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India-Egypt trade during antiquity
by Louis Proyect
09 July 2002 13:49 UTC
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NY Times, July 9, 2002
Under Centuries of Sand, a Trading Hub

South of Suez, the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea used to be sprinkled with
ports that throbbed with life and commerce in antiquity, especially the
heyday of the Roman Empire. But long ago, the relentless desert buried
their remains so completely that it was almost beyond imagination that
these places once were pivotal links in a maritime trade route that rivaled
the better-known overland Silk Road.
From here ships ventured down the coast to Ethiopia and Somalia and beyond,
bringing back ivory and tortoise shells, drugs and slaves. Other vessels
headed for the southern shore of Arabia, mainly for frankincense and myrrh.
The biggest ships sailed the monsoons to and from India to satisfy the
bounding appetites in the Mediterranean world for spices, precious stones
and other exotic goods.

So robust was the India trade 2,000 years ago that Emperor Tiberius,
concerned over Rome's increasingly adverse balance of payments, complained
that "the ladies and their baubles are transferring our money to foreigners."

Perhaps the greatest of these ports in the India trade was Berenike, about
600 miles south of Suez, near Egypt's border with Sudan. Historians knew of
it from written records. Yet nothing remained on the surface at the sere
and forlorn site except some lines of coral and scattered potsherds, hardly
sufficient to flesh out the bones of texts into a semblance of the seamen
and merchants in their milieu at Berenike, in prosperity and decline over
eight or nine centuries.

But archaeologists, who in their own way can be as unrelenting as the
desert, have now completed eight years of excavations under harsh
conditions at Berenike and found what they say are the most extensive
remains so far from the ancient world's sea trade between East and West.

Their spades uncovered building ruins, teak and metal from ships, sail
cloth, sapphires and beads, wine and stores of peppercorns. Some of the
goods show that Berenike was trading, at least indirectly, with places as
far away as Thailand and Java. Inscriptions and other written materials in
11 different languages, Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin, Coptic and
Sanskrit, attest to the cosmopolitan mix of people who lived in or passed
through the town.

The co-directors of excavations at Berenike  Dr. Steven E. Sidebotham, a
historian at the University of Delaware, and Dr. Willeke Wendrich, an
archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles  said the
research showed that the maritime trade route between India and Egypt in
antiquity appeared to be even more productive and lasted longer than
scholars had thought.

Also, it was not an overwhelmingly Roman enterprise, as had been generally
assumed. The researchers said artifacts at the site indicated that the
ships might have been built in India and were probably crewed by Indians.

"We talk today about globalism as if it were the latest thing, but trade
was going on in antiquity at a scale and scope that is truly impressive,"
Dr. Wendrich said.

The two researchers, working under the auspices of Egypt's Supreme Council
on Antiquities, reported their findings in this month's issue of the
journal Sahara. They also described their work in interviews and in a
recent article in Minerva, a British magazine of ancient art and archaeology.

Other archaeologists praised the Berenike discoveries as important
contributions to the history of long-distance trade in the classical world.
Dr. Lionel Casson, an author and a retired professor of classics at New
York University, said, "It's nice to have archaeologists find concrete
evidence for what is attested in the texts."

In the scholarship of early maritime commerce, the Indian Ocean's role has
been eclipsed by the richer body of literary and archaeological evidence
for activity in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. And the Silk Road, an
Asian network of camel caravan routes, is legendary as the primary cultural
and commercial link between China and Europe between about 100 B.C. and the
15th century.

"The Silk Road gets a lot of attention as a trade route, but we've found a
wealth of evidence indicating that sea trade between Egypt and India was
also important for transporting exotic cargo, and it may have even served
as a link with the Far East," Dr. Sidebotham said.

As developed by Greeks and Egyptians, then expanded by the Romans, the Red
Sea ports served as transfer points for cargoes to and from India and other
places in Africa and Arabia. Goods unloaded at the ports were hauled by
camel train across the desert to the Nile, at Koptos, and carried by boat
to Alexandria. From there they moved by ship to markets throughout the
Mediterranean basin.

The course was reversed for exchange goods, wine and glass and fine
tableware, bound for Indian Ocean markets.

Archaeologists are also investigating the probable sites of two other
Egyptian ports, Myos Hormos and Nechesia.

At some ruins 100 miles north of Berenike, archaeologists led by Dr. John
Seeger of Northern Arizona University, assisted by Dr. Sidebotham, are
excavating a building from the first or second century A.D. It could be
part of Nechesia, but no one can yet be sure.

Dr. David Peacock, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in
England, is more certain that he and colleagues have, by examining literary
texts and satellite photographs, identified the site of Myos Hormos. It is
200 miles north of Berenike, near the present-day settlement of Quseir.

