Trade from the ancient Indus civilization, which appeared around 3,000 B.C., stretched from India to Syria. The Indus people imported raw materials like lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; clam and conch shells from the Arabian Sea; timber from the Himalayas; silver, jade and gold from Central Asia; and tin, copper and green amozite, perhaps from Rajasthan or the Gujarat area of India. Evidence of maritime trade with Mesopotamia (about 1,500 miles form the Indus area) includes ivory, pearls, beads, timber and grain from the Indus area found in Mesopotamian tombs. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley is further evidence of trade between the two regions.

Products brought from Mesopotamia, Iran and Central Asia were traded for raw material and precious metals. Based on its location on trade routes, Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin told Discover magazine, Harappa "was a mercantile base for rapid growth and expansion...The way I envision it. If you had entrepreneurial go-get-'em, and you had a new recourse, you could make a million in Harappa." There are number of archeological sites near Karachi that were probably used as ports.

Alexander the Great’s march of conquest was finally stopped in eastern India. Several kingdoms in southern India had early contacts with West.The Pandyan kingdom, which dates back to the 2nd century B.C., according to ancient Tamil literature, was founded by the daughter Herakles with help from 500 elephants,, 4000 cavalry, 13,000 infantry and Roman ships. The Pandiya kingdom produced Tamil Sangam literature, unique poetic books written in the A.D. 1st to 3rd centuries that describe trade with Europeans. Poompuhar was the center of a Tamil dynasty that traded with the Far East, Rome and Egypt in the A.D. 2nd century but was destroyed by a tsunami in the 6th century. The ruins now lie in the sea about three kilometers from the sea.

Kerala in southwest India has a long history of contacts with outsiders and was one of the first parts of the Orient to be open to western Europe. It may have been "Ophir," where King Solomon's ships discovered apes, gold and peacocks. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Arabs and maybe the Phoenicians, visited the Malabar Coast before the first European explorers arrived. The Roman established a military facility here and built a temple that honored the Roman Emperor Augustus at the seaport of Cranganur. Islam most likely arrived in Kerala first, in the 7th and 8th centuries, and spread from there to the rest of India. There were also Jewish merchants from Venice. St. Thomas is said to landed here in A.D. 52. Columbus was looking for its spices when he landed in America. For a while there was large Arab community in Kerala.

Ancient Links Between India, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt

Smelting ore probably began in China or India and made its way westward. Much of the copper in ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Egypt, Phoenicia, Greece and Rome came from Cyprus, whose name is the source of the word copper. To melt copper out the rock it is necessary to keep a fire at least 1981°F (1083°C). This was most likely done in ancient Copper Age sites by continuously blowing a fire through tubes made from wood, bamboo or reeds. Archaeologists recreating the process need about an hour of constant blowing to produced several copper pellets the size of BBs. Producing copper for an ax using this method would take several weeks.

Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. Blue India dye is derived from a blue powder extracted from the indigofera plant. The dye was known to the Greeks and Romans and used by Egyptians to dye mummy cases.

The ancient Egyptians obtained goods from India and China. A strand of silk has been found on a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy. This astonishing discovery provides evidence of trade between ancient China and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

Many of the animals that we think of as existing only in sub-Sahara Africa—like antelopes, hyenas, and lions—were found in Mesopotamia and India 4000 years ago. Tigers roamed Iran and cheetahs were found in India until a few hundred years ago.

India and Mesopotamia

Ur (five miles near Nasiriyah, Iraq, near the town of Muqaiyir)) was a great Mesopotamian city and the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Founded in the 5th millennium B.C., it covers around 120 acres and was originally on the Euphrates River, which now lies several miles to the north.

Ur contained one of the largest ziggurats and had two ports that welcomed ships from as far as India. Roads linked it to present-day Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, and Israel. The first Mesopotamian boats were used to travel on rivers. Later most sophisticated vessels with sails were developed. The Mesopotamians invented the sail. Seafaring voyages may have taken place as early as 3500 B.C. Mesopotamians traveled across the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea between Persia and India.

Large scale trade was pioneered in Mesopotamia. Both luxury goods and raw materials circulated within Mesopotamia and were brought in from the outside as far away as India, Africa and Greece. The only goods available in abundance in Mesopotamia were mud, clay, reeds, palm, fish, and grain. To obtain other goods Mesopotamians needed to trade. Mesopotamians developed large scale trade. Ships brought in goods from distant lands. Labor and grain were exported. Metals were brought in overland routes and paid for with wool and grains. Goods were moved in jars and clay pots. Seals identified who they belonged to.

Indus and Mesopotamian Trade

The Sumerians established trade links with cultures in Anatolia, Syria, Persia and the Indus Valley. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley indicate that trade probably occurred between the two regions. During the reign of the pharaoh Pepi I (2332 to 2283 B.C.) Egypt traded with Mesopotamian cities as far north as Ebla in Syria near the border of present-day Turkey.

