Blog Post #69: Beyond East and West: Conceptions of Naukratis

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

“Naucratis first attained its civil and commercial eminence in the reign of Amasis (B.C. 550) who rendered it, as regarded the Greeks, the Canton of Aegypt.”

William Bodham Donne, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, in Smith 1854

“Naukratis was the Greek Hong Kong and Birmingham in one: the treaty-port where they had their factories and imitated the work and arts of their early masters the Egyptians.”

William Flinders Petrie “The Finding of Naukratis”, The Archaeological Journal Vol. 43, 1886: 47

These two quotes, describing the ancient emporium Naukratis in the Nile Delta, speak of an exotic world into which Greek-speaking peoples entered in their “cultural infancy”, the Archaic period (700-479 BCE). They do more than describe the Greek experience in foreign lands, however. The association of Naukratis in Egypt with locales like Canton, Hong Kong, and Birmingham seemingly collapse time and space, filtering an ancient Greek past through western European colonial experiences in the 19th century that extended around the globe (Fig. 1).

Map of northern Africa, Europe, and Asia showing locations of Birmingham, Greece, Naukratis, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong
Figure 1: Map showing locations of Birmingham, Greece, Naukratis, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong (made in Palladio)

This acknowledgement is nothing new of course. Andrew Sherratt noted that “prehistory is notable for the way in which it is constantly rewritten in the light of current experience” (1990: 4), a realization that joins a chorus of similar sayings and accounts that recognize that the study of the past is always filtered through modern experiences – perhaps an unavoidable tendency, yet one that is rife with problems. In his evocative book, The Dark Abyss of Time (translated from the French, Le sombre abîme du temps), Laurent Olivier puts it beautifully: “What we inherit from the past rarely comes down to us as it was. Rather, things are reinterpreted, so to speak, repeatedly used in unexpected ways, in a present they had not been intended for. . .” (2011: 28)

“What we inherit from the past rarely comes down to us as it was. Rather, things are reinterpreted, so to speak, repeatedly used in unexpected ways, in a present they had not been intended for. . .”

Laurent Olivier, The Dark Abyss of Time, 2011: 28

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

From Naukratis to Hong Kong

We start off this month with Naukratis, a site whose interpretations from the 19th century to present day reveal shifting ideas about the presence of Greeks, Egyptians, and others at this site in light of contemporary concerns. The choices by William Bodham Donne and William Flinders Petrie to compare Naukratis to Canton and Hong Kong respectively, two major port cities that drew British and French interests in the nineteenth century, are revealing (Fig. 2).

Oil on canvas painting showing harbour with many boats in it and white buildings in the background, all under a gray-ish sky. Four flags are also flying over the harbour.
Figure 2: The Port of Canton by Sunqua, Oil on Canvas ca. 1830 (USA Public Domain)

On one hand, these choices mirror the western European idea of Naukratis as a multicultural emporium, bustling with goods and people moving in and out of Egypt via the Nile Delta in ancient times. The most famous ancient account of Naukratis, from Book 2 of Herodotus, describes the city as one given to the Greeks by the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis (570-526 BCE) for the purposes of trade and residency. Herodotus describes the various Greek cities who took part in this foundation and several of the temples that they set up, including a joint temple called the Hellenion.

Strabo, the 1st-century BCE geographer, also aroused interest in Naukratis through his story about the courtesan Rhodopis, who married the king of Egypt by way of an eagle snatching her slipper while she was bathing, flying to Memphis, and throwing the slipper into the king’s lap (the king then searched for the owner of this slipper and yes, this may be an origin story for Cinderella). 19th-century works like Georg Ebers’ fictional historical romance novel, An Egyptian Princess (Eine ägyptische Königstochter, 1864), and George Frederick Watts’ 1868 painting, both of which were modeled after the perceived character of Rhodopis, added to the intrigue surrounding Naukratis as a cosmopolitan port city, which had not yet been discovered archaeologically (Figs. 3 and 4).

