In Egypt, the desert areas are divided by the Nile, which runs south to north, and these separate regions are most frequently referred to as the Western and Eastern deserts. The western desert is well known among those familiar with Egypt, particularly for its relatively large and important oasis areas. However, other than a few well known coastal resorts, the Eastern desert and the Red Sea coast including their history are less familiar to many. Yet this region, sometimes called the Arabian Desert, covers some twenty-one percent of present day Egypt.
Near the coast, a high mountain range of ancient volcanic rock runs the length of the Red Sea. These mountains were formed about three billion years ago. The desert also has wide, high plateaus with accumulations of rubble from eroded sandstone and limestone. This topography is the result of faults and elevating shifts that took place during the formation of the Red Sea basin, some twenty to thirty million years ago.
The climate of the area is much the same as it was during pharaonic times. Prior to about 3500 BC, the region was wetter than it is today, but began to dry out during the same period that civilization took hold in the Nile Valley. The northern section of the Eastern Desert is nearly devoid of vegetation today, as a result of the arid climate. However, higher humidity in the south, where trees and shrubs are found in some of the desert valleys, creates somewhat more precipitation.
During the wetter period of prehistoric and the very earliest historic times, the Eastern Desert was more densely populated than during most of the pharaonic period. This is evidenced by the numerous rock drawings which are, however, limited to the desert's southern region. In the north, we find only sporadic evidence of travel through the desert. Many of the rock drawings, which are very important to our understanding of Egypt's prehistory, are concentrated in the wide reaches of the Wadi Hammamat between Coptos and Quseir, in the Wadi Qena, near the Laqiya Oasis to the southeast of Coptos, around various wells such as Bir Menih, throughout the Wadi Barramiya near Edfu, in various regions close to Aswan, and at Quseir on the Red Sea.
The earliest drawings in these areas date to the Naqada I period. Many of these carvings depict Nile Valley and desert fauna that retreated from the region soon after 3500 BC, including elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros and ostrich. Also depicted are indigenous desert wildlife such as ibex, gazelle and antelope. There are also images of people, including those wearing the typical Libyan penis pouch and others with ornamental wigs (the so-called Dirwa people), which can also be dated to about 3500 BC. Other rock art depicts boats flying standards and groups of people wearing feather ornaments, who were originally thought to have been invaders who moved into the area from the Red Sea. However, somewhat recent scholarship appears to prove otherwise. More likely, they were probably indigenous people who came in contact with others from the Nile Valley, and in fact, these people may have spent a part of their lives in the Nile Valley, migrating to the eastern desert during specific seasons.
Most of the pharaonic drawing in these regions came to a halt by the end of the Old Kingdom, though there are later drawings of horses and camels that date to Roman and Arab times.
During the Pharaonic Period, as now, desert nomads traveled from water source to water source across the coastal regions of the southern part of the Eastern Desert. In reports from expeditions during these times, the people who inhabited the desert were collectively referred to as "Medjay" Today, we make the assumption that the Bedja and Ma'aza tribes who inhabit the region are the descendants of the pharaonic Medja, but mostly because of the similarities in their names. This may not be the case, however. There is no documented continuity of settlement, since during the fourth and fifth centuries, nomadic groups called the "Blemmyes" penetrated the region. The Medjay were used by the ancient Egyptians as scouts and workers, organized under their own chiefs on pharaonic expeditions.
During the Pharaonic Period, Sopdu was actually the deity most closely associated with the Eastern Desert region and yet, his significance there was negligible. At least in the southern part of the Desert, Min, or Amun-Min (phallically represented) was actually the dominant deity, with a number of shrines built in his honor at various quarry sites. Later, during Ptolemaic and Roman times, the god Pan, equated with the Egyptian god Min, was the protector of travelers through the Eastern Desert. Many shrines to the god were built along the main routes and, in the wadi behind Akhmin, "Pan-who-goes-into-the-mountains" or "Pan-who-is-with-the-expeditions" was honored. During the Roman period, Zeus, Helio and Sarapis were revered by the non-indigenous mine workers, many of whom were slaves and prisoners, as well as by the guards, soldiers and supply workers.
