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Sea Route to Rival Silk Road Found

Archeology: Spices, textiles and remains of ships show that Egyptian port of Berenike was a key link between India and the Middle East.

June 12, 2002|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New excavations at the Egyptian Red Sea port of Berenike show that an extensive sea trade existed between India and the Middle East from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD, supplementing the much more widely known Silk Road.

Large quantities of spices, textiles and other exotic materials were offloaded at Berenike, carried by camel train across the Arabian Desert to the Nile and then shipped by boat to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria and throughout the Roman Empire, according to researchers from UCLA and the University of Delaware.

"The sea route between India and Egypt appears to be more productive than we ever imagined," said UCLA archeologist Willeke Wendrich, who co-led the expedition.

Ship remains found at the site, furthermore, indicate that the vessels were built in India and most likely crewed by Indians.

"This turns around our way of viewing the world at that time," Wendrich said. "We are used to looking at it from the point of view of the Roman Empire, but clearly a lot of the initiative was on the Indian side. It was not a one-way trade initiated by Rome."

Berenike "is one of those really productive finds," said archeologist Stanley Burstein of Cal State LA, who was not involved in the research. "Most of the [artifacts] are not spectacular, but they are revolutionary in improving our understanding of how this trade worked."

Berenike--sometimes also called Berenice--was founded in 275 BC by Pharaoh Ptolemy II, who named it after his mother.

Its original purpose was for the importation of war elephants from Africa, but its uses rapidly expanded.

It was a natural harbor, protected from the prevailing northern winds by the Ras Banas peninsula and far from the pirates operating from the Arabian Peninsula. Its chief drawback was the lack of locally produced food and water. Food had to be imported from the Nile Valley, about 200 miles away, and water from wells five miles outside town.

Nonetheless, the city flourished for nearly 900 years before being abandoned for reasons that are not yet clear. Fortunately for archeologists, no other settlements were built on the ruins, and the city's remote location protected it from looting. The site is also strategically located in a military district near the Sudanese border, and access was strictly limited until recently.

"This is a part of the world that was isolated and about which very little was known," said archeologist Donald White of the University of Pennsylvania's University Museum. The Berenike excavations "have been able to open our eyes about the nature of trade between the Far East and the classical world."

Wendrich and Steven Sidebotham of Delaware have been working at the site since they were given permission by Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities in 1994, and their most recent findings are in a report to be published today in the journal Sahara.

"We were surprised by the sheer quantity of things," Wendrich said. One notable finding involved peppercorns, a valuable Indian spice widely used in the Roman Empire.

Excavations at other sites have often yielded small quantities of peppercorns, she noted--five at one site, 14 at another and so forth.

Through 1999, the team had found about 1,600 peppercorns at Berenike. Then they found a pot containing 16 pounds of the spice. "If you find it in the trash, and large quantities are stored there, then the amount transported through the town must have been mind-boggling," she said.

The discarded peppercorns indicate the prosperity of the community, Wendrich noted. That prosperity was also reflected in the discovery of lavish tapestries, imported marble and "very nice" glassware from Alexandria.

The team also found substantial quantities of teak, which grows in India and is not indigenous to Egypt. "You'd expect to find woods native to Egypt, like mangrove and acacia, but the largest amount of wood we found at Berenike was teak," Sidebotham said.

Much of the teak was clearly recycled material from ships that had worn out or been damaged beyond repair. The team also found materials consistent with ship-patching, including copper nails and metal sheeting.

The region's dry climate preserved organic material from India, including sailcloth dated to AD 30 to 70, basketry and matting. In a dump from Roman times, the team found Indian coconuts and batik cloth from the 1st century, as well as an array of exotic gems, including sapphires, as well as glass beads that appear to have come from Sri Lanka and carnelian beads from India.

They also found the remains of cereal and animals indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting 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.

Berenike was long thought to have been abandoned in the 3rd or 4th centuries, primarily because Greek and Latin texts did not mention it after that.

"But we found that, in the 4th century, there was an enormous boom in activity," Wendrich said. "The town was completely rebuilt and expanded," probably by the Byzantine Empire.

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