Greek Interaction with East Africa


The East African commercial interest by the Ancient Greeks had existed as early as the eighteenth century BC with Egypt being the middleman. From Alexander the Great’s time, Greeks commonly had traded with the East Africans through the Red Sea. By doing so, interaction between the two worlds led to prosperity in both directions. This makes us ask how aware were the Greeks to Eastern Africa and Nubia? Was there a formal relationship between the two lands?

The earliest mentioning of black Africans by the Greeks came from the Iliad. Homer referred to the African pygmies in the Iliad, a possible reference to the people of Punt (Somalia) because of ancient Egyptian and Greek fascination. It was an Egyptian pharaoh that introduced the Greeks to Nubia. When Psammetik II invaded Napata, one of Nubia’s capitals, with Greek mercenaries in 591 BC, the ‘Ethiopians’ became known to the Greek world.

The conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC started the knowledge of coastal Africa in the Mediterranean world. Reorganization under the Ptolemies as a Greek-ruled kingdom led to a new era of Hellenistic commerce and exploration along its eastern coasts. Earlier reports by travelers and merchants in the Greek world already had created a considerable awareness of gold, animals, and other exotic products of the lands of the burnt-faced men’. The satirical Athenian pottery created by the rival of Amasis shows him as Negroid, or more appropriately labeled, Nubian. The early Ptolemies needed live elephants for military purposes as well as other African imports. These needs led to state-funded exploration and new commercial routes to the south opened up.

Ptolemy I (323-285) developed commercial routes up the Nile and past the first Cataract called the Dodekaschoenos (“the twelve schoenoi,” i.e., seventy-five miles) and his son controlled the northern Lower Nubia from Aswan (Syene) to Maharaqqah (Hierasykaminos) by the end of his reign.

According to Greek literature, at this time the King Ergamenes (most likely Arakakamani, whose reign was around 295 to 275 BC) accepted a substantial amount of Greek culture in Meroe. Diodorus of Sicily claimed the king “had a Greek education and had studied philosophy” which is probably a little liberal, but the ruler probably had much interaction with it. Using Agatharchides as one of his references, Diodorus explains that traditionally Nubian kings needed the approval of the Amun cult in Napata to become and maintain their reign. If a king suddenly gained disapproval from them, he could be forced to commit suicide. Ergamenes defied their order and slew the leaders of the Amun cult with the reasoning, according to some scholars, because of his interaction with Ptolemaic influence on the role of Hellenistic rulers. It happens to be this ruler that begins the practice of burying Meroite rulers in Nubia instead of the outskirt area of Napata.

Egyptian Greeks were traveling regularly up the Nile and desert routes southward to Nubia. Pliny mentions that a Simonides spent five years in Meroe writing a book on ‘Aethiopia’. Within the Ptolemaic period, Greek merchants and travelers were not only aware of Nubia, but its southern neighbors. The Greeks were also familiar with the Blue and White Nile below Meroe and its surroundings.

In the Third and Second centuries BC, the Meroitic kingdom interacted closely with Ptolemaic Egypt. The Meroitic king, Arqamani (218-200 BC) was on friendly terms with Ptolemy IV Philopator and the Dodekaschoinos appears to have been maintained by both kingdoms as a neutral territory regulated by the Agents of Isis. When Ptolemy IV built a temple in Dakka (Pselchis), Arqamani added a small entrance hall to it with his royal cartouches. On the island of Philae and Aswan, he built an inner temple shrine and Ptolemy IV made additions.

When Ptolemy IV died in 203 BC, relations between the two kingdoms deteriorated. Within two decades, Ptolemaic Egypt administered the Dodekashoinos which originally was handled by the cult of Isis. Egyptian occupation extended as far south as Dakka and the Wadi Halfa as it tried to get into three major trades with East Africans: gold, elephants, and exotic wood & animals. Though much significance has been focused upon the elephants for the use of military, the necessity of the other two are just as important in my opinion.. The Egyptian expansion and Ptolemy V Epiphane’s defacement of Arqamani’s temple in Dakka indicates an uncomfortable time between the two kingdoms. For Meroe, cultural and economic decline followed and within a century the Ptolemaic kingdom was heading the same path.

By the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor (181-145 BC), the desert gold mines were reactivated and showed itself to be just as important as the elephant-hunting. The Ptolemaic focus on gold mainly existed within their Dodekaschoenos. Though Ptolemy I had established small colonies within the area, the Lower Nubia became more established in the mid-Second century and under a joint rule between the Meroites and Greco-Egyptians. It was the Ptolemies that benefited completely from the gold mining, though, as Diodorus explains:

“For the Egyptian kings gather together and condemn to the mining of the gold such as have been found guilty of some crime and captives of war, as well as those who have been accused unjustly and thrown into prison because of their anger…”

This power did not last long for Egyptian control receded from the Lower Nubia by 80 BC. The Meroites held Qasr Ibrim (Premnis) at the fall of the Ptolemaic kingdom to the Romans.

