Nomads, Mercenaries, and Goldmines: Desert Politics in the Ramesside Period

Julien Cooper

When we think of Egypt’s wealth, our mind often wanders to geological riches. Most of this wealth originated in the Eastern Desert: the gold of Tutankhamun’s mask, the famous Egyptian eye-paints of kohl or malachite, or even the majestic purple porphyry columns that today hold up the roof in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, shipped there by the Egypt’s Roman rulers. A cliché of Ancient Egyptian geography is that the deserts were empty wastes, possessing nothing but mineral wealth that the Egyptians were free to exploit. But we need to acknowledge that these regions, despite their aridity, were home to various indigenous peoples – nomads who are largely shrouded from the historic record. Wandering from well to well with herds of goat and sheep, these peoples were the guardians of much of Egypt’s famous mineral wealth, variably escorting or harassing Egyptian mineral and trade expeditions.
The ancient Egyptian record of the local affairs of these nomads in the Eastern desert is quite stereotyped, usually narrating encounters between Egyptian expeditions and nameless groups of herders. But there is one tantalizing and informative glimpse from the Ramesside period (late New Kingdom) that illustrates just how complex local desert affairs could be. This source consists of a set of letters recorded on a papyrus written in hieratic (cursive) script, today in the Cairo Museum and labelled “papyrus Cairo ESP”. Unfortunately, its original findspot is unknown and it was found in a tin box in the Cairo Museum as one roll of five glued sheets, without any notes that would tell us anything of the find. The papyrus constitutes a set of administrative letters sent by a well-known High-Priest of Amun called Ramessesnakht and mentions the city of Coptos and a fortress in the nearby desert. It would be reasonable to assume that this set of letters belonged to a group of directives sent to expeditions or perhaps an Egyptian fortress in the Eastern Desert. The city of Coptos was the main gateway to the Eastern Desert and provided easy access to desert mines and Red Sea harbours through which Egyptians facilitated trade with distant lands like Punt. 
Despite being a religious institution, the Temple of Amun was dedicated to the task of gold and mineral exploitation. Earlier in his life and well-before writing these letters, Ramessesnakht himself travelled to the Eastern Desert, leaving an inscription at the quarries of Wadi Hammamat, so he was well-versed in the local geography. Considering the sender, these letters almost certainly originated in a temple archive. One section of the letter (C-D) concerns a military escort that the Egyptians employed to guard its gold-washers on their expedition to the goldmines. This military escort consisted of people from the land of Akyet, the name for the deserts east of Lower Nubia (modern Wadi Allaqi). These people, related to the Medjay, spoke a language ancestrally related to Beja, a language still spoken in Eastern Sudan today. This escort had left its homeland in the southern deserts and ventured further north near Coptos to help the Egyptian miners. The other group of nomads mentioned in the papyrus are the Shasu. This group is usually encountered in the Sinai and the Levant and are famous amongst historians for their shadowy origins and connections to Pre-Israelite history. Some Shasu may have even worshipped Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and spoke a Semitic language. Here, however, a band of Shasu had come south along the Red Sea coast into the Egyptian Eastern Desert and evidently became a nuisance for Egyptian goldminers. Ramessesnakht, the High-Priest of Amun-Re, and the official in charge of desert expeditions, writes:

The first prophet of Amun-Re, king of the gods, Ramessesnakht said to the feathered-Nubian Anytna, the feathered-Nubian Sisenut, and feathered-Nubian Terebdedi, and the Nubian-soldiers of the hill-country of Akyet… I have learned that you went out as a military-escort together with the miners and gold-washers of the House of Amun-Re…
The strong arm of the Pharaoh, my lord, has cast to the ground the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed who were sitting in Qehqeh, on the shore of the sea. Since it is Amun-Re, king of the gods, the great-god, lord of the earth who went with you in order to give to you a hand. Rejoice two times for the many good things that Amun-Re, king of the gods, did for the Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), his child, in casting to the ground the enemies of the Shasu who attacked the land of Egypt…
When my letter reaches you, you will establish yourselves in the gold-working-settlement, until the supplies which I sent to you under the responsibility of my scribe and the retainer of mine reach you (the feathered Nubians). And you shall pay-attention to the miners and gold-washers of the house of Amun under my authority so that they will bring this gold for Amun-Re, king of the gods, your lord, to cause that the Shasu may not attack them. And you must not come to transgress in the land of Egypt. As for that which you require, you may send to me a letter and I will cause that it will be brought to you and you will make good servants for Amun-Re, king of the gods, the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), your lord, and you will see this: 

