastern Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia and ship them over the Red Sea on special ships (elephantagoi) in order to land them in southern Egypt and walk them to the Nile valley.”   The choice of location was practical, making use of the shelter offered by a natural harbour.  It is during this period that the first hydreumata (watering stations) were established along the road from Berenice to Qift and Edfu.  Unfortunately most of the Ptolemaic layers of Berenice are still sealed beneath the Roman levels, which means that at the moment there is very little known about the site at this time.  Hopefully the excavations currently being carried out at Berenice will provide more data as they reach the earlier levels.  However, Barnard has speculated on the nature of the site:  “Little is known about the Ptolemaic era as the remains thereof are not only covered by later debris but also have been mostly re-used in later periods.  given the military nature of the operations, at least initially, and the general tendency of the Ptolemaic rulers towards centralized control, it is likely that during this period the population of Berenice consisted mainly of representatives of the military and the state bureaucracy.  They would have come from the Nile Valley, bringing or importing all their supplies (Barnard WR)

Eastern Desert gold mining resumed after the post-Ramesside hiatus.  The Greeks had gained experience in mining from Macedonia and Attika, and brought with them innovative new techniques. Innovations include techniques learned from Macedonia and Laurion in Attika.  The most important innovation was probably a new type of stone mill with a concave milling surface used in conjunction with a semi-circiular hard rubbing stone which “fit into the milling plan with two ergonomically modeled handles” (Klemm et al 2002, p.218).  This appears to have originated in Crete.  Other innovations, which significantly improved efficiencies, including the introduction of iron chisels and construction of dome-shaped rooves for subterranean operations (Klemm et al 20002, p.218). All Ptolemaic mines are on former New Kingdom sites in the central Eastern Desert, not in Nubia (Klemm 2002, p.218) and are entirely restricted to central parts of the Eastern Desert.  This may have been due to hostility from Bedouin-type groups.

Amethyst mining evidently resumed, attested to by the presence of biconical amethyst beads, often of a darker colour than those used in the Pharaonic period  (Shaw 2002, p.249).  Amethyst mining may have taken place in the Sikait-Zubara area of the Eastern Desert at this time.  Although there is no clear evidence of mining from artefacts, two rock-cut temples dating to the Ptolemaic period indicate an involvement with the area and “would suggest that the mines were already being worked as early as the first or second centuries BC” (Shaw 2002, p.250).

Iron mining apparently takes place for the first time during the Ptolemaic (or possibly during the Late Period). The earliest known iron smelting took place in the Delta region at Naucratis, dating to c.580BC.  There were a number of sources of iron in the Eastern Desert.

A number of sites were established along important routes, and were later used during the Roman occupation.  An example is settlement located very close to the Roman hydreuma Nakheil on the Qift to Quseir route, where surface pottery dates to the Ptolemaic period.

By the Ptolemaic period the Eastern Desert nomads, formerly known as the Medjay, are associated with a different nomenclature – the Read Sea littoral was occupied by a tribe called the Trogodytes, and the area between the Nile and the Red Sea mountains was occupied the Blemmyes.  Bomann and Young suggest that a series of guard houses and patrol routes set up by Akhenaten, apparently to protect his city Akhetaten, were set up to provide protection against Eastern Desert occupants.  They go on to sugget that the Middle Eastern Desert was occupied in a nomadic or semi-nomadic way “by both indigenous and foreign peoples” (Bomann and Young 1994, p.31).


Roman Period


The Roman period in Egypt was inaugurated by the Battle of Actium, the outcome of a decision by the Roman consul Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) to bring Egypt under full Roman control by incorporating it into the Empire.  Although the Roman authorities continued to observe Egyptian traditions, as the Ptolemies had done before them, there were clearly new tensions.  Peacock (2000) points to the very special and somewhat awkward relationship between Egypt and Rome, which he suggests were partly due to cultural differences that so obviously existed, and says that “it is hardly surprising that Rome adopted a somewhat hostile and suspicious attitude to Egypt” (2000, p.423).  Peacock goes on to illustrate this:  “Roman senators were forbidden to enter the country and native Egyptians were excluded from the administration.  It is significant that the only Egyptian town founded by Rome was Antinoopolis, on the Nile in Middle Egypt” (p.423).  Rome exploited Egyptian natural resources heavily, and took great advantage of Egypt’s agricultural potential. 

During the Roman period, the Roman use of the Eastern Desert was almost exclusively industrial. Seeing Egypt as a resource for the Empire, the Romans developed the existing Ptolemaic infrastructure, improving roads and desert security and establishing new quarries.  The Roman army obviously had an important role in Egypt both in their role as border guards and for providing protection to travelers, industrial workers, traders and expeditions using the desert routes, in both Eastern and Western Deserts.  Certainly quarries were fortified and routes were provided with military protection.

The roads were of considerable importance for the success of trade with Arabia and India, amongst other places, for successful transportation of quarried and mined goods from the many mines and quarries that were reopened or constructed (Said 1999 WR). A number of wadis feature hydreumata, watering stations located on key routes to provide temporary stop-over facilities.  One of these is Bir Nakheil, on the route from Nakheil is in the mouth of the Wadi Nakheil, just north of the Quft-Quseir road and near to the Red Sea coast. Said identifies four main roads starting from Qena (Qift) on the Nile, and extending through the desert and the hills to terminate at four important Red Sea ports:  Myos Hormos, Philoteras, Leukos Limen and Berenice:  “The territory thus defined was covered by a veritable network of both main and subsidiary roads.  All of them unpaved – merely cleared tracks from whcih the stones had been picked and arranged in a line on each side” (Said 1999). 

A series of watch-towers, (skopeloi) considered to be broadly Roman/Byzantine in date, line the wadi edges of Wadi Hammamat and the route from the mouth of Wadi Nakheil to the hydreuma 6m into the wadi.  In both cases they are thought to have been in direct line of site of each other.  Peacock says that movement along desert routes was strictly controlled “with need for permits, written on ostracon, and perhaps sometimes papyrus.  Undoubtedly this owes a measure to limit the banditry for which Egypt was notorious . . . . Banditry would have been particularly prevalent in the mountainous parts of the Eastern Desert, where there would have been ample opportunity to hide, and rick picking to be had from the caravans of oriental luxuries trading from Berenice or Myos Hormos” (2000, p.426).  Hobbs (1989, p.21) makes reference to a central government initiative under  the  Roman rule which organized camel-mounted troops to round up Eastern Desert nomads.

