The Periplus of The Erythraean Sea: Mosyllum

In the latter half of the 1st century A.D. an anonymous Greek in Egypt, a Roman subject, possibly from Berenice on the Red Sea coast, who steered his vessel into the waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and brought back the first detailed record of the imports and exports of its markets, and of the conditions and alliances of its peoples. It is the only record for centuries that speaks with authority on this trade in its entirety. His book, the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, is a social and geographical landmark and is one of those human documents, like the journals of Marco Polo and Columbus and Vespucci, which express not only individual enterprise, but the awakening towards new fields of geographical discovery and commercial achievement. It is the first record of organized trading with the nations of the East and marks the turning of a tide of commerce which had set in one direction, without interruption, from the dawn of history.

Below is an passage from English translation of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, authored in 1912:

Another two days’ sail, or three, you reach Mosyllum, on a beach, with a bad anchorage. There are imported here the same things already mentioned, also silver plate, a very little iron, and glass. There are shipped from the place a great quantity of cinnamon, (so that this market-town requires ships of larger size), and fragrant gums, spices, a little tortoise shell, and mocrotu, (poorer than that of Mundus), frankincense, (the far-side), ivory and myrrh in small quantities.

Additional commentary by Wilfred H. Schoff:

Mosyllum is placed by most commentators at Ras Hantara, (11° 28′ N., 49° 35′ E. ) Glaser prefers Ras Khamzir (10° 55′ N., 45° 50′ E.) many miles farther west. The text gives no help in the way of local description. It is noteworthy that Pliny says the Atlantic Ocean begins here; ignoring not only the coast of Azania, as described in § 15, but the Cape of Spices itself. Mosyllum was probably, therefore, rather a prominent headland on the coast, altogether such as Ras Hantara. This, by the way, was reputed to have been the eastward limit of the conquests of Ptolemy Euergetes, King of Egypt, in the 3rd century B. C. But the best sort is that which is like the casia of Mosyllum, and this cinnamon is called Mosyllitic, as well as the cassia.  And this cinnamon, he says, “when fresh, in its greatest perfection, is of a dark color, something between the color of wine and a dark ash, like a small twig or spray full of knots, and very fragrant.”
Cinnamon is mentioned as one of the ingredients of the sacred anointing oil of the Hebrew priests (Exod. XXX). The Egyptian inscriptions of Queen Hatshepsut’s expedition, in the 15th century B. C., mention cinnamon wood as one of the “marvels of the country of Punt” which were brought back to Egypt.
Cinnamon was familiar to both the Greeks and Romans, and was used as an incense, and as a flavor in oils and salves. It is mentioned by Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and Pliny. Dioscorides gives a long description of it. He says it “grows in Arabia; the best sort is red, of a fine color, almost like coral; straight, long, and pipy, and it bites on the palate with a slight sensation of heat. The best sort is that called zigir, with a scent like a rose…. The cinnamon has many names, from the different places where it grows. But the best sort is that which is like the casia of Mosyllum, and this cinnamon is called Mosyllitic, as well as the cassia. “
The Periplus notes also (§10) the “larger ships” required at Mosyllum for the cinnamon trade. This was probably the very midst of the “Land of Punt” whence the Egyptian fleet brought cinnamon 15 centuries before.
Pliny prefers the account of King Juba of Mauretania, compiled from earlier information, in which the end of the continent is placed at Mosyllum; so that if he had before him this Periplus, he ignored completely the account it gives of this coast.

Mosyllum ( also known as Mosylium or Mosylon) is now believed to have been location of the modern-day port city of Bosaso ( Bandar Qasim).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Have something to say? Leave your comments, questions, or suggestions below.