Sailing to Egypt
The harbor of Leptis Magna gradually disappears behind us. A strange destiny befell this city. It remained prosperous and resplendent for many years, and then, with the development of the first cracks in the empire and the incursions of the Asturians in the fourth century CE, it was rapidly abandoned by the elite and by its inhabitants because of its vulnerability to attack. (Leptis Magna and other cities like it had no walls or defensive structures because they developed during the Roman globalization, which molded them according to the dictates of its commerce and social life.) Once everyone had fled, small groups of primitive tribes from the interior settled in the empty city. Archaeologists would later find arrowheads among the ruins of its monuments, which were turned into hunting grounds. In an unraveling of history, centuries of civilization were pulverized in an atmosphere worthy of a postapocalyptic film. But in the end these groups left too, and Leptis Magna became a ghost town. Imagine the deserted colonnades where the only sound was the howling wind, the theater with winged predators nesting in its niches, the empty shops, the houses with their shutters torn off, the imposing bath complexes, once vibrant, now wrapped in silence. And the splendid mosaics with colorful scenes of life, happy faces and gazes, gradually disappearing under the sand.…
The ultimate victor was the desert. It gradually buried everything. In certain points the city was covered by forty feet of sand. But it was the sand that saved the city from being plundered and pillaged. It did not come to light again until the twentieth century, when Italian archaeologists rediscovered its buried splendors. Today Leptis Magna is one of the most beautiful archaeological sites to visit, a veritable “marble Pompeii.”
Our ensuing days of sailing pass by peacefully. Our ship makes stops in the cities of Berenice and Appollonia in Cyrenaica; finally, one night the Egyptian merchant points out a low star on the horizon. Only it’s not a star; it’s one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the lighthouse of Alexandria.
The Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World
What we’re seeing corresponds exactly to the description of Posidippus, a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria in the third century BCE.
Therefore this tower, in a straight and upright line, appears to cleave the sky from countless furlongs away, during the day, but throughout the night quickly a sailor on the waves will see a great fire blazing from its summit. (Translated by Colin Austin)
On sighting the lighthouse the sailors recite holy words of thanksgiving. The lighthouse is consecrated to the Dioscuri, the twin gods of light, Castor and Pollux. Sighting it is thus a sign of the benevolence of the gods, who are sending us a good omen.
Actually, in more rational terms, it is the result of an ingenious technology of the Alexandrian age, which then was lost in the Middle Ages. The lighthouse is not simply a container of oil set on fire on the top of a tower. In all likelihood, the light is reflected off shiny-smooth concave bronze shields that function as parabolic mirrors, concentrating the beam of light toward the horizon. This makes the light visible at a distance of thirty miles, as reported by the historian Flavius Josephus.
Furthermore, we know from ancient descriptions that the top of the lighthouse is cylindrical, and this would leave us to suppose that the shields rotate around the light source, exactly as they do in a flashing light on the top of a police car or an ambulance. The result is a light beam that “spins” and shines on the entire horizon for almost thirty miles. (Thirty miles is the distance beyond which the curvature of the earth prevents the lighthouse, almost four hundred feet tall, from being seen.)
The next day, at long last, we enter the harbor.
The lighthouse dominates the entrance. It is gleaming white and awe-inspiring. Today, we know what it looked like thanks to a coin minted in Alexandria under various emperors (among them Trajan), as well as to mosaics, oil lamps, and even glass objects discovered in Bagram, Afghanistan.
The tower is divided into three parts. The lowest one is a massive square block almost two hundred feet high, with gilded statues of Tritons blowing into huge seashells at its four corners. The next level is a somewhat narrower octagonal tower. And finally there is the cylindrical tower with a domed roof topped by a gold statue: Helios, the sun god (in the Greek era it was Zeus Soter, that is, Jupiter Savior, or Poseidon).
Because the shore is flat, the tower also serves as a precious reference point for navigators to avoid the sandbars that are waiting in ambush in the vicinity.
Approaching the tower, we notice a vertical line of windows along the walls; a small community made up of maintenance workers, administrative staff, and guards lives inside the tower. At about forty stories high, it is the tallest manmade structure of antiquity, surpassed only by the pyramids of Cheops and Kefren.
