Routes Through the Eastern Desert of Egypt

By: Steven E. Sidebotham

Originally Published in 1995

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Not since the Ptolemaic-Roman-Byzantine era (late 4th century B.C. to 7th century A.D.) have the Eastern Desert and Red Sea coast of Egypt witnessed the activity now taking place, as tourism and settlements for Egypt’s burgeoning population encroach into once sparsely settled areas. During the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine periods, a healthy trade between the Mediterranean region, South Arabia, East Africa, and South Asia traversed the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea (Fig. 1). These trade routes fell into disuse with the decline of the Roman Empire and virtually disappeared with the discovery of the sea route around the Horn of Africa in the late 15th century. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 somewhat revived commerce in this area, but for most of the period between the 7th and the 19th century, the Eastern Desert lay nearly abandoned. Evidence of scores of ancient sites remained unrecorded until now.


Ceramic analysis indicates that the oldest classi­cal thoroughfares in Egypt connecting the Nile to the Red Sea were those between the Nile emporia of Edfu (ancient Apollinopolis Magna) and Qift (ancient Coptos) and the Red Sea port of Berenike (Fig. 2). Graffiti and pictographs, some possibly prehistoric (before circa 3,100 B.C.), suggest that sections of the routes were used at least by the pharaonic era, before the advent of the Ptolemies and the Romans.

The roads and installations served several func­tions, one of which was to facilitate commerce passing between the Nile and Berenike. Berenike, founded in circa 275 B.C. by Ptolemy II and named after his mother, was—according to our survey and excava­tions—still occupied into at least the 6th century A.D. It was Egypt’s major emporium on the Red Sea coast throughout the Ptolemaic-Roman period and was a conduit for merchandise passing between the Ptolemaic and Roman realms on the one hand and other areas of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean littorals on the other. Sources detail many aspects of this ancient “interna­tional” commerce and Berenike’s role in it (e.g., the Petrie Ostraca, Strabo’s Geography, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, and the Perilous Maoris Erythraet).

A wide variety of merchandise passed through Berenike and the other Red Sea ports of Egypt. In Ptolemaic times the main imports were elephants and gold to bolster Ptolemaic military and political ambi­tions in the Mediterranean. In Roman times there was more emphasis on the civilian aspect of this commerce. For this period literary sources, including a 1st century A.D. navigational and entrepreneurial guide called the Periplus Maris Erythraet, complement the scanty archae­ological record. Exports from the Mediterranean included red coral, much in demand by Indian women, glass, textiles, wine, grain, silver, and gold plate and coinage. There were human cargoes, too: singing boys and maidens for the harems of Indian monarchs. Imports from the Red Sea-Indian Ocean littoral into the Mediterranean world via the Red Sea ports were both luxury and non-luxury in nature and included pearls, pepper, silk, frankincense and myrrh, various other spices, condiments, medicines, and all kinds of exotic animals. The discovery of Roman gold and silver coins in India suggests payment was made in coin, though many of these coins seem to have been deliber­ately defaced and more likely served as bullion. Certainly much of the trade must have been conducted by barter. Such was probably also the case between the Roman world and Sri Lanka (ancient Taprobana), Arabia and coastal sub-Saharan Africa.

Maritime trade between the Red Sea-Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean had been going on since pharaonic times, if not earlier, but it increased dramati­cally in the Ptolemaic and especially the Roman eras. The monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean were a secret the Arabs and other “Easterners” seem to have long kept from Mediterranean entrepreneurs. The discovery of these winds by the Ptolemies, probably at the end of the 2nd century B.C., and their exploitation on an even larger scale after the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C., made the voyages faster and therefore cheaper, hut not less dangerous. Pirates and shipwreck were con­stant threats. Archers were hired to protect merchant ships from the former; there may also have been a Roman coast guard fleet patrolling the Red Sea. Only a combination of good luck, skill, and timing of the voy­ages could save merchants, their vessels, and valuable cargoes from shipwreck. Both the Ptolemaic and, later, the Roman governments taxed the trade heavily: 25-50 percent ad valorem in Ptolemaic times and 25 percent in the Roman era. That trade persisted despite these numerous adverse factors attests to the fabulous profits that could be made from a successful voyage. Debate continues over the extent of direct government involve­ment as opposed to that of private entrepreneurs in this commerce, especially in the Roman period.

