Exuding her own kind of sophistication and style, Elizabeth Taylor brought her sense of luxury to women everywhere through her iconic emerald necklace. Almost no picture was taken of her without it, and until this day, the jewel is associated with her name.
Behind each jewel is not just the icon most famously known for wearing it, but also a history that boasts of its character. The deep rich colour of emerald has captivated the attention of artists and women for many years, and it is known to be one of the few precious gems where inclusions add value to the stone. Another distinguished characteristic of emeralds is the cut, which was created to enhance the colour and quality of this stone because it mimics its original crystal shape.
What is not known is that the origin of this timeless gem can be traced back to Egypt. The earliest known emerald mine was located in the mountain valley of Wadi Sikait in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. The majority of mining operations date from the Roman and Byzantine eras, which span from the late first century BC to the sixth century AD.
Archaeological evidence points out early Roman writers often referred to this area as “Mons Smaragdus’ (Emerald Mountain). It is documented that the Egyptian mines were exploited by many regions until at least the Middle Ages, before the appearance of larger stones from the Indian subcontinent and Colombia. Today, it is estimated that Colombia accounts for 70–90 percent of the world’s emerald market.
Ancient Communities Seized Control of the Roman Empire’s Emerald Mine
This March, a team of archaeologists, led by Universitat Autonoma Barcelona (UAB) lecturer Joan Oller, published results of the 2020 and 2021 dig seasons at the Roman site of Sikait, in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.
The study reveals that ancient communities in Egypt were also involved in the mining industry, as evidence refers to the Blemmyes, communities living in the region from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD, who seized control of emerald mining from the Roman empire. The Blemmyes originated in northern Nubia and the tribes were involved in military clashes with the Romans.
The scientific collaboration was conducted jointly with the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, Poland, and focuses on the study of how emeralds were extracted and commercialised in antiquity.
Over a period of two years, the excavations conducted revealed that some of the buildings were occupied or even built by the Blemmyes, who controlled a stretch of Nubia during the fourth and fifth century AD.
“The discovery confirms the relevance of religion and local rituals in this late period, and this suggests that the exploitation of the mines may have fallen into the hands of the Blemmyes during this time, before the fall of the empire,” Oller notes.
Beginning with a detailed survey of the mining areas, 11 extracting areas were found surrounding Wadi Sikait, and for the very first time, archaeologists conducted a detailed topographic study of the two most important mines that consisted of hundreds of galleries and with a depth of more than 40 metres.
The studies also reveales how the Romans were involved in the exploitation of Egypt’s emerald mines, as ancient inscriptions allowed researchers to uncover information on who worked there and how the tasks were carried out, Oller adds.
The surveying of the area has led researchers to document dozens of new settlements, mines, infrastructures and even a new necropolis with over 100 tombs, which has added to the knowledge of ancient funerary rites and social features of the community living there before the site was abandoned.
Local indigenous communities took ownership of emerald mining, as archaeologists concluded that some of the late antiquity buildings were occupied or built by the Blemmyes. The archeology team reported in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies last April, “a permit from the king of the Blemmyes was required to enter the emerald mines in the fifth century.”
Today, there are limited quantities of emeralds found, with no available production figures. However, the emerald continues to exist in Egypt’s markets, as it is still sold for purchase in touristic Luxor, in the Nile Valley of upper Egypt, as well as in Cairo’s Khan el Khalili Bazaar.
However, there is potential for Egypt to rise as a world-class, 21st century mining industry by reforming mining policies and adopting an internationally recognized commercial framework, according to Mark Campbell, president and CEO of Aton Resources, a TSX Venture Exchange-listed gold play.