In Pragati:The Indus colony in Mesopotamia

Someone recently asked why sea voyages were prohibited in India. The answer is simple: sea voyages were not prohibited in India. How else do you explain the Indian Ocean Trading system where merchants — Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu chettis, Malabar Mappilas, Saraswats, Navayats — traded in ports from Meleka to Aden? The June 2009 issue of Pragati had an article by Manmadhan Ullatil on this trading network.
But the history of sea voyages is much older; around 2000 B.C.E, there was a Meluhhan (identified as people from Indus region) colony in Mesopotamia. There was also a person who could read Meluhhan and Sumerian or Akkadian which could help in deciphering the Indus script. Read all about it in the latest issue of Pragati. The references can be found here.

The Pharaoh's Ship

On Dec 29, 2009, archaeologists found the eighth in a series of lost chambers at Wadi Gawasis in Egypt. Previously seven chambers had revealed pieces of an Egyptian sea faring vessel.

Inside they found a network of larger rooms filled with dozens of nautical artifacts: limestone anchors, 80 coils of knotted rope, pottery fragments, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that likely are steering oars from a 70-foot-long ship. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions, the ship was dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt by Queen Hatshepsut during the 15th century B.C. [Archaeologist Kathryn Bards Amazing Egyptian Digs]

This is not the oldest ship remains in Egypt; that credit goes to Khufu’s ship (2500 B.C.E), but then Khufu’s ship probably never sailed.

The ship that was found at Wadi Gawasis was sent to Punt by the female Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508 B.C.E – 1458 B.C.E). But even now no one knows where Punt it. We know that it was south of Egypt, was accessible through the Red Sea and from there Egyptians obtained an alloy of gold and silver, wood, slaves and animals like giraffe and rhino. 

The most important export of Punt was a tree resin  used to make incense. Then incense, during those times, could be obtained from Arabia, Sindh, Baluchistan, Gujarat, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. In fact among all these places, the Arabian one was considered the best. But looking at various other factors, Punt is believed to be in the Saudi/Yemen border or Eastern Sudan/Eritrea area.

The importance of incense during that period can be seen in the story of Queen Sheba who visited King Solomon. She came either from Ethopia or Yemen and bought bales of incense as gift. This is the same queen who had a Duryodhana effect and converted and whose son stole the Ark of the Covenant

Egyptians were known for their land trade, but when the King of Kush became powerful and hostile, Queen Hatshepsut had no option other than navigating the choppy waters of the Red Sea. The design of her ship can be seen in the frescoes of her tomb and based on that archaeologists and ship builders made an exact replica which was the subject of the new PBS documentary Building the Pharoah’s ship. This ship,  made of wood, tied with rope and sealed with beeswax, performed well. It was able to survive a small storm as well.

But then sailing across the open ocean was quite common by that period. A millennia before Hatshepsut, Sargon of Akkad boasted about the ships of Magan, Dilmun and Meluhha lying in his harbor. To prove that ancient ships could do such long distance travel Thor Heyerdahl made a 60 foot reed ship called the Tigris and sailed from the Tigris delta to the Indus delta and returned back to Djibouti. It was in such ships that Queen Puabi got her carnelian beads, Gudea got his wood and the Meluhhans arived to settle in Guabba.

Recreating an ancient trade route

According to Romila Thapar[3], the trade via the maritime route between the west coast of India and west Asia go back to the third millennium B.C. At that time the Egyptian civilization was in existence and Indus Valley was in its early stages. Once the trade route was established, there was continuous Indian presence in west Asia. This was the predecessor of the trade relations with Rome in the first millennium B.C and Africa in the first millennium A.D.
Georg Feuerstein et al[2] writes about cuneiform texts mentioning historical a historical place called Magan (or Makan) which according to some scholars could be Sudan or Ethiopia. But majority of the scholars think that Magan is present day Oman. Copper was found there as early as the fifth millennium B.C and and Omanis were wealthy from copper export. Copper attracted the merchants from the Indus valley and an inscription in Harappan script was found at Ras al-Junayz.
Now some researchers are traveling along that bronze age trade route, on a boat, similar to the one used by people four millennia back.

The 40-foot Magan, named after an ancient name for Oman, is made of reeds formed into bundles, lashed together with rope made from date palm fibers and covered with a woven mat coated with black bitumen or tar to make it waterproof. The vessel will be powered by a square-rigged sail made of tightly woven wool and maneuvered using two teak steering oars.
The plan is to leave Sur in Oman on Wednesday, taking advantage of the last of the southwest monsoon winds and favorable currents, and sail east 590 miles to the historic port of Mandvi in Gujarat, India, a journey that could take up to three weeks.[Bronze Age-style reed boat to sail from Oman to India]

This is going to be one hell of a trip since the boat is not covered and the sails have to be adjusted constantly. The crazy people who are doing this, all eight of them want to know how life was back then, how boats were built and ancient navigation techniques. To add authenticity, they have cargo similar to the ancient ones and the menu consists of a typical bronze age meal.

Even maneuvering aboard will be hard, since crew members will be walking on cargo piled up in the bottom. The cargo is meant to be representative of trade goods of the period: copper ingots for making the bronze that gave the age its name, blocks of fine black diorite stone for carving, turtle and marine shells, pearls, frankincense, carved soapstone vessels, dates and date products, fish oil and sharkskin – an ancient sandpaper.
The crew consists of Vosmer and the navigator, both Americans; a sailing master from Australia; two Omani seamen; two Italian graduate students; and an Indian archaeologist. They will have a Bronze Age diet of dates, honey, legumes, dried fish, bread and water, but there will also be some modern munchies.

But unlike the bronze age travellers, Magan will have a GPS, navigation lights, emergence beacon and life jackets, and also an Indian naval vessel will be following it.
Update (Sept 8, 2005): The boat sinks
Update 2(Sept 11, 2005): There is going to be another boat (via Secular-Right India)