Anyone who has ever heard of Herodotus’ giant gold-mining ants knows that people in ancient Greece had very imaginative ideas about the Indian subcontinent. According to the Greek historian, these ants were supposed to be bigger than foxes. And when building their underground dwellings, they should pile up vast amounts of sand studded with gold nuggets. The Indians, in turn, would collect this precious metal, risking their lives. That is one reason for their wealth.
Herodotus’ description dates from the fifth century BC, but not much happened in the following centuries to straighten out the fairytale image of India. Wild stories about this supposedly fabulously rich country circulated around the Mediterranean. The Greeks could have known better later, since the Ptolemies ruling Egypt already maintained close trade relations across the Red Sea to India in the Hellenistic period. After the Roman Empire incorporated Egypt in 30 BC, the new masters continued the trade seamlessly, Roman emperors even received Indian embassies.
It is therefore clear that there was an exchange. But was the contact between the cultures perhaps even closer than previously assumed? This is indicated by a spectacular find by a Polish-American research project in the Egyptian archaeological site of Berenike. In the former port city on the Red Sea, the archaeologists found a 71 centimeter tall statue that undoubtedly represents Buddha. It was discovered in the remains of a former temple of Isis. How does that fit together?
It is the oldest Buddha figure found west of Afghanistan
Rodney Ast, papyrologist in Berenike and co-director of the temple excavations, says scientists will have to ponder the significance of this find for a while, because: “We’ve never seen anything like it before.” The Buddha depicted is made of marble and is the result of fine craftsmanship: he has a halo, he is holding part of his clothes in his left hand, and a lotus flower is protruding from the ground next to him. Since the material comes from what is now Turkey, the researchers firmly believe that the Buddha was the product of a local sculptor.
There is still a question mark behind the exact date of the statue, but it is said to be at least 1800 years old. This is indicated by the stone stele on which the Buddha is said to have stood. Here the material comes even from near Berenice herself, but the inscription carved on her is in Sanskrit. This can be dated to the reign of Marcus Iulius Philippus, also known as “Philip the Arab”, Roman Emperor from 244 to 249 AD. According to the archaeologists, however, there is a high probability that the stele is significantly younger than the statue itself. Even so, the Buddha statue is the only one of its time that has been found west of Afghanistan.
Two coins from the middle of the second century AD, dating from the Shatavahana kingdom in the central Indian highlands, were also discovered in the temple. Both suggest that an Indian community of merchants lived in Berenike at the time and engaged in cultural exchange with the local population. The Buddha is to be understood as a ceremonial addition to the temple. “They practiced their rites here,” says Ast. “But why the Buddha statue was understood as a suitable offering for the goddess Isis, we do not yet know.” In principle, it is known that people at that time took over deities from elsewhere. However, the syncretism between the Egyptian religion and Buddhism represents something completely new.
The trade was lucrative – that’s one of the reasons why India was considered an incredibly rich fairytale country
Systematic excavations have been taking place in Berenike since 1994. These have revealed a prosperous, multicultural and heavily fortified port city of considerable size. Founded by the Ptolemies in the third century BC, Berenice advanced to become the most important port on the Red Sea alongside Myos Hormos under the Romans. A central hub through which maritime trade with southern Arabia and India was conducted. The delivered goods were brought to the Nile with caravans, from there shipped up the river to Alexandria and finally distributed throughout the empire.
The Roman traders ran an extremely lucrative business with their Indian colleagues: luxury goods such as pepper, precious stones or ivory came from Asia, in return olive oil, various metals or glass migrated to India. The trade was estimated to bring in around 50 million sesterces a year, a vast sum that continued to perpetuate the notion of a fabulously wealthy fairyland among Roman contemporaries. In the political discourse of Rome, India always remained a country to be conquered – which was also due to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian was the only one from the southern European cultural area who had reached the subcontinent with an army. The Roman self-image demanded that the legendary general should be surpassed.
However, a military campaign in India was never realistic, if only because the Romans did not seem to know exactly where this country was located. They could probably have simply asked the Indians who resided in their kingdom. There seems to have been a thriving community at Berenike.