Brief history of Berenike

In 275 BC, Ptolemy II (Philadelphos), king of Egypt, founded a shipping port on the Red Sea coast and named it after his mother, Berenike I. The most important reason for creating this new harbour was the need of the Ptolemies for elephants. These were used in the wars against the Seleucids in the Near East, who blocked the import of Indian elephants. The Ptolemies decided to catch African elephants in what now is eastern Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia and ship them over the Red Sea on special ships (elephantagoi) in order to land them in southern Egypt and walk them to the Nile valley.

The geographic position of Berenike was eminently suitable since it was a natural harbour, protected against the prevailing northern winds by a large peninsula. Furthermore, the dangerous shipping route over the Red Sea, with its treacherous coral reefs and its pirates operating from the Arabian peninsula made it desirable to have a safe landing place as far to the south as possible. From Berenike there were overland routes through the Eastern desert to the Nile valley, protected by way-stations (hydreumata). These provided the caravans with water and shelter.

In the Roman period, Berenike developed into a trade emporium: spices, myrrh, frankincense, pearls and textiles were shipped via Berenike to Alexandria and Rome. The nature of this trade was more or less known from textual evidence, especially from the so-called Periplus of the Erythraean Sea which lists the harbours along the Red Sea, East African, South Arabian and Indian coasts as well as the commodities which were in demand in these emporia.

Until 1994, however, nothing was known about the organization of Berenike itself. The abandonment of the town was usually dated to the third century AD assuming that the political, economic and military chaos at that time must have brought an end to the long distance trade.

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