Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

by Steven E. Sidebotham

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520948389
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/02/2011
Series: California World History Library , #18
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 456
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Steven E. Sidebotham is Professor of History at the University of Delaware and author of Roman Economic Policy in the Erythra Thalassa, 30 BC–AD 21.

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Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

By Steven E. Sidebotham


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94838-9



There was a "global economy" thousands of years before the term became fashionable in the late twentieth century. Yet, it is difficult to know where to begin to study this phenomenon or how it functioned and affected people's lives in the centuries straddling the turn of the Common Era. The extant, best-known written sources for the last few centuries B.C.E. and early centuries C.E. are predominately from the "western/Roman" perspective and picture the Mediterranean basin as the center of the trade. This network and the Romano-centric view of it are, however, much more complicated. The images and ideas that peoples had of themselves and of distant trading partners are complex and not easily understood, and changed over time. It would be best to start with the investigation of a single city, one that owed its existence to the economic boom of its age. Berenike, a port on Egypt's Red Sea coast (figure 1-1), is the ideal microcosm to study in order to come to grips with ancient "Old World" commerce and its impact on those who participated in it.

Berenike was one of many hubs in the extensive Old World economic network of the first millennium B.C.E. and first millennium C.E. that concatenated east and west. This intricate, far-flung web reached from at least Xian in China westward and overland along the numerous caravan routes, known collectively as the Silk Road, through Central Asia, South Asia, and the Near East, eventually ending at its westernmost termini on the eastern coasts of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Another link, the Trans-Arabian Incense Route, connected southern Arabia with ports on the southeastern Mediterranean seaboard and on the Persian Gulf. The Maritime Spice Route was the southern land-cummaritime counterpart of the central Asian Silk Road. It supplemented and complemented but was never a major competitor of the more northerly and more famous terrestrial route. The Maritime Spice Route connected China, Korea, and Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and Africa by sea via South Asia and to the Mediterranean via the Red Sea and Egypt. It also complemented and to some extent competed with the Trans-Arabian Incense Route. Another route joined sub-Saharan regions to the Mediterranean littoral of North Africa. The Amber Route, the only ancient long-distance trade network solely within Europe, linked the Mediterranean—primarily through the northern Adriatic port of Aquileia—with the amber-producing areas of the Baltic Sea.

Berenike itself was an important conduit in the southern Maritime Spice Route, which served long-distance commerce ranging from the Mediterranean basin, Egypt, and the Red Sea on the one hand to the Indian Ocean, including the African coast, the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent the Persian Gulf and perhaps beyond on the other. Varieties of merchandise, both prosaic trade goods and more exotic items, passed through Berenike; peoples from many parts of the ancient world, both inside and beyond the boundaries of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean, passed through the city or made it their home.

The commodities, material possessions, records, and structures that people left behind are concrete testimony to this trade. Merchants, travelers, and mariners also conveyed knowledge and ideas—which, however, have left few if any physical traces—and medical, philosophical, astrological-astronomical, and religious concepts whose practices have left some material remains. These ideas and concepts influenced what people believed and how and what they thought far more and longer than any altars or temples they may have left behind. These abstract "commodities" also passed both ways along the Berenike conduit linking east with west, and south (sub-Saharan Africa) with north (Mediterranean).

Several emporia on the Nile served Berenike (figure 1-2). Archaeological surveys have yet to identify an ancient track leading to Syene (modern Aswan), about 260 km to the west, though circumstantial evidence suggests that at least one such route existed in antiquity. Our archaeological projects at Berenike and throughout the Eastern Desert of Egypt have surveyed the major ancient routes leading to Apollonopolis Magna (modern Edfu), 340 km toward the west-northwest; and to Koptos (modern Quft), about 65 km farther north from Edfu on the Nile. According to Pliny the Elder (NH 6.26.102–104), Koptos was a twelve-day overland journey from Berenike. Reaching Berenike from any where on the Nile necessitated crossing expanses of rugged, mountainous deserts. The traveler hoping to journey between the Nile and Berenike had to deal with an unforgiving hyperarid environment, which was often the haunt of bandits seeking refuge from authorities on the Nile, of tax evaders and other malcontents, and of local "nomads" who, when possible, robbed wayfarers or extorted protection money from them. Most of those traveling between Berenike and the Nile did so in caravans of donkeys and camels supplied with guides, occasionally military escorts, and adequate food and water supplies—much of the food and water obtained en route. The Koptos Tariff, an inscription dated May 90 C.E., records tolls to be paid to make the desert crossing; there were also undoubtedly "unofficial" arrangements available that allowed wayfarers to obtain food and water for themselves and their baggage animals, and occasionally shelter at fortified caravansaries (praesidia) along the routes. Most likely, due to costs or lack of personal contacts, the average traveler probably could not take advantage of these amenities on a regular basis (see chapters 7 and 8).