The Alexandria lighthouse remained in use longer than any other wonder of the ancient world: built in 208 BCE, it was used for more than 1,300 years. During the Middle Ages, the top level was transformed into a mosque. After that, two consecutive earthquakes, in 1303 and 1323, put an end to its role as a reference point for navigators. Finally, the tower was demolished by Qaitbay, the sultan of Egypt, to build a fortress.
One last detail: the tower was built on an island called Pharos, in front of the port of Alexandria, from which it took its name. This name was then used throughout the Mediterranean to indicate towers with the same function, right up to our own time. As a result, when Italians use their word faro (“lighthouse”) they are paying homage, without even realizing it, to this wonder of the ancient world.
On the Streets of Alexandria
Entering the port isn’t easy. There is just one narrow passage next to the lighthouse, diverted by submerged rocks. Immense walls have been erected around the lighthouse island, and the sea dashing against these and breaking around the piers opposite them renders the passage rough and perilous. Indeed, our ship is battered by the waves, but the men on board are used to it, deftly maneuvering to enter the harbor. Once inside, the waters are exceptionally calm.
There are a lot of ships anchored in the roadstead. We pass between two of them and notice some men overboard, swimming under water and surfacing at regular intervals. Each of them has a rope tied around his waist; the end of the rope is held by other men assisting them from on board the ships. These men go by a curious name: urinatores (from the verb urinare, meaning “to dive under water”).
They are the ancestors of our scuba divers, men with a remarkable capacity to hold their breath, who perform various extremely risky tasks, such as military operations against enemy ships or the recovery of sunken cargo, as seems to be the case here. A ship has sunk in shallow water and the urinatores, without any kind of mask or fins, are recovering its cargo of amphoras.
As we are passing through we see one of the divers emerge from the water next to our ship. He is a man with a strong build and a decisive look on his face. He watches us pass and greets us with a luminous smile. Then he takes a few deep breaths and dives again.
Getting past the customs authorities is always a problem, in part because it inevitably involves distributing a few gifts. But in the end our young Egyptian merchant frees himself from the customs red tape and gets all his goods through, mostly amphoras of olive oil from Leptis Magna. After depositing them all in his warehouses he is finally free to go wherever he wants, and he makes his way into the crowded streets of Alexandria.
In just a few minutes we find ourselves once again amid the crowd in a big city. But this is not just any city. Alexandria is the second most important city of the Roman Empire. Founded by Alexander the Great, it has become a true megalopolis of antiquity. And the atmosphere, the chaos on its streets, is identical to Rome’s.
But there is something that makes these streets different: the people. Here, you really do see all kinds of people. Not only inhabitants from all over the Mediterranean, but also foreigners, so to speak, from farther afield: Ethiopian, Arab, Indian, and Persian sailors and merchants. Here there are entire neighborhoods inhabited by foreigners.
In a way Alexandria is a door to the empire because of its maritime traffic with India and Africa, and we do get the impression that we’re at a crossroads. We encounter faces, clothing, languages of every imaginable kind. Here, for example, is an Indian merchant with very elegant features. Two Nubians go by, silent, tall, and statuesque, wearing white necklaces that stand out against their dark skin. They look like two sharks weaving their way through the crowd. The next passerby is really funny. He’s a Middle Eastern merchant, a short, fat man; his fingers are covered in rings and he is wearing an exotic tunic. He gesticulates animatedly with a street vendor. With every move his short arms disappear among the folds of his long, flowing tunic, making the scene truly comic.
The strong odor of spices blasts into our faces. We stop. Off to our right on display in front of a shop we see a series of small colorful mounds. The shopkeeper is next to them, sitting on his heels, waving a straw mat as though it were a fan to keep the flies away from the merchandise.
All around us are numerous shops, selling anything and everything. What strikes us most are the colors: the fabrics especially are incredibly colorful. We reach out a hand to feel them. Some are rough, but one in particular is very soft. It’s silk. These streets are the best place in the whole Mediterranean to buy silk from China; there is a wide range to choose from and the quality is excellent.
We stop at a corner, under a portico, and observe a curious scene. A man is standing up, dictating a letter to a scribe, who is sitting on the ground. The man on his feet is named Hilarion; he’s a modest manual laborer who has immigrated from the nearby city of Oxyrhynchus, much smaller than Alexandria and afflicted by chronic poverty and widespread illiteracy, a throwback to the past. We walk over closer to them and try to sneak a peek at the letter. It’s a missive to his sister whose name is Alis, and who evidently is expecting a child. He writes to her that if the baby is a boy she should keep him, but if it is a girl she’ll have to “expose her,” that is, abandon her in such a way that someone will take her. This is not an uncommon attitude in rural Egypt, and it confirms for us, once again, how varied the Roman Empire is in its traditions and peoples. This letter will be discovered by archaeologists (but, alas, we’ll never know if the baby was a boy or a girl).
