Elephants, Gold, Singing Boys And Red Coral: Ancient Port Offers Lessons For Today's Traders, Archaeologists Say

November 01, 1996

Elephants, gold, singing boys and a host of other commodities moved through the Ptolemaic-Roman port of Berenike, at the edge of Egypt's mountainous Eastern Desert, from at least the third century B.C. until the late fifth or sixth centuries A.D.--much longer than previously assumed, two archaeologists say.

The ancient port continued to thrive long after its heyday in the first century A.D. largely because of favorable prevailing wind patterns, but also because entrepreneurs "kept their overhead costs low to maximize profits," says Steven E. Sidebotham, a history professor at the University of Delaware. "The port buildings were made of the cheapest possible building materials, such as fossilized coral and gypsum blocks. They had built elaborate structures in town, yet their warehouses and other utilitarian buildings were low-budget, low-maintenance affairs. So their profit margins were enormous."

Likewise, traders sailing into Berenike (pronounced BEAR-uh-NEEK-ay) often grabbed "the equivalent of millions of dollars for a single shipment," ancient cargo records reveal, but reaching the Red Sea port was a risky business, Sidebotham says. Just as modern global corporations must weather hostile takeovers and downsizing, ancient traders braved dangerous coral reefs, powerful monsoon winds, pirates and a 25 percent to 50 percent tax on all goods shipped into Berenike, according to Sidebotham and his research partner, Willemina Z. Wendrich, an archaeologist at Leiden University, The Netherlands.

The diverse population of Berenike, founded around 275 B.C. by Ptolemy II, who named the port after his mother, also mirrors today's global marketplace. "Merchants, both men and women from various ethnic backgrounds, had the same objective: to accrue fabulous wealth which this East-West trade potentially offered," Sidebotham and Wendrich report in a recent issue of Egyptian Archaeology: The Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society , No. 8, 1996. (Their findings are also described in a paper now in press for the German archaeology journal, Antike Welt, and in Berenike 1995, a new book about their excavation and survey of the site, published in 1996 by the School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies at Leiden University.)


Though many archaeologists believe that trade through Berenike emphasized nonessential or luxury goods, Sidebotham and Wendrich disagree. Ptolemaic officials imported elephants and gold to support their diplomatic and military goals in the Mediterranean, he says. African elephants served as "tanks" for the Ptolemaic (Egyptian) army, and for other contemporary armies in the Near East, he explains. Gold helped the Ptolemaic government achieve its military and political objectives in key regions. Two other imported items, frankincense and myrhh, were widely used in religious ceremonies, and Indian pepper was a key component of many ancient pharmaceuticals, Sidebotham says.

Because these and other imported goods were essential in ancient Mediterranean society, he says, traders continued to visit Berenike throughout the fifth century A.D. and possibly during part of the following century. In support of this conclusion, Sidebotham and Wendrich point to 1,156 black peppercorns, imported textiles and botanical remains unearthed from the Berenike excavation site, suggesting ongoing trade with India, Arabia, coastal sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. "Pepper was only grown in South Asia at that time, and we found many of these peppercorns in first through fourth and fifth century A.D. contexts while excavating the site," Sidebotham says. "If they were dropping or discarding that much pepper on the ground, imagine how much passed through or was consumed at the port."

Ancient Mediterranean peoples exported red coral, singing boys and maidens for Indian harems, as well as pearls, glass, textiles, grain, wine and gold and silver bullion, say Sidebotham and Wendrich, whose site survey was based in part on satellite data from a hand-held Global Positioning System, plus excavations and historical documents by ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder.

Food remnants, pottery, ancient documents and religious artifacts helped the two archaeologists describe the diverse community of Berenike. For example, bicolored pottery, goat bones and camel by-products from the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. may have been dropped in the center of the city by desert-dwelling nomads known as the Blemmyes. But a nearby public building probably housed a different ethnic group partial to fish, Sidebotham says.

A newly uncovered "warehouse of pagan idols" also suggests the coexistence of many different cultures, he adds. A nearly life-sized bronze statue, for instance, may depict the popular Ptolemaic-Roman goddess Isis holding a cornucopia, or it may represent the Greco-Roman goddess, Hygieia, clutching a snake, Sidebotham explains. A stone lion could be associated with any one of several pagan cults, including the Great Mother goddess, Cybele. Since ancient documents record widespread suppression of pagan idols in the fourth and fifth century A.D., Sidebotham says, Egyptians may have placed these objects in a warehouse for safekeeping.

"We don't know yet why Berenike declined and fell apart," Sidebotham says. "But certainly, it had increasing competition over the years from many other ports, especially in the southern parts of the Red Sea. If we hope to learn from the ancients, we have to preserve and explore important archaeological sites like Berenike."

Research by Sidebotham and Wendrich is supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, Foundation for History, Archaeology and Ancient History; the National Geographic Society; the Samuel H. Kress Foundation; the American Philosophical Society; the University of Delaware; Ilford; Leids Universiteits Fonds; Gratama Stichting; Queens University Belfast; the Egypt Exploration Society; the Stichting Berenike Foundation and private donors.

Steven E. Sidebotham
Professor of History
University of Delaware (302) 831-2371 or (302) 831-8200
Ginger Pinholster
Office of Public Relations
University of Delaware
(302) 831-8220

* journal article and photo available

University of Delaware

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