More on Ancient Egypt and India

01 Sep

More on Ancient Egypt and India

 The article “Ancient Egypt and India ” I posted on Sulekha, enjoyed a good response, and was even “featured”. Among the comments I received there were a couple remarking that I appeared to relay more on older sources and wondered whether were no recent archaeological information to strengthen the view that ancient Egypt and India did develop cultural and trade relations.

I consider that a fair comment .I have since come across some information on the subject; hence this post.

To my knowledge there are two recent Archaeological Projects concerning India and Egypt. They are significant particularly because they are taken up at either end of the India –Egypt trade. The India Project is in progress in the Malabar Coast of Southern India , while the other was taken up in Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea near the border with Sudan .

A. The excavations in India are ongoing at Pattanam in Kerala, believed to be the place where the ancient port of Miziris was located. . Dr. Shajan and V. Selvakumar are the archeologists. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has issued license to The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) to carry on further excavations.

Please see my post, “A note On Muziris” for more details on Muziris

1. Muziris, as the ancient Greeks called it, was an important port on the Malabar Coast in Southern India. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans frequented it.   Eudoxus of Cyzicus sailed into Muziris during his two voyages undertaken between 118 and 116 BC. Muzris, is mentioned in the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea and in Ptolemy’s Geography and is prominent on the Peutinger Table. Pliny referred to it several times in his Naturalis Historia . Pliny called this port primum emporium Indiae.

2. There is no doubt Muziris was a major port and was an Emporium, as Pliny called it. Roman imports from India were precious gems, aromatics , spices – specially the pepper , besides cotton. As regards Gems, Muzris acted as the collecting and clearing point. The garnets and quartz came from Arikamedu region (on the East coast of south India), the pearls were from Gulf of Mannar , while lapis lazuli beads were from Kodumanal in the neighboring region. The other stones included diamonds, agate, beryls, citrines etc.

3. An indication of the importance of Muziris as a place for finalizing business deals by Roman traders was brought to light by L. Casson, a scholar, in his paper” New light on marine loans” .He mentioned about a papyrus (called P. Vindob. G 40822 -for identification purposes ), discovered during the year 1985 in  Vienna , which sets out the details of a maritime loan agreement between a ship owner – possibly of the Hermapollon mentioned on the verso of the papyrus and a merchant using the ship as security. The document suggests that the loan arrangement was agreed to while the parties were in Muziris (though possibly signed on arrival at the Red Sea), indicating a rather active Roman merchant colony on the Kerala coast


4. However, Muziris suddenly disappeared in around sixth century and no one has a clue to it. Moreover, by about the same time the trade between Rome/Egypt and India went into decline. I am NOT suggesting the two occurrences were related.

5. Excavations on the site stared around 2004/05 and reported in local and foreign press. Please check cavations-iii/

6. The artefacts recovered from the excavation site include amphora (holding vessels) of Roman make and Yemenis, Mesopotamian, and West Asian ones too, indicating that Pattanam had trade not only with Rome but also with places in the Persian Gulf. The other artifacts recovered include pottery shards, beads, Roman copper coins and ancient wine bottles . In addition, a boat believed to be about 2000(?) years old, Glass and precious stones, roman pottery, bricks and a structure to keep the boat with five wooden structures to tie down the boat.

7. Roberta Tomber of British Museum who is involved in similar other projects visited the site. She remarked, several factors go to strengthen the belief that the objects found on site are remnants of first century Roman trade and similar objects were found during excavations in Egypt.

Excavations on the Pattanam site are in progress. The present findings are not conclusive enough.

8. I believe the Greek/Egyptian and the Roman trade ( that followed later) , with India, came as culmination of relations that existed between India and the West even centuries earlier to Christian era.

B. The other project was at Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea . The Archaeologists were from UCLA and the University of Delaware USA . The Berenike project was funded by the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research, the National Geographic Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Utopa Foundation, Gratama Foundation and the Kress Foundation, and some private donors. Please check the following links for the Project details and findings.

1. In early Roman times, Myos Hormos was the most frequented of the Red Sea ports. However, Berenice began to rise in importance during the first century B.C. and became dominant in the first century A.D… Eventually Berenice replaced Myos Hormos as the most prominent port, because it had one great advantage over Myos Hormos: it was situated some 230 nautical miles further south and therefore spared the homebound vessels days of beating against the northerly winds.

2. Berenike (Berenice Troglodytica) a Graeco-Roman harbor is located on the Red Sea Coast in the far south of the Egyptian Eastern Desert . It is mentioned in the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea and in Ptolemy’s Geography . Pliny referred to it several times in his Naturalis Historia . Eduxous set sail to India from Berenice in 118-116 BC. From here, ships sailed to India and to the East by taking advantage of the monsoon (Hippalus) winds in search of spices, precious stones and other exotic goods. The place where the port was located is now buried under desert. The Archeological teams say, they found here extensive remains of the ancient world’s sea trade between East and West.

3. Some of the finds of excavation at Myos Hormos and Berenike concerning links with India are briefly as under:

Among the buried ruins of buildings that date back to Roman rule, the team discovered vast quantities of teak, a wood indigenous to India and today’s Myanmar , but not capable of growing in Egypt , Africa or Europe .

The archaeologists were especially intrigued by the large amounts of teak, a hardwood native to India , found in the ruins. The presence of so much teak also suggested to the researchers that many of ships were built in India , one of the indications of a major Indian role in the trade.

Dr. Casson, a specialist in ancient maritime history , mentions that historical records refer to ships in the India trade being among the largest of the time. According to Dr. Casson, they could have been as long as 180 feet and capable of carrying 1,000 tons of cargo. Such ships had stout hulls and caught the wind with a huge square sail on a stubby mainmast.