Shortly thereafter our attention turns to the foul-mouthed cries of a fishmonger. Her profanity and explicit sexual references pronounced with a thick Spanish accent make her a real character, and not a few people stop to listen to her. Hers is just one of the shows being staged on the streets of the city.
The Prostitute of Alexandria
And what about our sestertius? It is with the young Egyptian merchant who has just turned down a back alley, jumping over a turbid puddle. Everything here is paved in dry, dusty dirt, not marble like in Leptis Magna.
The young man passes a tavern and heads toward an open door. A girl is leaning against the door frame, looking at her fingernails, turning her hand left and right. Her dress is semitransparent, and you can see very clearly her large, dark-nippled breasts. As if that weren’t enough, her skirts have long slits to provide a better view of her body. She is displaying her goods, just like the spice dealer that we encountered a little while ago.
The girl’s name is Nike (Greek for “victory”), and she’s a prostitute, one of fifteen in this brothel. The young man arrives and smiles; he asks only if she is free or busy with another customer. He doesn’t even ask how much she charges for her services. Evidently, he’s been at sea for quite a while. The girl smiles listlessly and goes into a semidark corridor. The place is humble; the chipped and peeling walls are full of stains and graffiti. This brothel is essentially a long, narrow hallway with a dozen or so rooms on the right and left. There’s not much light, it smells of mildew, but what really makes the situation embarrassing are the sounds. Every room is closed off by a curtain, which protects against indiscreet eyes but is absolutely useless against noise.
None of this bothers the young man at all. He puts a hand on the girl’s hip and pushes her gently into a room. The pimp, the proprietor of the bordello, nods his approval from the end of the corridor. All you can see is his face emerging from the darkness, illuminated by a glancing ray of light. The simple straw mat atop the masonry bed will be the place where they will consummate the sex act. The man’s desire is evident. The girl pulls the curtain closed and undresses. He’s already her eighth customer today.
How Girls Become Prostitutes
The prostitutes in bordellos are exploited to the hilt by their pimps. They are usually very young girls, with long curly hair and Middle Eastern features, the most requested by the customers because they’re thought to be very sexy.
How does a girl wind up here? The vast majority of prostitutes are slaves or former slaves. Sometimes they are picked up off the streets at a tender age, in the places where parents leave unwanted children (the “exposed”). Or else they are kidnapped, exactly as happens today to many girls from the East. Then they are sold at the slave markets: the largest and best supplied are in Greece, like the one on the island of Delos. The price varies markedly, depending on each case. In his Epigrams (VI, 66) Martial writes of a girl from the Suburra district in Rome sold for 600 sesterces (about $1,500), but sometimes the prices are much higher than that. The ancient texts recount that Emperor Heliogabalus bought a gorgeous slave for the astronomical figure of 100,000 sesterces ($250,000). But he was an emperor and could afford it.
If a girl is purchased by a pimp she ends up in a brothel. She usually begins her career around age fourteen, but sometimes even younger. In certain cases, however, if the girl is very beautiful, she can avoid the bordello and become a high-class “escort,” working for wealthy clients.
Another sad cause of prostitution is poverty. Often in the poorest levels of society, it is the girl’s parents who push her to prostitute herself. Some women choose the work themselves. In most cases these are widows or single women with no families. In reality, the few occupations open to women (handicrafts, jewelry making, weaving, and shopkeeping) don’t pay enough to live on, especially for women with children. So for women who lose their husbands or their parents, prostitution is often the only way they can earn a living. But there is a risk: it is not uncommon for these unfortunate women who choose to become prostitutes to end up in the hands of usurers or unscrupulous pimps, who reduce them to a condition of servitude.
Despite these dangers, for many women prostitution still appears as an opportunity, from an economic point of view, compared to a normal job. A brief look at the figures explains why that’s true. The fee for sex is 2 or 3 asses. If you consider an average of five customers per day (slave prostitutes have many more) a low-level prostitute in a city like Rome can earn as much as 15 asses per day. If you deduct a third to pay the pimp, the figure drops to 10, which is still more than the 8 asses per day that a weaver earns.