The Sumerians traded for gold and silver from Indus Valley, Egypt, Nubia and Turkey; ivory from Africa and the Indus Valley; agate, carnelian, wood from Iran; obsidian and copper from Turkey; diorite, silver and copper from Oman and coast of Arabian Sea; carved beads from the Indus valley; translucent stone from Oran and Turkmenistan; seashell from the Gulf of Oman. Raw blocks of lapis lazuli are thought to have been brought from Afghanistan by donkey and on foot. Tin may have come from as far away as Malaysia but most likely came from Turkey or Europe.

Many goods that traveled through the Persian Gulf went through the island of Bahrain. There was an early Bronze Age trade network between Mesopotamia, Dilmun (Bahrain), Elam (southwestern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan) and the Indus Valley. Dillum was a city-state on the island of Bahrain thrived from around 3200 B.C. to 1200 B.C. and described in Sumerian literature as the city of the gods. Archeologists have found temples and settlements on Dillum, dated to 2200 B.C. The earliest settlements in the Persian Gulf date back to the 4th millennium B.C. The are usually associated with the Umm an-Nar culture, which was centered in the present-day United Arab Emirates. Little is known about them.

The ancient Magan culture thrived along the coasts of the Persian Gulf during the early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Ancient myths from Sumer refer to ships from Magan carrying valued woods, copper and diorite stone. Archeologists refers to people in Magan as the Barbar culture. Based on artifacts found at its archeological site it was involved in trade with Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. Objects from the Indus Valley found at Magan sites in Oman include three-sided prism seals and Indus Valley pottery.

Sumerian texts, dated to 2300 B.C., describe Magan ships, with a cargo capacity of 20 tons, sailing up the Gulf of Oman and stopping at Dilum to stock up on fresh water before carrying on to Mesopotamia. The texts also said Magan was south of Sumer and Dillum, was visited by travelers from the Indus Valley, and had high mountains, where diorite, or gabbro, was quarried to use to make black statues.

Book: Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus edited by Joan Aruz and Romlad Wallenfels (Metropolitan Museum/ Yale University Press, 2003). It discusses art in Mesopotamia in its own right and as it relates to art in the Mediterranean region, ancient India and along the Silk Road. It has good sections on technologies such as sculpture production and metal making.

Persians Conquer Parts of Western India and Pakistan

According to PBS: “Darius I of Persia annexed the states of Sind and Punjab in northern India in 518 B.C. From then the people of the Indus valley ("Hindush" in Persian) paid tribute to the Persian king in textiles and precious local resources. After Alexander the Great overthrew the Persians and conquered the region in 326 B.C., Greek culture would be a major influence for over three hundred years, with Indo-Greek kingdoms founded in the North West Frontier, Afghanistan and the Punjab. But because of the close relation between Old Persian and Sanskrit, the influence of Persian language and culture in the northwest of the subcontinent never really waned until the collapse of the Persian-speaking Mughal Empire in the 19th century. [Source: PBS, The Story of India,]

In the latter half of the 6th century B.C. the north-western part of India was divided into a number of petty principalities, and there was no great power to curb their mutual strifes and jealousies. Naturally it provided a strong tempting ground to the Imperialism of the Achaemenian monarchy, which „ had arisen in Persia about this time under the leadership of Kurush or Cyrus (e. 558-30 B.C.) He extended the bounds of his empire as far west as the Mediterranean, and in the east he conquered Bactria and Gadara (Gandhara), but it is unlikely he advanced beyond the frontiers of India. His immediate successors, Kambujiya I (Cambyses I), Kurush II (Cyrus II), Kambujiya II (Cambyses II) — 530-22 B.C., — were too busy with affairs in the west to think of the east, but Darius I Darayavaush or Darius I (522-486 B.C.) appears to have annexed a portion of the Indus region, as evidenced by the inscriptions at Persepolis and on his tomb at Naksh-iRustam, mentioning the Hidus or the people of Sindhu (Indus) among Persian subjects. This conquest was made probably some time after 518 B.C., the assumed date of the Behistun record, which omits the Hidus (Indians) from the list of subject peoples, and long before 486 B.C., when Darius I died. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Herodotus tells us how Darius I essayed to achieve his object. He first sent an expedition some time after 517 B.C. under Skylax of Karyanda to explore the possibility of a passage by sea from the mouths of the Indus to Persia. He sailed down the Indus, and in the course of his voyage collected a good deal of information, afterwards utilised with advantage by Darius I. Herodotus also testifies that the conquered Indian territories, which perhaps did not include much of the Punjab, were constituted into the twentieth Satrapy of the Persian Empire; and it yielded the enormous tribute of 360 Euboic talents of gold dust, equal to about one million sterling. Obviously, these tracts were then very fertile, populated, and prosperous.

In the reign of Khshayarsha or Xerxes (486-65 B.C.), the successor of Darius I, Indian mercenaries, “clad in cotton” and bearing “cane bows and arrows tipped with iron,” formed a part of his expeditionary force against Hellas, and so it is certain that he maintained Persian authority intact in the north-western part of India. Presumably it continued for some time more, but we do not know with certitude when the connection between Persia and India finally snapped. There is, at any rate, some evidence to show that Indian auxiliaries figured in the army of Darius III Kodomannos in his fight with Alexander.

