Image provided by the University of SouthamptonQuseir al-Qadim is about eight kilometres north of the modern town of Quseir on the coast of the Egyptian Red Sea.

Researching the History of Quseir | Myos Hormos | Islamic Quseir

Researching The History of Quseir

Trade with the spice lands via the Red Sea during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods is well attested to in classical works of Pliny, Strabo and the Periplus. Goods were shipped to Myos Hormos (ancient name for Quseir), then to Quft (c. 100 kms nw) and up the river to Alexandria for further shipment across the Mediterranean. One important question arises as to why Quseir lost its importance during the Roman period and why thereafter there seems to be no sign of habitation until the Islamic period. This is why Berenice, further south on the Sudanese border (in the neighbourhood of the Arab cAydhab), became the preferred landing.

cAydhab (c. 400kms nw from Qus) was growing in importance from the 10th century; it was located almost opposite Jeddah, the port of Mecca. But the cAydhab route was gradually abandoned for Quseir (c. 100 kms east of Qus) probably during the Mamulk second part of the 14th century. It is not clear what brought about this change but it seems to have been gradual and politically significant as Qus became the capital of Upper Egypt. By then much of the land and sea traffic came via Quseir. We are told by Muslim geographers that the Yemenites were capable seamen with good sturdy ships.

The Mamulks' presence at Quseir was to protect the annual pilgrimage to the Holy Cities and the shipping of the eastern trade known as the “spice” trade. Several documents describing this trade come from the 11th-century Cairo Geniza documents (a corpus of business and private letters) and the present Quseiri documents under study.

Excavations at Quseir al-Qadim

Excavations at Quseir al-Qadim on the Egyptian Red Sea coast are currently being conducted by the University of Southampton (1999 to 2003) under the direction of David Peacock and Lucy Blue. Earlier digs were undertaken by the University of Chicago archaeological team led by Donald Whitcomb and Janet Johnson (1978 and 1982). Roman occupation (late 1st to early 3rd centuries AD) was found and there are ephemeral remains of the 13th and 14th century late Ayyubid to early 15th century Mamulk periods. The excavations have provided important information as to the geological and topographical structure of the Roman and Islamic harbours and have identified a number of environmental factors that have influenced the settlement pattern.

Excavations reveal a fascinating glimpse of the food supply and diet during this period with imports from India, such as black pepper, rice and coconut. Coconut fibre (coir) was used to construct nautical rope in a wide variety of plies and matting. Textiles with high quality fabrics from India show Arabic script and palmette decoration. The range of textiles (a large market for pilgrims) attests to the importance of fabrics in the inhabitants’ daily lives at Quseir, evidence that is often lost in other sites because of poorer preservation. It also raises interesting questions about the large number of textiles from India, many pieces of distinctive high quality, in a site without an agricultural hinterland. A diverse range of Islamic material was recovered including wares of Egyptian provenance but also numerous types (dated 13th to 15th centuries) coming from Arab countries, East Africa and China.

Historical Quseir: Myos Hormos

Old Quseir used to be known to the Romans as the port of Myos Hormos. Historically, this makes old Quseir one of the most important points for trade with the east, and with India. Excavations have uncovered many artefacts from places far from Quseir, such as amphora (jars used for transport for liquids and small items such as olives), stone from Yemen, and Indian pottery.

Myos Hormos had trade links over both the ocean, and across the desert. Ancient remains of Roman forts and watchtowers can be seen guarding the routes, as well as providing a source of water via their wells.

The waterfront at Myos Hormos was one of the key points to its trade links, and archeologists have discovered massive numbers of amphora in the area, remnants of the enormous amounts of overseas trade that occurred in the area.

A typical dwelling in Myos Hormos would be made of mud bricks, though a few of the buildings in the area were stone. As for the occupations of the inhabitants, there is evidence of a large number of fishermen, and a bakery, as well as metalworking.

The diet of a citizen of Myos Hormos would generally be rich in seafood, but much of their food was brought in from the Nile valley. The major food import was grain, for use in breadmaking. The Romans of Myos Hormos are also known to have eaten a wide range of meat, from camel to sheep, which would also be used to provide wool for clothing. For footwear, the people of Myos Hormos wore rope sandles or leather shoes.

Historical Quseir: Islamic Quseir

It is thought that after the Romans abandoned Myos Hormos, it lay empty for a thousand years. During Islamic times, around six hundred years ago, people began to move back to the area, and Quseir once again became a trade centre. Findings from Islamic Quseir include Indian cloth and Chinese pottery.

As with the Romans, the average dwelling in Quseir al-Qadim was made of mud bricks, though other buildings such as storehouses, or shops were made of stone. During this era, some of the old Roman buildings were used as animal shelters.

The diet of the inhabitants of Quseir al-Qadim was similar to that of the residents of Myos Hormos, although pigs were strictly off the menu. Grains, dates, nuts and fruits were brought in from the Nile valley.

One of the most interesting finds in old Quseir is a burial ground, which revealed that there had been a period of many deaths among the inhabitants of Quseir al-Qadim, possibly indicating a plague.

Rather than wool, the Islamic era saw the inhabitants of Quseir al-Qadim dressed in cloth, dyed in bright colours. There is evidence of a large amount of jewellery made of glass beads.


Information about ancient Roman and Islamic Quseir provided by Quseir al-Qadim Project at The University of Southampton, and the Quseir Heritage Preservation Society.