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Volume 49, Number 6November/December 1998

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Via Porphyrites

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

In the year 18, in Egypt, a Roman legionnaire named Caius Cominius Leugas found a type of stone he had never seen before. It was purple, flecked with white crystals and very fine-grained. The latter characteristic made it excellent for carving, and it became an imperial prerogative to quarry it, to build or sculpt with it, or even to possess it. This stone soon came to symbolize the nature of rulership itself. We call it imperial porphyry.

The Romans used this porphyry for the Pantheon's inlaid panels, for the togas in the sculpted portraiture of their emperors, and for the monolithic pillars of Baalbek's Temple of Heliopolis in Lebanon. Today there are at least 134 porphyry columns in buildings around Rome, all reused from imperial times, and countless altars, basins and other objects.

Byzantium, too, was enamored of porphyry. Constantine the Great celebrated the founding of his new capital, Constantinople (later Istanbul), in the year 330 of our era by erecting there a 30-meter (100') pillar, built of seven porphyry drums, or cylinders, that still stands. Eight monolithic columns of porphyry support Hagia Sophia's exedrae, or semicircular niches. Justinian's chronicler, Procopius, called the columns "a meadow with its flowers in full bloom, surely to make a man marvel at the purple of some and at those on which the crimson glows."

Anna Comnena, daughter of the 11th-century emperor Alexius I, described the porphyra, a porphyry-veneered room in the palace where women of the ruling family were taken to give birth. The choice of porphyry for this room in particular was no accident: It ensured that members of the imperial family were literally porphyrogenitos, or "born to the purple."

The room is in the form of a perfect square from floor to ceiling, with the letter ending in a pyramid. The stone used was of a purple color throught with white spots like sand sprinkled over it.

Porphyry served the imperium in death as well as birth. Nero was the first emperor to be entombed in a porphyry sarcophagus, according to Suetonius. Constantine's porphyry sarcophagus has been lost, but that of his wife Constantia, decorated with peacocks, lambs, and grapes and thought to be a copy of his, is now in the collection of the Vatican Library. Those of the Holy Roman Emperors Frederick II, Henry IV and William I, and that of the Empress Constance, all porphyry, are in Sicily's Palermo and Monreale cathedrals.

In later centuries, porphyry columns and other pieces were widely reused in new constructions, often reappearing far from their original Roman context. In 786, Charlemagne received permission from Pope Hadrian to remove classical columns of porphyry from Rome to build his cathedral at Aachen. The renaissance Medici family commissioned portrait busts carved from porphyry blocks that had been warehoused in Rome since imperial times. Other sources are unknown and unguessable: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London contains a pair of fine porphyry earrings. A church in Kiev is decorated with porphyry wall and floor revetments; how the stone made its way there is probably an interesting story, but unrecorded.

What makes imperial porphyry so precious and rare is that it is found at only one place on earth, atop a 1600-meter (mile-high) mountain in the eastern province of Egypt. The Romans named the site Mons Porphyrites, or Porphyry Mountain, and the Arabs today call it Jabal Abu Dukhan, or Smoky Mountain.

Thrust to the earth's surface in the same volcanic action that once formed the Red Sea, the porphyry found at Mons Porphyrites is, as far as specialists know, geologically unique. But the site is so barren and so remote that only slave labor could ever have extracted the stone, and even then only for the relatively brief historical moment when Roman power was at its zenith.

When George Murray, chief of the Egyptian Geographical Survey in the 1930's, visited the quarry, he found a place so barren that it made him shudder. A ruined fortress, three lifeless villages, abandoned temples and shrines, dry wells, broken pillars, cracked stone baths—"the fossil whims of three centuries of Emperors," he called it. The local Ma'aza Bedouin have a similar saying about the place: "The Romans left; only the ibex remained."

But geographers and Bedouin see things differently from archeologists. David Peacock of the University of Southampton in England is co-director of the Egypt Exploration Society's Mons Porphyrites Project, and he finds it "the most remarkable Roman industrial landscape in the world." Some of his recent finds, including the stela inscribed by the Roman discoverer of the quarry, help to explain how the work was carried out under conditions that would be daunting even today.

Among the more startling finds are a hair-pin, cosmetic brush, and toy comb made from oyster shell—evidence that women and children may have lived here alongside the men. Also surprising is written evidence, on inscribed pottery shards, or ostraca, that work proceeded here even during the sun-scorched summer.

Labor involved more than mere quarrying. After cutting and rough-dressing the blocks and column drums—and apparently also such larger pieces as the monolithic pillars eventually used in Hagia Sophia—the pieces were loaded onto oxcarts, which were driven 150 kilometers (about 100 mi) to the Nile at Qena (Kainopolis of the Ptolemaic era), where they were shipped downstream by barge and then by sea to their final destinations. Byzantine poet Paul Silentarius refers to this in his ode to Constantinople's porphyry, "powdered with bright stars, that has laden the river-boat on the broad Nile."

