Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ancient Arab Sea Traders – Part II – Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a Greco-Roman periplus—a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distance, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore and served the same as the later Roman itinerarium (road map of cities, villages and other stops with the intervening distances) of road stops—written in Greek by a Greek-speaking Egyptian merchant. The work describes navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports like Berenice along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along Northeast Africa. It was translated from the Greek (1912), and is clearly a firsthand description by someone familiar with the area and is nearly unique in providing accurate insights into what the ancient European world knew about the lands around the Indian Ocean.
The Voyage Around the Erythraean Sea describes "the maritime trade-routes following the north-south axis from Egypt down the coast of East Africa as far as modern day Tanzania" and "the routes of the east-west axis running from Egypt, around the Arabian Peninsula and past the Persian Gulf on the west coast of India"
    The Periplus shows that early sailing around India was connected to the monsoons (trade winds) that blew six months of the year across the Sea of Arabia from the southwest to the northeast, blocked by the peninsula and keeping the Arab trade voyages from entering the Bay of Bengal further east
The Erythraean Sea in the first Century A.D., shown in the Periplus, that shows the many trading cities along the west coast of India (east shore of the Sea of Arabia) and almost nothing on the opposite shore of India (to the east) and no activity at all in the Bay of Bengal and on to Indonesia since trading voyages could not reach that far east
    This remarkable work, dated by internal references to kings in India, South Arabia and Nabataea, to c. 60-75 AD, is a handbook in Greek for mariners engaged in maritime trade between Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt and India. In 66 short chapters it describes, in a very matter of fact way, the ports and principal physical features along the way, as well as the peoples who lived throughout this vast marine highway, and the principal imports and exports involved in the trade. The Periplus is one of a small number of periploi (voyages around), which have survived from antiquity to our time.
    The Periplus shows that the main port at the head of the Gulf, Apologos, was known to its anonymous author, everything suggests that the sailors who frequented this route did not venture into the Gulf itself. Indeed, why would they, when India was their ultimate destination and the use of the monsoon winds to travel between Egypt and India was the principal task of the readers of this little book,which would not have allowed a further eastern sailing route. The trade described by the Periplus was paralleled by another route, which went from the Mediterranean overland via Palmyra in Syria and thence down the Euphrates to the head of the Gulf, where ships began the journey to India. This latter trade, to some extent controlled by the kingdom of Charfacene, must have provided competition for those merchants from Egypt who followed the route described in the Periplus.
    Trade in the Far East (South China Sea)
    In 1027 BC the Chou came to power in northern China. Their dynasty lasted more than 800 years until 221 BC. During this time, Chinese rule was extended and there was increased trade with other nations. The Chou Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - 220 A.D.), which is sometimes referred to as the greatest of all Chinese Dynasties. By 200 B.C. the Chinese culture had produced excellent craftsmen whose products were prized because of their beauty and speciality. Chief among these were products made of silk. During this period only China produced silk, which was exported to places as far away as Rome. Other Chinese exports included spices such as cassia and ginger, as well as iron and jade.
    From the earliest times, China conducted trade with Korea, both on land and by sea. From 140 B.C. regular trade fairs were held on the northern Chinese frontier, where furs and other valuable merchandise from Korea could be bought. Korean ships traveled along the coast, around the northern coast of the Yellow Sea to ports along the Shantung Peninsula, while others crossed the open inland sea to Nagasaki (Japan).
    Farther south, China conducted trade using Chinese ships known as junks. These carried cargoes along the coast from Canton to to Haiphong (today northern Vietnam). Junks left Haiphong and Foochow to travel via the Philippines to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) and to east Java. The journey took several months, and trade was mostly in cloves, nutmeg and mace.
    From as early as 200 B.C. Chinese junks sailed to the Malay Peninsula and through the Strait of Malacca. There they met and traded with the Indonesian people and with merchants from east India.
    It is interesting to note that the Han Dynasty conducted distant trade at the same time that the Nabataeans conducted sea trade. Both of these civilizations rose to power about the same time, and both of them waned at the same time. Interestingly enough, the Dong Son culture in North Vietnam (150 B.C. - 50 A.D.) corresponds to roughly the same time, which rose to prominence because of international trade of goods and ideas.
The Chinese trade routes (left) beginning around 200 B.C. have been well documented in history and show that limited sailing routes that took them into the island and coastal seas around their homeland. As they branched out, they reached as far as India, then in the A.D. period, down the coast of east Africa.
    These were very restricted sailing routes, dependent on coastal sailing and brief jaunts into Indonesia waters and along the northern coast of the Bay of Bengal around India to southern Arabia. None of these voyages could have been made into deep water, nor could their early ships have managed the constant pounding of ocean waves and currents.
    When Sorenson, Allen, and others claim that Lehi sailed the trade routes of the ancient Arabs and Chinese, they simply did not know what they were talking about. But so glibly and smoothly do they pass off the events it sounds plausible until one studies the historicity of these events and what was involved in those early days of trade and sailing.
    It is not a scholarly approach to look at a map or read something in history that took place a thousand years or more after Lehi sailed to lay claim to where and how Nephi’s ship took them to the Land of Promise.
    We know that during the time of the Han Dynasty (late first century B.C.), Chinese products, such as silk reached the Roman Empire. Nabataean merchants not only traded in silk, but began to manufacture silk products in both Damascus and Gaza, known as Damask and Gauze silk products. Some historians have speculated that the rise in international trade during the period of 200 BC to 200 AD helped the Asian and Arabian civilizations rise to great heights, and acquire great wealth. However, if we lose sight of the fact that Lehi sailed in 600 B.C., some 500 years before these events, it matters little what kind of trading the Chinese and Arabs were doing. We have to remember to put these historical events in their proper order, or not use them at all. Otherwise, it is misleading and of no scholarly value.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying this series of articles on maritime trade in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. My question is, if such distant voyages were not possible until 1000 years after Lehi set sail, then where did they land?

    In my view the Malay Peninsula theory is looking more and more interesting. It seems highly unlikely that a vessel in 600 BC could have gone much further than the Straits of Mallaca.