Berenike’s Buddha

Stories from the world of archaeology, art, and museums

A finely executed marble statue of the Buddha has been discovered in the Egyptian site of Berenike, offering new evidence for the dynamic connections between Roman Egypt and India, and for the presence Buddhism in ancient Egypt.

A marble statue of the Buddha found in the temple of Isis at the Egyptian port city of Berenike

Measuring 71cm high, the fragmentary sculpture depicts a standing Buddha, with a halo of sunrays around his head and a lotus flower by his left foot. It was discovered in the forecourt of the temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis (the main temple in early Roman period Berenike), during excavations in 2022 led by Steven Sidebotham (University of Delaware) and Mariusz Gwiazda (Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw). The marble for the sculpture probably came from western Turkey, but it is thought to have been worked locally at Berenike, with the statue then deposited as an offering to the temple by a merchant, or possibly a group of merchants, from India.

The port of Berenike was established in the 3rd century BC on the west coast of the Red Sea. It became one of the most important Red Sea harbours during the Roman period (30 BC to the 4th century AD), handling goods from East Africa, Arabia, and India, which were then transported across the desert to the Nile, on to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, and to the rest of the Roman Empire beyond.

A painted scene featuring Kind David, the Archangel Michael and Christ, found at Old Dongola

Further finds from the temple point to the site’s connections to India and the international community who lived at the port city. Archaeologists unearthed two 2nd-century AD coins from the kingdom of the Satavahanas in central India and a Sanskrit inscription from the rule of Roman emperor Philip the Arab (AD 244-249). Other inscriptions from the temple, dating from the early 1st century AD to AD 305, were in Greek.

Researchers from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology have also been working on a project further south, at the site of Old Dongola in Sudan. Archaeologists Lorenzo de Lellis and Maciej Wyżgoł were investigating Funj period (16th-19th century AD) residences when they found, beneath one of the houses, an opening leading towards a small chamber painted with Christian scenes. One scene shows a Nubian king, supported by the Archangel Michael as he bows to Christ. A preliminary interpretation of an Old Nubian inscription by Vincent van Gerven Oei suggests that this is David, one of the last kings of Christian Makuria (whose capital was Dongola) and that he is making an appeal for the city’s protection. King David launched an attack on Egypt in 1275, and the Mamluk Egyptian army invaded Nubia in retaliation, so perhaps this is why he is seeking protection.

Images: Szymon Popławski/Berenike Project; Adrian Chlebowski/Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw