region to the east of the Nile River. Today, the Eastern Desert is called the Arabian Desert, and it lies between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea, covering some 21 percent of present-day Egypt. It consists of a high mountain range of ancient volcanic rock—Precambrian hard rock, formed approximately three billion years ago—which runs the length of the Red Sea. It has wide, high plateaus with accumulations of rubble from eroded sandstone and limestone. The topography is the result of faults and elevating shifts that occurred during the formation of the Red Sea basin, some twenty to thirty million years ago. The Eastern Desert's climate is similar today to climatic conditions in pharaonic times. The desert began to dry out about 3500 BCE, and its northern half is nearly devoid of vegetation as a result of the arid climate. Higher humidity to the south creates slightly increased precipitation in that area, so shrubs and trees are found in some of the desert valleys.

The “Eastern Desert” of pharaonic times included the eastern reaches of the Nile Delta, the Wadi Tumilat that led to the Red Sea, and the western parts of the Sinai. Sopdu was the deity of the Eastern Desert regions; however, his significance was actually negligible in the Eastern Desert (in the area between the Cairo–Suez line and the southern border of Egypt). There, in the southern part of the Eastern Desert, Min or Amun-Min (phallically represented) was the dominant deity.

Ancient Settlements.

The Eastern Desert was more densely populated in prehistoric times and in the early historic period than it was in pharaonic times, because of slightly higher than present-day precipitation in the region. Proof includes the numerous rock drawings in the Eastern Desert, which are, however, limited to the desert's southern region; to the north, we find evidence of only sporadic travel through the desert. The rock drawings are concentrated in the wide reaches of the Wadi Hammamat between Coptos and Quseir; in the Wadi Qena; near the continuously settled Laqiya Oasis to the southeast of Coptos; around wells, such as Bir Menih; throughout the Wadi Barramiya near Edfu; in regions close to Aswan; and at Quseir on the Red Sea. The earliest drawings, dated to the Naqada I period, show Nile Valley and desert-border fauna that retreated from the region soon after 3500 BCE—elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, and ostrich, as well as indigenous desert wildlife, such as ibex, gazelle, and antelope. Images of people wearing the typical Libyan penis pouch, and others with ornamental wigs (the so-called Dirwa people), can be dated to about 3500 BCE. The many representations of boats flying standards and groups of people wearing feather ornaments were originally thought to be a new population that moved into the area from the Red Sea, across the Wadi Hammamat; more likely, those images and the many cattle drawings are indications of local contact with the population in the Nile Valley during the Naqada II period. By and large, that type of rock drawing came to an end at the close of the Old Kingdom. Later, some horse and camel drawings were dated to Roman and Arab times.

Then as now, desert nomads traveled to water sources and across the coastal regions of the southern part of the Eastern Desert. In pharaonic expedition reports, those people were referred to collectively as “Medjay.” Today's Bedja and Ma'aza tribes are assumed to be descendants of the pharaonic Medja; yet the similarity in the tribal names may be coincidental. There is no documented continuity of settlement, since during the fourth and fifth centuries, nomadic groups called the “Blemmyes,” had penetrated into that region. Members of the Medjay groups were used by the Egyptians as scouts and workers, organized under their own chiefs on pharaonic expeditions. Some Nubian groups to the south, along the Red Sea—the names of regions such as Kebeh and Mu-qed were handed down—would have profited from coastal navigation and exchange trade with Egypt.

Historical Overview.