Hydreumata, the term meaning watering stations, were fortified camps, and acted as places where travellers could stay overnight with their animals, find food and water, and pay their road taxes.  Each hydreuma contained a well and water from the well was stored in a tank of brick and mortar.  Examples of larger hydreuma include Deir Al-Atrash and Al-Heita, both lie on the Qift to Myos Hormos route along the Wadi Hammamat, and both of which had bath houses (Said 1999).  Two of the best known along the Berenice to Qift route are el-Mweih and el-Zerqa (Peacock 2000, p.435).  Nakheil bydreuma and well are Located 6km up the Wadi Nakheil near the Red Sea coast, just north of the modern Qift to Quseir road, the Roman hydreuma.  The site is very ruined, but the well survives and still produces some water. Watch towers line the route from the mouth of Wadi Nakheil to the hydreuma

During the Roman period taxes were levied on goods between Qift and the Red Sea (Said 1999 WR).  The discovery of a document found in a ruined guard house from Qift dated to A.D.90 provides an insight into how taxes were applied to different types of cargo and profession:

  • Camel – 1 obol (6 obol = 1 drachma)
  • Donkey – 2 obols
  • Head of a household if mounted – 1 drachma
    • And all his women – 4 drachmas each
  • Wagon – 4 drachmas
  • Seaman – 5 drachmas
  • Shipyard hand – 5 drachmas
  • Artisans – 8 drachmas
  • Helmsman – 10 drachmas
  • Wife of a soldier – 20 drachmas
  • Ship’s mast – 20 drachmas
  • Prostitute – 108 drachmas

To put this into context, at the time of the above 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” (Said 1999). The salary of a skilled quarry worker at Mons Claudianus was 48 drachma a month and 70 arteb of wheat (Van Der Veen 1997).

The Red Sea ports were of considerable importance, and were linked to the Nile by the above mentioned routes through the Red Sea Hills and desert.  There was a considerable demand both in Egypt and in the Roman empire for exotic luxury items, which were sourced from India and Arabia.  These include spices, pearls, scents, and medicines.  Berenice was important for nearly 500 years, and was the most southerly of the Red sea ports.  It was the main port serving trading expeditions to India, Arabia and the south.  It was a considerable distance from the important Nile centres of Edfu and Qift, to which it was linked by a diagonal route along which a number of watering stations located at every 20-30km (Peacock 2000). Berenice will be discussed in more detail below.  The location of the original port of Myos Hormos has been placed at a number of modern Red Sea towns, but now seems to be fairly firmly established where the modern town of Quseir el Qadim now exists.  Excavations at el-Zerqa, which would have been en route from Quseir al Qadim to the Nile at Qift, via Laqeita, have produced ostraca that support the location of Quesir al Qadim as Myos Hormos (Peacock 2000).

International trade over long distances has been inferred by some of the contents at Roman sea ports.  It has been considered possible that the prominence of hte Aksumite kingdom in the 4th to mid 7th centuries might have led to Asksumite traders having acted as middlemen for Roman merchants (Tomber 2005, p.42).  Aksumite and Roman finds both occur at key Roman sites in the Roman Red Sea in East Africa and South Arabia, with some contact between Myos Hormos, Berenkie and East Africa known from the early Roman period, and an intensification of contact in the Late Roman period (Tomber 2005, p.43).

Documentation dating to the Roman period indicates that large parts of both the Eastern Desert and Nubia became unworkable due to hostility from local nomadic tribes which the Romans called Blemmyes (Klemms et al 2002, p.219).  As in previous periods gold mining was innovated in a number of ways, including the introduction of a new type of mill inherited from the celts:  “a cylindrical rotation mill (quern) with a diameter between 30 and 50cm and an upper hand-driven rotating stone fitting in it.  This upper stone contained a central hole to hold a wooden axel and also a peripheral hole for a wooden stick as a handle (2002, p.219).  The mill was responsible for around five times the efficiency of milling and provided a significant increase in gold production.  Only a few gold mines were re-used and both these and their supporting infrastructure had to be well guarded (2002, p.219).

The gold mine at Bir Umm Fawakhir appears to have been used in Roman times:  “Roman activity is attested, though it is less extensive than when the entire site of Bir Umm Fawakhir was considered 1st-2nd century A.D. The small granite quarries were probably Roman undertakings, although possibly only exploratory. There is a small amount of Roman pottery in Quarry 2 with quarrying marks identical to those at a known major granite quarry at Mons Claudianus. A couple of partly quarried blocks have been incorporated in 5th-6th century houses, and the Romans had an unexcelled passion for handsome and exotic stones. The Roman period ostraca (letters and messages written on potsherds) reported as coming from Bir Umm Fawakhir pertain to military activity and probably came from the vicinity of the modern mines in the Wadi el-Sid” (Meyer 1997 WR).

Amethyst, which ceased to be extracted in any volume in the New Kingdom and Late Period, but was again used in the Ptolemaic, appears in the early and later Roman periods in the form of beads.  In the early period the beads were of the same type as those of the Ptolemaic – dark coloured biconical shapes.  In the  sixth and seventh centuries A.D. they were pear-shaped (Shaw 2002, p.249).  On the western side of the Wadi el-Hudi, which was extensively exploited in the Middle Kingdom, another hilltop settlement seems to be associated with Roman amethyst mining operations “although the pottery needs to be studid in much greater detail before it can be confidently ascribed to a particular century” (Shaw 2002, p.249). 

A conglomerate was extracted from the Wadi Hammamat.  This was a coarser version of the greywacke sandstone.  It contains rounded pebbles and cobbles of a veriety of colours and compositions, and is greenish due to the contents of epidote and chlorite (Harrell 2002, p.239). It has been variously referred to as hexacontalithos (sixty stones in one), breccia verde antica and d’Egitto.  The Roman excavations extended c.1km along the wadi along both sides.  Apart from the quarrying and the inscriptions “the only other features to be seen are all Roman:  a shrine built on the wadi floor; a slipway descending the south valley wall; signaling towers (skopeloi) on the hill tops; and, near the shrine, what have been variously interpreted as bathtubs, naoi and sarcophagi carved from the greywacke (Harrell 2002, p.239).  Another quarry was located to the south of Wadi Hammamat at Gebel Rockham, where white marble, rarely used in Pharaonic Egypt, was probably exploited during the Roman period.

