ROMAN TRAVELERS IN EGYPT
Egypt attracted visitors from Rome and Italy as early as Ptolemaic times. The initiation of diplomatic relations between the court of the Ptolemies and Rome in 273 B.C. was followed in the second century, especially after the Roman intervention against the Seleucid Antiochus IV in 168 B.C., by an increasing influence of Rome on Egyptian politics. In the first century B.C. the strong Roman pressure on Egypt so seriously eroded the independence of the country that in 55 B.C., Egypt was occupied by the Roman troops of Aulus Gabinius, and in 30 B.C. it was added to the Roman empire by Octavian (later Emperor Augustus; see Geraci, 1983).
In addition to these political and military relations, there were Italian merchants in Egypt from the third century B.C. on. In connection with their diplomatic contacts, Roman politicians traveled the country, especially from the second century B.C. on, and thereby gained an impression of the economic potential of Egypt and visited its places of interest; examples are the mission of Scipio Aemilianus in 140/139 and the visit of the Roman senator L. Memmius in 112.
The Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C. created a new situation for Roman journeys to and within Egypt. The chief posts in the administration and the army were to a considerable extent occupied by non-Egyptians from the rest of the Roman empire. Trade between Egypt and the empire, above all between Alexandria and Rome (or the harbors at Puteoli and Ostia) was extraordinarily intensive. What concerns us are the landscapes, the towns, and the places of interest that were especially sought out by travelers, as well as the reasons for their interest.
Finally we consider from what groups the Roman visitors to Egypt derived. Here we leave aside the merchants from the West, who came and went in Egypt over longer or shorter periods. With regard to the many Roman politicians, government officials, and military men who traveled to Egypt on official missions, it should be emphasized that on these journeys they frequently also visited the places of interest in the country, and testified to their visits in numerous inscriptions and graffiti.
In Egypt not only the Romans but also the Greeks and the Orientals from the Near East encountered a world that to them was strange and stamped with a venerable antiquity. The very nature of the country aroused interest and a taste for inquiry. The regular Nile floods and the location of the sources of the Nile were already great subjects of investigation in the archaic and classical period (Herodotus, II.19-34). It was already almost a topos when the poet Lucan made Caesar meet with the Memphitic priest Akoreus during the Alexandrian War (48-47 B.C.) and converse about the sources of the Nile (Lucan Pharsalia, X.172-331).
But neither such discussions nor isolated Roman advances into Nubia resolved the problem. In addition to the nature of the country, it was the monuments of Egypt that aroused the interest of visitors: the Pyramids, the so-called labyrinth at Hawara, the great temples, obelisks, and colossal statues (especially the colossuses of Memnon in West Thebes). Among the customs of the inhabitants, which had already evoked the astonishment of Herodotus, it was especially the Egyptian worship of animals that enticed the traveler to visit the sanctuaries concerned.
Although travelers reached Egypt by the land route via Gaza and Pelusium, most visitors from Rome and the West came by the sea route, and stepped on Egyptian soil for the first time in Alexandria (average duration of a favorable voyage from Puteoli to Alexandria, about twelve days). Alexandria was indeed the chief town of Egypt, but significantly it was officially called Alexandrea ad Aegyptum (Alexandria in Egypt).
For the city founded by Alexander the Great was a Greek city that did indeed take on something from its Egyptian hinterland in the course of time but in terms of its character stood closer to the Greco-Syrian Antioch on the Orontes than to the much more clearly Egyptian towns of Memphis, Coptos, and Thebes. Yet for the visitor, Alexandria offered enough in the way of sights worth seeing, particularly the tomb of Alexander the Great and the Serapeum, which even in the fourth century ranked for the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus as the most noble monument in the world after the Capitol in Rome.
While the Roman governors of Egypt are said to have entered their office in Alexandria in fear and trembling—and not without reason—of the rebellious character of the population, most visitors must have enjoyed the flair of the city, which in size and population was surpassed only by Rome in the empire. The mild climate of Alexandria was particularly recommended to those seeking recovery of health. Important doctors had settled there and set up schools. The famous physician Galen (second century A.D.) studied in Alexandria. In addition to the medical colleges there were many other cultural centers and attractions in Alexandria, including the Museum and the Library. In the immediate vicinity of the city recreation grounds and bathing places offered their attractions, especially Kanobos (Canopus), somewhat to the west of Abuqr; it was linked with Alexandria by a canal about 12.5 miles (20 km) long, the banks of which were bordered by a large number of hostelries.
