"A Passage to India": Excavations at Berenike on the Egyptian Red Sea Coast, 1994-2001

Dr. Willeke Windrich is an Assistant Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at the University of California in Los Angeles. She received her Masters degree from Amsterdam and her Ph.D. from Leiden, both in the Netherlands. She lived and worked in Cairo for four years, and has also worked at Tel el Amarna. Since 1994 she has been the Co-Director of the Berenike excavations on the Red Sea coast of Egypt.

Dr. Windrich opened her lecture by noting that excavation in Egypt is about cooperation, and represents the work and effort of a lot of people. The Berenike excavation employs about 45 specialists and 80 Egyptian workers each season. The team and the people who live in the Eastern Desert work in close cooperation. Dr. Windrich noted that tourism along the Red Sea coast is changing life for the indigenous people who live there. Some of the changes are good and some are bad. Young men who work for the excavation no longer know how their grandfathers lived. In an effort to help counteract some of the "bad" aspects of change, the excavation has established the Ababda Project to help preserve these people's culture. This project includes a site museum and an exhibition in the Netherlands, which it is hoped will eventually travel to the U.S. and elsewhere.

The Berenike site is due east of Aswan on the Red Sea coast, and is located on a fine harbor protected by a small hook of land to the north and east. The settlement was founded in 275 BC, by Ptolemy II Philadelphias, and named Berenike, after his mother. Its major function was as a harbor for international trade. During the Ptolemaic period goods were transported from Berenike, overland to the city of Edfu. In Roman times, the overland route ended at Coptos.

The town developed from west to east. A large temple dedicated to Serapis at the center of the Berenike site has been known since antiquity. By 1836 when it was first investigated by archaeologists, the gypsum walls were already badly decayed. The Ptolemaic town is located in the western-most part of the site, and includes an industrial area and a residential area. The town extended east to about the Serapis temple compound. During Roman occupation, the town continued to expand to the east of the Serapis temple complex, nearly doubling in size. The town was continuously occupied from the 3rd century BC until the end of the 6th century AD. It is believed that the town grew as it did because of the coastline and the location of the necropolis. A wadi runs north of Berenike and another runs to the south, bringing freshwater to the coast, and thus retarding the growth of coral which would create problems for the harbor. The wadis, however, also brought silt with them, and eventually silted up the harbor until it was no longer usable. Ships were able to anchor in the harbor and shuttle goods to shore in small boats, or run aground on the shore for unloading.

The excavators have found a very large Roman trash dump, which contains many ostraca which are inscribed. Most are receipts and passes for entering the harbor and town to conduct business, and most are in Greek. But - is there evidence for long distance trade, specifically with India? Dr. Windrich and her team have found a variety of remains that suggest the answer to this question is a resounding, "Yes!". Because material at the site is exceptionally well preserved, objects and remains which would not have survived at most locations are still present at Berenike. Matting made from materials and using styles and weaving methods different from anything known in Egypt have been found in the dump and the preservation is excellent. Scraps of cotton textiles decorated with a resist dye technique [batik] come from the east. Egypt used linen for clothing, not cotton. When investigating the spinning process, textile experts know that threads are twisted either in a "S" direction or in a "Z" direction. Linen naturally twists in the "S" direction; cotton is easiest to twist in a "Z" direction. At Berenike the excavation has turned up cotton whose threads are twisted in both an "S" and a "Z" direction, which is quite unusual. Cotton twisted in a "Z" direction comes specifically from India. The cotton whose threads are twisted in an "S" direction probably came from Nubia, and was spun in that direction because it was what was familiar. Cotton is difficult to twist in the "S" direction but spinners would have used the method they were most comfortable with. The excavation has fragments of sails that are of Indian origin and lots of reused wood - specifically teak - which grows only in the east. The evidence points to Indian built ships that were taken apart and the timbers reused when the ships reached Berenike.

