Friday, January 27, 2012


Dorothy and Her Friends Head Off to the Emerald City
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Some of our favorite posts are those that range widely, connecting seemingly unrelated places and events in a memorable way. Hopefully, today’s qualifies. In a moment you’ll understand why we chose the image of Dorothy and her friends skipping along the Yellow Brick Road on their way to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard of Oz.

The Carolina Emperor
But first, let’s examine the impetus for today’s post…a recent news article about an exceptional 65 carat emerald that was found near a cornfield in North Carolina. They’re calling it the Carolina Emperor. It compares in size and quality to one surrounded by diamonds in a brooch once owned by Catherine the Great that Christie's auction house in New York sold for $1.65 million. And to think that the man’s father used to charge people $3.00 a day to dig around and see what they could find. Bet he’s glad no one stumbled upon this whopper.
Roman Woman Wearing an Emerald Necklace

Now it just so happens that among precious stones, emeralds ranked very high on the Roman’s popularity chart. Today, the world’s best quality emeralds are found in Columbia. Emeralds are also mined in Afghanistan, Australia, Brazil, India, Madagascar, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and, of course, in North Carolina. A quick review of that list pretty much eliminates the Roman Empire. North and South America, Madagascar and Australia were unknown to the Romans. Rome’s power extended into the northern regions of Africa, but the nations mentioned in the list are all in the extreme south. Rome traded with modern India, but primarily for spices, not gemstones.

So how did that the Romans satisfy their desire for emeralds? Instead of a yellow brick road to Oz, let’s follow a sandy trail across the trackless desert wastes of Eastern Egypt to the ancient region of Wadi Sikait, Rome’s Emerald City, or Mons Smaragdus—Emerald Mountain. The first thing we see from the map is Wadi Sikait’s close proximity to the port city of Berenike. As we learned in a recent post on Foods of the First Century, Berenike was a major debarkation point for Indian spices coming into the Roman Empire, especially pepper. Jute bags of peppercorns along with emeralds traveled from this Red Sea port overland by camel caravan to the Nile, then by boat to Alexandria, and from there to Rome via merchant ship. If you missed the one on Spices & Herbs you can find HERE.

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, addresses the legend, lore and gossip of emeralds, which the Romans called smaragdi. Referencing gems from the Eastern Desert, which he calls them Egyptian or Ethiopian stones, he says they were “so hard as to be unaffected by blows.” Romans valued emeralds above all gems except diamonds and pearls. Pliny also writes, “I have seen Lollia Paulina, who became the consort of Gaius (we know him as Caligula) covered with emeralds and pearls interlaced and shining over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, the sum total amounting to a value of 40,000,000 sesterces.” Quite an image, isn’t it? To put this into better perspective, recall that a soldier’s annual wage at that time was around 1,200 sesterces.

Like anything of high value, unscrupulous merchants attempted to counterfeit emeralds. Pliny denounced the practice and told how, “There are treatises by authorities describing how, by means of dyestuffs, emeralds and other transparent colored gems are made from rock crystal… And there is no other trickery practiced against society with greater profit.” Some things apparently never change. It is standard practice today to oil emeralds to disguise their flaws.

Wadi Sikait was the sole source of emeralds for the Romans. The area flourished, which explains why the Romans called the region Emerald Mountain. Unbelievably, the location of the site was eventually lost. In 1816, Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Viceroy to Egypt, set out to find the fabled lost emerald mines of the Romans. He sent Fédéric into the desert to find them. It took him three years, but in 1817 Cailliaud re-discovered the mines.

In his journals Cailliaud spoke of finding a site that contained a beehive like structure consisting of “perhaps a thousand excavations” with long underground causeways interconnecting them to facilitate communication. They were built in such a way that camels could move through the passageways bringing the workmen provisions. He marveled at the labor it would have taken to construct such a complex.

Unable to explore the mines himself, he continued on and three-and-a-half miles from there discovered an abandoned town. The Bedouins of the area called the place Sekket (Sikait) Bendar El Kebyr. He found 500 houses hewn from the native stone and three temples cut into the sides of the mountains. He spoke of wandering the deserted dwellings and finding “various instruments, utensils…fired clay lamps.” He found fragments of vases “of beautiful form” made of both bisque and glass. Cailliaud discovered stone grinding mills still waiting for grain…an entire town “hitherto unknown to all voyagers, which had not been inhabited, perhaps, for 2,000 years and almost entirely standing.
In fact, the area had been abandoned only about 1,300 years. Roman mining ceased there somewhere around the year 500 …a date that coincides nicely with Edward Gibbons date of 476 for the Fall of The Roman Empire.

Despite Cailliaud success in finding the ancient site, the mines were never re-opened. The heat and the terrain proved too severe and the stones then being mined in South America were superior to those available at Wadi Sikait. One reason for the lower quality could be that the best stones were already removed during Roman times. The Roman writer Strabo, when writing his Geography in the First Century, states that the Arabs dug ever deeper tunnels in their quest to extract emeralds.

One of Cailliaud's Drawings
Cailliaud made several pen and ink drawings of the temples he discovered. Based on current photos of the same buildings, there has either been a lot of destruction during the intervening years or, more likely, his depictions present a fanciful image of how the buildings appeared during Wadi Sikait’s heyday. Note the rather significant differences between current reality and his drawing of the temple façade in the photo below.

Seeing Wadi Sikait immediately brought Petra to my mind. Petra, the ancient city of rock, is in a much better state of preservation, but anyone familiar with this former capital of the Nabateans can’t help but be reminded of it when viewing Cailliaud’s drawings. Located in what is now the country of Jordan, Petra predates Wadi Sikait by six centuries. 

Like Petra, Wadi Sikait, was a city in the desert. Also like Petra, its principal structures are carved out of the rock face with the interior of the buildings cut into the mountainside. This method of construction was undoubtedly used to combat the temperature extremes of a desert environment. 
Archaeological expeditions in the last fifteen years have found the remains of many of the mines around Mons Smaragdus. Still, the area elicits more questions than answers. Working conditions must have been, to say the least, brutal. Winter temperatures range into the 90’s, sometimes higher, and can drop into the 30’s at night.  Archaeologists also report that there were days when their thermometers didn’t go high enough to register the afternoon temperatures.

How the people survived day-to-day remains unclear. Researchers have found several ancient wells, but whether they produced sufficient water is impossible to say. There is some evidence that fruit and vegetables were grown on site, but wine, oil, meat (did it come on the hoof or dried and salted?) and fish would have to have been brought in. Other excavations have found evidence that transport animals, especially donkeys, were slaughtered for food. Was that part of an overall plan or does it indicate periods of scarcity?

Experts also do not know if emeralds were mined before control of Egypt passed into Roman hands in 30 BC. Study of potsherds, however, suggests that Wadi Sikait’s history dates back to the First Century…shortly after Egypt became a Roman Province.
Next time we’ll look at Rome’s Flavian Amphitheatre…more commonly called the Coliseum.
Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings.
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