As for their awareness of the African coastline Eudoxus, a Greek-Egyptian in the mid to later Second Century BC, was blown off course by a monsoon twisting his ship to the south of the Horn of Africa that he was using for trade along the shore. Returning to Egypt safely, he shows us that the Hellenistic world was aware of the African geography and the navigation of its coastline as they sought newer markets.

Egyptian elephant trade led the Ptolemies past Meroe and along the Red Sea coastline. Excavations in Musawwarat es-Sufra, a town about forty miles south-west of Meroe show numerous sculptures of elephants. The large corridors and ramps suggested to the archaeologists that it was a large training base to herd elephants in and train them for military or ceremonial purposes.

Agatharchides states Ptolemy III Euergetes established an elephant port ‘beyond the forests’ named Ptolemais Theron (Ptolemais of the Wild Beasts) near modern Suakin, Sudan along the Red Sea coast. William Adams suggests that native middlemen were probably used because of their experience and training-time.

In the Second century BC trading had reached Res Asir (Cape Guardufui) on the Red Sea. This increase in trade led to a small boom of Greek traveling records such as Agatharchides of Cnidus, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Poseidonus, and Artemidorus of Ephesus. Geography, people, and culture were discussed- though primarily about ‘Aethiopia’ but also including coastal people.

Agatharchides writes around the last quarter of the Second century BC, classifying the East African people into four categories: the Nilotic Africans living in farming communities; the marsh dwellers that were gatherers; the nomadic people that were pastoralists, and the Trogodytes or coastal African fishermen.

Ptolemais Theron was known for its tortoise-shell and ivory trade. The same went for the Ethiopian city, Adulis which was intentionally set up ‘by law’ to be a trading station between the locals and the Greeks.

In Adulis, the Abyssinians began to emerge as a national entity. Interaction with the Greeks contaminated their culture with language, technology, and merchandise. Abyssinian ports now appeared with votive altars and inscriptions. Adulis architecture slowly pushed away their Arabian design to implement Hellenistic features. The city became a cosmopolitan center trading where the inland communities came to sell ivory, tortoise shell, animals, hides, rhinoceros horn (as an aphrodisiac), slaves, exchange cloth and robes, buy flint glass, brass, copper for utensils and trinkets, iron weapons for elephant hunting and war, and implements, wine, and other produces from the Hellenistic world. Indian imports also reached the port with iron, steel, and Indian cotton cloth. It is without surprise that the city of Axum, which used Adulis as its primary port, eventually led the region to nation-building by the end of the First century AD with its renaissance of new ideas and concepts intermingling with their own tradition.

One of the earliest known Greek descriptions of the African is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea which describes numerous ports in the coastal kingdom called “Azania”. In the unknown author’s description, he discusses the numerous sites, trade, and any important attribute each town carried. By the First century AD, Greek trade was already common enough. He remarks that Arabs controlled several ports through “some ancient right” and that the Arab merchants “are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the whole coast and understand the language.” The Arab trading empire had made it as far as Rhapta, a port possibly on the Rufiji Delta of Tanzania. This being the case, the author of the Periplus shows that the Greeks had reached as far as Tanzania if not farther.

Ptolemaic coins were found in 1910 by Captain C.W. Hayward excavating in Port Durnford (Bir Gao), Tanzania. It took two decades to publicize his findings of Ptolemaic coins in the area which consisted of seventeen Ptolemaic coins and five uncertain pieces from the First to Third centuries BC.27 Though there is no record of where he dug, he recorded he found a large vessel “shaped like a Greek amphora,” which was smashed during transfer. His evidence shows that Hellenistic produce reached down the coastline (and possibly vise-versa) as early as the Third century BC though trading may have been conducted through Arab and Egyptian middlemen instead of direct Greek contact. So far no prehistoric sites have been discovered in the coastal regions and Hayward’s coins are the first argument with some sturdiness, but the lack of documentation for their findings do not present much trust.

Though East African commerce by the Ancient Greeks had possibly existed as early as the Second Millennium BC, it was after Alexander the Great’s time that Greeks commonly traded with the East Africans by Nile and Red Sea. Interaction led to prosperity in both directions and information exchanged back and forth. Strabo and Diodorus show that serious anthropological studies were taken by the Greeks as a way to explain their trading partners and possibly to enrich the Greek civilization on what was beyond common travel. The kingships that grew from East African settlements established a mixture of Arabic, Greek, and indigenous cultures that would eventually lead to a future Swahili culture and the kingdom of Zanj. It is through the early research of ancient Greek travelers that we may slowly understand an East Africa that modern Swahili nations do not have information to because lack of funding or limitation on literature provides little.