Here, obviously, we are talking about the lowest levels of prostitution. It’s possible to earn much higher amounts, though it’s difficult to say how much in today’s currency. We have been using the following exchange rate for the age of Trajan: 1 sestertius equals $2.50. So sex in the Roman era costs about $1.25 (an as is a quarter of a sestertius). That’s very little compared to modern times, but it’s also very little for the Romans. That’s what they pay for a glass of not very good wine.
And maybe this is another distinctive aspect of Roman society. The basic needs and amusements of the inhabitants of the empire don’t cost much: bread (which in Rome is even distributed for free), wine (which can, or actually must, be watered down and for this reason is inexpensive), quadriga races, the baths (a quarter of a sestertius), and even sex are all very economical.
The young Egyptian rearranges his tunic. He smiles at the girl and hands her our sestertius. The woman smiles coldly. An instant later, the young man has already pulled back the curtain and vanished into the street. The girl gets up and goes to wash herself at the end of the corridor. She looks at the sestertius that she has received from the young merchant. She runs her fingertips over its reliefs and inscriptions. She wonders who knows where it comes from and who has held it in their hands. She has no idea of the extraordinary story behind this coin.
Then she goes back to the entrance to the brothel. She doesn’t even have time to put her transparent tunic back on before a new customer arrives. A fat man. She looks at the pimp, who nods: the other girls are busy, and so the new customer wants her. The girl smiles again and opens the curtain.
Tourists in Antiquity
Early the next morning, a man walks into the bordello. He is tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, and compared to the other customers he’s very distinguished and polite. He respects the girl and talks to her, even when they’re having sex. He contains himself longer than the others, and for the first time the girl sees her customer as a person, not just a faceless consumer like all the others. He’s not from Alexandria; he’s Greek. The man pays for the service with a denarius, and as his change he receives, among some other coins, our sestertius. He gives the girl a peck on the cheek, smiles at her, and disappears into the alleyway. The girl follows him with her eyes as he goes on his way. She doesn’t know, why but she can feel that she’s going to remember him for a long time.
Now the Greek is once again on the streets of the city. He’s not a sailor or a merchant or a soldier. His ways are more refined. He’s a tourist. Tourism did exist in the Roman era, but it was not very common. Usually tourists are intellectuals, sometimes doctors or functionaries traveling for work, but in any case they are people interested in culture, from the more elevated class of society. And, obviously, they have some money to spend. To find these tourists, you have to come to this part of the empire.
Tourism in antiquity is concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean rather than the west. The reason is that the “cities of art” are located in the Hellenic and Egyptian world. Everything west of the Italian peninsula is of little interest. These are the new cities, without history or significant monuments. The east, on the other hand, has everything, from mythology to history.
If we were to make a ranking of Roman tourists’ favorite places Greece would be at the top, followed by Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and Egypt. In this era they have the flavor of exotic and faraway places. The most popular itineraries generally lead across Greece to the islands of Delos, Samothrace, and Rhodes, and a few others in the eastern Mediterranean. In Asia Minor, tourists go to Ephesus, or to Cnidus to admire the beautiful Aphrodite sculpted by Praxiteles. But above all they go to Troy (exactly like tourists continue to do today), to see the places where Rome has its most ancient origins, thanks to Aeneas, who abandoned the city in flames to make his way, with a few survivors, to the coasts of Latium, where he gave birth to a lineage that would one day number among its members Julius Caesar. In the Roman era, because of its historical and mythological role, Troy enjoys enormous benefits, not the least of which is a tax exemption bestowed on it for its “patrimony” of the origins of Rome. It is full of visitors and aggressive tour guides.
Nevertheless, the most popular place for all tourists remains the city of Rome. People come to see it from all over the empire. And the city is certainly not lacking in places to visit, as we have seen.
Roman tourists themselves come in for some sharp criticism from Pliny the Younger. He accuses them of making long voyages to the east to discover the great faraway masterpieces while ignoring the ones they have in their own backyard. “We take long journeys on land and sea to see what we do not deign even to look at when it’s right here under our nose.… We have a predilection for everything that’s far away while remaining indifferent to everything that’s nearby.” This contemporary attitude already existed two thousand years ago.
