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Literary Review:Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean

The book dives into past and present finds regarding the importance of the ports between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Societies

Madras Port in 1996. Image Source:


  • The Red Sea was used as a trade route from 3rd century B.C. to 6th century C.E.
  • The trades that happened were not strictly goods, but knowledge and ideas as well
  • Researchers are constantly finding new information on life during this period

‘Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean’ edited by ed Marie-Francoise Boousasac, Jean Francois Salles and Jean-Baptiste Yon, dives into the important role that ports played. Their importance is established by the fact that their function went beyond sending and receiving goods. Information was spread through the ports between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Societies. The sources of reference range from the Greek Periplus to the 16th century Portuguese and the French in the colonial period.

The Red Sea was a trade route from 3rd century B.C to roughly 6th Century C.E. The ports studied here offer much information about life during this time period.

The first chapter introduces readers to recent discoveries that were found during excavations of the Red Sea ports. These discoveries further credited the previously known facts.

Rightfully so, this first chapter does an excellent job of setting the tone for the new information that has been discovered.

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The second chapter goes deep into findings regarding storage facilities which were shipment requirements. It also discusses ship-related equipment, such as old oar blades. Recent geographical finds have proved that there was a navigable lagoon at Gawasis in ancient times.

Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean. Wikimedia Commons.
Ports of the Ancient Indian Ocean. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

According to an article in The Hindu,‘Living in the Egyptian Ports’ is a chapter that discusses ports that were important to the early Roman period. It also describes what life at the ports was like. Limitations in these harbors were found during an excavation done by The University of Southhampton in 1999-2003; this chapter confirms these finds.

The part of the book dealing with the inscriptions of the Hoc cave in Socotra are said to be of high interest to Indian readers. In 2001, discoveries were made, which claimed that over 100 Indian inscriptions were made with charcoal, chalk, or mud were scratched into the surfaces of the rocks. These inscriptions were written in Brahmi and appears to be similar to inscriptions of the 2nd to 4th Century C.E. of West India. Newly discovered inscriptions validate these later findings. The new findings mention the city of Bharukaccha, which was one of the most significant ports at the point in time.

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The chapter on Emmanuelle Vagnon’s Latin Cartographic sources of 1200-1500 C.E., is also quite intriguing. Looking at the changes that cartography has undergone since the 1990s, the author points the readers to consider something else. She comments on medieval nautical charts and references of Fra Mauro’s mappaemundi and Ptolemy’s Geography.

Gaur and Sundaresh add to already known information regarding the ancient technology of jetties and and anchorage system on the Saurashtra Coast. Since Satyabhama Badreenath, has been a superintendent archaeologist on site in Chennai, he discusses the revelations that were found after the tsunami in 2004.

This book is abundant in knowledge and is said to be a gem to university libraries and research centres.

Abigail Andrea is an intern at NewsGram. Twitter @abby_kono


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  • Aparna Gupta

    This is really an evidence of our rich history between ports of ancient India and Mediterranean societies.

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Conflict and Diplomacy exercise on the South China Sea

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines.

Chinese territory
China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947
One-third of global maritime traffic. An estimated $5 trillion in annual trade. Six claimant nations. One body of water. And that’s just on the surface.

Welcome to the South China Sea, the geographic commons of Southeast Asia’s navigable rimland. Its 3.5 million square kilometers of underlying bedrock contain oil and natural gas deposits that, by official U.S. estimates, are at least equal to Mexico’s and, by some contested Chinese estimates, might be second only to Saudi Arabia’s. Also, home to lucrative fisheries and supply routes that carry 80 percent of China’s crude imports, the territorially disputed region may be the most strategically important waterway of the 21st century.

Tracing shorelines of sprawling, hard-to-govern archipelago nation-states to the south, the sea is bound to the north by China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947—cite ancient maritime records.

For centuries, these waters also have been vital to the economic survival of neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The waters are also prized by regional non-claimants. For U.S.-allied Japan and South Korea, situated far to the north, South China Sea shipping lanes provide access to trade-intensive waters of the Indian Ocean, via which more than half of their respective energy needs are met. For non-claimant Indonesia, Natuna Sea fishing grounds along the southern fringe of the contested region hold vital natural gas reserves.

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines. The United States, which has signed onto UNCLOS without ratifying it, often relies on the international agreement to settle territorial disputes.

China has refrained, invoking intertemporal laws based on the deep historical record, such as archaeological findings on disputed reefs and islands. At best, China views U.N.-backed codes of maritime governance as incompatible with domestic laws; at worst, it sees them as instruments of Western hegemony designed to undercut its expanding influence as a world power.

Even after the global pressure, China has been adamant on its stand on South China Sea. Wikimedia Commons

On the horizon

If Asia’s astonishing economic growth of the past two decades continues, however, regional stability will remain a matter of global consequence. Beyond China’s increasingly assertive land grabs and island-building campaigns—some 1,300 hectares of tiny islets have been landfilled to sustain mostly military infrastructure, including runways long enough to accommodate bombers—low-level skirmishes between Chinese naval patrols and civilian fishing fleets from neighboring countries could spark international conflict.

In July, a five-judge panel in The Hague unanimously rejected the legal basis of nearly all of China’s maritime claims. Within weeks, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a regulation stating a “clear legal basis for China to safeguard maritime order,” in which Beijing vowed to prosecute any foreigners found fishing or prospecting in disputed waters.

Other means of settling complex territorial disputes also appear ineffective. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea, which Beijing officials said they would finalize in 2017, would do little to resolve conflicting claims of sovereignty. Much like the Hague-based tribunal’s ruling, any legally binding ASEAN declaration would lack meaningful mechanisms of enforcement.

While the United States has long said it does not take an official position on South China Sea disputes, it steadily criticizes China’s behavior there and plans to expand defense alliances with countries that have overlapping claims. By 2021, U.S. Navy officials plan to expand the Pacific Fleet’s overseas assigned forces by approximately 30 percent.

As President Donald Trump assumed office, some observers speculated that, like his immediate predecessors, he might be called upon quickly to handle another South China Sea crisis. Just months into his first term, former President George W. Bush faced an international dispute triggered by a midair collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island.

Less than seven weeks after former President Barack Obama took office, Chinese ships and planes confronted the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance ship in waters south of Hainan, and ordered it to leave. The U.S. said that it had the right to be there and that the ship was harassed, while Beijing defended its actions. Obama responded by sending a guided-missile destroyer to protect the Impeccable.

Such incidents, engineered or otherwise, are likely to continue defining the dispute as it unfolds in real time. Until broader questions of maritime sovereignty are resolved, the waterway promises to remain a fulcrum upon which the geopolitics of international trade, and thus the global economy, pivots. We’ll keep close tabs on developments here as they occur. VOA