Nearchus Discovers a Sea Route from India to the Arabian Peninsula

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Nearchus Discovers a Sea Route from India to the Arabian Peninsula


In 325 b.c. the Greek military commander Nearchus undertook a naval expedition from the mouth of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan to that of the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, or modern Iraq. His voyage served a number of purposes, not least of which was to ferry a large portion of Alexander the Great's fighting force from India back to Greece; but his principal mission was to find a sea route between the Indian sub-continent and the Near East. This he did, in the process making possible much greater trade and exchange between India and lands to the west.


The career of Nearchus (360-312 b.c.), who came from Crete, is inexorably tied with that of his friend and leader, Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336 b.c.), conquered the Greek city-states with the aim of uniting all of Greece and going on to subdue the dying empire of the Persians. But he was assassinated before he could undertake his mission, so it fell to his son to become the greatest military leader the world has ever known.

In 335 b.c. Alexander began moving his vast army into Asia Minor, and soon won an engagement against pro-Persian forces led by a Greek mercenary named Memnon. He then moved into Cilicia, where he scored a decisive victory against the Persian emperor Darius III (d. 330 b.c.) at Issus. As a result, the Greeks gained control of the entire western portion of the Persian Empire, and during the period from 334 to 331 b.c., Alexander's forces secured their hold over southwestern Asia and Egypt. In October 331 b.c. they met a Persian force at Gaugamela in Assyria, this time scoring a complete victory over the enemy.

Alexander moved eastward to claim his empire, but he was not content merely to subdue Persia itself: between 330 and 324 b.c. his armies conquered what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ventured into India. But in July 326 b.c., just after they crossed the Beas River in what is now Pakistan, Alexander's troops refused to go on. The men had been gone from their homeland for nearly a decade and were eager to return to their families, so Alexander agreed to begin heading westward again.

Throughout the long years of battle, Near-chus had fought by the side of his friend and commander. His role as a close associate of Alexander was revealed early, when the leader granted him the role of satrap, or governor, over the provinces of Lydia and Pamphylia in Asia Minor. Now, as he began preparations for the return to Greece, Alexander again granted Nearchus a favored position as admiral. While one group of Greek troops returned via a northerly route and another, led by Alexander himself, pursued a southerly route, Nearchus's fleet would sail along the coast to Mesopotamia. With this honor Alexander included a charge: it was Nearchus's job to find the best possible sea route between India and the Near East.


In fact Alexander appointed Nearchus to the position of admiral in 327 b.c., before the decision to turn back. This indicates one or both of two possibilities: that the commander knew his troops were growing anxious for a return to their homeland, and that he had already conceived the idea of a seaborne mission of exploration. Certainly historians believe that had he lived, Alexander would have devoted his remaining years not to administration and perhaps not even to conquest—given the fact that his troops were weary, and he was a commander who kept a close watch on the sentiments of his men—but to exploration.

It is not known when, or indeed whether, Nearchus gained earlier experience as a commander of a sea force. However, the historian Arrian (d. a.d. 180), who wrote extensively on Alexander's military campaigns, offered insights both regarding Alexander's decision not to lead the naval force himself, as well as his choice of Nearchus. Loosely quoting Nearchus, Arrian wrote that "Alexander had a vehement desire to sail the sea which stretches from India to Persia; but he disliked the length of the voyage and feared lest ... his whole fleet might be destroyed; and this, being no small blot on his great achievements, might wreck all his happiness; but yet his desire to do something unusual and strange won the day."

Nonetheless, Arrian went on to note, Alexander "was in doubt whom he should choose, as equal to his designs; and also as [to] the right man to encourage the personnel of the fleet." Nearchus, again paraphrased by Arrian, wrote that Alexander shared with him his many deliberations regarding the choice of an admiral: "but as mention was made of one and another, and as Alexander rejected some, as not willing to risk themselves for his sake, others as chicken-hearted, others as consumed by desire for home, and finding some objection to each; then Nearchus himself spoke and pledged himself thus: 'O King, I undertake to lead your fleet! And may God help the [enterprise]! I will bring your ships and men safe to Persia, if this sea is so much as navigable and the undertaking not above human powers.'"