Quarries were also established for the extraction of diorite and purple porphyry, the latter being of particular value to the Romans and unique to the Eastern Desert.  The best source of information about Roman quarrying is an archive of ostraca from Mons Claudianus.  A document called the Passio Sanctorum Quattuor-Coronatorum used to be considered a source of information about quarrying, but Peacock finds that it is “a confused and unreliable document, which, despite previous claims, does not add much to our knowledge of Roman quarrying” (1995, p.366). The stones quarried at Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites had special properties, either in terms of the composition of the rock itself, or because of its appearance.  Peacock also suggests that it was less the quality of the stone than the kudos of obtaining it from such an obscure place that gave it value to the Romans:  “It was a product from the utmost end of the Empire and could be obtained only by extraordinary efforts.  This could be the secret of the whole quarrying enterprise in the Eastern Desert, which makes little sense in rational economic terms”.  The last dated inscriptions from the stone quarries in Wadi Hammamat were from the middle of the third century AD.  The quarries of Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites are discussed below.

Isolated finds have been made in various parts of the Eastern Desert.  A good example are the  finds from the Wadi Abu Had survey in 1992 (Bomann and Young 1994, p.37):  “a drop site of Late Roman sherds (WAH-12) was sighted on the surface of a flint-covered terrace in the western plain  The vessel was an amphora . . . A possible reason for the vessel’s appearance in such an isolated position is that it was dropped on the way to the copper mines at Darah West”.

Eastern Desert “Bedouin”

The Romans were not the only occupants of the Eastern Desert during this period.  Due to the poor levels of survey and excavation carried out so far in the Eastern Desert, it is very difficult to assess to what extent the desert was occupied on a permanent basis by nomadic herders similar to today’s modern groups.  However, there are hints that the desert was occupied by groups who occasionally caused problems to the Roman work teams.  The Eastern Desert nomads mentioned in the texts, formerly the Medjay in the New Kingdom, are now associated with a different nomenclature – the Red Sea littoral was occupied by a tribe called the Trogodytes, and the area between the Nile and the Red Sea mountains was occupied the Blemmyes (Berg 1998).  Another group named the Nobadae are mentioned, by the sixth century Byzantine historian Procopius in his De Bello Persico.  Procopius says that they were rivals of the Blemmyes.

The Trogodytes were divided into eight groups, two of which were the Therothoae and the Ichthyophagi (Bomann and Young 1994, p.29).  Some confusion appears to have been made by mis-spelling of the term Trogodyte, but the addition of an “l” to make Troglodytes.  Trogodytes are nomadic herders of cattle residing in Egypt and to the south, wheras Troglodytes were cave dwellers on the norhtern side of the Caucasus in northwest Frica, int he interior of norhtern AFrica and on the eastern coast of the Red Sea (Tomber 2005, p.41).  The confusion of adding the l appears to have been inbtroduced by Herodotus (Tomber 2005, p.41). 

Accounts from Roman and Byzantine literature indicate that there was considerable trouble from nomadic occupants of the Eastern Desert.  The Blemmyes appear to have been the main source of the trouble:  “According to the fifth-centry Palestinian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the Blemmyes overran the Nile Valley in 268 from Syene (Aswan) all the way to Ptolemais, near modern Sohag, and it took the Romans years of bitter campaigning to drive them back into the desert” (Berg 1998).  Procopius says that in 284 the Emperor Diocletian formally relinquished lands south of Syene to the Blemmyes and the Nobadae, and that this appears to have reduced the number of raids (Berg 1998).  A Roman clamp-down in 451 resulted in greater control over the Blemmyes, but matters again flared up in 536 when the Emperor Justinian outlawed pagan worship and ordered the removal of pagan idols at Philae:  “Outraged, the Blemmyes rsumed their raids” (Berg 1998).  The situation remained turbulent for another four years until the Blemmyes were defeated by a Christianized king of Nubia named Silko.

Apart from these references in historical documents, the Blemmyes are a somewhat unclear group of people, but they appear to have had similar lifestyles and economies to the modern Eastern Desert inhabitants, the Bedouin.  They were nomadic inhabitants about whom mention was made in various texts, some descriptions more outlandish than others (Barnard 2007, In Press).  They appear to have been based in eastern areas of southern Egypt and northern Nubia, and to have disrupted Roman activities.  Claims that either the Medjay or the Blemmyes may be ancestors of the modern Beja who occupy similar areas are both possible and disputed.  In the case of the Blemmyes, Barnard says that:  “Linking an ancient name with a modern group may prove even more difficult as can be demonstrated with the case of the phonetic similarity between blhm, Balabau, Bougaites, Blemmyes and beja is tempting, but hardly sufficient to connect these groups over large extents of space and time” (Barnard 2007 In Press).  There have been some suggestions that the Blemmyes were also in the Eastern Desert and were one of the barriers to full Roman exploitation of the Eastern Desert (Barnard 2007 In Press).

A number of artefacts have been linked to them including rock art, tumulus graves and Eastern Desert Ware (Barnard 2007), but these linkages with the Blemmyes seem somewhat ambiguous. Shanna Kennedy’s assessment of ring cairn graves at Berenike and elsewhere with those at Deraheib (Northern Sudan) and Wadi Qitna (Upper Egypt), which are accepted Blemmyes tombs, leads her to suggest that “the damaged remains of apparently analogous tomb constructions appear over too vast a geographical region to be plausibly identified with a group as specific as the Blemmyes” (Kennedy WR)  Barnard believes that the association of Eastern Desert Ware (discussed above) with the Blemmyes is doubtful, partly due to the fact that EDW was produced for a much shorter period than the Blemmyes are thought, from documentary sources, to have existed (Barnard WR-b).  Barnard concludes that the Blemmyes are a very enigmatic group:  Neither historical nor archaeological research so far provides clear evidence for their existence other than as a construct by contemporary or modern outsiders.  The lack of correspondence between the data from the different sources only adds to the confusion.  Several groups may have shared the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea and probably also the Nile Valley between the First and Third Cataract.  But more data need to be gathered before any theory on their relations, life-style and (material) culture can be tested (Barnard WR-b). 

