Main: The area of ancient Naukratis as it appears today. Credit: Dr Penelope Wilson / The Fitzwilliam Museum. Inset: A pottery bowl made on Chios in the late seventh century BC and brought to Naukratis

Unearthing the Ancient Port of Naukratis, a Bridge between Egyptian and Greek Civilization

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Archaeologists are excavating Naukratis, a once lost Greek-Egyptian city famous in the ancient world for its dinner parties and beautiful courtesans, a hub for traders across the Mediterranean world. Finds among the ruins of the city, Greece’s earliest settlement in Egypt, include temples to many deities and thousands of artifacts, among them iron tools, statues, amulets and jewelry.

Some of the most interesting are terracotta figurines, including of the sky goddess Hathor, a celebrant carrying a wine jug and a phallus, and other figurines used in drinking festivals.

Excavations at Naukratis on the Nile Delta have revealed new information about the city itself and how Egyptian culture shaped Greek culture and vice versa. Archaeologists with the British Museum and other institutions have been excavating there since 2012 and have found thousands of artifacts, including wood from Greek ships.

“Naukratis … became famous for its elaborate symposia (dining parties) and beautiful hetairai (courtesans),” says the website of the British Museum, which is leading the research there. “Naukratis functioned as the main trading port in the Western Nile Delta until the foundation of Alexandria, and continued to be significant also throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Officers (prostatai) appointed by the nine founding cities of the Hellenion administered the emporion (Greek trading post) at least from the time of Amasis. Imports into Egypt included wine, oil, and silver, and exports from Egypt grain, flax, natron, papyrus, perfume and other semi-luxuries.”

A plate depicting a seated sphinx, 6th century BC, found in Naukratis

A plate depicting a seated sphinx, 6 th century BC, found in Naukratis (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen/ Wikimedia Commons )

“In the seventh century BC, Egypt once more opened up to the Mediterranean world, developing close contacts with other civilisations such as Greece,” the British Museum says. “Egyptian Pharaohs of the Saite dynasty employed Greek mercenaries in their army. Greek goods appeared in Egypt and Egyptian goods in Greece. Greek culture began to incorporate Egyptian traits, based on first-hand knowledge of Egyptian monuments and ideas.”

Naukratis was the pivotal city in relations between Greece and Egypt then. The city was known from ancient texts but its location was lost. An English Egyptologist rediscovered it in 1884, and the ruins have been excavated on and off since then. It was inhabited and used as a harbor from the seventh century BC for about 1,000 years and was still an important town under the Romans.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of artifacts from across the Mediterranean were found at Naukratis, including faience scarabs and amulets, Greek and Egyptian statues, jewelry iron tools, coins, weights and architectural items. Archaeologists found Greek and Egyptian houses, workshops, sanctuaries and cemeteries.

Experts had originally though the city was 30 hectares, but recent surveys and excavations have shown it was twice that big. Ross Thomas, the British Museum curator who leads the dig told the Guardian “there’s a lot of archaeology there still to dig.”

“The port of Naukratis was the earliest, and for a period the only, Greek port in Egypt, functioning as the main Mediterranean port of Egypt during the 7 th to 4 th centuries BC,” says a report (PDF file ) at the British Museum website. “Established in the late 7th century BC as a base for Greek (and Cypriot) traders and the port of the royal Pharaonic city of Sais, it was an important hub for trade and cross-cultural exchange in the ancient world long before the foundation of Alexandria.”

The city, which had a population the researchers estimate at about 16,000, had buildings three to six stories tall, a monumental temple to Amun-Ra, his wife and son and Min and two sites with Greek temples, one called the Hellenion. Greek gods and goddesses with sanctuaries there included Apollo, Hera, Aphrodite and the Dioscuri.

Naukratis remained important under the Romans. Here is Roman gold jewelery from Naukratis, including a large gold diadem inscribed with the name of Tiberius Claudius Artemidorus.

Naukratis remained important under the Romans. Here is Roman gold jewelery from Naukratis, including a large gold diadem inscribed with the name of Tiberius Claudius Artemidorus. (British Museum photo)

In the 5 th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus reported on Naukratis, which means “mistress of ships.” Some interpret Herodotus’ account of shipping as meaning that freight was taken there in barges, not by seagoing ships. However, archaeologists have found dowel, tenon and mortice joints such as those used in Greek ships among the city’s ruins. This leads them to conclude the Canopic branch of the Nile was navigable at least as far as Naukratis.

British Museum curator Thomas told the Guardian that female traders are mentioned in the Greek inscriptions from the sixth century BC in Naukratis. There are more Greeks from that era there than in any other Greek sanctuaries. Also, characters known from other parts of the Greek world are mentioned in Naukratis’ inscriptions.

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