Roman forts in Egypt To el-Salaam Canal

Roman forts in Egypt

More than 100 Roman forts exist throughout Egypt with construction and occupation dates spanning the late first century BC to the sixth or early seventh century AD. The major role of these forts and of the Roman army in Egypt was maintenance of internal security; there was little threat of invasion by major forces from outside the province throughout most of the Roman period. The forts and their garrisons performed multiple functions, including monitoring activities (commercial, official-governmental, security) of peoples living in and passing through regions where they were located. They also protected vital trans-desert routes or key locations on the Nile and in the Delta from hostile peoples, mainly bandits and, from the third/fourth century AD on, bedouin marauders like the Nobatae and Blemmyes. Larger forts on the Nile and in the Delta were often support bases for smaller outlying desert garrisons.

Forts in Lower Egypt tend to be poorly preserved, as do those in Upper Egypt along the Nile, due mainly to human depredations. Those at Luxor, Qal’at el-Baben circa 20km south of Edfu and Babylon south of Cairo have been studied to some extent. Those in the desert regions vary greatly in size, but tend to be better preserved than their counterparts in the Nile Valley. Damage to and destruction of the desert forts has been caused by floods and, more recently, human activity.

The Eastern Desert installations guarded key roads leading to ports, mines or quarries or protected the more important quarries and mines themselves, such as Mons Porphyrites, Mons Claudianus, Semna, Barrimiya, Samut and Nakheil. Those in the Western Desert guarded trade/invasion routes coming from Sudan to the south especially along the Darb el-Arba’ein, the key oases (Fayum, Baharia, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga) and routes leading thence to the Nile. In the Fayum (e.g. Qasr Qarun) these forts monitored more densely populated areas. Those in Sinai, such as the one at Pelusium, guarded key urban centers or transportation arteries, while others protected mines and quarries.

Few of the forts in the deserts have been excavated. The French have been working at sites in the Western Desert. An international team led by L’Institut frangais d’archeologie orientale excavated at the Eastern Desert quarry site and fort at Mons Claudianus (first to early fourth (?) centuries AD), at Zerkah (Maximianon) and el’Muwugft (Krokodilo) on the ancient route between Quseir and the Nile. American teams have excavated at the late Roman (late third (?) to sixth or seventh century) fort at Abu Sha’ar circa 20km north of Hurghada on the Red Sea coast (University of Delaware) and at Didyme (Khasm el-Menih/ Zeydun) toward the northern end of the Berenike-Coptos road (University of Michigan). Other Eastern Desert forts along the Abu Sha’ar-Kainopolis (Qena) road, the Quseir (Myos Hormos?)-Coptos (Quft) road, the Berenike-Apollinopolis Magna and Berenike-Coptos/Edfu roads (Strabo, Geography 17.1.45 and Pliny, Natural History 6.26.102-3) and the Marsa Nakari (Nechesia?)-Edfu route have been plotted on a map using the Global Positioning System, examined, drawn in plan and dated through surface (mainly ceramic and numismatic) artifact analysis. Several roads noted by earlier scholars in the Eastern Desert and along the Red Sea coast no longer exist, such as that at Qwei circa 30km north of Quseir and Clysma (near Suez) (Claudius Ptolemy, Geography 4.5). Others, both known and unknown to earlier scholars, survive in only very poor condition (e.g. Abu Sha’ar circa 40km southwest of Ras Gharib, Gedami, Abu Gerida, Compasi). The ancient names of these forts are unknown, except for a number along the routes between Berenike and Coptos and Quseir el-Qadim and Coptos.

Generally, regular Roman units were stationed in major legionary camps in the Nile Valley; auxiliaries, mostly mounted cavalry and dromedary units, corvee and "police" were posted in more outlying desert regions, no doubt assisted by local scouts. The legionary units were not permanently stationed in Egypt and were occasionally transferred out of the province. There is growing knowledge of garrison sizes, specific names of units stationed in the outlying desert forts, along desert roads, in mines and quarries, and the regional/ethnic origins of the troops. Roman troops, probably supervising local labor, repaired installations in the Eastern Desert in the first century AD.

