THE PERIPLUS


Written by a Greek resident of Alexandria in Egypt during the first century BCE, this text is one of the oldest surviving accounts of the countries on Africa's east coast. While the text describes what a voyager would encounter on a journey many of the place names have yet to be identified, although Azania is believed to be the Greek name for the coastal nations of the East African coast. The map gives you some idea of the size and scope of Africa and of the author's journey. If you 'click' on the map you will see a map of African created by satellite information. To return to this page from the map use the 'Back' button.


Points to Ponder:

-- Note that contact with the Arabian pennisula existed at this time.
-- To whom would these descriptions important?
-- What is the main concern of the author in this passage?
-- Do certain geographical areas possess unique natural resources?


The Periplus

Departure from Egypt for all these "far-side" ports of trade is around the month of July, that is Epeiph. To these "far-side" ports of trade it is also common to ship in from the inner regions of Ariake and Barygaza goods from those places that find a market: grain; rice; ghee; sesame oil; cotton cloth, the monache and the sagmatogene [types of cotton cloth from India]; girdles; cane sugar. Some ships sail principally to these ports of trade but some follow the coast and take on whatever cargoes come their way. The area is not ruled by a king but each port of trade is administered by its own chief.

Beyond Opone, with the coast trending more to the south, first come what are called the Small and Great Bluffs of Azania ... six runs by now due southwest, then the Small and Great Beaches for another six, and beyond that, in a row, the runs of Azania: first the so-called Sarapion run; then the Nikon; after that numerous rivers and also harbors, one after the other, numbers of them separated by daily stops and runs, seven in all, up to the Pyralaoi Islands and what is called the Canal; from here a little more towards the west, after two night and day runs, lying due west . . . comes Menuthias Island, about 300 stades from the mainland. It is low and wooded and has rivers, a wide variety of birds, and mountain tortoise. There are no wild animals at all except crocodiles; these, however, are not harmful to humans. The island has sewn boats and dugout canoes that are used for fishing and for catching turtles. The inhabitants of this island also have their own way of going after these with baskets, which they lower instead of nets around the mouths of [? rocky inlets].

Two runs beyond this island comes the very last port of trade on the coast of Azania, called Rhapta ["sewn"] , a name derived from the aforementioned sewn boats, where there are great quantities of ivory and tortoise shell. Very big-bodied men, tillers of the soil, inhabit the region; these behave, each in his own place, just like chiefs. The region is under the rule of the governor of Mapharitis, since by some ancient right it is subject to the kingdom of Arabia as first constituted. The mechants of Muza hold it through a grant from the king and collect taxes from it. They send out to it merchant craft that they staff mostly with Arab skippers and agents who, through continual intercourse and intermarriage, are familiar with the area and its language.

 

The principal imports into these ports of trade are: spears from Muza of local workmanship; axes; knives; small awls; numerous types of glass stones. Also, to certain places, wine and grain in considerable quantity, not for trade but as an expenditure of the good will of the Barbaroi. The area exports: a great amount of ivory but inferior to that from Adulis; rhinoceros horn; best quality tortoise shell after the Indian; a little nautilus shell.

These are just about the very last ports of trade on the coast of Azania to the right of Berenice. For, beyond this area lies unexplored ocean that bends to the west and, extending on the south along the parts of Ethiopia and Libya and Africa that turn away, joins the western sea.


Source: Maris Erythraei, ed. Lionel Casson, The Perpilus (Princeton University Press, 1989): 59-61. Map from World Map - Africa. [Web Site defunct as of 8-18-99]

| Back to Geography: Readings |