The ancient Romans were passionate about emeralds. As the Roman writer Pliny the Elder stated in the first century AD Natural History“[T]there is no stone whose color is more pleasing to the eye, … no existing green of a more intense color than this.
Researchers have long known that Wadi Sikait, a valley in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, was home to a major Roman emerald mining operation. Now, reports Judith Sudilovsky for the Jerusalem Post, excavations at the site – called Sikait – have revealed the first evidence of the direct involvement of the Roman army in the construction and defense of the mines. The finds also indicate that the Blemmyes, a rival nomadic group originally from Lower Nubia, may have wrested control of the mines from the Romans sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries CE.
According to a statement, an international team led by Joan Oller Guzmán, an archaeologist at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), completed its fifth season of excavations at Sikait in January. Over the past two years, researchers have studied sections of the site dated to the end of mining activities, around the same time as the possible Blemmye takeover. In the said Great Temple, they discovered two perfectly preserved sanctuaries, one of which contained an intact ex-voto dated from the 4th or 5th century.
“The find confirms the relevance of local religion and rituals in this late period, and it suggests that mining may have fallen into the hands of the Blemmyes at this time, before the fall of the empire,” says Joan Oller in the statement.
Archaeologists have concluded that some of the Late Antiquity buildings were either occupied or built by the Blemmyes – a conclusion supported by the writings of the Greek philosopher Olympiodorus. As the team reported in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies last April, “you needed a permit from the King of the Blemmyes to enter the emerald mines in the 5th century”.
During the 2020 and 2021 digging seasons, researchers surveyed 11 quarrying areas at the site. They then conducted a detailed topographic survey of the two main mines. One is made up of hundreds of smaller galleries and reaches depths of over 130 feet.
Investigations revealed a large logistical operation in Sikait, with settlements, necropolises, ramps, paths and watchtowers surrounding the mines, writes Mustafa Marie for Egypt today. A building called Tripartite is believed to have been used as a residence and depository for gemstones.
According to Jerusalem Post, Sikait and its surroundings were the only regions of the vast Roman Empire where emeralds could be mined. The area was known as Mons Smaragdusor “emerald mountain” in Latin.
In the Roman Empire, emeralds were regularly used in fine jewelry, including earrings and necklaces. According to the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, the Romans associated the gemstone with fertility and healing.
The Blemmyes, also known as the Beja, were pastoral nomads based in northeast Africa, occupying the eastern deserts of Sudan, Egypt, and possibly Eritrea. They were a long-standing threat to Roman-occupied Egypt, constantly attacking settlements and harassing travelers.
“To the Roman colonizers”, write Gudrun Dahl and Anders Hjort-af-Ornas in the Nordic Journal of African Studies in 2006, “the Blemmyes/Beja were a real problem. … The Roman garrison was forced to evacuate its positions several times, until [it] eventually had to completely abandon the area south of Aswan to the Blemmyes and Nobadae.