Book cover showing Georg Eber's An Egyptian Princess: Rhodopis in headdress, necklace, shall, and dress holding an urn and looking to her right, smiling.
Figure 3: An Egyptian Princess (Eine ägyptische Königstochter) by Georg Ebers, 1864
George Frederick Watt's oil painting of Rhodopis, who stands with left hand behind head, right hand clasping garments at waist; upper body exposed.
Figure 4: George Frederick Watts’ “Rhodopis”, Oil on Canvas, 1868

There are more specific comparisons to these Chinese port cities, however. Herodotus, after describing Naukratis, also notes the following:

“Naukratis was in the past the only trading port in Egypt. Whoever came to any other mouth of the Nile had to swear that he had not come intentionally, and had then to take his ship and sail to the Canobic mouth; or if he could not sail against contrary winds, he had to carry his cargo in barges around the Delta until he came to Naukratis. In such esteem was Naukratis held.” (2.179; trans. Godley)

Painting of a naval battle - English ship destroying Chinese war junks
Figure 5: The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis destroying the Chinese war junks by Edward Duncan, 1843 (Public Domain)

The comparison of Naukratis to Canton by Donne in 1854 comes more into focus here. About a century earlier, the Qing Dynasty had instituted the Canton System, which directed all foreign trade through the single port in the south, Guangzhou (known to the British as Canton). Just over a decade before Donne’s publication, the First Opium War (1839-1842) raged between British and Chinese forces around Canton and into China’s interior, sparked by British reaction to the Qing Dynasty’s crackdown on the lucrative but devastating opium trade (Fig. 5). The resulting Treaty of Nanjing forced open more “treaty ports” (ports opened to foreign trade via treaties) and granted Queen Victoria of Britain Hong Kong Island, later extended to Kowloon peninsula and then the New Territories.

Petrie’s designation of Naukratis as a “treaty-port” and comparison to Hong Kong is thus equally telling (Fig. 6). Between the time of Donne’s publication (1854) and Petrie’s (1886), Britain and France had waged the Second Opium War (1856-1860) with the Qing Dynasty, capturing Beijing, forcing Tianjin to be a new treaty port, and legalizing the opium trade in the aftermath, among other demands.

Sepia-toned photograph of harbour of Hong Kong looking west, with mountains in background, ships and harbour buildings in foreground
Figure 6: Hong Kong from Kennedy Road looking west, photo by Lai Afong (Public Domain)

During this same period, in the 1850s-70s, the Greek experience loomed large in British political imagination. The essays and speeches of William Gladstone, 12-time prime minister of Britain, held up ancient Greek colonization as a model to be emulated for its ability to construct a thriving network of overseas communities based on the “union of heart and character” (Gladstone, “Our Colonies”, 1855, as cited in Kumar 2012: 89 – although it should be stated that Gladstone was extremely outspoken against the British opium trade in China and India). It is thus tempting to see in Donne’s and Petrie’s characterizations a larger resonance with the ancient Greeks flourishing culturally and politically in foreign lands, driven by lucrative prospects of international trade – and Naukratis, like Canton and Hong Kong, as the place where this dream was realized.

Oil painting showing figure on horse at left facing the large rock sculpture of the Sphinx at Giza in Egypt on right; desert and mountains and blue sky in background
Figure 7: Napoleon Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Oil on Canvas, 1886 (Public Domain)

From Hong Kong to Egypt

It is no doubt that ancient Greece and Rome loomed large in western European imperial imaginations in the 19th century, but so did Egypt, and European interests in modern and ancient Egypt no doubt also coloured scholarly understandings of Naukratis as a Greek emporium in the Nile Delta. Napoleon invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century with an army not only of military personnel but of scientists and scholars as well: this invasion defended the immediate trade interests of France alongside the ideological desires to take ownership over a region seen as the cradle of civilization (Woolf 1992) (Fig. 7). While Egypt returned to Ottoman rule under Muhammad Ali Pasha after the defeat of the French, European economic interests in this region continued, intensifying in particular with the building of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869, with French diplomats driving these efforts. Financial trouble and social unrest in Egypt led to the British invasion in 1882 to protect its financial and trade interests, leading to a prolonged occupation for several decades.

Just like Napoleon’s invasion, these interests were not simply economic. Countless artifacts and mummified remains were taken from Egypt in these years, destined for the grand halls of museums like the Louvre and the British Museum and further afield (Fig. 8), such that Egypt’s heritage was largely dispersed around the globe. Heba Abd-el Gawad and Alice Stevenson, in their 2021 article, write that

“These processes of removal were not just physical; they had a profound effect on the relationships between people and things. Egyptian antiquities were domesticated within European frames of knowledge and appropriated as narratives of the development of Western civilization, while simultaneously subject to a cultural dislocation from the landscape and peoples of modern Egypt.”

“These processes of removal were not just physical; they had a profound effect on the relationships between people and things. Egyptian antiquities were domesticated within European frames of knowledge and appropriated as narratives of the development of Western civilization, while simultaneously subject to a cultural dislocation from the landscape and peoples of modern Egypt.”

