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Excavations at Berenike, Egypt

Pictures of the Excavation 1988  Pictures of the Excavation 2001

Berenike (also Berenicé) was the southernmost and most active Red Sea port during Hellenistic and Roman times. It was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus early in his reign (283/2-246 B.C.), who named it after his mother.

Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware has studied the trade routes used through the Eastern Desert of Egypt for years. His survey of the region indicates two major routes from Berenicé to the Nile. One passed through Edfu, favored during Ptolemaic and Early Roman times, and then again a little during Early Islamic times. The other, which was longer, went through Qift and was used through Early Roman times until the sixth or seventh century A.D. (Sidebotham and Zitterkopf 1995)

Berenike is currently under excavation jointly by the University of Delaware and Leiden University of the Netherlands, partly supported by the National Geographic Society. Sidebotham and Willemina (Willeke) Wendrich are the co-directors of the excavation. See Steve's picture in the National Geographic (Committee 1996). Steve and I met at the Arikamedu excavation (q.v.), and he invited me to work on the beads and related articles from Berenike.

I was eager to work at this important site. It goes a long way in supplementing the data banks I have built up from other regions. These include the Middle East (Fustat, Aqaba, Siraf,), South Asia (Arikamedu, Mantai, Tissamaharama, Alagankulam, Kaveripattinam, Kanchipuram, Karakaidu, etc.) and Southeast Asia (Oc-eo, Khlong Thom, Sungai Mas, Takua Pa, Chiaya, Srivijaya, etc.). All of these were ports active in Roman to Early Islamic times. I have also studied material from interior sites of this period (various Nubian sites, Nishapur, Urayar, Kodumanal, Kotalingala, etc.).

I have now attended two seasons (1988, 2001) of the excavation and will be joining at least one more in the future.

The preliminary conclusions are very exciting. Berenike has been especially useful in working out the Middle East Glass Bead Problem. It also shows It also shows lot of connections with South Asia. We already knew that because there are Indian printed textiles, Indian sailcloth, Indian strings (with beads on them), and other Indian products, including teak wood, bamboo, Job's Tears, Amalaka and black pepper corns.

An interesting revelation of the beads is that after the break in the third century or so, when trade started again it was (at least for beads) with Sri Lanka (Mantai) instead of South India. We need analyses of the beads to confirm this, but that's what it looks like now.


Committee for Research and Exploration
1996 Understanding Our World. National Geographic 189(4):110-17. [Steve is surveying at Berenike on pages 116-7].
Sidebotham, Steven E.
1991a Ports of the Red Sea and the Arabia-India Trade, pp. 12-38 in Vimala Begley and Richard Daniel De Puma, eds. Rome and India: The Ancient Sea Trade Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
1991b Römische Straßen in der ägyptischen Wüste Antike Welt 22(3):177-89.
1966 An Overview of Archaeological Work in the Eastern Desert and Along the red Sea Coast of Egypt by the University of Delaware - Lieden University, 1987 - 1995.Topai 6(2):773-83.
Sidebotham, Steven E. and Ronald E. Zitterkopf
1995 Routes Through the Eastern Desert of Egypt Expedition 37(2):39-52.
Sidebotham, Steven and Willemina Wendrich
1996 Berenike: Roman Egypt's maritime gateway to Arabia and India Egyptian Archaeology No. 8:
Wendrich, Willemina and Steven Sidebotham
1995 Port of Elephants and Pearls Egypt Today, Dec.:144-5.


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