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Rhapta (Ancient Greek: Ῥάπτα) was a marketplace said to be on the coast of Southeast Africa, first described in the 1st century CE. Its location has not been firmly identified, although there are a number of plausible candidate sites. The ancient Periplus of the Erythraean Sea described Rhapta as "the last marketplace of Azania", two days' travel south of the Menouthias islands (Chapter 16). It was named Ῥάπτα due to the sewed boats (ῥαπτῶν πλοιαρίων) which were used there.[1]

According to Claudius Ptolemy, Diogenes, a merchant in the Indian trade, was blown off course from his usual route from India, and after travelling 25 days south along the coast of Africa arrived at Rhapta, located where the river of the same name enters the Indian Ocean opposite the island of Menouthias. Diogenes further describes this river as having its source near the Mountains of the Moon, near the swamp whence the Nile was said to also have its source.

Rhapta is also mentioned by the Stephanus of Byzantium[2] and Cosmas Indicopleustes.

Stephanus of Byzantium and Claudius Ptolemy write that Rhapta was a metropolis of Barbaria (Ancient Greek: Βαρβαρίας).[2][3]


G.W.B. Huntingford lists five proposed locations for Rhapta:

Huntingford dismisses the first two as being too close to Zanzibar and Pemba islands (which he identifies with Menouthis, and follows the author of the Periplus in locating Menouthis north of Rhapta). He observes that there is no river at Msasani, and thus concludes Kisuyu or the Rufiji delta are the most likely candidates. However, J. Innes Miller points out that Roman coins have been found on Pemba; that the Ruvu emerges near the Kilimanjaro and Meru mountains—which confirm the account of Diogenes; and that an old inscription in Semitic characters has been found near the Pangani estuary, which make Pemba a likely candidate for Rhapta.[citation needed][verification needed] However, the first evidence of inhabitation starts solely in the seventh century at a site called Tumbe on the northern end of the island,[4] limpidly contradicting these assertions. Furthermore, John Perkins states this: "Some Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian coins are reported from the East African coast; however, none of these come from excavations, and the surrounding evidence suggests that they probably did not reach the Swahili Coast in antiquity. Evidence for contacts and trade between this part of Africa and the Roman and Persian worlds is mainly recorded in the limited written records."[5]

In recent years, professor Felix Chami has found archaeological evidence for extensive Roman trade on Mafia Island and, not far away, on the mainland, near the mouth of the Rufiji River, which he dated to the first few centuries CE.[citation needed][verification needed]


Cinnamon sticks.

Which goods were traded at Rhapta is disputed. The Periplus only states that it was a source of ivory and tortoise shell. J. Innes Miller argues that Rhapta formed an important link in the trade route between what is now modern Indonesia and consumers in the Mediterranean region. Miller notes that ancient authorities (e.g. Herodotus 3.111) state that cinnamon and cassia bark were harvested in Africa, yet these species until recently were found only in Southeast Asia, which would hint at some conflation. Miller points to the well-documented cultural links between Indonesia and East Africa (e.g., the Malagasy language is related to Malay, both people use double outrigger canoes). He then posits that the use of monsoons began far earlier than previously thought, allowing traders to bring their spices westward perhaps as early as the 2nd millennium BC.

It is possible that both the account of the Periplus and at least part of Miller's theory are correct, for the Periplus focuses on the availability of tortoise shell, and its silence about other goods should not be taken as evidence that other goods were not traded.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, §16
  2. ^ a b Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica, §R543.8
  3. ^ PTOLEMAEUS, GEOGRAPHY, § 4.7.12
  4. ^ Fleisher, Jeffery; LaViolette, Adria. "The early Swahili trade village of Tumbe, Pemba Island, Tanzania, AD 600-950". Antiquity. 87.
  5. ^ Perkins, John, "The Indian Ocean and Swahili coins, international networks and local developments" in Afriques, 2015