The Berenike-Nile roads also facilitated the transport of gold and “emeralds” (beryls) from mining sites to the Nile. In most cases the mines seem to have generated thriving “boom” towns that were connected to the main routes by branch roads. Large forts pro­tected certain important gold mines, such as those at Samut, Barramiya and Daghbag. These forts most likely served to defend against potential threats from outside the mining community than to guard the miners, most of whom were probably free, not penal, labor. These mining communities might even boast their own tem pleas, such as the one dedicated to Serapis that was cut into a mountain side near the emerald mines at Sikait. An inscription from the time of the Roman emperor Gallienus (A.D. 2n0-2n8) still exists in this temple. While no specifics about these mines survive in the ancient literary sources, analysis of their surface pottery indicates activity in the Ptolemaic and especially the Roman periods. Emerald mines abound in the area of Sikait-Middle Sikait-North Sikait-Nugrus-Wadi Abu Rushaid, a region known to Strabo and other ancient authors as Mons Smaragdus (Emerald Mountain). These mines were heavily exploited into late antiquity, in early Islamic times, and even in this century.

Literary sources from the early Roman period to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D.—Strabo’s Geograpby, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, Claudius Ptolemy’s Geograpby, Epiphanius’s De Gemmis, Olympiodorus History, Cosmas Indicopleustes’s Cbristian Topograpby—refer either to the emerald trade, likely consisting of lower grade beryls, or to the mines at Mons Smaragdus. In the Roman period the prefects mantis Berenicidec was also the chief overseer of these mines. Pottery from the mining establishments corroborates dates of activity provided by ancient literary sources.

The roads, and the stations alongside, allowed the Roman military, like their Ptolemaic precursors, to monitdr potentially hostile tribes. An administrative area called a limes was common in Roman frontier regions, including the Eastern Desert of Egypt. It con­sisted of a series of roads, forts, and other signal and communications points which defended the region and monitored movements of potentially hostile peoples. In the Eastern Desert of Egypt these included the maraud­ing Blemmyes and Nobatae. By late antiquity the for­mer seem to have been in control of the region around the aforementioned emerald mines, for the 5th century Egyptian author Olympiodorus mentions that he visited Mons Smaragdus only with the permission of the King of the Blemmyes (History fragments 35-37). The 6th century writer Procopius (History of tbe Wars 1.19.28-33) mentions that the Roman government had made annual payments in gold to both the Nobatae and Blemmyes to keep them from plundering Roman terri­tory from the time of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) until his own day. One wonders what other kinds of de jure or de facto arrangements existed between the Blemmyes and Nobatae on the one hand and the Egyptian-Roman populations and the Roman government on the other.

Later, Muslims used the routes from Edfu and the Qift area, as well as from Aswan (Syene), to make the bajj, arriving at the Red Sea port of `Aidhab/Suakin al-Qadim (circa 230 kilometers south of Berenike) whence they journeyed by sea to Jeddah and then over­land to Mecca.


The Eastern Desert contains the Red Sea Mountains, which form longitudinal chains roughly paralleling the Red Sea coast. Among the mountains are sandy plains. Wadis (seasonally filled water channels) dissect the region and it is along their dry beds that the ancient roads traversed, crossing from wadi to wadi. The classical period routes were cleared tracks—some more than 20 meters wide—which generally lay in wadis with convenient orienta­tions and water supplies. Sometimes, shallow excavations were made through high areas for ease of passage. In at least one case the road is a low, artificially built-up causeway across a wadi. These desert roads were not paved like the better known Roman roads in Europe such as the Via Appia in Italy or the Via Egnatia in Greece: we have found no paving whatsoever along the Berenike-Edfu-Qift thoroughfares. Nor were there any inscribed or painted milestones such as occur in other regions of the Roman Empire; the Eastern Desert of Egypt seems to have been the only place where these were not used. Instead, cairns of piled stones frequently marked the routes, along with occasional signal towers. We have little evidence of who was responsible for their construction though it was most likely the military, as was the case with road building elsewhere in the Roman Empire.

There were both unfortified and fortified water stations (bydreumata) for travelers. The larger hydreumara often supported satellite settlements and mining activities in the area. We I have studied 28 principal sta­tions—and a number of smaller I stops—located on the approxi­mately 530 kilometers of the main Berenike routes, or an average of one major station approximately every 19 kilometers. Not all of the 28 stations were in use at the same time, as some were constructed after others had fallen into disuse; the actual travel distances were accordingly longer. The Itinerarium Antoniniana (171.5-173.4) lists 10 stations in operation in the approximately 3n5 kilometer distance between Qift and Berenike; this would give an average of 3n.5 kilometers between stations. Nearly all travel was by foot, sometimes using camels or donkeys as pack animals. At an average speed of 5 kilometers/hour, or slightly less, a traveler could easily cover 35 kilometers or more in a day—which leads to the conclusion that the installations were placed a day’s travel apart for human pedestrian traffic. The more mountainous the passage between two stations, the closer together they tended to be. If the terrain between two stations was relatively level and easily traversed, they might be far­ther apart. Placement also depended upon availability of water.

