- The Shelby White - Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications
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Naukratis: an introduction
In the seventh century BC, Egypt once more opened up to the Mediterranean world, developing close contacts with other civilisations such as Greece. Egyptian Pharaohs of the Saite dynasty employed Greek mercenaries in their army. Greek goods appeared in Egypt and Egyptian goods in Greece. Greek culture began to incorporate Egyptian traits, based on first-hand knowledge of Egyptian monuments and ideas.
The pivotal point of contact and exchange between these two cultures, 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.
Head from a terracotta figurine of a sphinx dedicated in one of the Greek sanctuaries at Naukratis, made on Cyprus in the 6th century BC in an Egyptianising style.
A brief history of Naukratis
Roman gold jewellery from Naukratis, including a large gold diadem inscribed with the name of Tiberius Claudius Artemidorus.
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. To Egyptians, the site was known as Nokradj (the Greek name ‘Naukratis’ deriving from this Egyptian name), or as Per-Meryt, the-House-of-the-Harbour. The city had close connections to the Egyptian royal city Sais, located on the neighbouring branch of the Nile.
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.