Online Review: Book

Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route

Steven E. Sidebotham


Reviewed by Duane W. Roller

Pp. xvii + 456, figs. 59. University of California Press, Berkeley 2011. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-520-24430-6 (cloth).

In the third century B.C.E., the early years of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a city was founded on the Red Sea at approximately the latitude of the First Cataract of the Nile, 825 km south-southeast of modern Suez. It was named Berenike, after the wife of Ptolemy I and the mother of Ptolemy II. Berenike was located at a difficult site, with adverse winds, a rising sea level, extensive siltation, and a lack of adequate water. Nevertheless, it grew into an important trading emporium and a major city. By Roman times, it was the nexus of a global economy that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to China (and perhaps beyond), reaching its peak after the Roman takeover of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Perhaps as many as a thousand people lived in this outpost, a mixed population speaking as many as a dozen languages, an amazing demonstration of the multicultural world of the Roman empire. It entered a slow decline by the later Imperial period and was abandoned before 550 C.E.

This thorough publication of Berenike, its hinterland, and its economic importance is a significant book that makes for fascinating reading. As classical studies move beyond a world centered on the Mediterranean and ancient literature, the importance of places like Berenike becomes more and more apparent. The book is based on the excavations at the site and the survey of its region, a joint University of Delaware/University of Leiden project that began in 1994. Such is the isolation of the city that this project produced the first plan of Berenike since 1826.

This highly readable, indeed exciting, book explores numerous aspects of ancient Berenike. After an introduction (chs. 1–2) that outlines the importance of the city, the ancient literary sources, and its rediscovery by 19th-century travelers, there is a discussion of the various routes in the region, some of which go back to prehistoric times (ch. 3). Although desolate and remote, the area had long been important because of mining, quarrying, and its access to the sea but was only used sporadically until the Ptolemaic period. Nevertheless, there were early attempts to establish water posts, and eventually wells and cisterns. From early Ptolemaic times, there was a more regularized interest in the region.

Initially, the Ptolemies sought to establish trade with southern Arabia, especially its legendary aromatics, and to attempt to create trade routes that avoided Seleucid-held areas to the north (ch. 4). Also of particular relevance to the Ptolemies was the elephant trade (more than a dozen elephant hunting stations are known along the African coast); an important part of the book is a detailed discussion of this (39–53), including the intriguing elephantegoi, the elephant transport ships. Yet by the second century B.C.E., understanding of the monsoon route to India to some extent changed the orientation of Berenike to a jumping-off point for Indian trade.

The central part of the book is devoted to Berenike itself: its building materials, overall plan, and the development of the site (chs. 5–6). The city was ringed by a number of fortifications that protected it from desert marauders. In the Roman period, the inhabitants were diverse: documents in 12 languages have been found, including Tamil-Brahmi from the first century C.E. (75), perhaps indicative of resident agents from the far-flung ends of the trade routes. Numerous ostraka and papyri illuminate the world of Berenike, including its food and water needs. Water was always a problem, and there is a detailed discussion of the challenges of its distribution (ch. 7), which built on an existing Pharaonic system and became a military responsibility in Ptolemaic times.

Access to Berenike by land was always difficult, and there is a thorough examination of the regional road system (ch. 8). This long chapter considers the thousands of kilometers of roads in the Eastern Desert, including the 800 km long Via Nova Hadriana from Antinoopolis to Berenike. The density of roads in this isolated region was truly remarkable, as is the number of sites: in the Roman period, there was a higher population in the Eastern Desert than at any time previously or later until the 20th century.

Despite its significance, Berenike was only one of many trading emporia in the Hellenistic and Roman world of the southeastern extremities of the earth, and chapter 9 catalogues the important ones from the Red Sea to India. Also of interest is a discussion of the enigmatic Nile–Red Sea canal (179–82), whose origins may have been as early as the Middle Kingdom but which was probably not actually finished until the time of Ptolemy II (earlier claims of a completed canal are questionable). There is also an analysis of the shipping that used this important port city (ch. 10).

The place of Berenike within its commercial and trade networks is the topic of chapters 11 and 12, with an interesting discussion of the costs of transport and how it was financed (212–20). There is a catalogue of trade items: some of the more interesting include coconuts, baobab seeds, and teak wood (and much else), but, interestingly, no silk has been discovered. The final chapter (ch. 13) examines the last years of the city, which entered a slow decline in the later Roman period and was abandoned by the first half of the sixth century C.E. Trade routes had changed, and possibly there were the effects of a plague.

Copious notes and bibliography and numerous fine photographs and plans round out this exceptional book. It is not only enthralling reading but is yet another demonstration of the importance of the periphery of the ancient world, which often appears more vital than its center. The detail of data is remarkable, and one is left with an excellent understanding of life in this remote city, an enviroment alien to many classicists.

Duane W. Roller
Department of Greek and Latin
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43260


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