restricted access Chapter 3. Pre-Roman Infrastructure in the Eastern Desert
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3 PRE-ROMAN INFRASTRUCTURE IN THE EASTERN DESERT PRE-PTOLEMAIC ERA 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. Numerous graffiti, which from the Archaic/Early Dynastic period (Dynasties 1–3; 2920–2575 b.c.e.) on included hieroglyphic and pictorial scribblings, are found adjacent to pre-Dynastic and prehistoric rock art.1 Routes throughout Egypt, including the deserts, had existed since prehistoric times—millennia prior to the unification of Egypt in about 3000 b.c.e. This is evident from numerous petroglyphs, and from finds of early stone tools, graves, and human settlements—some of the latter found in caves (like Sodmein, about 35 km west northwest of Quseir)2 or on high ground—preserved throughout the desert.3 Visitors from the Nile valley and denizens of the region traveled between the Nile and the Red Sea in search of game and plant foods, and to exploit its mineral resources, especially chert, but also other soft and especially hard stones as well as metals.4 Tools and weapons found throughout the region are also depicted in rock art: hunters armed with spears or bows and arrows chasing their prey.5 By engaging in these “artistic” practices , people followed a universal human urge to leave graffiti attesting their presence or passing—a characteristic that long predates the invention of writing. The oldest graphic activity thus far recorded in the Nile valley dates to the period of Neolithicization, not during the great Holocene wet phase (12,000–8000 before present, b.p.), but to the mid21 Sidebotham, Berenike 11/18/10 10:25 AM Page 21 Holocene arid phase (8000–7000 or 7500–6500 b.p.).6 Throughout the Neolithic (fifth millennium b.c.e.) and the Predynastic periods (about 4000–3000 b.c.e.), mankind continued to leave his mark by carving on boulders and rock faces and, to a lesser extent, by painting in hues of red and ochre with mineral or plant-based pigments.7 Locations for these etchings were at naturally shaded rest stops along well-trodden routes or near water sources where humans and the prey they sought tended to gather and linger. The oldest dated petroglyphs in Egypt depict bovines and, possibly, fish traps.8 Other favorite graphic subjects of these prehistoric desert wanderers were animals they hunted or hoped to hunt or capture. Popular illustrations included gazelles, ibexlike quadrupeds, and ostriches, but also long-horned cattle and, occasionally, giraffes and, perhaps , elephants; even leopard hunting seems to be shown.9 The early inhabitants also left carvings representing “sickle-shaped” or square boats and ships.10 We do not know if these depict vessels on the Nile or the Red Sea. Nor are we certain of the purpose of these drawings . There may have been magical, ritualistic, or religious motivations; in some cases they may have been simple doodlings having no particular significance to the artist who made them.11 These early travelers and residents in the Eastern Desert discovered the most convenient routes that passed by or led to the purest and most dependable water sources, optimal hunting grounds, most desirable places to live, and best sources of usable stone—all of which later generations continued to exploit. As the region became drier following the end of the Holocene wet phases, about seven thousand years ago, eventually evolving into a hyperarid climate, people continued to live in and travel to or through the Eastern Desert. Naturally, they tended to use traditional well-known routes and to tap whatever perennial water sources had been noted and used by previous generations for millennia. The knowledge gained by nomads residing in the Eastern Desert—the location of mineral resources, shelters, plants, hunting grounds, and water sources—was passed on through oral tradition, but for the inexperienced inhabitants of the Nile valley, the deserts represented hazardous environments. Narmer’s name appears on rock surfaces in the Eastern Desert.12 The earliest surviving evidence of Pharaonic-era construction activity in the Eastern Desert, however, is the unfinished Old Kingdom (2649–2152 b.c.e.)13 dam, possibly constructed by Cheops (reigned 2551–2528 b.c.e.) during the Fourth Dynasty, in Wadi Gerady, about 30 km east of Cairo.14 Its purpose remains enigmatic; perhaps it provided mud...