Heba Abd el-Gawad and Alice Stevenson 2021
Large hallway of museum lined by pilasters on either side; Egyptian freestanding sculptures throughout along with glass display cases; people walking among these things; some taking pictures
Figure 8: Egyptian Room in the British Museum by Txllxt TxllxT (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The same year as Britain’s invasion of Egypt saw the establishment of the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF), a private society funded by public subscriptions to support archaeological research in Egypt, with the intent of saving sites from destruction and enriching museums abroad. It was through the EEF that Petrie was sent to Egypt to excavate Tanis in 1883, thanks to his close relationship to one of the EEF’s founders, Amelia Edwards and his experiences in survey and excavation both in Britain and in Egypt. It was on this expedition that Petrie acquired a small figurine from a local antiquities dealer that he suspected to be of a Carian mercenary. The site where it was found was the village of Nebirah, ancient Naukratis (Fig. 9), although Petrie didn’t realize this until he returned in 1884 to the village and discovered an inscription built into the wall of a farmhouse where he stayed that mentioned the “polis of Naukratis” (Villing et al. 2013-2015).

Map of Nile Delta region showing location of Naukratis in red
Figure 9: Map showing Naukratis by Chris O (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Petrie ran two excavation campaigns at Naukratis, in 1884/1885 and 1885/1886, and the exhibition of its findings back in Britain drew wide popular and scholarly interest (Fig. 10). The report from the EEF’s Annual General Meeting in 1885 notes that the Chairman Charles Newton “‘called special attention to the unearthing of the unspeakably precious remains of the Graeco-Egyptian city of Naukratis by Mr Flinders Petrie in connection with the Fund’, adding that ‘here the culture of Hellas in all her youthful prime first came face to face with that of her elder Egyptian sister in the time of the Psammetichi and the other Pharaohs belonging to the Saite dynasty commemorated by Herodotus.’” (as cited in Villing et al. 2013-2015).

The sentiments of Petrie, Newton, and others seemed to place Naukratis as a mediator between Greeks, still in their “cultural infancy”, and Egypt, the elder civilization and teacher of Greece, as Villing et al. suggest (2013-2015). It is interesting that, by the early twentieth century, this viewpoint had somewhat soured, with Marion Smith remarking that the colony of Naukratis “seems to have cared little to extend her rule over her barbarian neighbors or to mingle with them in any way other than in matters of business.” (1927: 538, as cited in Villing et al. 2013-2015).

Image of limestone figurine - human with long hair holding a lion upside down at waist with right hand; left arm missing
Figure 10: Limestone statuette, god or hero holding lion, 550 BC, Naukratis, BM Sculpture B448, 143023 by Zde (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Tondo of plate from 6th C BCE - mostly complete - image of seated sphinx facing left
Figure 11: Seated sphinx on East Greek Plate, 6th century BCE, from Naukratis in Egypt, BM GR1965.9-30.705 (Public Domain)
Line drawing of map of Naukratis showing plans of residential buildings, sanctuaries, and other buildings
Figure 12: Map showing the remains of the city of Naucratis by Petrie in 1885. A- Main Sanctuary; B- Current Arab Village; E- Temples of Apollo and Hera; F- Temple of the Dioscuri; G- Temple of Aphrodite (Public Domain)

From Egypt to Greece

This disdain for “cultural mixing” between Greeks and “others” around the Mediterranean ties into larger issues of Orientalism and imperialism that have been touched on above, and which further blog posts this month will continue to investigate. But the assimilation of ancient Greece into a western European origin story, and the intertwinement of this story with western Europe’s own imperial endeavours around the globe, certainly affected how Naukratis was curated as a “Greek emporium in Egypt”. There is not the space to go into the rigours of excavation in the 19th century, but it is telling to compare the origin of pottery found in early fieldwork (92% Greek) to the origin of pottery in more recent 2014 excavations (79% Egyptian) – you can view the breakdown by the British Museum team here (see “Chart 4”) (Villing 2015; Johnson 2014) (Fig. 11).

