Designing from Bones – Port of Discovery

In a busy port a million things happen every moment.

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.


Serapis on a crocodile

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.

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.

The ancients believed magic rested within all precious stones.

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.

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.

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.

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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12 Responses to Designing from Bones – Port of Discovery

  1. Your Wednesday posts are food for the imagination! Makes me think of the marketplace in Aladdin.

  2. Catie Rhodes says:

    The most interesting ports to me are lost or forgotten ports. Jefferson, Texas was a major river port in the mid-1800s. It has, however, become obsolete for various reasons. It’s interesting to visit because they’ve made a huge effort to retain the structures of their river port heyday. Visiting is like taking a step back in time.

    Berenike catches my interest because of the variety of things found there. I guess it was common for there to be a little of everything at an ancient port. My imagination conjures a wild place where anything can happen.

    Thanks for sharing. 😀

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    Thanks, Gene! I’m book-marking this for my novel, which deals with some Egyptian digs. Cool stuff!

  4. Marcia says:

    Your Wednesday posts are like medicine for me! On days like today, they stir my stagnant imagination. I have promised myself I will write a complete first draft of an anthology of short, short stories (80-100 pages) in the month of December. I have a good start on ideas, but couldn’t get beyond the few I have…til now! thanks! You find the most interesting stuff!

  5. Jess Witkins says:

    How did you know that I wanted that giant lapis scarab headress for Christmas?! I was planning on wearing it to the LLC’s holiday party, it’ll go great with my snake scarf!

    Nah, I’d rather travel and see the places you wrote about. Wonderful as always!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Mary Jo: An Aladdin-type story would be perfect for a port city. Thanks 🙂

      Catie: Ports, because they such a wide variety of traffic make for excellent story backdrops. They also make for the best “slice of culture” locations in any era as a result of their multicultural nature. Jefferson, Texas sounds interesting, here’s hoping you post on it one day. Thanks for the comment 🙂

      Kathy: Super cool! Hope the article helps get the creative juices flowing.

      Marcia: All the best for your collection, sounds like a fun time and I look forward to seeing it one day.

      Jess: You would look stunning in a lapis scarab headdress. Although, it would be more fun to find your own while on an archeological dig in Egypt. Just watch out for the scorpions 🙂

  6. Gene, Gene, the archeology machine! — another very inspiring post. So basically, the ports of old were the equivalent of the modern mall? If so, how far we have fallen. What I like about using a talisman, or special object in a story is that each character can project their own value upon the object, thus giving the object that much more power. Thanks so much for being a “treasure” trove of inspiration.

  7. Lynn Kelley says:

    Great ideas for writers in this post. Fascinating read for anyone. Archeology is more interesting to me the older I get. I just did some research on Port Royale, Jamaica (for my NaNo piece), and learned it’s a great archeological site because during the big earthquake in the early 1690s (I forgot the year!) a major chunk fell vertically into the ocean due to liquefaction, and lots of Port Royale is still intact under the sea. So now after reading your post, I have more fuel for ideas for the story. Thanks for sharing all this valuable info with us!

  8. I read about a port in Portugal not too long ago, and it was fascinating to think of all the excitement that came when a new ship arrived!

    My son is studying about American history and he is starting to get a sense of why people settled where they did –and why some of our biggest cities are on water! 😉

  9. kerrymeacham says:

    Great post, Gene. Help my memory. There was an ancient port, maybe in Greece somewhere, or Italy maybe, where there was a river that flowed to the sea, but the silt was so heavy from the river that it eventually clogged it up and ships couldn’t dock there. Does this ring a bell? Maybe a magice spell cast on the city by a witch as she died being burned at the stake. Love these posts, bro. ~clink~

  10. Very interesting. My work in progress actually begins with a scene on the Red Sea coast 1910, apparently not far from the Berenike excavation. Great historical detail.

  11. Pingback: Mind Sieve 12/5/11 « Gloria Oliver

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