The remains of a massive 2,200-year-old bathhouse have been uncovered in Berenike, an ancient seaport in Egypt on the western shore of the Red Sea.
Berenike, sometimes written as Berenice Troglodytica, was founded in 275 B.C.E. and prospered—according to the accounts of Pliny the Elder—due to its strategic location and patronage by Ptolemaic rulers. The bustling settlement had robust public facilities, including the massive bathhouse which has two tholoi, or circular structures, with 14 individual pools of cold or tepid water, as well as hot baths. Two large water reservoirs with water from a single well fed each pool in the bathhouse.
Marek Woźniak, an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Science’s Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, which is leading excavations of the site, told Live Science that there may have been a gymnasium built to the west of the bathhouse.
Woźniak’s team is focused on ruins that date to ancient Egypt’s Hellenistic period (approximately 323 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E.), when elements of Greek culture, such as architectural signatures, flourished in North Africa. The ongoing excavations at Berenike are headed by Mariusz Gwiazda, an assistant professor of archaeology at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, and Steven Sidebotham, a history professor at the University of Delaware who focuses on the ancient global economy.
Berenike had a swelling population when the bathhouse was in operation, supported by its importance as a trade hub and supplier of East African war elephants, according to Woźniak. The city had a strong military presence, and bathhouses “served as places to meet and relax after work or sporting exercise, hence they were often combined with gymnasia,” Wozniak said.