4.8.05

PERIPLUS ERYTHREAN SEA

ANCIENT NAVAL TECHNOLOGY AND THE ROUTE TO INDIA

BY

LIONEL CASSON

Periplus a Handbook for the sailors

Periplus Maris Erythrea is a handbook , in Greek, for the merchants and skippers of Roman Egypt who carried on trade with the various ports in those waters of India.

It is probably the work of the navigators from Greece or Roman Egypt, for it is written in unvarnished business man’s language and clearly based on first hand experience . There has been much scholarly wrangling over the date , but the surest clue points unmistakably to the middle decades of the first century.

Navigational Trade route between Roman Egypt and India during 1st century AD

At the time of the Periplus the ports that served as starting point for vessels leaving Egypt for India were Myos Hormus and Bernice. Goods to be exported were shipped up the Nile to Coptos and then brought by Camel or donkey across the desert to one of the ports. From either ports ships sailed straight down to Red sea to the Arabian port Mouza , just north of the strait of Babel- Mandeb or to the port of Okelis on the strait itself; they then followed the coast along the Southern Arabian shore as far as Karie. From there one branch took off for the parts of north west India and another for those of south west India. An alternate route to south India probably used by skippers who worked on the northern coast of Somalia took off from Cape Gauedafai.

Proper time for Sailing

The proper time to leave Egypt for India according to the Periplus would in July. This would enable the navigators to

1. Sail down the Red Sea with the northern wind that prevails over that body water during the summer.

2. Sail through the gulf of Aden with the South west monsoon

3. Sail with the same monsoon, as specifically counseled by Periplus ,a cross the Arabian Sea or western India ocean to India. The return could be scheduled for anytime after the beginning of November, when the north East monsoon provides favorable winds right up to the entrance of the Red Sea.

Departure from Egypt in July as recommended by the Periplus would bring a ship into the open waters of the Arabian Sea or western Indian Ocean just when the south west monsoon was its height . The wind velocity during this season averages 22-33 knots and frequently rises to the gale force ( 34-47 Knots).

As the Periplus wrote “crossing with these ( south west monsoon winds) is hard going but absolutely favorable and shorter. The departure date together with swift crossing , resulted in the arrival off the Indian coast in September or early October when the tapering off of the south west monsoon , the coast is once again open to maritime activity.

Such an arrival also leaves a comfortable time before the onset of the north east monsoon brings in contrary winds. By November that monsoon is well set in, so any skipper who had managed a quick turn around could shove off for home and thus be back in Egypt in well under a year from the time he left Egypt.

The Arab sailors never preferred this time for he year for sailing to India. They avoided both North West and south west monsoon for smoother and calmer periods.

Arab ships were small

The hulls of the ships used by Arabs were NOT strong enough nor their rig NOT fitted for the blustery blasts of the south west monsoon. These shortcomings prevented the Arabs from venturing out to the open sea during South west monsoon season, when the ships from Roman Egypt sailed to India.

Roman Egyptian ships were strong

The ships used for sailing to India by Roman Egyptians were of superior in quality and strength. The hulls were supremely strong, for they were built in the very special fashion that was the hallmark of the ancient ship wrights, one that resembles more cabinet work than carpentry.

Ancient Shipwright of the West

The traditional method in the west of putting together a wooden hull starts with the setting up of a skeleton – a spine of Keel , stem post and stern post and a cage of ribs 9 or frames) to which there is then fastened a skin of planks . the ancients reversed the procedure.

They first put together the skin , joining the planks edge to edge to build up as it were , a wooden shell; this itself is not an exceptional , for ship builders in many parts of the world. Have followed this method and still do.

What is exceptional about Ancients?

Is the way they joined the planks to each other; they locked them together not by casual joinery but by thousands of closely set mortise and tenon joints

(Tenon: A projection on the end or side of a piece of wood or to other material made to fit into a corresponding cavity, especially a mortise.)

They then transfixed each joints with dowels to ensure its never coming apart. And lastly into the shell thus created , they inserted a complete set of frames , at times as strong as that in the ships of later ages made with a precreated skeleton. The result was a hull that was absolutely staunch and incredibly strong.

They fitted these hulls with a conservative rig, one designed first and foremost for safety and NOT for speed, and equipped with the ancient Special systems for shortening sail, which was for safer and more effective than that favored in the western world until the present century .

Roman Egyptian Ships are Big in size

Only big ships dared to use the south west monsoon over open waters. The vessels that piled between Alexandria and Rome carrying Egyptian grain could run up to 180 feet in length and over a thousand tones in burden.

The Indian goods that attracted the Western traders were NOT bulky and cheap commodities but compact and costly commodities. Silk , fine cottons , pepper, costus , nard, spikenard, and similar items. A Roman merchant man of no more than moderate size when fully loaded with cargo of such goods represented a monumental investment.

Such huge cargoes were jointly owned by a team of merchants each chartering a given amount of space in the hold, which means these merchants had to have plenty of capital or command the credit to borrow plenty of it.

A shipment from Alexandria involved somewhere between 700 to 1700 pounds of Nard , over 4700 ivory, and almost 790 of textiles . The total value was about 131 talents , a mighty sum , one that could have purchased almost 2400 acres of Egypt’s best farmland. Yet this represents a merely one consignment , a meager portion of a cargo owned by a single merchant / partnership.

The finds at Arikamedu and other sites make it absolutely certain that Roman Egyptians did trade with East coast of India or Coramandel coast .

It seems to have been Indian rather Western craft that handled the East coast’s trade that carried its goods to west coast ports and returned with goods from these ports including the imports fro Roman Egypt .

The archeological fins at Arikamedu point to the presence of a foreign colony ( Wheeler) , a group of Western merchants permanently lived in the Northern Sector( Vimala) If so, the objects of trade they dealt in , both import and exports were transported in the ships of their hosts than their country men .

For Periplus in referring to the Eastern ports , “ these put into them vessels which sail out of both Limryke ( Malabar coast) and the North ( Ganga delta or perhaps Burma) ;

“ in them are local ( east coast) craft that follow the coast as far as Limryke , as well as others , made out of very big dugout canoes held together by yoke called SANGRA”

This must have had an important effect on the nature of the their business , making it considerably different from that of the merchants at Muziris. Or elsewhere on the western coast.

They received shipments of western goods , en bloc once a year in September or October. Since the wind a pattern of the bay of Bengal was /is not rigid like Malabar coast the merchants from eastern coast cold trade between the coasts through the year easily .

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