Monday, July 14, 2014

Following the sails of Sinbad

by Salman Hameed

 Figure from Science

A few weeks ago, one of the feature stories in the journal Science focused on the impact of the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. In particular, how that trade connected various parts of world. In fact, it looks like that this trade had a larger impact than the famous trade route via the Silk Road. That is all well and good and the discussion is part of debates within archaeology and history. However, I liked the fact that the article started with quotations from the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. When I was growing up, I read the Urdu translation of the Sinbad's Seven Voyages, and absolutely loved them. I can't recall too many details, but I still remember that in one of the voyages, Sinbad and the ship's crew and passengers landed on what they thought to be an island. It even had trees. But it turned out to be a gigantic whale! Now many many years have passes since I read that. But even now, when I see a whale (in pictures or live), my first thought goes to that story and wonder - how big must have been that whale for them to have mistaken it for an island? And trees!! Okay - so here is a nice example of how good imaginative stories can just stick with you for your whole life.

Back to the Science article (unfortunately, you will need subscription to read the full article). Here is the beginning:
“One day, the old desire entered my head to visit far countries and strange people, to voyage among the isles and curiously regard things hitherto unknown to me,” recalls Sinbad the Sailor in The Thousand and One Nights, first compiled in the 9th century C.E.

Until recently, Sinbad's tall tales held little interest for scholars of ancient and medieval East-West relations. They focused instead on the more than 6000-kilometer Silk Road far to the north, made famous by Venetian merchant Marco Polo, who traveled across the Central Asian steppes from Europe to China in the 13th century. Most researchers ignored the fact that Polo returned to Europe via the Indian Ocean, in the waters plied by real-world Sinbads. Glimpsed only in the odd Roman coin found in an Indian village or in medieval Chinese ceramics washed up on a Kenyan shore, the southern maritime road was easy to overlook.
“Also, the trading habit rose in me again.” This wily Odysseus of the Indian Ocean told fantastic stories of shipwrecks, cannibals, and exotic lands rich with gems and heady spices.

Now, this busy trading route is emerging from the shadows. Researchers are picking through Southeast Asian swamps, diving off Sri Lankan reefs, and digging on African beaches. The artifacts they are finding—glass beads, potsherds, seeds, animal bones—reveal a lost story of Indian Ocean trade that went far beyond the simple exchange of gems and spices. “Finally we are moving beyond just talking about trade to the making of cultural identity,” says archaeologist and historian Himanshu Prabha Ray of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The work, still in the early stages, is shifting archaeologists' focus from the great empires at either end of the Silk Road—Rome and China—to the trade and influence of the vibrant societies in between. Until recently, many historians would have agreed with a 20th century French scholar who dismissed the world's third largest ocean as “scarcely more than an extension of the eastern Mediterranean.” A paucity of ancient texts and archaeological digs reinforced this parochial view.

But the new evidence shows that from 2000 B.C.E. until the arrival of Europeans in 1498, the Indian Ocean network linked diverse societies on three continents, catalyzing industrial development and cultural changes from early Southeast Asia to medieval coastal Africa. It all sounds unexpectedly modern, says J. D. Hill, an archaeologist at the British Museum in London. “The surprise is that the world was interconnected long ago.”
Here is a bit in the article about the birth of Swahili:
In the early centuries of Indian Ocean trade, “East Africa is the missing story,” says Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Few ancient texts clarify Africa's role, and archaeology there lags behind work on Asian coasts. The Periplus mentions extensive trade between Mediterranean and African ports. But excavators have yet to identify any ports predating 700 C.E., and “Greco-Roman” beads found on the African coast turned out to be medieval, according to analyses by archaeologist Marilee Wood of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Evidence is growing that East Africa south of Somalia did not play a major role in Indian Ocean trade until after that time.
The Indian Ocean trade did eventually leave one of its most enduring legacies on the African coast from Kenya to Mozambique: an entire culture based on the trading way of life. The Swahili way of life includes the Muslim faith, an Arabic-laced language, and culinary and mercantile traditions strongly reminiscent of the Middle East. The word “Swahili” itself is Arabic for “coastal dwellers.”
What about the maritime trade at the time of Sinbad?
What kind of vessels made these voyages? Based on the few wrecks found to date, Lucy Blue, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, says that a typical vessel of Sinbad's era carried 1000 times the weight a camel can bear and required far less human labor than a Silk Road caravan. One example, a 9th century ship wrecked off the coast of Indonesia in the Java Sea, epitomized the protoglobalization of the medieval Indian Ocean. The vessel was crafted in an Arab style, carried a load of Chinese goods, and was built with timbers from Africa, according to Horton. Another wreck turned up just last fall on a shrimp farm on the southwest outskirts of Bangkok. A team co-led by Erbprem Vatcharangkul, chief of Thailand's underwater archaeological division, began excavating and revealed a vessel at least 35 meters in length, built in Arab style and dating to about the 8th century. Sailors or looters have scavenged the cargo, but they left behind an ivory tusk, wood that likely comes from India, and Chinese ceramics.

The sailing culture that these ships spawned left its mark on the societies that ring the ocean. Southern Indian Tamil poetry from the first 3 centuries C.E. warns young men not to leave home for dreams of wealth in distant ports, notes archaeologist Veerasamy Selvakumar of Tamil University in Thanjavur. That's a sign of societal stress as people shifted from traditional farming and fishing to mercantile pursuits, he says. Later inscriptions and stone carvings suggest that ship owners grew into an influential and wealthy class, according to archaeologist Pierre-Yves Manguin of the National University of Singapore. A Javanese shipmaster, for example, served as ambassador from a Javanese kingdom to the Chinese court in 993 C.E. “They played a big role as cultural diplomats and in propagating” faiths like Buddhism and Islam, Manguin says.

The tales of Sinbad reflect this status. In his final voyage, the Iraqi-born merchant acts as a diplomat for the Baghdad caliph, carrying precious gifts to a distant ruler and earning the caliph's gratitude.

By 1400 C.E., the geopolitical dynamics in the Indian Ocean began to change as Chinese and European consumers tired of buying expensive foreign goods through Arab, Indian, and Southeast Asian middlemen. Fleets of massive Chinese ships, some carrying 500 people, cruised as far west as Arabia and Africa, rattling the locals (Science, 9 May, p. 572).

Less than a century later, Europeans followed suit, mastering the trip around Africa. Over the succeeding centuries, the Indian Ocean trade fractured into more local exchange as the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British, equipped with better military technology than the regional powers, carved up the waters well into the 20th century. Today, however, the ocean is humming with international trade again; two-thirds of the world's trade goods move through it.

Sinbad retired comfortably to Baghdad after his seventh voyage, pledging never to set foot on a ship again. Archaeologists, however, are only at the beginning of their effort to recover the long-lost chronicle of the Indian Ocean. “We are rewriting history,” Wood says.
This is a fascinating multidisciplinary research project that received a 5-year,  $1.5 million, from the European Research Council to piece together the neglected history of Indian Ocean trade. You can find out more about this research at their website, Sealinks Project.


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