Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.31

Robert B. Jackson, At Empire's Edge: Exploring Rome's Egyptian Frontier.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2002.  Pp. xxv + 350, 4 sketch maps, 100 B & W photos.  ISBN 0-300-08856-6.  $37.50.  

Reviewed by John Whitehorne, University of Queensland, Australia (
Word count: 1449 words

Roman Egypt, it is said, supplied the population of imperial Rome with a third of its annual grain supply. But Egypt was also obliged to produce very much more than grain for its imperial masters. Jackson has made very good use of his extensive travels during the seven years he spent in Egypt between 1981 and 1996 (p. xiii) to produce this survey of Roman control and exploitation of Egypt's desert regions. The result is a good general introduction to the many ports, trade routes, quarries and other industrial sites of the frontier regions of Roman Egypt and the forts, temples and settlements associated with them. Lying far beyond the Nile valley, these sites were responsible for the production or transhipment of many of the luxury items such as porphyry, myrrh, ivory, silk cloth and fine cotton which made life bearable for the average millionaire back in Rome or Alexandria.

The result is a book which is easy to read and highly informative, yet at the same time it is one which is very difficult to categorise. Whereabouts to display it on the shelves? Alongside the Lonely Planets, the Rough Guides and other similar aids for the hardcore traveller? Hardly. Concerned with the damage already done by modern tourists to these remote unguarded sites and their equally fragile desert environment, Jackson deliberately rejects the idea of writing a navigational guide and intentionally avoids giving the exact location of the sites he describes in order to protect them from further destruction.1 With the reprints then of Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger, Arthur Weigall and other writers of atmospheric accounts about desert life and travel designed for the armchair traveller? Even less appropriate. Jackson clearly loves the desert and is adept at evoking its splendid silence and isolation in a few short sentences. Yet he has kept a tight rein on any tendencies he may have had to indulge in purple prose or to introduce lashings of modern local colour. So should this book be shelved with the much more dry and serious archaeological reports on the sites which Jackson has visited? Again the answer is no. Despite his obvious familiarity with current and past work on the desert sites which he surveys,2 Jackson gives no site plans and only 4 very sketchy maps. Furthermore, while the majority of his many B & W photos succeed in conveying the immensity and the desolation of these desert regions, those which concentrate upon architectural features, inscriptions, graffiti, tomb paintings and the like often regrettably lack any scale.

Jackson begins his overview of Roman Egypt's frontier regions with the stone quarries of the Eastern Desert and moves southwards and then westwards in a more or less clockwise direction to the Upper Nile valley and Roman Nubia, and thence to the oases of the Western Desert, ending up with the desert routes from Siwa to the Mediterranean and the Nile.

Part One of the book deals with the Eastern Desert. In Chapter I Jackson takes us first to Gebel Dokhan, 'The Mountain of Smoke,' or as the Romans called it more prosaically Mons Porphyrites, the only known site in the world for porphyry, the purple stone which they prized so highly for statuary and inlay work. Jackson gives an interesting account supported by a good series of photos of the quarrying of this rare mineral, and of how it had to be carefully lowered and skidded along a 2 km ramp down the steep side of Mt Lycabettos before being loaded onto massive carts for transport along the desert roads, descending through a series of wadis to the edge of the Nile. He ends the chapter with a brief survey of the location of extant Roman examples of works in porphyry, including perhaps the best known example, the statue of the tetrarchs now set into the corner of St Mark's in Venice. In Chapter II we move south to the best known of all the Roman quarries in the Eastern Desert, Mons Claudianus, which provided columns of white granite for some of the major temples in Rome. The account is brought to life by a judicious use of quotes from a number of ostraca discovered there in the 1990's, now published as O. Claudianus I & II. Chapter III follows the quarry roads down to the Nile, before we return eastwards in Chapter IV to a survey of the ports on the Red Sea coast, most notably Myos Hormos and Berenike, through which the luxury goods of the East first reached the empire. Chapter V, at the end of Part One, briefly traces the next stage of their long journey to Rome down the better known desert trade routes to Edfu and Coptos, where they were reloaded onto Nile riverboats for onward passage to Alexandria and the Mediterranean.

Part Two, which deals with the valley of the Upper Nile, is appropriately the shortest section of the book since the northernmost sites of Aswan, Elephantine and Philae, surveyed in Chapter VI, have long been on the tourist trail. By contrast Roman Nubia, further south, is much less familiar, and Chapter VII on this region and the often awkward relationship between the Roman and the native Nubians and Blemmyes provides a welcome addition to the growing literature on this area. The emphasis here is more on the history of their relationship than on the sites themselves. This is as much a matter of necessity as choice for many of the sites are now submerged beneath Lake Nasser or otherwise inaccessible to visitors, but I wonder that Jackson does not say more about the continued exploitation of the gold mines of the Wadi Allaqui during the Roman period, which are mentioned only in passing (pp. 125, 142).

