Did You Know?: Sri Lankan Harbour Cities and the Maritime Silk Roads

CC BY Hafiz Issadeen (YIM Hafiz), Dharga Town, Sri Lanka

A number of maps and travel accounts bear witness to the importance of Sri Lankan harbour towns and cities in the Silk Roads of antiquity. These towns and cities, with their protective natural harbours, offered havens for ships to anchor and for interactions between peoples from various parts of the world to take place. Various Greek, Italian, Arabic and Chinese manuscripts and cartographic documents illustrate the geography of the Island of Sri Lanka and its potential harbour facilities available to seafarers from the Indian subcontinent, Europe, China and the Arabian Peninsula.

One such example is the coastal town of Mantai, which flourished between the 5th century BCE and 13th century CE as a maritime trade centre. The town, situated on the western coast of the island, was known to the early Greeks and appeared on the first known map of Sri Lanka produced by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. The 6th century CE Greek merchant and traveller known as Cosmas Indicopleustes (literally ‘Cosmos who sailed to India’) wrote a vivid account of Sri Lanka including the trading activity of Mantai which he described as the most important emporium in the Indian Ocean during his life time.

Arab seafarers, who referred to Sri Lanka as ‘Serendib’ Island, were familiar with the mountain Adams Peak as a well-known landfall point. It occupied a prominent position on the map of Serendib as drawn by the geographer Al-Idvisi in the 12th century CE. Ibn Battuta, who undertook a pilgrimage to the mountain in the 14th century detailed a number of important harbour cities in his account of the Island. Arabic tombstones found in Galle (South of Sri Lanka) as well as Sufi inscriptions discovered in Colombo provide evidence for the practice of Islam on the island as early as the 10th century CE. 

Furthermore, the town of Beruwala situated south of Colombo was known to the Franciscan missionary Friar Giovanni Dei Marignolli who called it ‘Pervillis’. The town, which has a small bay with anchorage for ships, was also known to the 15th century Chinese traveller Ma Huan as ‘Pich-lo-li’ as it appeared on the Mao Kun map, a set of navigation charts from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Beruwala and Colombo where also known to the Franciscan Fra Mauro of Venice who included them in his 1459 world map. However, he erroneously placed them on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.

From antiquity all the way through to the 16th century these Sri Lankan harbour towns and cities appeared on many historically significant cartographic documents and served as important havens for seafarers and centres for trade and Silk Roads exchanges.


See also:

The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature

The Evolution of the Arabic language in the Silk Roads

Iraq, a Centre of Exchanges along the Silk Roads

The Spread of Islam in Southeast Asia through the Trade Routes

Gyeongju and the Silk Roads

Nara at the end of the Silk Roads

Ancient Monastic Hospital System in Sri Lanka

Brunei in the Maritime Silk Roads

Khwarazm Region and the Silk Roads

Quanzhou – The Heart of the Maritime Silk Roads

Mongolian Nomadism along the Silk Roads

The Spread of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia through the Trade Routes

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