The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a partially first-hand Greek document that details trading opportunities along the Red Sea coast and further south, includes an unusually overt and detailed description of Somaliland CAD60. Chapter Four, for instance, refers explicitly to ‘Adulis, a fair-sized village, from which there is a three-day’ journey to Koloe, an inland town and the first market for ivory’, and ‘five days’ journey more … to the city of the Axumites’.
The Periplus then goes on to name several ‘other Berber market towns, known as the “far-side” ports; lying at intervals one after the other, without harbours but having roadsteads where ships can anchor and lie in good weather’. It also asserts that ‘these places … are governed by [the Axumite king] Zoscales; who is miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright and acquainted with Greek literature’.
Clearly, most of the Berber ports listed in the Periplus lay along the coast of present-day Somaliland, which was then part of, or a vassal to, the Axumite Kingdom. The ports named as Avalites and Malao probably tally with present- day Zeila and Berbera, the latter also preserving the ancient Greek name for the entire region. The more easterly Mundu and Mosyllum are frequently identified with present-day Maydh and Bosaso, although it could be argued convincingly that they actually lay between Berbera and Maydh. If that is the case, then the ‘large laurel-grove called Acannae, where alone is produced the far-side frankincense, in great quantity and of the best grade’ near ‘a river, called Elephant … along the coast beyond Mosyllum’, describes to a tee the forested base of the Daallo Escarpment, which lies a short distance inland of Maydh and still supplies it with copious quantities of high-grade frankincense. Either way, the ‘Cape of Spices, an abrupt promontory, at the very end of the Berber coast toward the east’ is unambiguously Cape Guardafui, the most easterly point in Africa, set in present-day Puntland.
The Periplus provides an interesting, albeit rather brief, description of Somali coastal trade 2,000 years ago. Popular import items ranged from ‘undressed cloth [and] cloaks of poor quality dyed in colours’ to glassware, Italian wine, olive oil and various metals – brass was ‘used for ornament instead of coin’, copper to make ‘cooking utensils, and for bracelets and anklets for the women’, and iron for ‘spears used against the elephants and other wild beasts, and in their wars’. Export items included frankincense, myrrh, ivory, tortoiseshell and rhinoceros horn (the latter then, as now, used in Yemen and elsewhere in Arabia as the handle for a type of dagger called a jambiya). Slaves were also sometimes sold to passing ships, but this was rare.
Somali merchants played an important middleman role, as indicated in the Periplus, selling on a variety of goods that were transported to the region by Indian merchants. Among the items that were openly sold on in this manner were ‘Indian iron, steel and cotton cloth … and a few muslins’, and a scarlet insect-derived dye called lac. However, the writer of the Periplus clearly swallowed one myth perpetuated on the Mediterranean world by Somali and Arab traders for centuries. This was that cinnamon bark, used to make a highly valued spice, was produced locally, when in fact it was cultivated in the Far East, shipped on to the Red Sea region and then re-sold to Mediterranean traders at a whopping profit.