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Castrum - Coptic Wiki


A Roman military camp developed from the so-called marching camp, which was constructed each evening by troops on the march in accordance with a model in force throughout the Roman empire. The uniformity of the camps enabled the soldiers to find their way about and also enabled them to react with speed in the face of danger. We are well informed on the appearance of these camps by a number of ancient descriptions (Polybius, 6. 27-32; Hyginus, De munitionibus castrorum; Flavius Vegetius Renatus, Epitoma rei militaris) and by numerous surviving monuments.

As a rule, the camps have a square or slightly oblong shape within which two main streets run at right angles to each other: a wide street running across, the via principalis joining the two lateral gates, and the via praetoria running along the longer axis, but interrupted in the center by the camp forum and the Principia. The latter is the sanctuary of the camp in which the standards of the legion, as well as the images of the imperial family, were set up. Behind it was situated the tent of the commander in chief, itself surrounded by the arsenal, the hospital, and the assembly areas of the various units.

The soldiers’ quarters proper were arranged in uniform blocks around these central installations. Finally, the whole camp was surrounded by a rampart with an outer trench, as well as a circular road running along the inner side of the rampart, the via sagularis. The corners of the castrum were rounded off. The gates were located one at each end of the two main streets and were strengthened by towers erected on the inner ramparts.

The actual permanent camps, which originally functioned as winter camps, differ from the marching camps only by their more permanent design. Instead of the rampart they have a high defense wall which, from the second century, was also provided with towers projecting outward. All the inside it including the men’s living quarters were constructed of stone or fired bricks. The higher officers had their own houses while the commander of the legion had a large residence that served at the same time as the headquarters of the legion (praetorium).

In the days of the empire the principia was combined with the forum, which originally was situated next to the praetorium. Outside the castrum were located a variety of workshops, brick works, baths, and often even an amphitheater. An innovation under Valentinian I (364-375) was the removal of the men’s living quarters to the immediate vicinity of the wall (Petrikovits, 1967, p. 21), a practice already introduced in the at an earlier period. Presumably this measure was due to the development of ballistics that required better protection; the area at the wall provided such better than the area situated nearer the center.

The smaller camps (castella) were originally planned only for the auxiliary troups, whose members did not possess Roman citizenship. After the general conferment of citizenship by Emperor Caracalla this distinction fell into disuse. The castella then became camps for smaller contingents of troops: the foot soldiers or the cavalry. Each of these consisted of approximately 500 or 1,000 men. In their structure these smaller camps were modeled on the large camps of the legions, only in a more simple form, although as a rule they made do with a smaller number of gates.

A considerable number of Roman military camps in Egypt are known through inscriptions and texts handed down. Very few structural remains have survived and the majority of these come from the period after DIOCLETIAN. Surviving examples follow the same plan that was adopted in the rest of the provinces of the empire. Imitations of the fort architecture of the pharaonic period are nowhere to be seen. There are several camps constructed in deserted temple enclosures.

In pagan times the military camps were each provided with a principia, in which the standards of the companies and also, from the third century, the images of the emperor were set up and the funds of the legion were kept. The camps laid out in the Christian period, from about the fifth century, naturally had a church. Examples of such camp churches are preserved in Egyptian camps in Abusir (Taposiris Magna) and al-Tur. 

Alexandria. The legionary camp situated to the near ancient Nicopolis was found in good condition up to the year 1875. In addition to the surrounding walls that were preserved almost throughout, remains of the praetorium and thermal installation could be seen.

All the plans depict semicircular projecting bastions with square towers at the corners; however, the picture taken by T. Walsh (1803, pl. 23) shows round corner towers and rectangular towers in between, which suggest a construction probably from the final building phase in the late Roman period. In 1875 what remained of the camp fell victim to the construction of the English barracks.

Abusir. For the erection in late antiquity of the camp in the precinct of the Ptolemaic temple of Osiris, use was made of materials from the temple building itself, which was probably of Doric design. The men’s living quarters, which were one story high, were positioned along the wall.

Remains of steps leading up to the wall coping have survived in the southeast and southwest corners (Grossmann, 1980, pp. 23-24). Within the camp near to the pylon passageway a small single-aisled church with a tripartite sanctuary was found (Ward Perkins, 1943-1944, pp. 49-51). The naos of the church was later surrounded on all sides by additional annexes.

Al-Burdan. This was a cohort fort in the region of the coastal road to Marsa Matruh, about 3 miles (5 km) west of the turnoff to al- Hammam. It measured 382 x 382 yards (350 x 350 m). Before 1970 the remains of the exterior wall, as well as several indications of the inside and a vaulted cistern, could still be recognized. Road construction has completely destroyed them.

Babylon or Old Cairo. Situated on the border between Upper and Lower Egypt, this camp comes from the period of Emperor Trajan (89-117) and until the capitulation before the invading Arab armies in 641 it was the most important stronghold in Egypt. Significant elements of its military defenses have been preserved especially in the southwest area, as, for example, the gate facing south on the landward side and the harbor gate provided with two strong circular towers (Toy, 1937, pp. 52-78). Both gates must count among the best preserved Roman gate installations of the second century.

Scenas Mandras. Near the modern village of Minat al-Shurafa’ (south of Hilwan), this is a camp from late antiquity in the southeast of a kom (mound) almost completely dismantled by sabakh (manure) diggers and lime-burners. A double exterior wall was found during the excavations, as well as several towers and the remains of house installations leaning against the inner side of the surrounding wall.