Part Three deals with the major sites of the Western Desert, working from south to north. There were important Roman towns in this region, particularly in the Great Oasis area. They were sustained by the seepage from the upper reaches of the Nile which flows northwards beneath the desert through the sandstone underlying a series of lowlying depressions. Where the sandstone lies close to the surface, the water was accessible either through wells or sometimes through natural springs, enabling quite large populations to support themselves by farming in the oases. Jackson gives good summaries of what is known of the major sites in the Kharga and Dakhleh Oases, such as Dush, Hibis, Qasr Labekha, Ismant el-Kharab (ancient Kellis) and Deir el-Haggar, as well as noting many of the lesser known ones and the desert routes which interconnected them. It is particularly pleasing to find his account of Kellis fleshed out with extensive quotations from the documentary papyri found there,3 as well as his recognition of the importance of the wooden codices which were discovered at the site.4 The latter together give us some idea of the continuing importance of classical Greek culture in this out-of-the way place and of the extent of its agricultural fertility in the mid fourth century.

Much less is known of the life of Farafra and Bahariya in the Small Oasis during the Roman period (Chapter IX), although the quality and quantity of the finds recently made by Hawass5 in the Greco-Roman necropolis at Bawiti are an index of Bahariya's importance during the earlier Roman period. These will take years to excavate, let alone publish, but the demographic data they provide will eventually provide a valuable supplement to that already available from the census records in contemporary papyri.

The final chapter (Chapter X) covers the region of the Siwa Oasis. Like the sites surveyed in Chapter VI, Siwa itself could be said to be almost on the tourist trail. It is also less of a Roman site and therefore of less interest given the book's Roman focus. Nonetheless Jackson gives an interesting account of the importance of the Oracle of Ammon at Siwa, where Alexander the Great was first hailed as a god, and notes in passing the supposed 'discovery' of 'Alexander's Tomb' there a few years ago, before concluding with some brief notes on the routes which lead from Siwa out to the sea coast, west to Libya or back to the Nile.

There are an unfortunate number of misspellings and misprints, many of which could have been picked up quickly by a copy editor with classical training. Some of them, particularly of proper names, are likely to confuse general readers of the book.6 Despite these and the brevity with which some of the sites are described, this is a good summary of some little known and less visited parts of Egypt, but its appeal is more likely to be to a general rather than a scholarly readership.


1.   See e.g. xv, 52-3, 267 n.29. There is in any case now a comprehensive guide to the sites of the Western Desert by Cassandra Vivian, The Western Desert of Egypt: An Explorer's Handbook, Cairo: AUC Press, 2000, although nothing comparable as yet for the Eastern Desert.
2.   As evidenced by the very full and up-to-date bibliography, which unfortunately omits page numbers of journal articles.
3.   K.A. Worp et al., eds, Greek Papyri from Kellis I, Oxford: Oxbow, 1995.
4.   K.A. Worp and A. Rijksbaron, eds. The Isocrates Codex from Kellis, Oxford: Oxbow, 1997; R. S. Bagnall, ed. The Kellis Agricultural Account Book, Oxford: Oxbow, 1997.
5.   Z. Hawass (not 'Hawas' as p. 314), Valley of the Golden Mummies, Cairo: AUC Press, 2000.
6.   Map 2 (opposite p.1), site 35, read 'Apollonos' for 'Apollomos;' p.37, prefect is 'Sulpicius Similis', not 'Simius;' p.50, 'stationarii' for 'statonarii;' p.39 and passim, plural of 'amphora' is 'amphorae;' p.68, 'Tribunician' for 'Tribuician;' p.71, 'Socnopaiou' for 'Socnopaios;' p.100, 'Deiotariana' for 'Deiotarianan;' Map 3 (p.108), 'Dodekaschoenus' for 'Dodetaschoenus;' p.114, 'sandalled' for 'sandled;' p.135, 'Cohors' for 'Cohortis;' p.146 and passim, adjective from 'Blemmyes' is 'Blemmy;' p.161, 'Herakleopolis' for 'Hierakleopolis;' p.164, names still given in French form; p.167, prefect is 'Rutilius Lupus', not 'Ruffinus;' p.175, 'Antoninus' for 'Antonius;' p.176, 'Ptolemy IX' for 'Ptolemy X;' p.177, 'Cnaeus' or 'Gnaeus' for 'Cnoeus;' pp.247 and 299, 'Pausanias' for 'Pausanius;' p.266, n.10, 'Narbonese' for 'Narnonese;' p.283, n.10, 'relationship' for 'relationp.'

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