Regency Bicentennial:   Cleopatra’s Emerald Mine Rediscovered in Egypt

This coming Wednesday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the rediscovery of an ancient emerald mine in Egypt which is believed to have supplied emeralds to the legendary Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. This mine was completely abandoned in the early Middle Ages and by the Regency, had become the stuff of legend. Many people were of the opinion that Cleopatra’s emerald mine was nothing more than a myth. But in the autumn of 1817, a very determined French explorer and mineralogist, Frédéric Cailliaud, found that mine, just as it had been left when it was abandoned more than five hundred years before.

The rediscovery of Cleopatra’s Emerald Mine . . .

Though they are among the rarest of gems, emeralds are usually green gemstones which have been highly prized since ancient times. The earliest known emerald mines were located in Upper Egypt and, according to The Egyptian Book of The Dead, the green gems were a gift of the God of Wisdom, Thoth. Ancient Egyptians believed that not only could emeralds treat diseases of the eye, when worn in a ring or necklace, they could prevent, or at least reduce, epileptic seizures. Emeralds were also considered to be a powerful symbol of fertility and rebirth. For that reason, embalmers usually placed an emerald at the throat of a mummy in order to provide the deceased with protection during their journey into the Underworld and to ensure they would enjoy youthful strength and energy when they were reborn in the afterlife. As a symbol of eternal youth, emeralds were a particular favorite of the last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Not only did the queen often wear emeralds herself, she is known to have presented a number of visiting dignitaries with her likeness carved into a large emerald.

All of those ancient emeralds are believed to have come from one mine, which was located in the mountain valley near Wadi Sikait, in the vicinity of Mount Zubara. This valley is situated in the Eastern Desert area of Upper Egypt, not far from the Red Sea. All available evidence shows that emeralds were mined here as early as the third century B. C., in the Ptolemaic period. These were the emeralds so beloved of the last Ptolemaic monarch of Egypt, Queen Cleopatra. Upon her death, the Roman Empire annexed Egypt and the Romans took over the emerald mine, naming it Emerald Mountain. Under Roman control, emerald production at the mine was substantially increased. The Romans continued to mine emeralds there until the sixth century AD. By then, the western Roman Empire had collapsed. However, the eastern Roman Empire, based in Byzantium, continued to control and work the emerald mines in Egypt. In the following century, the largest and best quality emeralds were thought to have been found, and work at the mine was significantly reduced. However, most scholars believe the mine was worked intermittently until about 1237 A. D., at which time, it was finally and completely abandoned. The ancient Egyptian emerald mine soon faded from memory and then, from the pages of history.

With the discovery of emeralds by the Spanish, in Columbia, in the sixteenth century, over time, Cleopatra’s ancient emerald mine became little more than an apocryphal tale circulated among treasure hunters and others who dreamed of fabulous wealth. Beyond that somewhat credulous group, most people assumed that Cleopatra’s emerald mine was lost forever, if it had ever existed. Despite that view, a few attempts were made to locate the emerald mine by various explorers over the centuries, but after the failure of a group of explorers to locate it in 1740, it was finally considered to be a myth by nearly everyone. With the myth of Cleopatra’s emerald mine so thoroughly debunked, neither Napoleon Bonaparte, nor anyone in his entourage, made any effort to locate the long lost mine when the French invaded Egypt, in 1799. Had he believed in the ancient emerald mine, it is almost certain that Napoleon would have sought it out. Bonaparte is known to have been very fond of anything from antiquity, particularly gemstones, not to mention that his favorite color was green.

