In the western delta of the Nile, about 72 kilometers southeast of Alexandria, lay the ancient city of Naucratis (Ναύκρατις), a Greek enclave that played a crucial role in cultural and commercial exchange between Greece and Egypt.

Founded in the 7th century BCE, Naucratis became the first permanent Greek settlement in Egypt and, for much of its early history, was the primary point of contact between these two great civilizations.

But before that, Herodotus tells us that Pharaoh Psamtik I, who reigned between 664 and 610 BCE but had been overthrown, regained power by hiring a group of Ionian and Carian pirates who had been forced by a storm to land in the Nile Delta.

Believing he had been mistreated by them, he sought revenge against those who had expelled him. He sent word to the city of Buto, home to Egypt’s most infallible oracle; the oracle responded that he would exact revenge when he saw bronze men coming from the sea. Psamtik didn’t believe at all that bronze men would come to his aid. But soon after, Ionians and Carians, traveling in search of booty, were forced to dock on the coast of Egypt, where they disembarked with their bronze armor; and an Egyptian arrived in the swampy country and brought news to Psamtik (as he had never before seen armored men) that bronze men had arrived from the sea and were foraging in the plain. Psamtik saw this as the fulfillment of the oracle; he befriended Ionians and Carians, promised them great rewards if they joined him, and having won them over, he deposed the eleven kings with these allies and the Egyptians who volunteered.

Herodotus, History II.152

Psamtik granted plots of land to these Greek mercenaries, although their location remains uncertain.

Ionians and Carians continued to serve in Egypt, and by 570 BCE there were already about 30,000 of them, who would side with the pharaoh as soon as with anyone who wanted to hire them. Pharaoh Amasis II used them as his personal guard, and in gratitude or perhaps to keep them in check, he ordered all the camps where they stayed to be closed and granted them a city where they were to establish their residence. That city is Naucratis.

To the Ionians and Carians who had helped him, Psamtik gave places to live called The Camps, one facing the other on both sides of the Nile; and in addition to this, he paid them everything he had promised. Furthermore, he put Egyptian boys in their hands to teach them Greek, and from these boys, who learned the language, descend the current Egyptian interpreters. The Ionians and Carians lived for a long time in these places, which are near the sea, in the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, a little below the city of Bubastis. Much later, King Amasis relocated them and settled them in Memphis to serve as his guard against the Egyptians. Thanks to our communication with these settlers from Egypt (the first foreign language speakers to settle in that country), the Greeks have an accurate knowledge of the history of Egypt from the reign of Psamtik onwards. In my day, there were still, in the places from which the Ionians and Carians were expelled, the capstans of their ships and the ruins of their houses. Thus Psamtik came to Egypt.

Herodotus, History II.154

Under the reign of Pharaoh Amasis II, Naucratis became an important commercial port, which did not belong to any particular Greek city-state but was an emporium where various cities established trading posts, sanctuaries, and temples.

According to Herodotus, nine city-states collaborated in the construction of a joint walled sanctuary, known as the Hellenion. Four Ionian cities, Chios, Clazomenae, Teos, and Phocaea; four Doric, Rhodes, Halicarnassus, Cnidus, and Phaselis; and one Aeolian, Mytilene. Three others, Miletus, Samos, and Aegina, had their own sanctuaries.

Thus, up to twelve Greek cities worked collaboratively in maintaining the emporium of Naucratis, whose strategic location in the Canopic branch of the Nile facilitated its development as the main trading port between Greece and Egypt. Through it, the Egyptians mainly exported grain, linen, and papyrus, while the Greeks offered silver, wood, olive oil, and wine.

In addition to its commercial importance, Naucratis became a significant center of Greek culture, whose splendor extended into the Roman Empire. It is said to have had high multi-storey towers and numerous monumental buildings. From there came several famous speakers of antiquity, including Athenaeus of Naucratis, author of the famous Deipnosophistae which we have often quoted in these pages.

After the foundation of Alexandria, the commercial importance of Naucratis began to decline. Revolts around 212-216 AD, during the reign of Emperor Caracalla, are the last time Naucratis is mentioned in the sources. It seems to have chosen the wrong side in the struggle for imperial power.

Between 330 and 610 AD, a series of tsunamis that penetrated deeply into the delta eventually submerged what remained of the city. By the time the Arabs arrived in 640-642 AD, Naucratis no longer existed.

The rediscovery of Naucratis in modern times is due to the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who excavated the site in 1884-1885. Subsequent excavations by Ernest Arthur Gardner and David George Hogarth revealed Greek temples, Egyptian storehouses, and a scarab seal factory. However, much of the northern area of the site remained submerged at a depth of 15 meters due to the rising water table, complicating future investigations.

Despite the challenges, the Naucratis Project, founded by American archaeologists W. Coulson and A. Leonard in 1977, has shed new light on the history of this ancient city. Its excavations have revealed the destruction caused by the local population, who used the site as a source of high-phosphate fertilizer, and confirmed the non-Greek nature of the southern section of the city.

As a result, today the site is practically deserted next to the modern villages of Kom Gi’eif, el-Nibeira, and el-Niqrash, which partly cover the site, with the rest being a swampy area.

Reconstruction of ancient Naucratis. Credit: Grant Cox / The British Museum

Naucratis was not only the first Greek settlement in Egypt, but also the most important port in the country in antiquity, until the rise of Alexandria and the shifting of the Nile, which led to its decline. Despite its disappearance, the legacy of Naucratis endures in the numerous art objects found in museums around the world and in the inscriptions on pottery that have provided valuable information about the early development of the Greek alphabet.

Some of the inscriptions found on Naucratis pottery are considered the oldest known Ionic inscriptions, and others in Corinthian, Melian, and Lesbian alphabets are also among the earliest documented.

In 2015, the British Museum announced the discovery of a large number of objects from the city, as well as the fact that its actual size was almost twice what was believed, reaching 60 hectares in area.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 20, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La desaparecida ciudad de Náucratis, el primer asentamiento griego permanente en Egipto

Sources

Covadonga Sevilla Cueva, Los orígenes de Náucratis | Alexandra Villing, Marianne Bergeron, et al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt | Peter James, Naukratis Revisited | W.M. Flinders Petrie, Naukratis | Wikipedia


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