Qasr Qarun. This fort of a 500-man unit of cavalry is one of the best-preserved camps from the period of Diocletian. The surrounding wall may be clearly made out with its towers and especially the living quarters and the forum shaped like a columned street, with the principia at the southern end. To the west of the forum were the administration building and the commandant’s living quarters.

Umm al-Barakat. The clearing of the temple of Suchos led to the discovery alongside the surrounding wall of numerous house plans of the same shape, which most probably were the living quarters of a military unit stationed here in the fifth or sixth century. The presence of these units may well have contributed to the survival of the site into the Christian period (Bagnani, 1933).

Dayr al-Dik. The camp probably served as the military guard of the city of ANTINOOPOLIS. The surrounding wall had rounded corners but no towers. Of on the inside, a number of living quarters remain on the north wall, as well as a cruciform central building on the east wall. Additional buildings go back only as far as a late medieval settlement.

Dayr al-Jabrawi. Two parallel series of columns running approximately north-south and all made of burnt bricks could have flanked a camp forum or the via praetoria as in the Diocletian fort of Qasr Qarun (see above).

Hiw (Diospolis Parva). The Roman fort, which was occupied by a unit the size of a cohort, coincides in size with the area of the Ptolemaic temple, whose exterior wall was repaired and equipped with a number of round towers. The of the men’s living quarters as well as a number of officers’ residences were observed beside the north wall. This arrangement is in evidence only from the first century down to Gallienus, and accordingly does not appear to have survived the revolt under Domitianus in the third century (Flinders Petrie, 1901, pp. 54-57, pl. 24).

Luxor. The great camp housing two legions was first built in 297 under the emperor Diocletian, on the occasion of the defeat of the revolts in Upper Egypt under Domitianus, and it encompassed the whole area of the Ammon temple, which at that time was no longer in operation, although large parts of it were still standing (El-Saghir, 1986, pp. 5-31).

The pylon passage was converted into the northern main gateway. Other Roman have survived including the remains of the surrounding wall and above all the once richly decorated principia with its for the cult of the emperor (wrongly identified as a “church” in earlier times) constructed in front of the earlier barque chamber (Deckers, 1979, pp. 600-652).

Naj‘ al-Hajar. The camp of a 500-man company discovered in the 1980s, it has a gateway complex decorated with engaged columns and a number of protruding semicircular towers, probably going back to the time of Diocletian.

Aswan. Located here are extensive remains of a fortification wall that followed the line of the river, with its two square corner towers and two semicircular intervening towers. It survived into the nineteenth century and indicated the existence of the camp of a 1,000-man unit often referred to in the of the fifth and sixth centuries. In the Middle Ages the camp fortification was incorporated into the city wall, and a small church was built in front of the northwest corner (Jaritz, 1985, pp. 1-19).

Elephantine. The camp built in the Roman forecourt of the Temple of Khnum was probably that of the Cohort I Felix Theodosius. The men’s living quarters had a number of stories, and most of them were accommodated in the surrounding columned porticos, although a few were located within the temple area. The side entrances into the temple court appear to have been rebuilt in the form of towers (Grossmann, 1980, pp. 9-29).

Philae. This camp was not situated on the island itself, as often wrongly claimed, but lay on the west bank opposite on the former site of Shallal, where remains of the outer ditch as well as of two towers could be seen (Grossmann, 1980, p. 27).

Dakka (Pselchis), Nubia. Roman camp of the second to third centuries, it incorporated at the same time the temple of Dakka. Up to the time of the flooding caused by the damming of the Nile, remains of the clay-brick wall, which had been repeatedly reinforced, and two gates on the southwest had survived. Both gates were flanked by protruding semicircular towers. It would appear that in the fourth century nomads occupied it and reinforced the west gate with rectangular porticos.

Al-Dayr (Oasis of Khargah). This fortified camp, probably of a cavalry detachment of 500 men, is a perfect square with semicircular protruding towers and a single gateway on the west side, which unlike the other sections was constructed of fired bricks. Curiously, the stairs are not attached to the inner wall but carved into the wall (Naumann, 1939, pp. 2-3).

Abu Sha‘ar. This was a cohort fort at the coast of the Red Sea, 7½ miles (12 km) north of Hurghada, although American investigations have erroneously identified it with the site of Myos Homos. It has regularly distributed towers at the corners and at all four sides. The two gates at the northern and western sides correspond to the two inner main streets.

A number of barracks are placed alongside the walls, while the rest are grouped in several blocks in the northern part of the inner area. The so-called main building, erected in the middle of the eastern part, has an inner eastern apse and probably served as the church of the fortress. To the south of it are workshops and warehouses (Sidebotham et al., 1989, pp. 127-66).

Tall Farama (Pelusium). The surrounding wall with its square corner towers and numerous half-rounded bastions are all that remain of a late Roman camp that was occupied by a cavalry detachment. Since 1983 the site has been excavated by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. The men’s living quarters were sited alongside the walls, outside of which cisterns and baths were also found.

Tall Abu Sayf. This is probably to be identified with ancient Selle or Sile. Only one -brick wall running for 110 yards (100 m) in a north-south direction has so far been identified of the fort (Flinders Petrie, 1888, pp. 98-99, pl. 51); on the eastern border itself numerous Roman tombs were found (unpublished).

Al-Tur. On the area of the cemetery a few miles inland from Al-Tur, well-preserved remains of an extensive fortification system, with corner towers and uniform rooms laid out along the surrounding wall, were excavated by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. It would appear that it is a late originating perhaps in the sixth century. In the southwest section, a church of design with stout square pillars and a tripartite sanctuary was found.


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