Aside from its significance as a transit route to the Red Sea, the Eastern Desert was primarily a supply source of special rocks and ores. Late prehistoric and early historic stone vessels and smaller objects in breccia, porphyry, serpentine, and steatite (a soapstone) were fashioned from accumulations of rock shingle found in the Eastern Desert. Gold was most likely found and extracted initially as placer gold, from the bottom of the wadis. The Horus names of Early Dynastic rulers were then inscribed in the Wadi el-Qash (by King Narmer) and in the Wadi Barramiya, farther south, near Edfu (by King Wadji). The many expedition inscriptions, beginning with the fourth dynasty, document “state” interest in the special harder rock deposits because of cult significance; for example, greywacke from the Wadi Hammamat to the southeast of Coptos, as well as ore and gold extraction. In the Wadi Mueilha, halfway between Edfu and the Red Sea, numerous graffiti were found from the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. Some have suggested that this was an Early Dynastic mining site for native tin dioxide (cassiterite). The Old Kingdom inscriptions in the Wadi Barramiya and at the well of Bir Dunqash, east of Edfu, often refer to the same persons and may be linked to pharaonic mines. A unique fourth dynasty stone dam across the Wadi Gerrawi, 11 kilometers (7 miles) southeast of Helwan, presumably blocked floodwater from the Nile Valley. The first ancient Egyptian expeditions to the land of Punt, located in the approximate region of present-day Eritrea, probably followed the natural desert route from Coptos through the Wadi Hammamat to the Red Sea; it is less certain whether the southern Sinai was also made accessible from that point.

Eastern Desert and Red Sea

Eastern Desert and Red Sea. View of the Wadi Hammamat. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

The many large and small limestone quarries in the Eastern Desert, worked from the Old Kingdom onward, were all located near the Nile Valley and were less well documented, owing to the absence of rock inscriptions. The most important sandstone quarries of the Eastern Desert were near Gebel es-Silsila, north of Aswan, and in the areas near Edfu and Elkab. The granite and granodiorite quarries southeast of Aswan were used in early times for royal palaces. Calcite (also called Egyptian or Oriental alabaster) had been quarried since the Early Dynastic period; during the Old Kingdom, the center of calcite quarrying was to the east of el-Minya, near Hebenu (the sixteenth nome of Upper Egypt), and called by the Romans, Alabastronpolis. The quarry at Hatnub, 18 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of the Amarna plain, was the richest and most documented of Egypt's quarries; it was worked continuously from the fourth dynasty into the New Kingdom, and nearby were the Ramessid-era calcite quarries at Bersheh. Other pharaonic calcite veins were farther away in the Eastern Desert; for example, in the Wadi Gerrawi near Helwan, in the Wadi Sannur near Beni Suef (Late period), and near Asyut.

During the Middle Kingdom, under Amenemhet I, the village of Menat-Khufu (“Khufu's wetnurse”) near Beni Hasan, in Central Egypt, became the administrative center for the northern area of the Eastern Desert. The official called the “Supervisor of the Eastern Desert” controlled the area from the southern Sinai to the Wadi Hammamat; this arrangement was based less on convenient routes than on the fact that Central Egypt, with its large calcite and sandstone quarries, could provide the necessary workers, expertise, and transport for quarry work. A bedouin donkey caravan of women, children, and soldiers transporting galena (lead ore, used for black eye makeup) to the Nile Valley, and probably to the royal palace, was portrayed on the grave of Khnumhotep II, an administrator of the Eastern Desert, near Beni Hasan. The caravan leader was accompanied by an Egyptian official, but the weapons and musical instruments identify the group as either from Canaan or Transjordan. Quite possibly, a small tribe worked for the Egyptians in the galena mines on the Red Sea. The quarries in the Wadi Hammamat region (the Egyptian names translate to “Upper Rohana Mountains” and “Bechen Stone Mountains”) were developed at the end of the eleventh dynasty and during the twelfth on a very large scale, spreading out from Coptos. Amethyst (a violet variety of quartz) was extracted in the Wadi el-Hudi, 35 kilometers (20 miles) southeast of Aswan; the local expedition inscriptions span the period from the end of the eleventh dynasty to the thirteenth. Court officials with titles such as “Treasurer of Gold,” “Administrator of the Southern Districts,” “Administrator of the Southern Narrow Doorway,” and so on, were given responsibility for oversight. Work groups in the thousands were common; most workers were probably bedouins, hired from their chiefs, accompanied by hunters, soldiers, and interpreters, all led by top officials, such as a vizier. On those expeditions “miracles” occurred, such as the discovery of wells that were unknown even to natives of the region or the sighting of a pregnant gazelle resting on a rich rock deposit. Galena was extracted at Gebel el-Zeit on the Red Sea coast, from the time of Amenemhet III (r. 1843–1797 BCE) to the time of Ramesses III (r. 1198–1166 BCE), with the most active quarrying during the Second Intermediate Period.