The Romans completely ignored some areas that are very popular with tourists today, such as Africa and India. In the Roman era they were too far away and the journeys were too dangerous, so they remained destinations more for merchants than for tourists.
The Greek tourist came to the bordello just as he had gone to see the many other attractions of Alexandria. It is part of the package of activities for every visitor. The other sights are the tomb of Alexander the Great, the temple of Serapide, the legendary library … and then the nightlife neighborhoods, “downtown Alexandria,” and the sex districts (which our Greek tourist has just experienced).
What makes Alexandria extraordinary is the mingling of “dirty money” and culture. Small groups of musicians who play on the streets always attract a crowd. This city full of merchants, prostitutes, and sailors is also a city of music lovers. Historians and the ancient sources tell us that at zither concerts even the most humble and uncultured spectators can recognize and react to the smallest mistakes by the musicians. In this regard, Alexandria is like Parma for opera lyrica, with great experts and passionate critics at every level of society, the most feared of whom have seats in the gallery.
Going Up the Nile
The Greek tourist is part of a group of philosophers that, a few days later, gathers on a large boat to travel up the Nile and visit its extraordinary sights. Already in the Roman era the monuments of ancient Egypt are considered part of antiquity. Pharaoh Ramses II lived 1,300 years before Trajan.
Professor Lionel Casson has revealed many of the details of such a touristic itinerary, so similar to today’s that it leaves us dumbfounded. It’s actually a very comfortable trip. To be sure, there are no propellers or engines that would make it possible to go upriver against the current, as the big cruise ships do today. But the Roman-era ships exploit another engine: the wind. To go up the Nile they raise their sails and take advantage of the winds that usually blow south, against the current; to go down the Nile, on the other hand, all you have to do is drift.
A dimension that we miss today on these upriver voyages is the quiet, the swishing of the water against the hull, the sound of the sails fluttering in the wind, or the oar banging into the wooden side of the boat or slapping against the surface of the water.
It is with this background noise that the group of tourists sail up the Nile and pass by the amphibious zoo of the cane groves, where rhinos brought from India sit in the water waiting to be captured and sent to Rome, to the Colosseum.
An obligatory stop is Memphis, the departure point for the visit to the pyramids. The Greek philosopher manages to see something that we will never see: the pyramids intact, with the gleam of their smooth facing (visible today only at the top of the pyramid of Kefren).
The little group of philosophers looks on, amused, at the prowess of the boys of the village of Busiri, who in exchange for a small donation climb up the smooth walls of the pyramids at breakneck speed.
But an even more impressive sight is the sacred bull of Apis, the living incarnation of the god Ptah (Osiris), which can be seen in Memphis, in the holy buildings adjacent the temples. Traveling farther upriver to the religious center in the capital city of Fayum, you can admire and make an offering to another sacred animal: the god Sebek, reincarnated in a crocodile.
Fayum is one of the granaries of Egypt and thus of the empire. As we can see from our boat, there are lots of plantations and cultivated fields extending inland. Three women and two boys from the local area come onboard. They’ll be joining us for the next part of our journey. They are on their way to a party and are dressed very elegantly.
The new arrivals give us an idea of what the Egyptians were like at the time of the Roman Empire. They don’t look at all like the Egyptians we know today, the product of subsequent migrations and miscegenation, with strong Middle Eastern features and often with dark complexions. The Egyptians from Roman times could be mistaken for Greeks today, with their curly hair, light skin, and hazel or green eyes.
The women’s hairdos are simple but stylish. Oddly, however, their eyebrows are left long and thick, and in some cases they meet above the nose. The first woman, petite and slender, has her hair arranged in thick, tiny curls. She has a lovely pair of gold balance-shaped earrings with three pearl pendants, and around her neck an elegant neckband made of strips of tiny white pearls. The second has her hair gathered in a bun on the nape of her neck, crowned with a gold chain with a decorated disk in the center. Her garments are purple, wrapped around a body that is slender and sinuous. But the third woman, who looks somewhat older, is a bit more fleshy and more shapely—a real matron. She has a chubby face and a long nose. Her hair, gathered in a bun, frames her face in an elegant mass of curls. Her earrings are striking, made of two big amethyst teardrop pendants that jiggle with every move of her head. Even more impressive is her necklace: a gold neck band adorned with pendant bunches of tiny spheres, also in gold.
