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Mons Claudianus – Roman quarry in Egypt

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

“Mount of Claudius” (Mons Claudianus) was a Roman quarry in the eastern desert of Egypt. This place owes its name to Emperor Claudius, who started mining as first. Grey granite (granodiorite), extremely valuable in ancient Rome, was mined there. The mine had its own garrison, shelters for civilians and workers or a supply and transport centre.

Mons Claudianus was discovered in 1823 between the cities of Qena and Hurghada in Egypt – about 500 km south of Cairo and 120 east of the Nile. At a distance of 50 km from this place, there is another Roman quarry Mons Porphyrites, where purple porphyry was mined.

Grey granite was extremely rare and Mons Claudianus was the only place where it could be obtained for the needs of the Romans. The stone was used, for example, to rebuild the famous Pantheon. The new portico of the Pantheon was supported by twelve columns – each tall about 12 meters and a diameter of 1.5 m; weighing 60 tons – forged from one block of the said grey granite. As the quarry is more than 4,000 km from Rome, the supply of 12 large rock blocks from such a distance required a huge amount of work and resources.

Other constructions for which grey granite was used were Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli (Italy), public baths, floors and columns of the temple of Venus or Diocletian’s Palace in Split (Croatia).

Mining work in the quarry took place in the 1st-3rd century ACE. The quarry was well connected to the banks of the Nile. The stones were first hewn and processed in the desert (three workers took about a year to prepare the Pantheon column; sometimes during tedious work, the stone cracked and had to be started again), and then transported by the river. The remains of camp life found on-site speak of 12-wheeled and 4-wheeled carts, and the need for new axles for vehicles. The transport of rock blocks to the Nile could take about 5 days. Along the way, there were some kind of “motels” in which workers could intensify and rest. Mules were used to pull the carts; with larger dimensions, the tractive force was also animals and people. Camels were used to transport water and food. Probably, for example, heavy columns were slid along wooden piles on a falling area. Then, rock objects on the shoulders flowed to the mouth of the Nile, where they were transhipped to ships. From the shores of Egypt, the cargo was directed towards Ostia – the main port of Rome. There, probably again, the columns hit the shoulders to get directly to Rome through the Tiber.

Quarry workers were well-qualified and well paid, and their lives could even be compared to luxury. There were four groups of people in the quarry area: soldiers and civil servants; trained employees; untrained employees; children and women. Discovered sharpens (ceramics with an inscription or notes) say that most workers received 47 drachmas a month and a large supply of wheat.

A huge column has survived.

Quarry employees could also count on a good diet. Found traces of lettuce, cabbage, mint, and basil. What’s more, it is believed that vegetables were not only imported but also cultivated on site. The researchers found that 55 different types of plants and meat of 20 different animal species were eaten on site. Also eaten: Red Sea fish; imported citrons, pepper and artichokes from India; and snails and oysters. Thus, one can safely conclude that the quarry authorities cared for the health of employees, their food, the amount of iron or vitamin C. The Mons Claudianus probably also brewed a brewery.

We have a lot of information about camp life thanks to records found (whether by letter or on ceramics). One of the letters was a complaint about the delivery: “Please send me two loaves of bread, for no grain has come up here for me so far“. A pleading letter for grain delivery to draft animals was also found, as the 100-ton column is ready for transport.

On the site of the former mine and the camp, to this day, there have been preserved, apart from fragments of ceramics and written documents, also some columns (the largest is 18 meters and 200 tons in weight), damaged washbasins, bathtubs, fragments of buildings, where some have walls reaching up to the roof. The camp had walls and towers and could hold about 1,000 people. Mons Claudianus can be summed up literally as a military facility meeting the building needs of the Empire.

Sources
  • Freda Parker, The Pantheon – Rome – 126 AD, "Monolithic", 12 May 2009
  • Marijke Van der Veen, A life of luxury in the desert? Food and fodder supply to Mons Claudianus, 1998
  • Marijke Van der Veen, High living in Rome's distant quarries, 1997
  • Photo: © Chriusha (Хрюша) / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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