In 1787, a boy was born into modest circumstances in Nantes, a port city in Brittany, near the west coast of France. This boy, Frédéric Cailliaud, the third son of a locksmith, was just twelve years old when Napoleon and the French army sailed to Egypt. Though Bonaparte was defeated in Egypt, his expedition there did open that country to greater interest and closer study by European scholars and scientists. This change would be to Cailliaud’s benefit more than fifteen years later. Not interested in following his father’s profession, the boy was apprenticed to a goldsmith/jeweler. As a young man, in 1809, Cailliaud traveled to Paris to take a job as a jeweler. But he also wanted to expand his education and studied natural history before he focused his studies on mineralogy. In 1811, wishing to further advance his studies, he traveled to the Levant, spending time in Constantinople, where he worked for a time for Sultan Mahmud II, the Ottoman ruler. Part of his responsibilities for the sultan included acquiring the gemstones that were used to embellish the sheaths of the ceremonial swords which the sultan presented to visiting dignitaries. Wishing to further advance his studies, in 1815, Cailliaud traveled to Egypt, where he soon found employment with Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt under the Ottoman Empire.

Muhammad Ali Pasha was in great need of an increased revenue stream in order to carry out his planned improvements in Egypt. He believed that an experienced mineralogist, particularly one who had extensive experience with precious stones, might be able to locate additional mineral wealth which could be exploited to fill his coffers. Ali Pasha had hopes that the ancient sources of gemstones and gold which had supplied the Pharaohs could be rediscovered. He was of the opinion that more modern mining techniques could be used to extract these valuable mineral resources in order to benefit the country under his rule. In 1817, Cailliaud was part of an expedition which was sponsored by Ali Pasha to explore ancient sites along the Nile and the Eastern Desert. Cailliaud was charged with investigating the mineralogical resources of the areas through which the expedition passed. Though the Viceroy was particularly interested in gold, he had heard the tales of Cleopatra’s emerald mine and believed it might still exist. The Viceroy directed Cailliaud to try to find that mine, as well as any possible sources of gold.

Cailliaud studied the few records he could find on the ancient emerald mine before he embarked on the expedition. Based on his research, he suspected that the mine would be found in an area near the ancient city of Edfu. After traveling southeast from the city for about a week, the expedition neared the Sikait-Zubara area, located between the Nile and the Red Sea. When he arrived in the region, Cailliaud began to search the ground between the wadi and the mountain, where his understanding of mineralogy suggested he might find some evidence of Cleopatra’s ancient emerald mine. Near Wadi Sikait, on Saturday, 22 November 1817, Cailliaud found a deep hole in the ground and felt it merited further inspection. When he had himself lowered into that shaft, though it was even deeper than he had expected, it was well worth the rather perilous descent. At the bottom of the shaft, he found himself in a large underground cavern which still contained some of the mining equipment and tools which had been left behind when the mine was abandoned centuries before.

Cailliaud found several large caverns, or stopes, in the ancient mine. In fact, some were so large they could have accommodated two or three hundred miners, all working together. There were a few passages between the stopes through which a miner could walk upright, in places, even two abreast. But most of the tunnels were so low and narrow that the miners would have had to squeeze through them while crawling along in single file. It is believed that the mine had been so rich in emeralds in ancient times that miners worked without light. They simply crawled along in the dark, following a vein by touch and plucking out any emeralds which came to hand. Work in the mine would have been quite dangerous, since there were no safety features in place to protect the miners. The mine was in the same condition when Cailliaud entered it centuries later, so he had to be careful as he made his way through the tunnels, since the risk of a cave-in was ever-present.

As he wandered, and/or crawled through the network of tunnels within the ancient mine, Cailliaud came upon a wide array of archaic mining artifacts. Though it was supposed much of the mining had been carried on in the dark, he found several early lamps which could be dated to at least 1500 B. C. He also found a number picks, chisels and crowbars which had been left behind when the mine had been closed, as well as ropes and baskets which had probably been used to carry the emeralds out of the mine. In addition to these ancient mining artifacts, Cailliaud also found some Greek inscriptions carved into the mine walls which indicated that miners had been working the mine since at least the time of Alexander the Great. There were also inscriptions in hieroglyphics, which showed the mine had been worked by Egyptians as well as Greeks. Once he finished exploring and mapping the mine, Cailliaud realized that the labyrinth of tunnels and stopes ran for nearly ten miles, and, in some places, descended to a depth of more than 900 feet.