During the New Kingdom, the larger quarry area of the Wadi Hammamat and its gold deposits were administered from Thebes. The “Coptos gold” was mentioned on the famous site plan of the Ramessid-era Mine Papyrus, which included the location of the gold-panning site and the gold-worker village, near a rock-cut temple of Amun, at Bir Umm Fawakhir. The center of gold mining was in the Wadi Sid; more than sixty ancient gold mines have been documented in the Eastern Desert, especially in the Wadi Semna, the Wadi Hammamat, and the southern regions (Wadi Barramiya, Dunqash, Wadi el-Hudi, and others). Bir Umm Fawakhir was the site of the Min shrine, important to travelers on their way to the Red Sea. Green diorite was mined, as well as graywacke (a sandstone) and granite and, especially in the Wadi Atalla, serpentine. Softer stone (such as steatite, a soapstone) was used for the small pharaonic scarabs, amulets, and figurines.

The “desert of Coptos” was carefully controlled and monitored by Nubian soldiers and scouts. Ramessid-era account papyri, on deliveries to the Amun temple at Thebes, mention “galena in elephant husk,” as well as acacia wood, spice or aromatic plants, and ivory objects, which were probably traded at the Red Sea ports. The southern desert areas, especially the gold deposits in the Wadi Barramiya and in the Wadi Mia across from Edfu, were controlled by the viceroy of Nubia, who brought along Nubian experts. Sety I (r. 1314–1304 BCE) had a stone temple to Amun (temple of Kanais) erected in the Wadi Mia, next to a well and gold-panning site, from which the earnings were taken to Abydos, to the pharaoh's new funerary temple. Later, the site had an important Min shrine (Paneion) for travelers to the Red Sea.

From 600 BCE onward, the activities of the Saite pharaohs were only sporadically documented. Amasis (r. 569–526 BCE) restored an older Min shrine in the Wadi Hammamat and in Wadi Barramiya; the cult site in Wadi Hammamat, described as a rock-cut temple of Nektanebo I (r. 380–363 BCE), served as a Pan shrine for later Roman travelers. Stelae from the twenty-sixth dynasty were located in the Wadi Gasus, near the harbor. During the First Persian Occupation of 525 to 405 BCE, economic contacts between the Nile Valley and Persia were maintained, in part across the Wadi Hammamat and at the Egyptian harbors on the Red Sea; Darius I (r. 521–486 BCE) renewed graywacke quarrying in the Wadi Hammamat on a large scale.

Under Ptolemy II (r. 282–246 BCE), sea trade with Arabia and more distant regions, collectively called “India,” was intensified. The southern port of Berenice (also called Troglodytike, with the temple of Ptolemy VII) was built, and foreign trade was conducted by boat along the coast to Suez (Arsinoe); north of Berenice were Nechesia harbor (Mersa Mubarak?), Leukos Limen (Quseir, with a Ptolemaic temple), Philoteras (Mersa Gawasis), and Myos Hormos (island of Abu Sha'r). All harbors had been linked by road to the Nile Valley, however, travelers began to use those connections more frequently only in Roman times. Near Philoteras harbor, smaller galena deposits had been found in Ptolemaic times, close to Aenum in the Wadi Gasus, while amethyst mines had been located near Abu Diyaba. Southwest of Berenice, a road led to a small Ptolemaic station in the desert near el-Abraq (Shenshef). In Ptolemaic and Roman times, at Gebel Sikeit (Mons Smaragdus) and at Gebel Zabara, green beryl (emerald) was mined.

