It was a time of drought, a time of great hunger. In the chain of forts that guarded the rich river valley against raiders from the desert beyond, army garrisons were under orders: Hire guides from among the starving desert people, and use them to patrol the shriveled landscape to keep refugees from entering the valley.
The story has the ring of a modern news dispatch, but the year was 1847 BC, and this was the southern frontier of the Middle Kingdom empire of Pharaoh Ammenemes III. Beyond that frontier lay Nubia, which the Egyptians regarded as a mysterious, sometimes threatening land, but one from which issued coveted ivories, ebony and animal skins—and the waters of the Nile itself.
In the third year of the reign of Ammenemes III, on day 27 of month three of Proyet, three women and two men of a nomadic desert tribe whom the ancient Egyptians called Medjay Elephantine, in what is today Aswan. They came as ragged vices to the Great House of the Pharaoh. When questioned about conditions in the region they had come from, they offered no information about the movement of peoples—either because they were uninformed or because they feared how the pharaoh might use the information. We do know that they stated simply, "The desert is dying of hunger."
In cold response, they were told there would be no asylum in the Great House, that their labor was not needed. Their despair, and their fate on their return to the desert, we can only imagine.
The plight of these five nomads appears in the Semnah Dispatches, a series of reports by an officer stationed on Egypt's southern frontier to his superior residing in the capital, Thebes. They were discovered by British archeologist J.E. Quibeil in 1896 at the Ramesseum of Thebes on the west bank of the Nile. The accounts of the Medjay preserved in the Semnah Dispatches are the earliest known written record that mentions the desert nomads who have been part of Egypt's human fabric since the dawn of history.
The Medjay are regarded by some authorities as the first pastoral nomads on the African continent, and they are the ancestors of the modern Beja tribes, whose lands lie in southeastern Egypt and northeastern Sudan amid the arid peaks and broad wadis that separate the Nile Valley from the Red Sea. The Medjay were likely the first people in Africa to have relied for their livelihood upon the herding of domesticated cattle, which they moved about seasonally, as necessary, in search of pasture. Medjay history, as we can piece it together through archeological evidence and modern tribal stories, seems much like the desert from which it springs—sparse and often blank, yet interspersed with moments of vivid color.
At midday, leaving the green, shady cool of the Nile Valley and passing into the Eastern Desert, the sun beats down on a seemingly lifeless landscape whose horizon in every direction dissolves in the watery ripples of mirage. But it was not always like this: Some 6000 years ago, when a Hamitic people began their migration into northeastern Africa from Asia by way of Arabia, the sun shone on rolling, grassy land and tree-dotted mountains. Antelope, ibex, ostrich, wild cattle and gazelle abounded alongside smaller populations of lion, giraffe and elephant.
The arrival of these ancestors of the Medjay around 4000 BC is recalled today among the Amarar nomads in Sudan, who speak the Beja language: "The Beja are attributed to Kush, the son of Ham, and emigrated...after the Flood." As they integrated themselves into the region, the Medjay achieved a measure of social interaction with the early Egyptians. Yet the Medjay lived outside the Valley, and mostly hunted and foraged for their sustenance.
As they began to populate the region, two revolutionary technologies were transforming age-old patterns of life: cultivation and animal domestication. Both drew hunters and gatherers into a settled life. Food that had been foraged was increasingly replaced by produce of the field, and meat from the hunt by meat from domestic herds. A natural site for this transformation was the Nile Valley, which between 4500 and 3400 BC became populated as never before.
At the same time, the region's climate was in the early stages of a drying trend whose results we see today in the harshness of the Eastern Desert. As aridity increased, so did the scarcity of grazing land. For herds to survive, mobility became essential.
The development of pastoral nomadism, among the Medjay as everywhere else, was rarely as simple as the telling of it, however, for its forms always responded to differing local conditions, nor were the motives of diverse herders consistent. In addition to the element of personal preference, for example, Medjay herders with close ties to a large settled population in one part of the Nile Valley may have adopted pastoral nomadism primarily to reap the commercial benefits offered by expanding trade networks, while herders in another, more remote and drier area may have been pushed into nomadism primarily by the climatic shift. Still other, relatively weak, tribes may have adopted nomadism as a flight-based defense against aggressive neighbors, or they may have been pushed into it in a last effort to survive after losing lands to them. In most cases, however, settled peoples became increasingly dependent on herders for meat and a supply of draught animals, and the herders became increasingly dependent on farmers and craftsmen for agricultural foods and tools. (See Aramco World, March/April 1995.) The development of specialization made for interdependence, and it laid the groundwork for early regional trade networks.
So also were the forms of nomadism adapted to local conditions. We believe that the early nomads of the Eastern Desert lived in bands varying from 25 or 50 people to more than 100—often depending on the availability of forage and water in a particular region. Among the Beja today, men are generally engaged in herding and milking and, where conditions permit, women cultivate small plots of grain. Where this is not possible, the people must rely on trade to provide for necessary agricultural goods. The degree of mobility can also vary from year to year, depending on resources.
