The Archaeological Record of Indian Ocean Engagements in the Red Sea
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter reviews the evidence, nature, and development of maritime contacts in the Red Sea and from the Red Sea into the western Indian Ocean from the Neolithic until the start of the Islamic period, c. 4000 BCE–700 CE. In addition to summarizing and highlighting recent archaeological research and ongoing scholarly debates, emphasis is placed on identifying and explaining periods of intensified as well as reduced interaction, and on the relationship between internal Red Sea dynamics and contacts with the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean worlds in light of climate, natural environment, hinterland interest, and a changing geopolitical situation.
Natural and Geopolitical Environment
The Red Sea (Arabic Bahr al Ahmar, Latin Mare Rubrum, Greek Erythra Thalassa) is the body of water between the mouth of the Gulf of Suez, 27°43′–27°27′N and the straits of Bab al Mandab 12°40′N 43°30′E.1 Geologically, the sea constitutes the central part of the Great Rift Valley formed by the gradually separating African and Arabian tectonic plates (Figure 1).
Including its northern extensions, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea is about 2,300 kilometers long and varies in width from 30 kilometers at the Bab al Mandab to 355 kilometers between the coasts of Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.2 Holocene sea level changes have been relatively limited. Predictive modeling combined with data from published sites indicate a mid-Holocene high 6,000 years ago with sea levels in the northern and southern Red Sea 1–3 meters above current mean sea level, while shorelines between the mouth of the Gulf of Suez and northern Eritrea were slightly below current level.3 The Red Sea has shallow shelves, generally less than 50 meters deep, along both coasts, and deep shelves and a central axis ranging between 500 and approximately 2,900 meters below mean sea level.4 The coastal shelves are characterized by coral reefs fringing the coast as well as forming barrier reefs along the edge.5 For purposes of navigation, this has divided the Red Sea into three channels: a narrow coastal corridor on the African side, a passage of 3–5 kilometers width on the Arabian side, and a wide central channel.6 These have been utilized to different extent and by different groups throughout history. The prevalence of coral reefs is one of the reasons that navigation in the Red Sea was considered particularly challenging in the premodern period. The other reason is the wind regime. North of Jeddah (21°N), northerly winds dominate throughout the year. In the Southern Red Sea, up to 17°N, which is more influenced by the monsoon system, southerly winds prevail during the period from November to April and are also experienced in October and May. Between these latitudes, southerly winds occur in this period but are less prevalent.7 For this reason, ships heading north would always have to beat against the wind north of 21°N, and, for large parts of the year, this was also the case farther south. While this has not hindered navigation altogether, it has imposed a degree of seasonality, especially with regard to trade heading into or coming from the Arabian Sea because this also relied on the monsoon.8 During the full strength of the summer (SW) monsoon it was not deemed possible to beat against the wind, even with mid-nineteenth century sailing technology and navigational expertise.9 Studies of Holocene monsoon variability indicate that both SW and winter (NE) monsoons were historically weak c. 4000 bp and again c. 2000–1500 bp, with a gradual, although not continuous strengthening as the general trend after that.10 Interestingly, these intervals overlap with periods of intensified trans-oceanic contacts in the Western Indian Ocean discussed later. The uninterrupted archaeological and historical record of Red Sea and Indian Ocean seafaring since at least 2,500 years, along with the known fluctuation in maritime activities within the last of the mentioned periods of weak monsoons, however, warns that no direct correlation can be established between monsoon variability and connectivity.
Climate change in the Red Sea is influenced by the Indian Ocean as well as by Mediterranean systems. Palaeoclimatological studies indicate that the entire Red Sea was touched by the early Holocene humid interval, ending 6,000–4,000 years ago, whereas after that conditions have been arid.11 Today, precipitation in the Red Sea varies from almost nothing to very little. The Egyptian Red Sea coast hardly receives rain at all; Aqiq in Sudan receives 129.1 millimeter in an average year; Jeddah, 53.5 millimeters; and Assab in Eritrea, 39.1 millimeters.12 In historical times, limited agriculture, including date cultivation, has taken place in the estuaries of wadis (seasonal watercourses), where fresh water can be found near the surface. Red Sea coasts and their desert hinterlands have been used extensively by groups engaging in pastoral activities and subsiding on marine resources since prehistory. The whole region, however, receives far less rain than the minimum requirements for cereal cultivation. For this reason, any larger, permanent settlements on the Red Sea coast have reflected hinterland interest in exploiting possibilities for trade and the extraction of natural resources. This interest, changing through history with political and commercial developments, can, together with the wind regime, explain much of the development of Red Sea commerce described herein.
Historically, the coasts might be said to have been within the political and cultural gravity fields of changing polities in both the upper and lower Nile Valley, the southern Levant, the Hejaz, Southern Arabia, and the Ethiopian-Eritrean highlands for most periods of their history. Coastal areas, however, also show distinct regional material cultures. Eight modern countries border the Red Sea and its northern bifurcation: Djibouti, Yemen, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. This is relevant not only because it has influence on access, funding, and permit areas, but also because archaeology is always in dialogue with the contemporary world. In some cases, aspects of archaeology and heritage have been utilized to highlight a preferred past, whether regional or national. While this is entirely legitimate, it is nevertheless useful to keep in mind when approaching the historiography of a region with a comparably recent colonial past. Debates on the identity, extent, and origin of what has conventionally been called the pre-Aksumite and Aksumite polities are thus arguably not unrelated to the struggle for an independent Eritrea and the later difficult relationship with Ethiopia. Studies of the regional identity of the Eastern Desert of Egypt and Sudan have been instrumental for providing a past for a “people without history,” to borrow Eric Wolfs famous term, who populate the region today. Discussions of ethnicity in ancient Red Sea trade have contributed toward “decolonizing” what was long considered a Roman venture, and the relative paucity of evidence along some stretches of the Red Sea coast could reflect national archaeological services applying their limited resources elsewhere, as much as it reflects a lack of maritime activities in the past.
