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Paper Trails: Port Cities in the Classical Era of World History

Marc Jason Gilbert
North Georgia College and State University

    Port cities are a staple of world history. They are hubs of world commerce and also of regional trade between coast and hinterland. They are facilitators of both immigration and emigration. They are transit points for the spread of disease as well as goods and people. They are also markers of patterns of colonialism and development. The capitals of most developing countries betray their colonial roots, having ports as their capital and/or largest cities that today remain the loci of virtually all post-colonial national administrative, educational, and medical institutions. They are prime drivers of urban sprawl and slums as well as economic growth. Yet, the tolerant, permissive and multicultural atmosphere of port cities in developing as well as developed societies also make them rich centers of world culture, from break-dancing in Douala to high rise living in Singapore and Shanghai, to the literature generated by Alexandria (Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet), Mumbai (Salman Rushdi's Satanic Verses, Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu) and Saigon (Grahman Greene's The Quiet American and Margurite Duras' The Lover), among others. Indigenous cultures often arise from sea entrepots (the Swahili ports of East Africa), are often transformed by them (British Calcutta) or end there (Powhattan's New York). Moreover port cities come in many forms other than coastal enclaves: Phoenix's Sky Harbor reminds us that airports are also ports of call in analytical terms. The landlocked harbors of Lothal in India and Bawtry in Yorkshire remind us that even in historic times changes in coastlines and sea levels have varied sufficiently to affect human activity.
    So integrated into world historical processes are the lore of ports of call that they represent one of the few subjects that one can entrust to Wikipedia for background information and to for relevant scholarship. Merely googling "third world cities" garners the indispensable work of the same title edited by John D. Kasarda and Allan M. Parnell (1992); while googling "port cities, Third World" locates John Middleton's review of Michael Pearson's "Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era" in the Journal of World History, 11:1 (Spring 2000): 126-129. Richard Pankhurst offers an online study of the sea commerce of ancient and medieval Arabia, Ethiopia and the horn of Africa at Allen D. Furford provides a lexicon for ancient ports and identifies a number of them from Japan to Bermuda at The ancient ports of Sri Lanka are closely studied at, while Abdera in Thrace is noted at

This article, the first of a projected series, will identify evocative images and virtual tours of selected ports of the ancient world so as to facilitate their introduction into the classroom.



Artist's reconstruction of Lothal and ruins of dock from

    Sometime after 2400 B.C, one of the greatest port cities of the ancient world flourished near where the Indus and associated river systems flowed into the Indian Ocean at a site now called Lothal. Lothal featured perhaps the world's first tidal dock, which permitted ships to enter into the dock through a northern inlet channel connected to the estuary of the river Sabarmati. The closure of the lock gates permitted the water level to remain high enough to float the ships at the dockyard. The ships that left from Lothal's 700 foot brick-lined wharf traveled to destinations as distant as the Sumerian city Ur in the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, though most of their cargoes were sold at or trans-shipped from ports in the Persian Gulf where they stopped to trade. Arriving ships often carried Sumerian tools and tin (used in India to make bronze, a process that also used copper from as far away as Afghanistan). When outgoing ships arrived at their destinations, the local inhabitants would have rushed to examine their cargoes, which included cotton fabrics, exceptional manufactures such as fine-drilled gemstone beaded jewelry and welcome foodstuffs, like barely and wheat grown in Indus Valley cities and towns, which spread out north of Lothal along the Indus River and its tributaries. The richness of these inter-regional and local exchanges has suggested to some that the concept of center-periphery relations in the ancient world itself needs further work (see 3


Drawing of small boat at Mohenjo-daro from Map showing placement of Lothal from and reconstruction of the similar not-to-distant port of Dholavira as seen from the air (used with permission from

