Port of Discovery

In a busy port a million things happen every moment.

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.

No matter where or when, the marketplace has it all for a price one can't refuse, or so the hawkers say. Painting by 19c Italian Ciro Mazini

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.

Fisherman’s Tale

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 MediaAre you there blog? It’s me, Writer

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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13 Responses to Port of Discovery

  1. K.B. Owen says:

    This is so timely! Some of the backstory for my second novel is set in 19th century Amarna, Egypt, and expeditions there. Thx!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hey KB!

      Glad I could help spawn a few ideas. Egypt has a rich, deep and incredible history from its foundation through Alexander, the Hellene Greeks, Rome and into its current incarnation. If you go back far enough, Egypt was a sea, and whale skeletons are a common find there, locked into the sands today.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Another fascinating setting! This one will help out with the city in my MIP.

  3. Dave says:

    Gene, I liked your comment about a ruler introducing a god for the purpose of social control and cohesion. Kind of handy if the king had to go to war; much easier to get people to march into battle if “god is on their side.”

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Dave!

      This has been a very common tactic throughout history, after all, a ruler is just a person like all others, but when you convince people that a powerful god will strike them dead if they question that ruler, well, then they have authority.

      Thanks for the great comment 🙂

  4. Gene,
    I love the idea of the magic items. I’ve used similar concepts in my work. A specific one that comes to mind is a particular gemstone, which I researched the history of. It’s probably something that no one will ever notice the connections to (if it’s even published) but it means something to me to have that historical connection.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Lisa!

      Sounds like a great story. I draw heavily from history in my work, apparently my muse finds inspiration there, so I can completely understand the joy that comes from including items like the gem you mentioned. I think readers do tend to have a feel for this and some, assuming they like the writing/story, will do some quick research or make the connection based on their own knowledge and experience.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  5. Catie Rhodes says:

    I liked the trail of the lapis lazuli Venus and the unsuspecting tourist who buys it as a souvenir but suddenly becomes obsessed with it. He takes it back to the States and kills himself in some really gruesome way. Then, the Venus passes into his family. Whoever gets it has a touch of psychometry and becomes obsessed with trying to figure out how to harness the powers ….

    And now it’s time for me to shut up.

    Great blog. I love this series, but I rarely have anything to add.

  6. Pingback: Drawn to the Dark Side: Becoming a Plotter | Sonia G Medeiros

  7. ralfast says:

    Brilliant! I’m always on the lookout for interesting settings. I’ll keep this one in mind for future reference.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hello and thanks for the compliment! I love settings, especially ones with a built in history. I find these make fertile ground for the imagination which is a writers best friend.

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