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Rhapta – ancient market in south-east Africa

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Map based on the Periplus of the Eritrean Sea
Map based on the Periplus of the Eritrean Sea

In the famous “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”1 – a manuscript from the turn of the 1st century CE, which served merchants navigating the waters between East Africa and India – we can find a place called “Rhapta”, which is described as “the last marketplace of Azania” and was located two days south of the so-called Menouthias Islands (it is suspected that it could have been Zanzibar, Mafia or Pemba).

Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek geographer from the 2nd century CE, describes a merchant traveling on the trade route to India, whose ship went off course and after 25 days of sailing reached Rhapta, which is at the mouth of the river of the same name.

Where might be the location of ancient Rhapta? English anthropologist and historian George Wynn Brereton Huntingford gives 5 suggestions – where all are located in Tanzania: the city of Tanga, Pangani, Msasani, Kisuyu or Rufiji River delta.

We can read from Periplus that ivory and turtle shell were the main export goods from Rhapta; however, it cannot be excluded that other goods may not be sent from these areas; e.g. Herodotus mentions that in Africa cinnamon was collected2.

  1. We do not know the author of this work, but it is believed that the document reflected the current state of knowledge of Greeks and Romans from the 1st - 2nd century CE.
  2. Herodotus, The Histories, 3.111
  • Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei, 1989
  • Felix Chami, The Graeco-Romans and Paanchea/Azania: sailing in the Erythraean Sea" in Red Sea Trade and Travel. Presented Sunday 6 October 2002 at the British Museum, 2002
  • Bronisław Nowak, Wschodnie Wybrzeże Afryki do końca XVI w.. [w:] Michał Tymowski, Historia Afryki do początku XIX wieku, Wrocław 1996
  • Photo: George Tsiagalakis / CC-BY-SA-4 licence

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