Archaeologists have unearthed the most extensive remains to date about ancient maritime from sea trade between India and Egypt during the Roman Empire, adding to mounting evidence that spices and other exotic cargo traveled into Europe over sea as well as land.
When cost and political conflict prevented overland transport, ancient mariners took to the Red Sea, and the route between India and Egypt appears to have been even more productive.
Researchers have led an international team of archaeologists who have excavated Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea near the border with Sudan.
Among the buried ruins of buildings that date back to Roman rule, they discovered vast quantities of teak, a wood indigenous to India and today’s Myanmar, but not capable of growing in Egypt, Africa or Europe.
Researchers believe the teak, which dates to the first century, came to the desert port as hulls of shipping vessels. When the ships became worn out or damaged beyond repair, Berenike residents recycled the wood for building materials, the researchers said.
The team also found materials consistent with ship-patching activities, including copper nails and metal sheeting during ancient maritime.
In addition to this evidence of seafaring activities between India and Egypt, the archaeologists uncovered the largest array of ancient Indian goods ever found along the Red Sea, including the largest single cache of black pepper from antiquity – 16 pounds – ever excavated in the former Roman Empire. The team dates these peppercorns, which were grown only in South India during antiquity, to the first century. Peppercorns of the same vintage have been excavated as far away as Germany.
Spices used in Europe during antiquity may have passed through this port.
In some cases, Egypt’s dry climate even preserved organic material from India that has never been found in the more humid subcontinent, including sailcloth dated to between A.D. 30 and 70, as well as basketry and matting from the first and second centuries.
In a dump that dates back to Roman times, the team also found Indian coconuts and batik cloth from the first century, as well as an array of exotic gems, including sapphires and glass beads that appear to come from Sri Lanka, and carnelian beads that appear to come from India.
Three beads found on the surface of excavation sites in Berenike suggested even more exotic origins. One may have come from eastern Java, while the other two appear to have come either from Vietnam or Thailand, but the team has been unable to date any of them.
While the researchers say it is unlikely that Berenike traded directly with eastern Java, Vietnam or Thailand, they say their discoveries raise the possibility that cargo was finding its way to the Egyptian port from the Far East, probably via India.
The team also found the remains of cereal and animals indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, pointing to the possibility of a three-point trade route that took goods from southern Africa to India and then back across the Indian Ocean to Egypt.
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.
Along with the rest of Egypt, Berenike was controlled by the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries. During the same period, the overland route to Europe from India through Pakistan, Iran and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) was controlled by adversaries of the Roman Empire, making overland roads difficult for Roman merchants. Meanwhile, Roman texts that address the relative costs of different shipping methods describe overland transport as at least 20 times more expensive than sea trade.
Berenike was the biggest and most active of six ports in the Red Sea until some point after A.D. 500, when shipping activities mysteriously stopped.
Shipping activities at Berenike were mentioned in ancient texts that were rediscovered in the Middle Ages, but the port’s precise location eluded explorers until the early 19th century.
The Roman historian Strabo mentions an increase in Roman trade with India following the Roman annexation of Egypt. By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos to India. As trade between India and the Greco-Roman world increased spices became the main import from India to the Western world, bypassing silk and other commodities.
Historically, however, the first attested attempt to organise a navy in India, as described by Megasthenes (c. 350—290 BCE), is attributed to Chandragupta Maurya (reign 322—298 BCE).
The Mauryan empire (322–185 BCE) navy continued till the times of emperor Ashoka (reign 273—32 BCE), who used it to send massive diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus.
During later years, South Indian Kings (Telugu and Tamil) extended their trade from Godavari Basin in Andhra, till Sri Lanka and exported goods to Malaysia, Singapore and China.