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H - 58 : Heard of Muziris or Barbarikon?

Illustration of how Muziris could have looked like - there are no Mountains though nearby

2’000 years ago, the route we sail this summer (Cyprus to Bodrum) was very busy. From mid-June to mid-September, 1’500 ships, each 30 meters long with a tonnage of about 300 tons, plowed these seas. Makes 45 ships a day on average. Of course, it was not like this. When the winds were favorable, everybody sailed at the same time. Would not be surprised if there were clusters of 250 and more ships sailing together. What a sight this must have been.

Barbarikon - Muziris on the Arabian Sea and Berenice - Myos Hormos on the Red Sea were Rome's most important ports for its trading in the Indian Ocean

These ships mostly carried bulky cargo from Egypt (grain), Cyprus (copper and wine) and the Levant (olive oil.) But 5 – 10% of the tonnage was reserved for goodies from further east – India and China. It is estimated that the total value of these goods amounted to 1.1bn sesterces or about 5% of Rome’s GDP at the time of Augustus.

Romans considered Black Pepper to be the Gold of Food - used it even for Deserts!

The goods travelled from India’s west coast to Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea, then reached Myos Hormos or Berenice on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, crossed the desert on camels’ back to the Nile before eventually arriving in Alexandria where they were taxed. The Asian trade peaked in the 1st and 2nd century AD under the Pax Romana, suffered from the Empire's crisis (German invasions) in the 3rd, but picked up again in the 4th after Constantine the Great re-united Rome. It would remain significant until the 7th century when the Persian wars and Arab conquests brought it to a stand-still.

Pattanam, north of Kochi, is probably the Site of ancient Muziris - here the excavation sites

During peak time, more than 100 Roman ships sailed east each year to return full of precious cargo. By chance, a papyrus document from the middle of the 2nd century AD survived. It is now at the National Austrian Library in Vienna. It is an amazing trade finance letter from Alexandria covering the goods to be purchased, the shipping and storage arrangements but also the value of the cargo. There were 140 tons of pepper, 80 boxes of dried Nard, a citronella grass for making perfume, 167 elephant tusk weighting 3.3 tons and 790 pounds of Indian cotton. Its total value was 7 million sesterces – an amount large enough to buy a fabulous estate in Italy. A Roman legionnaire earned 800 sesterces a year.

The invaluable Muziris Papyros has now been read and translated

The cargo was purchased in Muziris, an Indian port on the Malabar coast. The port gave the papyrus its name. The precious cargo was transported on the Hermapollon, a Roman ship of 250 tons. Thanks to Pliny (77 AD), Ptolemy (150 AD) and the “Periplus of the Erythrean Sea”, from an unknown Greek sailor in the 1st century AD, we know quite a bit about the ports on India’s West coast. Muzuris, near today’s Kochi in the south, and Barbarikon, in the north in the Indus delta, were the main port for Roman merchants.

Ports with known Roman Trade Agents are represented with Bule Dotts

Until recently, Muziris’ location was unknown, The port was hit by catastrophic floods in 1413 and never rebuilt. In 2007, archeologist found a site near Pattanam with Roman coins and amphora. Many believe ancient Muziris, now covered by layers of mud, was finally found. The death knell was more likely the continued silting from the Periyar river. Anyone who visited Kerala knows how much silt its river carry. They are all very muddy. Compared to today, the coast line during Roman time was 4 - 5 kilometers inland. We know the silting phenomenon from Miletus and the Meander river – we visited in 2022.

Water in Kerala is everywhere - it feels like a tropical version of Venice

Barbarikon (today Bhambhore) is easier to locate since the Umayyad Khalifs (661 – 750 AD) surrounded the port town with a big wall. They also built a mosque in 727. Its square floor is still visible. But Barbarikon was also silted. The mighty Indus river sealed its fate in the 13th century. It had to be abandoned. In its hey days, Barbarikon must have been a very busy place like Muziris. It was the Kushan’s Empire only big port and its main gate for trade. The Kushan Empire was known for its support of Buddhism.

Ancient Barbarikon, the mighty Kushan Empire's port, is now a deserted spot in Pakistan

Whilst both Muziris and Barbarikon were located on India’s west coast, they traded different goods. Barbarikon was a main center for buying tin, lapis lazuli, turquois, cotton fabrics and indigo dye. Muziris was the center for pepper trading, spices, precious stones & silk fabrics (which must have come via the South Chinese Sea). Both towns were wealthy and described in detail by Pliny and Ptolemy. It is said that Roman legionnaires protected Rome’s interest in these towns. But it is hard to verify. A lot of Roman coins have been found here.

The Remains of the Mosque built by the Umayyads in 727 AD - the silted port in the back

Today, the Indian media proudly talks about the trading centers on the Malabar coast which made the Romans come half around the world to buy pepper and silk, the two goods they craved for. Pliny’s worry that this trade in luxury goods may drain the silver from the Roman Empire is today quoted with glee by Indian journalists.

Locations where Roman Coins where found hidden away by their owners

Not all coin findings were as spectacular as this recent find below a Roman Theater in Como


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