(By Tsegai Medhin) The city of Adulis was described as one of the greatest trading centres along the Red Sea shipping corridor during ancient times. It was from here that many of the luxuries from Africa, including ivory and tortoiseshell, were acquired
by ships travelling from India, Roman Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and southeast Africa to supply the empires of Imperial Rome and India.
It has been acknowledged to have existed as early as the time of Ptolemy III (247 – 222 AD) as described in records of an expedition from Adulis into central Asia. However, it has been hypothesised that it may have originated as early as the prehistoric era.
In the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, which was both a sailors log and trading manual in first century AD, Adulis was described as being a ma-jor port of call despite its distance from the sea, which is supported by more recent archaeological findings of the harbour near the Galala Hills. During the Aksumite period, Adulis was further recognised as a vital and powerful port city, which encompassed the port of Aksum, in modern Ethiopia, and through which the Aksumite Empire traded and maintained contact with other empires of the ancient world.
Most of the historical context of Adulis was provided and described by the sixth century Egyptian monk, Cosmos Indicpleustes, who recorded seve-ral ancient inscriptions describing Adulis, which are now lost to the modern world.
However there are some discrepancies both geographically and chronologically between the Adulis described in ancient times and the one represented today. From a chronological perspective the ceramic fragments that have been found at the site of Adulis are characteristic, in general, of the Aksumite period, despite older artefacts also being documented, which corresponds to the descriptions found in the Periplus. These pre-Aksumite ceramic fragments have been determined to be similar to those found in Egypt, at Quseir, from the ﬁrst and second centuries AD.
Furthermore, from a geographic perspective the site of Adulis that exists today is located approximately 7 km from the coast but was described as being 3 km during ancient times. Hypotheses for the-se differences have been attributed to the idea that the original coastline may have shifted from that present in ancient times or that the port at Adulis was a Fluvial rather than a maritime port of the Red Sea. While discussions on these theories continue, it has been generally accepted that the site corresponds with the site of Adulis documented historically.
More recently, the site of Adulis is observed to contain only a series of mounds with few stan-ding stones. Previous exca-vations of the site since the early 1800s have revealed the presence of intact buil-dings including the Palace of Adulis, a sixth century church and various other structures, which illustrate the complexity of the city during historical times. In addition, remnant pot-tery fragments provide a representation of a variety of decoration types which are known to originate from regions including Aquaba, Jordan, Turkey and North Africa. Since early 2004, collaborative efforts between the National Museum of Eritrea, University of Asmara and the University of Southampton have been initiated to characterise the site in greater detail. To date a relatively comprehensive topographic survey has been completed, in addition to geophysical surveys which have enabled the team to identify locations of buried buildings and infrastructure.
In addition regional surveys have resulted in the reconstruction of the ancient shoreline, as well as the identification of the Gabaza which is thought to be the ancient harbour of Adulis. These surveys have enabled for a better understanding of the historical context of the city within the ancient world.
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