As early as the end of the Predynastic Period, Egyptians mined the Eastern Desert for its rich supply of rocks and ores. Stone vessels and smaller objects in breccia, porphyry, serpentine and steatite ( soapstone), dating to the prehistoric and early historic periods, were fashioned from accumulations of rock shingles found in the Eastern Desert. Gold was also found and extracted, most likely in the beginning as placer gold from the bottom of the wadis. There are many expedition inscriptions, notably beginning with the 4th Dynasty, the evidence the "state" interest in the special harder rock deposits, and we even find the names of earlier kings such as Narmer at Wadi el-Qash and Wadji in the Wadi Barramiya, farther south near Edfu. These expeditions mined greywacke from Wadi Hammamat to the southeast of Coptos, as well as ore and gold.
In the Wadi Mueilha, which lies about halfway between Edfu and the Red Sea, many graffiti were found that date between the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. Some scholars have suggested that this might have been an Early Dynastic mining site for native tin dioxide (cassiterite). There are also Old Kingdom inscriptions in the Wadi Barramiya and at the well of Bir Dunqash, east of Edfu, that frequently refer to the same individuals who may have been linked to pharaonic mines. At Wadi Gerrawi, about eleven kilometers southeast of Helwan, a unique 4th Dynasty stone dam presumably blocked the Nile flood from quarry operations.
Beginning in the Old Kingdom and thereafter, the many large and small limestone quarries in the Eastern Desert were all located near the Nile Valley and are less well known because of the lack of rock inscriptions. Gebel es-Silsila, north of Aswan and areas near Edfu and Elkab were some of the more important sandstone quarries of the Eastern Desert. Southeast of Aswan were the granite and granodiorite quarries which were mined in early times for material to build royal palaces. Calcite, often referred to as Egyptian or Oriental alabaster, was quarried since the Early Dynastic period and during the Old Kingdom, the focus of these quarries was to the east of el-Minya, near Hebenu, a location later called by the Romans, Alabastronpolis. The calcite quarry at Hatnub, about eighteen kilometers southeast of the Amarna plain, was the richest and most documented and it was worked continuously from the 4th Dynasty into the New Kingdom. Nearby were the Ramessid period calcite quarries at Bersheh. Other calcite veins worked during the Pharaonic Period further out in the Eastern desert included Wadi Gerrawi near Helwan, in the Wadi Sannur near Beni Suef (during the Late Period), and an area east of Asyut.
By the reign of Amenemhet I during the Middle Kingdom, the village of Menat-Khufu (Khufu's wetnurse) near present day Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt became the administrative center for the northern area of the Eastern Desert. There, an official with the title, "Supervisor of the Eastern Desert", controlled the area from the southern Sinai to the Wadi Hammamat. This administrative position was established to control the labor force and expertise needed to operate the large calcite and sandstone quarries. One Eastern Desert administrator, Khnumhotep II, had depicted in his tomb near Beni Hasan, a Bedouin donkey caravan, which included women, children and soldiers, transporting galena (lead ore, used for black eye makeup) to the Nile Valley, probably in route to the Royal Palace. The leader of the caravan was accompanied by an Egyptian official, though the weapons and musical instruments identified in the scene evidence the main body of the caravan as being from either Canaan or Transjordan. This may have been a small tribe that worked for the Egyptians in the galena mines on the Red Sea. The substance was probably extracted from Gebel el-Zeit, which was actively mined for galena from the reign of Amenemhet III through the New Kingdom reign of Ramesses III, with its most active exploitation during the Second Intermediate Period.
The quarries in the Wadi Hammamat region (the Egyptian names translate to "Upper Rohana Mountains" and "Bechen Stone Mountains") were developed towards the end of the 11th Dynasty and during the 12th Dynasty of Egypt's Middle Kingdom on a very large scale. Also Amethyst, a violet variety of quartz, was extracted in the Wadi el-Hudi, about thirty-five kilometers southeast of Aswan. There, local expedition inscriptions date to a period from the end of the 11th Dynasty to the 13th Dynasty.
Administrators with titles such as "Treasurer of Gold", "Administrator of the Southern Districts" and "Administrator of the Southern Narrow Doorway" were given responsibility over work groups in the Eastern Desert that numbered in the thousands. Most of these workers were probably Bedouins hired from their chiefs. They were accompanied by hunters, soldiers and interpreters. Expeditions were sometimes led by very high officials, such as viziers.