Hans Barnard’s consideration of Eastern Desert Ware (EDW) has led him to suggest that it was the product of desert occupants (Barnard WR-a).  The entire pottery corpus recovered from Berenice seems to be quite varied in terms of its origins, with many vessels originating from the Nile Valley, but others from Turkey, Italy, Tunisia, Spain, France, East Africa, Arabia and India, but EDW does not fit into any of these categories:  “Apart from these three large, more or less distinct groups, from the Nile Valley, the Mediterranean and from the East, there is a heterogeneous group of sherds, mostly of hand-made vessels of unknown origin” (Barnard WR-a).  EDW is the name given to a small corpus of hand made vessels characterized by incised decoration which dates to the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the Late Roman period.  The cups and bowls are distinctive and quite unlike other pottery found in Egypt, in terms both of production technique and their remarkable incised decoration:  “With few exceptions the vessels are made of a rusty red to orange fabric with clearly visible, poorly sorted white inclusions (quartz and limestone), rather than the usual organic temper” (Barnard WR-b).  Barnard says that EDW has striking similarities to sherds from sites found in the Eastern Desert and Lower Nubia, and are “united by a very characteristic repertoire of vessel forms and decorative motifs, as well as technological features” (Barnard WR-a).  The best samples come from cemeteries in Wadi Qitna and Kalabsha South, dating to the 4th and 5th centuries A.D..  Barnard says that the ceramics appear to represent a small scale utilitarian industry which “can be interpreted as the household production of a nomadic group whenever the need occurred or the opportunity presented itself” (Barnard WR-b). 

In conclusion, Barnard believes that “several groups must have roamed the desert between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea in antiquity, just as they do at present . . . It seems reasonable to assume tha these groups had fluid edges and overlap in a way that it difficult for outsiders to comprehend” (Barnard WR-b)


Mons Claudianus

Mons Claudianus, reached along a surfaced road from Port (Bur) Safaga, lies some 40km to the southeast of Mons Porphyrites along Wadi Fatira. The largest and best-preserved Roman site in the Eastern Desert, Mons Claudianus, was once home to around one thousand quarrymen and soldiers.   Mons Claudianus was worked intermittently during the first three centuries A.D.,(from A.D.68) at the same time as Mons Porphyrites, from which it is only 50km distant.  Peacock (2000) suggests that Mons Claudianus was excluded from normal trade and that its products were probably the personal property of the Emperor (p.432).

The quarry men of Mons Claudianus used the surrounding mountains to extract stone that was used to produce high quality columns and other architectural components for buildings like the Pantheon, Hadrian’s Villa and the unfinished Temple of Venus. The benefit of the greyish granodiorite stone was the quality of its composition, which allowed blocks to be formed in single unbroken pieces. It was particularly useful for fashioning large single-piece columns, which were shaped on-site at the quarry.

Until the excavations at the site, which took place between 1987 and 1993, it was generally assumed that the inhospitable conditions of the Eastern Desert would have lead to the quarries being worked by convicts:  “A number of Classical authors, such as the 1st Century AD writer Josephus, wrote that the forced labour of convicts and captives was used at such remote stone quarries – an implication that appeared intuitively to make sense” (Van der Veen, p.1997).  However the excavations produced plenty of evidence to suggest that this was not the case, or at least not entirely.

The Mons Claudianus site includes the quarry settlement, an enclosed and fortified camp (castellum) with dwellings, workshops, stables and a dromos (avenue).  Some of the buildings inside the fortification still have their roof slabs in place. The enclosing wall, erected to defend against Bedouin tribes, was made of highly durable granite, and watch towers were located at each corner of the camp.  To the northeast of the camp there was a bath house accompanied by a temple. The settlement is the largest walled enclosure in the desert and everything is made of granite: pillars, rafters, seats and wash basins. At least some of the labourers who worked the quarry appear to have lived outside the castellum in small simple, very basic structures. The temple lies outside the town on the hillside to the north. A flight of ruined steps leads up to a terrace on a broken alter survives, but all that now remains of the walls of the temple is stone rubble in the immediate vicinity. The well lies in a valley nearly a kilometre away, and is connected to the town by an aqueduct down which the water traveled by the force of gravity. To the northeast of the town a large causeway leads up to the main quarries. There are remains of architectural components both in the quarries themselves and at the foot of the causeway. A complete but broken column lies at the base of the causeway, and a column capital is inscribed: “The property of Caesar Nerva Trajan”. Items still at the site include columns, basins, a bath, unfinished stone blocks, floor tiles, and architraves.

The site was a temporary home to both soldiers and those directly associated with the quarry works, including quarry workers, administrators and foremen. There are no records that convicts were used at the site: “the extensive collection of 1st- and 2nd-century ostraca from Mons Claudianus has produced no indication of damnati ad metalla” (Peacock 1995, p.366).  It seems clear that if forced labour was used, it was in conjunction with well paid skilled quarry workers. The quarry workers apparently commanded salaries consistent with their skilll and the effort demanded, which was twice the rate paid for Nile workers doing an equivalent task – 47 drachmas per month and 70 artab (pints) of wheat (Van der Veen 1997). This is consistent with conditions suggested by Building 93 at the Byzantine site of Bir Umm Farakhir, described below, where data suggests that conditions were far from impoverished.

Research into the site (Van Der Veen 1997) supports this view of a reasonable lifestyle, with indications that life appears to have been much less of a trial for the inhabitants than might be expected.  Like the Coptic monasteries of more recent times, Mons Claudianus appears to have been a well supplied fortified community. Due to the extreme aridity of the Eastern Desert, the preservation of organic remains was excellent, and has helped to provide a picture of the diet available to the inhabitants of Mons Claudianus.  Sources for food include the Nile Valley, the Red Sea, the Eastern Desert and India.  Staple foods from the Nile Valley include wheat, barley, lentil, dates, olives, wine and donkey meat.  Oysters and fish were provided from the Red Sea, and game and snails were available from the Eastern Desert.  Exotics include artichoke, citron, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pomegranates, water melons, cucumber and pepper (Van Der Veen 1997).  Food was apparently both brought into the site and, much more surprisingly grown there:  “The seeds of cabbage, leaf beat (or English Spinach), cress, lettuce, chicory, mint and basil have been found – they would not have been present if vegetables had been delivered to the site ready to eat” (Van Der Veen 1997). Van Der Veen goes on to point out the value of the Vitamin C and iron found in fresh green vegetables for the maintenance of those engaged in heavy labour.  The discovery of germinated carbonized grain has suggested that the inhabitants of the site also made beer. 

