The nature and functioning of the Hellenistic Berenike- the Red Sea port, and its evolution from a military base to the international emporium.

The nature and functioning of the Hellenistic Berenike- the Red Sea port, and its evolution from a military base to the international emporium.
Created at 14.12.2022 by Mariusz Gwiazda in Project

National Science Centre, Poland Grant “PRELUDIUM” nr 2015/17/N/HS3/00163 / Project director Dr. Marek Woźniak

The project of research on the Hellenistic phase of the operation of Berenike Trogodytika, one of the most significant and interesting archaeological sites of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region, proved to be a real scientific adventure. The planned collection and development of a large amount of materials obtained before its commencement created only the basis for extended, interdisciplinary archaeological-and-environmental works. These, however, not only led to fascinating discoveries in the field, but allowed a completely new eye to look at the Hellenistic base / city and its surroundings. It was only as a result of placing this extraordinary center in its geological, biological, economic and climatic environment that it was possible to state how it really functioned, and what effort was needed to erect it, supply it and keep it active.

From the chests of bones, shells, ceramic shards, dozens of coins and beads, piles of stone blocks and other archaeological materials (analyzed by world-renowned specialists - project consultants) emerged a picture of a distant fortress located on an inhospitable coast, where people struggled every day to keep this piece of Hellenistic civilization and to give his kingdom an access to amazing resources and goods of Africa and Arabia. The fortress, not only equipped in some places with double lines of stone defensive walls, with its own fortified harbor, metallurgical and ship-repair workshops, but also with the only known ancient well discovered on the entire Red Sea coast and even East Africa. Research of the described project allowed to state that the base / city was surrounded by no longer existing mangrove forests (with an abundance of edible molluscs and crustaceans) and acacia groves, that sometimes heavy rain fell here, the inhabitants exploited quarries located over 30km. from the city and they had herds of goats, cattle, sheep and sometimes even pigs. They also showed that, despite the intensive use of the rich resources of the Red Sea, Berenike would not exist without continuous, maritime transports of basic supplies. The view of ships entering the port loaded with sacks and amphoras must have been as ordinary as the view of transport aircraft supplying the Egyptian base in Baranis - the contemporary successor to Hellenistic Berenike and a brilliant analogy to the ancient predecessor.

The effect of the operation of Berenike and other Red Sea ports were not only dozens of elephants forming the war power of the Ptolemaic army and the piles of ivory, incense, precious stones and other luxury Indian and Arab goods (bought in South Arabian markets) that supplied the treasury of the kingdom. Its effect was also the incredible network of commercial and diplomatic contacts of Hellenistic Egypt and huge geographical and sailing knowledge, which even before the end of the Ptolemaic period let to draw the maps reaching the Horn of Africa, the southern tip of the Great African Rift Valley, Zanzibar and Sri Lanka. It was the discoveries of Hellenistic merchants (who in the second and first century BC sailed from the increasingly accessible for civilians ports of Berenike and Myos Hormos), even after centuries inspired the expeditions of R. F. Burton and J. H. Speke, D. Livingston, H. M. Stanley and other famous discoverers and explorers. These ancient voyages led to the discovery for Europe and indeed the world of the sources of the Nile, the lakes of Victoria, Albert or Tanganyika and the snowy peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. It was the expeditions of Eudoxos of Kyzikos that paved the way and set goals that led to the opening of the high-seas road to India and the second of the three largest trade routes of the ancient world and inspired Christopher Columbus, Bartolomeo Dias, Joao de Castro, and Vasco da Gama.

Research of the described project (in addition to illustrating the picture of the functioning of Berenike and other Hellenistic centers in the region) has allowed for establishing contacts and cooperation with the largest scientific institutions of Europe and the world such as: Oxford University, British Museum, University of Delaware, University of Haidelberg, Institute Francaise d’archeologie Orientale, Institute HiSoMA – Histoire et Sources des Mondes Antiques, Leiden University, Yale University etc. It has also included Polish Scientist in the increasingly stronger current of research on the “Hellenistic world” and the “Hellenistic Era”, the most diverse, cosmopolitan and creative period in all of ancient history.