Report on the Red Sea 9 Conference

Last July, Lyon (France) welcomed participants to the 9th edition of the Red Sea Conference, entitled “Networked Spaces: The Spatiality of networks in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean”.

It was jointly organized by the ERC Desert Networks project[1], HiSoMA, one of the research centres of the French CNRS hosted by the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, and the University of Artois, in collaboration with the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon.

The Organising committee of the RS9 (© M. Crépy)

The RS9 focused on space(s) and connectivity, with special attention paid to how spatial constraints interact with the life of networks. The topics covered a broad span of time (from the 3rd millennium BC to the 19th century), extending the domain of the Red Sea as far as the Persian Gulf, India and Sri Lanka with which it is inextricably linked.

During 4 days (July 2 to 5), more than 40 lectures and 11 poster presentations were given by more than 60 participants – archaeologists, historians, geographers – representing 22 countries, with more than one hundred attendees.

Several archaeological presentations were given about the Pharaonic harbours of Ayn Sukhna (C. Somaglino) and Wadi el-Jarf (P. Tallet), and the Hellenistic port of Berenike (S. Sidebotham; M. Woźniak), which showed the vitality of the spatial connections of the Red Sea from Antiquity onwards. The medieval harbours of Egypt (F. Ismael Hammad), Sudan (L. Smith and S. Taha), down to the moorings of the Eritrean coast (J.-Fr. Breton), and their networks were also discussed, as was the role of Suez, ancient al-Qolzum, at the interface between Egypt and Saudi Arabia (J. Marchand, C. Somaglino and M. Abd el-Raziq).

Not only were the archaeological remains examined, but so too were medieval literary sources and European travelers’ accounts, in particular their value for the study (D. Couto, M. Crépy et al.), recognition (R. Margariti) and control (S. Searight) of the Red Sea and its attendant spaces.

Islands and insularity were also one of our main foci. These areas were described as ritually significant (Z. A. Shaikh), and also as connected nodes – such as Soqotra (J. Jansen van Rensburg), the Farasan islands (S. Marion de Procé), and Failaka (M. Gélin et al.). Others were framed as specific religious places (J. Bonnéric).

Ethnographic studies of boats (C. Zazzaro; N. Weismann; D. Agius for the presentation of his book) were also considered, especially as ways to connect spaces, islands and shores.

The role played by the hinterland people in the connectivity of the Red Sea was exemplified by two case studies on the Bejas (D. Bramoullé) and the Blemmyes (R. Ast and J. Radkowska). The relationship between these remote areas and people with central and external powers, particularly as it related to control of the Red sea (located in the Roman fortresses of the Egyptian desert: J. Lougovaya; in the Pharaonic Nile Valley: V. Chollier) was also considered.

The multiplicity of relationships between the communities settled along the Red Sea and in the hinterland, and their evolution, sometimes explains the complexity of the trade networks that existed, especially for natural resources (beryl: J. Oller Guzmán; soft stone: J. Marchand; frankincense: St. Le Maguer-Gillon). Production (F. Lesguer) and consumption (J. Gates-Foster) networks, especially of ceramics (in North-West Arabia: Fr. Tourtet and C. Durand; on Oman: S. Lischi) and other objects (lamps: I. Zych) were analysed from the 1st millennium BC to the 1st millennium AD. Along with trade, religious influences between areas were questioned through both epigraphy (P.-L. Gatier) and sculpture (O. Kaper).

Further south, the trade between the Western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea was illustrated by presentations about the material culture of the mouth of the Indus (J.-B. Houal et al.) and the coin circulation between India and Egypt (Sh. Bhandare et al.). The original role played by Sri Lanka as a link between Asia and the Arabian Peninsula (Y. Li), but also the risks of navigation of the Gulf of Cambay as described by ancient authors (J. Simmons) offered new perspectives.

Reflections on the logistics of exploration, exploitation and trade (along the Nile Valley: J. Phillips; in Hatnub: Y. Gourdon; in the Eastern Desert: I. Goncalves) offered a realistic view of the different types of journey across land and sea that occurred in the Red sea area and its adjacent regions. Gathering archaeological and historical sources, two online projects collaborated to make their work interlinked (L. Manière and H. Verreth) in order to reconstruct physical networks and circulation patterns in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. On the other side of the Red sea, the mains routes of Arabia (L. Nehmé) and the Nabatean trade were also presented through a few examples, such as Aynuna (M. Gawlikowski).

Lastly, the 9th edition of the RS conference welcomes lectures about some areas that had not been yet fully considered in the reconstruction of the Red Sea networks, such as the Somaliland (A. Gonzalez-Ruibal; J. de Torres Rodriguez, S. Taha), the Tigray (J. Loiseau; A. Benoist et al.) and the Horn of Africa (L. Sernicola and Ch. Zazzaro). We also gave space to new geo-environmental studies, involving zoology (B. Khan) and botany (J. Milon et al.), carried out in the region and recently launched.

The OC thanks all the participants for their stimulating papers and posters!

Part of the smiling attendees of the Conference, in from the Fourvière Basilica © I.Zych

We are also deeply grateful to the following people: Cécile Clavé, Marcelle Alarcon, Ferouze Guitoun, Alicia Treppoz-Vielle who were instrumental in the organization of the RS9 conference; Caroline Develay and Thibaud Fournet who provided the visual documentation and created the posters and the program; Pr Stéphane Gioanni, Director of the HiSoMA research center, and Pr Yanick Ricard, Research Vice-President of the ENS-Lyon, who supported the conference from the beginning; Dionisius Agius for his wise and thoughtful advice; and of course the 12 members of the Scientific Committee who evaluated the (very) numerous proposals received before the conference and who were all present during the conference and chaired the sessions.

Thanks to all of you! The RS9 was a great success and the publication of the proceedings will show the richness of the presentations and discussions.

Caroline Durand, Julie Marchand, Bérangère Redon and Pierre Schneider


[1] This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 759078).



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