Although the archaeological record of Red Sea trade has increased vastly in recent years, the field is still young and most of the region remains underexplored. In the sense that we rely heavily on the historical narratives of the mentioned hinterland polities for context, it remains very much a field of historical archaeology. These narratives, however, for the most part treat the Red Sea as a periphery and a zone of transit. Material evidence has the potential to situate the Red Sea at the center and thus challenge and shape historical narratives, as we shall see from several examples given in this chapter.
Early Contacts: Until Circa 300 bce
Tracing connections depends on identifying suitable proxies, and no argument can be made out of silence. Traditional proxies include similar material culture across an extended area and finds with distant provenance. Both kinds of evidence are present in the Red Sea from an early date. Remote sensing has identified more than 4,200 shell middens in the Farasan and Dahlak archipelagos. Sites have similar shapes, landscape settings, and assemblages that are distinguishable from those on the mainland littoral, and sample sites from the Farasan Islands are dated to within the range 5500–4400 bp.13 While this might result from similar response to similar environments, the technology needed to visit these islands would also be sufficient to cross the Red Sea at its narrowest, and the middens could also reflect a population of hunter-fisher-gatherers distributed along both coasts of the southern Red Sea.14 This goes well together with the earliest evidence of objects moving across the Red Sea: obsidian (volcanic glass).15 Obsidian appears in archaeological contexts in the Tihama region of present-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as in the Farasan Islands from the sixth-millennium bce onward.16 Although sources of obsidian exist in Arabia, no connection has been established between these and studied finds from Arabian contexts.17 Rather, studies of obsidian microliths suggest African origins of raw material as well as technology.18 Egyptian finds, the earliest from the fourth to fifth millennia, are also for the most part traced to the African coast of the southern Red Sea,19 suggesting maritime contacts encompassing the whole region in this period.20
The rulers of Egypt took an interest in the Red Sea from an early date, both in mineral resources in the Sinai and exotic imports from the south. Pharaonic installations related to the first have been excavated at Ain Soukhna and Wadi al Jarf, whereas the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 bce) site of Mersa Gawasis relates to the second. The known ports were government-initiated, purpose-built structures of intermittent use and show great similarities.21 Mersa Gawasis, first identified as a likely pharaonic harbor by Sayed,22 might serve as example. The site was subject to extensive excavations and surveys by Italian and American archaeologists in the period 2001–11. Situated at the northern slope of the wadi, at what was the beach of a sheltered lagoon when the harbor was active, the excavations uncovered seven large galleries and two rock-cut chambers in the coral-rock terrace, along with, among other things, ceremonial structures, stone anchors, ropes, stelae, fragments of cargo boxes and storage jars, ship timber, and probable ration bowls.23 The epigraphic record from the stelae, ostraca, and wooden cargo boxes confirm that the site was established for the purpose of organizing expeditions to the land of Punt, known from textual records to have been undertaken in the period from the mid third millennium bce until the reign of Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153bce).24 The bulk of the material and epigraphic references to rulers from Mersa Gawasis date from the Middle Kingdom period and especially the twelfth dynasty (c. 1985–1773), but ceramics of earlier and later dates span the entire known period of Punt expeditions.25 The location of Punt remains disputed,26 but finds of obsidian along with ceramics from present-day Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen reveal that the ships carried goods originating in the southern Red Sea region.27 Timbers reused in construction but showing traces of shipworms reveal that ships built in the Egyptian traditions known from the Nile and also utilized in the Mediterranean were well suited for Red Sea navigation, and a full-scale experimental reconstruction has been undertaken.28 Ships were constructed at the Nile port of Koptos before they were dismantled, carried across the desert, and reassembled at the Red Sea coast.29
The stelae found at Mersa Gawasis reveal that the Punt expeditions were just that—state-organized ventures with the aim of getting access to exotic resources from the southern Red Sea. The epigraphic evidence documents about 20 such journeys. Although this record is not necessarily complete, it is clear that years would pass between each expedition, and the stone galleries were used to store equipment between them. The adhoc nature of the activity is supported by the lack of permanent habitation structures, the epigraphic mention of expeditionary forces, and the presence of standardized ration bowls.30
A mural from the fifteenth-century bce tomb of Min in Thebes, Egypt, shows the owner of the tomb receiving rafts from Punt. These have mostly been considered river crafts, but classical sources, albeit much later, report the use of rafts by Red Sea populations, and there is a possibility that the painting reflects Red Sea navigation.31 In any case, the southern Red Sea region was not only connected with Egypt. The spread of plants reveals contacts going into the Western Indian Ocean. Around 2000 bce, the same time as ships set out from Wadi Gawasis, African crops such as finger millet, sorghum, and pearl millet appear in quantity in South Asia. Traditionally believed to have arrived as a result of Harappan trade (c. 2600–2000), recent scholarship suggests that these plants arrived in force in the centuries following urban decline in the Indus Valley, with Asian broomcorn millet certainly and Zebu cattle possibly moving the other way in the same period.32 Although no causal relationship can be established, the Arabian Sea contacts documented by the movement of crops and animals coincide with the first of two major periods of historically weak monsoon activity,33 which will have been favorable to the development of maritime contacts. This period also saw the start of regional ceramic traditions and village settlement both in Yemen and on the Eritrean coastal plain,34 and the concurrence of long-distance contacts, new technologies, and emerging societal complexity marks the southern Red Sea as a region very much influenced by its maritime contacts.