    Today, Lothal lies many dry and desolate miles inland from the Indian Ocean. Its great dock was buried beneath sand and silt sometime after 1900. B.C., perhaps due to a possible massive flood around 2200 B.C. that led to 300 years of slow decline. Eventually, silt covered Lothal as it did the great cities it served in the hinterland. Research into its ruins confirms not merely the great uniformity and worth of Harappan urban planning, but the ingenuity of its people. For a virtual tour of Lothal, with student exercises, go to For more information on Indian sea navigation, see For India's maritime history, see and K. S. Behera (ed.), Maritime Heritage of India (1999), which provides commentary on India's eastern ports. 4
Xel Ha  


    Ever since Hernán Cortés reported his acquisition of a Mayan map, western scholars have known that Mayans had port cities, and in great number, as Mayan ports were spaced at a day's rowing distance apart. Though most of these ports expired after the conquest, we still know much about them, and in the last two decades they have dramatically remerged as tourist ports-of-call The Mayan port of Xaman-Ha is now the tourist Mecca of Playa del Carmen; ancient Pole, with its (once pristine) underground water-tunnels is now part of the water-park at Xcaret; Zama is near Tulum (the sea-side later Mayan city depicted in numerous films such as Against All Odds), and Cozomel was both a trading center as well a religious center.
    One of these ports, Xel-Ha, first served as the port of the city of Coba in the interior of Yucatan. It is eight miles from Tulum, a later city which came to control the port. Xel-Ha's beautiful lagoons may now be over-used by snorklers and divers (including this writer who has been visiting the region since childhood), but its links with Coba and Tulum and its own history is only just beginning to be explored.
   Coba was established originally as a classic Mayan city (600-900 A. D.) located about 42 miles west of the later site of Tulum. It was built between two lakes and is a very large site, encompassing approximately 60 square miles. It was the hub of the largest number of paved roads (16) in the Mayan world and contains the 138 foot tall post-classic Nahoch Mul, one of the highest of all Mayan pyramids. Since Xel Ha served so large a center, it is not surprising that it was itself a large complex: some argue it covered the largest area of any Mayan city. Its virtually untouched ruins include a pyramid, palace and associated structures, as well as what is thought to be a muelle or dock. Its artistic output included frescos that can still be seen. Pictured below are port buildings, pyramids, fresco and the lagoon today. Photographs are courtesy of



    According to legends recounted by local guides, "the gods were so pleased with their creation that they decided to share it with man; but declared the iguana (land) and the parrot fish (sea) to be sacred guardians of Xel-Ha." (See More reliable is the derivation of its name, which means "place where the water is born," as the pristine springs that feed the lagoons suggest.
    Xel Ha provides an instructor with an opportunity to develop exercises regarding trade and avoid or supplement more familiar sites such as Chichen Itza. Such efforts can be facilitated by exploring Mayan navigation more closely at (scroll down to Mayan Navigators) and Students can be assigned to examine another site of equal or even surpassing current interest at Ambergris Caye, which can be explored at and Books that discuss Mayan trade include Linda Schele and Peter Mathews: The Code of Kings (1998), Guiseppe Orefici, Maya (1998), Robert Sharer, The AncientMaya (1994) and Gene S. Stuart, and George E. Stuart: Lost Kingdoms of the Maya (1993).


A view provided by GoogleEarth of the ruins of Roman Ostia at


    Ostia, Rome's port city on the Tiber, featured two harbors. The second, Portus, was built to cope with the rising trade with Spain and north Africa, which is well known, and also with India, which trade is lesser known, but was nevertheless quite important during the last years of the Republic and early decades of the Empire. The use of these harbors climaxed in the second century A.D. and declined thereafter.


Reconstruction of Portus (the new harbor) at left is from


   This site also offers a street-by street reconstruction of Ostia town and old port (left). See and click on map section.