Shapes of the forts varied in plan; rectilinear shapes were the most popular. Less numerous are oval or circular plans or a combination of oval/circular and rectilinear, such as the forts at Qal’at el-Baben on the Nile and el-Kana’is, at Wadi Abu Greiya (Vetus Hydreuma), Semna and Wadi Belih in the Eastern Desert; these shapes seem to fall in the Ptolemaic or earlier period of Roman occupation rather than the later. An unusual semicircular fort exists at Wadi Umm Gariya (previously and erroneously located at Umm ‘Ushra) in the Eastern Desert along the Berenike-Nile road. Nile forts were built of stone with some brick; those in the desert were built mainly of locally acquired dry laid stones and mudbrick, with fired brick used sparingly in hydraulic contexts.

Larger forts had either rectilinear or circular/ oval shaped towers at the corners, flanking the gates and midway along the walls; the smaller forts had fewer towers or lacked them altogether. Fort wall bases were usually of stone with superstructures in stone or mudbrick. Walls often tapered toward the top and frequently had a batter. The interiors of the Eastern Desert hydreumata (fortified water installations) generally had large cisterns or wells surrounded by rooms abutting the interiors of the main fort walls. Occasionally the cisterns/wells for desert installations lay outside the defensive walls (e.g. Wadi Belih, Abu Sha’ar on the Red Sea coast, Mons Claudianus, Mons Porphyrites). In some instances the forts are too ruined to determine cistern/well location; some forts stored water channeled into their interior cisterns from nearby mountains (e.g. Abu Hegilig North and South). Animal tethering lines (providing rest and revictualing points for draught animals hauling quarry stone) lay outside and adjacent to many of the forts in the Eastern Desert along the Abu Sha’ar-Nile road in that segment between the quarries at Mons Porphyrites and Kainopolis and the trunk routes leading westward to the Nile from the quarries at Mons Claudianus.

Most of the desert forts were set along routes of varying widths, cleared of surface boulders and cobbles. These "roads" were generally unpaved though a few paved sections of questionable date survive on the Abu Sha’ar-Kainopolis road. Cairns defined most or all of the courses of some of these desert highways (Via Hadriana, Abu Sha’ar-Kainopolis road, Mersa Nakari-Edfu route, Quseir el-Qadim-Coptos road, Berenike-Edfu and Berenike-Coptos roads). Signal and watch towers also appear regularly and in great numbers on some (Abu Sha’ar-Kainopolis and Quseir el-Qadim-Coptos) roads, more sporadically on the Berenike-Nile routes. Provisions of water for travelers might also be found next to some of the cairns and towers (e.g. the Abu Sha’ar-Kainopolis and Berenike-Coptos roads).

In the later period of Roman occupation (early fourth century AD onward), the region east of the Nile was styled a limes (frontier administrative zone). This may have been the case prior to the fourth century as well. Some of these forts continued in sporadic, non-military use later in the Roman period as monasteries (such as Abu Sha’ar on the Red Sea coast) or stopping points for Christian travelers. In the Islamic era forts along some of the main thoroughfares between the Nile and the Red Sea (Coptos-Quseir and Quft/Edfu-Berenike south to ‘Aidhab) were convenient overnight stops for pilgrims making the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Roman ports, Red Sea

The second century AD geographer Claudius Ptolemy (Geography 4.5) indicates six ports on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. They were, from north to south: Clysma-Qolzoum-Arsinoe-Cleopatris (near Suez), Philoteras, Myos Hormos (Quseir?), Leukos Limen/Albus Portus, Nechesia (Mersa Nakari?) and Berenike. Ptolemy’s locations are only approximate; he does not indicate when these were founded nor whether all were operating in his day.