Occupation at the site was probably intermittent, and working of the quarry was probably dependent on commissions for rock from the quarry.  Meyer (1998-1999 WR) suggests that work between commissions “the site might haev been abandoned for a generation or so.”

The quarrying operation took place at 130 small quarry sites in the area surrounding the fortified settlement.  The logistics of the quarrying operation are summarized as follows by Van Der Veen (1997). The architectural pieces were cut out of the rock and were shaped on site before being dragged down causeways to a loading platform. The working of stone on site, perhaps to reduce the weight of each piece, will have required specialized stone workers, and this may account for the size of the operation at Mons Claudianus.  The stone was transported to the Nile , probably on wagons drawn by beasts of burden.  Although no carts or wagons have been found, a document from the site survives which mentions a twelve-wheeled wagon as well as four-wheeled carts. The route from Mons Claudianus to Qena, on the Nile, is lined by watch towers and way stations – what Van Der Veen calls “the motels of the Roman world” (1997).  These were fortified establishments offered stabling, food, water and overnight accommodation for travelers.  When they reached the Nile at Qena, the worked stone pieces were loaded onto barges and then transported via the river and canals to the Mediterranean coast for shipping to Rome.

Ostraca found at the site were mainly of an administrative nature, but some of them were personal communications of the type similar to those found at Vindolanda (Van Der Veen 1997).

In conclusion, Van Der Veen believes that “Roman emperors went to great lengths to get the stone they wanted and that no expense was spared to keep their workers happy” (1997).

Mons Porphyrites

Mons Porphyrites, the mountain of porphyry, was used as a mine for over three centuries, from 29 AD to 335 AD, with the earliest quarrying taking place under the emperor Tiberius. It lies on the road between the Red Sea and Maximianopolis, the modern Qena. It was rediscovered only in 1823.

The Gebel ed-Dukhan mountain (Father of Smoke) is a source of the imperial purple-red porphyry (and smaller deposits of green porphyry), which were considerably sought after for use in temples and other public buildings, as well as sarcophagi in Rome.  Said (1999 WR) says that thousands of tons of the porphyry were extracted, and that the stone was used mainly for manufacturing pillars “134 of which still stand today in Italian churches”. It was also used for making altars, fonts, basins and sarcophagi.  The purple porphyry was an imperial symbol and the delivery room of the palace in Constantinople was paneled with porphyry, which is why the children of reigning monarch were called “porphyrogenitos” i.e. “born-in-the-purple”.  It was known to the Romans as Roman stone or Egyptian stone, as well as porphyry (Peacock 1995, p.364).  Sites that contain purple porphyry are the Pantheon, pillars in Baalbek’s Temple of Heliopolis in Lebanon. According to Suetonius, Nero was the first emperor to be entombed in a sarcophagus made of porphyry, and although it has since been lost that of his wife Constantantina survives in the Vatican Library collection, decorated with peacocks, lambs and grapes (Werner 1998).

Porphyry is a hard fine-grained volcanic rock with inclusions of feldspar or quartz. This purple stone, was discovered by a Roman legionnaire named Caius Cominius Leugas in 18 A.D. Under Hadrian, a temple dedicated to Serapis was erected at the quarries, and a settlement for the miners was established. This is in very ruinous condition. Stables, cisterns and wells were also built. The Wadi Umm Sidri well was 5m in diameter Most of these features are also now in ruins. Four Zizyphus spina-christi trees are traditionally thought to have been planted by the Romans for shade.

A stela discovered in 1823 indicates that there was a Christian church, probably financed by Flavius Julius, but there is no sign of the church structure remaining.  However Peacock (1995) mentions that there are Christian inscriptions at the site, which is interesting because it indicates that Christianity was being tolerated to at least some extent:  “these are unlikely to have survived if the religion was totally outlawed” (p.367). 

Ramps and slipways at Mons Porphyrites cover the mountain stone was rolled down the slipways.  As at Mons Claudianus, there is evidence that some of the stone items were worked on-site:  “among the products abandoned in and around the quarries are column fragments, baths, basins and, most significantly, the rough-out of a porphyry bust” (Peacock 1995, p.366).  Stone and supplies were transported along the Via Porphyrites.  An evocative message on papyrus found in the Faiyum Depression written in the year 162 by Satabous of Dimai is a complaint that his camels has been appropriated for use by the authorities for “draft service on the porphyry road” (Werner 1998 WR)

The workers at Mons Porphyrites appear to have lived in three settlements associated with the site, all now ruined, but  all originally fortified. The largest housed an officer with the rank of Centurion, the garrison and possibly administrative staff.  The other two towns are smaller and consist of huts organized around narrow lanes (Said 1999 WR).

As at Mons Claudianus, there are indications that life was not all suffering, at least not for those favourably situated in the Roman hierarchy:  “One eloquently built house, complete with plunge bath, is indicative of the luxurious lifestyle which expatriated officers enjoyed” (Said 1999 WR).

These are also signs that as well as military and administrative personnel and quarry workers, women and children might have been present:  “Among the more startling finds are a hair-pin, cosmetic brush, and toy comb made from oyster shell – evidence  that women and children may have lived here alongside the men” (Werner 1998).

Van der Veen (1997) suggests that there is some evidence from the site to suggest that, as at Mons Claudianus, the inhabitants of Mons Porphyrites grew their own vegetable.  If the two sites were under the same administrative control, it might be expected that practices would be duplicated at the sites.  It is unclear whether or not forced labour was used at the site:  “condemnation to hard labour in quarries was a fate that awaited many Christians from the 2nd century onwards, but the extent to which this was practiced in the Eastern Desert is unclear. . . . their presence at Mons Porphyrites is only weakly attested.  Aelius Aristides (Or. XXXVI Keil:67) mentions convicts working in an Egyptian porphyry quarry, which must surely be Mons Porphyrites” (Peacock 1995, p.366-367).

Via Porphyrites

Mons Porphyrites was connected to Qena on the Nile river by the Via Porphyrites (Named by Strabo) and known from the Second Century map of Ptolemy the Geographer. 

Steven Sidebotham surveyed the Via Porphyrites in 1989:  “He concluded that from the first to the third centuries of our era, the hydreumata were used as watering station for the porphyry carts, and that in the following three centuries, when quarrying had ceased and tribal raiding from the south had commenced, they became Roman border posts and strong points along the line of communication between the Nile and the fort at Abu Sha’ar on the Red Sea coast” (Werner 1998).

