A team of Polish and American researchers discovered a two-foot-tall stone Buddha statue in the temple ruins of Berenike, an ancient port city on the coast of the Red Sea in southeast Egypt. The partially reclaimed statue likely dates back to the 2nd century, providing evidence of Indian influence and trade relations with the Ancient Roman Empire by way of Egypt.
While Berenike’s location made it a hub for West and South Asian trade under the Roman Empire, the port was briefly abandoned at some time during the 2nd century due to a volcanic eruption, and then again in the 6th century, after which it became filled with sediment and was mostly inaccessible. According to a statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the excavation project that yielded the statue has been ongoing at the abandoned port since 1994.
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Dr. Marius Goyazda, a Polish researcher involved with the archaeological mission, said that the statue was made of stone that could have been extracted from a region below Istanbul, and the Buddha figure could have been carved in Berenike and dedicated to the temple by wealthy Indian merchants. William Dalrymple initially reported in the New York Review last week that the recovered statue was carved from “the finest Mediterranean marble in a part Indian-Gandharan, part Romano-Egyptian style,” noting that the participating archaeologists presumed that the sculpture was carved in Alexandria due to the Buddha’s presentation of “tortellini-like” curls and the beaming sun ray motif behind his head.
The Gandhara kingdom, occupying what is now northwestern Pakistan between 1500 BCE and 1000 CE, is known for its Greco-Roman and South Asian-Buddhist influences exhibited through faith, art, and architecture. Gandharan art is known for its reappropriation of Ancient Roman aesthetics folded into Buddhist iconography.
Steven Sidebotham, a participating researcher and professor at the University of Delaware, said that the mission also uncovered a Hindi-language inscription dating back to the time of Roman Emperor Philip the Arab (249 to 244 BCE) as well as two coins from the Satavahana kingdom that was established in the Indian subcontinent during late 2nd century BCE. Since 1994, Sidebotham’s excavations in Berenike have unearthed Indian-made pottery, textiles, ships’ sails and beads, and even 17 pounds of black peppercorns that were strictly endemic to southwestern India at the time.
While excavations of Berenike continue to expose the artifacts of a bustling trade industry, Sidebotham told the University of Delaware Research magazine that there’s “probably enough work for four or five more generations of archaeologists.” The professor told Hyperallergic that a statement pertaining to the discovery of the Buddha statue is forthcoming.