Online Review: Book

People of the Red Sea: Proceedings of Red Sea Project II Held in the British Museum October 2004

Edited by Janet C.M. Starkey. Pp. v + 176, figs. 35, tables 7, maps 7. Archaeopress, Oxford 2005. £30. ISBN 1-84171-833-5 (paper).


As with every sea, the Red Sea acts as both a conduit and a barrier to the peoples who live, and once lived, along its shores. Authors of the 18 papers in this volume range from environmental planners to historians and archaeologists. The diversity they bring to the essays on ecological conservation, linguistics, cultural practice, trade and trade goods, and studies of visitors from India, Rome, and Europe provides a broad-spectrum assessment of aspects of life beside the Red Sea from ancient times to today. The coverage is neither tightly focused nor global, but readers will find several papers of particular interest.

With increased archaeological excavations along both shores, new information about ancient activities enhances a rather limited view of the people who explored, exploited, and lived in the region. Work by Boston University and the University of Naples at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, a small anchorage once backed by a large lagoon, complements similar excavations at Ayn Soukhna near Suez in finally providing significant material proof of pharaonic Egyptian Red Sea activities. And although a strong Roman presence both in the Eastern Desert and at sites like Myos Hormos (Quseir al-Qadim) and Berenike was suspected, it is only recent systematic excavation at those sites and others farther south on the Red Sea coast that illustrate the scope and durability of links with the eastern Indian Ocean beginning in the Ptolemaic period.

The data from these and other projects are applied to nagging problems created by textual references to, for example, Blemmyes (Barnard) and troglodytes (Tomber); they help to establish a more diverse perspective on the ancient travelers and residents of Red Sea maritime landscapes. Linguistic explorations of prehistoric peoples (Zaborski) and a maritime lexicon of the Beja of Sudan (Cifoletti) permit a glimpse of the impact of both the environment and economic opportunity, reflected in the structure and vocabulary of desert peoples, particularly of the southern Red Sea.

It is economic opportunity that often seems to draw the attention of travelers and governments, and a series of papers drawing on historical texts emphasizes the importance of the region as a bridge between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean world. Starkey points out that the difficulty of passage across the Red Sea isolated, rather than united, its shores, and a brief litany of travelers' comments vilify the sun and pirates while praising the long-distance connections over the past 2,000 years. Such connections are highlighted by Plisson's general discussion of goods supplied to Egypt through the Red Sea, and Manzo's review of archaeological evidence for interactions at Bieta Giyorgis (Aksum).

Three essays are of particular value in expanding modern understanding of historic economic structures and the role of diplomatic endeavors. First, Nicolini examines the spread of a magical cult (zār) practiced by women, which coincided with an influx of foreigners to the region in the 19th century. The second concerns a 10-month French occupation of Qusayr in 1799–1800 that highlighted its importance in the cross-sea supply of Jiddah and as an outlet for agricultural production in Upper Egypt, a role that Qusayr played from the Roman period through the 19th century. Harre illuminates the efforts of the French scientific expedition and the military to secure new data, although traditional means of explaining those data obscured the true nature of the town. Third, Jiddah's role as a central market for coffee and other imports complemented its position as the port of Makkah, but it was the growing importance of the Red Sea as a route for steam travel to India that captured the interest of European diplomacy in the second quarter of the 19th century. Searight places those diplomats into a setting familiar to any visitors to the Red Sea even today.

Today's custodians of wildlife and ecosystems on the Red Sea face increasing challenges from resort development and industrialization. Abd-ar-Rahman Llewellyn and Abuzinada describe efforts toward the stewardship of marine and desert resources within a cultural context focused on traditional practice and Islamic law.

The diversity of ecological systems, cultural patterns, and recorded responses are captured in this volume; the richness of that diversity causes this reviewer to regret having missed the conference that brought them all together. Anyone wishing to explore the Red Sea will find much of value in this collection, from archaeological insights to the concerns of those still living along its shores.

Cheryl Ward
Department of Anthropology
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida 32306

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Ward

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