Map showing both ports at Ostia/Portis is from The street scene is one of many that can be found at


    Lindsey Davis's novel Scandal Takes a Holiday (2004) not only includes fully developed maps and cityscape, but illustrates virtually every socio-political and religious aspects of life in Ostia/Portus in approximately 76 A.D. The tale is one of the best of the author's series of stories about a fictional Roman informer, or private detective. As in most historical novels, there are some anachronisms in speech and character, but here a close study of Ostia is at center stage: the reader is given a vivid tour of Ostia's food stalls, temples, police barracks and villas, as well as insight into its politics from guilds to pirates.
    The website "Ostia: harbour of Ancient Rome" at offers not only maps and 3-D reconstructions, but a complete illustrated history ( and primary sources, including remarks on Ostia by dozens of Roman writers, such as the following from Plutarch at 13
The Greek author Plutarchus (c. 46-127 AD) was procurator of Achaea under Hadrian. He is best known for his Parallel Lives, biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans, composed in pairs.  

Parallel Lives, Caesar 58, 10
In the midst of the Parthian expedition he was preparing to cut through the isthmus of Corinth, and had put Anienus in charge of the work. He also proposed to divert the Tiber immediately below Rome by a deep canal which was to run round to the Circaean promontory and be led into the sea at Terracina. By this means he would provide a safe and easy passage for traders bound for Rome. In addition he proposed to drain the marshes by Pometia and Setia and so provide productive land for thousands of men. In the sea nearest Rome he intended to enclose the sea by building moles, and to dredge the hidden shoals off the coast of Ostia, which were dangerous. So he would provide harbours and anchorages to match the great volume of shipping. These schemes were being prepared. [Translation: R. Meiggs, Roman Ostia, p. 53.]




    The imperial capital's port at Carthage near modern Tunis is an engineering marvel, one that reminds us that Romans were not the only advanced technologists of their time. Indeed, the Romans copied Carthaginian ships in building up their own navy. They later strengthened this model with Athenian ship designs, an act that demonstrates their early capacity for synthesis and may serve as another indicating that Greek sculpture was but one of the many Greek styles which Romans borrowed from their predecessors.


Aerial views of the city of Carthage and its port not far from present day Tunis.



Above, a cutaway view of the inner harbor, the remains of the boat ramp and an engraving of J. M. Turner's painting of Dido building the city and harbor. Below, an artist's reconstruction of the inner harbor and a replica of the type of Carthaginian ship captured by the Romans who copied the design.




    The Carthaginian Empire's role in shaping the early Mediterranean world, the nature of its own unique culture and its destruction by Rome are examined at This site provides links to articles, biographies and primary sources relating to Carthaginian history. Other websites providing narrative histories of the empire or address its trade, economy and technology include and 17


View of modern harbor near Hepu. See Image of Contemporary Chinese ship from .


    Hepu, like Lothal, was a major port which was lost for centuries and whose recovery has added much to our understanding of the place of port cities in world history. Now located within Beihai City in Hepu county in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Hepu has revealed to archeologists that it was perhaps China's oldest seaport and thus the oldest port on the Silk Route. Its history also illuminates why it became "one of the main overseas Chinese hometowns of China." 


Map of South China under the later Han above left includes Hepu county just north of Hainan Island (see The map on right tracing ancient trade routes includes South China and what is now Hepu county. For this map, go to

