The Periplus (Part 3): The Cape of Spices, Tabae, and Pano

From the Little Nile River, Cape Elephant and Acannae, the author reaches the Market and Cape of Spices:

Beyond this place, the coast trending toward the south, there is the Market and Cape of Spices, an abrupt promontory, at the very end of the Berber coast toward the east. The anchorage is dangerous at times from the ground-swell, because the place is exposed to the north. A sign of an approaching storm which is peculiar to the place, is that the deep water becomes more turbid and changes its color. When this happens they all run to a large promontory called Tabae, which offers safe shelter. There are imported into this market-town the things already mentioned; and there are produced in it cinnamon (and its different varieties, gizir, asypha, arebo, magla, and moto ) and frankincense.

Commentators are all in agreement about the location of the Cape of Spices. The location corresponds with Greek geographer Strabo’s “Southern Hope”. Regarding the Southern Hope, Strabo said: “after doubling this cape toward the south, we have no more descriptions of harbors or places, because nothing is known of the seacoast beyond this point.” This puts the location of the Cape of Spices at Cape Guardafui (Ras Asir). The Market of Spices or the Spice Port was located at the modern village of Damo, roughly 3 miles west of Cape Guardafui, where pottery of eastern Mediterranean origin dating to the Roman period was discovered in the 1970s by British archaeologist Neville Chittick.

The Periplus continues:

When this happens they all run to a large promontory called Tabae, which offers safe shelter. There are imported into this market-town the things already mentioned; and there are produced in it cinnamon ( and its different varieties, gizir, asypha, arebo, magla, and moto ) and frankincense. Beyond Tabae, after four hundred stadia, there is the village of Pano.  And then, after sailing four hundred stadia along a promontory, toward which place the current also draws you, there is another market-town called Opone.

Commentators such as Muller, Glaser and Huntingford put Tabae at different locations. Muller put it at Ras Shenaghef (13 nautical miles south of Cape Guardafui), Huntingford put it closer to Cape Guardafui at the modern-day fishing village of Tohen (  5 nautical miles south of Cape Guardafui) and Glaser thought Tabae to be at Cape Guardafui itself. Lionel Casson disagrees and places Tabae at Hurdiyo, on the north side of the peninsula of Ras Hafun. Casson believed three significant clues in the Periplus undoubtedly revealed the location of Tabae:

The author supplies three significant clues: it is a big promontory, this promontory is located on the route from the Spice Port and Guardafui to Ras Hafun some 400 stades (c. 40 nautical miles) before Ras Hafun, and ships in the waters about the Spice Port will head for it to take shelter. Moreover, the context supplies yet another clue, namely what they were seeking to escape. The author here is dealing with the outbound voyage, specifically the run from Cape Guardafui south. This can only be done during the north-east monsoon; the shelter, it follows, must have been against winds from the north.

This position was supported by French naval commander Charles Guillain who sailed the waters of this region in 1847:

Guillain, whose experience in these waters was considerable and, like the ancients’, done in sailing ships, conjectured that Tabai must have been on the bay of Chori Hordio on the north side of the peninsula of Ras Hafun, pointing out that the run from there around the tip of the peninsula to Opone on its southern shore was just about 400 stades. His conjecture has been confirmed by archaeology: excavation by N. Chittick in precisely the area mentioned has brought to light ancient remains, including pottery that goes back to the third and second centuries B.C.

What Chittick found in Hurdiyo lead him to conclude that the port was one of which the Roman geographers were ignorant and dated the establishment of the port to the 2nd or 3rd century BC. He also came upon vestiges of later occupation (3rd century AD) and these included turtle bones but no shells – a good indication that by then the port was dealing in tortoise shell, just like its neighbor Opone.

The first (Hafun West) is situated near the shore of a shallow lagoon which lies between the peninsula and the mainland. Here excavations revealed the severely eroded and damaged remains of a structure partly built of cut blocks. This is probably contemporary with fragments of high-quality pottery apparently of Hellensitic origin; storage pots of coarse soft ware were also found in the same, lower, level. This site is presumably the remains of a small port establishment of the second or third century BC of which the geographers were ignorant. It would have served ships which came through the lagoon. A wadi which derives from the Darror Valley debouches into the western part of the lagoon; that valley leads to a region where it is said good quality myrrh may be obtained. Later occupation at the site is attributed provisionally to around the third century AD, by which time the stone structure was in ruins. Much cooking was carried out, apparently using the surviving part of the southwestern wall for shelter from the wind. Among the ashy debris a large number of turtle bones were found; one may surmise that the shells were sold for export. There is also a substantial mound of shells of Murex virginius nearby; these may have been used for the extraction of dye…The edges of the lagoon are exceptionally favourable to the production of salt by evaporation, and it may be that this was carried out in antiquity.

In the vicinity are a number of small cairns built largely, if not entirely, with stone taken from the main building, as evidenced by cut blocks of various shapes. One of these was excavated, revealing a crouched burial with the hands to the face, facing west with the head to the north. There were no grave goods, but sherds of pottery lying adjacent to other cairns were similar to those of the later occupation of the main building. Burials of this type accord with the description of those of nomadic troglodytes in Strabo’s Geography.

The most notable finds in excavations at the West Site, in what is referred to above as an apparently rectangular building, were sherds of what appears to be Mycenaean pottery, found in the lowest deposit. The piles of (largely) cut stones evidently derive from this structure, and have been re-used to construct cairns over burials.

Egyptian pottery was also identified at the Hafun West ( Hurdiyo) site.

Amongst the Dressel 2–4 amphorae are ones likely to be Egyptian, Egyptian AE3 amphora and some conical bowls, which are very common in Egypt and were probably manufactured there. Wright suggests that the pottery reflects the provisioning of ships on their voyages, rather than being directly related to the ethnicity of visitors (Smith and Wright 1988, 138), although the Egyptian bowls may equally have been provisions used by Egyptian sailors on the African route.

Pano was believed by commentators to be located at Ras Binnah ( 11° 12′ N. ,51° 7’ E) because it affords shelter from the S.W. monsoon, however, given that Pano was beyond Tabae and Chittick’s evidence putting Tabae at Hurdiyo, it’s impossible for Pano to have been at Ras Binnah. Pano had to have been in the vicinity of Ras Hafun, somewhere between Hurdiyo and Hafun.

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