The Via Porphyrites follows a path of three wadi valleys:  Wadi Belih, Wadi al-Attrash and Wadi Qena. 

A number of hydreumata line the route.  Examples include those at Badi’a, Saqqia, Al Heita and Wadi Qattar.  Badi’a measures around 14 sq metres with interior rooms, corner towers, 2m tall walls and a well.  Surface finds include pot sherds, glass fragments, and coins dating to the Emperors Hadrian, Trajan, Constantine and Theodosius (Werner 1998).  An ostracon near the site reads “To Dionysius my most dear friend.  I ask that you send the money if you are able.  Send it with Serapion since I need it and do not fail.  Goodbye”.  The writer’s name has been lost, so as Werner says “we will  never know who had such a pressing need for money in a place where, it would seem, money could buy nothing” (1998).  It is also possible that the ostracon was a message sent into Badi’a, not one destined to be sent elsewhere.  The Al Heita hydreuma, which was defended by two forts, produced an ostracon with a Roman love letter:  “From Isadora to her lord and master, greetings.  As I begged you before, please do not forget me.  I want you to send the bottle and inks so I may write to you again” (Werner 1998). The hydreuma at Saqqia was built on a low hill overlooking the Wadi Qena.  Werner describes it as follows (1998):  “At the center of its earthen berm perimeter are two wide wells which once fed the upper-level animal troughs and cisterns with water lifted by shadouf, the ancient Egyptian counterbalanced water-lifting device.  Seashells dot the ground;  they were used to make the lime plaster that still coats the troughs.  the odd porphyry chip or blue faience shard turns up with a kick at the dirt”. The hydreuma at the mouth of the Wadi Qattar itself is in a very ruinous condition, but the well at the hydreuma was renovated for re-use by Prince Farouk in the 1930s (Werner 1998). 

Along parts of the the Via Porphyrites Roman cart tracks survive.  These are around three metres wide and spread out across the plain, many of which lead to and from the hydreuma of Saqqia.


Berenice is on the Egyptian Red Sea coast approximately 300 km (200 m) east of Aswan and 800 km (500 miles) south of Suez, 150 nautical miles further south than Myos Hormos, and just south of the large peninsula Ras Benas. 

It was founded by Ptoelmy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BC, and was occupied until the mid 6th Century AD.  More is known about its occupation during the Roman period, due to the burial of the Ptolemaic levels beneath the Roman remains.  Pottery from the site shows connections with the Nile Valley, the Mediterranean and the East (including India).  The centre of activities in Berenice shifted more than once, following the changing coastline (Barnard WR-a). 

Berenice was ideally located as a harbour for trade between India and the Western Roman Empire, and appears to have been occupied until the 6th Century AD, with two periods of particularly substantial trade activity at the beginning of the second century A.D. and the mid late fourth century A.D. (Lagenbucher WR).  The sea routes were particularly important to Rome, in spite of well established land routes, because of the tolls that Rome was required to pay to the Empire of Parthia and the Arab kingdoms (Lagenbucher WR). 

A document called the Periplus Maris Erythraei is a sailing and merchant’s manual which dealt with the ports and products of the Red Sea to Indian Ocean trade.  Its author is unknown, but it is thought that he was an Egyptian Greek merchant and a Roman citizen who was traveling the Red Sea to India route around 60A.D..  The document details products imported from India including gems, sandalwood, teakwood, ebony, textiles, balms, and spices many of which have been been found at Berenice, including large numbers of black peppercorns (Piper nigrum). Other items found are Indian textiles and basketry, beads from Sri Lanka, and pottery from Ethiopia and Spain.  Indian rouletted ware and stamped bowls have been found at Berenice, confirming contacts in the mid late fourth century AD with the south east coast of India (Langenbucher WR). Teakwood was also found in large quantities, and is the dominant wood species found at the site.  The discovery of a deposit of ostraca has provided more information about the economy of Berenice, and have been divided into a number of groups based on their authors (Jenkins WR).  Most of them appear to have concerned wine and oil. 

The two periods of trade are different from each other:  “While the first trading boom is indicative of some contact with India, trade between Berenice and India increases dramatically during the second boom.  Also, while there is trade between the Western Mediterranean and Berenice during both periods of substantial trade, the latter period is characterized by more Eastern than Western Mediterranean goods” (Langenbucher WR).  This second period of trade was accompanied by extensive repairs of the Berenice buildings.

Supplies seem to have been imported during at least the early Roman occupation of the site :  “indicated, for instance, by the large numbers of pig, chicken and catfish bones from that period as well as firm indicators that cattle was walked in from the Nile Valley to be slaughtered on site (Barnard WR-a).  In the Late Roman period a large number of ovicaprid (sheep and goat) bones were found at the site, and rope and textiles made from sheep and goat hair were found.  The rise in ovicaprid products correlates with a significant drop in the proportion of fish remains, data which suggests to Barnard a more desert orientatied population, perhaps with the addition of another group to the multi-ethnic population occupying Berenice, perhaps users of the distinctive Eastern Desert Ware (WR-a).

It is not known why Berenice went into decline during the 6th Century AD.

During its use the main route from Berenice to the Nile was a diagonal route via a number of wadis with the main line going to Qift, with a branch heading to Edfu.  the route retains a number of remains including inscriptions in Wadi Mineh and the ruined fort Daydamus.  For details of some of the inscriptions in Wadi Mineh see the paper The Trade with India through the Eastern Desert of Egypt under the Roman Empire by Tony Judd on this site entitled at the following page :


Byzantine Period


The Byzantine period is again represented mostly in the form of industrial exploitation of the Eastern Desert.  The Wadi Hammamat, in particular, was used for quarrying a greenish conglomerate which is a coarser grained form of greywacke sandstone, and gold.

The Roman era introduced new gold production techniques, inherited from the Celts including a new mill type, which lead to a five fold increase in efficiency.  However, protecting mines against nomads caused considerable problems and only a few sites were used, including Wadi el-Sid and Bir Umm Fawakir.

The Wadi Hammamat contains the best known of these gold mines – a Byzantine/Coptic quarrying site called Bir Umm Fawakhir, which was a 5th-6th century gold-mining town with  an estimated 237 buildings in the main settlement.  Textual evidence gives very little evidence for Byzantine/Coptic activity in mining and quarrying, and makes very little mention of desert activity.  However, the discovery of important forts and settlements connected with these activities in the desert and on the Red Sea coast has suggested that more interest was taken in exploiting these resources than previously realized.  By this period the much richer gold mines at Wadi el-Sid had probably been worked out.  This will be discussed below.

