Statue of Buddha unearthed at temple in Berenice

A recently discovered marble statue of the Buddha at a temple in the ancient seaport of Berenice on the Red Sea in Egypt shows a connection between Egypt and India during the Roman Empire.

The joint American-Polish archaeological mission excavating the main early Roman period temple dedicated to the Goddess Isis in Berenice uncovered in the forecourt of the temple a marble statue of the Buddha.

Statue of Buddha unearthed at temple in Berenice in the Red Sea, Egypt.
Statue of Buddha unearthed at temple in Berenice in the Red Sea, Egypt.

The discovery happened during excavation work in the city’s ancient temple, Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced. He added that Egypt was at the center of a trade route that connected the Roman Empire with many areas of the ancient world, including India. Waziri added that several Roman Period harbors on Egypt’s Red Sea coast engaged in commerce, the most important being Berenice .

The archaeological mission has been working at the site since 1994 under the supervision of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Excavations this season at the site have shown a lot of important evidence to suggest the existence of trade links between Egypt and India during the Roman Period.

In this period Egypt was centrally located on the trade route that connected the Roman Empire to many parts of the ancient world, including India. Many ports during the Roman Period were established on the Red Sea coast of Egypt for trade.

Ships from India arrived with products – such as pepper, semi-precious stones, textiles and ivory – and offloaded them at Berenice, he stated. The cargo was then carried on camels that conveyed the goods across the desert to the Nile, according to Waziri. Other ships then transported the merchandise to Alexandria and from there to the rest of the Roman Empire, he said.

“There is growing evidence of contact between Buddhist India of the early centuries CE and the Roman world- this image of the Buddha, probably sculpted in a workshop in Alexandria, was recently found at the Egyptian Red Sea port of Berenice.” said William Dalrymple, Scottish historian & art historian.

Statue of Buddha recently found at Berenice
Statue of Buddha recently found at Berenice

The Berenice Buddha is in the Greek artistic traditions particularly the solar crown reminiscent of Apollo and Helios whilst the lotus was an important Egyptian symbol.

It was made in Egypt, probably Alexandria, commissioned for a Buddhist trader and placed in the local Isis Temple. As a temple-sharing god, the Buddha would be worshiped in the same Isis Temple as many Egyptian and Greek gods including Alexander and the deified Ptolemies.

Coins discovered in the Berenice temple from the Satavahana dynasty indicate the longevity of the temple and the port in the Roman period. There is also archaeological and textual evidence of Indians living in Berenice and spice imports from India.

“The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with Indian kingdoms using the Red Sea ports. With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans took over and further developed the already existing trade using these ports.” — The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, by Ian Shaw

Mariusz Gwiazda, director of the Polish side of the archaeological mission, pointed out that the 71 centimeter high (28 inches). The statue depicts Buddha standing and holding part of his clothing in his left hand. He added that a halo with sun rays surrounds the Buddha’s head, indicating his radiant mind, in addition to a lotus flower standing beside him.

Gwiazda also described the workmanship of the statue as exquisite. He add that it is considered to be the best evidence of Buddhism thus far excavated in Egypt. “The Buddha statue was made from stone probably quarried from the region just south of modern Istanbul (Turkey). It must have been sculpted locally at Berenice and dedicated to the temple by one or more rich merchants from India,” he said.

Steven Sidebotham, director of the American side of the mission, said that apart from this statue, archaeologists also found an inscription in Sanskrit. It dates to the Roman emperor Philip the Arab (ca. 244 – 249 CE). He added that this inscription seems to belong to a different period from that of the statue of the Buddha.

Additionally, the archaeologists also found other inscriptions in the same temple, according to Sidebotham. These inscriptions, which are in Greek, date from the early first century CE to 305 CE, he stated. They also found two second-century CE coins from the central Indian Kingdom of the Satavahanas inside the temple, according to Sidebotham.

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