Excavations there were started in the 1980's by Americans under Dr. Don
Whitcomb of the University of Chicago, and a British team under Dr. Peacock
has worked there for the last four years. The place was definitely an
ancient port, Dr. Peacock said, but it was not until an inscribed piece of
pottery was recently uncovered that he could be sure "beyond reasonable
doubt" that this was indeed Myos Hormos. 

Both Myos Hormos and Berenike, also known as Berenice, were established in
the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, in the early third century B.C., when
Egypt was under Greek influence. Berenike was named after the ruler's wife.

Writing in "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt," Dr. Peacock said: "It
appears that Myos Hormos was pre-eminent during the second century B.C. and
that Berenice began to rise in importance during the first century B.C. and
became dominant in the first century A.D. The India trade was thus
developed in Ptolemaic times and the Romans merely took over and perhaps
expanded a well-established concern."

The site of Berenike was rediscovered by European explorers in the early
19th century. But it was so remote from settlements and supplies that
archaeologists shied away, until Dr. Sidebotham and Dr. Wendrich came along
in 1994. Their excavations revealed that Berenike experienced three periods
of prosperity. The first was in the early Ptolemaic times, the third and
second centuries B.C. Then after a century of decline, the port under the
Romans enjoyed its second and greatest boom, in the late first century B.C.
and through the first century A.D.

An enormous Roman rubbish dump, covering some of the Ptolemaic ruins,
yielded a variety of ancient Indian goods, ranging from Indian coconuts and
batik cloth to glass beads and gems. A pot held 16 pounds of peppercorns,
one of the most common commodities. "If you find it in the trash, then the
amount transported through the town must have been mind-boggling," Dr.
Wendrich said.

Dr. Sidebotham and Dr. Wendrich also reported finding a discarded customs
archive, which was written on potsherds reused as a kind of notepaper. This
revealed some of the trade procedures as well as goods. 

The archaeologists were especially intrigued by the large amounts of teak,
a hardwood native to India, found in the ruins. They surmised that the teak
arrived as hulls of ships. When ships were damaged beyond repair, the teak
was probably recycled in furniture or building materials. The presence of
so much teak also suggested to the researchers that many of ships were
built in India, one of the indications of a major Indian role in the trade. 

But Dr. Casson, a specialist in ancient maritime history, said it was also
possible that the teak timber was shipped to Berenike and turned into
vessels there. Written records refer to ships in the India trade being
among the largest of the time. That means, Dr. Casson said, they could have
been as long as 180 feet and capable of carrying 1,000 tons of cargo. Such
ships had stout hulls and caught the wind with a huge square sail on a
stubby mainmast.

An indispensable source of knowledge of the India trade is found in "The
Periplus Maris Erythraei," the circumnavigation of the Red Sea, a book
written by an anonymous merchant or ship's captain in about the first
century. A recent translation and commentary was prepared by Dr. Casson and
published in 1989 by Princeton University Press.

A practical guide to mariners, the book described the Red Sea ports in
their prime and identified landmarks on the main trade routes. A round trip
to India covered about 3,500 miles. Ships left Egypt in July to take
advantage of strong summer winds out of the north in the Red Sea. Out in
the open ocean, ships were carried by the southwest monsoon, bound for
Arabia and across to India's northwest coast, at the port of Barygaza, or
headed directly across to Muziris on India's southwest coast.

As the periplus author wrote of the southwest winds, "The crossing with
these is hard going but absolutely favorable and shorter."

Returning, the ships usually departed in December or January to catch a
favorable shift in winds. Still, they had to buck the prevailing northerly
winds in the Red Sea. This was the reason the ports were several hundred
miles south of Suez: better the long transfer of goods by camel and Nile
boat than the battle against unceasing Red Sea winds.

The rewards must have more than compensated for the risks and hardships,
historians conclude. At times when adversaries blocked the Silk Road, the
India sea trade was the only reliable alternative. At all times, historians
say, it cost less to ship by the sea route because it circumvented many of
the Silk Road's middlemen with hands out for bribes and commissions.

Yet the fortunes of Berenike were fickle, and it was long thought by
historians that the port and town were abandoned in the third or fourth
centuries. Then the archaeologists digging there came upon a surprise.
Prosperity had returned for a third time to Berenike, in the fourth
century. Dr. Wendrich reported finding that an entire area on the seaside
was leveled and completely rebuilt and expanded. 

Sometime before the mid-sixth century, though, Berenike, its harbor silted
over, was finally abandoned for good, vanishing beneath the encroaching
desert. The reasons are unknown.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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