The women talk with the two boys, undoubtedly brothers judging by how much they look alike. We discover the matron’s name, Aline, but everyone calls her Tanos. She is a genteel lady with a refined way about her. We know that she’s the mother of two girls. The five newcomers laugh and joke with each other. Then, upon reaching their destination, after a few miles or so, they bid us a polite farewell and disembark, just barely keeping their balance on the gangway.
Watching them get off the boat, with their long tunics and their shawls, a single image comes to mind: India. If you want to have an idea of how people looked in the Roman era, with their long, flowing robes, think of today’s Indian women. Their movements, the drapery of their garments, their perfumes (and even their social castes) render the idea with good approximation.
What we have seen on the boat today can also be seen in several museums. Indeed, these same women live on in modern times, thanks to the extraordinary portraits that they had made, when they were alive, to hang in their homes and which were later applied, when they died, to their mummies. The desert conserved them perfectly, and now they are displayed in various museums around the world (Tanos, the matron, is in Berlin). There are lots of them and today they are referred to collectively as the Fayum portraits. Some of them are so realistic that they look like photographs.
Easier than traveling to a museum, you can admire the portraits at home on the Internet. You’ll recognize familiar faces that will give you the feeling that you’ve already seen them somewhere before: a colleague from the office, a shopkeeper in your neighborhood, a former classmate …
But the most impressive aspect of these portraits is their penetrating gazes. They feel somehow still alive, and they represent the people that we would have met here in Egypt, during the time of the Roman Empire.
The Tombs of the Pharaohs
Finally we arrive in Thebes (present-day Luxor). From here the group sets out on a journey to a site that still attracts millions of tourists every year: the tombs of the pharaohs. It may seem surprising, but the tombs were already an attraction in the Roman era. We know that not only from ancient texts, but from the graffiti left on the walls by the Roman tourists.
It can be said that in the ancient world tourism, in both the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, reached its peak during the Roman Empire, thanks to the pax, the peace, that the empire established and maintained. There are no more enemies, there are no more pirates, and so from the first century on it was possible to travel in peace (apart from storms and tempests). This extraordinary period will last until the onset of Arab expansion in the seventh century.
Having crossed the Nile early in the morning, the group of philosophers makes its first stop in the place where two enormous statues stand overlooking the road to the Valley of the Kings and Queens.
The statues are as tall as six-story buildings and they represent one of the most powerful pharaohs, Amenophis III, who ruled around 1400 BCE. But the Romans (and the Greeks before them) are convinced that the statues represent the mythological figure Memnon, son of Aurora and king of the Ethiopians, who arrived in Troy with an army of his own to save the Trojans but was killed by Achilles. The Romans are misled because the statues are faceless. After being partially destroyed in an earthquake, all that’s visible is a human figure without a face sitting on a throne. But what convinces the Romans that the statues are the son of Aurora is the sound that one of them makes at dawn, as if he were speaking to his mother.
The group of Greek philosophers stops in front of the two statues. They left in the middle of the night to come here and now, together with some other tourists, they are waiting for the propitious moment. The sky has gone from black to blue and the horizon at their backs is getting brighter and brighter. Finally the sun rises, embracing the mounds covering the tombs of the pharaohs and their queens. Some of the group chat in hushed tones. Then they all fall silent. The moment is near. Like faithful followers in adoration of two strange partially demolished divinities, the group is arranged in a semicircle. Finally, one of the statues emits the sound. It’s a sharp tone that sounds almost like the resonance of a string instrument. “A low-intensity hum,” the geographer Strabo tells us, or a sound “very much like the resonance of the string of a lyre or a zither,” writes the Greek historian Pausanias, who lived in the second century CE. Everyone believes it’s the statue speaking. Many, including our philosophers, are skeptical. Strabo was too; he didn’t know how to explain the origin of the sound, but he remained very rational and scientific, saying: “whatever logical explanation is easier is more believable than thinking that the sound is emitted by those stones.” He also wondered if the sound might be made by some hidden person.
But actually, in all likelihood the sound is drawn from the stone by the change in temperature from the cold of the night to the torrid heat of day. In any case, we will never know the origin of the sound; a restoration of the statues carried out under Septimius Severus silenced the statue forever.
At this point, a lot of the tourists turn back; going on to the tombs means heading into the searing hot ravines of the Valley of the Kings and Queens. But some of them do it, including our little group of Greek philosophers. They visit the tomb of Ramses VI, which they believed to be the tomb of Memnon, and then the tomb of Ramses IV (which will later become a place of Christian worship) and a few others. At the most, they visit three or four, no more.
