Friday, 19 July 2013

Cosmas Indicopleustes

Long term readers will remember my obsession of a few years ago with Sighelm and his possible travels to India and Ceylon.

(This also ties in with my more recent interest in African contacts with Sri Lanka)

There's not a great deal of information about Byzantine contacts with Sri Lanka, however I've just recently come across Cosmas Indicopleustes made a well documented journey to India in the mid 550's visiting Christian communities in South India and Ceylon.

Cosmas specifically mentions a community of Persian Christians in Ceylon, and extensive trade with Ethiopia - which in this context probably means the ports of the present day Somalia and the Swahili coast, which correlates with the appearance of murals of black women among the so-called concubines at Sigiriya which are possibly roughly from the same period as Cosmas ..

Written with StackEdit.


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine at the University of Birmingham, Rebecca Darley, has just finished a Ph.D. on Byzantine contacts with India, and the short version would be that she thinks almost all the evidence much over-rated. However, she was dealing principally in numismatic evidence, so I don't know how this source would fit into her picture. All the same you might want to know more about her work.

dgm said...

yes I would like to more about your friend's thesis.

My own view about these things is rather more nuanced these days.

There was undoubtedly a significant trade in spices between Rome and what is now Kerala and Sri Lanka before roughly 700AD.

This involved Somali and other African traders as middlemen and the majority of the trade was probably indirect. The presence of coins and pottery shows that there was trade involving individuals who had contact with the late Roman and Byzantine world.

As well as the St Thomas Christians, there were small ancient Jewish communities in South Asia, and there is even a small black community.

The latter is quite interesting, especially given the murals in the palace ruins at Sigiriya that depict black concubines. Likewise there is a substantial moslem community in Galle that arrived prior to the Dutch, and have never integrated into the Sinhala Bhuddist minority.

Even though it is a politically sensitive topic, the presence of pre Islamic Christian remains in the Gulf states and Iran also shows that there were substantial Christian communities involved in the trade and probably pilgrimage. These support networks would have allowed adventurous individuals from the west to reach India and Sri Lanka, just as in early modern times Ralph Fitch reached Chiang Mai, and Robert Shirley, James I's ambassador to the Shah of Persia encountered Thomas Coryat in the Iranian desert walking from Constantinople to Gujarat.

After 700 AD, the rise of Islam probably made the Gulf route more difficult and while the spice route via Somalia continued the increasing impoverishment of Byzantium reduced the market and the degree of engagement. Clearly there was some engagement, even as as far away as England, Aldhelm knew of pepper, which comes only from Kerala, but most if not all trade was via intermediaries..

The coin evidence, which is virtually non-existent after late antique time does not help us - coins were treated as a way of transporting gold and silver, not necessarily of presence - just as when travelling in third world countries I carry some US dollars and Euros as I know I can always find someone to exchange them.

One thing that struck me when I was recently in Sri Lanka is just how much early modern Dutch and Portugese small chnage had been found. We know of course the history of colonialism and why this would be so. At the same time no coin hoards from rome or Byzantium have been found suggesting that there was not a substantial direct presence, and the coins and pottery turned up by accident.

So, my view is that some adventurous individuals did go there from Rome and Byzantium, but that the majority of the links were indirect and probably via the monsoonal trade route from East Africa.

Anonymous said...

I think that Rebecca would absolutely agree that she is dealing with negative evidence where positive might show more; her concern is mainly to clear away the false conclusions based on misinterpretations of the negative evidence as positive than to prove or disprove any contacts. She's yet to face her viva, so it'll be a while yet before the thesis is fully available I'm afraid. Meanwhile, I should have blogrolled your other blog by now! Then I'd have caught this reply sooner, sorry!