The Red Sea Trade Route
250 BC - 250 AD
During the period between 250 BC and 250 AD, a maritime sea route existed between Alexandra in Northern Africa and China. As trade took place along this route, a number of kingdoms rose to power, flush with finances from trade. These kingdoms all came into being around the same time, and all waned around the same time.

Trade on the Red Sea was in the hands of merchants based out of Alexandria. Nabataeans moved trade from Southern Arabia to their port of Leuce Come by boat, and then overland to Alexandria. "Arab" merchants also brought Indian and Asian goods to the ports on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. For a time it may have been Indian ships that brought the good to Southern Arabia, as Diodorus tells us of the 'prosperous islands near Eudaemon Arabia which were visited by sailors from every port of the world, and especially from Potana, the city which Alexander the Great founded on the Indus river.' (Diodorus. 3.47.9.)
Another description of this situation is found in a text known as 'The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea' by an unknown author. Many have assumed he was a Greek living in Alexandria, but he may have just as well have been an Arab merchant with a Greek name living in Alexandria. In it we read that 'Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) was once a fully-fledged city, when vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those of Egypt did not dare sail to places further on, but came only this far.' (L. Casson, ed. The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Princeton 1989) 26., lines 26-32) Any attempts by Alexandrian ships to sail beyond Aden were strongly discouraged; if they did sail, it was by laboriously hugging the coasts and in the words of Periplus, 'sailing round the bays'.

This was the situation until Roman financiers entered the Alexandrian money market towards the middle of the 2nd century BC. The ensuing rise of demand for oriental and southern goods in the Mediterranean markets whetted the appetite of Arab merchants based in Alexandria to increase their share in the north-south trade. They realized that they needed to sail directly across the Indian Ocean to the rich Indian market and bring good back to Egypt, without the involvement of Indian merchants. Ptolemy VIII, friend of Rome, as was his wife after him, demonstrated personal interest and involvement in the project which indicated the great hopes all parties in Alexandria attached to the success of the venture. While it is not known who made the first direct voyage to India, very soon a new important office was created for the first time in the Egyptian administration. It was know as the 'commander of the Red and Indian Seas,' and came into being under Ptolemy XII, nicknamed Auletes (80-51 BC). (Sammelbuch, 8036, Coptos (variously dated 110/109 BC or 74/3 BC; and no. 2264 (78 BC); Inscriptions Philae, 52 (62 BC) The creation of such an office implies that the perhaps at this time there was a marked increase in the regular commercial transactions with India.

It is also perhaps not entirely irrelevant that in 55 BC, the Senate decided to send Gabinius at the head of a Roman army to restore Auletes (Ptolemy XII) to his throne and to remain in Alexandria for the protection of the king against possible future revolts. (Caesar, BC. 3. 110). We can easily detect behind this drastic step, considerable Roman assets at risk in the case of sudden undesirable internal changes in Alexandria.

This should warn us against accepting at face value Strabo's often quoted remark that it was only under 'the diligent Roman administration that Egypt's commerce with India and Troglodyte was increased to so great an extent. In earlier times, not so many as twenty vessels would have dared to traverse the Red Sea far enough to get a peep outside the straits (Bab-el-Mandab), but at the present time, even large fleets are dispatched as far as India and the extremities of Aethiopia, from which the most valuable cargoes are brought to Egypt and thence sent forth again to other regions.' (Strabo, 17.1.13.) This is clearly an overstatement, intended as a compliment to the new Roman administration, considering that Aelius Gallus, the prefect of Egypt, was Strabo's personal friend at whose house he stayed as a guest for five years (25-20 BC). Strabo's statement stands in sharp contrast to the earlier data of the above mentioned inscriptions and to the more matter-of-fact statement of the later author of the Periplus (c. 40 AD), who rightly perceived that the great change in the modes of navigation and the vast expansion of trade were the direct result of the discovery of the Monsoon winds, at least half a century before Augustus conquered Egypt. Strabo himself witnessed the flourishing state of Alexandria only five years after the Roman conquest, and very shrewdly observed the active trade that went through its several harbors. He says, 'Among the happy advantages of the city, the greatest is the fact that this is the only place in all Egypt which is by nature well situated with reference to both things, both to commerce by sea, on account of the good harbors, and to commerce by land, because the river easily conveys and brings together everything into a place so situated, the greatest emporium in the inhabited world.'

 

 Soon after the annexation of Egypt, Emperor Augustus (Rome 63 BC - Nole 14 AD) in 26 BC commissioned his prefect in Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to invade southern Arabia by land. (Strabo, 16.4.23-4.) This land onslaught caused considerable damage to the Sabaeans as far as Marib, and allowed the Himyarites, close friends of the Nabataeans to soon take control of most of Southern Arabia. Some writers have thought that around AD 1 Augustus launched another devastating attack - this time by sea - which resulted, in the words of Periplus,'in sacking Eudaemon Arabia' which declined into, 'a mere village after having been a fully fledged city (polis)'. (Periplus, 26; Pliny, H.N. 6.32, 160 & 12.30,55; Also cf. H. MacAdam, 'Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy of Alexandria', in: Arabie Pre-Islamique (Strasbourg 1989) 289-320.) Now that Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) was out of action, merchants from Alexandria experienced unrivalled dominance of the sea route to India.

 

Left: The old lighthouse in Al Mokha port (Yemen)

 

 Parallel Maritime Histories
(Greece, Egypt, India, China, Rome)

 Trade on the Arabian Sea

 Trade on the Bay of Bengal

 Trade on the China Sea

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