Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Ancient Emporium of Sindh

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In the 1st century BCE, an anonymous Greek sailor wrote a detailed and useful handbook titled Periplus Maris Erythraei or Circumnavigation of the Eastern Ocean. This was a gazetteer of sea lanes, ports, commerce and winds of the seaboard between Egypt and south India. The book tells us of an extremely busy port named Barbarikon, sitting in the Indus delta on a branch of the great river.

Barbarikon traded with most countries of the civilized world of its time, Periplus tells us, where ships called from as far away as Egypt and the ports of south India. Outgoing goods ranged from Sindhi indigo, ironware and cotton to lapis lazuli and chrysolite brought in from the mines of Afghanistan. Imports were as extravagant as Mediterranean wines, silver and glassware and high-end drinking vessels. A port as active as Barbarikon, accruing large sums in custom duties, could only have been immensely affluent.

Periplus designates the country of Barbarikon as Indo-Scythia or India of the Scythians. Early in the 1st century BCE, this Central Asiatic tribe of horse riders had completely swamped southern Sindh and the Greeks came to know the country after them. The Scythian king, we learn, resided in an inland capital called Minnagar believed to be present-day Hyderabad. The imports meant for his court were offloaded at Barbarikon and then transported by river boat. Besides, Barbarikon maintained regular and extensive trade links with other inland towns.

Searching for this forgotten port city, explorers of the 19th century found a site with “foundations of houses, bastions and walls” on the then abandoned most westerly branch of the Indus called Gharo. Local lore had it that this was the ruined city of Bhambore named after its ruler Bhambo Raja. In the 1860s, the tireless Alexander Cunningham arrived here and, having studied the geography of the delta in detail as well as descriptions given in the Periplus, concluded that Bhambore was the Barbarikon emporium mentioned by the anonymous author of the ancient handbook.

Though two superficial excavations were carried out earlier in 1928 and 1951, the most detailed research on this ancient port was undertaken between 1958 and 1965 by Pakistani archaeologist Dr. F. A. Khan. His work revealed a city surrounded by a heavy defensive wall interspersed with semicircular bastions with gateways leading to the seafront as well as the inland direction.

Inside the girdle of fortification, the area, which was clearly a citadel, hosted houses, shops, workshops and public buildings. Similar buildings have also been uncovered outside the fortification showing that the city and its suburbs extended well over a kilometre.

On the waterfront, excavations revealed a large stone structure, partly submerged and silt-laden. Its massive stone foundation indicates that it was used for berthing heavy cargo boats.

The most significant find here was the discovery of the town’s grand mosque in 1960. An inscription found within the ruins of what was once a multi-pillared, flat-roofed edifice fronting an open courtyard, records its construction in the Hijri year corresponding with 727 CE. That was 16 years subsequent to the Arab invasion under the command of Mohammad bin Qasim.

The sizeable array of artefacts uncovered during excavation include terracotta, ceramic and painted pottery, iron and glassware, ornamentation fashioned from ivory and seashells as well as coins. Among the last, issues from the Scythian period beginning in the middle years of the 1st century BCE validate the claim of the anonymous author of Periplus.

The ruins and artefacts reveal three distinct phases. The Scythians and their distant kinsmen the Parthians being culturally similar were followed by a local Brahmanic order which, in turn, gave way to the Sassanian Empire of Iran.

In the early Middle Ages, the Greek name of Barbarikon was forgotten. Instead, we hear of a port city called Debal, the location of which matches that of Barbarikon. For many years, it was moot whether the ruined city of Bhambore was either Barbarikon or Debal or indeed if the three were different names for the same ancient township. A French archaeologist asserts that Bhambore is positively the Debal that Mohammad bin Qasim besieged and took in the year 711.

As for Bhambore’s identification with Barbarikon of Periplus, the Scythian coins and other artefacts found among the ruins point us in that direction. Similarly, the discovery of the anchorage on the seafront, especially one meant to handle heavy cargo vessels, reinforces the idea of a port where ocean-going ships were moored. That said, Bhambore has revealed only part of its story: much more remains hidden beneath what we see.

In 894, an earthquake overturned Debal which was until then home to the descendents of its Arabs conquerors. An old text makes the incredible claim that a million and a half died in the city alone. This cannot possibly be true for a time when the entire province of Sindh was rather sparsely populated. Except, seven decades later the geographer Mohammad Al Muqaddasi passed by a ruined Debal and from hearsay confirmed the earthquake that flattened it.

But Debal rebounded and was once again a living city when Central Asian King Jalaluddin Khwarazm, fleeing the superior arms of Chengez Khan, came upon this hapless city and turned his fire and sword on Debal. The year was 1222 and the sun finally set on the city that may well have been the ancient Barbarikon.

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At 1 August 2014 at 21:52, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir thanks for providing in depth knowledge of Barbarikon in relation to Debal

At 2 August 2014 at 00:38, Blogger Unknown said...

Very informative. Earlier I had heard of Bhambore as Sassi's city which was looted.

At 3 August 2014 at 14:06, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Bhambore was plundered and sacked in 1222 by Jalaluddin Khwarazm, that dishonourable man we consider our hero.

At 7 August 2014 at 18:23, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Can I ask why then is Jalauddin Kharazm considered a hero?

At 9 August 2014 at 08:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Khwarazm is a hero because of bastards like Nasim Hijazi who screwed up our history.

At 9 August 2014 at 15:27, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Why on earth was that moron hell bent on aggrandizing such a loser ? Why have all the plunderers of our land, Mahmud, Shahab been elevated to such a heroic status ? Why don't we own up to our ansecstor like Paurva, Anandpal and Prithvi Raj Chuhan ? It was just ecstatic seeing the Egyptians owning up to the Pharaohs...A kid in Giza told me, "They were our Grandfathers, who created a source of income for us in the form of these relics....We love them !" And I was so ashamed.... The way Egypt is celebrated the world over is so enviable....I am sure the Indian Past is more glorious than any other.....We have got to come up good...We must own it up....We have got to be proud of such magnificent heritage. I know so may cultures that have such shitty heritage, yet they embrace it....Hum bohat nashukray hain....

At 9 August 2014 at 17:52, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rehan, we are a terribly confused people. Confused by our conversion to the "one and only true religion". That is the bottom line.

At 25 January 2019 at 13:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article Sir ! More details I hope in your book " Sea monster and Sun god ". Which I will be getting in coming days. One small query sir :- Alexander Cunningham in his survey ( Report 1872 - 73 Pg 111 )mentioned about a Firoz shah mosque that existed at time of his first visit ( Nov 1838 in Debalpur, he mentioned )and later destroyed by British for use in civil construction near by. Is the discovered mosque same.
With regards

At 26 January 2019 at 09:40, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Himanshu. One, this piece was done for a table diary for Pakistan Petroleum Ltd and is not part of Sea Monsters. Two, the remains of the mosque (image 2 from top) is not the same as the Tughlak one. This is the first mosque built by the Arabs.

At 26 January 2019 at 13:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the info Sir !
Sea monster and the Sun god book actually i got attracted by one your short story about an island where people visit since ages.Delivery time of your books is high in India. This book i ordred on 24 Jan and expected delivery is 5 to 10 Feb from Amazon.
Sang e meel i tried through their web site but after getting the book added in cart , site asks for a form to be filled after that no response for months.

With regards


At 26 January 2019 at 14:29, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

I'll forward this comment of yours to Sang e Meel. Thanks for ordering the book.


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