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The Red Land

The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert

Steven E. Sidebotham
Martin Hense
Hendrikje M. Nouwens
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Red Land
    Book Description:

    For thousands of years Egypt has crowded the Nile Valley and Delta. The Eastern Desert, however, has also played a crucial—though until now little understood—role in Egyptian history. Ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley feared the desert, which they referred to as the Red Land, and were reluctant to venture there, yet they exploited the extensive mineral wealth of this region. They also profited from the valuable wares conveyed across the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea ports, which originated from Arabia, Africa, India, and elsewhere in the east. Based on twenty years of archaeological fieldwork conducted in the Eastern Desert, The Red Land reveals the cultural and historical richness of this little known and seldom visited area of Egypt. A range of important archaeological sites dating from Prehistoric to Byzantine times is explored here in text and illustrations. Among these ancient treasures are petroglyphs, cemeteries, fortified wells, gold and emerald mines, hard stone quarries, roads, forts, ports, and temples. With 250 photographs and fascinating artistic reconstructions based on the evidence on the ground, along with the latest research and accounts from ancient sources and modern travelers, the authors lead the reader into the remotest corners of the hauntingly beautiful Eastern Desert to discover the full story of the area’s human history.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-226-3
    Subjects: History, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Chapter 1 Historical Overview
    (pp. 1-18)

    The earliest traces of human occupation in the Nile Valley and the surrounding deserts survive along the desert hills and terraces in Upper Egypt and Nubia. They consist of large, roughly shaped flint tools, such as handaxes and scrapers, dated about 250,000 bc. These primitive tools, similar to those found in Europe in the Lower Paleolithic period, were made by nomads and hunters ranging over all of North Africa.

    Toward Late Paleolithic times, in approximately 25,000 bc, the climate of the region underwent a drastic change and grass steppes began to turn into desert. As a result, early man had...

  6. Chapter 2 Geography, Climate, and People
    (pp. 19-34)

    Egypt lies in northeastern Africa and, including the Sinai Peninsula, covers an area of approximately 1,002,000 square kilometers (Pl. 2.1). The major geographical feature, which allowed Egypt to prosper for thousands of years, was the Nile (Figure 2.1), one of the longest rivers in the world. Its sources include Lake Tana in Ethiopia for the Blue Nile, and Lake Victoria, which borders Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, for the White Nile. These join at Khartoum. The third branch is the Atbara River, which originates in northern Ethiopia and meets the Nile near a city of the same name. From there all...

  7. Chapter 3 A Roman Imperial Road and the Northern Part of the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 35-56)

    Many tracks and roads of various sizes and importance. crisscrossed the Eastern Desert from prehistoric times onward and these continued in use and were enlarged and extended later, especially in the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. These thoroughfares joined many desert settlements and Red Sea ports to one another and, eventually, to emporia on the Nile. In this chapter we will examine the Via Nova Hadriana, the latest known ancient route built in the Eastern Desert (Figure 3.1). This highway also reaches farther north and is the longest of any in the region, about eight hundred kilometers. We will also look...

  8. Chapter 4 Shrines, Bathtubs, and Stone Quarries How the Stone was Quarried and Moved Along the Desert Roads to the Nile
    (pp. 57-104)

    Earlier chapters referred briefly to the presence of stone quarries in the Eastern Desert (Figure 4.1). The oldest date from the Late Predynastic period shortly before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Menes/Narmer in about 3000 bc. Smaller stone objects including cups, bowls, and cosmetic palettes seem to have been the main products deriving from the quarries at this early date. Graffiti and inscriptions found in long-abandoned stone workings attest the activities of quarrymen and masons from Early Dynastic times approximately five thousand years ago.

    While we cannot examine all the quarries that were exploited during the millennia...

  9. Chapter 5 The Joys and Sorrows of the Desert Survey
    (pp. 105-120)

    When many people think of archaeologists they picture them on excavations scratching away in the dirt, removing the soil in minute increments with trowels, small brushes, and dustpans, and in extreme cases, using dental tools to clean objects embedded in the ground. While this image is partially true, there is another important dimension in which the archaeologist plays a critical role in understanding our human past, one that involves little or no excavation whatsoever.

    After all, how do archaeologists find ancient sites and how do they know where on those sites they should excavate, should they decide to do so?...

  10. Chapter 6 Gods of the Desert The Temples and Shrines of the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 121-178)

    As one might imagine, over the long history of human activity in the Eastern Desert, many of those who dared to travel, work, and live in this hostile environment came from the Nile Valley and beyond. They brought with them their cultural baggage including, of course, their languages and religious beliefs. The latter must have been of special interest and concern in the alien and potentially deadly arid desert landscape. Prayers to a number of deities for good luck, safe travel, and good health appear on a wide variety of written documents including ostraca, papyri, and formal inscriptions as well...

  11. Chapter 7 The Horn of Plenty International Trade
    (pp. 179-222)

    From earliest recorded times Egypt traded with regions beyond her frontiers (Figure 7.1). The land the fifth century bc Greek historian Herodotus called “the Gift of the Nile” possessed many natural resources, as we know from the large and impressive ancient remains, the artifacts recovered during extensive archaeological investigations, and from the decipherment of numerous ancient written documents. Egypt’s geological wealth included soft and hard stones used for constructing temples, tombs, and secular structures both inside Egypt and abroad. Rupestral products coming from Egyptian quarries were used for statues, sarcophagi, columns, and other architectural elements that have been found all...

