Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Emerald City Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Jean-Louis Rivard, Brandon C. Foster, And Steven E. Sidebotham

Exploration in Egypt's Eastern Desert yields the mines that furnished Rome's elite with coveted stones.

[image] Frédéric Cailliaud, a French goldsmith, mineralogist, and adventurer, discovered Sikait on November 22, 1817. He published his account and drawings of the site in Voyage á L'Oasis de Thèbes. [LARGER IMAGE]

Egypt's Eastern Desert has been one of the most isolated and under-explored regions in the country, its ruins, spanning more than 5,000 years of history, protected by its forbidding climate and mountainous terrain. Now, rapidly encroaching resorts and villas along the Red Sea coast, together with mass tourism and a burgeoning local population, have placed its ancient sites at great risk. One of the most popular tourist destinations is what travel brochures call the "emerald city" in Wadi Sikait: hundreds of buildings, temples, graves, and mine shafts associated with the search for emeralds that began in Roman times and possibly earlier. Demand for these precious stones prompted the flowering of Sikait in the region called by the Romans Mons Smaragdus (Emerald Mountain). The ruins that tourists see today are what is left of a humming center of industrial activity, but we know little about the mining operations here and the people who worked and lived in this remote desert area. How large was the population? Where did the inhabitants acquire food, water, and mining tools? The need for answers to these questions, as well as the growing threat posed by unrestricted access by visitors, makes our mission--the proper documentation and preservation of sites like Sikait--of the utmost importance.


Jean-Louis Rivard, a Toronto-based architect, is a visiting lecturer at the University of Waterloo. Brandon C. Foster is an art history graduate student at Emory University. Steven E. Sidebotham, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, is director of the Sikait Project, which received assistance from Carmine C. Balascio of the University of Delaware, James A. Harrell of the University of Toledo (Ohio), and William Weissman of Instrument Sales and Service, Inc., of Wilmington.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America