18180. [2] (Anon. 1st Century AD) The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century [translated from the Greek and annotated by Wilfred H. Schoff]

I first read this in 1989, when I became fas­ci­nat­ed by ancient India. Along with the work of Megas­thenes, it gave me a vivid pic­ture of the trav­el, com­merce, and cul­tur­al con­nec­tions between India and the Mediter­ranean world in antiq­ui­ty, and this in turn awak­ened me to my present atti­tudes toward the nature and ori­gins of democ­ra­cy. The Periplus dif­fers from most oth­er doc­u­ments from the era in that it wasn’t writ­ten by an aris­to­crat or an intel­lec­tu­al. It’s a set of sail­ing instruc­tions and obser­va­tions on prod­ucts for sale and pur­chase in the Indi­an Ocean and its adja­cent gulfs, writ­ten by an Alexan­dri­an mer­chant sea cap­tain. His name is unknown. But he was a keen observ­er, with an order­ly mind. The book was gath­er­ing dust in the Shas­tri Indo-Cana­di­an Col­lec­tion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Library, when I first looked at it — few peo­ple were inter­est­ed in such things then.

Now it’s an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent sto­ry. There is a pletho­ra of books on the Indi­an Ocean trade of antiq­ui­ty, and the Periplus is a stan­dard resource for his­to­ri­ans. Some­thing has changed for me, as well. Now, I’m read­ing it with Google Earth in front of me, as I turn every page. The remark­able thing is that I can fol­low the Periplus like a soar­ing eagle, from land­mark to land­mark. All the names have changed, though some sur­vive in dis­tort­ed form, in mod­ern lan­guages. But the author had cer­tain­ly been to the places he described. Where he says there’s a cliff or a moun­tain or a reef, there it is, for me to see with my own eyes. With intense plea­sure, I fol­lowed the text, while zoom­ing in and out along the whole coast of the Red Sea, East Africa, Ara­bia, the Per­sian Gulf, the Makran coast, Sindh, the Rann of Kutch, the Mal­abar coast, the mag­i­cal land of Taprobane (Sri Lan­ka).….

Back in 1989, I wouldn’t have dared to pre­dict that such god-like pow­ers would be avail­able to me in my life­time.

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