Most buildings at the site were built of coral heads with some cut blocks of quarried stone and teak timbers used for window and door lintels among other things. Also found at Berenike is the first ever example of a carpet - also Indian made. Pearls have been found in jewelry that are clearly eastern in origin. Pottery from Aqaba, Arabia - and India, is in abundance. Fine ware, which has incised decoration, can be identified specifically to India. The site in India from which it came can even be identified, thanks to the excavation's pottery specialist having traveled to India to study Indian made pottery.

It had been thought that Ptolemaic period mariners rarely went farther south along the Indian coast than Barygaza, however, finds at Berenike seem to be disproving that assumption. Certainly during the Roman period mariners went farther afield, and the material they brought back underscores that knowledge. Of particular interest is the presence of black pepper, an Indian commodity, in exceptionally large quantity at Berenike. Dr. Windrich advised the audience that only two other sites in Egypt have found peppercorns - at Mons Claudianus, and at Shenshef. In each case fewer than 20 peppercorns were found, but at Berenike, the estimate presently stands at 133,000! This fact is primarily due to having excavated a very large clay pot, originally buried in a courtyard, that was completely full of peppercorns.

Dr. Windrich told us that in the 1st century a Periplus of the Red Sea was written by a merchant, which discussed the sea routes, harbors, rulers who would be encountered and whether they were friendly, and general directions for conducting trade in the Red Sea area. The Periplus mentions various commodities that were frequently traded. The team has compared the list to determine whether remains of the items have turned up at Berenike. Some have, others have not, and a number of items not listed in the Periplus are present in abundance.
Periplus mentions:
Found at Berenike? 
Black pepper [from Muziris]        Yes
Long pepper [from Barygaza]       No
Indigo                                           No
Cinnamon                                     No
Coslus [a fragrant root]                 No


Not mentioned but found at Berenike, and definitely of Asian origin are:
Coconut         Yes
Job's Tears     Yes
Teak               Yes
Sesame           Yes
Rice                Yes

These findings have made it clear, in part, that in the 1st century, contact were really with Muziris on the southwestern coast of India, vice or perhaps in addition to Barygaza much farther north. And it goes without saying that the evidence for trade with India is clear.Another question the excavation has addressed: Is there any indication that Indians lived in Berenike? Certainly the pottery is strong evidence since an abundance of both fine ware and cook ware has been found. Also remains of objects made using a particular technique called ply-split braiding, which is Indian in origin and still practiced widely in India today, suggests that Indians were living in the town. At no other place in Egypt has this technique been found to be in use, either ancient of modern. At Berenike this braiding is done using goat hair. A pottery inscription, known as the "Tamil Brahmi Inscription", has been found on the base of a pot which is of Levantine origin. What is significant is that the inscription is in the Indian language. Rice has been found at Berenike, but no remains of wheat, which is grown in Egypt. Rice would have been imported. Perhaps any wheat was exported to the Romans living in India.

One reason for establishing a settlement at Berenike was to facilitate the importation of elephants to Egypt for use in warfare. Elephants were the tanks of their day. The Salucids had cut off the import of elephants so it was necessary to establish another importation site that could be defended. Berenike was that site. There is a surviving inscription along the trade route though the Wadi Abad which includes a picture of an Indian elephant and discusses elephant hunting, but no other evidence that Indian elephants were brought to Berenike. Perhaps the journey by sea proved too difficult for the animals when attempted. We know that African elephants were imported into Egypt through Berenike, however. Transporting on the Red Sea is difficult due to the currents and winds that must be negotiated so it no doubt proved easier and more successful to transport them from Africa. The Berenike team has found a piece of an elephants tooth [not an ivory tusk fragment, but a tooth], which may indicate that elephants were present at the site for at least some period - perhaps while awaiting transshipment.

The excavation has only just begun work on the necropolis, and most of the Indian evidence so far, is strongest in the burials from the 1st though 3rd centuries. Who knows what future seasons may reveal. Dr. Windrich ended her lecture by noting that she might very well have called her lecture, "A Passage to Egypt" as Berenike has provided evidence for as much trade into Egypt for India as out of Egypt to the east.

Nancy Corbin

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