During the Late Roman and Byzantine periods emeralds of the Eastern Desert “began to be quarried on a fairly large scale in the areas of the Eastern Desert between Myos Hormos and Berenike (principally the Sikait-Zubara region).  The region of Mons Smaragdus (Gebel Zubara) was sufficiently important for it to be specifically mentioned in an inscription in Wadi Semna describing the mines controlled by the acrhimetallarchos (chief overseer of the mines) in the Roman period” (Shaw 2002, p.250).  The presence of significant amounts of Eastern Desert Ware thought to be associated with nomadic occupants of the Eastern Desert, at Wadi Gimal A, one of the emerald mining sites in this area on the southern side of the Wadi Gimal, suggests to Shaw (2002. p.250) an involvement in the mining activities of the Blemmyes (who are discussed further below).

Bir Umm Fawakhir

Bir Umm Fawakhir is located in the central Eastern Desert on the Wadi Hammamat, around half way between Qift and Quseir.

The site was for a long time thought to be a Roman caravan base.  Excavations by the Oriental Institute have proved that it was a gold mining town, estimated to have housed over 1000 people in a sprawling settlement of some 237 buildings, with some more people occupying fourteen scattered outlying settlement clusters (Meyer 1997; 2001 WR). Of these clusters of ruins some had only a few huts but one has more than than 60. Cemetery areas also accompany the site.  There is nothing to date the burials directly, but surface scatters of pottery indicate that they are contemporary with the other elements of the site.

The Oriental Institute excavations have concluded that the site dates mainly to the Byzantine period, but excavations have revealed that it was occupied in late New Kingdom, Greek and Roman times as well (Meyer 1997; 2001 WR).  However, Klemm et al (2002, p.219) say that although the site was clearly inhabited during the Byzantine period, “no unquestionable evidence of gold ore dressing could by found by us during an extended survey there”.  So the date of the actual gold working at the site is someone under dispute, with dates possible either in the Roman or Byzantine period, or both.

The main settlement is not visible from the road, but is a short walk around the spur of a hill. Unlike other mines and quarries, like the earlier Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites this site appears to have no defensive walls, and was only supported by two watch towers on high ridges (Meyer 1997).

The town extends along a steep wadi for about half a kilometre, with a central main street flanked by houses which survive in places to over a meter in height, preserving doors, benches and wall niches.  Most buildings have two to three rooms, with the largest by far having 22 rooms (Meyer 1997).  Some houses are agglomerated into larger units.  One-room outbuildings of circular and rectangular forms are scattered throughout. All other buildings are domestic, without administrative buildings, storehouses, workshops or other functional buildings. The exceptions are two possibly communal bake ovens. They may have been destroyed by wadi activity at another part of the site. 

Examples of houses include Buildings 93 and 177, both of which were excavated in 1999.  Building 93 was selected because it appeared to represent a standard form of house structure, with no exceptional features, and was located near to two rubbish heaps. Carol Meyer describes the contents: “Building 93 yielded a surprising array of other finds: an iron wedge, a Bes amulet (fig. 5a) – this in a supposedly Christianized town – beads, an agate ring bezel or gem, two tiny coins, and six emeralds. All the emeralds are unworked crystals, and they probably came from the emerald mines at Gebel Sikait near Berenice (modern Mersa Alam) far to the south. What they are doing at Bir Umm Fawakhir is unknown, but they do seem to have been collected as items of value, and their presence here does not suggest absolute imperial control over the emerald mines” (Meyer 1998-1999 WR).  The two rubbish heaps near to the building both turned out to be ovens. Building 177 was in a more unusual location, situated on a high granite knob, but turned out to be more straight forward: “The only internal installation was a small fireplace made of thin granite slabs and partly filled with burnt twigs, branches, and charcoal, but no dung. Small finds include more beads, four tiny coins, five more emeralds, all three pendants recovered, a small copper-bronze weight, and pieces of two incense burner-like artifacts” (Meyer 1998-1999 WR).

In the 2000-2001 annual report, Carol Meyer presented some of the findings from zoological and botanical analyses.  Animal bones totalled 4200, and were derived from building 93 and its associated middens and clay ovens, building 177 and building 181.  The most common species of domesticated animal found were sheep and goat, followed by cattle, with only a few possible pig and camel bones and a complete absence of donkey and horse bones. Wild species include a few gazelle, several ibex and a possible single bone of a Barbary sheep.  Salima Ikram concluded that “The residents of Bir Umm Fawakhir were raising goats, sheep and cattle.  All portions of these animals are found well represented in the excavated sample, which argues convincingly against the importation of special cuts from the Nile Valley.  It can be safely assumed that all these animals were used as meat, a conclusion that is supported by the butcher marks found on several of the bones” (Meyer 2000-2001 WR).  All three species were probably also used for their dairy products, although sheep and cattle would have produced less milk in the desert conditions than those in the Nile Valley.  Goat, the most adaptable of the species to desert conditions, would have been of particular use.  The presence of cattle is particularly surprising as they tend to be ill-adapted to desert conditions.  Fish is absent (apart from one bone) which is not the case at Mons Claudianus or Mons Porphyrites.  It is suggested that this may mean not that fish was not consumed, but that it could have been imported in desiccated form, in which case bones could have been eaten or destroyed during cooking.  Plant remains include barley, bottle gourd, date, olive and wheat, some large unidentified pulses and fragments of Nile Acacia. 

Recovery of charred wood, scrub and dung has suggested that fuel consisted of a mixture of resources.

Wells have been sunk in several parts of the site. Pottery sherds carpet the ground throughout the site, including a very distinctive yellow ware.  The only documentary evidence from the site are dipinti – dockets attached to wine jars written in cursive Greek, which simply indicate that luxury goods were imported to the site. No church has been located, but the presence of crosses and Coptic symbols indicate that the site was Christian.

