Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Phil Paine's reading list: the The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea meets Google Earth

Here is Phil's whole entry:

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 a 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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