Long distance trade at Berenike
by: Jessica Langenbucher

Literary sources reveal that Berenike was established in the third century BC for the trade of African elephants from Ethiopia to the Ptolemies in Alexandria. This was a very dangerous business, as is apparent from the description of a letter dating to 224 BC, which was written by an Egyptian living in Berenike to people in a station further south: "in this case the transport had sunk on its journey south, and the letter was written to reassure the men, reporting to them that a new elephant-transport was nearly completed in Berenice and would soon be on its way to them with supplies of corn" (Scullard, 1974).

Located on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, approximately 500 miles south of Suez, the site of Berenike was ideally situated to function as the transit harbor for long-distance trade between India and the Western Roman Empire. Archaeological research has shown that the site was occupied from the third century BC until the sixth century AD. Although the earlier phases of the occupation are still rather unclear, archaeological evidence from the latter part indicates two periods of substantial trade: one at the beginning of the second century AD and one other in the mid-late fourth century AD. During these periods many exotic items passed through Berenike, and it appears that the site was an important stop along the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade route.

As most Ptolemaic layers are buried beneath Roman deposits, very little is known about the site's occupation during this period.  No Ptolemaic harbor facilities have been uncovered to date, but future research may reveal that the Ptolemaic harbor was situated north-west of the early Roman harbor structures (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 1995). With so little evidence on the site's Ptolemaic occupation, this page will focus on the later periods of Berenike.

The 'ship graffito'
A graffito of a sailing vessel, scratched into a large sherd of an amphora, was found at Berenike during the 1995 field season. It is securely dated to the second half of the first century AD, most likely 50 - 70 AD. Its appearance suggests an ocean-going merchant ship rather than a typical Nile vessel. It is interesting to note that the anonymously composed Periplus Maris Erythraei, a sailing and merchants' manual providing information on the ports and products of the Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade, also dates to this time period. Although the author of the Periplus is unknown, it is clear that he was an Egyptian Greek Greek merchant as well as a Roman citizen, who made the voyage from the Egyptian Red Sea coast to India and back sometime around 60 AD (Schoff, 1974), recording both the journey and the exotic goods that he encountered. It is likely that he was based in Berenike as he does not mention this important harbor as anyone not intimately familiar with the trade there would have done. Furthermore, there is no account in the Periplus of the trip up the Nile and across the desert from Coptos, which both Strabo and Pliny include in their accounts.

For hundreds of years before the founding of Berenike trade took place along great overland routes from Eastern Asia to Petra and the cities of Syria or via a more northerly route into present day Turkey. It was only after Hippalus discovered the periodic change of the Indian monsoon, in about 50 AD, that steady sea-going trade between India and Egypt could took place (Miller, 1998). Although the overland routes continued to be used, the Ptolemies established trading outposts along the Red Sea, which facilitated a direct sea route to the East. The Romans exploited these outposts after they gained control of Egypt, and they soon grew to depend on the exotic spices and luxurious products that it provided them. Since Rome was required to pay tolls to the Empire of Parthia and the Arab kingdoms when conducting trade through the inland routes, they came to rely heavily on the sea trade between India and Egypt. Eventually Augustus built a commercial fleet to facilitate this important trading network. They brought back gems, sandalwood and ebony, balms and spices, especially pepper. The Periplus details this direct trade between India and Egypt. Many of these exotic goods have been uncovered at Berenike.

As mentioned above, archaeological research has shown two periods of substantial trade: one at the beginning of the second century AD and the other in the mid-late fourth century AD. These two periods of substantial trade differed in several respects. While the first trading boom is indicative of some contact with India, trade between Berenike and India increases dramatically during the second boom. Also, while there is trade between the Western Mediterranean and Berenike during both periods of substantial trade, the latter period is characterized by more Eastern rather than Western Mediterranean goods. Perhaps in response to this second increase in trade, there was an intense period of repair and refurbishment of old buildings and construction of new buildings during the mid-late fourth century AD (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 1998). The site was gradually abandoned sometime during the sixth century AD (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 1999).