These stations are predominantly quadrilateral in plan, though some are semicircular or elliptical, and they vary greatly in size. The smallest may have one wall length as short as 15 meters. The largest is that in Wadi Gemal; it was mostly destroyed by floods, but extant portions of the north and east walls hint at the installation’s huge size: circa 118-meter-long north wall and circa 78-meter-long east wall.

The stations are typically built of stacked stone, and occasionally mud brick. They often contain promi­nent fired brick or stone hydraulic features lined with waterproof mortar (see below). Many stations have tow­ers along their perimeter walls and rooms inside to accommodate the garrisons. Some stations have out­buildings whose specific functions remain unknown. The forts generally lay on low ground despite more readily defensible higher terrain nearby. Construction of stations on lower ground indicates an attempt to con­trol, specifically, the communication routes and water sources and not to dominate large expanses of the desert.

An adequate supply of water was obviously the most essential resource for travel through or residence in the desert. The Eastern Desert and Red Sea Mountains of Egypt receive occasional rains in the win­ter, perhaps up to 25 millimeters annually in the mountains and much less along the coast and the Nile. Although rarely occurring, an intense localized rainfall can cause torrential flood­ing in a wadi. Evidence of destruction at many of the stations attests to the overwhelming power of these floods.

Although some evidence exists of attempts to collect water runoff from nearby mountains for storage in cisterns, the general and more reliable water source was wells, as is the case today. Many stations preserve evidence of interior wells; most have extant cisterns that are circular, elliptical or rectilinear in plan. Some of the smaller stations have two internal cisterns, circular or oval shaped, constructed of stone and waterproofed with mor­tar. In the latter cases ceramic dating indicates occupation in the  Ptolemaic period and, often, later.

We know the ancient names of many of these stations from the 1st century A.D. encyclopedist Pliny the Elder (Natural History n.26.102-03) and three later maps/itineraries: the Tabula Peutingeriana (segment VIII), the Itinerarium Antoniniana (171.5-173.4), and the Ravenna Cosmograpby (2.7). The latter probably merely copied one or more of the earlier sources. These documents, separated by several centuries, do not always agree on the names and locations of the stations. Some stations apparently were not cited due to lack of firsthand knowledge or because they no longer func­tioned or had yet to be constructed when the sources were compiled.


The University of Delaware’s archaeological survey of these roads and installations from 1990 to 1995 has located dozens of classical sites, ranging from major fortified installations to camping areas and other evidence of the ancient routes. Figure 2 shows the loca­tion of the more noteworthy sites. We have determined their precise latitudes and longitudes using the satellite Global Positioning System, drawn measured plans, and collected and dated surface artifacts (mainly pottery).

The following sections and the illustrations offer a quick tour along these desert routes.

The Berenike-Edfu Road

The ancient route from Berenike to Edfu (ancient Apollinopolis Magna) included stations at Wadi Abu Greiya (ancient Vetus Hydreuma; Figs. 3, 4), Wadi Lahma (Fig. 5), Wadi el-Khashir (ancient Novum Hydreuma; Fig. n), the badly preserved station at Abu Ghalqa which, as its sherds suggest, was used only in late antiquity, the nearby Abu Ghusun (ancient Cabalsi), which suffered severe flooding so that only one wall sur­vives, two small forts in Wadi Abu Hegilig (Figs. 7, 8), the extensive complex at Wadi Gema] (ancient Apollonos) and associated satellite installations (Fig. 9), the small semi-circular fort at Umm Gariya (Fig. 10), and ad-Dweig (ancient Falacro).

The roads to Qift and Edfu bifurcate at a point north of the fort in Wadi ad-Dweig. Considering its proximity to the juncture of two important roads, the relatively small size of the installation in Wadi ad­Dweig and the slight quantities of pottery dating only to early Roman times raise questions about the extent of its use. Apparently, this fort was not directly associated over a long period of time with activity on the roads.

Our pottery analysis suggests that the road leading to Edfu was the older of the two classical routes connecting Berenike and the Nile. Ceramics we found along the route dated Ptolemaic and early Roman, with very little trace of later Roman material. The presence of Islamic sherds at some sites suggests possible use by travelers making the hajj.