The early first millennium bce is marked by the rise of complex societies in Southern Arabia and in the highlands of Eritrea/Ethiopia alike. The iconographic, epigraphic, and architectural records of the polity or polities that formed in the highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia show strong affinity with the contemporary Sabaean culture in Yemen but also reveal local agency. Debates on the nature of the relationship between the two regions, whether political dependency, settlement, or local elite appropriation of elements of South Arabian culture, are ongoing and unresolved.35
The emergence of the first South Arabian kingdoms in the early first millennium is traditionally and no doubt soundly seen in connection with the rise of caravan trade across the Arabian peninsula, following the domestication of the camel in the early first millennium and the rise of successive imperial powers in Mesopotamia and the Levant, in combination with development of large-scale irrigation. The evidence for maritime contacts with the northern Red Sea, however, is meager in the extreme. The Greek author Herodotus preserves the story of the last Egyptian king, Nekho II (610–595 bce) starting the construction of a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, a task completed under the Achaemenid ruler Darius (521–486 bce).36 The existence and historical origin of the canal, starting near modern Cairo and following Wadi Tumilat and emerging near Suez, is well attested by epigraphic, archaeological, and documentary records. The canal was restored at intervals and only finally went out of use several centuries into the Islamic period.37 As argued by Cooper, the canal was only navigable during the season of high Nile, perhaps from mid-September to December–January. While this made it of limited use for the trade with India, for which ships would leave in July, it must have been instrumental in supplying Egyptian Red Sea settlements and activities, including trade.38 The construction of the canal in the mid-first millennium bce seems to have been accompanied by Egyptian interest in the Red Sea. Herodotus mentions that Nekho also undertook naval operations in the Red Sea and even sponsored a circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician crew who sailed southward from Egypt. The expedition reported that they had the midday sun on their right hand, indicating that they traveled south of the equator.39 While there is nothing impossible or even implausible about the account, it is clear that these were one-off operations. The only indirect information about the Red Sea is that there must have been other things going on there that made the Egyptians think that the investment in the canal and a naval presence was worthwhile. This might have included the expansion of Sabaean influence from the highlands of Yemen to the coastal plain, the Farasan archipelago, and possibly to the African side of the Red Sea, as well as the formation of other Early South Arabian kingdoms40 and also the emerging North Arabian oases polities,41 whose interest and activities in the coastal regions remain unknown.
Gateway to the Indian Ocean: 300 bce Until 300 ce
The archaeological record of maritime contacts in the Red Sea re-emerges in the fourth and third centuries bce. It coincides with the Ptolemaic takeover in Egypt, the first references to the Nabataean kingdom in present-day Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the peer-polity system of South Arabian so-called caravan kingdoms, and the first signs of renewed societal complexity in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
Starting again with Egypt, which has the most comprehensive archaeological record as well as the most detailed historical narrative, the Ptolemaic dynasty that controlled the country after the death of Alexander the Great (323 bce) showed great interest in exploiting the natural resources of the Egyptian Eastern Desert and the Red Sea. Under Ptolemy II (285–246 bce), the Nile–Red Sea canal was restored and a lock constructed to facilitate navigation,42 the routes to the Red Sea were provided with wells and road stations,43 and ports were established at the mouth of the canal (Arsinoe) and at the termini of the desert roads (Berenike and probably also Myos Hormos).44 While Myos Hormos was largely abandoned by the early second century ce,45 a division of work between a southern port, Berenike, and a northern, Arsinoe with its nearby successors Klysma and Suez, remained the backbone of Egyptian Red Sea infrastructure throughout most of the pre-Islamic period.
The literary tradition of an early Ptolemaic origin of Egyptian Red Sea infrastructure is epigraphically attested in the case of Arsinoe and the canal.46 It has ample archaeological support in the form of industrial structures as well as harbor installations, possible elephant pens, and a fort in Berenike.47 Meanwhile, the evidence of Ptolemaic settlement from Myos Hormos remains very limited, and the literary evidence is ambiguous.48 This, of course, does not rule out that the harbor was founded in the early Ptolemaic period, but a later, still pre-Roman date is also possible.
There is no indication that the investment in ports and roads in the Ptolemaic period was prompted by the intent of promoting maritime trade. Rather, the access to African war elephants along with mineral resources such as the gemstone peridot,49 only available from the isolated and waterless island of Zeberget some 80 kilometers southeast of Berenike, seems to have been a prime motivation. As mentioned, possible elephant pens have been identified at Berenike. Modern-period visitors report that traces of old mining operations abound at Zeberget, but the resources there have been periodically exploited throughout history and no archaeological work has been undertaken.50
Literary sources, particularly the treatise On the Red Sea written by Agatharchides of Cnidus (2nd century bce) and preserved in fragments in later works,51 reveal that the early Ptolemaic kings established a chain of stations along the African coast of present-day Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia.52 A preserved papyrus letter addressed at a crew waiting for delayed supplies and replacements in one of these bases seems to indicate that regular communication with Egypt was maintained, probably using oared ships.53 Some of these, such as the archaeologically yet unidentified Ptolemais Theron, likely in present-day Sudan,54 and the well-documented Adulis in Eritrea (see later discussion) seem to have developed into the series of coastal marketplaces described in the Greek first-century ce text known as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.55
At the same time as the Ptolemies initiated their efforts to mobilize resources from the Red Sea, South Asian pottery appears at the South Arabian port of Sumhuram/Khor Rori.56 The South Arabian polities of Himyar and Hadramawt, highland-based, but with access to the coasts, over time came to prevail in the struggles for political ascendancy over inland kingdoms such as Qataban and Ma’in.57 A second-century bce papyrus exists recording the formation of a consortium for a commercial journey from Egypt to “the frankincense-bearing land,”58 and Roman-period literary sources record Ptolemaic expeditions into the Western Indian Ocean and the Arabian port of Aden as a former meeting place between Egyptian and Indian ships.59 Many Greek authors of the period and the Roman writers who built upon their work believed spices and gemstones of South Asian origin to come from Arabia or Africa.60 These glimpses, for the most part uncorroborated in the material record, lend the impression that the southern Red Sea region re-emerged as a hub of long-distance contacts in the late bce period, as it had been at the time of the Egyptian Punt expeditions, and that long-distance networks in the Arabian Sea evolved parallel to the intensification of north–south contact in the Red Sea. It is noteworthy that this takes place in a second period of historically weak monsoons,61 which might have eased the development of high sea navigation and thus facilitated contacts between Arabian Sea coasts as well as between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
