The localization of Yam, a country mentioned in ancient Egyptian sources, is one of the unsolved problems of Egyptology and for reconstructing the historical geography of eastern Africa. So far the majority of scholars preferred a location in the Nile valley, partially because of a lack of good alternatives. Since the turn of the century, in increasing amount of new archaeological data supports theories that search for Yam in the Western Desert of Nubia. The continued exploration of this extremely dry and inaccessible region in the borderlands of Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Chad has produced evidence for larger numbers of former oases and well watered spots that could support sedentary and pastoral communities well into the Bronze Age.
Most sources mentioning Yam are form the Old Kingdom and rarely include geographical details, beyond the fact that it was one of the southern countries. Yam was a source of typical African, but poorly localize able products, workers and mercenaries.
The most important text in search for Yam is the autobiography of Harkhuf from his tomb near Aswan. Harkhuf was an Egyptian official living during the 6th dynasty. During his career in the mid 23rd century BCE he was entrusted with leading four 6 to 8 months long trading expeditions to Yam and back. For the outbound legs his caravans traveled through the Western Desert on different routes, either along the Elephantine or ivory road, beginning at the equally named nome capital near modern Aswan, or the oasis road, starting from the 8th upper Egyptian nome. For the return journeys Harkhufs caravans of about 300 donkeys followed routes close to the Nile valley.
The camel was only introduced to Egypt during the Persian era. Therefore the logistics of desert travel were much more challenging than in later eras. The same can be said for the livestock of Bronze Age pastoral groups in the African desert. It now mainly consisted of sheep and goats, already better adapted to a dryer environment than previously dominant cattle, but still more demanding than dromedaries.
Since Harkhuf has only recorded the total duration of his journeys, it is possible to calculate vast distances that he could have traversed. Thus Yam can plausibly be placed almost anywhere south of Egypt. Still viable suggestions include the Ennedi Plateau and surrounding areas, Dafur, the Shendi reach west of later Meroe, Yam as designation for the early Kerma state in southern Nubia or Old kingdom equivalent for the New Kingdom toponym Irem, also located somewhere in the Butana.
Less direct hints for localizing Yam are reports about the employment of Yamite workers alongside other local people for quarry works in Nubia or as mercenaries in Egyptian armies. Both suggest that the country was at least somewhat close to the Nile valley to practicably allow the recruitment of such forces.
Although Yam survived at least as a concept and is still featured in New Kingdom topographical lists, there are no more sources mentioning any contacts between Egyptian and Yamites after the Middle Kingdom. This slow disappearance leaves basically three explanations. Either Yam was incorporated into another polity like Kush or Irem and ceased to exist, if the country was located somewhere in the Nile valley. Communication with Yam became impossible due to the increased aridity or the bulk of Yams territory turned into desert and it had do to be abandoned by its people.
WIP section of my upcoming map "The Bronze Age World" showing the places mentioned in the text.
The Abu Ballas Trail and Dakhla Oasis
Dakhla itself and neighboring Kharga, which were together known as Great Oasis for most of antiquity, were once considered a candidate for Yam. However the discovery of substantial Old Kingdom remains since the late 1970ties has put this theory to a rest.
The most important Bronze Age site in Dakhla oasis is the fortress of Ain Asyl, built in about 2400 BCE, and the surrounding area (Reconstruction by Jean Claude Golvin). Already during the Old Kingdom the place developed from a mere Egyptian outpost into a fortified town and governors residence. Ain Asyl became the pivotal point for all Egyptian activities in the oasis, coordinating the exploration and exploitation of the Western Desert, as evidenced by epigraphy and pottery found along the desert trails.
The most spectacular desert route is certainly the so called Abu Ballas Trail, named after a solitary rock in the center of the trail surrounded by countless storage jars. While the depot was
already discovered in 1918 and 1923 respectively, its purpose should remain one of the desert’s mysteries for almost 100 years. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that further water depots
were discovered, planfully built in fixed intervals along a straight line between Dakhla and the Gilf el-Kebir. This system of supply stations filled from the oasis made it possible for donkey
caravans to cross the 400 km of waterless desert between both places.
According to the pottery found along the trail, it was mainly in use during the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, but also at least temporarily reactivated during the New Kingdom. Even later during the Roman era people moving along the Abu Balls Trail left their traces again. However, by then the introduction of the camel into Egypt and northern Africa did offer desert travelers vastly expanded capabilities to cross long waterless sections.
The Abu Ballas Trail ends at the Gilf el-Kebir plateau. The last depot was discovered at only a short distance from the mountains. In the last decades the plateau
has gained some fame through the so called Cave of the Swimmers located there, featured in the novel and movie The English Patient.
When the surrounding areas fell dry and the desert spread the Gilf el-Kebir became for some time a refuge for flora, fauna and human groups alike. However, already at about 2700 BCE it could no longer support permanent human occupation. Thus the already dry and desolate mountain range could hardly be the final destination for the Egyptian donkey caravans. But it can be assumed that there were still sufficient water sources available in Pharaonic times to support passing travelers, eliminating the need for further depots. From the Gilf el-Kebir they could principally move on in two directions, towards the Kufra Oases in the west or southwest to the Jebel Uweinat.
The next significant feature met when prolonging the Abu Ballas Trail beyond the Gilf el-Kebir in a straight line is the Jebel Uweinat (arab.: the mountain of fountains). In 2007 surprisingly a hieroglyphic inscription dated to the early 11th dynasty was found, which celebrates the exchange of goods between Egyptians and members of the Tekhebet and Yam nations. Thus the isolated mountain must have been a place that could be reached reasonably well for trading purposes from Yam. The unexpected discovery of an inscription mentioning Yam that far to the west of the Nile valley consequently reinvigorated the debate about possible locations almost immediately.
