Conference Abstracts

Imperial Landscapes: Empires, Societies, and Environments in the Ancient to Modern Nile Delta

Peter Bing (University of Toronto): The Hetaira’s Tomb: Doricha/Rhodopis and the Pyramid of Mycerinus at Giza

According to Herodotus, there was a tale prevalent among “some of the Greeks” which claimed – incorrectly – that the pyramid of Mykerinos/Menkaure, the smallest of the pyramids at Giza, was actually built for the famous hetaira of Egyptian Naucratis, Doricha/Rhodopis (Τὴν [scil. πυραμίδα] δὴ μετεξέτεροί φασι Ἑλλήνων Ῥοδώπιος ἑταίρης γυναικὸς εἶναι, οὐκ ὀρθῶς λέγοντες. 2.134). This colorful character, as Herodotus goes on to report, was a fellow-slave of Aesop and lover of Charaxus, the brother of Sappho, who repeatedly scolded him for his affair with her. Although Herodotus debunked the tradition connecting Doricha/Rhodopis to the pyramid, the link persisted in literature for centuries thereafter, with the monument coming to be referred to commonly as “the hetaira’s tomb”; that characterization appears in Strabo (17.1.33), Diodorus Siculus (1.64.14), and Pliny the Elder (N.H. 36.17.82). This paper explores how the notorious Naucratite hetaera served as a focal point of narratives that offered both Greek and Roman authors, along with their readers, a familiar context and lens through which to understand the customs of a venerable yet alien civilization, namely that of ancient Egypt, its monuments, burial practices, and kingship ritual. By examining the reports of “the hetaira’s tomb” and the tales it inspired, this paper describes how Doricha/Rhodopis came to function as a mediating figure between the conceptual universe of Greece and Rome and that of the ancient culture of the Nile.

Katherine Blouin (University of Toronto): Conference Introductory Remarks

Sobhi Bouderbala (Université de Tunis): Imperial power, tribal settlement and fiscal revolts in the early Islamic Delta (7th-9th century AD)

Less documented than Upper Egypt (Ṣa‘īd), the Delta (Asfal al-arḍ) was a strategic area for the islamic imperial power and its local administration in Egypt. From the first decades of Islamic rule (mid 7th century), some information, taken from the literary sources, show a different occupation of the region with its two parts (eastern Delta and western Delta). In the 8th century, the presence of more Arabic tribes in the eastern Delta shows a double way of occupation: a migration from Fusṭāṭ (probably also an old settlement during the conquest period), and an imperial decision to settle some Syrian groups, following the first Coptic rebellion in the region (105/723). This paper attempts to study the different steps of the tribalsettlement in the Delta in the first century of Islamic rule, the military and social organization of the region (including its Meditteranean cities: Alexandria, Damietta, Tinnīs…) and, finally, the struggle between the imperial power and the peasants of the Delta related to the fiscal policy of the Abbasids.

Marie-Françoise Boussac (University of Paris Ouest Nanterre) and Bérangère Redon (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, HiSoMA-Lyon): “The Vine was Discovered First in Plinthine, a City of Egypt” (Hellanicus FR.155, APUD Athenaeus). Integration of a Marginal Territory into Egypt Through Wine Production

The French archaeological mission at Taposiris and Plinthine has worked, since 1998, on both sites of Abusir/Taposiris Magna and Kom el-Nugus/Plinthine, located on the northern shore of Lake Mareotis. The latest is less known than Taposiris, who is occupied from the 3rd BC to the 7th c. AD, and famous for its Osiris temple and the important role it played, at least starting from the Roman period, as the western customs post of Alexandria.

After having explored the town and harbour of Taposiris and the necropolis of Plinthine, the mission has been focusing since 2012 on a large mound overlooking the ancient town at Kom el-Nugus. Numerous traces of wine production have been found, including stamped amphora, a wine press, and even a grape grinder spectacularly standing on the top of the western hill of the kom, and to-date the best-preserved example of such a device. They all evidence a wine production from the New Kingdom to the Hellenistic period, and the remains might point to a royal production. These finds echo the assumption of Hellanicus (5th c. BC) that vine was discovered first in Plinthine.

Drawing up a review of all the evidence, the paper aims to show how the Mareotis area was, from the Pharaonic period onward, inserted into the Egyptian geographical framework through the high-value production of wine. The recent finds at Plinthine announce the development of the local production of wine after the Roman conquest, a period during which Strabo, Athenaeus, Virgil, and Horace praise the quality of the Mareotis vineyards.

