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Unit 2 - Elephant Hunting from the course "Life in the Eastern Desert of Egypt"

The Ptolemaic Kingdom

The death of Alexander the Great at Babylon in 323 BC ultimately resulted in numerous struggles among his generals (despite initial attempts to maintain cohesion by Perdiccas).

Among these Successors (diodochi) Ptolemy the son of Lagos (later assuming the title of king and becoming Ptolemy I Soter), who had been assigned satrap of Egypt, was able to consolidate his position in this territory and periodically attempt to take advantage of the situation in the various conflicts which were raging in these last few decades of the fourth century. After Ipsos (301 BC) he (again) seized part of Koile Syria and captured part of south-east Asia Minor. He took over the League of Islanders in the late 290s or early 280s which had originally been founded by Antigonos Monophthalmos to control Aegean sea-routes. After ruling for 38 years in 285 BC Ptolemy promoted his son Ptolemy II, later called Philadelphos (r.285-246 BC), to the status of co-ruler, himself dying two years later (see Shipley 2000).

During the course of Alexander’s campaigns in the East he had been able to build up his own corps of Indian elephants which were subsequently taken over by some of the diodochi. In 321 BC Perdiccas invaded Egypt but was defeated and lost his life in the process enabling Ptolemy I to take over his force of elephants and their drivers who had survived the failed campaign (Diodorus Siculus 18.33-36). Later, after defeating Demetrius the “City-Sacker” at Gaza in 312 BC, he was able to take over some of the 43 elephants which Demetrius had brought to the battle (Diodorus Siculus 19.82.3-4, 84.4). Thus, at least during the early decades of his rule, Ptolemy I may have possessed a reasonable corps of Indian elephants, but it is likely that by the time of his death many of them had been lost to natural attrition.

These Indian elephants could not be so easily replaced since control of significant parts of the Middle East and Central Asia had fallen to the Seleucids by this point. Due to frequent hostilities between the descendants of Ptolemy I and Seleucus I, the Ptolemies were effectively deprived of any significant opportunity to acquire more Indian elephants except through capture in warfare (see Casson 1993).

The hunt for elephants in East Africa

In the early Hellenistic period having a large elephant corps was clearly felt to be military important for many of the major states. We have a number of descriptions about how these large and intimidating creatures were used in battle.

“Elephants, when tamed, are employed in war, and carry into the ranks of the enemy towers filled with armed men; and on them, in a very great measure, depends the ultimate result of the battles that are fought in the East. They tread under foot whole companies, and crush the men in their armour.”

Pliny NH 8.9.27 – trans. Bostock 1855.

The way in which these animals fight is as follows. With their tusks firmly interlocked they shove with all their might, each trying to force the other to give ground, until the one who proves strongest pushes aside the other's trunk, and then, when he has once made him turn and has him in the flank, he gores him with his tusks as a bull does with his horns.” Polybius 5.84.2-5 – Trans. Patton 1924.

Polybius 5.84.2-5 – Trans. Patton 1924.

This imperative to maintain a corps of elephants, and the effective disbarment from acquiring elephants from India, drove the Ptolemies to seek new sources from which to obtain these animals. Fortunately for the Ptolemies, these animals could be hunted in East Africa.

On a side note many of the ancient sources commented upon the different sizes of the elephants acquired in India, compared to those which were acquired from Africa (either East Africa, or for the Carthaginians, North Africa); the former being regarded as larger (see for example, Polybius 5.84.5-7; Pliny NH 8.9.27). This had puzzled earlier scholars since it is in fact clear that the African Bush or Savanah elephant (Loxodonta africana) is larger and physiologically different form the Indian (Elephas maximus). The features of the African elephant include larger ears than those of the Indian variety, a distinctive flap of skin between the stomach and hind legs, and a concave back.

In the latter twentieth and early twenty-first century, many scholars have taken the view that the elephants being acquired from Africa by the ancients were probably African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) which resemble a scaled down version of the immense African Bush or Savanah elephant, and are in fact smaller than both the Bush and Indian variety (see Charles 2008). Most recently some attempts have been made to argue that these "African elephants" may, in fact, be Bush elephants, but this view has yet to be proven definitively.

In any case, Ptolemy II launched major expeditions to acquire these animals from East Africa to replenish his father’s diminishing stock. He is generally credited by our ancient authors with being the first of the Ptolemies to place these efforts on a major basis:

“He [Agatharchides] says that Ptolemy, the successor of the son of Lagus, was the first to organise the hunting of elephants as well as other similar activities.” - Agatharchides 1.1 = Photius, Cod. 250.1, 441b – see Burstein 1989.

In order to reach the elephant hunting grounds in East Africa it was necessary for men and supplies to cross the Eastern Desert of Egypt and sail from ports on the Red Sea. This was also the route used to bring these large animals back to the Nile valley. As a result many routes and fortified stations were founded by Philadelphos and his successor in the Eastern Desert to protect travellers and secure water supplies. Also many of the Red Sea ports were established at this time and continued to exist into the Roman period. These ports included Arsinoe, Philoteras, Myos Hormos, Berenike and Ptolemais of the Hunt, among others.

“Thence one crosses an isthmus, which extends to the Red Sea, near a city Berenicê. The city has no harbour, but on account of the favourable lay of the isthmus has convenient landing-places. It is said that Philadelphus was the first person, by means of an army, to cut this road, which is without water, and to build stations, as though for the travels of merchants on camels, and that he did this because the Red Sea was hard to navigate, particularly for those who set sail from its innermost recess. So the utility of his plan was shown by experience to be great...” – Strabo Geog. 17.1.45 – Trans. Jones 1932.

The route running from Apollonopolis Magna (Edfu) on the Nile to Berenike on the Red Sea was of particular significance. The most recent fieldwork by the University of Michigan has shown that Edfu was connected to the Red Sea via a series of tracks along the Wadi Muyah through Bir ‘Abbad to El-Kanais, up to the Wadi Barramiyyam via Bir Abu Rahal, and Bir ‘Iayyan to Barramiyyah. These tracks also revealed square shaped cairns (stone-markers) laying out the route, though not many preserved signal or watch-towers. However a stele set up by Rhodon, son of Lysimachos, in 257 BC, appears to have been intended as a distance marker. It is located at Bir ’Iayyan 95 km east of Edfu, on the Edfu-Barramiyyam road (see Cohen 2006 and Wright 2003).

The remains of five Ptolemaic stations along these tracks reveal features including walls, towers, cisterns and internal rooms, notably at Barramiyyam and Bir Samut; though the stations at Samut and Abu Midrick appear to have walls but not towers. The station of Abu Midrick held a cistern capable of holding approximately 88,000 litres; while there was a similar station at Rod Umm al-Farraj on the Edfu-Marsa Nakari (Nechesia) road which shows Ptolemaic to early Roman occupation. The greater use of the tracks between Edfu and Berenike during the Ptolemaic period is suggested by the inscriptions left behind at the chapel of El-Kanais (the Paneion), which is about 50 km from Edfu. The site has 85 Ptolemaic inscriptions while only six are Roman (see Cohen 2006; Reddé 2006; Sidebotham, Hense, and Nouwens 2008; and Wright 2003). It is clear that engaging in such activities required the Ptolemies to devoted serious attention and resources to the matter.

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Darren Green
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Created with an image by Sponchia - "elephant black and white animal"