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Photo of modern Azalai salt caravan.

Hippalos: Hazardous Journeys by Camel and Caravan – Part II


(Read Part 1, Hippalos: Early Navigation of Deep Sea Routes Between India and Egypt)

Assuming the presence of military was a deterrent to the local pirates, the Greek ship loaded with trade goods would make its forty-day crossing directly from Musiris to Ocelis, near modern Aden.

From Ocelis the journey was due north, deeper into the Red Sea.

Foul Bay

They may have headed for the harbor called ‘Foul Bay’ or Berenice, built by Ptolemy II in 275 BCE and named after his mother. Foul winds blew relentlessly from the north, making the 240 miles (386 km) to the ‘mussel harbor’ Myos Hormos a tough one. The winds blew continuously from the north for ten months of the year. They are the fiercest in the known world, as every resident of Berenice would testify. Even seasoned navigators feared this passage. 

Map showing Berenice in Egypt

Map showing Berenice in Egypt. (Public Domain)

Berenice was closer to the mouth of the Erythraen, the ‘Red’ seas; but the journey across the desert from Berenice was longer and more perilous. The cargo was to be caravanned across the desert on camels or donkeys. It took twenty days on a desert trail known in later times as Pan’s Road. Pan was the name the Greeks gave to Egypt’s Min, whose image in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is one of the oldest pieces of religious iconography known to us.

Pan was often depicted as a satyr, a goat-legged man. Statue of Satyr Silenius at Athens Archaeological Museum

Pan was often depicted as a satyr, a goat-legged man. Statue of Satyr Silenius at Athens Archaeological Museum (CC BY 2.0)

Min was protector of the desert trail; whose cult center was at journey’s end at Coptos on the Nile. 

An ancient archive has several examples of merchant’s contacts on which more details of the trade can be inferred: ‘I will give to your camel driver 170 Talents, 50 drachmas, for the use of the road to Berenice and I will convey your goods inland through the desert under guard and under security to the public warehouses for receiving revenues at Berenice and I will place them under your ownership and seal until loading aboard at the Gulf and I will load them aboard at the required time on a seaworthy boat on the gulf and I will convey them across the Maes Erythraim stream to the warehouse that receives them at Musiris’

By Camel and Caravan

At the beginning the season a score or more local Bedja headsmen subcontracted their camels and herdsmen for the trade.  Each would send a minimum of twenty ‘Delta’ camels to work Pan’s Road for several months on the golden triangle of Berenice to Koptos, or Koptos to Myos Hormos, then along the coast to Berenice. 

These strange beasts are the most efficient way to haul cargo across the desert.  At a push, they can go days without water for they are habituated to the very harsh conditions that would kill almost any other creature.  Their herders are young and tough, and they made a good account of themselves if there is any trouble. 

All around the caravan must have been the clamorous moaning of the camels as sack after backbreaking sack was hoisted up on their packsaddles. Overloading was avoided otherwise they would walk a lot slower and need extra food and watering.

On the march, the camels must content themselves with a snatched mouthful of bitter drupe or purple bunch grass, stipa or dry tussocks of panicum, inedible by any other beast but a camel.

Caravans traveled at night, making camp well before the first hints of green dawn broke over the bleak, jagged masses of rock that flank the Nile valley. Beyond was nothing but a boundless expanse of gravel.  Above, rose the high peaks of mount Hamad, its ochre tops still bathed in the final rays of daylight whilst her rugged slopes were already in evening shade.

A close view of Eastern Desert mountain range along the Safaga-Qena Road.

A close view of Eastern Desert mountain range along the Safaga-Qena Road. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Min’s lordship over the desert compelled all travelers to break their journey at his shrine just outside of the cultivated area. Here they must pray to the god for a safe passage through his realm, for protection from the harsh desert conditions, and from roving brigands that were always a hazard on the journey. Such a shrine, a Paneion could be a pile of great smooth granite boulders. There were many rocky outcrops in the desert, honeycombed with caves and passages.  The desert dwellers knew every one.  Many were too small to be an oasis, but could support a small band of men, hiding in the deep desert awaiting the opportunity to steel a sheep, a female camel or maybe even an unattended child.

