South Indians in Roman Egypt?

Print edition : April 23, 2010

One way to understand the implications of the archaeological discoveries at Pattanam is to delve into the amazing wealth of data from the excavations at the lost Ptolemic-Roman port city of Berenike, on Egypts Red Sea coast. During the Ptolemic-Roman period (third century B.C. to sixth century A.D), Berenike served as a key transit port between ancient Egypt and Rome on one side and the Red Sea-Indian Ocean regions, including South Arabia, East Africa, India and Sri Lanka, on the other.

This ancient port city was well-connected by roads from the Nile that passed through the Eastern Desert of Egypt and also by sea routes from the Indian Ocean regions. Cargoes unloaded at Berenike and other Egyptian Red Sea ports (such as Myos Hormos, now lost) used to be taken along the desert roads to the Nile and from there through the river to the Mediterranean Sea and across, to the Roman trade centres.

Exotic goods from Rome and Egypt flowed into Berenike along the same desert road before being loaded into large ships bound for the Indian Ocean.

By the end of the second century B.C., the Egyptians and the Romans finally learnt the skill of sailing with the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean (from the Arabs and other Easterners). Voyages from Berenike for the riches of the Malabar coast therefore became faster, cheaper, but not less dangerous.

According to most accounts, one of the major centres in India that ships from Berenike travelled to, along with the monsoon winds, was the emporium of Muziris, on the Malabar coast.

However, as the silting of the harbour, among other uncertain reasons, caused Berenikes eventual abandonment before the middle of the sixth century A.D., Muziris, too, disappeared mysteriously from the itinerary of the later voyagers to the Malabar coast. For a long time since then, both these centres remained forgotten.

But while archaeological evidence about Muziris or the Indian Ocean trade remained elusive in the Malabar coast, it was Berenike that eventually offered invaluable proof of its links with the Yavanas.

In wide-ranging and ongoing excavations at Berenike launched from 1994 (and at many other places on the Eastern Desert), a team of dedicated archaeologists from the University of Delaware (United States) led by Prof. Steven E. Sidebotham, along with partners from several other institutions, has documented evidence of the cargo from the Malabar coast and people from South India being at the last outpost of the Roman Empire and of Indians on the Berenike-Nile road.

Among the unexpected discoveries at Berenike were a range of ancient Indian goods, including the largest single concentration (7.55 kg) of black peppercorns ever recovered in the classical Mediterranean world (imported from southern India and found inside a large vessel made of Nile silt in a temple courtyard); substantial quantities of Indian-made fine ware and kitchen cooking ware and Indian style pottery; Indian-made sail cloth, basketry, matting, etc. from trash dumps; a large quantity of teak wood, black pepper, coconuts, beads made of precious and semi-precious stones, cameo blanks; a Tamil Brahmi graffito mentioning Korra, a South Indian chieftain; evidence that inhabitants from Tamil South India (which then included most of Kerala) were living in Berenike, at least in the early Roman period; evidence that the Tamil population implied the probable presence of Buddhist worshippers; evidence of Indians at another Roman port 300 km north of Berenike; Indian-made ceramics on the Nile road; a rock inscription mentioning an Indian passing through en route; abundant evidence for the use of ships built and rigged in India; and proof that teak wood (endemic to South India), found in buildings in Berenike, had clearly been reused(from dismantled ships).

R. Krishnakumar

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