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Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

Steven E. Sidebotham

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: California World History Library

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Table of Contents

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pp. v-9

List of Figures

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pp. vii-ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

A book of this type demands a wide-ranging knowledge of numerous disciplines and aspects of antiquity over an extended period of time and broad geographical area. I do not possess such a breadth or depth of knowledge. Therefore, friends and colleagues have read and commented on some of these chapters at various stages of their writing, making...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xvii

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Chapter 1. Introduction

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pp. 1-6

There was a “global economy” thousands of years before the term became fashionable in the late twentieth century.1 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....

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Chapter 2. Geography, Climate, Ancient Authors, and Modern Visitors

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pp. 7-20

The remains of Berenike Trogodytika1 lie approximately 825 kmsouth-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...

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Chapter 3. Pre-Roman Infrastructure in the Eastern Desert

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pp. 21-31

To communicate with the Red Sea ports in Egypt including Berenike, it was necessary to build roads linking the Nile to emporia on the coast and to provide those routes with water and protection to accommodate merchants, other civilian and military-government travelers, and their pack and draft animals....

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Chapter 4. Ptolemaic Diplomatic-Military-Commercial Activities

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pp. 32-54

Ptolemaic strata excavated at Berenike produced archaeological evidence that corroborates and adds to information preserved in ancient literary sources. The segment of an elephant tooth, mentioned later in this chapter, is evidence for live pachyderms in the city, as may be a V-shaped ditch, possibly the remains of an elephant retaining pen (see chapter...

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Chapter 5. Ptolemaic and Early Roman Berenike and Environs

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pp. 55-67

Excavations at Berenike revealed something about the size, layout, and building methods and materials used to create the port’s infrastructure and how these changed over the life of the city. Our project also recovered written documents (in at least twelve different ancient languages, although most texts are in Greek and Latin) and other artifacts...

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Chapter 6. Inhabitants of Berenike in Roman Times

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pp. 68-86

Here we will examine those who lived in Berenike in the Roman period, their professions, religious practices, and the languages they wrote and, likely, spoke. We will also explore how the foods they consumed were, along with other excavated data, indications of their ethnicity and social status....

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Chapter 7. Water in the Desert and the Ports

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pp. 87-124

Methods used for water acquisition, storage, protection, and distribution in Ptolemaic and Roman times in the Eastern Desert (figure 7-1) were undoubtedly similar to those employed in the Pharaonic era (see chapter 3). The most noteworthy difference was the scale on which these operations were conducted. Ptolemaic activities would have dwarfed...

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Chapter 8. Nile–Red Sea Roads

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pp. 125-174

An elaborate maritime network concatenated Berenike and other Egyptian Red Sea ports with emporia elsewhere in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. This maritime web was, however, incomplete without complementary terrestrial transportation points at those ports. Here we will examine these land routes in the Eastern Desert from about 30...

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Chapter 9. Other Emporia

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pp. 175-194

Leuke Kome/Albus Portus (White Village in Greek/Latin) was initially under Nabataean control. Strabo (Geography 16.4.23–24) and the Periplus (19) indicate that it was active in early Roman times, while Cosmas Indicopleustes (Christian Topography 2.62)2 suggests that it continued to operate in the late Roman era. Though Leuke Kome has not...

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Chapter 10. Merchant Ships

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pp. 195-205

Excavations have just begun in Berenike’s harbor south-southeast of the Ptolemaic industrial area. Nevertheless, we can estimate dimensions of Ptolemaic and early Roman ships, perhaps including elephantegoi (see chapter 4), that landed here. Calculations, which are based on remains visible on the surface, may vary somewhat from the actual dimensions...

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Chapter 11. Commercial Networks and Trade Costs

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pp. 206-220

After the annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Berenike became an important player in a series of interconnected local, regional, and wider-ranging trade and communication systems within and beyond the Roman Empire. A brief examination of important routes in the Mediterranean world and a lengthier discussion of the Red Sea–Indian Ocean...

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Chapter 12. Trade in Roman Berenike

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pp. 221-258

Evidence for Berenike’s commercial contacts in the Roman period is far better than for the Ptolemaic. Berenike’s peak era of trade was the first century C.E.; it may have continued into the second century, but not into the latter part, when a smallpox or measles epidemic, starting probably in spring 166, likely devastated the port’s inhabitants, as it...

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Chapter 13. Late Roman Berenike and Its Demise

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pp. 259-282

Following a brief flurry at Berenike in the late second/early third centuries, there was a hiatus with little archaeological documentation for much activity until about the mid fourth century C.E. Evidence for continued occupation in this period includes a papyrus of 163 C.E. requisitioning a camel from Fayum for imperial service on the Berenike...


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pp. 283-353


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pp. 355-423


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pp. 425-434

Further Reading, Production Notes

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pp. 435-436

E-ISBN-13: 9780520948389
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520244306

Page Count: 456
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: California World History Library