    According to the Chinese government, archeological work has recently shown that the site of Hepu was "the oldest departure point on the country's ancient maritime trading route." This status was spurred by its role as a transportation hub: as a water port, it served as the "main gate" for the "Silk Road on the sea," while a secondary channel via the Western River tied Hepu to Wuzhou and Guangzhou. Hepu was also connected to Indochina generally by sea, while a southwestern mountainous route connected it to northern Vietnam.
     Records suggest that, in keeping with the Han expansionist policy, Hepu was integrated into the empire in 111 B.C. when Lianzhou Town at Hepu became a three-tiered local administrative seat. The ruins of Hepu port appear to date from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - 24 A.D.). The city was walled and surrounded by a moat and was prosperous enough to be the site of Han tombs. Funerary objects and pottery pieces that have been excavated date from as late as 220 A.D. They include "imported jewelry and utensils fashioned from such materials as colored glazed pottery, amber, agate and crystal" suggesting the city's role as a major trading port. Researcher Xiong Zhaoming remarked that "The gentle slope between the moat and the city walls means such works were not meant for defense, but served as a symbol and for trading convenience." (See 20
     The region's trade was given a major boost by the pearl industry that flourished in Bailong village in eastern Hepu County. "According to historical records, the Pearl City was the place where emperors from far and wide came to choose their pearls. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during several wars and now only some ruined ancient buildings remain." (See or the copy available at
    As Hepu grew in importance, some traders immigrated from Guangxi to Yanluo or other places in the Western Han dynasty, a process which continued apace under successive dynasties, particularly during the outward looking years of the Ming. Many immigrated "to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaya and other south Asia countries." When the Taiping Uprising failed, "the farmer uprising army couldn't find a foothold in China, and they had to escape successively to Vietnam, Malaya and other places, and the amount was more than 10 thousand." From records at Hepu and elsewhere, it appeared that such migrations occurred frequently as a result of failed uprisings. In 1679, many Ming dynasty leaders in the south refused to surrender to the Qing dynasty and boarded "over 50 warships and more than 3000 subordinations to flee from the coastal area of Guangxi to Kampuchea (which then encompassed the Mekong delta)." After the end of the Opium War, many southern Chinese laborers were purchased or recruited by the Western nations who shipped them throughout Asia and Africa. In the years 1900 to 1911, over 20 thousand local workers were dispatched in this manner. Speeding this process was Chinese oppression of the ethnic minorities that populated the region. According to contemporary Chinese authorities, who rarely miss so rich an opportunity to condemn the "feudal" regimes of the past, "in Ming times many Zhuang, Dai, Nong, Miao and Yao minorities in Southwest and Northwest zone of Guangxi migrated to Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam." They are also careful to note the leading roles of Chinese ex-patriots from this region who fought the spread of Western imperialism from the Red River to Cuba and the essential role played by their descendants in sending remittances that are helping to drive south China's remarkable economic growth (see the brief history and statistical data offered at

    For other forces driving Chinese out-migration, especially in the south, see

    The study of ancient port cities reminds us of the great continuity of patterns of global interaction. The exchange of goods between civilizations and coastal/hinterland relations, and advances in engineering fostering that exchange via efficient dock-building and navigation, seem to be part of a pattern as old as Sumer and as familiar as containerization. The ships from Hepu that carried poor and powerless Chinese to a life of hard labor around the globe should call to mind the ships that much later were to carry Irish immigrants to America: politics, not merely famine, played a factor in both events. Sumer's trade in tools for both luxury goods and foodstuffs with India remind us of that interdependence is not a product of modern globalization, while Mayan trade patterns leave no doubt that this was true of world's both old and new. This essay was written in the hope that instructors might profit from drawing attention to these continuities. Student can easy follow up the sources cited to explore them in more detail, perhaps by employing them on scavenger hunts for trade items, or for the identification and further analysis of ancient trade emporiums including and beyond those suggested above, such as Athens/Piraeus, Caesarea, Londinium, etc. A list of many of these ports offering links to each can be found at The modern world economy may, as suggested by Ken Pomerantz and Steve Topik (The World that Trade Created: Culture, Society and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, 2000), have been one shaped by international trade, but ancient global ports of call indicate that our predecessors were no less concerned with, and effected by, economies well beyond their horizon. 23
Biographical Note: Marc Jason Gilbert is Professor of History at North Georgia College and State University, and is a University System of Georgia Regents Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning. He is also co-director of the University System of Georgia's programs in India and Vietnam. He has published several books about Vietnam, and is co-author with Peter Stearns, Michael Adas and Stuart Schwartz of the third revised edition of the world history survey text, World Civilizations: The Global Experience (2000). 24

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