The road from the quarry westward to Qena, which Ptolemy the Geographer put on his second-century map, was a route described first by Strabo, and it is to this day known as the Via Porphyrites, the Porphyry Road. Along the way are seven hydreumata, or fortified wells, each one a day's march from the next. Outside the fortifications are lines of large stones to which oxen were tethered at night.

Archeologist Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware, an authority on the Roman roads of the Red Sea mountains, surveyed the Via Porphyrites in 1989. He concluded that from the first to the third centuries of our era, the hydreumata were used as watering stations for the porphyry carts, and that in the following three centuries, when quarrying had ceased and tribal raiding from the south had commenced, they became Roman border posts and strong points along the line of communication between the Nile and the fort at Abu Sha'ar on the Red Sea coast.

Today the area is uninhabited except for the occasional Ma'aza Bedouin grazing his camels. Ibex, hyrax, and rabbit live here now. Around water holes, trumpeter bullfinches, desert larks, and mourning chats flock in sayaal trees (Acacia raddiana) and the wispy-needled yasar trees (Moringa peregrina).In the fall, thousands of white storks cross overhead, riding thermal currents on their way from the Sinai to central Africa.

The Via Porphyrites follows three major systems of wadis, or streambeds: Wadi Belih, Wadi al-Attrash and Wadi Qena. Between the first two it crosses the divide between the Red Sea watershed and that of the Nile. From Wadi Belih, there are two approaches to the quarry. One is a winding route up Wadi Umm Sidri and into Wadi Abu Mu'amal ("Workplace Wadi"), and it is this route that the oxcarts followed. The other is a steep but more direct footpath over a 950-meter (3000') pass.

A late-winter trek along the route in the company of two Ma'aza Bedouin, 72-year-old Salaama Mir'i and his 18-year-old son Suleiman, provides ample opportunity to reflect on the hardships faced nearly 2000 years ago by Rome's mostly Christian slaves, the thousands damnati ad metalla, or "condemned to the mines" in Egypt.

In walking to Mons Porphyrites, I follow in the footsteps of two British explorers, Sir John Wilkinson, a former president of the Royal Geographical Society, who rediscovered the quarry in 1823, and Leo Tregenza, a Qena-based schoolteacher who, in the 1940's, spent his summers in these parts and wrote of them in his classic account The Red Sea Mountains of Egypt (Oxford University Press, 1955).

When I tell Salaama of my intended route, he startles me by saying, "Yes, I know it, I came this way years ago with an ingilizi named Genza." "Leo Tregenza?" I ask. "Yes," he says, "A man always writing in a book, with many tins of bully beef and cocoa." When I later telephone Tregenza, now well into his 90's and living in Wales, he says, "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of those men. Tell them that when you see them next."

Salaama dispatches his son to guide me up the quarry footpath north from our first camp in Wadi Mu'allaq, the Hanging Wadi, which cuts into the mountain on the other side of the summit from the old quarry. From the pass into Wadi Abu Mu'amal the view sweeps from the present to the ancient past: To the southeast, the white hotels of the booming resort town of Hurghada rise off the coastal plain. To the southwest floats Jabal Qattar, a massif of precambrian red granite, and just beyond is Jabal Shayyib, at 2242 meters (7175') Egypt's highest point outside the Sinai Peninsula.

Looking north along the wadi floor, the remains of the stone fort and the Temple of Serapis are visible. Five white-plastered stone pillars surround the well. The temple has largely fallen, but the dedicatory inscriptions are still legible on the lintels that lie scattered on the ground. "Built when Rammius Martialis was governor of Egypt," Tregenza translated from one, which dates the temple to between the years 117 and 119.

Out of sight around the corner is Wadi Umm Sidri's well, five meters (16') in diameter and once covered by an octagonal loggia. Nearby are four symmetrical crown-of-thorn trees (Zizyphus spina-christi) which Tregenza regarded as old enough to have been planted by the Romans for their shade. Further down the wadi is the great stone ramp where the porphyry blocks were loaded off quarry skids and onto long-distance carts.

One can only wonder how such heavy loads were managed. At the nearby white-granite quarry of Mons Claudianus lies a 22-meter (70'), 240-ton column, abandoned presumably when it cracked while being rough-dressed into an approximation of its final shape. Smaller columns there—so many that the Ababda Bedouin call the place "Mother of Pillars"—are in the same condition, which makes one think that for the Romans, shipping large monoliths out of these mountains was a relatively routine task.

