The Periplus( Part 2): The Little Nile River, Cape Elephant & Acannae

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea served as a handbook for merchants trading between Roman Egypt and eastern Africa, southern Arabia and India and contains an account of the navigation of the ancients. Beyond Mosyllum, the periplus continues :

After a two days’ course you come to the so-called Little Nile River, and a fine spring, and a small laurel-grove, and Cape Elephant. Then the shore recedes into a bay, and has a river, called Elephant, and a large laurel-grove called Acannae; where alone is produced the far-side frankincense, in great quantity and of the best grade.

Commentary by the American scholar Wilfred H. Schoff gives us the most reliable and accurate present-day localities of these ancient ports.

The Little Nile River

The text is Neilopotamion, perhaps a reflection of Egyptian Greek settlement. Another reading is Neiloptolemaion, which might also suggest a connection with one of the Ptolemies. But in Egyptian records there is no mention of settlement or conquest so far east.

Muller identifies this river with the Tokwina (11° 30′ N.,49° 55′ E. ) which empties below a mountain, Jebel Haima, 3800 feet high; there are ancient ruins here. The “small laurel grove” he places at Bandar Muriyeh (Murcanyo) (11° 40′ N., 50° 25′ E. ), below the Jebel Muriyeh, 4000 feet high.

The Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1154 AD) noted that the Little Nile River is a “river in the desert subject to risings like the Nile”.

Cape Elephant

Cape Elephant seems to be the modern Ras el Fil, or Filuk, 12° 0′ N., 50° 32′ E. It is a promontory 800 feet high, about 40 miles west of Cape Guardafui. The word fil is said also to mean “elephant,” and the shape of the headland suggests the name.

A river empties into the gulf just east of the promontory. Glaser (Skizze, 199) thinks this is too far east, and prefers Ras Hadadeh (48° 45′ E. ). Elephant River he identifies with the Dagaan (49° E. ) or the Tokwina (49° 55′ E. ), from which the modern fusus frankincense is brought to Aden. But by placing Mosyllum at Ras Khamzir, Glaser is entirely too far west to admit of covering the remainder of this coast in two days’ journey, as stated in § 11. And the “southerly trend” of the coast just before Guardafui, mentioned in § 12, fixes Cape Elephant at Ras el Fil.

Glaser objects to the relatively short two days’ sail between Ras Hantara and Guardafui; but he fails to take into account the prevailing calms north of the cape, which would justify a shorter day’s sail in that vicinity than farther west, where the winds are steadier. Salt (op. cit., 97-8) says: “Scarcely had we got round the cape (Guardafui) when the wind deadened. At daylight we found that we had made scarcely any progress. The same marks on the shore remained the whole day abreast of us.”

Regarding Cape Elephant, the English geographer William Vincent said “it is formed by a mountain conspicuous in the Portuguese charts under the name of mount felix or felle from the native term Jibel Fil, literally, Mount Elephant. The cape (Ras Filik, 800 ft. high, lat. 11 57′ N., long 50 37′ E.) is formed by the land jutting up to the North from the direction of the coast which is nearly East and West, and from its northern-most point the land falls off again South-East to Ras Asir-Cape Guardafun, the Aromata of the ancients.”


Acannae is identified with Bandar Ululah, 12° 0′ N., 50° 42′ E. McCrindle notes that Captain Saris, an English navigator, called here in 1611, and reported a river, emptying into a bay, offering safe anchorage for three ships abreast. Several sorts of gums, very sweet in burning, were still purchased by Indian ships from the Gulf of Cambay, which touched here for that purpose on their voyage to Mocha.

Captain John Saris was said to have stood in a bay or harbour at the river in Jibel Fil, a stream called Elephant River near Acannae (Akannai). The river enters the sea near Alula, a short distance east of Ras Filuk. Acannae  is the location “where, and where only, is produced the peratic frankincense. The supply is most abundant, and it is of the very finest quality.”

In reference to Acannae, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mentions a large laurel grove, but laurels do not grow in Somalia. According to Lionel Casson, it’s possible that the what the Greeks saw on this coast and called laurels were mangroves. Ten miles east of Ras Filuk is the port of Alula (11°58’N, 50°46’E), to the northeast of which lies a broad lagoon lined with mangroves. This could be the large laurel grove called Acannae. Alula also lies about 100 nautical miles from Bosaso ( Mosyllum), which suits very well the Periplus’s “two runs.”


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