Ramez Boutros (University of Toronto): Mapping the Cult of Christian Saints in the Nile Delta from the 4th to the 9th century CE

The Cult of Christian saints in the Nile Delta started to prosper in the 4th century CE. It had benefited from the unique location of the Nile Delta. On one hand, its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, and Alexandria, the Metropolitan capital of Egypt in the Byzantine period, and on the other hand to its connection to Upper Egypt through the two Nile branches. The Delta was also at a crossroad between the Eastern and Western Roman Provinces of Asia and the Western provinces of North Africa. Alexandria, and the Nile Delta were at the heart of trade and cultural exchanges in the Mediterranean basin.

The flourishing of Christian sites dedicated mainly to local saints, as well as saints from other Roman provinces, seems to be related to the active circulation and traveling of worshippers from inside and outside the country. A large variety of literary texts, inscriptions, collection of miracles, journals of travellers, and archaeological and architectural data, offer precious information about the flourishing of Saints cult at different periods.

In this paper I will attempt to identify the dynamics behind the development and mutation of the Cult of Christian Saints in the Delta between the 4th and 9th century. I will also argue that the mutation of the cults, which is usually a complex phenomenon, usually influenced by different factors, is not only resulted from economical, or urban and social shifts, but can also be caused by doctrinal and religious transformations.

Jelle Bruning (Universiteit Leiden): Religious Images of Alexandria in Early-Islamic Egypt

By the time Muslims conquered Egypt in the mid-7th century CE, the city of Alexandria was Egypt’s main economic, administrative, and religious centre. Although a large Muslim community came to live in Alexandria, Egypt’s new Muslim administration chose Fustat (located near modern Cairo) as their see. Being the centre of Egypt’s Muslim community and administration, most medieval sources focus on Fustat. But, what happened to Alexandria? To what extent was Alexandria’s role in society changed by the increase of Fustat’s centrality? This paper analyses a variety of Muslim texts, mainly dating from the 9th to 11th centuries, in search of their image of the city of Alexandria. It will be argued that Alexandria attained religious importance for Egypt’s Muslim community. Not only could Muslims participate in jihād and ribāṭ in Alexandria, the city was believed to play a significant role in Muslim sacred history. Interestingly, Fustat seems not to have played a similar role.

Sylvain Dhennin (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, HiSoMA-Lyon): Growing with the Empire? From village to city: Kom Abou Bellou and its urban development

The oldest archaeological evidence known from the current site of Kom Abou Bellou dates back to the Old Kingdom. It only consists of some poorly documented graves, but the occupation seems to have been continuous, until the Middle Ages (10th century AD), as shown by some previous explorations. The survey and excavations that begun in 2013 (supported by the IFAO and the CNRS/HiSoMA) allowed a reassessment of the urban development of the site, which hosted the pharaonic Mefkat, the Greco-Roman Terenuthis, the byzantine Tarnoute, and the Arabic village of Al-tarana. The talk will present a review of the first discoveries, trying to link them to the political, environmental, cultural and religious regional background. Can the status of this settlement – and its changes – be explained in relation with the context of the pharaonic “Western Province” and then of the Prosopite nome? Special attention will be paid to Roman and late-Roman periods, when the place grows much, probably due to the development of its economy and its integration into larger trade networks.

Irene Forstner-Müller (Austrian Archaeological Institute Cairo Branch): The Nile Delta and Avaris: Thoughts on landscape through the perspective of a provincial/imperial capital

The Eastern Nile Delta was a crucial element in the network of connections between Egypt, the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East. During the Second Millenium B.C. a major, if not the most important node of this network was Avaris, the capital of the rulers of the 15th dynasty. Avaris is the modern Tell el-Dab’a, in the province of Sharqeya.

The town is located on the easternmost of the Nile paleo-branches, the Pelusiac branch, which formed the eastern flank and limit of the fertile Delta. This gave the town an important strategic position as a gateway between the Nile valley and the Near East. It was both a good starting point for expeditions overland via the Sinai, and also an important inland harbour town with access to the eastern Mediterranean, from the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period onwards. In the Ramesside period the harbour of Piramesse, the capital of the 19th and 20th dynasty, was in Avaris, which then formed the southern part of the later town.

The ancient paleo-branches of the Nile are no longer visible, due to major geological processes which took place during Late Antiquity and the Medieval period, as well as more recent agricultural development, which has dramatically reconfigured the hydrographic system of the Nile in the Delta. However, part of the modern hydrographic system is known to follow earlier waterways and the study of cartographic, historical and archaeological sources has led to a number of hypotheses as to their reconstruction.

This paper will focus on the harbour(s) of Avaris and their implications for trade and administration, and will take a special interest in the change in foreign contacts and networks of connections in the Late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate period.