Persians in the Indian Subcontinent

By the end of the sixth century B.C., India's northwest was integrated into the Persian Achaemenid Empire and became one of its satrapies. This integration marked the beginning of administrative contacts between Central Asia and India. Much of what is now present-day Afghanistan and most of Pakistan was ruled by the Persian Achaemenid Empire from 520 B.C. during the reign of Darius I. The region of present-day Punjab, the Indus River from the borders of Gandhara down to the Arabian Sea, and some other parts of the Indus plain, became part of the empire later. [Source: Library of Congress, Glorious India <>]

Gandhara and Taxila in Punjab region became part of the Achaemenid empire in 518 B.C. During this time, Pushkarasakti was the king of Gandhara. The upper Indus region, comprising regions of Gandhara and Kamboja became the seventh satrapy and the lower and middle Indus comprising Sindh and Sauvira became the 20th satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire. This area was the most fertile and populous satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire. <>

The political contact between the two countries was beneficial to both in several respects. Trade received a fillip, and perhaps the spectacle of a unified empire stirred Indian ambition to strive after a similar end. Persian scribes introduced into India the Armaic form of writing, which in Indian environments later developed into Kharosthi, written from right to left like Arabic. Scholars have even traced Persian influences in Candragupta Maurya’s court ceremonial, and in certain words and the preamble of the edicts and in the monuments, particularly the bell-shaped capitals, of Ashoka’s time.

During the Achaemenid rule, a system of centralized administration with a bureaucratic system was introduced in the region. Famous scholars such as Pan.ini and Kautilya lived during this period. Indus Valley people were recruited to the Persian army and during the rule of Achaemenid emperor Xerxes, they took part in wars against the Greeks. Achaemenid rule lasted about 186 years. By about 380 B.C., the Persian hold on the region was weakening, but the region continued to be a part of the Achaemenid Empire until it was conquered by Alexander. <>

The Achaemenids used the Aramaic script for the Persian language. After the end of Achaemenid rule, the use of Aramaic in the Indus plain diminished, although we know from inscriptions from the time of Emperor Asoka that it was still in use two centuries later. Other scripts, such as Kharosthi (a script derived from Aramaic) and Greek became more common after the arrival of Alexander. <>

Sea Navigation, India and the West

The ancient Greeks described the monsoon winds in A.D. 45 These winds made it possible to travel between India and the Middle East each way in less than 40 days. Before they formally described them, the Greeks utilized the monsoon winds. The Crete mariner Nearchus, who had joined Alexander the Great, sailed from the Indus River back to the Middle East in 325-324 B.C. A Greek named Eudoxus made one of the first known voyages between Egypt and India. Around 120 B.C., he sailed across the Arabian Sea and down the east coast of Africa. By A.D. 100, Greek and Roman mariners were sailing east of India.

Silk from India or China has been found in Egyptian mummies. Scientists examining the hair of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy found a strand of silk. This astonishing discover provides evidence not only of the existence of silk in ancient Egypt but also of trade between ancient China or India and the Mediterranean 1,800 years before Marco Polo traveled the famed Silk Road.

Solinis in A.D. 250 described umbrella men in India who stood on one foot and put their other foot over their head to protect themselves when it rained. In the A.D. 6th and 7th centuries, Indian mariners traveled eastward and brought India culture to Cambodia, Sumatra, Java, Bali, Burma, Thailand, Malaya, southern Vietnam, southern Borneo. Around the same time Arab mariners brought Islam from the Middle East to India, from where it was introduced to Malaysia and Indonesian and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Monsoons and Ancient Travel Between India and the Middle East

The monsoons in India form two branches: the first sweeps from the Arabian Sea and drenches the Malabar coast of western India and then sweeps down towards Sri Lanka. The second moves northward from the Bay of Bengal and drenches Bangladesh and eastern Indian and then curves off towards the northwestern part of the country. [Source: Priit Vesilind, National Geographic, December 1984]

With onset of summer in India in April, the land heats up more rapidly than the ocean and the monsoon winds begin to blow from west to east from the Arabian Sea inland across the Indian subcontinent. At the beginning of the summer monsoon "a low pressure area forms as heated air above the land expands, and rises and warm ocean air moves in to take its place. Passing over the hills and highland, the ocean winds then drop their moisture as torrential summer rains." The rain falls from June to September. The wind blow from west to east from April or May to September.

During the southeast or autumn monsoon the situation is reversed. As the land cools down more rapidly than the sea, a low-pressure area develops over the ocean from October to December, and the dry monsoon winds blow steadily seaward from east to west.

In ancient times and even today dhows steered by Arab, Persian and Indian mariners utilized the monsoon winds to travel across the Arabian Sea between the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and India. Sinbad the sailor is said to have reached China from Arabia by riding the monsoons and Islam reached India as well as Malaysia and Indian on the same winds.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2020

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