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Representational image of a war elephant. The recently-discovered fortress at Berenike guarded a port that supplied war elephants

2300-Year-Old Fortress Which Guarded Port That Supplied War Elephants Found in Egypt in Major Discovery

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A Polish-American archaeological team have discovered the ruins of a 2,300-year-old fortress that once protected the Ancient Egyptian port of “Berenike”, situated strategically on the coast of the Red Sea. The port had helped supply war elephants to the army of the Ptolemies and fragments of elephant skull were also found at the site.

A Live Science article published the names of the chief directors of the Polish-American archaeological team that discovered the fortress; Steven Sidebotham, a professor of ancient history and archaeology at the University of Delaware and Iwona Zych, deputy director of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw.

Historically, Berenike was an important military link in a chain of ports constructed along the coast of the Red Sea to supply war elephants to the army of the Ptolemies, a pharaonic dynasty descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. In 2014, a Live Science article published the results of genetic research  that revealed that the Ptolemies imported their elephants from Eritrea, in East Africa.

Part of the fortress discovered at Berenike along the Red Sea. Credit: S.E. Sidebotham / Cambridge University

Part of the fortress discovered at Berenike along the Red Sea. Credit: S.E. Sidebotham / Cambridge University

The archeologists paper about their latest discovery informs that the “Sizable fortifications” had “double lined walls” which were designed to protect the western part of the fortress and a single line sufficed farther to the east and north…” Additionally, square towers were built at the corners and in strategic places where sections of the walls connected.”

After 30 BC, under Roman rule, trade expanded rapidly at Berenike and it became a major center of trade and commerce until the sixth century AD with an extensive network extending from “Greece and Italy to South Arabia, India, the Malay Peninsula, Ethiopia and East Africa”, wrote archaeologists Marek Woźniakand and Joanna Rądkowska of the University of Warsaw team in an article published online in the journal  Antiquity.

Berenike is also most famous for its pet cemeteries where dozens of dogs, cats and monkeys have been found carefully buried, some still wearing their iron collars.  The careful treatment of the bodies suggested an emotional relationship between humans and pets as we know it today.

Fortified to Defend from Land Attacks

According to the archaeologists “The biggest and the most heavily fortified part of the Berenike fortress is about 525 feet (160 meters) long and 262 feet (80 m) wide.” It consists of “three large courtyards and several associated structures, forming an enclosed fortified complex of workshops and stores. What is more, “the double walls faced inland” suggesting that the fort “defended attacks from that direction,” according to Woźniak and Rądkowska.

Exploring the fortress’ gatehouse the archaeologists found “a rock-cut well and a series of drains and pools that collected, stored and distributed both groundwater and rainwater” and they estimate that the two largest pools may have stored over 17,000 litres of water,” wrote Woźniak and Rądkowska. This observation suggested to the researchers that maybe Berenike had “a more humid climate than today.”

On the south side of the north defensive wall, in an ancient trash dump, the archaeologists discovered terra-cotta figurines, coins and a fragment of an elephant’s skull, which is a remnant from the days when elephants served as battle field tanks.

The research team also found a series of drains and pools that may have stored over 17,000 litres of water. Credit: S.E. Sidebotham / Cambridge University

The research team also found a series of drains and pools that may have stored over 17,000 litres of water. Credit: S.E. Sidebotham / Cambridge University

The Ancient Elephants of War

A research article published on Warfare History Network discussing the history of war elephants in ancient Egypt informs that around 331 BC in northern Iraq, Alexander the Great came head-to-head  with the Persian leader Darius III. “200,000 Persian troops with 15 Asian war elephants” could not overcome the tactics of Alexander and after he captured Babylon the use of war elephants became widespread to the west of Persia.

Directly relevant to this story, in 217 BC Antiochus III, leader of the Seleucids gathered an army of “62,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 102 war elephants” (of the larger Asian type) and met Ptolemy IV at the battle of Raphia in Palestine. Ptolemy IV led 70,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, and 73 elephants (the smaller African forest type) but even with the animal sizes against him, Ptolemy IV defeated the Seleucids.

While the newly discovered fortress offers information to climatologists, hydrologists, military historians and specialists in ancient trade and economy, to the more compassionate reader it is a shrine to the horrible history of rearing and training elephants to fight human wars. Just not right.

Top image: Representational image of a war elephant. The recently-discovered fortress at Berenike guarded a port that supplied war elephants Source:  CC BY SA

By Ashley Cowie

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