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Adulis - a Port on the Red Sea, Eritrea

Principal investigators: Professor David Peacock, Dr Lucy Blue & Dr Graeme Earl

The port of Adulis was one of greatest significance in Antiquity. It is best known for its role in Aksumite trade during the fourth – seventh centuries AD. It is connected to Aksum in Ethiopia by a tortuous mountain route to Qohaito, thence across the plateau to the city itself. However it is also a major port of the Periplus of the Erithraean Sea, a sailors' hand-book of the first century AD. Not only did it offer a good harbour on the route to India, but it was a source for luxuries such as ivory, tortoise-shell and rhinoceros horn

 

       ADULIS  ANCIENT ERITREAN PORT                                                                                                                                                                

                        

 The port of Adulis was one of greatest significance in Antiquity. It is best known for its role in Aksumite trade during the fourth – seventh centuries AD. It is connected to Aksum in Ethiopia by a tortuous mountain route to Qohaito, thence across the plateau to the city itself. However it is also a major port of the Periplus of the Erithraean Sea, a sailors’ hand-book of the first century AD. Not only did it offer a good harbour on the route to India, but it was a source for luxuries such as ivory, tortoise-shell and rhinoceros horn.

The site was first identified by Henry Salt, who visited it in 1810, and noted that the site was still called ‘Azoole’ by the natives. There is little reason to doubt Salt’s identification as it accords well with the Periplus. It lies in a deep bay of exactly the right dimensions (the Gulf of Zula, 200 stades = 33km deep) and at the entrance, near the other shore is a hilly island (Dissei), ‘Oreinê’ of the Periplus. It is about 10 hectares in extent and comprises substantial mounds, some of which have clear indications of walls. Trenches have been dug into a few revealing impressive buildings, but no adequate plans have been published and there is no overall survey.

There is however, a number of problems, both chronological and topographical, which it was felt, could be economically addressed by field survey. Firstly, the surface pottery is late in date and accords with Aksumitic importance. There must however, have been earlier activity on the site, because of its mentioned in the Periplus and because pre-Aksumitic pottery from this region has been found at Quseir (Myos Hormos), in Egypt, in first and second century contexts.

There are however topographic problems. Adulis is referred to as a port, but it is 7 km from the sea. At the time of the Periplus it was 20 stades (3 km) from the coast. There has been major coastal change in the area, which is poorly understood. The site connected to the sea by a silted river channel and if this was active in Roman and Aksumite times an alternative explanation might be that Adulis was a fluvial rather than a maritime port.

While the equation of the site with Adulis is broadly acceptable there is a number of discrepancies. The Periplus refers to an island approached by a causeway, for which there is no evidence at all. Extravagant theories have been evolved to suggest that the site was originally at Massawa, 60 km to the north, which today comprises islands connected by causeways.

The work of Cosmos Indicopleustes ‘Christian Topography’ written in the 6th Century AD has a sketch map showing Adulis a little way from the coast clearly connected with Aksum. On the shore itself are two other places Gabaza and Samidi, which have never been positively identified. However, 3.5 km to the south-east are some hills, known as Galala, at the foot of which large quantities of pottery have been noted. It has been suggested by Sundström in 1909 that this could be the site of Gabaza, perhaps the earlier site of the port of Adulis itself.

Because of these problems a joint field survey has been launched with collaboration between, the University of Southampton, the University of Asmara and the National Museum of Eritrea. Funding comes from the AHRB and the British Institute in East Africa. A first season of survey took place in March 2004 and has begun to answer some of the above questions. We now have good topographic survey of much of the site - to be completed in 2005 and geophysics has enabled us to map buried buildings. Regional survey has led to a reconstruction of the ancient shore-line and the identification of Gabaza, which we believe to be the site of the ancient harbour of Adulis. Interestingly, if our palaeogeographical reconstruction is correct one of the two Galala hills would be on land the other and island connected by a causeway - perhaps the feature mentioned in the Periplus. Samidi has also been found and appears to be a mausoleum of Aksumite date.

However despite this success, we still have to locate the Adulis of the Periplus, for nothing of that date has yet come to light.

 

 

 

Image relating to Adulis – a Port on the Red Sea,  Eritrea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recording of archaeological material found at Adulis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excavations by previous researchers at Adulis

 

Excavations by previous researchers at Adulis

 

 

 

 

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