Introduction to the Eastern Desert
Egypt’s Eastern Desert stretches southwards from the Sinai peninsula to the border of Sudan, covering a narrow area between the Red Sea and the Nile Valley. This barren mountainous region has long been exploited for its minerals, including gold and emeralds and quarried for its variety of stone which was used to construct the smaller monuments of the pharaohs.
On the Nile’s east bank, just a short step beyond the green agricultural fields and the jumbled remains of ancient temples, the hills rise steeply in a pale smoky line along the horizon. In the north, the desert is an extension of Sinai’s sedimentary and metamorphic rock formations that grow higher towards the south in rugged granite and volcanic peaks. Irregular wadis (valleys) were formed from east to west in a natural drainage pattern that long ago dried up, criss-crossed with other wadis and canyons. Today, occasional flash floods during short periods of heavy rain in the winter months, cause water to race down the sharply-cut dried wadis bringing destruction to any modern structure, including the handful of tarmac roads that cross the desert.
The Eastern Desert is a very different landscape to the Western Desert and there are no natural oases to punctuate this inhospitable land. Agriculture was never sustained here and the region is populated by roving Bedouin tribes, who have sporadically scratched a living since the earliest times. There are no permanent settlements. Despite the lack of water, a few shrubs and plants survive in the wadi bottoms and on the slopes of the hills, more especially towards the south. Travellers will notice lone acacia or tamarisk trees, sculpted by the harsh climate and clumps of wormwood and other short-lived plants grow whenever there has been rain. Wildlife in the form of gazelles, ibix, barbary sheep, desert hares, gerbils and hyrax can still occasionally be seen and the more hardy reptiles, a variety of lizards and snakes is abundant, along with spiders and scorpions. The Eastern Desert is also an important migratory path for birds who pass through the region on their long flight from northern Europe to Africa. During pre-historical Egypt, the desert was slightly wetter than it is now, allowing an even greater range of wildlife to survive. But the elephant, giraffe and ostrich were soon to make the journey south never to return.
Prehistoric rock-carvings attest to man’s early occupation of the Eastern Desert. Petroglyphs, the earliest form of rock-art, were bruised or hammered onto the rocks by ancient man in the form of boats, human figures and animals that bear a striking resemblance to the scenes on predynastic pottery.
The Eastern desert played an increasingly important role in Dynastic Egypt for two reasons. Firstly it was the area that linked the Red Sea coast with the towns and cities of the Nile Valley. The Red Sea was a trading link with Arabia, Somalia and India and was later part of the great ‘silk road’ that linked Asia with Europe. As a result several roads were built through the wadis which became more important in Ptolemaic and Roman times. Four main routes crossed the desert from modern Qena and Qift to Safaga and Qusseir and from modern Edfu to Mersa Alam. These routes terminated at the Graeco-Roman ports of Myos Hormos, Philoteras, Leukos Limen and Berenike. Many inscriptions in the Wadi Hammamat describe trading missions that passed along the road on their way to the coast and from there south to the fabled land of Punt. These expeditions brought back incenses and exotic trees, ivory, ebony, animals and their skins and possibly even dwarfs and pygmies that came from elsewhere in Africa – all goods that were not native to Egypt.
Because they gave access to the Nile from the east, where most of Egypt’s enemies came from, the desert routes had to be guarded and many of the ancient remains are evidence of the security needed. One interpretation of a label of King Den from early dynastic Egypt is seen as the successful repulsion of an eastern invasion; the text reads ‘the first occasion of smiting of the east’.
The Second importance of the Eastern Desert is man’s exploitation of the stone and minerals found there. Stone from the region was used since the Predynastic Period for the manufacture of palettes. Some of the oldest quarry sites can be seen in the Wadi Hammamat, where officials sent by a succession of kings from the Old Kingdom onwards, left texts identifying their missions engraved onto the rocks. The stone most valued here was known as bekhen-stone, a type of breccia that was used for statues and sarcophagi and other small monuments. This route connected the important town of Coptos (near modern Qift) to Leukos Limen (modern Qusseir). Graffiti and inscriptions along the route mostly depict the god Min, protector of the desert and patron of the temple at Coptos.
As well as stone, the Eastern Desert was the source of gold, copper, tin and many other minerals and precious stones, especially emeralds, that were highly sought after since the earliest times. The New Kingdom pharaoh Seti I sent mining expeditions into the southern wadis for gold to furnish his Abydos Temple. At Kanais, on the Edfu to Mersa Alam route, he constructed a rock-temple and a well for his workmen. The gold mines of Wadi Umm Fawakir, on the Qift to Qusseir route were perhaps the largest and a small settlement with a well was built to house the workmen.
Mining and the management of trade routes were the principal occupation of the Romans in the Eastern Desert. Everywhere there are ruins of Roman fortresses, wells and water-stations and signal towers seem to dominate every hilltop. The routes across the desert were unpaved tracks marked by cairns of stones to guide the traveller, that can still clearly be seen in some places and the wells and water-stations, or hydreumata, were spaced at intervals of less than a day’s travelling distance on foot. Most of the Desert routes led to the most important Graeco-Roman town, the Emporium of Berenike (modern Baranis). Other major Roman ports include Myos Hormos (in the modern Qusseir area), Philoteras and Nechesia (whose exact whereabouts are uncertain).
Among the main quarries to be exploited during Roman times were Mons Porphyrites and Mons Claudianus in the northern part of the desert hills. Mons Porphyrites has been studied intensively and is an excellent example of a pristine and well-preserved Roman landscape due to its remote location. The hard imperial porphyry stone, a white and red feldspar, was precious to the Roman Empire and much used for sculpture, monolithic columns, altars, baths and other decorative architectural elements in Roman and Byzantine times. Mons Porphyrites is the only known source of the purple gem-like rock. Around 40km to the south-east of Mons Porphyrites is Mons Claudianus, the largest and most well-preserved of the Roman quarry sites in the Eastern desert, located in Wadi Fitra. The dense grey grandiorite from Mons Claudianus can still be seen in several of Rome’s ancient monuments. Recent excavations at the site have revealed a large guarded settlement for the workers complete with amenities including a temple, built in the time of the Emperor Trajan.
Because of the remote location of most of the sites in the Eastern Desert, excavation and survey work has been sporadic over the past century, though the records of many desert explorers exist to whet our appitites. French and American teams have recently excavated at a few of the forts and some of the extant roads have been mapped. Recent surveys of rock-art have been carried out and published by David Rohl (Eastern Desert Survey, 2000) and Mile and Maggie Morrow (Rock Art Topographical Survey – RATS, 2002). The scope of further work however, like the desert itself, is enormous.
The lure of the Eastern desert is in its grandeur and its silence. Few tourists venture beyond the Nile Valley or the Red Sea coast, recognising that the Red Sea hills are a somewhat impenetrable barrier, a wall beyond which the arid landscape is scorched by harsh sun and blistering breezes. But for those who venture through these hills, a limitless landscape full of wonders opens up. Overlooked by watchtowers and cairns, in the deep shadows of rock-shelters, magical inscriptions and graffiti from the whole of Egypt’s history can be found. To stop and rest at one of these sites the visitor may feel surrounded by ghosts of all the brave souls who lived and worked for a while in this desolate place and of the travellers of old in whose footsteps we follow.
For much more information on the Eastern Desert see Andie Byrnes’ Eastern Desert site.