Until more extensive archeological work is done in the Eastern Desert, just when herders there began to live a nomadic life will remain a mystery. At this time, the earliest evidence of nomadic populations—circumstantial evidence—dates to approximately 3200 BC, shortly before the rise of dynastic rule in Egypt. Near the mouth of Wadi Allaqi, a normally dry tributary that originates in the highlands and enters the Nile Valley just north of the present Egyptian-Sudanese border, study of a culture archeologists call "A-Group" shows that its people grew relatively wealthy as middlemen in trade between Egypt and the cultures to the south. The A-Group sites show extensive possession of animal products such as hides, but there are no equivalent signs of domestic stock-raising: no corrals, no evidence of butchering. It appears that the A-Group obtained their animal products through trade with nomads in the Eastern Desert.
Support for this hypothesis comes from petroglyphs, or rock drawings, which the Hamite ancestors of the Medjay executed extensively throughout the region from the earliest times, especially in wadis and along trails. Among the petroglyphs contemporary with the A-Group culture, cattle are the most carefully depicted animal, and many show cattle with artificially deformed horns and amulets dangling from their necks—clear indications of domestication.
Climatic study shows that the region continued to grow drier and drier throughout the third millennium BC. In response, desert herders would have been forced to refine their skills. By the time the Medjay surface in the Semnah Dispatches in the early second millennium (ca. 1991-1783 BC), the Egyptians had evidently developed an appreciation for Medjay's abilities. A frieze in the XIIth-dynasty tomb chapel at Meir, 50 kilometers (30 mi) north of modern Assiut, shows gaunt Medjay tribesmen herding cattle under the eyes of Egyptian overseers. The lean limbs, broad chests and large shocks of hair of these ancient nomads make them almost identical to the modern Beja. Perhaps the five supplicants who failed to find employment at Elephantine merely represented latecomers to an oversupplied labor pool of Medjay refugees who had already found a livelihood in the service of the pharaoh.
At some point—the record is not clear exactly when—the relationship of the Medjay with the Egyptians began to include commercial and military ventures, too. Since at least the Old Kingdom (ca. 2650-2135 BC), the time during which the pyramids were built at Giza, the Egyptians had exploited gold mines in the Eastern Desert. By the time of Thutmose III (ca. 1391-1353 BC), the mines were producing some 1100 kilograms (2400 lbs) annually, a quantity so great that, for a time, silver was more valuable than an equal weight of gold.
Mining resulted in such extensive recruitment of Medjay into the Egyptian army that by the time of the New Kingdom in the late second millennium, some 500 years after the Semnah Dispatches, an entire army corps was called "Medjay." Gold prospecting missions also employed Medjay as mercenaries and guides. One such massive operation, sponsored by Ramses III in 1180 BC, included 5000 soldiers, 2000 state slaves and 800 foreign captives—quite a few people to be supported while they wandered the desert. The services of knowledgeable guides would have been essential. In addition, Medjay soldiers often escorted the donkey caravans that served the mines. (Domesticated camels would not reach the Medjay for another 1000 years.) Southbound trade caravans similarly relied upon the Medjay's knowledge of the lands beyond the Nile Valley.
In 1550 BC, Medjay troops helped drive the Hyksos invaders from Egypt. And Heliodorus, the third-century Greek author of Aethiopica, relates that for their valor in battle against the Persians in about 700 BC, the Medjay were released from tribute payments for 14 years. Other records tell of New Kingdom rulers employing large numbers of Medjay as police amid their largely Egyptian populations—an early example of a tactic that was to become common in our own colonial era: the use of "outsiders" to help control a subject population.
Aside from the military and commercial records, however, there is scant mention of the nomads in the writings of ancient Egypt until after Alexander the Great's conquest in 332 BC and the beginning of the Ptolemaic dynasty that followed. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Ptolemaic Greeks easily intermarried with the Medjay and other non-riverine Egyptian tribes. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra spoke the language of the Trogodytes, the largest tribe that inhabited the Red Sea coast. Other sources relate that the Greeks taught the nomads to dig cisterns, and that the Greeks, although hardly assimilating nomadic culture, took such an active—and generally enlightened—role in the life of the tribes that folk legends about their energy and capabilities still circulate among the peoples of the region to this day.
In the Greek texts, the Eastern Desert nomads are no longer called Medjay. They are divided into those living between the Nile and the Red Sea mountains, named the Blemmyes, and those along the Red Sea littoral, the Trogodytes. Herodotus described the latter as fast runners whose language was "like squeaking bats." The geographer Artemidorus, writing around 100 BC in passages passed down to us by Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, described them as living "a nomadic life on their flocks, each group with its tyrant. At the time of the Etesian winds, when there are heavy rains, they live on blood and milk, which they mix together. They give the title of parent to no human being but rather to a bull and cow...since they ever secure their daily food from them." Any tribesman who was maimed or incurably ill was "helped out of life." The aged, he wrote, commonly committed suicide rather than become a burden to their progeny: "Consequently one may see every Trogodyte sound in body and of vigorous age, since no one of them lives beyond 60 years." They were expert archers who ran down wild beasts and, when hunting elephant, would hamstring their prey before the kill. This technique was still in use when explorer Sir Samuel Baker visited the southern reaches of the region in the 1860's.