The larger quarry area of the Wadi Hammamat and its gold deposits were administered from Thebes during the New Kingdom. The "Coptos gold" was mentioned on a famous site plan known as the Mine Papyrus, dating to the Ramessid Period, which included the location of the gold-panning site and the gold-worker village near a rock-cut temple of Amun at Bir Umm Fawakhir. Bir Umm Fawkhir, where a shrine dedicated to Min was also located, was an important point for travelers on their way to the Red Sea. However, the focus of gold mining was in the Wadi Sid, though more than sixty ancient gold mines have been documented in the Eastern Desert. They include sites in the Wadi Semna, the Wadi Hammamat, and in the southern region at Wadi Barramiya, Dunqash, Wadi el-Hudi and elsewhere. During the New Kingdom, green diorite, graywacke and granite were mined, as was serpentine, especially in the Wadi Atalla. There was also softer stone, such as steatite, which was used for the small pharaonic scarabs, amulets and figurines.
Nubian soldiers and scouts carefully controlled and monitored the "desert of Coptos". The southern desert areas and especially the gold deposits in the Wadi Barramiya and the Wadi Mia across from Edfu were controlled by the viceroy of Nubia. Seti I had a stone temple to Amun (temple of Kanais) built in the Wadi Mia, next to a well and gold-panning site, from which the earnings were taken to Abydos where the pharaoh's new funerary temple was built. Later, Wadi Mia had an important Min shrine (Paneion) for travelers to the Red Sea.
After the New Kingdom, the quarrying activities in the Eastern Desert become more obscure. We also know that Darius I, during the First Persian Occupation, renewed graywacke quarrying in the Wadi Hammamat on a large scale.
Later, during the Ptolemaic Period, smaller galena deposits were found near the Philoteras harbor, close to Aenum in the Wadi Gasus, while amethyst mines had been located near Abu Diyaba. There was also from the Ptolemaic through Roman times, at Gebel Sikeit (Mons Smaragdus) and at Gebel Zabara, a green beryl (emerald) mine.
During Roman times in the reign of Agustinian, mining was carried out in the imperial porphyry quarries of Gebel Dokhan, 'The Mountain of Smoke", known to the Romans as Mons Porphyrites (imperial red porphyry and smaller deposits of green porphyry) and in the granite and quartzdiorite quarries of Mons Claudianus. These areas were exploited into the fifth century AD. The last dated inscriptions from the stone quarries in Wadi Hammamat were from the middle of the third century AD.
Of course, all of this quarry work needed routes and roads for transportation, but the Eastern Desert is also significant for its trade routes to and from the Red Sea. These routes have existed for millenniums, and are well known to us. The first ancient Egyptian expeditions to the land of Punt, perhaps located in the approximate region of present day Eritrea, probably followed the natural desert route from Coptos through the Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea, which traders and state expeditions continued to follow long afterwards.
In the northern region of the Eastern Desert, the pharaonic roads cannot be accurately traced, and the road that ran parallel to the Red Sea coast cannot be mapped. A Rammessid Period stelae found near Nag' 'Alalma suggests that a road may have existed that connected el-Saff/Atfih, north of Beni Suef and past the Antonius Monastery to Zaafarana on the Red Sea. There is presumed to have been a route from the Central Egyptian villages of the eastern bank of the Nile, particularly from the Beni Hasan region to the Red Sea, and also in a southeasterly direction over the Wadi Qena to the Wadi Hammamat, though these routes are unconfirmed.
The most important ancient road link from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea ran from Coptos to Thebes during the New Kingdom. The Wadi Hammamat was reached after passing the Laqeita Oasis, and caravans then traveled through the wadi Atalla and the Wadi Gasus to the harbor of Mersa Gawasis, south of present day Hurghada. This harbor was first mentioned in inscriptions only in the Middle Kingdom, after the reign of Senusret I, but it was probably older, and was the departure point for trade by way of the Red Sea with the southern land of Punt. Boats were prefabricated on the wharfs of Coptos and their components were then transported to the Red Sea Coast by huge donkey caravans of up to three thousand men, where they were assembled. This harbor was still active in the New Kingdom, where a "fort of (pharaoh) Meerenptah" was probably located to control the traffic of goods.
The southern route from Edfu, or from Elkab across the Wadi Abbad and the Wadi Barramiya to the Red Sea was also surely traveled during the Pharaonic Period, though evidence only exists for its use after the founding of the harbor of Berenice during the Ptolemaic Period.
