Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we explore the ancient Egyptian port city of Berenike for all the powerful elements that it holds.
Come my friends and join me through the misty portal on the busy streets of an ancient Egyptian market where every thing imaginable is for sale and the hawkers cries never sleep.
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. What interested Belzoni about the temple was that it was dedicated to a hybrid god named Serapis (a 3G divine merger of Osiris and the Apis Bull; born from the heavens; master of the underworld). This god was introduced by Ptolemy I to create a link between the various peoples of Egypt (native and Greek at the time) and thus ensure the power of the Hellene throne in Egypt. Serapis failed at the first, never gaining broad acceptance in Egypt, although his influence reached the British Isles over time. In fact, it was the worshipers of Serapis in England that became the last of the pagans to resist the expansion of Christianity.
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 herd of 73 elephants was kept here. These were not zoo animals for the amusement of the crowd however, rather they 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 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 wall veneer. Being a port city, a wide array of ship timbers and shipping items also surfaced. Another fun find is a pet cemetery bearing the remains of 17 dogs and cats. Imagine these pets 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, clutched by a frightened child found shivering among the timbers of a wrecked ship? Intrigued? Your reader will be.
Make the figurine or necklace magical and fantasy beckons. Or perhaps the figurine is the key to a mummies life force and the cross the item that protects the wielder from the rage of the mummy. Depending on who controls these two items a variety of stories come to light. 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, destined 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.
I now return you through the misty portal to your own place and time. Every thing you can dream and more awaits you in the marketplace of the imagination. May your adventures be profitable.
Have any good “fisherman’s tales” you’d like to share or a favorite Port of Call? I love hearing from you.