Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, using archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. This week we will be exploring the ancient Egyptian port city of Berenike for all the powerful elements that it holds.
Located along the Southern Red Sea Coast where it joins with the Nile River, Berenike served as a primary port for Egypt from 300 B.C. to around 600 A.D. Rediscovered in 1818 by Giovanni Belzoni the site saw little excavation (except for its temple). It is interesting that the temple belonged to a hybrid god named Serapis (a 3G version of Osiris and the Apis Bull; come from heaven, master of death). This god was introduced by Ptolemy I to create a link between the various peoples of Egypt (native and Greek at the time) and ensure the power of the Hellene throne in Egypt. It failed at the first, never gaining broad acceptance in Egypt, although its influence reached the British Isles over time. In fact, it was the worshippers of Serapis in England that became the last of the pagans to resist the expansion of Christianity.
Then in 1994 a concerted effort led by Steven Sidebotham, an archaeologist from the University of Delaware, began to dig into the rich history buried in Berenike. Located near an ancient gold mine where slaves and prisoners-of-war were common labor this golden port was a mix of peoples and cultures from throughout the ancient world. Trade winds between the coast of Africa and India allowed for annual cargo shipping, a dangerous but lucrative affair that often began and ended at Berenike. At one point in its history a large herd of up to 73 elephants was kept here. These were not your garden variety of elephant however, these were trained war elephants meant to counter those used by India. Some of the elephants bones and the massive pen used to hold them are a couple of the incredible finds that Steven and his team have made.
The dig at Berenike has also managed to locate a vast array of trade items: peppercorn, pottery and beads from India, a cross made of mother-of-pearl, cedar from Lebanon, silver and gems from across the breadth of the Roman Empire and Turkish marble used as a wall veneer. Being a port city, a wide array of ship timbers and shipping items have also been found. Another fun find here is a pet cemetery with the remains of 17 dogs and cats. Imagine them roaming the aisles of the market in this thriving port city and the sites and smells come to life.
The Power of Ancient Ports
The great thing about ports in the ancient world is that they served as the social centers of their era. The Twitter and Facebook of the ancient world. It was in these places that cultures mingled in all their glory from goods to ideas.
For the writer, these are prime locations to discover a wealth of elements that can bring our world to life or serve as a healthy breeding ground for brainstorming.
Let’s say we are looking for unusual items to serve significant roles in our work. Would a cross made of mother-of-pearl serve that purpose? How about a figurine of Venus made of lapis-lazuli that is clutched by a frightened child found shivering among the timbers of a wrecked ship?
Make the figurine or necklace magical and we have a fantasy. Make the figurine the key to a mummies life force and the cross the item that protects the wielder from the rage of the mummy and depending on who controls these two items we have a variety of stories. Could it be a necromancer (horror)? Sought by a modern political figure in a covert game of domination(thriller)? Or perhaps an unsuspecting tourist that is slowly consumed by the items powers to become the lover of the mummy in a state of deadly eternal bliss (a paranormal romance with aspects of horror, can they escape)? And, of course, what if two different people control the two items. Let the mayhem and tension ensue.
In a port of call everything has a tale to tell. From the biggest fish to a vicious storm to a fragile vial of expensive perfume to the reason why so many vanish without a trace along the docks at night. These are tales of victory over nature (or defeat by it). Tales of a lovers gift surviving the terrors of storm and war. Tales of things that stalk the night or of things that enslave men. If you are looking for powerful elements and ideas to hook and snare look to the ancient ports and discover the wealth that these bastions of multiculturalism have to offer both the writer and the reader.
Have any good “fisherman’s tales” you’d like to share or a favorite Port of Call? I love hearing from you.
Next week we will be tunneling for the dead in three different locations around the globe. I hope you’ll join me for “Corridor Crypts”.
Looking for more great ideas and information on writing? Check out my previous “Designing from Bones” entries. Want to know how to make blogging and social media a powerful tool? Try Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media & Are you there blog? It’s me, Writer