The cargo
What exactly were the international goods flowing in and out of Berenike? Excavations have uncovered pottery from as far away as Ethiopia and Spain (and many of the places in between), Indian textiles and basketry, beads from Sri Lanka as well as many non-local floral and faunal remains. Also the textual evidence, mainly in the form of ostraka found in an early Roman trash dump, help us to understand what goods were traded. Most of the ostraka were orders to pass commodities through a customs checkpoint for export. Several of them refer to Italian, Laodicean or Aminaean wine and display the names of possible transporters. The Periplus mentions both wine from Italy and Laodice as trade items and it is likely that these imported wines were passing through Berenike on their journey east. It is interesting to note that some of the Laodicaean vessels appear to have been refilled with Egyptian wine. This could indicate local or shipboard consumption (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 1999).

The identification of Indian fine and coarse ware pottery in early Roman deposits of the mid-late fourth century AD confirms contacts between Berenike and the south-east coast of India (Coromandel). This is the first reported occurrence of Indian rouletted ware and stamped bowls in the Red Sea area. Since the sherds were small in number (sixteen sherds from three or more dishes), it is likely that these items were not for trade, but were rather for personal use by merchants or sailors. Although these pieces may not be indicative of trade, many other objects found at the site certainly are. Indications of commercial contact with India include the presence of gemstone beads, cotton textiles, sandalwood, an abundance of teakwood and pepper. The Periplus also mentions Indian textiles , sandalwood, teakwood and especially pepper.

According to ancient sources, Rome paid a great deal to import spices, and one of their favorite spices was pepper. Excavations at Berenike have uncovered numerous peppercorns at the site. It is interesting to note that although India provided traders with two species of pepper: black pepper (Piper nigrum) and long pepper (Piper longum), only black pepper has been recovered at Berenike. Since so many peppercorns have been found at the site, we may assume that it was one of the more plentiful products coming through Berenike at regular intervals, allowing for the waste of some of the precious spice.

Teakwood was also found in abundance at Berenike. Not only were teak objects brought into Berenike, but apparently teak was also worked there. Teak planks were used as building materials which were found in several walls at the site. It remains the dominant wood species, both in worked wood as well as in the remainder group (Sidebotham and Wendrich, 2000). As objects belonging to sailing vessels have been found at the site (in the form of brailing rings and sailcloth), it seems likely that some of the teak wood could have come from a dismantled Indian ship. A careful analysis of several planks indicated secondary use of the timbers, and it appears that the planks were indeed from a sailing vessel.

Archaeological evidence from Berenike shows that it occupied an important place in the trade between India and the Western Mediterranean during the Roman period. Fruit, olives, wine from Italy, pottery from as far off as Spain, gems and beads from Sri Lanka, and spices and wood from India are among the many exotic items that passed through Berenike and survived in the archaeological record untouched for over fifteen hundred years. Certainly during the second boom of the trade there was a sharp increase in trade with India, which corresponds to the building boom at the site. It appears that as a result of the lively economy, the people of Berenike also enjoyed a considerable quantity of the imported goods that passed through their town. The reasons for decline at Berenike are still unclear, but the site was gradually abandoned sometime during the sixth century AD and remained so until members of the Berenike Project once again brought the ancient city to life.

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: travel and trade in the Indian Ocean by a merchant of the first century; by: W. Schoff. New Delh, Munshiram Manoharial Publishers, 1974.

The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World; by: H.H. Scullard. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1974.

Berenike 1995. Preliminary report of the excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern
Desert; by: Steven E. Sidebotham en Willemina Z. Wendrich (eds.). Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1996.

Berenike 1996. Report of the excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the Eastern Desert; by:
Steven E. Sidebotham en Willemina Z. Wendrich (eds.). Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1998.

The spice trade of the Roman Empire; by: J.I. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Berenike 1997. Report of the excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, including excavations at
Shenshef; by: Steven E. Sidebotham en Willemina.Z. Wendrich (eds.). Leiden, Research School CNWS, 1999.

Berenike 1998. Report of the excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, including excavations in
Wadi Kalalat; by: Steven E. Sidebotham en Willemina.Z. Wendrich (eds.). Leiden, Research School CNWS, 2000.

Back to Introduction
Back to Contents