Egyptian god Min.

Egyptian god Min. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The image of Min is one we all know so well from his protruding penis. The god stands canopied under the outstretched wings of the sun.  On his head a plumed headdress with nestling solar disk.  The god’s right arm is flung backwards as if about to strike with his flail. His left arm disappears behind the inscription.

All Egypt’s temples have an insatiable appetite for incense that is dragged down Pan’s Road by the ton. The inscription on one of these desert shrines, though worn by desert sandstorms, is still legible and reads: ‘Paid for by Gaius Cominus Leugas, set there many years ago in the 23 rd of Thoth in the eighteenth year of the reign of Claudius. Gaius, the imperial geographer thanks Pan, guardian of the eastern desert, for a particularly valuable outcrop of porphyrites.’ 

A desert caravan moved at a steady if complaining pace of four miles (6.5 km) per hour.  On a good run they would cover sixteen miles (25 km). They aimed to reach a way station such as Phenicon, at the intersection between the two great desert roads – the Myos Hormos road, the route of legendary Queen Hatshepsut’s to the treasure-lands of exotic Punt. Here they would rest at one of a series of desert hydreumata (watering station), built by the Romans.

Temporary Safety at Hydreumata

Cargo was discharged into the magazines of the bleak Roman fort.  No doubt there was much shouting as the camels, waiting patiently for their turn at the water troughs, had to be filled with water from the deep bore well.  The forts employed several people, local prisoners who had committed some misdemeanor or other, and were part of the work levy for the watering station. Only after years of work would they be allowed to return across the desert to their herds and family.

An efficient station would lock everything down at night so that any marauders would not have access to the water hole. In the event of real trouble, which was exceedingly unlikely, help would come. The real danger was out in the deep desert between forts. There were bandit villages hidden up in their mountain strongholds, the Barbaroi or Trogodytes.  They would not dare attack directly, but watches were still placed throughout the night.

After 20 such days and nights the caravan arrived at Coptos on the Nile, where the goddess Isis shared a mansion, i.e. a temple, with Min. So the goddess featured at the both extremes of the trade route, in Egypt and at Musiris in India.

Isis depicted in Egypt with outstretched wings (wall painting, c. 1360 BC)

Isis depicted in Egypt with outstretched wings (wall painting, c. 1360 BC) ( Public Domain )

One of the benign aspects of the Nile is that its flow is the south to the north to its delta and the great Mediterranean port of Alexandria. From there trade goods were dispersed to other ports by yet another, more predictable, though not as hazardous, sea journey, including to Rome.

Featured image:  Photo of modern Azalai salt caravan. (1985) (Holger Reineccius at the German language Wikipedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Chris Morgan


Rajan Gurukkal and Dick Whittaker (2001). In search of Muziris. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 14, pp 334-350. doi:10.1017/S1047759400019978.

Rajan Gurukkal Rethinking classical Indo-Roman trade: political economy of eastern Mediterranean exchange relations New Delhi : Oxford University Press  [2016]

“The Megalithic Burials and Urn-Field of South India in the Light of Tamil Literature and Tradition” K R Shinivasan , Ancient India No 2 1945

Mortimer Wheeler, My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan.  (Thames & Hudson 1976) p. 55

“The Roman Road & Stations in the Eastern Desert” G W Murray JEA (Oct 1925 3-4)

Kamil Zvelebil “Siddha Quest for Immortality: Sexual, Alchemical and Medical Secrets of the Tamil Siddhas, the Poets of the Powers” Mandrake of Oxford. [Online] Available at:

Chris Morgan's picture


Mogg Morgan is a respected independent scholar, former Wellcome student, and holder of an advanced degree in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford.

He is the author of several books on Egypt, specializing in folk religion, ritual calendars and the... Read More

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