restricted access Chapter 8. Nile–Red Sea Roads
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125 8 NILE–RED SEA ROADS 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 b.c.e. until the sixth century c.e. (figure 8-1). The Romans enlarged the earlier infrastructure, especially that of the Ptolemies. Unfortunately, little is known about the Eastern Desert during the transition from Roman to Muslim domination that took place beginning in 641 c.e. This is, in any case, beyond the scope of our present study. ROMAN ROADS Between the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 b.c.e. and the later fifth and sixth centuries c.e. the Eastern Desert and Red Sea coast witnessed the greatest and densest population and most human activity of any period until the second half of the twentieth century. The Romans enhanced the previously existing road networks by refurbishing, enlarging, and extending older Ptolemaic routes and renovating stops and stations along them. In addition, roads, stops, and praesidia were constructed and hydreumata dug de novo to deal with the increased traffic. The Eastern Desert road system represented only a fraction of the Roman highway network that linked all areas of the empire. This comprised more than 80,000 km of major thoroughfares and approximately 320,000 km of secondary roads.1 Many of the former were solidly built on deep, well-prepared foundaSidebotham , Berenike 11/18/10 10:25 AM Page 125 figure 8-1 Map of the Eastern Desert of Egypt, with major Roman roads and sites. Drawing by M. Hense. 126 • N I L E - R E D S E A R O A D S tions topped with huge paving stones.2 It is impossible to calculate the total length of all other types of roads constructed and used throughout the Roman Empire during its long history. Roman-era roads and settlements in the Eastern Desert were interconnected and symbiotic and cannot be understood properly apart from each other. We cannot investigate Sidebotham, Berenike 11/18/10 10:25 AM Page 126 N I L E - R E D S E A R O A D S • 127 all Roman roads in the region, many thousands of kilometers’ worth, nor each of the hundreds of sites; instead, our discussion will examine typical Roman roads and various types of sites, and the relative frequency with which they appear. Thereby one can gauge the overall importance of the kinds of activities they represent. Then one can relate the data to create a picture of interactions and interrelationships that existed among them and Berenike, other Egyptian Red Sea ports, and emporia on the Nile. The main concern of Augustus—the initial problem he encountered in Lower Nubia— and of later authorities was the maintenance of internal security; there was little fear, except along the Nile valley later on, of invasion from outside Egypt.3 Not all Roman roads and sites that once existed in the Eastern Desert have been found and identified; our Ma’aze and ‘Ababda guides and informants have provided information on ancient remains and roads that have yet to be visited and that appear on no maps. Therefore, lack of complete data hampers this discussion. Nevertheless, surveys and excavations have identified sufficient numbers and lengths of roads, and sites associated with them, that their overall study, supplemented by ancient written documentation, can provide a general idea of activities in the region in the Roman period. The length of all Roman-era roads in the Eastern Desert is unknown, nor is it certain that all extant remains were originally constructed at that time; undoubtedly some are Ptolemaic or older, and those now visible are, in some cases, Roman repairs and refurbishments of earlier routes.4 The number and length of Roman roads seem to have exceeded those of the Ptolemies due to increased levels of activity in the Eastern Desert at that time. Results of our surveys, however, provide a fair idea of the approximate lengths of seven major Ptolemaic and Roman roads in the Eastern Desert: about 2,000–2,200 km. Our surveys have examined all major highways. These “built” or refurbished “Roman” routes often followed Ptolemaic and earlier tracks for at least part of their courses and were mainly products of first- and early second-century c.e. construction...