Today's entrepreneurs travel to their destinations in hours, or a day or two at most, in relative comfort and security. Their ancient counterparts did not. By sailing or trekking overland long distances for weeks, months, or even years per single round-trip journey, ancient voyagers and merchants were also making other important contributions: the discovery and documentation of distant lands and peoples. In this sense these earlier mariners and businessmen were amateur geographers, ethnographers, and anthropologists. They charted and described unknown or little-understood peoples and places. Some of their reports were very fanciful and amateurish; others were keenly astute and surprisingly accurate. These included "geographies" and periploi—handbooks compiled of sailing conditions, ports, wind patterns, reef and island locations, and peoples and products of distant lands.

Drawing upon earlier sources, Herodotus wrote accounts about India and the "east" in the fifth century B.C.E. 11 Alexander the Great's campaigns of the 330s and 320s B.C.E. in "eastern" lands sparked interest in these regions in subsequent centuries among many dwelling in the Mediterranean. Historians recounted various aspects of Alexander's adventures, and although some of these accounts survive in whole or in part, others are lost, their authors known to us by name only, or were paraphrased by later writers.

Although Ptolemaic monarchs sought mainly gold from the Eastern Desert of Egypt, their major activity in more southerly regions of the African Red Sea coast was the acquisition and transportation of ivory, and of war elephants with which to counter their Seleucid adversaries in the Near East. These pachyderms, captured in areas of what are today Sudan and Eritrea, were taken to elephant-hunting stations along the Red Sea coast. The animals were then loaded onto specially designed ships called elephantegoi and dispatched to more northerly ports in Egyptian territory, Berenike being the favored landfall. Thence they were marched overland to one of the Nile emporia, where, after training, they were incorporated into the military as the ancient equivalent of tanks. (Acquisition and transportation of elephants is discussed at length in chapter 4.) Although the Ptolemaic rulers were also interested in and had some diplomatic and commercial contacts with South Arabia and India, we have no evidence that this contact was maintained on an extensive scale or on a regular basis.

After the annexation of Egypt as a Roman province in 30 B.C.E. there was increased interest in the Erythra Thalassa—viz. the Indian Ocean—and, to a lesser extent, the Persian Gulf as well as the Red Sea. Roman commerce, however, was different from that of the Ptolemies; Roman mercantile activity was greater in scope and more civilian and commercial in nature. The Roman Empire was many times the size of the Ptolemaic both in geographical extent and in population. Therefore, it stands to reason that the quantities and varieties of items exchanged via the Red Sea emporia after the Roman annexation of Egypt were substantially greater than in the Ptolemaic period. Given the disinclination of ancient writers and the dearth of detailed commercial documents from this Roman-era trade, one cannot determine precisely the volumes or costs; both were quite substantial.

Clearly, Berenike played an important role in the vibrant Old World global economy that bound west with east and south with north, both by sea and by land. For that reason, to study this city allows a better understanding of some portion of this vast, ancient commercial network. From a still far from complete understanding of this microcosm of international trade, one can explore Berenike's role in the larger economic picture of the ancient world approximately two millennia ago in the Maritime Spice Route and the overland Silk Route and Trans-Arabian Incense Route. What Berenike reveals is a microcosm of the larger economic picture of the ancient world two millennia ago.

There were a number of ports on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that bore the sobriquet Berenike. The one examined here was named after the queen of Ptolemy I Soter, who established the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the mother of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, founder of this important Red Sea emporium.



The remains of Berenike Trogodytika lie approximately 825 km south-southeast of Suez and about 260 km east of Aswan (figure 1-2). In the third century B.C.E. Ptolemaic authorities founded a settlement here, at the interface of the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea. Initially in the Ptolemaic era military and diplomatic, and later economic and government administrative, interests were the main impetus to founding and maintaining the community. Eventually Berenike evolved into a bustling metropolis and grew to enormous importance in the first century C.E. and later, when it became an integral part of the ancient global economic network.

The Red Sea is, in geological terms, a long, narrow, and recent marine feature created about 25–30 million years ago when the African and Eurasian landmasses pulled apart. The Red Sea is almost completely enclosed except at its southern end, where a 26–29 km–wide strait, the Bab al-Mandeb (Gate of Tears), connects it to the Indian Ocean. Surface currents, which peak in the winter, flow northward from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea with a speed up to half a knot, reaching as far north as Myos Hormos (Quseir al-Qadim).3 In the north, the Suez Canal is a recent artifact linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Measuring about 2,250–2,350 km long north–south, including its extensions into the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, by about 350 km east–west at its widest, the Red Sea is a geographical extension of the Indian Ocean, but because of minimal water circulation between the two bodies, the Red Sea is warmer and the evaporation rate higher, and it is, therefore, saltier than the Indian Ocean. Tides in the Red Sea vary from over 2 m near Suez to imperceptible in other locations. Jagged coral reefs fringe much of the coastline, beyond which the sea drops off precipitously to depths reaching 2,300 m or more.