Confusion in the location and identification of the classical Red Sea Egyptian ports stems from Claudius Ptolemy’s imprecise coordinates and from differing accounts in other ancient authors. Strabo (Geography 16.4.5) lists four ports from north to south: Philoteras, Arsinoe, Myos Hormos and Berenike. Later in the first century AD, Pliny the Elder (Natural History 6.33.167-8) gives the order of Egypt’s Red Sea ports from north to south as: Arsinoe, Philoteras (Aenum), Myos Hormos and Berenike. The Periplus Maris Erythraei 1 (approximately contemporary with Pliny) mentions that Myos Hormos was 1,800 stades from Berenike. No ancient author except Claudius Ptolemy mentions Leukos Limen and Nechesia. Other classical references spanning the third/second centuries BC to the sixth century AD refer to the Egyptian ports of Clysma-Qolzoum-Arsinoe-Cleopatris (29°58′ N, 32°33′ E), founded on or near the pharaonic settlement of Kemouer; Philoteras; Myos Hormos; and Berenike (23°55′ N, 35°28′ E).

Map of the Eastern Desert with principal routes and emporia, on both the Nile and the Red Sea

Figure 94 Map of the Eastern Desert with principal routes and emporia, on both the Nile and the Red Sea

Literary accounts and/or etymology of port names indicate that most "classical" Egyptian Red Sea emporia seem to have been founded during the Ptolemaic period. Some, such as Clysma-Qolzoum-Arsinoe-Cleopatris (named after Arsinoe II, queen-wife-sister of Ptolemy II in circa 270/269 BC), Philoteras (named after the sister of Ptolemy II) and Berenike (named after the mother of Ptolemy II, in circa 275 BC), were official Ptolemaic foundations; others founded in the Ptolemaic period, such as Myos Hormos (Mussel Harbor, less likely Mouse Harbor) and Nechesia, may have been unofficial creations. Excavations at Quseir el-Qadim (26°10′ N, 34°17′ E) suggest that it was founded only in the Roman period (first century AD). There is scholarly debate on the identification of Quseir el-Qadim; recent arguments associate it with Myos Hormos. Perhaps the ruins of an earlier Ptolemaic site lay under modern Quseir.

All the ports appear to have functioned at some point in Roman times, but there is no extant evidence that any of the ports—with the possible exception of Arsinoe and Berenike—operated throughout most of the Roman occupation of Egypt. Berenike was important enough in the Roman era to lend its name to the region governed for a time in the first and early second centuries AD by a military prefect. Papyrus Hamburg 7, of AD 132, indicates that Berenike was part of a nome of that name by the reign of Hadrian. Archaeological surveys and excavations have investigated Clysma-Qolzoum-Arsinoe-Cleopatris, Quseir el-Qadim and Berenike; Myos Hormos may be at modern Quseir or at Quseir el-Qadim. The identifications of Philoteras (in the Wadi Safaga or Wadi Gawasis?) and Nechesia (Mersa Tundaba, Mersa Nakari or Wadi Mubarak?) are uncertain.

There was commercial activity at some of the ports in the Ptolemaic era. At that time trade seems to have been mainly within the Red Sea with the establishment of a number of elephant-hunting stations down the African coast to the Bab el-Mandeb and perhaps beyond, along the Indian Ocean coast of Africa (Strabo, Geography 16.4.7ff; Pliny, Natural History 6.34.170-5). Major items of import from this region in this period were elephants and gold for the Ptolemaic military. Evidence of limited Ptolemaic contact with India indicates occasional forays beyond the Red Sea to lands bordering the Indian Ocean.

Literary evidence and archaeological excavations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Red Sea-Indian Ocean region suggest that in the early Roman era (30 BC-second century AD) maritime commerce with South Arabia, India, Sri Lanka and coastal sub-Saharan Africa reached its zenith. This trade was of a greater volume, involved a larger variety of goods and ranged farther afield in the Roman than in the Ptolemaic period. Roman trade in the Red Sea-Indian Ocean was more commercially motivated than that of the Ptolemies. Despite the generally held scholarly view that Rome suffered a balance of trade deficit in this eastern trade, there are no ancient statistics to support this assumption; the few disparaging references to it by ancient sources are hyperbolic (Pliny, Natural History 6.26.101; 12.41.84, whose figures are suspicious; Tacitus, Annals 3.53; Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 79.5.6).

