Monday, May 4, 2015

Mons Claudianus – a trip to the Roman quarries

The Arabian Desert between the Red Sea and the Nile is not only rich in sand but also in gems, gold, minerals and stones. Appreciated by the old Egyptians, the quarries supplied them with pillars, sarcophagus and other building material for the pyramids and temples and with gems for all the jewellery and decoration we still can admire.

The Romans as well resorted to these treasures and improved the art of quarrying. In Wadi Hammamat, between el Quesir and Quena, lies Mons Claudianus, allegedly the best preserved Roman settlement amongst several quarries.

No matter whether you’re standing aloft the fort or inside: whatever the visitor gets to see is simply fascinating: In the middle of the mountains, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nothing and under the unforgiving blazing sun lie the ruins of the settlement. Apparently, Mons Claudianus was not just a simple temporary dwelling, but rather a luxurious home for well-paid craftsmen, who lacked for nothing. The one, who takes his time for a stroll between the laneways, will marvel even more: walls made by perfectly piled up stone slabs and well preserved mud bricks, water basins and bathtubs with steps, alcoves and water channels. Thousands of shards lie about – what was once stored inside?

Even the stables that were separated from the houses are well recognizable. Some broad steps lined with pillars led to the temple on a hill overlooking the settlement.

Unfortunately, the settlement is decaying ever more and valuable material for archaeological research gets lost. Although now and then scientists have come to explore the site since the beginning of the 20th century, many questions have remained unanswered. Meanwhile it is known how the residents subsisted; yet it has ever been a speculation how exactly the columns weighing several tons were transported from the quarry across the desert to the Nile. Mons Claudianus is seemingly not as interesting for the Egyptian state and for the archaeologists as the Pharaonic temples and tombs. It stands to reason: first, Egypt is teeming with historical sites; second, the Arabian Desert is a dry and remote region. Maybe even better the way it is?

When I came here for the first time a couple of years ago, we walked into the valley from the North-West to the place, where the huge column was left; then, we passed directly over the hill down to the settlement. It was a half-day trip including the outward and return journey.

Temple - Mons Claudianus
This time, we began our trip at the settlement and looked around it in the first place. After that, we headed for the path that starts a bit steep, but becomes more levelled after around 100 m elevation gain. We continuously past by more quarries, head-high cairns whose exact use is still vague, and alluringly beautiful rocks. Wedge holes can be detected everywhere. While we were cheerfully gaining more elevation, Robby draw our attention to particularities we would have missed: more distant quarries and trails leading there, slipways on which the cargo was brought downhill, clay bricks, shards, the blocked up entrance to a gold mine… He has spent days and weeks in this region, knows every nook and corner. I halted frequently and pictured for myself what a bustling place this might have been: dark skinned, heavily muscled workmen that were driving in wedges on indicated places, separating rocks, manufacturing the pieces to basins and pillars, sliding them downhill on the slipways, the hubbub, the heat, the sweat… the cargo was brought till Rome – around 2’500 years ago. This is so exciting. Indeed, the Romans left nothing undone to maintain their pomp!

While we were pondering and speculating, we reached the allegedly 200 tons weighing abandoned column that is photographed by everybody and can be found on internet as well.

Later on, Robby and Sheikh Abd El Saher lead us to a spring where normally camels are being watered; yet at that time, the spring run dry. The Sheikh made us smell desert herbs, mentioned their names and explained their use.

We drove out of the mountains and rested at the side of a large valley, in the shadow of a beautiful cliff. Building the fireplace was the Sheikh’s job: he chopped a dry thorn bush with a stone and used it as tinder for the charcoal. In a flash, a fire crackled. Robby prepared, as usual, a tasty meal on this fireplace. It was simply perfect, perfect to the point that before and after our lunch, I slouched on the carpet and would have liked to stay lying down.

However, we still got a long way to go and some surprises to experience: One time, we drove down a steep dune – hoorayyyy – I would have preferred to roll down! Another time, when it was already dark and the stunt was quite after my fancy: Due to the bumping on the rough track, one of the spare wheels became unfastened and forced us to halt. While Robby was fastening the wheel up on the roof, I got off the car and took my reward: a fairy tale night sky from One Thousand and One Nights, a golden crescent moon on a dark evening sky, beside it the bright Venus, below the Red Sea Mountain’s skyline, in front the large sand plain. If it was not reality, it would have been tawdry. To tell you the truth: I have to come back for more of that fascination of the desert and its secrets; I am glad to have found a competent guide in Robby.

The following photos might give you an impression:

Temple - Mons Claudianus

Remains of a gateway

Inside a house - Mons Claudianus

Entrance - Mons Claudianus

Would-be scientists - Mons Claudianus

around 2'500 years old basin - Mons Claudianus

would be nice for friction climbing ;)

Slipway - Mons Claudianus

Sheikh Abed El Saher and Robby from iQ-on Tours

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