The Roman takeover in Egypt and the Levant in the first century bce coincided with and probably reinforced three changes in Red Sea commerce: (1) the volume increased due to rising demand and also because maritime routes gained importance over the caravan trail from Yemen to the Levant. (2) Although the southern Red Sea remained important in its own right, it temporarily lost its role as mediator between Red Sea and Arabian Sea networks as (3) Egyptian ships started to go into the Arabian Sea and Indian ships traveled to Egypt. These developments are reflected in the literary sources of the early Roman period62 and find ample support in the explosion of archaeological material from the Red Sea as well as from Indian Ocean settings. By the Roman period, although there is evidence of Roman military interest in the Red Sea,63 it was maritime trade that had taken the front seat, and most government activity in ports and along hinterland routes seems to be connected with the taxation, protection, and facilitation of trade.64
The two mentioned Egyptian main ports active in this period have been subject to major excavations. Quseir al Qadim was first excavated by teams from the Oriental Institute in Chicago in 1978–8265 and was then believed to be the site of the minor port of Leukos Limen, “White Harbor,” mentioned by Ptolemy.66 Finds of numerous ostraca mentioning Myos Hormos along the road from Qift, ancient Koptos, to Quseir has led to the now accepted identification with that port,67 and new excavations were undertaken by the University of Southampton in 1999–2003.68 Architectural structures and material finds reveal activities spanning from the late Ptolemaic period into the early third century ce, but with an intensive phase spanning from the late first century bce into the second century ce, with evidence of a small town and purpose-built harbor facilities. By the late second century, the port appears to have been rendered useless by silting. The site was reoccupied in the Mamluk period, the evidence of the Chicago excavations emphasizing contacts with the southern Red Sea and, in particular, Yemen.69
The more monumental remains of Berenike, situated on the neck of the prominent cape of Ras Banas, were identified and prospected already by nineteenth-century travelers.70 The site was excavated by a Dutch–American mission in 1994–2001,71 and work was resumed from 2008 by a Polish–American team.72 The port flourished in the early part of the Roman period. There is only scattered evidence of activities for most of the third century ce, but the mid-fourth century saw a major surge of activity, with coordinated urban renewal and renewed maritime trade.73 The settlement, as other Red Sea ports dependent on hinterland investment for supplies and protection, seems to have been abandoned by the mid-sixth century.
Myos Hormos and Berenike offer excellent conditions of preservation in combination with minimal later disturbance and extensive and well-published modern excavations. Together, they provide an archaeological baseline for the history of Roman-period Red Sea trade that allows us to supplement, challenge, and revise the narrative based on literary sources, on which we rely for other periods.
From the Nile port of Koptos,74 the desert roads leading from Koptos to the Red Sea,75 and from Berenike and Myos Hormos,76 a plenitude of written material—inscriptions, inscribed ostraca, and papyri—illuminate aspects of day-to-day activities of the people living in and traveling to the Red Sea ports. Although these texts all belong in the wider context of Red Sea trade and other economic activities in the Eastern Desert, only one, the so-called Muziris Papyrus dealing with the taxation of a cargo originating in Southern India,77 contains information explicitly connected with maritime trade. This is interesting in that it emphasizes that long-distance commerce had major effects on Egyptian society and involved a large number of people who did not themselves take part in the actual traveling and trading.
Much of this material, however, provides indirect evidence of Red Sea and Indian Ocean engagements. At Berenike, 12 written languages, including Palmyrene Aramaic, South Arabic, Tamil-Brahmi, and Ethiopic Ge’ez, have been documented thus far.78 Myos Hormos has also yielded inscribed ceramics with writing in the three former scripts;79 the Palmyrene example is particularly interesting because the documented Palmyrene presence in Egypt, from the late second century onward, otherwise falls after the main period of activity in Myos Hormos.
Ceramics are another good indicator of contacts, and, at Berenike, vessels from India, South Arabia, and Aksum have been found. Indian ceramics include cooking pots from South India, and a reasonable inference is that Tamil sailors visited the port.80 Combining epigraphic indications of ethnicity and language with archaeological ones of diet and occupation, Thomas has argued that both Myos Hormos and Berenike displayed the diversity characteristic of most centers of long-distance trade and that, in addition to people from the Roman Empire and their mentioned trading partners, the ports were also home to people from the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea coast.81
Other proxies of Red Sea trade preserved at Myos Hormos and Berenike include remains of textiles, plants, and minerals. Starting with textiles, regional spinning traditions in Egyptian and the Mediterranean resulted in yarns in which plies were twisted together in a top-left to bottom-right direction called an S-twist. Indian spinners generally produced yarn twisted in the other direction, called a Z-twist. Sails of Z-spun cotton from Berenike and Myos Hormos thus suggest fabrics of Indian origin.82 Botanical Indian Ocean imports apart from cotton include major trade goods such as black pepper and frankincense, but also species perhaps imported as food for ship crews or local residents, such as coconut, rice, Job’s tears, bamboo, and mung beans, as well as reused ship timbers of teak.83 Remnants of several varieties of South Asian gemstones, such as onyx, sardonyx, sard, sapphire, corundum, carnelian, agate, and lapis lazuli (from present-day Afghanistan) have been found at Berenike,84 along with jadeite (East or South Asia) and obsidian, likely from Eritrea, in Myos Hormos.85
A final group of evidence from the two Roman-period Egyptian ports is that of remains of ships and equipment. This is especially welcome because although shipwrecks happened frequently in the Red Sea due to frequent storms and dangerous reefs, and a number of wreck sites have been located,86 organic materials from shipwrecks are generally not preserved, leaving only remains of cargoes, in practice only ceramics. Literary sources and ostraca record more than 20 types of boats and ships used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the Roman period.87 While this diversity is not yet reflected in the archaeological record, the material has yielded several insights that are not available in the written sources.88 The shipremains that have been found in Myos Hormos and Berenike were from vessels built in the Mediterranean tradition—hull first, mortise-and-tenon joinery,89 equipped with Mediterranean fittings,90 and sheeted with lead and copper.91 Timbers, found reused in other settings, included South Asian teak and East African blackwood, along with Mediterranean and local species.92 Sails were made from Indian cotton spun in the Indian (Z) tradition.93 The combination of Indian Ocean materials with Mediterranean techniques not only reveals trade in shipbuilding materials, but also opens questions about the possible mobility of artisans and technologies that still need to be investigated.