In Roman times, the Eastern Desert routes were reinforced with wall-enclosed outposts and way-stations. The supervision of Egypt's earnings from the numerous mines and from pearl fishing was carried out in the time of Augustus (r. 30 BCE–14 CE) by specialists, such as the “Archimetallarch of Emerald, Topaz, and Pearls.” The Greek god Pan, equated with the Egyptian god Min, was the overseer of travelers through the Eastern Desert; many shrines to Pan (Paneion) were built along the main routes and, in a wadi behind Akhmim, “Pan-who-goes-into-the-mountains” or “Pan-who-is-with-the-expeditions” was honored. Mining in the imperial porphyry quarries of Mons Porphyrites (imperial red porphyry and smaller deposits of green porphyry) and in the granite and quartzdiorite quarries of Mons Claudianus was begun in the Augustinian era and was continued into the fifth century CE. The last dated inscriptions from the stone quarries in Wadi Hammamat were from the middle of the third century CE. The deities Zeus, Helios, and Sarapis were revered by the nonindigenous mine workers—many slaves and prisoners—and by the guards, soldiers, and supply workers.


In the northern region of the Eastern Desert, the pharaonic roads cannot be accurately traced; and the road running parallel to the Red Sea coast cannot be mapped. Findings of some Ramessid-era stelae near Nag' ʿAlalma have led to the inference that a road may have existed connecting el-Saff/Atfih, north of Beni Suef and past the Antonius monastery, to Zaafarana on the Red Sea. An often presumed route from the Central Egyptian villages of the eastern bank of the Nile—especially from the Beni Hasan region to the Red Sea and, also, in a southeasterly direction over the Wadi Qena to the Wadi Hammamat—is unconfirmed. The first confirmed road is the Via Nova Hadriana, built in 130 BCE by the Roman emperor Hadrian from his newly founded city Antinoöpolis (today's Sheik Abade), in Central Egypt, to the Red Sea and then farther along the coast to the southern Berenice.

The most important ancient road link from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea ran from Coptos to Thebes during the New Kingdom. The Wadi Hammamat was reached after passing the Laqeita Oasis, and caravans then traveled through the Wadi Atalla and the Wadi Gasus to the harbor of Mersa Gawasis (Eg., Sauu) south of present-day Hurghada. The harbor was mentioned in inscriptions only in the Middle Kingdom (after Senwosret I), but was probably older, and was the departure point for trade via the Red Sea with the southern land of Punt. Prefabricated boat components were built on the wharfs of Coptos, transported to the coast by huge donkey caravans of up to three thousand men, then assembled there. The harbor was still active in the New Kingdom, where a “fort of (pharaoh) Merenptah” was probably located to control the traffic of goods. Philoteras, 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to the south, was the Ptolemaic era's successor to the pharaonic-era harbor.

The southern route from Edfu, or from Elkab across the Wadi Abbad and the Wadi Barramiya, to the Red Sea was surely traveled in pharaonic times; however, it was only verified at the time of the foundation of the Ptolemaic harbor of Berenice. In Roman times, the same route, from Edfu (Apollonopolis) over Contra-Apollonopolis and the Wadi Abbad, was expanded at Falacro to join the main route from Coptos to Berenice. In Ptolemaic times, a new road led from Coptos to Berenice (a five-to-six-day journey). It left Coptos harbor in the direction of Phoinicon (the Laqeita Oasis); there it turned southeast and passed Didyme, Aphrodite, Compasi, Jovis, Aristonis, Falacro, Apollonos, Cabalsi, Vetus Hydreuma, and Novum Hydreuma before reaching Berenice harbor. The road from Coptos to Quseir (Gr., Leukos Limen) on the Red Sea was a three-and-a-half-day journey through the Laqeita Oasis, Qusur el-Banat with a Roman shrine to Pan/Min, el-Bueib (with a Roman Pan shrine), Mweih, through the Wadi Hammamat, and on to Zerqa and Sayala.

