Berenice abandoned

Updated: Apr 2

Berenice was a trading port on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, founded between 275 and 260 BC. Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers imported a wide range of trade goods here, also war elephants from the southern Red Sea region. For some unknown reason, the stone-walled settlement was abandoned during the late 3rd century BC. Later it became the Roman Empire’s southernmost port during the late 1st century BC.

Iwona Zych of the University of Warsaw and Steven Sidebottom of the University of Delaware recently unearthed a well and associated water storage and distribution facilities inside a gate near the north-western corner of the fortress. This was perhaps the only water source for Berenice. The 3.9m well cut into the underlying bedrock and a permeable sandstone that carried groundwater from a wadi nearby. The shaft became a rectangular chamber with niches to store water. A shadouf-like device with ceramic buckets lifted water to the surface. The well also served as a cistern for rainwater runoff. Associated basins and drainage channel are dated by amphorae to between 233 and 220 BC.

By the end of the 3rd century BC, the well ceased to function and filled with windblown sand that choked the shaft. A multi-year drought, perhaps associated with a La Nina, had caused the well to dry up. Or maybe not. A well-documented volcanic eruption in 209 BC caused widespread drought over the Nile headwaters, detected in Greenland ice cores. Famine ensued, coinciding with a revolt in Upper Egypt and the temporary abandonment of Berenice. Post-eruption cooling caused by the eruption may have lasted for two years, only to be followed by another one some four or five years later. We do not yet know which volcano erupted, but four major Northern Hemisphere volcanoes experienced large eruptions about this time, along them Popocatépetl in Mexico.

The Berenice eruption is a sobering reminder of our vulnerability to major geological events that have climatic consequences in a warming world.

Brian Fagan reporting.