Indeed the Greek presence was heavily emphasized at this site, to the detriment of much material culture and misidentification of certain buildings, including a large Egyptian temple to Amun in the south part of the site (Spencer 2011) (Fig. 12). The recent excavations and re-investigation of the earlier finds of Naukratis by the British Museum team in the last decade have indeed brought a much more multicultural and multiethnic site into focus, establishing not only Greek and Egyptian domestic, industrial, and religious activities but Phoenician, Cypriot, Carian, and others as well. Mixed finds like Egyptian offering spoons, Cypriot figurines, and Greek-inscribed pottery at areas like the Temple of Aphrodite, speak to the cross-cultural practices and identifications being made at this site in its earliest days (Daniels 2018) (Figs. 13 and 14). New excavations in the north part of the site, around the likely site of the Hellenion, the jointly-founded temple mentioned by Herodotus, unearthed “a profound conflation of Egyptian, Greek and Levantine/Phoenician material even in the very heart of the supposedly ‘Greek’ part of town. . .” (Villing 2015: 233)

Image of painted bowl with procession of animals around interior along with geometric ornament and Greek dedication
Figure 13: Chian Wild-Goat-Style Bowl from Temple of Aphrodite 625-600 BCE with dedication in Greek: “Sostratos dedicated me to Aphrodite” – BM 1888,0601.456, by ArchaiOptix (CC-BY-SA 4.0)
Black and white image of an Egyptian offering spoon showing crouched figure facing left
Figure 14: Offering spoon from sanctuary of Aphrodite – BM 1888.XIV.2, from Gardner 1888 Pl.XIV Fig.2 (Public Domain)

I hope to have shown how wider imperial, economic, and geo-political interests played into the curation and understanding of Naukratis, and how these interests overrode the material legacy of a site that in fact has come to tell a much different story than its 19th-century one. Olivier’s quote with which I began this post certainly rings true: the finds from Naukratis were indeed used “for a present they had not been intended for. . .” No doubt our modern interpretation of this site and others are also serving our present concerns – perhaps ones now more focused on the effects of globalization and the push for decolonization both intellectually and socially.

References

Abd el-Gawad, H. and A. Stevenson. 2021. “Egypt’s dispersed heritage: Multi-directional storytelling through comic art.Journal of Social Archaeology 21.1: https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605321992929.

Daniels, M. 2018. “Aphrodite Pandemos at Naukratis Revisited: The Goddess and Her Civic Function in the Context of an Archaic Emporion.” Journal of Greek Archaeology 3: 165-201.

Donne, W. B. 1954. “Naukratis.” In Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, edited by William Smith. London.

Gardner, E. A. 1888. Naukratis. Part II, 1885–6. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.

Johnston, A. 2014. “The Naukratis Project: Petrie, Greeks and Egyptians.” Archaeology International 17.1: 69-73.

Kumar, K. 2012. “Greece and Rome in the British Empire: Contrasting Role Models.” Journal of British Studies 51.1:76–101.

Olivier, L. 2011. The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory. Trans. Arthur Greenspan. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Petrie, W. F. 1886. “The Finding of Naukratis.” Archaeological Journal 43: 45-51.

Sherratt, A. 1990. “Gordon Childe: Paradigms and Patterns in Prehistory.” Australian Archaeology 30: 3-13.

Spencer, A. J. 2011. “The Egyptian temple and settlement at Naukratis.” British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 17: 31-43.

Villing, A. 2015. “Egyptian-Greek Exchange in the Late Period: the view from Nokradj-Naukratis.” In Thonis-Heracleion in Context. Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology: Monograph 8, edited by D. Robinson and F. Goddio, 229-246. Oxford: School of Archaeology.

Villing, A., M. Bergeron, G. Bourogiannis, F. Leclère, and R. Thomas. 2013-2015. Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt. Online Research Catalogue at The British Museum.

Woolf, S. “The Construction of a European World-View in the Revolutionary-Napoleonic Years.” Past & Present 137: 72-101.

The author crouching towards left holding a camera in right hand smiling at camera; green grass, water, rocks, mountains, and sky in background
Megan Daniels

Megan Daniels is Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Material Culture in the Department of Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia. She hails from Ontario, where she completed a B.A. in Archaeology (Wilfrid Laurier) and worked for the Canadian government agency, Parks Canada, as an archaeologist. After a brief stint teaching in China and Vietnam, she completed a M.A. at the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Before returning to Canada she taught in the United States and, most recently, Australia, where she became accustomed to having kangaroos on campus. Megan is currently working on a book on the long-term ideology of divine kingship in the eastern Mediterranean/western Asia. Her edited volume, Homo Migrans: Modeling Mobility and Migration in Human History, was recently published through SUNY Press, and she has a co-edited volume on ancient religion and its intersections with data science and human science currently in press.

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