From excavations undertaken at Clysma-Qolzoum-Arsinoe-Cleopatris, Quseir el-Qadim and Berenike, it is clear that most buildings at these emporia were quickly and poorly constructed of mudbrick, locally acquired stone and coral. This kept overhead costs minimal in order to maximize profits from the commerce. Evidence at Quseir el-Qadim and Berenike suggests that those ports were laid out on a grid pattern, implying some organizing central power at work (the Ptolemaic/Roman governments of Egypt).

Roads connected these ports to emporia on the Nile. All the major trans-desert Red Sea-Nile roads had way-stations, many of which were fortified watering points (hydreumata). Cairns and signal towers dotted the lengths of the major roads linking Abu Sha’ar with Kainopolis (Qena), Myos Hormos with Kainopolis or Coptos (Qift), Berenike with Apollinopolis Magna (Edfu) and Coptos, Nechesia (Mersa Nakari?) with Edfu. In addition, cairns marked the course of the Via Hadriana which began at Antinoe/Antinoopolis (Sheikh ‘Ibada) on the Nile in Middle Egypt, ran east to the Red Sea coast and proceeded south where it terminated at Berenike.

The Berenike-Edfu route was popular in the Ptolemaic and early Roman period, but was little used in the later Roman and Islamic eras. In Roman times the preferred route from Berenike to the Nile went to Coptos. The latest of the major highways was the Via Hadriana, built and named in honor of the emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. The Eastern Desert highway linking the late Roman fort at Abu Sha’ar to the Nile emporium of Kainopolis also acted as part of the limes (administrative frontier zone) in the region from the early fourth century AD on. This may also have been the case with the other major highways linking key Red Sea ports to the Nile in Roman times, if not earlier in the Ptolemaic period.

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, one of the most famous monuments from ancient Egypt, is a slab of black basalt containing a single text in Greek and Egyptian versions. The stone, now in the British Museum in London, played a crucial role in the decipherment of hieroglyphic writing.

Rosetta is a small modern Egyptian town, founded in the second half of the ninth century AD. Once a flourishing seaport, it is located on the Mediterranean coast about 50km east of Alexandria. Its actual Arabic name is Rashid; "Rosetta" is an anglicized version. About 7km northwest of Rashid, at a strategic location on a branch of the Nile, are the remains of a medieval fort, partially built of stones hauled from ancient Egyptian monuments both nearby and far away. It is one of these stones that became known as the Rosetta Stone.

The stone was found in the summer of 1799 by French army engineers engaged in the restoration and expansion of the Arab fort during Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition (17981801). The slab was transported to Cairo and, upon Napoleon’s defeat, surrendered to the British in Alexandria under the terms of capitulation. It reached London in early 1802 and was deposited later that year in the British Museum.

The stone is about 118cm high, 77cm wide, and 30cm thick, and weighs 726kg. Its top portion is now missing, but it must originally have been about 180cm in height.

The flat front of the Rosetta Stone bears a single text in three versions. The version inscribed on the bottom third is Greek. The other two versions are in two different scripts of Egyptian. The text may be characterized as bilingual, not trilingual, if the two Egyptian versions are counted as a single language.

The fragmentary version at the top is written in Middle Egyptian, an earlier phase of the language which died out many centuries before the stone was inscribed and which remained in use only as an official language for academic and religious purposes. The Middle Egyptian version of the text is written in hieroglyphs.

The version in the center of the stone is Demotic, the (Egyptian) language spoken at the time when the stone was inscribed. This version is written in the Demotic script, a cursive variant of hieroglyphic writing used exclusively to write the Demotic stage of Egyptian.

