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Research project: The ancient and medieval harbour at Suez project

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The site of the ancient harbour at Suez – known historically as Arsinoë, Cleopatris, Clysma and al-Qulzum – has the potential to fill in a significant gap in our understanding of seafaring and trade in the Red Sea of antiquity and the medieval period. 

(Left): The extent of surviving ancient harbour infrastructure at Suez c. 1920 (Right): Bourdon's map, overlaid onto recent satellite imagery, showing the extent of the change to the site.
Figure 1

The very existence of this port at the northern tip of the Red Sea challenges existing theories that the northern sector of the Red Sea presented such a problematic seafaring environment that Egypt’s principal ports on sea were located, in preference, further south. The extremely limited existing archaeological data from the harbour and from the nearby Tell al-Qulzum suggest that the site was, in fact, a prominent port in the Ptolemaic, Roman and Islamic periods. Further archaeological investigation is needed for this port to be better understood, and its place in Red Sea seafaring established. The project is being funded through the Centenary Awards scheme of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Urban development activity around the site argues that an investigation into the ancient port should occur sooner, rather than later. Moreover, archaeological investigation has the potential of elevating the cultural profile and tourist potential of the city of Suez, and acting as a heritage resource for the people of Suez, the maritime reputation of which is already familiar the world over.

The project

Ostensibly, the ancient harbour of modern Suez stood at a place of great strategic importance. Located at the northern tip of the Red Sea, it was the closest point of that sea to the River Nile and the Mediterranean Sea, both of which were just three days journey away. It was, moreover, a key staging post for land traffic between Egypt and Arabia.

However, recent scholarship has suggested that the strategic importance of Suez was compromised by the difficulties of sailing in the northern Red Sea. Archaeological investigations of the southern Egyptian Red Sea ports of Berenike and Myos Hormos (Blue and Peacock 2006; Sidebotham and Wendrich 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000) have highlighted their role and importance in Egypt’s maritime contact with South Arabia, East Africa and India. An essential reason for the existence of these ports was that they enabled seafarers to avoid the northern Red Sea above 20ºN, where northerly winds prevailed year-round (Facey 2004). Merchants were able to unload sea-borne cargoes at these southern ports and load them onto camel caravans bound for the Nile of Upper Egypt, from where they could continue their journey north carried by the river current.

That position has given rise to the concomitant thesis, expressed by Facey, that the wind regime of the northern Red Sea was so arduous that it prevented the ports of the northern Red Sea from achieving an importance comparable to that of their southern counterparts.

That thesis is challenged by the following evidence:

  • Bruyère’s wide-ranging but poorly reported excavations of Tell Qulzum in the 1930s suggest that an extensive Ptolemaic, Roman and Islamic settlement existed at Suez, despite the lack of potable water at the site. Bruyère did not investigate the harbour area (Bruyère 1966).
  • A surface survey of the Lagoon of Suez in the 1920s by Bourdon (1925; see also figure 1) indicated the presence of substantial ancient concrete harbour infrastructure at the site. The infrastructure was far more substantial than that found, for example, at Myos Hormos (Blue and Peacock 2006). Bourdon did not seek to date the structures.
  • Suez was connected to the Nile during the Persian, Ptolemaic, Roman and early Islamic eras by a canal (Cooper 2009). The canal’s apogee came in the Roman era, when it was re-excavated under Trajan (98-117 AD). A series of papyri suggest that the canal remained open for at least 400 years (Young 2001).  Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641-643 AD, the Trajanic canal was excavated once again – this time called Khalīj Amīr al-Mu’minīn – in order to supply grain to the holy cities of Hijaz. It was finally closed in 767/8 AD. The persistence and repeated excavation of this major public work over several centuries – requiring constant maintenance against river- and wind-borne siltation – suggests that the benefits accruing from it amply justified the effort expended. The Nile terminus of the canal has recently been investigated by Peter Sheehan as part of the American Research Centre in Egypt’s Old Cairo Archaeological Monitoring project (Sheehan 2010).

However, these three sets of evidence give only an indirect and incomplete picture of Suez’s place in Red Sea maritime activity. This project seeks to address this gap through archaeological investigation of the ancient and medieval harbour of Suez.

