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Long-Distance Trade Involving the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the 1st Millennium BCE – 1st Millennium CE

One of the key aspects of the antiquity of Eritrea concerns the long-distance maritime trade, which prospered particularly during the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE. The political and cultural features of the interaction among the people along the coast of Eritrea and their maritime trade partners of the wider Red-Sea coast, Indian Ocean, and Mediterranean region have been widely discussed. The connection of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea to the wider circuit along the Red Sea World and the Indian Ocean has been discerned from the presence of trading goods in several archaeological sites along the aforementioned geographical scope.

The existing knowledge among archaeologists who are involved in the Red Sea archaeology has been principally centered on the archaeological data from sites such as Berenike and Myos Hormos in Egypt, the Red Sea coast of Eritrea, and the Eastern Mediterranean as well as archaeological sites in present-day Yemen. Linking the available archaeological evidence from the Red Sea coast of Eritrea to the wider circuits of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean region helps us appreciate the beginning and decline of long-distance maritime trade from the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE.

Patterns in the production, distribution, and exchange of trading materials often help archaeologists to reconstruct wider circuits of long-distance trade among peoples of different civilizations in antiquity. The origin and distribution of materials, thus, becomes a reference to tackle these key aspects of the antiquity of the northern Horn of Africa.

Today’s edition of the column “Cultural Heritage” explores the accounts of long-distance maritime trade involving the Red Sea coast of Eritrea during the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE. The nature of the exchange patterns is highlighted in the production and distribution of ceramics, precious stones, metal artifacts, and glass objects. As far as the antiquity of the northern Horn of Africa is concerned, the first evidence of the involvement of the Red Sea coast of Eritrea is seen in its importance as part of the exchange circuit with ancient Egypt, Nubia, and Southern Arabia.

Ancient Egyptian sources point to a lengthy period of trade exchange with the Land of Punt as early as the mid-3rd to mid-2nd millennium BCE. Recent evidence from molecular biology and isotopic analysis of preserved skeletal remains of baboons presumed to have been exported to ancient Egypt from the Land of Punt strongly point to the location of Punt on the African side of the Red Sea coast, which includes much of present-day Eritrea. Furthermore, the progressive inclusion of the Eritrean Red Sea coast into a wider area of commercial expansion in the Southern Red Sea stimulated the rise of complex societies in Eritrea in the early 1st millennium BCE. In the late 1st millennium BCE these complex societies along the Red Sea coast of Eritrea were included in the Roman circuit of the Red Sea world. The commercial relations further expanded into the early to mid-1st millennium CE, allowing the civilizations along the coast to become important commercial partners of the Roman and Byzantine empires respectively. Amphora assemblages represent major evidence of the long-distance trade between the Eritrean Red Sea coast and the Roman and Byzantine empires in the 1st millennium BCE and 1st millennium CE.

Amphora assemblages refer to the large two-handled pottery containers of the Greek and Roman epochs, which were used for storing and transporting liquids such as wine and olive oil as well as foodstuffs such as fish sauce and date products. Amphora assemblages were produced across much of the Roman Empire from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to France and from the Italian peninsula to the Roman Province of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Various archaeologists give amphora assemblages different classifications to represent their production centers across the Roman world and their chronologies.

The archaeological record from the ancient port city of Adulis in Eritrea shows evidence of an Early Roman wine amphora (dating to the late 1st millennium BCE to early 1st millennium CE) as well as the so-called Ayla amphora from the Byzantine period (particularly from the 4th to 7th centuries CE). These varieties of amphora assemblages have expanded our knowledge of the probable origin and distribution patterns of amphora across the Red Sea world and the Indian Ocean. The Early Roman wine amphora found at the ancient port city of Adulis belongs mainly to the Dressel 2-4 forms believed to have been imported from the Italian peninsula and the Roman province of Egypt (principally the ancient ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike). These amphora assemblages have been found at Adulis with other forms of ceramic assemblages from North Africa, including the African sigillata forms, allowing us to understand the connections with the wider Red Sea world. It should also be noted that pottery from Adulis and the interior of the northern Horn of Africa have been found at the ancient Egyptian ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike. The Dressel 2-4 amphora were particularly destined for the Red Sea coast of East Africa, Southern Arabia, and the Indian sub-continent to transport wine, and they have been found in these regions in large assemblages.

Similarly, the Ayla amphora, which represents production from the 4th – 7th centuries CE, has been widely documented in the archaeological record of the Eritrean Red Sea coast. The Ayla amphorae are presumed to have been produced at the ancient port of Ayla (Aqaba) in present-day Jordan. These amphorae assemblages, presumed to have Eastern Mediterranean origin, were also found in Myos Hormos and Berenike in Egypt; Adulis, Assarca, and Matara in Eritrea; Axum in Ethiopia as well as Zafar in Yemen. The Ayla amphorae provide a glimpse of the long-distance trade across the wider circuit of the Red Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean during the Byzantine periods. The ancient shipwreck at Assarca in the Dahlak Islands revealed large assemblages of a variety of the Ayla amphorae and provided the sea-faring trade involving the Red Sea coast and the Mediterranean world. It should also be mentioned that apart from the apparent connections with the Roman and Byzantine worlds, the Red Sea Coast of Eritrea had trading contacts with the Persian Gulf and the Indian sub-continent, as understood from pottery uncovered along the coast.

On similar accounts, the long-distance trade involving the coast of Eritrea and the wider

The Mediterranean has been suggested from the remains of precious stones found at the ancient port city of Adulis. Decorated marble and travertine fragments uncovered from the port city presumably have been linked to the sources in the Agean and Egypt, which indicate Byzantine connections. This rudimentary analysis, it should be said, however, needs to be supported by geological, mineralogical, and chemical studies to understand the full extent of the distribution patterns involving these materials. Furthermore, metal artifacts and glass objects found along the coast need similar approaches to unveil the scale of long-distance trade connecting the Eritrean coast to the wider Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Mediterranean worlds in the 1st millennium BCE to the 1st millennium CE.

Eritrean National Public Diplo­macy Magazine, December 2022

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