Asian and Nubian Influences Found In Ptolemaic Era Statues in Berenice
Several mysterious statues dating back over 2000 years have been unearthed inside a temple in the ruined port of Berenice in Egypt. What makes them unique is that they exhibit strong influences from both Asia and the African interior, which demonstrates the extent of global cultural exchange during the Classical Age. The team of Polish and American archaeologists from the University of Warsaw and University of Delaware, made the finds at the important site of Berenice Troglodytica, where a number of remarkable discoveries have been made over the past year.
Ancient Red Sea Port: Center of Trade Between Africa, India and Arabia
Located in south-eastern Egypt on the Red Sea, Berenice was once an important port that was established by the Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who named it after his mother Queen Beatrice I. Heritage Daily reports that this “port city served as a trading center with the East Coast of Africa, India, and Arabia.”
Originally built by the Ptolemies to secure war elephants from India, they used these elephants in their endless wars with the Seleucids. Berenice Troglodytica was connected by a desert highway to the rest of Egypt. After the defeat of Cleopatra, the Romans did much to boost trade at the port, but it was abandoned in the 6 th century either because of the decline in trade or because the harbor silted up.
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Perhaps the best-known remains in the abandoned port is the massive temple which was built in the Egyptian style and dates to the first century AD. This sacred site was dedicated to the deity Isis, who was the Egyptian Goddess of the moon, marriage, and healing. It was also the location of a cult to Serapis, a Graeco-Egyptian god. The team of American and Polish experts were investigating the temple when they came across the unusual sculpture fragments.
Clearing the Berenke Temple in Egypt, with lagoon and Red Sea in the background. (I. Zych / PAP)
Could There Really Be Gandhara-Style Sculptures in Egypt?
They were soon struck by the design of these enigmatic pieces. Heritage Daily reports that the most impressive find was of “heads imitating sculptures from Asian Gandhara” an area that is now in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was a major center of Buddhism and its sculptures were particularly influential in the development of Buddhist art.
The fragments uncovered at Berenice came from sculptures that had been produced locally and had not been imported. Also found was a wooden statue of Serapis. “It was probably made of a broken mast,” explains Iwona Zych, one of the archaeologists from the University of Warsaw in PAP. The work had originally been covered in gilt. Zych continues to say that due to the quality of its workmanship “it should go to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.” This is the new museum planned to open near the Pyramids of Giza.
Field conservation work on site of a statue identified as being Sebiumeker, god of procreation and fertility from Meroe in present-day Sudan. (I. Zych / PAP)
Nubian Deity Discovered at Berenice
The archaeologists went on to excavate a stone sculpture of the Nubian deity Sebiumeker inside the temple. Often known as Lord of Musawwarat, Sebiumeker was the god of fertility and procreation of the Meroe or Kushite culture in what is now Sudan. Sculpted images of the god have been found in doorways and gates and this has led to experts interpreting that he was a guardian god, reports Heritage Daily.
The presence of the African deity was not a complete surprise to the researchers. A nomadic Nubian grouping, known as the Blemmyes, dominated Bernice and its trade in the 4 th century AD. Based on an engraving, it appears that the Blemmyes may have ruled an empire in the area that stretched from the Red Sea to the Nile. This inscription was found on a building dedicated by a certain Mochosak, and it refers to Isemne, king of the Blemmyan Kingdom. According to PAP, little is known about this Mochosak, but the inscription tells us “he had to be a man of great will, talent and resources to beautify the city,” explains Iwona Zych.
Archaeologists examine a block carved with hieroglyphs at the site. (I. Zych / PAP)
Cultural Melting Pot: Multicultural Seaport of Berenice Troglodytica
The discovery of the statues is providing researchers with a unique insight into life at the port of Berenice. With evidence of influences from as far and wide as the Asian Gandhara civilization and the Kushite Kingdom, it was probably very multicultural, getting inspiration from the cultures it traded with. It may even have had a community of Jews. Based on the quality of the artworks, the local artisans were very skilled and could work in a variety of styles.
Many archaeological treasures have been uncovered in Bernice since archaeologists first began their excavations. The city was re-discovered in the 19 th century by the Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the pioneers of the field. A pet cemetery filled with the remains of cats and monkeys, possibly from India, was uncovered in 2020. The Polish-American team have been working on the ruins since 2008 and expect to make more astonishing discoveries in the near future.
Top image: Statue identified as being Sebiumeker, god of procreation and fertility from Meroe in present-day Sudan. Source: K. Braulinska / PAP
By Ed Whelan