Looking some 500 meters (1600') uphill, at the end of the myriad slipways running up the mountain's two facing flanks, are the angled faces of the porphyry quarries, which appear to have plenty of the stone left for the taking. The two-meter (6'), 20-ton blocks and drums were lowered down these steep, smoothed and banked slipways, restrained only by the blocks and tackle attached to paired stone butts set at close intervals on either side of each slipway, all along their length.

Here, too, are the lodging huts, watchmen's posts, blacksmiths' benches and dipping baths, the rock-hewn cisterns, the rubbish dumps and even the rough gravesites that all testify to everyday life against all odds. Tregenza recorded his find of one tombstone, made of porphyry, that belonged to "John of Hermopolis," presumably a Christian slave.

Earlier British visitors found improbable inspiration in this desolation. Poet and amateur archeologist Christopher Scaife, when not documenting Roman epigraphy in the area, was known to prance about the Temple of Serapis dressed in a blue toga. Tregenza himself found poetry in the color of the porphyry scree, seeing in it "a lurking bloom linked to the softness of the sky and the fine blue mist that descends from it."

But for me, there are only heat, dust and sharp stones that cut my boots. I am glad when I arrive back in camp after a six-hour return trip from the quarry. As twilight falls around our campfire, Suleiman makes unleavened bread under the coals, cleaning it with a whisk of ripped shirting before we dip our pieces into a bowl of melted samna (ghee, or clarified butter). Beyond, the lights of Hurghada blink, and the pack camels nose closer for the night.

The next morning we begin our trek toward the Nile. Badi'a is the first hydreuma along the route. Like the others, it measures roughly 14 square meters (150 sq ft) with interior rooms, in ruins but still unexcavated. The well itself has long ago drifted full of sand. The corner towers have fallen into cones of stone linked by the graceful undulations of the more intact two-meter (6') walls. Recent surface finds by Peacock include coins from the reigns of Hadrian, Trajan, Constantine and Theodosius, as well as pot- and glass shards.

An ostracon found nearby hints at how the coins might have arrived. "To Dionysius my most dear friend," it reads. "I ask that you send the money if you are able. Send it with Serapion since I need it, and do not fail. Goodbye." The writer's name is broken off the shard, so we will never know who had such a pressing need for money in a place where, it would seem, money could buy nothing.

The westward march from Badi'a moves between Jabal Qattar's red granite massif on the left and Abu Dukhan's black basalt on the right, the two hills placed like navigational buoys on a river. This stretch is still in the Red Sea watershed, so the gentle slope is against us until we top a pass some 250 meters higher than the point where the oxcarts would have begun their journey, just before the next hydreuma at the mouth of Wadi Qattar.

The well at this station was renovated by Egypt's Prince Farouk in the 1930's, and the Roman walls are now destroyed. Farouk quarried porphyry briefly, and used it to provide Cairo's modern building entries with their distinctive purple lintels. But his efforts lasted only long enough to relearn how hard the work was. Since then, the only modern quarrier was one Lady Cowdray, wife of a Scottish oil magnate, who had promised her husband he would be buried in a porphyry sarcophagus—and so he was.

A twisting, refreshingly shady side route winds through the ever-narrowing Wadi Qattar, past prehistoric drawings of ibex, giraffe, and sickle-boats, into the heart of the massif and up to a place known as Wadi Naqaat, or the Dripping Wadi. The sand here is pink, eroded from the quartz and felsites that make up the summits. An old Bedouin lion trap, enclosed in stone, with a tipping rock to shut the gate, sits on a low bluff.

Sir John Wilkinson's description of the wadi, published in the 1832 Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, remains accurate. "A mountain torrent's bed," he called it, "filled with large stones until it terminates at a precipitous rock overgrown with hanging water weeds, down which the water drops into a basin of plentiful supply."

Naqaat was home to a Christian anchorite community—founded perhaps by runaway slaves from Mons Porphyrites—and the her-mits' fourth-century rock church remains in perfect condition, except for a missing roof. An inscription, now removed to Cairo, shows that it was built by Flavius Julius when Hatres was Bishop of Maximianopolis—the Roman name for modern Qena—a statement that dates it to the year 339 of our era.

In a fifth-century history of Christian hermits written by Palladius, one can read the first-person account of a man named Posidonius:

Living in the porphyry district for a year I met no man nor heard a voice nor tasted bread, keeping myself alive on dates and wild honey. Once these things failed me and I decided to go back to the world of man, but walking out I spied a Roman and in fright returned to my cave. On my way I came upon a basket of fresh figs, which overjoyed me and lasted for two months.

Four fig trees still grow next to Wadi Naqaat's pool. Ibex prints cross the mud bank, and moss and maidenhair ferns hang from the dripping wall. The water level, raised by the torrential rains three months before my passing, has receded slightly, but Salaama assures me that this is indeed a perennial source.