The main activity taking place at the site was the mining for gold in the Precambrian hills. The most detailed account of mining comes from Diodorus Siculus, and dates to the 1st Century BC.  However, Meyer has the following comments about using Diodorus as a source of information about mining techniques:

    “He states he tried to check his sources, but he relied on Agatharcides’ account from the 2nd century B.C. It is not clear whether either writer ever saw a gold mine; however, Diodorus wrote approximately half a millennium before the Byzantine/Coptic operations at Bir Umm Fawakhir. If nothing else, the political and economic situation had changed. Diodorus’ kings and queens of Egypt (the last of whom was Cleopatra) had long been replaced by distant emperors in Rome or Constantinople, and Egypt had been reduced to a province” (1997 WR).

The records provided by Diodorus break down mining as follows (Peacock 2000, p.430):

  • Rock broken by fire setting and hammering
  • Broken rock is crushed in large stone mortars until it is pea sized
  • Rock granules are then ground using hand mills to a fine powder
  • Water is used to wash the powder on a sloping surface to separate the gold from unwanted rock 

It is known that at Bir Umm Fawakhir two mining techniques were used – open cast mine which follows quartz veins from the surface, and shaft mining which were excavated vertically and horizontally into the hillsides.  Some of the shafts were reinforced with stone walling.  The largest of the shafts runs 100m into the mountain and is around 2m high, with two short side galleries and an air shaft.  Diodorus says that the first step in mining for gold was to shatter rock by fire setting.  Although there is no evidence for fire setting at the largest of the mines at the site, this may have been because it was unnecessary:  “the quartz is tough, but the surrounding rock can be splintered away” (Meyer 1997 WR). Crushing stones have been found in great numbers, made of basalt and porphyritic granite, which are both tough enough to grind quartz.  They are roughly 20cmx20cm and have small depressions in the middle of them.  It is suggested that “the ore, mined in virtual darkness, was immediately reduced at the mouth of the mine and then pieces worth the considerable effort of further reduction were picked out (Meyer 1997 WR).  The next stage described by Diodorus suggests that rocks were thrown into mills for grinding down to a flour-like consistency.  Evidence from the site supports this idea, with upper and lower stones from rotary querns found at the site.  Although Diodorus describes gold-washing and refining, Meyer says that it is unlikely that these final stages took place on site (1997 WR).  Rather, this would more probably have been taken place in the Nile Valley, where fuel and water were more readily available.

The presence of saddle querns of granite or porphyritic granite has not yet been explained.  No tools of metal have been found at the site.  Mortars made of soft limestone have been found, but are not common. 

Funerary areas have been identified on ridges around the settlement.  None of them are very sophisticated.  Most are simple granite cists, or make use of natural granite clefts.  Most have stones piled on top of them.  All have been looted, but associated ceramics suggest that the burials are contemporary with the settlement.

Taking all the data from the 1998-1999 season, Meyer summarized the main findings as follows:

    “Whoever lived in Building 93, at least in the latest stage, however, was not poverty stricken, judging from the copper-gold bracelet, gem stone, coins, emeralds, and other finds. The large amount of bone from sheep, goats, and larger animals, the olive and date pits, the presumed cheese-making installation, and the large number of wine amphorae do not suggest a particularly impoverished diet either. None of this supports the old idea of miners as slaves or prisoners. Rather, the data are much more in line with the new evidence about the quarrymen at the Roman site of Mons Claudianus to the north, who were paid some 26 drachmas per month plus a grain ration and at times a wine ration. Work there, however, depended on imperial commissions such as the Pantheon that required special granite columns. Between commissions the site might have been abandoned for a generation or so. Work at Bir Umm Fawakhir similarly must have depended on the imperial need for gold, which was urgent, and the willingness to expend grain and other resources to get it. Since this is hard rock mining of a difficult ore, sulfides in quartz veins in Precambrian granite, the mining would have required a very large work force, far beyond the reach of the individual miner seeking to pan out alluvial gold. It is hard to see who, at this period, apart from the government, could have financed, organized, and supplied the workers at Bir Umm Fawakhir. Pots are not people, but in this case we have about six Nubian handmade sherds to bucket after bucket of Nile silts, marls, Aswan pinks, and amphorae, and there is nothing else so far to suggest that the workers were not Egyptians. By the fifth century they should be Christian or at least Christianized, but the Bes amulet and the duck-stamped plate suggest that something of the old beliefs survived or the new beliefs were being interpreted in light of the old. A similar pattern at Berenice on the Red Sea suggests that paganism in the remote regions of the empire was not quite as dead as Justinian might have wished” (Meyer 1998-1999 WR).

It has become clear from evidence at Bir Umm Fawakhir that re-use of ancient sites by modern nomadic pastoralists and their herds is by no means unusual, and that this fact should probably be taken into account when studies include surface or near surface data:  “During a visit to the site in the 2001 study season, we observed that such mixtures of dung, wood, and non-wood fuels are still in use, immediately on-site, by the local Bedouins. This does present a very real problem in terms of ascertaining whether the material sampled is securely Byzantine or is perhaps much more recent” (Meyer 2000-2001 WR).


The Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods were characterized by intensive resource exploitation at a limited number of mines and quarries.  The importance of these industrial projects is reflected not only in the considerable manpower dedicated to the activities themselves, the buildings built to house the workers and other support personnel, and the logistics of taking them from quarries to their destination, but also in the massive infrastructure required to support them.  This included assignment of military personnel to protect operations, and the creation of roads, forts and way-stations.  Ian Shaw summarizes the situation rather nicely:  “during the periods of Roman and Byzantine domination of Egypt, the levels of mining and quarrying in the Eastern Desert seem to have reached soemthign of a peak, with certain sites (e.g. Mons Claudianus, Mons Porphyrites and Bir Umm el-Fawakhir) being occupied for long periods rather than simply visited intermittently, as was usually the case in the pharaonic period.  These activities took place amid flourishing trade along such official routs as the Via Hadriana . . . and via such Red Sea ports as Myos Hormos and Berenike” (2002, p.249)

The kudos of extracting these rare stones and minerals may have exceeded their real architectural value, but in Rome, status was a valuable commodity in its own right.  It is clear that many of the Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine sites were established on earlier Pharaonic sites, but appear to have fallen out of use by the 6th Century BC at the very latest.

It appears that the Eastern Desert was also occupied at this time by nomads who provided a threat to the Roman trade caravans and quarrying expeditions. Even in more recent historical times nomads have presented problems to both the residents of the Eastern Desert and to those traveling through it, and it appears that this is entirely consistent with their behaviour under the Ptolemaic and Roman rules.


Copyright Andie Byrnes 2007