  12. Chapter 8 Burying the Dead in the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 223-238)

    The Eastern Desert must have been a bustling place throughout much of its history, but especially in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Many people—men, women, and children—from various walks of life and from a number of places in Egypt and the wider Mediterranean world traveled between the Nile and the quarries, mines, other civilian settlements, and military installations of the Eastern Desert. Individuals and groups from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean basins also journeyed between the Nile and ports along the Red Sea coast. Many people, of course, resided for various lengths of time in the region...

  13. Chapter 9 El Dorado Gold Mines in the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 239-252)

    The most important and consistently sought-after natural resource available in the Eastern Desert throughout antiquity was gold (Figure 9.1). We have archaeological and written evidence from at least the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (2920-2152 bc) that expeditions both large and small ventured forth into the arid regions between the Nile and the Red Sea in search of this valuable metal. There are frequent references, especially in inscriptions associated with the king and his courtiers, throughout the pharaonic period to valuable objects as well as the precious artifacts themselves wrought from or decorated with gold including various types of...

  14. Chapter 10 Living in the Desert
    (pp. 253-280)

    In order to have a better insight into the day-to-day lives of people living in the Eastern Desert we must examine their domestic architecture in both military and civilian contexts. While surviving examples range from the Prehistoric period until early Christian times, we will focus on the Ptolemaic and Roman era when evidence indicates a relatively large population living in the area on a more or less permanent basis.

    As a result of extensive survey work throughout the Eastern Desert, archaeologists have found large numbers of architectural remains. Many are immediately recognizable as temples, warehouses, areas of industrial activity (mining...

  15. Chapter 11 The Maʹaza, ʹAbabda, and Bisharin Bedouin
    (pp. 281-316)

    The Bedouin comprising the majority of the nomadic groups in the Eastern Desert in our study are, from north to south, the Ma‘aza, the ‘Ababda, and the Bisharin. The Ma‘aza (‘Goat People’) comprise four clans, each of which is headed by asheikh. They are the most recent of these Bedouin groups to make the Eastern Desert their home. They have their origins in the Arabian Peninsula, something that is still expressed, for instance, in the elaborate masked veils worn by the women of this Bedouin tribe.

    Anthropologists include the ‘Ababda and Bisharin, who are closely related through marriage, in...

  16. Chapter 12 Land of Gemstones Emerald and Amethyst Mines in the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 317-342)

    We noted previously that Egypt was blessed with great geological wealth. Here we will deal specifically with some of the precious and semiprecious gemstones that were available in the Eastern Desert. Our interest will focus on amethysts and beryls/emeralds. Two regions of the Eastern Desert produced amethysts in antiquity: Wadi al-Hudi and Wadi Abu Diyeiba. The area around Gebel Sikait, Gebel Nugrus, and Umm Kabu, about 120 kilometers northwest of Berenike, were sources for beryls/emeralds (Figure 12.1).

    The earliest gemstones mined in the Eastern Desert were amethysts. From Late Predynastic times (about 3000 bc) onward amethysts were used in jewelry,...

  17. Chapter 13 Water, The Desert Elixir
    (pp. 343-366)

    The first consideration of anyone venturing into the Eastern Desert is the availability of adequate quantities of potable water (Figure 13.1-13.2). Without this primary resource no other activity can take place. Yet precipitation in the Eastern Desert, where measured scientifically in recent times at Quseir on the Red Sea coast, is quite meager, ranging from 4–5 millimeters per annum. Averages were probably much the same in the Ptolemaic-Roman period, though perhaps somewhat greater early in the pharaonic era before the Eastern Desert became increasingly the desiccated region that it is today. Thus, ancient technologies used in the area for...

  18. Chapter 14 The Roads from Berenike to the Nile
    (pp. 367-382)

    The ancient Red Sea emporium of Berenike was the preeminent entrepôt at the northern end of the Red Sea for about eight centuries from early Ptolemaic times until the late Roman period, that is, from early in the third century bc until the sixth century ad. It was a local, regional, and international hub for commerce in that period and, consequently, a number of roads radiated from the city to various desert settlements and to several points in the Nile Valley. Clearly, no overview of Egypt’s Eastern Desert would be complete without an examination of the road network emanating from...

  19. Chapter 15 The Last Frontier The Southernmost Sites in the Eastern Desert
    (pp. 383-412)

    The extreme south is the least known and, therefore to us, the most intriguing part of the Eastern Desert (Figure 15.1). Compared to the northern regions, this area is even more inhospitable, the water sources scarcer, the terrain more unforgiving, and the heat more intense. Due to these impediments, and the need for special and difficult-to-obtain military permits, this part of the desert has been little explored. Some hardy Westerners ventured into this arid landscape in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and recorded their encounters with the Bedouin. To their surprise, they saw many traces of ancient human activity,...

  20. Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 413-446)
  21. Index
    (pp. 447-458)