Returning to the southern Red Sea, the existence of Adulis, situated some distance inland on the east shore of the Bay of Zula, about 50 kilometers south of Massawa, was well known to European travelers and explorers from the classical sources, notably from the descriptions in the Periplus and of Kosmas Indikopleustes, who visited ca. 525 ce.94 The site was identified by Henry Salt in 1810, who also noted the great amounts of obsidian in the vicinity.95 Excavations were carried out by the British Museum in 1867,96 by the German Abyssinia expedition of 1906,97 by Paribeni in 1907,98 and by Anfrey in 1961–62.99 The finds made during these campaigns are now in museums in Asmara, Addis Ababa, Rome, London, and Stockholm and have recently been reassessed.100 Adulis was then surveyed in 2004 and 2005 by an Eritrean–British team, which identified the likely location of the Aksumite-period harbor and a first-century ce mooring place.101 Since 2011, Eritrean and Italian archaeologists have resumed excavations with the aim of exposing and restoring monumental buildings identified during early excavations and improving the understanding of the stratigraphy of the site.102
The reassessment of ceramics from earlier excavations has demonstrated that the region in which Adulis later flourished was part in the early second millennium and early first millennium bce networks discussed earlier.103 The attractive location on a large bay with access to water from the nearby seasonal river and with possibilities for connections with the Eritrean–Ethiopian highlands,104 makes the site suitable as a meeting point between long-distance, coastal, and hinterland networks. Limited finds of Hellenistic pottery105 and the mentioned report by Kosmas, which details the presence of a stela commemorating the elephant hunts of the Egyptian king Ptolemy III (ruled 246–222) and his father, indicate that the role of the site as such a place of exchange goes back at least to the third century bce. Commentators, following Kirwan, are careful to point out that the stela might not have been displayed in Adulis originally but could have been brought from another location to boost the prestige of the Aksumite harbor or even as ships’ ballast.106 While this is certainly conceivable, a much less complicated explanation would be that the stela was actually erected in Adulis from the beginning. This is compatible with Adulis’ location, the well-documented Ptolemaic program for the exploitation of Red Sea resources, and the recent reassessment of the material from Adulis by Italian scholars. In that case, the existence of a regional tradition of pottery should be taken to indicate that the port was not a Ptolemaic foundation, but a settlement visited by expeditions from Egypt (see Figure 2).
Adulis is only the largest of a number of sites in the Gulf of Zula. The island of Dese, at the mouth of the gulf seems to be the roadstead called Oreine (“rocky”) Island in the Periplus, where Egyptian ships anchored to avoid harassment from the shore. The Eritrean–British team also suggested that first-century Adulis as described in the Periplus lies beneath the Aksumite settlement of the fourth through sixth centuries and that its harbor can be identified at the nearby Galala hills, which were separated from the shore in antiquity and where substantial amounts of Roman Dressel 2-4 amphora were found.107 These amphora usually carried wine and were widespread in the first century ce, found also in other Red Sea/Indian Ocean settings.108 The current Eritrean–Italian mission to Adulis has also identified Nabataean ceramics, tentatively dated to the second or third centuries ce.109
Across the Red Sea, the Tihamah plain of present-day Yemen was the Red Sea interface of the Early South Arabian kingdoms in the highlands of Yemen. In the period under discussion here, ca. 300 bce until 300 ce, the narrative that can be sketchily reconstructed through epigraphy and scattered references in classical sources is that the kingdoms of Saba and Himyar, centered on Marib and Zafar, over time came to dominate northern and southern Yemen, respectively. By the first century ce, the coast was under Himyarite suzerainty. Over the course of the third century, the Tihamah came under Aksumite control before Southern Arabia would be united under Himyarite rule toward the end of the period.110 The rise of Himyar at the expense of Saba and the other inland kingdoms seems to be connected with the increasing importance of maritime trade versus caravan trade. The main Red Sea outlet of the Himyarite kingdom was Mouza—yet unidentified, but probably located at the site of modern Mocha, which at the time of the Periplus (mid-first century ce) maintained contacts with East Africa, Somaliland, India, the African Red Sea coast, Egypt, and the Nabataean kingdom. The material evidence of Arabian Red Sea engagement in this period is unfortunately all but lacking, and surveys along the Yemeni Red Sea coast focusing on this period as well as archaeological investigations at Mocha remain among the desiderata of Red Sea archaeology.
The southern Red Sea is also home to two major archipelagos with sufficient fresh water to allow permanent habitation. The Dahlak Islands off the coast from Massawa and Adulis played a prominent role in pearl and slave trade, as well as serving as a point of transhipment in the early Islamic Period, but nothing is known about their pre-Islamic archaeology beyond the mentioned extensive presence of shell middens.111 Meanwhile, on the main island of the Farasan archipelago, southern Saudi Arabia, two Latin inscriptions have been found, the longer and more well-preserved documenting the presence of a Roman legionary detachment from Egypt in 144 ce.112 The presence of Roman military forces this far south in the Red Sea almost two centuries after the failed military expedition to Yemen undertaken by Aelius Gallus under Augustus, and a century after the elusive Roman attack on Aden mentioned in the Periplus and the probable date of the only other Latin inscription found in the region,113 documents a lasting Roman military interest and presence in the southern Red Sea that must be seen in context with the trade between Egypt and the southern Red Sea as well as the Indian Ocean. Cooper and Zazzaro point out that the archipelago, with good access to groundwater and a limited basis for agriculture and pastoral activities, was an attractive stopover or stepping stone for journeys along both the north–south and east–west axes of the Red Sea.114 Recent surveys have also identified several South Arabian inscriptions, the earliest of which can be dated to the mid-first millennium bce,115 as well as further indicators of contact with the northern Red Sea in the form of Nabataean and Roman ceramics of the early centuries ce.116
As outlined earlier, extensive archaeological documentation exists for the substance, volume, and significance of Red Sea trade in the centuries around the turn of the Common Era. The bulk of this evidence, however, comes from only three sites: two in Egypt and one in Eritrea. On one hand, this reflects two important regional foci of Red Sea trade; on the other hand, it is likely also a result of limited research targeting other parts of the Red Sea rim.
