WHERE WAS LEUCE COME?

By Bob Lebling
Washington Bureau

Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 23, 1979, p. 7

"Now to the left of Berenice (Egypt's Ras Banas), sailing for two or three days from Mussel Harbor eastward across the adjacent gulf (the Red Sea), there is another harbor and fortified place, which is called White Village (Leuce Come), from which there is a road to Petra, which is subject to Malichas, King of the Nabataeans."

"It holds the position of a market town for the small vessels sent there from (South) Arabia; and so a centurion is stationed there as a collector of one-fourth of the merchandise imported, with an armed force, as a garrison."

With these words, an Egyptian Greek sea-captain, writing in about 60 A.D., described the legendary port city of Leuce Come, an emporium of the Nabataean Arabs who ruled what is now Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia centuries before the birth of Islam.

According to ancient writers, Leuce Come was the jewel of the Red Sea, a bustling seaside market town that served as a key transshipment point for spices, gems and other goods en route to the Mediterranean from Arabia Felix or modern-day Yemen.

But today, Leuce Come is counted among the world's "lost cities." Contemporary explorers and archeologists have been unable to locate the site of the fabled harbor town, despite various theories as to where it must have been.

According to the American scholar Wilfred Schoff - whose translation of the ship-captain's log called "The Periplus of the Erythraean (Red) Sea" is quoted above - most commentators have placed Leuce Come at Al-Haura, which lies in a bay protected by Hasani Island midway between Al-Wajh and Yanbu on the Saudi Arabian coast.

Other scholars say Leuce Come was probably located on the site of present-day Yanbu.

The eventual discovery of "White Village" will tell us much about the Nabataeans's role as a major sea-power - a role overlooked by most modern historians, due to the lack of archeological evidence.

Scholars have been hard pressed to explain the frequent use of dolphin imagery found in the sculptures and inscriptions of Petra and other Nabataean ruins.

According to the conventional wisdom, the Nabataeans were exclusively a desert people, who ruled the caravan routes from the Gulf and Arabia Felix.

But careful scrutiny of ancient historical accounts shows the Nabataeans also had a strong attachment to the sea. This early Arab people possessed not only a merchant shipping capability but a naval fleet as well.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, the Nabataean navy destroyed by fire a fleet of Egyptian galleys and thus frustrated an attempt by Queen Cleopatra to establish a naval presence in the Red Sea.

Several ancient Greek accounts - understandably biased - portrayed the Nabataean seafarers as pirates. In the words of Diodorus of Sicily, "these Arabs not only attacked the shipwrecked, but fitting out pirate ships preyed upon the voyagers, imitating in their practices the savage and lawless ways of the Tauri of the Pontus (Black Sea)."

The Greek authors also say the Nabataeans inhabited the small islands that dot the Red Sea off the northwest Saudi coast - clear evidence of a seafaring capability.

In addition, archeologists have found evidence of a possible Nabataean sanctuary near Naples in Italy, an indication that the "Arabs of Petra" extended their influence deep into the Mediterranean basin.

Thus there is much justification for the Nabataeans' use of the dolphin image in their local art - since this sea creature was regarded as a good-luck symbol by sailors throughout the ancient world.

While the Nabataeans had several ports in the Red Sea region - including one called Aila near the Jordanian city of Aqaba - Leuce Come appears to have been the largest and most important.

It is logical to assume that the Nabataeans would have built their chief Red Sea base at a spot that provided the best anchorage in the area - probably a locale offering a natural harbor to protect their ships from gales and storms.

While some of the sites suggested by scholars - such as Al-Haura - would be adequate for this purpose, by far the best anchorage between Jeddah and the Gulf of Aqaba lies in a spot that has apparently not been suggested as the location for ancient Leuce Come: Sharm Yanbu, a natural inlet several miles north of the modern port of Yanbu.

One ancient author described Sharm Yanbu - then known as Charmuthas Harbor - as "the fairest of any (harbors) which have come to be included in history."

That writer, Diodorus, went on to describe the inlet as follows:

"For behind an extraordinary breakwater … there lies a gulf which not only is marvelous in form but also far surpasses all others in the advantages it offers… Its entrance is 2 plethra (202 feet) wide and it provides a harbor undisturbed by the waves sufficient for 2,000 vessels."

In the middle of the inlet, Diodorus said, was "an island which is abundantly watered and capable of supporting gardens."

The Greek author said the inlet "resembles most closely the harbor of Carthage, which is called Cothon."

Recent descriptions and navigation charts confirm this. Sharm Yanbu, an inlet with an island in the middle, has been described by in a modern British navigation guide as "the best harbor on the coast between Ras Muhammad (at the tip of Sinai) and Jeddah."

Sharm Yanbu's remarkable shape is indeed similar to the ancient harbor of Carthage, and the inlet would have provided much the best protection for Nabataean vessels.

While the ancient authors are not clear on whether Charmuthas inlet was the site of Leuce Come, they certainly don't rule out the possibility.

Sharm Yanbu is about the proper distance and direction from the old Egyptian port of Berenice, as described in the "Periplus."

Thus the inlet, with an anchorage superior to either Al-Haura or modern Yanbu, could very well be the site of the long-sought ruins of Leuce Come.

END

Sidebar: The Extent of Nabataean Sea Power

The Nabataean Arabs had a far greater maritime capability than is generally realized.

According to archeologist Nelson Glueck, "the Nabataeans ventured far overseas and over distant lands in their mercantile undertakings, and were much influenced in their course by the phenomenon of dolphins and of the extremely important even though subsidiary dolphin attribute of some gods and goddesses."

Merchandise from the Orient and from Southern Arabia passed through their hands, bringing great revenues and making these Arab merchants the envy of the Greeks and other contemporary peoples.

In addition to their own ports of Aila (near Aqaba) and Leuce Come (on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast), the Nabataeans were welcome in the following ports or cities, through military or diplomatic agreement:

  • Damascus
  • Hatra (on the Euphrates in ancient Parthia)
  • Gerrha (on the west coast of the Gulf)
  • Berenice (on the Red Sea coast of Egypt
  • Ascalon (on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine).
  • The Nabataean seafarers were also frequent visitors in Alexandria, Egypt; Miletus in Asia Minor; the major Roman port of Puteoli near Naples; and perhaps the island of Rhodes.

    -- Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, April 23, 1979, p. 7

     

    Nabataean.net has several papers about the possible location of Leuce-Come.

     Where was Leuce Come?
    by Bob Lebling
    A Possible Solution for Leuce-Come
    By Dan Gibson

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