How do we know all this? Lionel Casson has revealed to us how scholars discovered the habits, and even the names, of many Roman tourists. Several of them, including one murderer, left traces of themselves in the form of graffiti. The tomb of Ramses VI has more than a thousand graffiti. In all, archaeologists have found 1,759 graffiti etched with a chisel of some kind, 300 written with black ink, and 40 with red ink. By reading them and putting them together a lot of details have emerged.
The graffiti make it clear, for example, that tourists did not travel alone but in groups, which were composed of families, imperial functionaries traveling on official business, soldiers, or even groups of intellectuals like our philosophers. The graffiti were left by army officers, lawyers, judges, poets, professors, orators, doctors (there are almost thirty of them), and philosophers. And they came from all over: Italy, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece. Some came from as far away as Marseilles or the Dead Sea, confirming that the fame of the tombs of the pharaohs had spread throughout the empire and beyond.
Since they signed and dated their graffiti, it is possible to determine that the “tourist season” lasted from November to April, when the temperatures are cooler, just like today. This was also the season in which navigation was interrupted, allowing for long excursions into the Egyptian interior.
And what was written in the graffiti? Mainly expressions of awe at the beauty of the tombs and their paintings. “Unique, unique, unique,” one tourist wrote.
“I reproach myself for not having understood the inscriptions,” another wrote, after trying to decipher the hieroglyphics. “I’ve made my visit,” wrote still another.
Some slightly bored visitors began to write other things such as, for example, anagrams of their names: Onipsromse (Sempronios), Onaysisid (Dionysias).
But the graffito that is most striking for its irony and modern sensibility is this one: “But does your mother know you are here?”
Toward the Red Sea
The voyage up the Nile continues to its southernmost point, Aswan, near the first cataract. Our group of philosophers goes just a bit farther south to admire the Temple of Philae. But they don’t go beyond that. The Roman presence continues with some frontier outposts, little forts where the atmosphere must’ve been quite surreal. They are the southernmost military outposts of the empire, oppressed by the scorching sun, overwhelmed by sandstorms, isolated at the extreme edge of civilization. Life in the forts of Egypt is documented in some letters found intact, buried under the sand, just as letters were found near the Vindolanda frontier in the north. The content of the letters can be summed up like this: a third contain military news, a third are requests related to beer, another third are about women. The life of the legionnaires on the frontier is the same, whether it’s the icy cold north or the torrid south.…
But that’s not the only similarity. Recall the homework assignment of the son of the commander of the fort in Vindolanda, rediscovered among the letters that were miraculously conserved. He was supposed to write a phrase by Virgil taken from the Aeneid (IX, 473), which his teacher dictated to him.
What’s incredible is that the same thing was happening, thousands of miles away, in more or less the same period. From the sands of Fayum, in Hawara, a papyrus emerged with a phrase, also from Virgil’s Aeneid, written seven times by a pupil. Evidently it was a classic for the school teachers of the time. This time, however, the phrase is different (II, 601): Non tibi Tyndaridis facies invisa Lacaenae (“You must not blame the hated beauty of the Spartan Tyndarid”). Whether it was in the frozen north of Scotland or the torrid desert of the Sahara, Virgil had to be learned without errors.
Our group of philosophers is on the way back from their long journey, and they stop again in Thebes for a few days. Then, letting the boat be pulled along by the current, they slowly make their way back to Alexandria. One of the stops along the way is in the small city of Coptos, not far from Thebes, where the path of the Nile makes a wide bend. They stop there for lunch.
The philosophers sit down at the tables of a small inn, under an arbor. The view of the Nile is magnificent, with the sails drifting slowly by. At the table next to theirs, two soldiers are playing dice. The dice are decidedly unusual: they are in the form of a woman stretched out on the ground, resting on her elbows and holding her knees against her chest, with her legs open. The numbers are etched on the various parts of her body. It’s a pornographic version of dice that we haven’t seen before. (They are on display today at the British Museum, in silver and bronze.)
Our philosopher looks at them and smiles. Then he gets up and goes to a little store nearby to buy a canteen. It’s identical to a modern canteen only it’s made of clay and is protected by a sleeve made of vegetable fibers. He pays for it with our sestertius. He is given his change by an old man with a nice white beard who smiles at him and wishes him a safe trip. A little later the group of philosophers head back to their boat, discussing concepts and issues that seem to have no solution.
