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Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

Steven E. Sidebotham (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 456 pages
ISBN: 9780520244306
February 2011
$85.00, £62.95
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The legendary overland silk road was not the only way to reach Asia for ancient travelers from the Mediterranean. During the Roman Empire’s heyday, equally important maritime routes reached from the Egyptian Red Sea across the Indian Ocean. The ancient city of Berenike, located approximately 500 miles south of today’s Suez Canal, was a significant port among these conduits. In this book, Steven E. Sidebotham, the archaeologist who excavated Berenike, uncovers the role the city played in the regional, local, and “global” economies during the eight centuries of its existence. Sidebotham analyzes many of the artifacts, botanical and faunal remains, and hundreds of the texts he and his team found in excavations, providing a profoundly intimate glimpse of the people who lived, worked, and died in this emporium between the classical Mediterranean world and Asia.
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

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.
“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.”—Wim Broekaert Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR)
“The spectacular discoveries at Berenike have prompted a major rethink about the globalized nature of the Roman economy. Sidebotham tells the fascinating story of how this isolated harbour site owed its existence to long-range commerce, and makes a significant contribution to the wider debate about the scale, nature and organization of far-flung ancient trading networks.”—Times Literary Supplement (TLS)
“The detail of data is remarkable, and one is left with excellent understanding of life in this remote city, an environment alien to many classicists.”—Duane W. Roller American Journal Of Archaeology
“Sidebotham tells the fascinating story of how this isolated harbour site owed its existence to long-range commerce, and makes a significant contribution to the wider debate about the scale, nature and organization of far-flung trading networks.”—David Mattingly Times Higher Education
“This brilliant combination of scientific archaeological field reports, analysis of ancient historical texts and geography, and straightforward, familiar style have produced an accessible, interesting study of globalization in the ancient Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.”—B. Weinstein Choice
“For almost a millennium, from its foundation in the third century BCE to late antiquity, the Red Sea port of Berenike was a key part of the sea route that linked the Mediterranean to South Asia. The excavations conducted by Professor Sidebotham and his international team have provided unprecedented detail about the urban history of Berenike, the lives of its inhabitants, its role in the spice trade, and the products that passed through its port. Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route is a major contribution to world historical scholarship that will fundamentally change our understanding of ancient trade in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.”

—Stanley M. Burstein, California State University, Los Angeles

“With singular focus and an indefatigable spirit, Sidebotham has pursued the remote and difficult site of Berenike. After ten excavation seasons, only a portion of the site has been excavated, but the dividends have been magnificent, yielding exciting new archeological evidence that illuminates the flourishing maritime sea trade in antiquity beyond any reasonable expectation. Sidebotham places Bernike in the larger contextual framework and considers it from every possible angle, including the transportation lattice that connected Berenike with the Nile, its relations with other emporia, the merchant ships used, the exotic trade items it received, and a fascinating explanation of the demise of Berenike and ‘global’ trade in the sixth century. This engrossing analysis is destined to become the standard source for all who are interested in the international trade of antiquity.”

—David F. Graf, author of Rome and the Arabian Frontier: from the Nabataeans to the Saracens


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-cum-maritime 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 anywhere 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. 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.

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