How did ancient Egypt shape the development of Greek culture? What was the impact of the encounter with Greece on Egypt? How did these completely different cultures interact? These questions have been asked for more than a century. Excavations at the ancient city of Naukratis have been a key source of evidence for providing new answers.
Naukratis was situated on the Canopic branch of the Nile between the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Memphis. Greeks began to trade and settle here in the latter part of the seventh century BC, and it became the earliest Greek settlement in Egypt. Here, Greeks lived in close contact with Egyptians for centuries, long before the establishment of Alexandria. Naukratis became a gateway for trade and exchange between Egypt and the peoples of the Mediterranean.
History of Naukratis
According to the Classical Greek historian Herodotus, in the mid-sixth century BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis gave the town of Naukratis to Greeks from 12 different cities to live in, including land where non-resident traders could erect sanctuaries. However, archaeology attests the site’s existence already under Pharaoh Psammetichus (Psamtek) I, from at least 620 BC. Furthermore, Naukratis was not just a Greek but also an Egyptian town.
Naukratis was frequented by traders from many Greek cities as well, no doubt, as by Phoenicians and Cypriots; it became famous for its elaborate symposia (dining parties) and beautiful hetairai (courtesans). Naukratis functioned as the main trading port in the Western Nile Delta until the foundation of Alexandria, and continued to be significant also throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Officers (prostatai) appointed by the nine founding cities of the Hellenion administered the emporion (Greek trading post) at least from the time of Amasis. Imports into Egypt included wine, oil, and silver, and exports from Egypt included grain, flax, natron, papyrus, perfume and other semi-luxuries.
During the Hellenistic period Naukratis was one of three Greek poleis (city-states) in Egypt and remained an important town and regional hub. Alexander the Great’s finance minister, Kleomenes, was born here. In the late fourth century BC Naukratis briefly issued its own bronze coinage.
Artefacts dating from the late first century BC to the seventh century AD show that Naukratis continued to be occupied well into the Roman period and beyond. The settlement had shrunk into a town by the second century AD, though it retained some status. Games, featuring poetry competitions, apparently continued to be performed there into the third century AD, and the site was home to the famous culinary writer Athenaeus. Byzantine period (AD 330 to 641) artefacts, sometimes displaying Christian symbols, are rare, and it seems that by the sixth/seventh century AD Naukratis had fallen into obscurity.
Archaeological fieldwork was first undertaken by W. M. Flinders Petrie, who identified the site in early 1884, followed by three further seasons under Ernest Gardner and David Hogarth. These early excavations were pioneering, with Petrie in particular developing his new ‘scientific’ approach to archaeological research at the site, and they revealed a wealth of information and archaeological objects that to this day form the basis for our knowledge about ancient Naukratis. Yet 130 years later, the site is still poorly understood.
The Naukratis Research Project of the British Museum has been going on for three years now. It is re-examining the evidence to gain a better idea of how Greeks, Egyptians and others lived together, traded and interacted in this city, and of the lasting impact of these cultural exchanges.
Alexandra Villing, who’s leading the Project, will give a lecture at the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Archaeology of the University of Thessaly on November 6, 2013 (7.00 p.m.). The lecture will focus on the most recent finds of the Project, which confirmed that Naukratis had a multiethnic population and was a trade centre of great significance from the 7th c. BC to the 7th c. AD.