Thursday, December 31, 2009

Egypt Day 5 Mons Cluadianus

Arranged our trip into the Eatern Desert with our local fixer Ahmed Balal, who arranged a taxi for all seven of us to a meeting point on the Qena Safaga road, where we had a 4X4 waiting with a Beduoin driver to take us to Mons Claudianus, source of the famous Granito del Foro.

We followed the wadi that the Romans used as the transport road from the quarry to the Nile, some 200 kilometres away to the west. The Roman road can still be seen in places, simply marked by the row of cleared stones on either side. Cart ruts have given useful information about the way the pillars and stones were transported.

First stop was a Roman way station with rectangular walls, a watch tower and a 45m deep well.These roads have stations and watchtowers along their entire route. On the other side of the road were the graves of the people who manned the outpost.

Several kilometres later, through some lovely desert scenery, we came to Mons Claudianus, stopping in front of a huge broken pillar. To the left was the rectangular garrison and to the right a ramp, which we climbed to the first quarry, where we saw the wedge marks in the rock (dampened to expand and split the rock).

Looking down one can see the garrison or town, a walled rectangular structure, half fort, half town. You could see the classic rectangular Roman street structure and some of the houses were still intact. Beyond it was another rectangular structure, which were stables.

Following the roman road round the hill we came across a huge quarry and walked down to a loading ramp, with square holes for timber pulley frames. An enormous 200-250 ton pillar, 60 feet long, lay parallel to the loading ramp, perhaps it had slipped or rolled out of control. At either end are bossed wheels for rolling the pillar and bosses on its side for lifting. All around were faces of the back/white diorite, where unfinished pillars, blocks and wedge holes were visible. It was as if the quarry had been abandoned yesterday. Our guide told us that only two or three people a year come here a year, and we didn’t see any footprints. It was only discovered in the 19thcentury and was a restricted military zone for decades.

All around were stone towers, usually in pairs, either watchtowers, fire pyres (form working at night) or to support lifting gear. My guess is the last of these three hypotheses, as the workers were not slaves, but reasonably well paid labour. Josephus and others suggest that Roman quarries were worked with convict and slave labour but evidence has come from ostrica showing that they were paid a reasonable 47 drachmas a month, about half a soldiers pay but far more than workers in the Nile valley. There were about 1000 people working here. I also doubt that they would have had enough wood to fuel fires for hours of night work. Their position on ramps and around the areas where worked rocks lay, suggest supports for lifting gear. Every time we climbed up the side of a quarry another appeared on the other side. There are a total of 130 quarries at this site.

We descended and went up to the house complex that lay above the garrison, where a four columned portico structure (four bases and a capital lying around), an altar, with small courtyard and chapel off to the right. The chapel has an apse and two side apses, with some original plaster in place.

We then climbed down to the garrison stopping first at the bath complex, with its hypocaust and small bath rooms. Then into the main street, exploring the side alleys and one house that had its original roof in place (granite slabs). Then off to the stables and gymnasium. To the south of the garrison is a large Roman rubbish dump with thousands of amphora and pot shards. I presume this was where the ostrica evidence came from.

This quarry was in operation for over two centuries and is a testament to Imperial power and ambition. To scour the empire for just one stone, then transport 250 ton pillars across hundreds of kilometers of desert to the Nile on four and twelve wheeled carts, then down the Nile hundreds of more kilometres on boats, then loaded onto sea faring vessels for the trip to Rome, is truly mind boggling. It would appear that donkeys and oxen were used to pull huge wooden carts across the desert, but the logistics of the entire journey are almost beyond the imagination.

What this shows is the importance Roman Emperors attached to the pillars that adorned their temples. It was a statement of power and taste, that the resources of the entire empire were at their disposal. It would appear that the quarries were Imperial property and run by the Roman Army. Pillars fronted all temples, supported their buildings and even round structures like the Colliseum had pilasters.

A truly astonishing site and to visit the place where the pillars that adorn the Pantheon, Temple of Venus, Trajan’s Basilaica Ulpia, Hadrian’s Villa and other Roman temples, was a long standing ambition. The burnt pillar and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul also have pillars from this site. We had tea on the site before setting off further into the desert.

Mons Porphyrites lies 50 kilometers north of here, the source of the empire’s purple porphyry. There was lots of porphyry lying around the Mons Claudianus site.

Bedouin dinner

Another long desert drive took us up a long and wide wadi towards the largest mountain in the Eastern desert. There’s around 100,000 Bedouin in Egypt in the Eastern, Western and Sinai deserts. Those in the Eastern Desert stay put, while the others remain nomadic. The kids were feisty wearing bright clothes, whule the one woman we saw, was baking flat bread (just flour, water and salt) by rolling into a foot and a half diameter then baking it on an concave iron sheet of metal, heated by burning camel dung. She was dressed from head to toe in black. A few of us went off on a camel ride, while we walked to the mosque, the only stone structure in the village and the well, some three hundred meters from the village (as they attract snakes and scorpions).

We ate shish kebabs, potatoes and salad with the flat bread, then sat about watching the sun fall behind the mountains. Then off again to the Red Sea coast in the longest drive across sand and rocky desert to rendevous with our taxi and back to Luxor.

About an hour into our trip on the road to Qena was topped to look at the stars, a sight you never see at home, a sky teeming with thousands of stars and the occasional shooting star. Through binoculars, the milky way was a dense mass of white dots.