Usama Ali Gad (Ain Shams University, Egypt): Digital Annotation of Arabic Place Names of the Nile Delta

The Pleiades Gazetteerisa web-based digital medium based on the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, the most definitive print atlas of classical antiquity. Pleiades is an almost comprehensive list of known Greco-Roman places. The majority of names in the gazetteer are those in use in anglophonic classical scholarship.

In this paper, I will report on my work in the digital annotation of Arabic place names of the Nile Delta using data referred to in historical texts, maps and tables. The annotation is based on both Arabic Textual and Cartographical Data, such as al-Idrisi’s Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (the so-called Tabula Rogeriana commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily) and the anonymous Kitāb Gharā’ib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn (known as the Book of Curiosities). The work is done as part of my contributions to SunoikisisDC, an international consortium of Digital Classics programs developed by the Alexander von Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities at the University of Leipzig, and CALCS’ project: Cross-cultural After-Life of Classical Sites: including Arabic names in the Greco-Roman atlas: a project directed by Gabriel Bodard of King’s College London.

Brendan Haug (University of Michigan): Following the Flow: The Shifting Waterscape of the Nile Delta between Antiquity and the Present

Initially constructed in 1862, Egypt’s Delta Barrage was designed to impound water during the Nile’s dry season and thus permit perennial irrigation of the massive cotton plantations in the Delta that were driving Egypt’s rapid, export-based economic growth. After its later repair and remodeling under British colonial rule, by the 1890’s the Barrage had successfully effected a massive reorientation of the flow of water throughout the Nile Delta enabling cotton exports to Lancashire to become a cornerstone of the joint Anglo-Egyptian economy.

This project was far from the first major alteration of water flows in northern Egypt. As revealed in Katherine Blouin’s recent study of the Mendesian nome in the northeastern Nile Delta, Roman encouragement of wheat cultivation in the first few centuries C.E. helped drive the expansion of cereoculture and contributed both to the demise of the Mendesian branch of the Nile and the desiccation of the low-lying, marshy areas (limnai) attested throughout the nome.

Drawing upon these and additional examples from premodern Egyptian history, this paper challenges the recent idea that massive state-coordinated rearrangements of Nile flows are solely a phenomenon of industrial modernity. Although the nineteenth century witnessed the introduction of powerful new tools and technologies, significant reconfigurations of the waterscapes of the Delta and other parts of the country are attested throughout Egyptian history. These constant restructurings of nature reveal the changing designs of successive imperial capitals on Egyptian agriculture over the long term.

Regina Höschele (University of Toronto): Two Lovers and a Lion: Pankrates’ Poem on Hadrian’s Royal Hunt

The Roman emperor Hadrian and his retinue inscribed themselves in the Egyptian landscape in multiple ways, leaving behind traces that range from graffiti on the Colossus of Memnon to an entirely new city, Antinopolis, founded in the wake of Antinous’ death. According to a poem by Pankrates, the emperor and his beloved even added a new plant to the flora of Egypt: a rose-like lotus, which sprang from the blood of a lion slain by the two in the desert west of Alexandria (the hunting expedition which inspired the poem can be dated to September 130 AD, a few weeks before Antinous’ fatal accident). While we do not have Pankrates’ text in its entirety, Athenaios (677d-f) quotes four lines from it relating to the lotus-flower named after Antinous, and a papyrus published by Hunt in 1911 (P.Ox. 1085, 2nd cent. AD) preserves around 30 verses describing the epic fight with the lion. Athenaios informs us that Pankrates, a native Egyptian, presented the poem to the emperor in Alexandria; it so pleased Hadrian that he granted him lifelong free meals at the Mouseion. Incidentally, a similar story is told about a magician of the name Pachrates (possibly identical with the poet), who is mentioned in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM IV.2446ff.), likewisein connection with Hadrian: showcasing his craft, the “Egyptian prophet of Heliopolis” so impressed the emperor that the latter bestowed a “double salary” on him.

My paper will examine the remains of Pankrates’ short epic, combining a close textual analysis with reflections on its literary and cultural context: How Alexandrian is this aetiological poem, which earned its author a membership in the famous Mouseion? What implications does it have, if a native Egyptian composes a poem in Greek set in the Egyptian desert for a Roman emperor – a poet, moreover, who might have doubled as a sorcerer, engaging, in the eyes of Greeks and Romans, in a quintessentially Egyptian activity? In particular, I will ask whether the text may, similar to poems of the Hellenistic era, evoke specifically Egyptian imagery: could the lotus flower, a symbol of rebirth in Egyptian thought, have pointed to the death and “resurrection” of Antinous (thereby giving support to the hypothesis that the poem was recited during Hadrian’s second visit to Alexandria, i.e. after the death of his beloved, not shortly after the hunt, as several scholars have argued)?

