Archaeologists Unearth Buddha Statue in Ancient Egyptian Port City

The new find sheds light on the rich trade relationship between Rome and India

Buddha statue
Researchers uncovered the two-foot-tall Buddha statue in Berenike. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Researchers have discovered a two-foot-tall Buddha statue in Berenike, an ancient Egyptian port city. 

The artifact is the first Buddha ever found west of Afghanistan, according to the New York Review of Books’ William Dalrymple. Made from Mediterranean marble, it provides new evidence of trade between ancient Rome and India.

Based on stylistic details, the researchers think it was made in Alexandria around the second century C.E. A halo around the statue’s head is covered with rays of sun, “which indicates his radiant mind,” says the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in a statement, per Google Translate. 

Founded in the third century B.C.E., Berenike eventually became one of the largest ports in Roman-controlled Egypt, according to the antiquities ministry. Goods such as ivory, textiles and semi-precious metals passed through the city for many years, until it was eventually abandoned around the sixth century C.E.

Recent excavations at Berenike have revealed other items that suggest a similar cultural blending. Among them is an inscription in Sanskrit dating to the reign of the emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, known as Phillip the Arab. Born in what is now Syria, he ruled the Roman Empire from 244 to 249 C.E.

Such finds are part of a growing body of evidence that shows just how interconnected the Roman Empire was to its ancient Indian counterpart. They also help shed light on the unique role played by Egypt, which was “centrally located on the trade route that connected the Roman Empire to many parts of the ancient world,” says the antiquities ministry.

The Berenike excavations are a joint effort between American and Polish researchers. Steven Sidebotham, a historian at the University of Delaware, is the director of the American team, while the Polish team is led by Mariusz Gwiazda, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw.

Deeply devoted to the project, Sidebotham started working at the site when excavations began in 1994. Since then, amidst ever-changing forces of political upheaval and budget shortfalls, he and his team have continued to dig into the history of the now-abandoned port on the Red Sea

In 1999, for example, archaeologists uncovered a jar filled with 17 pounds of black peppercorns embedded in the courtyard floor of a Berenike temple, as the University of Delaware Research magazine’s Ann Manser wrote in 2011. They dated to the first century, and at that time they were only grown in southwestern India. 

“You hear a lot about globalization today,” Sidebotham told the publication, “but there was a ‘global economy’ linking Europe, Africa and Asia during the first century of the Christian era, and the city of Berenike is a perfect example of that.”

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