There were two small Ptolemaic-early Roman stations west of Dweig on the route toward Edfu, nei­ther of which had been previously recorded: a hydreuma at Seyhrig (Fig. 11) and a small fort at Rod el-Legah (Fig. 12). Both stations may have been on the main route to Edfu. There was also a stop at Umm Garahish between Rod el-Legah and Samut.

Numerous cairns marked the route between Samut (Figs. 13, 14) and subsequent stops at Abu Midrik (Fig. 15), Abu Rahal, and Abu Raha West. There was little distinguishing terrain in the area and ancient travelers lacking guides could have easily missed these stops. Attempts to remedy this problem included placing numerous cairns on low hills along the route.

After the large station at el-Kanaïs (Figs. 1n, 17), the last station (at Abbad) on the thoroughfare to Edfu is small and consists of a fort and three other structures.

Several unfortified stops of lesser importance were located on the road. At the juncture of the natural routes from the stations in Wadi Lama and Wadi Abu Greiya Cat Wadi Qabr Rijm/Shea’leq) is a site that has little extant architecture, but many sherds which date activity from the early Roman period and again from the 5th century A.D. or later. Northwest along the road are a small camp several kilometers west of the main road at Hilal and the stop at Umm Kebash which lacked any extant architectural remains and could be identified only by its extensive scatter of lst-3rd century A.D. sherds.

The Edfu branch of the Berenike-Nile road accommodated subsidiary routes leading to regional mines. About 38 kilometers east of Abu Rahal are the gold mines and hydreuma at Barramiya. South of the thoroughfare were early Roman gold mines at Ramesh and Sibrit. East of Abu Midrik were gold mines at Dunqash which preserve pharaonic-era graffiti, ancient structures, and Roman sherds. The mines here were worked as late as the 1980s.

The Qift Road

The more northerly route to the Nile left the ad-Dweig area for Qift. This resulted in a longer trip from Berenike than to Edfu and, based upon pottery dates of early and later Roman periods, seems to have been the preferred route after the early Roman period for travel between the Nile and Berenike.

Leaving ad-Dweig one traveled north-north­west to a small stop at Shalt and then to the station in Wadi Gerf (ancient Aristonis). A substantial trash dump with copious amounts of pottery indicates the impor­tance of this facility. In the vicinity of the fort in Wadi Gerf there is a natural route to Gamut via the southern reaches of Wadi Gerf and Wadi Muweilha where there is evidence of water in antiquity. This may have been an alternate route to ad-Dweig for traffic between Edfu and Berenike. Near Aristonis was a small stop at Rod Legaya with early Roman pottery and nondescript small structures. Another settlement at Rod el-Buram served as a rest and water stop; remains of a cistern are still evi­dent in the sand.

Major ructures exist at Bezah (ancient Jovis?; Fig. 18), Wadi Abu Greiya (ancient Jovis?), Wadi Daghbag (ancient Coinpasi; Fig. 19), Daghbag South (very ruined now) and Khawr ej-Jir (ancient Aphrodito; Fig. 20). A natural rock shelter (Fig. 21) provided pro­tection from the sun for some travelers passing between Chawr ej-Jir and Khasm el-Menih/Zeydun (ancient Diddle).

Nothing survives of the important station at EI-Laqeita (ancient Phoenicon) northwest of Chasm el­Menih, although earlier in this century remains could still be seen. In addition to being a stop on the Berenike-Qift road, it was also a station on the road between Qift and the early Roman and medieval Islamic Red Sea port at Quseir al-Qadim. Also sharing the route to Quseir al-Qadim is a badly preserved hydreuma in Wadi el-Matula; this small station served as the last stop before Qift.


The University of Delaware survey pinpointed locations of the classical period features on the routes between the Red Sea port of Berenike and the Nile emporia of Apollinopolis Magna and Coptos. These included both fortified and unfortified stations, a large number of cairns marking the thoroughfares, signal towers, and mines and settlements connected by branch roads. We documented a number of previously unrecorded sites and road sections and drew measured plans of all forts, including some not previously pub­lished (Lama, Wadi el-Khashir, Abu Hegilig South and North, Seyhrig, Rod el-Legah, the hilltop fort at the Samut gold mines, Abu Rahal, Abu Rahal West, Barramiya, and Daghbag South).

Cite This Article

Sidebotham, Steven E.. "Routes Through the Eastern Desert of Egypt." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 2 (July, 1995): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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