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H - 194 : Augustus did not like Cleopatra but loved Egypt

 This year’s trip was supposed to start in Alexandria. The first week we were to sail from the ancient Egyptian port along the Israeli coast to Caesarea and from there to Cyprus. But the war in Gaza put these plans on hold. We will have to start in North Cyprus instead.


Ancient Alexandria with the Main Eastern Port to the Left

Was looking forward to visit Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great, the town and its library always fascinated me. My brother though warned me of  “overblown” expectations. He had visited Alexandria a few years ago and described it as a town of former glory. “The town is grey and badly maintained – not a place you want to be”. Be it as it may, I hoped to see the old harbor which was - after Ostia - the Roman Empire’s most important port.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the 7 World wonders and 110 Meters high


Alexandria was the departure point for the grain vessels which shipped  40% of Rome’s wheat import to Ostia. There must have been a large number of granaries, the same type of storage facilities we still can visit in Ostia. Thanks to the Nile, Egypt enjoyed three harvests per year but there was only one season to ship the wheat to Rome. Ancient mariners sailed from June to September when the winds were stable and predictable. Thanks to the westerlies, a trip from Rome to Alexandria could take as little as 10 – 14 days. Returning was a different matter. Not being able to sail against the wind, the ships had to use thermal winds to sail along the coasts of Phoenicia, Cyprus and Anatolia to get to Knidos from where they could use the northerlies to continue west. A return trip could take up to 2 months.

Wheat Harvest on the Nile looks in many places still like in ancient times

Alexandria was also the Mediterranean trading center for goods from India. According to the Greek Geographer Strabo, 120 ships crossed the Indian Ocean every year and arrived loaded with silk, cotton, spices, pearls and jewels in Berenice and Myos Hormos, the Roman ports on the Red Sea. From here, the journey continued on camels’ back to Thebes on the Nile. A week later they, the goods reached Alexandria. The cargo was immensely valuable. Based on papyri ship logs and Roman tax invoices, historians estimate that the annual value of imports from India exceeded 1.1 bn sesterces. The Roman Empire taxed all imports with a 25% import duty and gained 280 million in the process.

The Trade to India was established by the Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt in the 2nd Century BC


Add this number to the 300 millions of sesterces that Egypt had to pay to Rome in annual taxes plus the 90 millions which Rome made from mining gold in the Egyptian desert plus trading Nubian slaves. Total revenue from Egypt amounted to 670 millions sesterces. This was 2/3 of Rome’s annual budget! Unlike his predecessors Caesar and Marc Anthony, Emperor Augustus did not want to have anything to do with Cleopatra, Egypt’s ruler. But he definitely wanted to keep control of Egypt and pocket its tax money.

Egypt was the richest Province of the Roman Empire and accounted for 2/3 of Tax Income

A few years into his reign, he reorganized the governance of provinces. Augustus divided them into the ones governed by the Senate and provinces governed by the Emperor. External military threats were used as guiding principle. The exception was Egypt. There was no military threat from Egypt. Only one legion was stationed there. But it was exclusively the domain of the Emperor. No senator was allowed to visit it without explicit approval. It was all about money.


Distribution of Legions in the Roman Empire. Rome had 30 Legions at 6'000 Legionnaires

All that wealth had to be shipped to Rome though. I can only speculate about the number of ships sailing from Alexandria to Rome each year. The grain ships alone account for several hundreds. It is probably a good guess that more than 1’000 ships made the trip every year from Egypt to the Imperial capital. What else could otherwise justify the construction of Caesarea, the expensive artificial harbor which King Herod built with cement from Naples? There must have been a lot of maritime traffic along the coast of Palestine with no natural harbor for shelter after Jaffa’s small port which can only accommodate a few vessels. Luckily, we have seen both Caesarea and Jaffa on our sailing trip in 2018.

Caesarea viewed from the Ruins of King Herod's Palace - the port is behind the citadel

Missing them in 2024 is sad. But it is better to stay safe than being sorry. Our trip starts in Girne, the former Kyrenia, in North Cyprus.







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