Two days go by, and at the same table where the philosophers once sat, a robust man with a massive head takes a seat. At first glance he looks like a boxer. His short hair is combed to the front, just like Trajan. And when the slender waitress brings him his bill, he smiles, showing his chipped front tooth. The man gets up to go to the store to buy a canteen. And that’s when he comes into possession of our sestertius.
The canteen is indispensable to him: he has to travel across the desert. It won’t be his only reserve supply of water, obviously, but it will be the one closest at hand. A few minutes later he mounts his camel, with a straw hat on his head and his canteen around his neck. He’s part of a convoy of camels, which, in single file, sets out on a long journey on a caravan route. The sun is high in the sky and our sestertius is getting hot.
The caravan track that we’re traveling on is one of the roads that take people outside of the Roman Empire: specifically, to India. This man is a merchant from Pozzuoli, and he’s transporting some highly sought after merchandise to the Orient: red coral. But it’s not going to be easy. It will take them many days to reach the ports of departure on the Red Sea: seven days to Myos Hormos (literally, “the port of mice”), and as many as eleven to get to the one where we are going, Berenice Troglodytica.
In order to consume less water the caravan will journey at night and, as on the sea, it will be guided by the stars. The route will be broken up by stops at wells and checkpoints. All along the route we will encounter watchtowers and forts. It’s not possible to travel freely on the caravan track: you must have a pass, pay taxes, and, since for all practical purposes the track itself is a frontier, there is a duty, quite expensive, to be paid on the goods. The frontier has a double purpose: it’s a way by which the state collects revenues, but it is also a protectionist measure to curtail the hemorrhage of gold in the form of coins (aurei), that leave the empire and never come back.
One morning, after the long journey through the night, the caravan comes to a sacred site called Paneion, where there is a natural spring dedicated to the god Pan. It’s a place where all caravans stop and the camels lower themselves down to their knees. On the high rock walls all around it, a lot of merchants have left inscriptions, which we try to read. One bears the name of Lysas, perhaps a libertus who, on behalf of his master (Annius Plocamus), managed to go all the way to Ceylon in the first century CE.
There is another one that impresses us: the name Gaius Peticius, written in Greek. Today, Peticius is a noble family name common in the Abruzzo region of Italy. This means that a Roman from Abruzzo must have passed through here. Confirmation of this is found in the archaeological museum in Chieti, which houses the gravestone of a member of the Peticius family, showing an engraving of a camel transporting amphoras. The man exported wine to India.
The port of Berenice is located in an enchanting place. The coast is a desert landscape, the beaches are pure white, and the sea is a spellbinding turquoise. In the modern era these coasts are populated by tourist villages, beach umbrellas, and kite surfers (the famous resort of Hurghada is not far from Myos Hormos). In the Roman era these places are considered as far away as the moon: those who come here feel the sensation of having an immense expanse of desert at their back and an even more immense expanse of water in front of them. For the Romans these are places of death, not amusement.
Looking out at the crystalline water, the fish, and the coral, one can feel the vastness of the Roman Empire. It touches Scandinavia on one end and has coral reefs on the other.
The caravan has unloaded its cargo. Berenice Troglodytica is a flourishing city, the true gateway to the Orient. Just think, every year 120 Roman ships depart from here for India! Proof that contacts and trade between the empire and India are not sporadic, as is commonly thought, but regular and continuous. Quite simply, India and Rome are trading partners.
What does each have to offer the other? A jaunt through the streets of Berenice is enough to give us an idea. To India, the Romans export wine, clothing, red coral, blown glass, and hand-wrought metal objects. From India, the Romans import silk, precious stones such as lapis lazuli, pearls, ivory, essences, and spices, especially pepper. Basically, luxury goods. But peeking into the warehouses we also see other kinds of goods in transit through this port: prized wood, coconuts, incense, and even flowers.
The sun has just set behind us. The sky is slowly turning an ever-darker blue, and the first stars are beginning to appear. We look out at the sea in front of us. It’s flat and calm, as though it were slowly dozing off to sleep. Will it be like this tomorrow, too? The ship is ready, the cargo is loaded, and if the omens are good, tomorrow we set sail.