The rock structure of the Jebel Uweinat forms several natural cisterns and can conserve the water from sporadic rainfalls for a significant time. Even today after humid years the fountains of the mountain can support a human presence throughout the entire year, which was lastly documented for pastoral groups in the 1920ties. In the course of history the region attracted a human presence again and again for this reason and it could still be permanently inhabited in the Bronze Age. Thus, the Jebel Uweinat itself is a leading candidate for the localization of Tekhebet, that is not mentioned in any other texts known to us so far.
Ennedi Erg - The West Nubian Palaeolake
In the early Bronze Age what is today the Ennedi sand sea, about 300 km away from the Jebel Uweinat, was in large parts covered by a 400 km² sized shallow lake, variously known as the West Nubian
Palaeolake, Northern Darfur Megalake or lake Ptolemy. During the course of its long history, spanning about 6000 years, the lake's size fluctuated significantly with local climate. Estimates for
its maximum extent range from 30.000 to 5000 km². The size and inaccessibility of the basin, as well as erosion of the youngest sediment layers enormously increase the difficulty for any exact
Numerous sites attributed to fishing communities have been found along the southern shore, which prospered until the more arid climate since the 4th millennium BCE took its toll. During the 3rd millennium the lake begun to dry out and shrunk to a group of smaller lakes in a marshy area, which in turn completely disappeared until the end of the 2nd millennium. Human occupation ended in about 1500 BCE.
Additionally, within the direct neighborhood a number of still existing and former oases and now completely dry wadis offered good living conditions during the Bronze Age.
Wadi Shawn and Wadi Hariq
Two of these are the wadis Shawn and Hariq. Today completely dry and unfit for human habitation, the excavated remnants of wells and other signs of human occupation show that Wadi Shawn was still an oasis environment until the late Bronze Age. South of it Wadi Hariq offered seasonal pasturing grounds until this time, despite the ever increasing aridity of the area.
A green stripe in the desert: the upper Wadi Howar. Ground water from northern
Darfur is still flowing along the former bed of the Yellow Nile. Image: Google Earth
Wadi Howar – The Yellow Nile
South of the former lake the Wadi Howar stretches for almost 1050 km from the Nile valley to Darfur and eastern Chad. The wadi was once the bed of the Yellow
Nile. Formerly a major tributary to its namesake, the river drained large parts of today’s eastern Sahara during the regions last great humid period. The banks of the fish rich river offered
optimal living conditions for men and wildlife alike, as evidenced by numerous sites.
However, with the transition to a more arid climate the Yellow Nile begun to retreat. It did no longer reach the confluence, but disappeared in the desert. In the middle Wadi Howar the former river became a chain of lakes at first, fed by still falling rain and groundwater moving along the wadi. According to the analysis of fish bones, numerous water surfaces must still have existed during the early Bronze Age, but disappeared during the first half the 2nd millennium BCE. The wadi still offered good pasturing grounds for some centuries until in about 1100 BCE it became unsuited for permanent human occupation.
Yet the Wadi Howar remained an important axis of communication with the central parts of Africa and a route for transhumance groups seeking access to the Nile valley, as evidenced by the Napatan fortress Gala Abu Ahmed guarding this entrance to the kingdom of Kush in the early first millennium BCE.
Even today the upper Wadi Howar is still visible from the air as a green band through the desert and small ground water fed forests grow along its course.
The Lakes of Ounianga and the Ennedi Plateau
The still inhabited Ennedi Plateau, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located to the west of the Wadi Howar and the palaeolake and south-west of the Jebel Uweinat. Its canyons harbor the last remnants of the diverse former regional fauna, including the last crocodiles and, until the 20th century, also the last lions of the Sahara. Despite its remoteness from the Nile valley the Ennedi region is also considered as location for Yam, especially since the discovery of the Jebel Uweinat inscription.
Somewhat to the north, in the direction of the Tibesti range, begins a unique chains of oases lakes, including Teguedei and the Ounianga Serir and Kebir groups. Also part of the UNESCO world heritage, the lakes of Ounianga and their unique ecosystems, even presently including fish, are living remnants of the long lost savanna landscape. Like a window to the past, they give an impression how live has still looked like in wider parts of the Sahara in antiquity.
The western group of lakes: Ounianga Kebir. Image: Google Earth
Yam – Swallowed by the desert?
In conclusion locating Yam in the Western Desert appears as an increasingly attractive solution. Shapes and decor of the Leiterband and Handessi potteries, both subsequently in use during the Bronze Age, demonstrate that, despite of an increasing regionalisation, the people of this region were still part of a wider network encompassing all of northeastern Africa. They could be plausible intermediaries for sub Saharan goods acquired by the Egyptians through Yam.
The basic geography too is supporting the hypothesis to localize Yam in the deserts west of the Nile. As demanded by the journeys of Harkhuf the direct route from Elephantine through the desert
via the Kurkur, Dunqul and Selima oases would be the shortest way to reach the country. It was evidently used by Egyptians during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods who have left their traces at
Bir Kseiba and el-Shab.
Alternatively, a western desert Yam could be practically approached from the west, bypassing any hostile polities in Nubia, by traveling far from the Nile valley via the great oasis and the Jebel Uweinat.
The Nile valley itself would still be a valid route, especially for heavily laden donkey caravans on their more demanding return journey.
In this case Yam would also still be close enough to the Nile to easily explain the availability of Yamite workers and mercenaries. The disappearance of their habitat due to the ever increasing aridity could also explain how the once important land of Yam slowly faded from Egypt's collective memory.
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