Little is known about the maritime contacts of the Meroitic kingdom. The existence of routes connecting the Nile Valley with the coast is known, with some evidence of road stations tentatively connected with trade as well as mining activities.117 The coastline of Sudan, however, remains nearly unexplored by archaeologists. Coastal settlements must have existed, serving as stopovers for traffic between the northern and southern Red Sea and between African and Arabian coasts. New investigations have not been able to confirm Chittick’s report of Roman-period remains118 nor uncovered other pre- or early Islamic structures at the important Medieval and Early Modern port of Suakin.119 Islamic historical records date the foundation of ‘Aydhab opposite Jeddah to and Badi close to the Eritrean border to the 630s CE, but the main importance of these ports lies in later traffic in slaves and pilgrims, and any activity before the Islamic period remains undocumented.120
South Arabian involvement in Red Sea trade is well-attested in literary sources, and the strategic location and attractive natural resources of the region makes the lack of archaeological evidence a question of research rather than absence. Further north along the Arabian coast, the situation is different. Maritime trade does not seem to have been of major importance along the Hijazi coast before the holy cities of Saudi Arabia became major destinations of pilgrims and centers of consumption. There are at least three reasons for this: namely, the absence of major hinterland centers of production and consumption in the pre-Islamic period; the existence of a traditional caravan route facilitating connectivity with the Levant, the Persian Gulf, and Southern Arabia; and the fact that navigation along the Arabian coast was more challenging than along the African coast because there were fewer natural harbors where ships could anchor at night, a necessity due to the existence of isolated rocks and reefs in the navigational channel.121
This should not be taken to suggest that this part of the coast was not integrated into Red Sea networks. Hellenistic and Roman reports connect the Arabian coast with piracy, which of course presupposes navigation as well as trade,122 and the mentioned need to stop at night implies that available harbors must have been utilized even in cases where they did not serve a hinterland center. Also, even if of less economic and political gravity than the kingdoms of the Southern Red Sea, such hinterland centers did exist (e.g., Nabataean/Roman Hegra with its yet unidentified harbor and Mecca with its port at Shoaiba).123 Several sites along the coast of northern Saudi Arabia have yielded evidence of early commercial contacts in the form of Roman glass and Nabataean ceramics.124 The identification of these sites with toponyms mentioned in classical literature remains subject to debate.125 Underwater and land surveys of potential sites have been undertaken by the Phillips Universität Marburg since 2012. Preliminary results include a wreck site at Eliza Shoals, northwest of Jeddah, with evidence of third to fourth century ce Dressel 24 similis amphorae, likely carrying olive oil from the Roman Empire.126 Further north, the Nabataean port of Leuke Kome, the position of which remains controversial,127 was the likely Red Sea entrepôt of the Nabataean kingdom in present-day Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The identification with the site of Ainuna was proposed already by Wellsted, who visited during the 1830–32 Red Sea survey by the East India Company brig Palinurus.128 Archaeological surveys have identified the settlement as Nabataean,129 and new investigations are currently being undertaken by Polish and Saudi-Arabian archaeologists.
Geopolitics and Religion: c. 300–700 ce
In the third century ce, Myos Hormos was abandoned and there is only minimal evidence of activities in Berenike after the first few decades. While the prolonged periods of war and civil war in Egypt and other parts of the Roman Empire no doubt had detrimental effects on trade, the emergence of Aksum and Himyar as regional powerhouses in the Southern Red Sea and the evident continued success and prosperity of Palmyrene commerce, which also included the Red Sea, indicate that we are also looking at a period when new commercial patterns were established.
By the time the archaeological record from Egypt resumes in the fourth century ce, the kingdom of Aksum, with its coastal entrepôt of Adulis, seems to have established itself as an agent operating independently of Roman trade with India. Adulis grew into a major settlement, boasting churches and palaces.130 Along with late Roman tableware and storage jars of North African origin, amphora of the Aila/Aqaba type (see later discussion); globular amphorae from the same city known as “pilgrim-flasks”(a description of shape rather than purpose); and Sasanian glazed pottery,131 as well as Mediterranean marble,132 attest to the commercial contacts of the region. The find of 193 Indic inscriptions from this period (and also a few in South Arabian, Greek, Ge’ez, and one in Palmyrene Aramaic) in the cave sanctuary of Hoq-Socotra133 attests to the networks intersecting in the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in this period.
Among the trading partners of Adulis was Berenike, where Aksumite ceramics of the third to sixth centuries are present134 and where an Aksumite third-century coin and a Kshatrapa coin from northwestern India also have been found.135 That Berenike experienced a major surge in activity in the fourth century is also evident in extensive building activity, including temples and a church. The extensive evidence for religious practices is unique among Red Sea ports. The presence of a South Arabian cult in the late-Roman harbor temple as well as the coexistence of pagan and Christian cults at a date when this became unusual in other parts of the Roman Empire testify to the cosmopolitan nature of Red Sea trade as well as Berenike’s orientation toward the sea.136 There is no evidence of occupation after the mid-sixth century.