From About 600 BC onward, the activities of the Saite Pharaohs in the Eastern Desert are only sporadically documented. We know that Amasis restored an older Min shrine in the Wadi Hammamat and in Wadi Barramiya. The cult site in Wadi Hammamat, described as a rock-cut temple of Nektanebo I, served as a Pan shrine for later Roman travelers. Stelae from the 26th Dynasty were located in the Wadi Gausu, near the harbor.
During the First Persian Occupation which lasted from about 525 to 405 BC, economic contacts between the Nile Valley and Persia were maintained, in part across the Wadi Hammamat and at the Egyptian harbors on the Red Sea.
Afterwards in the Ptolemic Period, beginning with Ptolemy II, sea trade with Arabia and more distant regions, collectively referred to as "India", was intensified. Philoteras on the Red Sea Coast, about two kilometers south of the Pharaonic harbor of Mersa Gawasis, was active, but the southern port of Berenice, also called Troglodytike was built. There, a temple of Ptolemy VII was dedicated and foreign trade was conducted by boat along the coast to Suez (Arsinoe). Southwest of Berenice, there was a road that led to a small Ptolemaic station in the desert near el-Abraq (Shenshef), and the Ptolemies built a new road that led from Coptos to Berenice, which involved a five to six day passage. It left Coptos harbor in the direction of Phoinicon (the Laqeita Oasis), where it turned southeast and passed Didyme, Aphrodite, Compasi, Jovis, Aristonis, Falacro, Apollonos, Cabalsi, Vetus Hydreuma and Novum Hydreuma before reaching Berenice harbor. The road from Coptos to Quseir on the Red Sea was a three and one half day journey through the Laqeita Oasis, Qusur el-Banat, where a Roman shrine to Pan was later built, el-Bueib (with another Roman Pan shrine), Mweih, through the Wadi Hammamat and on to Zerqa and Sayala.
North of Berenice were Nechesia harbor (Mersa Mubarak?), Leukos Limen (Quseir with a Ptolemaic temple, Philoteras and Myos Hormos (island of Abu Sha'r). All of these harbors were linked by road to the Nile Valley, though travelers began to use these routes more frequently only during the Roman Period. The road from Qena (Kaineopolis to Philoteras on the Red Sea passed through the stations of el-'Aras, Abu Qreiya, the Wadi Gidami, the Wadi Semna (where a Pan shrine was located) and, probably, through the settlement of Aenum in the Wadi Gasus before reaching Philoteras. The Road from Qena to Myos Hormos crossed the stations that were fortified during Roman times of el-'Aras, el-Hetah, Saqia, Der el-Atrash and Qattar, continuing past the Mons Porphyrites region either on to Myos Hormos or on to the nearby water source at Fons Tadnos. An alternative road forked off from the northern route at el-'Aras and continued to Myos Hormos, through Abu Zawal. It then passed Mons Claudianus and the road stations in the Wadi Sidris.
In the Roman Period, the Eastern Desert routes were reinforced with well-enclosed outposts and way stations. The first confirmed road built by the Romans in the region is the Via Nova Hadriana, built in 130 BC by the Roman emperor Hadrian from his newly founded city of Antinoopolis (present day Sheik Abade), in Middle Egypt, to the Red Sea and then farther along the coast to down to Berenice. The Romans utilized the earlier route from Edfu (Apollonopolis) over Contra-Apollonopolis and the Wadi Abbad, but this was expanded at Falacro to join the main route from Coptos to Berenice.
Even now, mining continues in the Eastern Desert, but today, the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea Coast are popular among tourists for principally three reasons. The least of these is probably the various inscriptions from the Predynastic and Dynastic Periods, along with the few obscure temple ruins that dot the landscape. More popular, and gaining ground are the several Eastern Desert monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul. These have seen much interest of late. However, the most popular destination for tourists have little to do with Egyptian history. They are the Red Sea resorts, of which Hurghada is best known. Other popular coastal resorts are upscale el-Gouna, and of late, one of our favorites because of its proximity to Cairo, the Suez Canal and the Eastern Desert Monasteries, Ain Soukhna. Along the coast, there are other smaller resort communities, many specializing in scuba diving activities. Of course, like the Western Desert, there is also significant natural beauty which can be enjoyed by all.
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