In order to understand the nature of the shipping used at the Red Sea and the practical issues that were involved in its construction, it is important to look at not only books written by authors such as Strabo or Pliny the Elder, but also written records such as the Alexandrian Tariff, the Periplus, papyrus, ostraka and what archeology tells us.

The nature of these shipping activities were mainly military and commercial. The Periplus, written by a keen observer in the common (koine) Greek spoken at that time in Egypt, narrates travelling journeys between India and Egypt. Journeys that had commercial purposes. The text explains the issues experienced at ports and what were the optimal times for these journeys. The Periplus cite the long boats used to cover those journeys. Ships that had withstood the rigours of sailing in those regions. All of this related also to merchants, who had to convey sizeable cargoes to maximise profits on each journey.

Excavations made in Berenike and Myos Hormos provide us with valuable evidence about the type of shipping that navigated the Red Sea and the type of boats that sailed from Red Sea ports to far away regions in India, Arabia and Sri Lanka.

Products that were exchanged included precious stones such as agates, berly, carnelian, onyx or blue corundum, ingredients such as black pepper, coconut, or rice, or manufactured products such as sandalwood and glass wares. Written records such as an inscriptional evidence from Delos, seem to inform us of an important ivory trade route that started in the Red Sea around the Ptolemies period. This was a time when the dynasty had started funding the hunting of elephants to be used at war, for celebrations and parades. During the Ptolemies period elephantegoi boats were built to transport elephants to Egypt.

There are evidences of merchants and financiers organising trips to obtain spices and aromatics in places such as Somalia. Myrrh and calamus were brought from Southern Arabia. Commercial exchanges between Rome and Asia were of exotic and expensive commodities also. The transport of heavy stones used to built Roman cities came from places such as Eastern Africa quarries. This transportation was an impressive achievement that involved huge ships, capable of carrying such heavy weights.

Literary evidences suggest that with the discovery of the monsoon winds, or Hippalus, as Pliny the Elder calls these winds, merchants travelled further away to places in the East and South East Asia. These monsoon winds were discovered by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in the times of the Ptolemies. This was a point in time when an already known route to India started to be exploited. The Romans took advantage of this knowledge and converted it into an essential source of wealth and commerce. Boats were built with the idea to navigate to areas such as Ethiopia or Sri Lanka. A certain type of shipping was built, strong enough to navigate on the Indic ocean and capable of holding strong winds of up to 30 knots.

As the Muziris-papyrus shows, boats departure and arrival times to Egypt and India must had been scheduled in line with monsoon south and north winds. Just to give one example of the winds’ importance on these journeys, Philostratus stated that the masts of Eastern freighters were raised to greater heights. The enlarged mainsail probably gave these vessels more wind-driven power in the Red Sea and greater speed on their ocean crossings to India. We could expect heavier timbers to be used in ship construction for vessels and for all capacities. The size, shape, and number of sails were to be adapted to wind patterns and to the intensities of the monsoons.

Many other factors had to be taken into consideration, such as the Nile River’s best navigation times and wind conditions in that river. Therefore, seasons were taken into consideration and boats sailing conditions were also in mind when navigating not just the Indic ocean but also the Red Sea and Nile Rivers.

Caravans that moved goods through the Eastern desert to ports such as Berenike and Myos Hormos have provided to us with evidence of the journeys and the weights transported from and to cities such as Coptos and Alexandria.

The harbour dimensions at Berenike and Myos Hormos suggest that a ship less than 19–22 meters wide with a length less than 60–61 meters, possibly as little as 36–37 meters could fit in this space. These measures were used during the Ptolemies period.

We also have indication of boats from other ancient ships from wrecks excavated in the Mediterranean and northern Europe dating from the fourth century b.c.e. to the seventh century c.e. From these findings, boats between 75 to 200 or even 500 tonnes navigated the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

It might have been that differences existed among the types of boats built in the Mediterranean and the ones built in Arabia and India. Ships built in the Mediterranean used timbers joined edge to edge with dowels and metal nails; the hulls were then sheathed in pitch, and sometimes in lead, to retard the deleterious effects of boring marine organisms. Once the shell was assembled, a skeleton of internal wooden ribs set perpendicular to the hull greatly strengthening the ship and bound it together.

Romans adopted a new method for building boats named skeleton-first, which was cheaper, easier and quicker to make. Ship hulls made of cedar have being found, but unfortunately there is no evidence of whether they were used for military or commercial purposes. Indian-made sailcloth from the early Roman period has been found at both Berenike and Myos Hormos, which suggests that Indian-built or Indian-repaired or-supplied ships were at these harbours. Whether these boats were entirely built in India or in the Mediterranean cannot be determined.

McLaughing states that most ancient ships were built as a skeletal wooden framework with the keel acting as a spine for a ‘cage’ of wooden ribs. The hull planking was then attached to this frame. By contrast, large Greco-Roman freighters were built by first constructing the external hull. The planks of this hull were joined together with mortise-and-tenon joints along their edges, to rigidly lock the sections into position. The result was a very sturdy self-supporting hull to which further strengthening timbers and internal frames would be attached. Planks found at Myos Hormos with mortise-and-tenon joints confirm that these techniques were used on Eastern freighters. This skilled method of shipbuilding bore a closer resemblance to cabinet making than to regular ship carpentry and created an incredibly robust hull.

Philostratus reports that Roman merchant ships sailing to India had the bulwarks of their hulls raised to a great height and had extra compartments placed on deck. This would have isolated the deck from the Indic Ocean’s waves. Extra deck cabins and compartments were probably added as additional berths, or to accommodate further cargo and space for the crew to sleep and rest.

In the other hand, Roman freighters would have carried small ship-to-shore vessels onboard and these light craft would have been vital at Eastern ports which did not have adequate docking facilities for larger ships.

The findings of Teak, a hardwood that is found in India, might hint at the usage of this type of wood to built sewn boats called madarate. Teak, in fact and surprisingly, was found in even more abundant quantities than indigenous species such as acacia, mangrove or tamarisk. Usage of this Indian wood for maintenance, repair or even ship building raises questions about the origins of those fleets and about how and where they were built. What is definitely proved is that Romans and Far-Est Asian communities gained in commercial activities.

Those cargoes most probably needed to have skilful crews, people capable of working as carpenters, sailors, military and other professions. Skilful sailors were required on those long journeys and skilful ship builders and repairers were needed also to work on ports and fleets.

In terms of the facilities the ports provided, Berenike’s conditions were different to Myos Hormos and those conditions also changed over different periods. At some point Berenike was good for landing, but the harbour at Myos Hormos was a better post and the journey through the Eastern desert was shorter and safer from the latter.

Throughout the voyage to India, Roman freighters would have tried to remain together, sailing within sight of each other in small fleets. They would have been able to offer mutual support to repel coastal pirates as they sailed through the gulfs. When on the high seas, continued proximity was necessary in case ships in the group became damaged while being hundreds of kilometres away from land.

Evidences show that Indians and Arabs might have built their boats by the use of nails, pitch, and lead sheathing, opting instead to bind wooden beams comprising the hull with cords or by sewing them. However, according to some findings, it appears that vessels of all sizes and made from a variety of materials partook in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean commerce. There are depictions of single- and two-masted ships in India contemporary with our period of interest. At both, Berenike and Myos Hormos, excavators have found wooden and horn brailing rings which were tied to Indian-made cotton sails to facilitate raising and lowering them on the masts and nets, perhaps used to lift cargoes onto and off of the ships.

What it seems clear from the evidences found on papyrus, ostraka, the Periplus and archeological findings is that the opening of this market benefitted greatly first the Ptolemies and hugely the Romans. They must both have used resources to built fleets capable to create a commercial link with the East. It was though the Romans, by abolishing anachronistic legislation, providing increased security, and unintentionally boosting commercial markets, that brought the Greek Mediterranean into full commercial contact with India.

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Primary sources:

Strabo. Geography

Pliny The Elder. Natural History.

Secondary sources:

Adams, C. 2007. Land Transport in Roman Egypt A Study of Economics
and Administration in a Roman Province. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cobb, M. A. 2014. The Exchange of Goods from Italy to India During the
Early Roman Empire: The Range of Travelling Times, Ancient West and
East 13: 89-116.

McLaughlin, R. 2010. Rome and the Distance East: Trade Routes to the
Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China. London: Continuum.

Seland, E. H. 2011. The Persian Gulf or the Red Sea? Two Axes in Ancient
Indian Ocean Trade, Where to Go and Why. World Archaeology 43 (3):

Sidebotham, S. E. 2011. Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route.
London: University of California Press.

Sidebotham, S. E., Hense, M. and Nouwens, H. M.. 2008. The Red Land:
The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Cairo: The
American University in Cairo Press.

Wendrich et al 2003. ‘Berenike Crossroads: The Integration of
Information’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 46
(1): 46-87.