Christianity becomes increasingly important to understanding what is going on in the Red Sea from the fourth century onward. Along with Judaism, and more visible in the archaeological and literary record, the faith was spreading from Egypt and the Levant to the southern Red Sea and into the Arabian Gulf.137 Trade was arguably a medium as well as a cause for parts of this process.138 In addition to Berenike, archaeological evidence for churches exists from the minor port of Abu Sha’ar,139 Aila (Aqaba),140 Adulis, and elsewhere in the Aksumite kingdom. Churches are also known from literary sources to have existed in other places on the western Indian Ocean rim,141 and recent surveys show what are probably Christian burials in northern Somaliland.142 That the Red Sea for a period became what, perhaps a bit exaggerated, could be called a Christian lake had consequences for commercial activities. Churches in the Himyarite and Aksumite kingdoms would import wine for the Eucharist. Mediterranean churches, using incense at least from the fourth century onward,143 would demand aromatics from the southern Red Sea. Christian officials would move between Red Sea churches and ecclesiastical centers in the Mediterranean, and rulers would take an interest in the well-being of co-religionists on other coasts of the Indian Ocean.144
This period also saw the rise of the northern Red Sea ports of Klysma and Aila, both in operation at least since the early Roman period but of limited importance in the Red Sea trade. Excavations at Klysma, at the head of the Gulf of Suez, were carried out by Bruyère in 1930–32145 and revealed next to nothing about maritime trade. Literary sources, however, attest Klysma as a port for trade and travel with India—in the wide sense that this term was employed in Late Antiquity to include the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—from the late fourth century and well into the early Islamic period.146 It is possible that the lack of material evidence is simply a result of that issue being off the agenda of archaeologists working decades before the start of Aksumite, South Arabian, and Indian archaeology that could have given insights into imported material.
At the other northern extension of the Red Sea, Roman Aila and Islamic Aqaba have been subject to long-standing excavations.147 These have revealed a settlement with roots in the Nabataean period, expanding from the late fifth century onward148 and continuing to flourish within the new setting of directly adjacent early Islamic Aqaba.149 Aqaba has been identified as the origin of a type of amphora, now labelled Aila/Aqaba (earlier also Aila/Aksum) that has been found in quantity in several locations, including Berenike,150 Zafar (Yemen),151 Adulis,152 Matara, Aksum,153 and a number of sites in India.154 Kilns have been excavated in Aila, and the amphorae that may have been carrying wine, olive oil, other agricultural products, and garum (fish sauce) were produced from the fifth until the seventh century ce.155
The combination of the chronology of Aila and Berenike and the distribution of Aila/Aqabah amphorae in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean world has implications for our understanding of the changing trading patterns in this period. First, as mentioned earlier, the maintenance of ports on the Red Sea depended on hinterland interest and upkeep. As argued by Facey, the impetus to invest in roads, guards, transport, and water supply for a port like Berenike, far away from the population and power centers of Egypt, came from a wish to make use of the southerly winds in the southern Red Sea in the early months of the year, when ships returned from South Asia with the NE monsoon, and thus avoid having to beat against the northerly wind with the large ships used for the India trade. If ships from Egypt traveled only to the southern Red Sea, this was less important, and northern ports like Suez and Aqaba became more competitive. In other words, activity in Berenike is likely to imply direct trade between Egypt and South Asia, whereas lack of activity suggests that goods were transhipped in ports like Adulis and Mouza.156
Second, the Aqaba amphorae show the emergence of that city as a center not only of production, but also of redistribution and trade from the fourth century onward. At the same time, Berenike experienced a boost of activity after more than half-century of near abandonment. This suggests that, in this period, trade between the southern and northern parts of the Red Sea was carried out parallel to direct trade between Egypt and South Asia. It is tempting to see this in connection with the consolidation of centralized states with strong Christian elements in Yemen and Eritrea/Ethiopia, which led to increased cultural exchange, strengthening of diplomatic ties, mobility of pilgrims and church officials, and trade in wine and wheat for ecclesiastical purposes. An archaeological snapshot of this exchange, in contrast to the diachronic perspective offered by port sites, is the Black Assarca shipwreck, dated between the fifth and seventh centuries, that carried a cargo of Aila/Aqaba amphorae along with the so-called pilgrim-flasks (also attested to have been produced in Aqaba) when it sank outside the approach to Adulis.157
Drawing on the evidence discussed earlier, the abandonment of Berenike by the mid-sixth century combined with the continued trade in Aila/Aqaba amphorae into the Early Islamic Period seems to reflect that direct trade between South Asia and Egypt ceased in this period but that the Red Sea system continued to operate well into the seventh century.
The Red Sea, however, experienced considerable upheavals in this period such as the Aksumite invasion of Yemen ca. 518, the Justinian plague of 541–542, the Sasanian invasion of Yemen in 570, and the Arab expansion in the region in the 630s. Adulis was also abandoned in the early seventh century.158 Power, based on literary evidence from the late pre-Islamic and Early Islamic periods, suggests that Red Sea trade was more or less a thing of the past already before the Arab expansion and that repressive policies led to a period of low activity in the Red Sea that lasted until the ninth century.159 Damgaard, in contrast to this, in his archaeological survey of early Islamic Red Sea trade, emphasizes continuity with regard to sites as well as commodities.160 As general interpretations of Red Sea trade, these two narratives do not fit easily. Both, however, highlight the increased importance of east–west contacts in this period, following the growing importance of the Hijaz and the cities of Mecca and Medina.
The aim of this chapter has been to provide an introduction to the material record of Red Sea trade within the context of the physical setting and historical narrative of the region. Although changes in environmental conditions and climate were perhaps not dramatic in the period discussed here, they might well have influenced human societies as well as other species, a question that warrants more research. The geopolitical setting, on the other hand, has been in constant development. In some cases, this is reflected in the material record, in some instances it is harder to discern, and in yet other situations it might be argued that it was Red Sea commerce that was the agent of change in hinterland communities rather than the opposite. Borrowing a set of terms from a different setting,161 the long-term history of Red Sea engagements can be seen as subject to processes of intensification and abatement, in some periods extending from Western Europe to Southeast Asia, while in other phases primarily connecting the maritime communities of the Red Sea itself.
