The Mediterranean Coast

In addition to the oases, the other area of the Western Desert that offered opportunities for urban settlement was the Mediterranean coast. Historically, Egypt was uninterested in this neighbouring territory and, unlike northern Sinai, no attempt was made to place an Egyptian presence along the fertile coastal strip. This situation changed in the early Ramesside Period when population movements towards Egypt by the Libyan groups from further west made permanent military settlement a priority.

Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham

Traces of forts built by Ramesses II are known from Gharbaniyat and el-Alamein, but the best known fortress-town in the group is Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, 280 km (174 miles) west of the Nile Delta, which has been excavated by Steven Snape for the University of Liverpool since 1994. It is clear that this fortress-town, known anciently as ‘The Town (dmi) of Usermaatre-Setepenre’, was intended for long-term and extensive occupation because of its size and the range of buildings within.

It was defended by a massive mudbrick wall, 140 m (459 ft) along each side, with a single central towered gate. A fragmentary inscription on this gate refers to menenu -fortresses – a type of heavily defended dmi/town, which is an accurate description of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham. Inside these walls the Egyptian occupants erected a limestone temple, a series of storerooms and a ‘governor’s residence’, which included a private chapel. Inscribed objects from the temple and other private chapels next to it tell us that the fortress was garrisoned probably by over 500 soldiers at any one time and that their commander was a man called Neb-Re. The extent to which these soldiers brought their families with them to this most distant posting in the Egyptian empire is unknown, as is the extent to which they might have fraternized with the local population. The life of the town was relatively short, being abandoned either before or shortly after the death of its founder, Ramesses II.

Plan of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, showing the major areas excavated to date. Steven Snape.

Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham was deliberately placed on the narrow strip of land between the foot of the Libyan plateau (foreground) and the Mediterranean Sea (background). Steven Snape.

Self-Sufficiency at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham

This fortress-town may have been partly supplied by transport barges from the Delta, perhaps especially in the early phases of its building and occupation, and exotic foreign products such as olive oil, wine and (probably) opium arrived by sea courtesy of maritime traders travelling between Crete and Egypt. However, the long-term survival of the town and its population relied much more on self-sufficiency, especially in terms of food production.

Water – the most critical requirement – was supplied by a series of wells (two have so far been excavated) and, possibly, by the water-harvesting of rainfall in cisterns. Evidence for various types of production comes from ‘Area K’, which took up a substantial portion of the southeast corner of the town. Here a series of granaries, mortars, saddle-querns, quern-rubbers/grinders and ovens (along with one of the wells) provided all that was needed to turn grain into flour, bread and beer, the main dietary staples. The grain itself would probably have been grown in fields on the fertile coastal strip outside the walls of the town, and watered by winter rainfall. In addition, ‘Area K’ has also produced both spindle whorls and ‘spinning-bowls’, which are associated with the spinning of linen, also sourced locally through the cultivation of flax.

Water was the most important resource to be secured by Egypt’s frontier forts. This small well at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham was conveniently sunk where it could be used in the baking and brewing district. Steven Snape.

Grain, Granaries and Population

Various attempts have been made to calculate how much of their basic staple – grain – ancient Egyptians actually ate, and to what extent population size of any given settlement correlates with estimates of the capacity of its granaries. In the case of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham the two granaries in Area K that have so far been completely excavated have an average diameter of 3 m (10 ft), and there are indications that their original height was at least 2 m (6½ ft). These dimensions indicate an internal volume of approximately 14 cubic m (494 cubic ft) each, and therefore a total estimated storage capacity of the four known granaries of approximately 56 cubic m (1,978 cubic ft), i.e. 56,000 litres (12,318 gallons).

Calculations as to how many men these granaries could supply with grain are, like the volume of the storage capacities of the granaries themselves, a matter of evidence-based estimation. Dutch Egyptologist Jack Janssen has suggested that monthly grain rations to Deir el-Medina workmen of 4 khar of emmer and 1.5 khar of barley equate to approximately 300 and 150 litres (66 and 33 gallons) respectively, although these figures should probably be regarded as an allocation for a family, with an individual’s average consumption probably closer to one litre (⅕ gallon) per day. This figure correlates reasonably well with ration distributions at the Nubian fortress of Uronarti in the Middle Kingdom, where ration dockets indicate a 10-day distribution of 60 units produced from ⅔ hekat of barley and 70 units from 1 hekat of emmer; with a hekat measuring 4.78 litres (1 gallon) – this approximates to 7.5 litres (1½ gallons) of grain in 10 days and somewhere between 1,458 or 2,136 per day.

The partially excavated granaries at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham. The granary on the left has been adapted at some point to create a room containing a pair of ovens. Steven Snape.

However, the Uronarti distributions, although measured in terms of their grain content, were supplied as baked loaves, presumably because they were supplied from a centrally controlled military baking facility, the opportunities for individual members of the Uronarti garrison to carry out their own food-processing opportunities being presumably very limited. Nevertheless, as a rough rule-of-thumb, a garrison of 500 men requiring 7.5 litres of grain each for 10 days is a total of 3,750 litres. The known total grain store of 56,000 litres at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham would therefore last for about 150 days.

A series of storage vessels excavated at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham demonstrate the long distances travelled by visitors to the site: rear left, a Canaanite amphora; front right an Egyptian jar; rear right and front left, a pair of coarse-ware stirrup-jars, possibly from mainland Greece or Crete. Steven Snape.

In addition to consumption by the population of the town, the products of ‘Area K’ – including beer and linen, as well as pottery and metal objects produced in other parts of the town – could have been traded with local Libyan pastoralists in return for additional food, perhaps explaining the goat bones and ostrich eggshells that have been found in large numbers at the site.

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