The list of the supplies which were for the feathered-Nubians and the Nubians of the land of Akyet who went as a military-escort against the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed (the Red Sea) so that the strong arm of the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) could cast them to the ground:

25 kilts of thin-cloth
25 kilts of round-tunic
25 metal cups
25 metal knives
25 metal axes bound on a shaft
1000 good loaves of kershet-bread100 cut loaves of iped- and kershet-bread
50 herd assorted herd animals
5 carrying-donkeys
1 bag of condiments (?)
1 bag of ingredients

Papyrus Cairo ESP, sections C–D; trans. Julien Cooper
Left: Helck’s transcription of the latter part of the text (Helck 1967). The original photographs of the papyri remained unpublished. Right: Map of Egypt & Nubia with locations of places in the text (by Julien Cooper over Google Earth image)

The letters describe a complicated vision of desert politics involving vying nomads, goldminers, and the priests of Amun. Underpinning Egypt’s gold exploitation was conflict and alliances involving two rival nomadic groups, the Nubians of Akyet and the Shasu. They likely spoke different languages and had different customs, and the Egyptians seem to have taken advantage of these differences by employing one group of desert experts to fight against the other and protect its miners. A battle ensued at the place of Qehqeh, somewhere on the Red Sea (Egyptian Mu-qed) coast. With the divine patronage of Amun and the Pharaoh, the Akyet nomads were victorious but were urged to keep vigilant, protecting the gold washers in a gold-working settlement. This arrangement between Ramessesnakht and the Akyet nomads, despite being successful in this instance, was not an altogether comfortable situation for the Egyptians. Ramessesnakht warns Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi not to attack Egypt on their mission, alluding to the fact that that the Akyet people sometimes went rogue and raided Egyptian lands. Egyptian campaign texts from Nubian fortresses speak of these same Akyet-nomads thieving grain from the Egyptians. On this instance, the Akyet nomads were rewarded for their efforts with rations and supplies of clothing, bread, knives, and livestock so that they could continue their conflict against the Shasu, perhaps carving out their own territory in the desert and using Egyptian patronage to further their goals.
Just what the phrase “feathered-Nubians” means in this text is unclear and has few parallels in administrative documents. Some consider this phrase as specifically referring to the headmen in charge of nomads, thus making Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi, the chiefs of their tribes. But Egyptian art often depicts Nubians (as well as Libyans) as donning ostrich feathers (as shown in the scene from the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy below). Perhaps in this dossier it is the administrative jargon to specifically mark out ‘allied’ Nubians specifically.
Although this text is unique in the politics of the Eastern Desert, the general narrative and pattern here is common in world history and conjures identical ‘divide and conquer’ politics ever-present amongst imperialistic states and colonial encounters. From the Roman invasion of Gaul, to Cortes’ courting of his Tlaxcala allies against the Aztecs, to the British East India companies’ alliances with local princes, empires achieved their objectives by hiring foreigners well-versed in local affairs and pitted them against their foes. For the Egyptians who had little experience in the notoriously dangerous conditions of the Eastern Desert, the hiring of local desert specialists was a necessity. 

Nubians donning feathers, from the tomb of Amenhotep Huy, Viceroy in the reign of Amenhotep III (Theban Tomb 40)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Unknown, likely from an archive belonging to the Temple of Amun, but whether this copy was archived at the Temple of Amun at Karnak or Coptos (or the fortress temple) is unknown.
Date: Ramesses IX (1129–1111 BC)
Language: Late Egyptian (hieratic script)
Collection: Cairo Museum.
Designation: Various; often “Papyrus Cairo ESP”; “P. Cairo C-D”. Also referred to as KRI VI, 519-522 (Kenneth A. Kitchen (1982), Ramesesside Inscriptions. Vol. 6: Ramesses IV to XI and Contemporaries)
Bibliography: Wolfgang Helck (1967), “Eine Briefsammlung aus der Verwaltung des Amuntempels,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 6, pp. 146–151; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta), pp. 38–39 [#38]; Julien C. Cooper (2020, Toponymy on the Periphery: Placenames of the Eastern Desert, Red Sea, and South Sinai (Leiden), pp. 198–200, 460–461, 494–495.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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