Although the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea have some flora and fauna in common, the Red Sea has developed some unique species of fish as a result of its almost complete isolation. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, some Red Sea fish used it to migrate to the Mediterranean; the reverse also occurred, though not to the same extent.

Its topography suggests that commerce and communication within the Red Sea naturally tended to be along the lines of the shortest sailing distances—that is, west–east between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Although there is some evidence of this, the predominant directions of sailing and, hence, of communications and commerce were mainly along its northwest–southeast axis. This is due in part to the desert environment along the eastern (Arabian) coast of the Red Sea and to the fact that most merchandise sought by Egypt was either from the African side or from the extreme southern end of the Arabian coast. Contact with these regions, therefore, necessitated generally north-south sailing patterns.

In the Red Sea north of 18°/20° north latitude, prevailing winds are usually northwesterly and at times can be quite strong. A newly deciphered papyrus likely from the Arsinoite Nome (Fayum), purchased by Yale University and dated June 5, 97 C.E., confirms the problems ships had when approaching Berenike against these strong contrary winds. In the southern third of the Red Sea, wind patterns and strengths are more variable and can, generally, be stronger than in the north.

Berenike's location at the boundary of the Red Sea and the Eastern Desert provided avenues of trade, communication, and conveyance of basic resources to and from the port, but also posed barriers to reaching it. The Eastern Desert south of the Nile Delta and north of the Sudanese border covers approximately 206,000 km2. Plains of varying widths slope down from the Red Sea mountain watershed toward the Nile and the Red Sea. These mountains comprise igneous and metamorphic basement rocks, formed about 550–900 million years ago, with some sedimentary deposits, which run parallel to the Nile and the Red Sea. The highest peak is Gebel Shayib al-Banat at 2,184 m. Generally east–west-running wadis (valleys or seasonal watercourses) carry rainfall toward the Nile and the Red Sea and dictate locations of water supplies, especially wells and springs. These wadi systems also determine directions of most human and animal movement through the region.

Annual precipitation is minimal in the northern Red Sea, varying from about 5 mm at Quseir to approximately 27–28 mm at Eilat; farther south at Suakin and Massawa this increases to 44 mm per annum. In Egypt's Eastern Desert most rain falls in rare, heavy downpours every few years in mountainous areas west of the Red Sea coast. Depending upon the side of the watershed on which the rain falls, the resulting precipitation eventually flows either west toward the Nile or east in the direction of the Red Sea. This rainfall leads to occasional devastating flash floods (seyal/suyul in Arabic). The destruction wrought by these suyul and their incredible power are graphically visible in wadis throughout the Eastern Desert and along the Red Sea coast. Uprooted trees, toppled houses, washed-away vehicles, undercut or heavily eroded roads and railway beds, reports of many drowned humans and animals, and dense clumps of vegetation washed 2 m and higher against low-lying acacia trees or clinging to craggy wadi walls are omnipresent reminders of these deluges. Available evidence indicates that rainfall levels were similar during the period when Berenike operated. Examination of ancient authors, including Aelius Aristeides (Egyptian Discourse 36.32 and 36.67), indicates how desiccated the region was in Roman times.

One can appreciate the enormous efforts and matériel expended to establish a community at Berenike andmaintain its infrastructure to enable people to live and work in such a hostile environment. Berenike was founded in the first half of the third century B.C.E. and lay abandoned before about 550 C.E. Subsequently, until modern times, few people seemed to know its whereabouts, though transients occasionally camped there for brief periods.

Berenike's location south of Ras (Cape) Benas (see figure 5-6) was carefully considered. Whereas the cape did not protect the port from powerful northerly winds, it did block the strong, southerly alongshore current that partially caused the harbor at Berenike to silt up (from sediment moving along the shore) and boats anchored offshore to drift. Ras Benas was also an excellent landmark for those sailing along the coast.


Excerpted from Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route by Steven E. Sidebotham. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction
2. Geography, Climate, Ancient Authors, and Modern Visitors
3. Pre-Roman Infrastructure in the Eastern Desert
4. Ptolemaic Diplomatic-Military-Commercial Activities
5. Ptolemaic and Early Roman Berenike and Environs
6. Inhabitants of Berenike in Roman Times
7. Water in the Desert and the Ports
8. Nile–Red Sea Roads
9. Other Emporia
10. Merchant Ships
11. Commercial Networks and Trade Costs
12. Trade in Roman Berenike
13. Late Roman Berenike and Its Demise


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This highly readable, indeed exciting, book explores numerous aspects of ancient Berenike."—American Journal of Archaeology

"A remarkably detailed picture of the Egyptian business world along the Red Sea and
Indian coast. . . . Many historians will be grateful."—Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Bmcr)

"[A] fascinating story."—Times Literary Supplement (Tls)

"The detail of data is remarkable, and one is left with excellent understanding of life in this remote city."—American Journal of Archaeology

"Sidebotham tells the fascinating story of how this isolated harbour site owed its existence to long-range commerce."—Times Higher Education

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