As well as locating the emerald mine which had provided Cleopatra’s emeralds, Cailliaud also discovered the ruins of the original watchtowers which had been constructed to guard the area around the mine. Even more important, he found the ruins of an ancient village nearby. It was believed that the miners who had worked the emerald mine for most of the time it was in operation had lived in this village. The many pottery shards which were found in the area of the village and the mine were the remnants of ceramic objects which had been made over a period of many centuries. That evidence indicated that the mine had been in operation for millenia before it was finally abandoned in the thirteenth century. In addition to finding the mine and the miner’s village, Cailliaud also located another complex of mines in the same general area. Beyond that, he found a paved roadway nearly obliterated by the desert sand which led to the ruins of wharves on the banks of the Red Sea. It is thought that it was from these wharves that the emeralds had once been shipped abroad.

Since he had been charged by Ali Pasha to find mineral wealth, Cailliaud engaged a few local miners to go into Cleopatra’s mine and bring out as many emeralds as they could find. After a few days work, the miners brought out close to ten pounds of emeralds, but they were not of very good quality. Many of them were very cloudy and some of them were so flawed they could not even be cut into gems. However, Cailliaud did discover that these emeralds were lighter in color than most of the emeralds which were then currently available. That explained why the emeralds found in many ancient artifacts around the Mediterranean were so pale, since it is likely most of them came from Cleopatra’s mine. Throughout the nineteenth century, various attempts were made to reopen the ancient emerald mine, but they all came to nothing. The mine was never returned to production, and in the end, the greatest value which came from the discovery of the mine and surrounding ruins was archaeological rather than financial.

Though Frédéric Cailliaud would not write about and publish the results of his Egyptian sojourn until he returned to Europe a year later, the discovery of Cleopatra’s lost emerald mine did not remain a secret even that long. Cailliaud carried the ten pounds of emeralds with him on his trek back to Cairo to report on his expedition to Ali Pasha. When he stopped in Thebes on his journey north, he encountered a group of European tourists, among them, several English ladies who had come to see the antiquities of Egypt. The French explorer was very open about his discoveries and not only showed these travelers the emeralds he carried, he also told them all about his discovery of Cleopatra’s emerald mine. Many of those tourists wrote letters home, telling their friends and family about the discovery of the lost mine. Even before those letters reached their destinations, word of the discovery of Cleopatra’s emerald mine began to spread through Egypt. Giovanni Belzoni, who was working as the agent of the English Egyptologist, Henry Salt, soon paid a visit to the site of the mine. Belzoni was able to acquire several interesting artifacts from the area, as well as providing a detailed report on the site to Salt.

Dear Regency Authors, might the discovery of Cleopatra’s lost emerald mine deserve a mention in an upcoming tale of romance? In the early nineteenth century, a number of Englishwomen wore emeralds as a symbol that they had been abandoned by their husbands. The Empress Josephine did the same, wearing an emerald necklace given to her by Napoleon while having her portrait painted soon after she learned he was divorcing her. Might the heroine, dealing with what she thinks is a straying husband, make some remark about the fact that if the lost emerald mine of Cleopatra could be found again, so too could the love in her marriage? Or, perhaps a scholarly hero is delighted to learn of the discovery of Cleopatra’s mine because he had always believed it existed and considers the find a validation of his scholarship. Then again, what would happen if a young man, the younger brother of the heroine, excited by the find, wants to go to Egypt to make his fortune? How will the hero help the heroine in restraining his exuberance without dashing his spirit? Are there other ways in which the discovery of Cleopatra’s lost emerald mine figure in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in On-Dits and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Cleopatra’s Emerald Mine Rediscovered in Egypt

  1. Pingback: 1817:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   Belzoni Sets Off to Find the Ruins of Berenike | The Regency Redingote

  3. Aya says:

    Where are the references؟

Comments are closed.