The questions ultimately to be asked of the site are numerous and wide-ranging. These begin with basics such as establishing a chronology of the occupational phases of the site and fixing its spatial extent. This baseline information will form the foundation for a heritage assessment of the site, setting out the extent of past damage to the ancient harbour/settlement and the nature of future threats. They will also lay the groundwork for further research addressing a wide range of questions relating to the harbour itself: Who used the harbour? With where did the port trade? Historical data suggest connections with the Hijaz, Yemen and the Indian Ocean beyond. What goods were traded? How did the function of the harbour interact with the function of the canal? Was the Nile-Red Sea canal an economic success, or simply a geopolitical statement? Was the canal seasonal, being dependent on the Nile flood? How did this influence activity at the port itself? How did the port relate to its navigational environment?

The remains of an early Christian funerary chapel at Suez, 2005, excavated by Grossman, Salib and al-Hanguay (image: J P Cooper)
Figure 2

Fieldwork strategy

Given the long period that has passed since work has been done on the site, and given the visible extent of change and development on and around the site, the first priority must be to identify and record the extent of surviving port infrastructure. This is the first step in understanding the site, and in providing a basis for protecting the archaeological heritage resource, and encouraging tourism in the city of Suez.

An initial desk-based survey and preliminary investigation of the visible remains on the ground (such as Figure 2) has already been conducted in consultation with the interrogation of high-resolution satellite images (see also Figure 1.) The next step is to undertake a single season of survey to be conducted over a period of two weeks in March/April 2011. The survey will be conducted by a small team from the University of Southampton.

The first aim of the project is to undertake a non-destructive topographical survey of all the visible archaeological remains and map the existing topography of the on-land site. This land-based survey will be conducted with the use of total station and Real-Time Kinematics (RTK) survey systems. It will provide a base map and detail of specific archaeological structures that will guide the deployment of subsequent terrestrial and marine geophysical survey and targeted sedimentological analysis to investigate the archaeological remains that lie beneath the sediments both on land and under water. Considering the waterlogged nature of the terrestrial sediments, a flux-gate gradiometer will be the most effective tools to undertake terrestrial geophysics.


Blue, L & Peacock, D. (eds.). 2006. Myos Hormos - Quseir al-Quadim : Roman and Islamic ports on the Red Sea. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Bourdon, C. 1925 ‘Anciens Canaux, Anciens Sites et Ports de Suez’. Mémoires de la Société Royale de Géographie D’Égypte. Vol. VII. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français D’Archéologie Orientale.

Bruyère, B. 1966. Fouilles de Clysma-Qolzoum (Suez) 1930-1932. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français D’Archéologie Orientale.

Cooper, J.P. 2009. Egypt’s Nile-Red Sea Canals: Chronology, Location, Seasonality and Function. In L. K. Blue, J. P. Cooper, R. Thomas, & J. Whitewright (Eds.), Connected Hinterlands: Proceedings of Red Sea Project IV held at the University of Southampton September 2008. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 195-210

Facey, W. 2004. ‘The Red Sea: The Wind Regime and Location of Ports’. in Lunde, P. & Porter, A. (eds.) Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region. pp 7-17. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Sheehan, P, 2010. Babylon of Egypt: The Archaeology of Old Cairo and the Origins of the City. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Sidebotham, S.E. & Wendrich, W.Z. (eds.) 1996. Berenike '95 : report of the excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the eastern desert. Leiden: Research School CNS.

Sidebotham, S.E. & Wendrich, W.Z. (eds.) 1998. Berenike '96 : report of the excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the survey of the eastern desert. Leiden: Research School CNS.

Sidebotham, S.E. & Wendrich, W.Z. (eds.) 1999. Berenike 1997: report of the 1997 excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, including excavations at Shenshef. Leiden: Research School CNS.

Sidebotham, S.E. & Wendrich, W.Z. (eds.) 2000. Berenike '98: report of the 1998 excavations at Berenike and the survey of the Egyptian eastern desert, including excavations at Wadi Kalalat. Leiden: Research School CNS.

Young, G. 2001. Rome’s Eastern Trade. London: Routledge.

Associated research themes

Maritime archaeology

Related research groups

Maritime Archaeology
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