It was also during the Ptolemaic period that the nomads of the Eastern Desert experienced a four-legged—and often bad-tempered—revolution: the camel. The exact date of the domesticated camel's appearance in Egypt is uncertain, but it is generally agreed that it became part of the Blemmyes' and Trogodytes' husbandry during the final centuries BC.
The camel provided a newly dependable means of long-distance travel as well as a new source of nourishment and wealth. After its arrival, the desert tribes increased in size and vigor. Rock drawings—like all art, a product of leisure—reappeared throughout the region after a millennium or more during which little had been created. In addition to depictions of fauna, the abundance of tribal symbols reflects a new level of identity, perhaps derived from the nomads' growing sense of their strength—strength the Blemmyes would use against Rome.
With the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. The Roman attitude toward the nomads was very different from that of the Greeks: Repulsed by their wild-haired appearance, the Romans regarded them as scarcely more than another kind of desert beast, and treated them accordingly. The nomads began raiding Roman territory and trade routes. By the latter half of the third century of our era, the Blemmyes had united sufficiently to present Rome with a challenge. According to the fifth-century Palestinian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the Blemmyes overran the Nile Valley in 268, from Syene (Aswan) all the way to Ptolemais, near modern Sohag, and it took the Romans years of bitter campaigning to drive them back into the desert.
From the third to the fifth centuries the Blemmyes continued to threaten Roman hegemony in the region. In his De Bello Persico, the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius recorded that in 284, Emperor Diocletian, faced with continuous Blemmyan conflict, formally relinquished to the Blemmyes jointly with the Nobadae, their rivals, a 250-kilometer (155 mi) stretch of the Nile known as the Dodekaschoinus, which stretched from Syene south to near the present Egyptian Sudanese border. In addition, Diocletian arranged to pay annual tribute to the Blemmyes, and he allowed them access to their favored shrine of Isis at Philae (near modern Aswan), as well as the right to have their own priests in residence there.
Although Diocletian's appeasement did not end Blemmyan raids, the Blemmyes did for a time respect the border at Syene. But by the latter half of the fourth century the Blemmyes were de facto rulers of the Nile Valley far beyond that point. In a contemporary letter, Blemmyan ruler Kharachen assured his administrators at Tanare (some 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, north of Syene, near modern Luxor), "If the Romans make difficulties and do not pay the ordinary tribute, neither the phylarch nor the hypotyrannos [Blemmyan authorities—the Blemmyan language of state was Greek] will prevent you from compelling the Romans to pay it." Interestingly, although the Blemmyes controlled much of the Upper Nile for nearly three centuries, they did not become a settled people. They remained desert-based throughout, interested only in dominating their peripotamian subjects.
By the middle of the fifth century, Rome tired of the Blemmyan presence along the Nile. According to Procopius, Emperor Marcianus's campaign in 451 defeated the Blemmyes and won partial control for Rome. Although the Blemmyes did not live up to their end of the resulting treaty, the defeat by the Romans was severe enough to bring southern Egypt relative calm for the better part of a century.
The situation changed dramatically in 536, when Emperor Justinian outlawed pagan worship and ordered the removal of the idols at Philae. Outraged, the Blemmyes resumed their raids. Four years later, their hold on the Dodekaschoinus was broken—but not by Rome. Silko, the newly Christianized king of Nubia, led an army north, and defeated the Blemmyes so thoroughly that they relinquished all of the Nile and retreated to the desert. The end of their hegemony marked the final blow to paganism in Christian Egypt.
Today, the descendents of the ancient Medjay are part of the Muslim Beja nation, including the tribes of Bisharin, Amarar and Hadendowa. Throughout southeastern Egypt and northeastern Sudan, there are an estimated one million speakers of Bejawi, the Beja language, although many of these speak Arabic as well. Most Beja continue to live as pastoral nomads, herding camels and cattle in the harsh region that, long ago and in a more verdant time, was also home to their ancestors.
Some Beja bands are renowned for their reclusiveness while others, such as the expert camel breeders among the Bisharin, have extensive contact with the settled peoples of the Nile Valley. To witness the Bisharin trading with the villagers and townsfolk of the Valley is to see just the kind of exchange that has nurtured both pastoral nomads and settled folk since the dawn of civilization in Egypt.
Robert Berg, an independent scholar, consults for several us companies doing business in Egypt. He lives outside La Luz, New Mexico with his wife Lorraine, an artist working in sculpted tile and mosaic.