Rachel Mairs (University of Reading): Just Passing Through? The Nile Delta and the Egyptian Tourist Economy in the Late Nineteenth Century

To nineteenth-century European visitors, the Delta lacked the attractions of Cairo and the Nile Valley. Travel accounts repeatedly stress the relative monotony – and modernity – of the landscape. Despite its historic and religious associations, the Delta was a zone of transition between Cairo and Alexandria, or between Egypt and Palestine, not a destination in its own right. Even those travellers who were interested in recent archaeological discoveries in the region preferred to view the Delta from the window of a train carriage, or deck of a steamer on the Suez Canal. This paper explores how the Nile Delta was represented in the writings of foreign travellers in the period when archaeologists such as Petrie and Naville were beginning their investigations at sites there. In 1888, an English visitor to Zagazig found it in the process of becoming integrated into the Egyptian tourist economy. Although there was “no hostelry there fit to receive me for the night”, she was nevertheless able to shop for antiquities among vendors on the platform of the railway station (Miller, Alone Through Syria, 1891). As the century progressed, visitors gradually moved from seeing the Delta as an annoyance – a delay on their journey from landing at Alexandria to settling in to life in Cairo – to a place with its own intrinsic interest.

Heba Mostafa (University of Kansas): The Nile as Nexus: Between Veneration and Mediation in the Islamic Period

Egyptians’ preoccupation today with what they have always perceived as their inherent right to the Nile is one that has defined its identity for centuries. In modern times this is expressed through mega projects and political conflicts over water rights, however Egyptian rulers have historically also grappled with this. Flood management was obviously critical for governance; without proper management a thriving economy could simply not be sustained. Consequently attitudes towards the Nile manifested on several complex and intertwined ways that relied heavily on perceptions of adequate Nile veneration ceremonies to guarantee an ample flood. These ceremonies enshrined critical symbolic mediation, connecting divine beneficence with Egypt’s prosperity via the grace of the ruler. Furthermore, the sacred identity of Egypt was constantly constituted and reconstituted in light of these relationships, as a land with a central position within a monotheistic cosmology as the land of Moses and Joseph.

This paper will explore these relationships by considering the role of the Nile as a sacralizing agent and the focus of veneration ceremonies, centered on the river island of al-Rawda and the Nilometer located on its southern tip. Furthermore, despite the inherent sacrality of the island of al-Rawda and the river banks which sources describe as “an earthly paradise and abode of rulers”, its dislocation from the city attracted public behavior such as the consumption of wine and prostitution that is seemingly incongruous with this identity. I will argue that by tracking the shifts in attitudes towards this critical nexus, the mediatory role of the Nile is revealed and the contingency of religious and political authority upon good governance through Nile veneration are laid bare. Furthermore I will show how the Nile incubated certain freedoms that defied the heavy policing of the urban core, defining it even today as a space of permissibility within the city.

Kevin Wilkinson (University of Toronto): Alexandria in the Age of Diocletian

Between 293 and 302, there were no fewer than four occasions when a Roman emperor and his army entered the Delta via Pelusium, established a presence at Alexandria, and launched a military offensive against insurgents. This was also a period of intensive reorganization of the bureaucratic structure, coinage, tax burden, and distribution of military units in Egypt. Most of our evidence derives from administrative documents that are preserved on papyrus and pertain to areas south of the Delta, but the impact of this unprecedented imperial intervention must have touched every region, and probably every resident, of Egypt in the late third and early fourth centuries. What were the effects in Alexandria? Here, we must rely almost exclusively on meagre literary and archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw some tentative conclusions about how this general upheaval affected the cityscape, politics, society, and religion of Alexandria during the Age of Diocletian.

Penelope Wilson (Durham University): Options for Roman Expansion in the North Nile Delta

The marshes and lagoonal fringes of the northern Nile Delta was a familiar — if exotic — environment to the Roman administration, although the area had much in common with regions in other provinces, such as the Rhine wetlands, the East Anglian fens and the Pontine marshes. This paper examines the potential for Roman exploitation of the Egyptian marshlands and how that might be detected archaeologically through survey of sites in the area, predictive modelling of the geological and geographical features and investigation of Roman management techniques for wetland areas. A number of theoretical options for the reclamation of the wetlands will be suggested and whether there is any archaeological evidence to back up each option. The importance of the Roman project will be discussed in light of the boom in settlement and agriculture in the area in the Late Roman/Antique period and the problems that emerged with the implementation of the expansion of agricultural lands.


This event is funded thanks to a grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)

And with support from the following

Durham University