If we sense in Alexandria the atmosphere of the Greco-Oriental harbor towns, the traveler, after crossing the Delta, had definitely left the Levant behind. In Memphis, the largest town in Roman Egypt after Alexandria, he was surrounded by the age-old past of the country: the living Apis bull was shown him by the priests, while quite nearby rose the Pyramids and the Sphinx, on whose paws many a visitor attested his veneration for this work, felt to be divine, in the form of a short commemorative inscription (proskynemon) or even a poem.
From Memphis the Fayyum was easily accessible. The feeding of the sacred crocodile Sobek/Suchos at Krokodilopolis/Arsinoë was part of the program of the travelers, who pushed forward as far as this realm of the crocodile god near Lake Moiris (Strabo Geography, XVII.1.38).
A journey into southern Egypt required a longer time. Although very largely stripped of its municipal significance, Thebes, with the temples on the east bank and the sanctuaries and tombs in West Thebes, still had a strong attraction for travelers. A quite special place was enjoyed by the colossuses of Memnon, the statues of Amenhotep III still standing in front of his mortuary temple, which in the interval has almost entirely disappeared.
The northern of the two statues, of which the upper part was broken away, at sunrise emitted a dirgelike sound. Greeks and Romans recognized in it the voice of the mythical hero Memnon, who raised his mournful voice at the sight of his mother Eos, the goddess of the red morning sky. Over one hundred inscriptions by visitors, including that of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 130), testify to the extraordinary veneration of the visitors for this monument, which by an interpretatio graeca could directly address the religious feelings of Greeks and Romans (Bernand and Bernand, 1960). When in the third century the broken- off upper part of the statue was restored to the lower part, the sound fell silent forever, and the visits ceased.
Numerous inscriptions from visitors in the Roman period have survived in the tombs of the kings driven deep into the rock in West Thebes, which because of their form were described by the Greeks as syringes (tubes). The grave of Ramses VI exercised the greatest power of attraction, since it was at that time assumed that Memnon was buried here. Of over 2,000 graffiti in the syringes, almost half are at this grave (Baillet, 1926). On the evidence of similar inscriptions, we can follow the further journeys of visitors into many places in Upper Egypt and sometimes also Lower Nubia.
After the conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C., it was forbidden for senators and leading members of the equestrian order (equites illustres) to visit the country without the permission of the emperor. This measure of Octavian/Augustus gives expression to the fear of possible usurpation. The demonstrations of the Alexandrians, which took place during the visit of the imperial prince Germanicus in A.D. 19, illustrate the unrest that could have originated in this province. A series of Roman emperors took up residence in Egypt for political or military reasons. Here an interest in Egyptian antiquities may have played a more or less large role, for example, with Titus (71), Marcus Aurelius (175-176), Septimius Severus (199-200), and Caracalla (215).
Besides the journey of Germanicus to Egypt, the best-documented is the visit to the country by Hadrian (130-131), in the course of which the emperor’s favorite Antinous was drowned in the Nile. Antinoopolis was founded at the time in honor of the deceased. The usurpations in the second half of the third century also convulsed Egypt and led to imperial expeditions into the country by Galerius (293-295?) and by DIOCLETIAN (297-298, 301-302). Thereafter no ruling emperor visited Egypt. The Itinerarium Antonini contains a detailed section on Egypt. It probably goes back in important elements to Caracalla, but is not a proper emperor’s itinerary; it served in the first place for administrative purposes.
In the Christian empire of late antiquity, interest in the traditional places of interest and the pagan cults of Egypt died away. But as a prestigious center of monasticism, Egypt now drew quite new visitors: Christian men and women, above all from ascetic circles, sought out Egypt in order to become acquainted with the monastic life, either with individual desert fathers or in monasteries. Despite the ever stronger drifting apart of East and West after the fourth and fifth centuries, religiously motivated visitors also came from the Western empire to Egypt, often in the context of a pilgrim journey to the places of the Holy Land: Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Postumianus, Rufinus, Jerome, John Cassian, Egeria (frequently also cited under the name Etheria), Arsenius, and others.
Apart from the monastic centers proper, the town of Menas (Karm Abu Mina), southwest of Alexandria, occupied the first place among the Christian pilgrim stations in Egypt. Here visitors from the West have been identified. East of Alexandria, in the immediate neighborhood of Canopus, another Christian place of pilgrimage, Menuthis/Abuqir, came to be of great importance; Western pilgrims are attested at this site also.
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