In addition to this evidence of seafaring activities between India and Egypt , the archaeologists uncovered the largest array of ancient Indian goods ever found along the Red Sea , including the largest single cache of black pepper from antiquity – 16 pounds – ever excavated in the former Roman Empire . The team dates these peppercorns, grown only in South India during antiquity, to the first century. Peppercorns of the same vintage excavated as far away as Germany, indicating Egyptian export of Indian goods to West.

In a dump that dates back to Roman times, the team also found Indian coconuts and batik cloth from the first century, as well as an array of exotic gems, including sapphires and glass beads that appear to come from Sri Lanka and carnelian beads that appear to come from India. The excavations also yielded coins — one of King Rudrasena the third, that has been dated to the fourth century and pots with Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. (I am not clear about Rudrasena the third. There is however a reference to rudrasenaII (380 to 385) and to Rudrasena (350 to 355) of Saka dynasty, in Malwa region)

As developed by Greeks and Egyptians, then expanded by the Romans, the Red Sea ports served as transfer points for cargoes to and from India and other places in Africa and Arabia

The co-directors of excavations at Berenike Dr. Steven E. Sidebotham, a historian at the University of Delaware , and Dr. Willeke Wendrich, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the research showed that the maritime trade route between India and Egypt in antiquity appeared to be even more productive and lasted longer than scholars had thought.

In addition, it was not an overwhelmingly Roman enterprise, as had been generally assumed. The researchers said artifacts at the site indicated that the ships might have been built in India and were probably crewed by Indians.

4. Dr. Casson gives a summary of some of the trade goods mentioned in the Periplus. According to which the goods imported from / through India were: native spices and drugs and aromatics (costus, bdellium, lykion, nard, malabathron, pepper), gems (turquoise, lapis lazuli, onyx, diamonds, sapphires, “transparent gems”), textiles (cotton cloth and garments as well as silk products from China), ivory, pearls, and tortoise shell.

5. Commenting on the findings of the Berenike Project  Dr.Lionel Casson said,”It’s nice to have archaeologists find concrete evidence for what is attested in the texts.”

6. As in the case of Miziris, sometime before the mid-sixth century the Berenike harbor too silted over, vanished beneath theencroaching desert and was finally abandoned for good. The reasons  are unknown.

Around the same period (sixth century) shipping activities declined, mysteriously both at Miziris and Berenike. I am not suggesting the occurrences were related, in any manner.


7. Egypt and India , both , are ancient countries and it is not surprising if they did develop cultural and trade relations in the antiquity before what we call “recorded history” came into vogue. I believe the Greek/Egypt trade with India and the Roman one that followed thereafter came as a culmination of the relations that existed between India and the West even centuries earlier to Christian era. Incidentally, the Hindi news bulletins carried over the Indian TV and Radio channels still refer to Egypt as Misr (from Mitsrayim in Hebrew?), perhaps reminiscent of those bygone eras.( The name Mizrain appearing in the List of Nations appearing in the Tenth chapter of the Book of Genesis is identified with Egypt.)

Both the countries had a rather rollercoaster type of histories .Their fortunes and affiliations have not been either consistent or uniform. They had their glorious days; they fell on bad days and had plenty of indifferent and forgettable periods. They drifted apart for long periods. Each had been open to foreign influences, in varying degrees, reshaping their appearances and destinies. However, they did influence each other in some ways; and amidst the then existing network, they did succeed in developing close trade and cultural relations.

Why they drifted apart again in sixth century, is another story.


Posted by on September 1, 2012 in History



6 responses to “More on Ancient Egypt and India

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    dear azygos

    than you.
    possibly yes. the relations were largley by way of trade.during asoka’s time there were possibly diplomatic relations too.during the greek times in egypt say upto 34ad there were some individuals of indian origin in alexandria . their numbers may not have been big.

    the reations diefinetly tapered off after sixth cntury. i did not go into that.

    thank you

    keep talking
    i value your comments


  2. Manju

    October 17, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Sir your article is very informative. Misr is the ancient name for Egypt. The name Muziris must have come from Misr. May be in ancient Muziris in Kerala would be an extension of Egypt , may Keralites must have come from ancient Egypt

    • sreenivasaraos

      October 18, 2015 at 1:02 am

      Dear Manju thank you for breating life into an old and a forgoten blog. I wonder how you came upon this.

      As you read , there are some speculations about connections between ancient Misr and Kerala coast.

      Muzuris was an ancient trading posr on the Malabar coast.

      Much has been written about Muzuris and the recent excavations.

      Please do read my article – A Note on Muzuris at

      Please do read the comments as well. It throws some more light on the issue.

      However, I am not aware of the latest developments.

      I wish spmeone writes about it.

      There is anpther post about Ancient Greeks in India before Alexander. You may read that as well


    • sreenivasaraos

      October 18, 2015 at 1:13 am

      In my earlier post

      ANCIENT EGYPT AND INDIA – Cultural relations
      In “History”

      I had written

      2.2 As per the legends and lore, the early Egyptians were from PUNT, an Asiatic country to the east of . Going by the description given of its coastline washed by the great seas, its hills and valleys, its vegetation (coconut trees among others), its animals (including long tailed monkeys) the Punt, the scholars surmise, may in fact be the Malabar coast.
      Please check

    • sreenivasaraos

      October 18, 2015 at 1:13 am

      In my earlier post

      ANCIENT EGYPT AND INDIA – Cultural relations
      In “History”

      I had written

      2.2 As per the legends and lore, the early Egyptians were from PUNT, an Asiatic country to the east of . Going by the description given of its coastline washed by the great seas, its hills and valleys, its vegetation (coconut trees among others), its animals (including long tailed monkeys) the Punt, the scholars surmise, may in fact be the Malabar coast.

      Please check


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