Archaeological traces of Red Sea engagements go back to the Neolithic period with evidence of contacts between the African and Arabian coasts of the Southern Red Sea in the form of shared material culture and trade in obsidian and possibly early pottery. Some obsidian of likely Red Sea origin is also reported from Egyptian pre-dynastic contexts. A first period of intensification, coinciding with weaker monsoon activities, might be identified in the centuries after the turn of the second millennium bce, when Egyptian ships traveled to the southern Red Sea and plants and animals moved, presumably by human proxy, between East Africa, Arabia, and South Asia. This phase was then followed by a long period of abatement, where all archaeological evidence of maritime contact was between the nearby coastlines of the Southern Red Sea. In the second half of the first millennium, Egyptian, Achaemenid, and Ptolemaic authorities in Egypt directed government energy toward the exploitation of natural resources from the Red Sea basin. By the time of the Ptolemies, this brought them in direct contact with communities along the coasts of Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen, and the physical, human, and intellectual infrastructure established for political purposes was used also by traders acting on their own initiative. Parallel to this, networks developed in the Arabian Sea, again in a period of historically weak monsoon activity, and Southern Arabia became a meeting place for traders from India, Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt. By the turn of the Common Era, Arabian and Red Sea networks merged, a situation that persisted at least until the early third century ce. Material evidence of third-century Red Sea commerce is near absent from Egypt, but literary sources indicating continued trade and the rise of the Aksumite kingdom suggest that this reflects temporary abatement rather than breakdown of connectivity. By the fourth century, renewed activity at Berenike points to direct contact with South Asia being re-established, and the rise of northern ports in this period indicates that Red Sea commerce was significant in its own right, with the spread of Christian religion and contact between Christian communities being important parts of the exchange. In the mid-sixth century, direct trade with South Asia seems to have been abandoned, while contacts between the northern and southern Red Sea continued into the seventh century, no doubt influenced—but not interrupted—by the upheavals of that period.
If Red Sea trade depended on hinterland interest and investment, it is to be expected that changes in these hinterlands would influence what was going on in the Red Sea. The most intensive phase of Red Sea/Indian Ocean commerce—that is, the two first centuries ce—clearly builds on demand from as well as willingness to invest in and protect trade by the Roman Empire, as well as on the opportunities and infrastructure already present in a system developed by Indian, Egyptian, and South Arabian traders. The rise of strong polities with coastal presence in the southern Red Sea is likely linked with the ability to control trade—whether as cause, effect, or more likely both—and the commencement and interruption of direct connections between Egypt and the Arabian Sea must be seen in context not only with developments in Egypt and South Asia, but also in the southern Red Sea. Nevertheless, studying the long-term development of Red Sea contacts also highlights the importance of natural resources and conditions of navigation. While such conditions did change over time, for instance with periods of strong and weak monsoons, the overexploitation of elephant populations in the Red Sea hills, and the introduction of high sea and nighttime navigation in the Ptolemaic period, they were stable compared to political changes and help explain why the history of Red Sea commerce can be studied in terms of intensification and abatement along a limited set of trajectories.
Although our knowledge about the archaeology of Red Sea trade has increased vastly over the past two decades, there are plenty of lacunae that future field projects and research will hopefully fill. To mention some, the whole Arabian coast, from Aqaba to Bab al Mandab, remains underexplored, as does the coasts of present-day Sudan and Somaliland. Also, very little is known about the Ptolemaic and early Roman period in the northern Red Sea. Periods of change, such as the first century BC, the third century ce, and the sixth to seventh centuries are also still imperfectly understood.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Whereas Tim Power has written about the Red Sea in the transition between pre-Islamic and Islamic periods,162 no consolidated historical or archaeological narrative of the Red Sea in the earlier period exists. Several monographs, however, address Roman trade with the Indian Ocean, of which the Red Sea was an important part. These include Gary Young’s Rome’s Eastern Trade (2001),163 Roberta Tomber’s From Pots to Pepper (2008),164 Steven E. Sidebotham’s Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (2011),165 and Raul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean (2014).166 Brief outlines of Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade can be found in encyclopaedia, companion, and review articles.167
Publications dealing with different sites were cited earlier. There are, however, also useful overviews for different regions and periods.168 Chiara Zazzaro’s summary of previous research in the Southern Red Sea is noteworthy because this region has received less attention than Egypt and the Roman Empire.169 General surveys of the archaeology and early history of the Eastern Desert of Egypt, South Arabia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia provide necessary context on the world in which Red Sea trade took place.170
Since 2002, a series of Red Sea conferences have been organized under the auspices of the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia. Proceedings have been published or are in preparation for all but one of these.171 In addition to archaeology, the reports bring together research on the Red Sea from disciplines such as history, ethnography, and biology. Several edited volumes from conferences with a wider Indian Ocean focus also contain chapters on the Red Sea.172
Those interested in the natural environment of the Red Sea could consult Najeeb M. A. Rasul and Ian C. F. Stewart, The Red Sea: The Formation, Morphology, Oceanography and Environment of a Young Ocean Basin (2015),173 which brings together a range of syntheses and reviews of scientific fields. Interesting insights on premodern navigation and infrastructure can also be found in colonial period government publications, such as old editions of The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Pilot and the 1946Naval Intelligence Geographical Handbook Western Arabia and the Red Sea.174
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(12) Data from World Meteorological Organisation.
(13) Meredith-Williams, Hausmann, Inglis, and Bailey 2014. Mounds, of different morphology and composition, are attested back to 8000 bp in Eritrea: Mayer and Beyin 2009.
(36) Herodotus, Histories 2.158.
(39) Herodotus, Histories 2.159, 4.43.
(42) Diodorus Siculus, 1.33.11–12.
(43) Strabo 17.1.45.
(58) P. Berl. 5883–5853
(59) PME 26; Strabo, Geo.2.4.4–5.
(62) Most notably the Periplus Maris Erythraei; Strabo, Geo.2.5.12, Pliny, NH 6.104.
(66) Ptolemy, Geo. 4.14–15
(94) PME 6; Christian Topography 2.61.