The road from Qena (Kaineopolis) to Philoteras (Mersa Gawasis) on the Red Sea passed through the stations of el-ʿAras, Abu Qreiya, the Wadi Gidami, the Wadi Semna (with a Pan shrine) and, probably, through the settlement of Aenum in the Wadi Gasus (with a temple of Ptolemy VI), then on to Philoteras. The road from Qena to Myos Hormos (island of Abu Sha'r) crossed the fortified stations of el-ʿAras, el-Hetah, Saqia, Der el-Atrash, and Qattar, went past the Mons Porphyrites region either on to Myos Hormos or on to the nearby water source at Fons Tadnos. An alternative road forked off from the northern route at el-ʿAras and continued to Myos Hormos, through Abu Zawal; it then passed Mons Claudianus and the road station, with Sarapis temple, in the Wadi Sidris.

See also SINAI.


  • Bernand, André. De Koptos a Kosseir. Leiden, 1972. Research history and collection of Greek and Latin inscriptions from the Eastern Desert.
  • Castel, Georges, et al. Gebel el-Zeit, vol. 1: Les mines de Galène. Cairo, 1989.
  • Goyon, Georges. Nouvelles inscriptions rupestres du Wadi Hammamat. Paris, 1957.
  • Helck, Wolfgang. “Eine Briefsammlung aus der Verwaltung des Amuntempels,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 6 (1967), 135–151.
  • Hume, William F. The Geology of Egypt, 1925–37. Classic work on the geology of the Eastern Desert.
  • Klemm, Rosemarie, and Dietrich Klemm. “Pharaonischer Goldbergbau im Wadi Sid und der Turiner Minenpapyrus.” Akten des vierten. Internationalen Ägyptologen Kongresses, München, 1985, vol. 2, 73–87. Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur Beiheffe, 1–4. Hamburg, 1988. Newest proposal on the location of gold deposits in the Turin Mine Papyrus.
  • Klemm, Rosemarie, and Dietrich Klemm. Steine und Steinbrüche im Alten Ägypten. Berlin and New York, 1992. The nomenclature for the rock formation and numerous antique quarry areas are systematically presented.
  • Meredith, David. Tabula Imperii Romani: Coptos. Oxford, 1958. Map of the southern part of the Eastern Desert; summarizes research on the Roman and Ptolemaic paths and roads.
  • Porter, Bertha, and Rosalind Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings VII: Nubia, the Deserts, and Outside Egypt. Oxford, 1951.
  • Rothe, Russell D., and George R. Rapp. “Trace-Element Analysis of Egyptian Eastern Desert Tin and its Importance to Egyptian Archaeology.” Proceedings of the Egyptian-Italian Seminar on Geosciences and Archaeology in Mediterranean Countries, edited by Abdel Aziz A. Hussein, et al., pp. 229–244. Cairo, 1995.
  • Rothe, Russell D., et al. “New Hieroglyphic Evidence for Pharaonic Activity in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 33 (1996), 77–104.
  • Sadek, Ashraf I. The Amethyst Mining Inscriptions of Wadi el Hudi. Warminster, 1980–1985.
  • Sayed, Abd el Moneim. Discovery of the Site of the 12th Dynasty Port at Wadi Gawasis on the Red Sea shore. Revue de l'Égyptologie 29 (1977), 138–178.
  • Seyfried, Karl-Josef. Beiträge zu den Expeditionen des Mittleren reiches in die Ost-Wüste. Hildesheim, 1981. Evaluates the inscriptions of the Wadi el-Hudi.
  • Whitecomb, Donald, and Janet Johnson. Quseir el-Qadim 1978: Preliminary Report. Cairo, 1979; and Quseir el-Qadim 1980: Preliminary Report. Malibu, 1982. Recent excavations have revealed little evidence for the Ptolemaic period; Quseir began to flourish after the Roman period.
  • Winkler, Hans A. Rock-Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt. London, 1938–1939. The first collection and chronological classification of the rock drawings.

Dieter Kessler; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger