<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
Series: Red Sea and Indian Ocean
01. Ethiopia Across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean
Contacts between the lands which became to be known as Ethiopia and India date back to the dawn of history. The two countries, though geographically remote from one another, had largely complimentary economies. Ethiopia was a source of gold, ivory and slaves, all three of them in great demand in India. India by contrast produced cotton and silk, pepper and other spices, all in great demand in Ethiopia, as well as some manufactured articles consumed by the elite.
Communications between the two countries, or regions, were facilitated by the Trade Winds. These blew, in the summer months, from north to south in the Red Sea, and then, across the Indian Ocean, from south-west to north-east. Winds, in the winter months, blew in the opposite direction. Such winds were important throughout the age of sailing boats, for they thrust vessels from the Ethiopian coast to that of India in the summer, and brought them back in the winter.
Commerce between Ethiopia and India also owed much to the fact that the seas between them formed part of a major international trade route, which linked the Mediterranean – and Roman – world with that of the East, including China.
Indian contacts with the Red Sea coast of Africa are poorly documented for very early times, but probably date back long before the Christian era. In the first century AD the record, however, gains clarity. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Graeco-Egyptian trade manual, states that Indian trade with the Red Sea area was largely based on Ariak, i.e. north-western India, as well as the Gulf of Cambay, Barugaza, or modern Broach, and, to a lesser extent, Limurak, or country of the Tamils.
Indian commerce, according to the Periplus, extended to many localities situated to the west of the sub-continent. At the mouth of the Red Sea the island of Sokotra, then known as Dioskouridou, was thus frequented by some Indian traders. This island, most of whose inhabitants spoke a tongue akin to Ethiopia’s classical language Ge‘ez, traded, the Periplus states, with both Limurak and Barugaza, and was permanently settled by a number of Indians.
Further west, on the Horn of African coast, the great port of Malao, today’s Berbera, likewise apparently dealt in a large quantity of cloth, almost certainly imported from India.
Adule, or Adulis, the main port of the Aksumite empire, which was situated further west again, within the confines of the Red Sea, also traded extensively with India. The Periplus, discussing this ancient Ethiopian commerce, explains that “from the inner parts of Ariak” were imported:
Indian iron and steel.
The broader Indian cloth called monakh
Cloth called sagmatognai.
Garments called gaunakai
A little muslin
The importance of such trade is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Aksumite coins have been discovered, over the years, in several parts of south-west India, while a hoard of Indian Kushana money was found in the vicinity of the northern Ethiopian monastery of Dabra Damo.
The Coming of Christianity, and Changing Alphabets
On-going contacts across the Indian Ocean had an incidental, but crucially important, consequence in the religious and cultural field. Frumentius, a Christian youth from Syria bound for India, was shipwrecked off the Ethiopian coast, around 330AD, and was subsequently instrumental in converting the Aksumite realm to Christianity.
The period immediately following the coming of Christianity witnessed interesting cultural developments, which took place at roughly the same time on both sides of the Indian Ocean. The writing of the Ethiopian language, Ge‘ez, and of the Indian, Brahmi and Kharoshi, evolved in an almost identical manner, by the addition of small signs, or other modifications, to the basic consonantal letters, to express vowel sounds. The Ethiopian and Indian alphabets were thus both transformed into syllabaries. How these changes took place, and whether they were related to each other – as one may suspect, cannot, however, be established.
Contacts across the Indian Ocean, which were clearly important throughout this entire period, found expression, a century or so later, in the visit to India of a Bishop of Adulis, by name Moses. He travelled to the sub-continent in the company of a Coptic bishop from Egypt, to examine Brahmin philosophy.
Continued commerce between Ethiopia and India was later documented, in the early sixth century, by an Egyptian trader-cum-monk, Kosmos Indikopleustes. He records that the Horn of Africa, which he calls Barbaria, produced frankincense, as well as “many other articles of merchandise”, which were exported to India. He adds that Taprobane, i.e. Ceylon, was visited by merchants from Adulis.
Further evidence of the significance of Aksumite trading with India is embodied in a Greek text, written by another Egyptian writer of the time. It states that the early sixth century Aksumite emperor Kaleb, when carrying out an expedition to South Arabia, in retaliation for the massacre of Christians at Nagran, made use of a number of vessels from India, as well as from several other countries.
Such ancient contacts across the Indian Ocean seem to have found material expression in certain elements of a shared culture. These include the cultivation, on either side of the ocean, of both cotton and sugar; the presence in the two regions of zebu, or humped, cattle; the existence of “African” lions in the Gujarat area of north-west India; the erection of fairly similar megalithic stones, in for example Ethiopian Gurageland and the Indian Naga hills; the use, by weavers, of almost identical looms in both countries; similar dress (the Ethiopian shamma and the Indian sari); and highly spiced food (Ethiopian barbar and Indian curry).
Trade between the Ethiopian region and India in the medieval period is relatively well documented. The Portuguese traveller, Tome Pires, writing of Cambay in the early sixteenth century, tells of the arrival there of “Abyssinians”, as well as Arabs, and describes the area’s trade with the main Gulf of Aden ports of Africa: Zayla and Berbera. His Bolognese contemporary, Ludovico di Varthema, likewise reports that Calicut was visited by merchants from Ethiopia, besides others from Arabia, Persia, Syria and Turkey.
Much of this trade centred at this time on the notable Arab commercial city of Aden. Varthema described it as “the great rendez-vous” for “all ships” coming from “India Major and Minor,” Ethiopia and Persia. The Venetian merchant Andrea Corsali likewise called Aden “the principal port of Arabia and Ethiopia”,while Barbosa reported that “many ships” arrived there from both Zayla and Berbera. Aden’s importance was also recognised by Brother Thomas, an Ethiopian visitor to Venice, who spoke of it as “the emporium of India” and “the gateway for all the spice and cloth and other things” brought by land to the then temporary Ethiopian capital, Barara. (Don’t, dear reader, ask where this was!)
Some Indian trade with Africa seem also to have passed by way of the Maldive islands, These were described by the fourteenth century Arab writer Dimashki as a stopping place for ships going to “Abyssinia”, besides Hormuz, Yaman, Mogadishu, and Zanj.
Massawa, Zayla, and Berbera
The three principal ports handling Ethiopian and Horn of African imports from India were then, as for centuries to come, Massawa, on the Red Sea, and Zayla and Berbera, as we have seen, on the Gulf of Aden coast.
Massawa, by this time already the main port of the Ethiopian highlands, was a place of sizable Indian trade, an was mentioned by the Portuguese, who report seeing “two Gujarat ships” there in 1520. Articles from India imported through the port were on sale, according to the Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, at the great market of Manadeley, in southern Tegray, where he saw “merchants of all nations”, among them “Moors [i.e. Muslims] of India”.
Zayla, according to Varthema, was likewise a place of “immense traffic”, especially in gold and ivory, which were exported to India, as well as to Persia, Arabia and Egypt. Indian goods imported through the port were taken, by camel caravan, to the “great mercantile city” of Gendebelu, where the Ethiopian monk Brother Antonio states that commodities were “brought from the whole of India”.
Berbera was visited, according to the Portuguese, Duarte Barbosa, by “many ships”, which carried “much merchandise” from Aden and Cambay, and returned with large quantities of African gold and ivory. Indian articles imported at the port were transported inland by camel, Corsali notes, to Ethiopia, which he termed “the country of churches”. The importance of this trade route was confirmed by Brother Thomas, who states that merchandise taken from Berbera to Shawa came from “Aden, Persia, Combaia [i.e. Cambay], and India”.
Some imports from India sometimes also reached the Ethiopian highlands by way of the Indian Ocean coast. Brother Thomas claims that “much merchandise” was brought there on ships of Cambay, and were later carried by caravan to Barara.
Penetrating the Ethiopian Interior
Indian imports, through one port or another, penetrated far into the Ethiopian interior. The chronicle of Emperor Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468) tells of that monarch presenting silken vestments to the great monastery of Dabra Libanos, while Tome Pires observed that “the most prized things” in Abyssinia included coarse cloth from Cambay, as well as silks, also from India.
Emperor Galawdwos (1540-1559) later declared that the people of Damot, in the far south-west of the country, gave gold “in exchange for inferior and coarse Indian cloth”. Textiles then, as in Aksumite times, in fact constituted Ethiopia’s principal on-going import from India.
Indian silks throughout Ethiopia were highly regarded by all who could afford them, Emperor Lebn Dengel (1508-1540) for example was described, by Alvares, as “dressed in a rich mantle of (gold) brocade, and silk shirts of wide sleeves”. His consort, Queen Sabla Wangel, according to the Portuguese warrior Miguel de Castanhoso, was “all covered to the ground with silk, with a large flowing cloak… she was clothed in a very thin white Indian cloth”.The Abun, or head of the church, was likewise often dressed, Alvares says, in “a white cotton robe of fine thin stuff”, called casha, in India, “whence it came”.