It was realized immediately upon discovery of the stone that its text offered the best chances yet to decipher hieroglyphic writing. The Greek version stated that the undeciphered Egyptian texts were but versions of the translatable Greek text. Copies of the text were made available to scholars throughout Europe in an exemplary spirit of cooperation, and for about two decades the text of the Rosetta Stone formed the focus of all efforts at decipherment by European scholars. Although, in the end, the Rosetta Stone was not the exclusive provider of clues for the decipherment of the Egyptian language by Jean-Frangois Champollion in 1822, it has rightly emerged as the symbol of one of the great intellectual achievements of mankind.

The extraordinary history of the stone and its crucial role in the decipherment have tended to overshadow its value as a historical document. The slab records a royal decree dating to 196 BC during the Ptolemaic period, when Egypt was governed by rulers of Greek descent who had come into power at the death of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. This explains the bilingual character of the stone.

The text commemorates the accession to the throne of Ptolemy V and was composed in the ninth year of his reign. Ptolemy V promises various benefits such as gifts and reduction of taxes to the temple domains of Egypt. In return, the priests pledge to promote the cult of the young king by erecting stone slabs exactly like the Rosetta Stone next to a statue of the pharaoh in temples throughout the land. It is interesting to note that, since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, fragmentary duplicates have emerged elsewhere in Egypt.

el-Salaam Canal

The el-Salaam (Peace) Canal is the largest irrigation project undertaken by the Egyptian government in recent years. It is certainly the most significant in terms of impact on archaeological sites since the building of the High Dam at Aswan and the subsequent Nubian Salvage campaign. The canal, begun early in the 1990s, is designed to run eastward across to the northern Sinai, close to and broadly parallel with the Mediterranean coast, from just north of Qantara to el-Arish. The direct course of the el-Salaam Canal brings it close to, or across, archaeological sites in a region which, unlike southwestern Sinai, has not been intensively explored archaeologically apart from work early this century by Jean Cledat and more recently by Eliezer Oren. Current work, predating the canal project, has been carried on in the Qantara region by Mohammed Abdel Maksoud at Tell Hebua (New Kingdom) and by Dominique Valbelle at Tell el-Herr (late Dynastic and Graeco-Roman). In addition, the subsidiary canalization, which represents the secondary phase of the irrigation project, with the intention of turning desert into cultivated fields, also poses an immediate threat to archaeological sites.

The North Sinai Salvage Project is an international collaborative effort, bringing together teams from the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities (formerly the Egyptian Antiquities Organization) with teams from a variety of foreign countries. To date, most work has been focused on the western part of the sector, where canal digging has proceeded most rapidly. Particular attention has been placed on survey and excavation of sites in the vicinity of Pelusium, an important ancient city, especially in the Graeco-Roman period. Pelusium was once located at the mouth of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and thus it was the effective eastern border town of the Delta in antiquity. The city is now represented by the significant (over 2km from east to west) mound of Tell Farama, with an array of visible and/or recently excavated public buildings of the Graeco-Roman period, including a large theater and an impressive, well-preserved redbrick fortress which dominates the center of the tell. There are also a number of satellite sites around Tell Farama which came within the environs of the ancient city, including a substantial series of early Christian buildings at Tell Makhzan, immediately to the east of Tell Farama. To the south of Tell Farama is a low-lying salt plain, which is an area of mixed agricultural/cemetery usage at least as early as late Roman times; this area is bisected by the el-Salaam Canal running east-west through it.

Sites which have been partially destroyed by the progress of the canal include Tell el-Fadda and Tell el-Louly, both on or close to its direct line and both less than 10km from the Suez Canal. Both these sites seem to be of post-New Kingdom date, the latter at least probably on the Pelusiac branch as it existed in the Late and Graeco-Roman periods. Farther south, a line roughly from Qantara to Tell Farama marks the edge of the Flandrian coast (probably the coastline in the New Kingdom and earlier). Located here are a number of archaeological sites whose importance for the Late period and earlier has been demonstrated by pre-Canal investigations, which continue (Tell Hebua, Tell el-Herr). Some newer investigations here have been stimulated by the Salvage Project (Tell el-Kedua, Tell el-Mufariq).

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