The entire wadi has apparently been well-watered by the rain. Slightly lower, a yasar tree is covered with tiny white blossoms, and mountain mallow plants (Malva parviflora) and humaad, with its edible red flowers, grow everywhere. We gather some mallow; it will add texture and freshness, if not much flavor, to the mostly tinned meals that will sustain us on our trip.

The way from Qattar to Deir al-Attrash, the next station, often follows in the old automobile tracks left from the 1930's, before the building of the asphalted Qena-Safaga road, when this was the principal crossing from the Nile to the sea. The tall Roman cairns placed in the middle of the wadi floor seem unnecessary as route markers, a fact that led archeologist Sidebotham to suggest that they were signal towers for flags or mirrors, for there is an unimpeded line of sight from one to the next.

Outside Deir al-Attrash's mud-brick walls lie several broken porphyry drums and blocks that apparently fell off their wagons. Out here, far from their loading ramps, the Roman carters had no way of putting them back onto a cart again, and thus had no option but to leave them behind, where they are slowly eroding to nothing, their purple chips and sands becoming lost among the dull schists and diorites that dominate these low foothills.

The tributary wadis entering from Jabal Qattar's western flanks are broader thanthose that slice into the higher peaks. As we approach the mouth of Wadi al-Attrash, a herd of 13 loose camels wanders up to us. "Many different brands," notes Salaama from a distance, "but all Khushmaani," referring to a Ma'aza clan that rivals his own Masaari lineage.

We pass the turnoff to Mons Claudianus and, high on an outcrop, see another ruined hydreuma with walled guard posts. The route soon squeezes through the landmark Bab al-Mukheniq, the Gate of Suffocation, formed by two high granite ridges, before entering the gravel plain known as Naq' al-Tayr, or Bird Swamp. Just as the march begins in earnest, across to the long bluff that drops off into Wadi Qena, I ask myself, "Where is the swamp—and where are the birds?"

The watery mirage shimmering across the plain answers the first question, and Tregenza takes care of the second. As he witnessed in the fall of 1949, this is where migrating storks by the thousands land to rest, fooled perhaps by the same false promise of a drink that I too had momentarily believed.

The flat limestone plateau that separates the Nile Valley from the wadi system we are in provides a straight-edged horizon, in contrast to the craggy, igneous teeth of the mountains now at our backs. The Wadi Qena is broad and hot, crisscrossed with the ruts of joyriding jeeps, but the soft rays of the setting sun illuminate a fainter trace in the firm sand: Roman cart tracks.

The three-meter-wide (10') tracks spread out all across the plain, running in sets of two parallel lines, as if this had been a proving ground for racing chariots. The tracks are almost imperceptible when we look directly down; they can best be seen by standing in the middle of a set and gazing along them toward the horizon. In some low spots where rainfall has collected they are easier to see, because grass grows in their double wheel-tracks and nowhere else.

Many of the tracks lead to the hydreuma of Saqqia, built on a low hill beside the plain. At the center of its earthen berm perimeter are two wide wells which once fed the upper-level animal troughs and cisterns with water lifted by shadouf the ancient Egyptian counterbalanced water-lifting device. Seashells dot the ground; they were used to make the lime plaster that still coats the troughs. The odd porphyry chip or blue faience shard turns up with a kick at the dirt.

Al-Heita, the penultimate hydreuma, has a double fort, one in the wadi bed next to a rare stretch of paved Roman road, and the other high on a shoulder of Jabal Abu Had, which is a limestone shelf at Wadi Qena's eastern limit. The yellow brick of the fort's upper walls, showing the remains of finely executed barrel vaults, are a beautiful and conspicuous ruin against the sky.

It was here that Tregenza found a Roman love letter written on an ostracon. "From Isadora to her lord and master, greetings. As I begged you before, please do not forget me. I want you to send the bottle and ink so I may write to you again." Here was additional evidence that Roman women, too, once traversed these desiccated parts.

It was here I had to leave Salaama and Suleiman. I would have to miss the last water station—which is said to be completely ruined—and take a truck down to Qena, where Rome's presence still resonates in the magnificent Temple of Denderah— a temple which, ironically, lacks any sign of porphyry decoration.

The two Ma'aza will return with the camels past Mons Porphyrites to their home range in the Wadi Umm Duheis above Hurghada. I wonder if they, like Isadora, might also leave a record somewhere of this journey. If they do, I would hope it will not resemble the message on papyrus recently found in the Fayoum, west of the Nile between Qena and Cairo. That was written in the year 163, 18 centuries ago, by Satabous of Dimai, and in it he complained bitterly that his camels had been unfairly requisitioned by the authorities—for "draft service on the porphyry road."

Louis Werner is a writer and filmmaker who lives in New York. His documentary film, A Sheepherder's Homecoming, was shown this fall at the "Americans on the Americas" festival in Trieste.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the November/December 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1998 images.