A Journey to the Erythean Sea

GS “Sial Mirza” Goraya
6 min readJan 26, 2022

During the reign of Ptolemy VIII in Egypt (145–116 BC), an adventurous sailor, Eodoxus of Cyzicus, sailed down the Red Sea, then across the Bab el Mandeb straits, from where, on a ship harnessing the Monsoon Winds, he sailed across the Arabian Sea, to India. So says Strabo. It is likely that Eodoxus was commissioned by his king to undertake this voyage – but the circumstances leading up this are quite interesting.

Eodoxus’ companion and guide in his first voyage was an Indian sailor who had been shipwrecked somewhere on the coast of the Red Sea. Now, it is most likely that this sailor was a smuggler, or a runner of illicit operations, let us say. For, in the 2nd century BC, there had existed in the Arabian, or as it was known then, the Erythean Sea, a centuries old informal regime which had restricted shipping rights to Indian sailors beyond the port of Aden (Eudaemon to the Greeks), which was an international hub emporium for merchants and traders of the west and east.

This ancient maritime law, there is some evidence, was put into place by Alexander the Great, who had considered building a Satrapy of the Erythean Sea, to succeed in controlling the trade of the western Indian Ocean, an enterprise in which his predecessor empires of the Persians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians had failed. Alexander’s dreams of settling colonies of Phoenicians in the Persian Gulf and creating a maritime adjunct to his land based empire had been scuttled by fate, but this did not prevent his successor state in the region, the Seleucids from trying – they also invested in ports, to perhaps attract iterant boat merchants with the offer of facilities where force had failed.

That empire too crumbled before time, and trade and exchange in the Erythean Sea continued, in its unique, unorganised – or laissez faire – way, as it had for centuries, even, millennia – most of it still in the hands of small boat merchants from the western coast of India, or other similar boat people from small coastal villages in Arabia or Africa.

Ancient Beginnings

In the beginning of the 20th century, when archaeologists first began to excavate the cities of the Indus Valley, or Harappan Civilization, that was a revision – backwards – of the antiquity of Indian Civilization by about 1500 years. Since then archaeologists have been finding evidence of ancients settlements in not just Indian but along the coasts and rivers in the western Indian Ocean rimland, going back thousands of years more, in the words of Will Durant, wherever they care to dig, we now have a timeframe of Indian Ocean civilizations, of almost 10,000 years – that is civilizations in the Indus Valley, in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, and southern Iran.

There is nothing surprising or unique about this. This bracket of time, is a useful category for understanding the incubation of civilization, across a vast swathe of a region I call in my upcoming Phd. thesis – the Indo-Mediterranean. (More on this is subsequent posts).

The 10,000 year marker is a useful broad framework, during which humanity began to transition, or invent, a form of society radically different from all lifeways which had existed before – as settled agriculturalists. This transition was gradual, over millennia, beginning from the hotspots of the Levantine corridor, and almost simultaneously, in the greater Indus region, at two ends of the Indo-Mediterranean, and gradually spreading throughout the vast oikumene in between, flourishing, most abundantly and luxuriously in two regions which were somewhat late to the party, Mesopotamia, followed by the Nilotic valley. (Such linearity is only useful for writing an essay, and is definitely not representative of the real world, whatever that may be – but is useful and broadly relevant, yet if one goes into the detail, as one is dutybound to in today’s world, one will always find the odd exceptions scattered here and there.)

By about 7000 BC, a distinct settled society based lifeway (which I call the domus society – more on this too, later), had developed, diverging from the old hunter/forager lifestyle. However, there was still a deep synergy between these two lifeways, and a gray area between them wherein certain smaller communities chose a way of life which borrowed from both, creating a new kind of syncretic ‘camp culture’ – this would soon become the ordos type of society, what we know in popular historiography, as the pastoralist nomad/barbarian. The old ways of the pure hunter/forager would soon be restricted to a few pockets, or times, of necessity.

A synergy between the settled, agricultural village based domus societies, and the moving, camp based ordos cultures, over the next few millennia, created wide-ranging structures of exchange, of materials and knowledge, which by about 5000 BC, had set the stage for what I call the first epoch of globalization, and the beginning of the first world system.

Till about 3500 BC, this world system was one than operated through a structure of primarily long range land based exchange networks, linking our Indo-Mediterranean oikumene, as its core, with other world regions, as far as China and the European peninsula, and to the further northlands of Eurasia. At around 3500 BC, there was a maritime revolution, most likely led by sailors of the greater Indus Valley civilizations in cooperation with other communities of the Persian Gulf, which created for the first time long range oceanic trade, between the burgeoning city-states of Sumerian Mesopotamia, and the rich north Indian megacivilisational realm.

Through the rise of fall of empires, the glory and fading of civilizations, this world system had operated for 3000 years before Darius in the 5th century BC sent off his explorer, Scylax of Caryanda to map the Erythean Sea. Over aeons, many land based empires sought to extend their control over oceanic trade, and while many succeeding empires would attempt and fail, it would take centuries, nay, millennia before one finally succeeded, a quaint island kingdom, off the edge of the far frigid north of the western rim of the Eurasian peninsula, 2400 years after Darius.

The Oldest Waters

The Indian Ocean is the oldest ocean of human history – human history has in fact unfolded in and around the greater Indian Ocean world, which turns as a central wheel, propelling some civilizations and relegating others, to the forefront, or footnotes of history.

The name of this blog is inspired by the first great historians and explorers of the Greeks, such as Agatharcides of Cnidus, who in the 2nd century BC, for the first time put into writing, which survives for us only in fragments, a history of this oceanic world – so considered it to be a theatre whose story was worth telling in itself. That is of course where I get the Erythean from. The second part of the title is inspired by a recent book written by Sugata Bose, a history of the ‘modern era’ of the Indian Ocean, which I will write an extended essay on in the near future.

I was particularly captivated by the title of the book. What does it mean for an oceanic world to have a hundred horizons? The direction of exploration one must take to find an answer is in the question itself.

What does an oceanic world mean? Or, what, to begin with, is a world?

I looked in various directions to find an answer to this, then came across a beautiful phrase from my readings into literature dealing with the philosophy of mind – a world is essentially a horizon of possibilities.

In the greater Indian Ocean world, where a hundred such horizons have always existed simultaneously and overlapping, sometimes conflicting with one another, there have always been a few brave ones, like Eodoxus or his unnamed Indian companion who dared, who have through their courage, succeeded in extending the horizons of humanity at large. In this blog, through an exploration of all these horizons, and the lives of people who witnessed them, or whose imaginations led them beyond, to find – or forge – new worlds, we too will become explorers of a hundred horizons of the Erythean Sea. Or so I hope. Join me in the journey.

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