Alexander at first feared to send Nearchus on such a dangerous mission, but was eventually persuaded by Nearchus's highly logical argument that if the men saw their emperor place his close friend in charge of the mission, this would set their minds at ease regarding the danger. Having thus commissioned Nearchus, Alexander granted him all troops with seafaring experience, as well as a brigade of Indian shipwrights. The latter built for the Greeks some 800 vessels, many as large as 300 tons, and Nearchus engaged the services of Indian pilots who would serve as guides. Late in September 325 b.c., the fleet departed from the mouth of the Indus.

The journey had an inauspicious start when they were delayed for 24 days at Crocola (modern Karachi, Pakistan) due to unfavorable winds. The next five days' sailing took them to the mouth of the Hab, today on the border between the Pakistani regions of Sind and Baluchistan. The Hab was the first of many rivers, flowing from the Indian subcontinent into the Arabian Sea, that the voyagers would pass, and here again, the signs did not look good: as they sailed westward from the Hab, a storm capsized three ships. Fortunately, the crew members themselves survived.

At Ras Kachari, the fleet anchored and met up briefly with a portion of Alexander's forces. Then, after taking on supplies, they continued to the Hingol River. There they waged a successful battle against some 600 natives who attacked them, individuals Nearchus described as "hairy over their heads as well as the rest of their persons, [with finger]nails like wild beasts." Nearchus's force took several prisoners, and went on their way.

It took them 20 days to pass the coast along Makran, where they searched in vain for fresh water and again found the inhabitants hostile. At the River Kalami, Nearchus desecrated a place revered by a local sun-worshipping cult, violating taboos by setting foot on their sacred island of Astola. He apparently emerged unscathed from this incident, but the troops were running low on food, and had to hunt for wild goats on the shore.

The expedition took on supplies at the town of Pasni in what is now Baluchistan, and as they continued westward they found that the land was more fertile. Perhaps it was during this time that Nearchus observed sugar cane, which he described as a reed "that produce[s] honey, although there are no bees." It was also in this region that Nearchus appears to have seen whales, reporting that he observed great towers of water blowing into the air. He also noted that the local inhabitants paddled canoes, instead of rowing in the Greek fashion.

As he had been in the incident involving the sun-worshippers, Nearchus proved himself rather foolhardy at the town of Gwadar, where in spite of the locals' willingness to trade, he chose to attack the city. This effort ended in a stalemate, however, and in the end he was content to trade with the townspeople for fishmeal. From there they sailed along the coast, reaching Persia at Cape Jask in the Kerman region. The voyagers glimpsed Cape Musandam, the tip of the Arabian Peninsula that serves as dividing line between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, but Nearchus resisted a suggestion from his principal lieutenant that they cross the Strait of Hormuz and explore the Arabian coast.

At the mouth of the Minab River, Nearchus turned inland and eventually met up with Alexander, who with the other troops greeted him as a hero. Alexander himself celebrated the successful voyage with feasts and sacrifices to the gods, but after tarrying awhile, Nearchus continued sailing on past Hormuz Island toward Qeshm Island. There the ships ran aground on sandbanks, an incident that cost them three weeks' repair time. Finally, however, they set sail up the Persian Gulf, finally landing at the city of Diridotis on the mouth of the Euphrates. From there they moved up the Karun River to meet Alexander for the last time at the Persian capital of Susa.

Alexander died soon afterward, at Babylon in June 323 b.c., and Nearchus's fortunes diminished. It is likely that in the ensuing power struggle between Alexander's generals, Nearchus lost his satrapies in Asia Minor, and at this point he faded from the historical record. His accomplishments, however—preserved not only in his writings and those of Arrian, but also in the work of Strabo (c. 64 b.c.-c. a.d. 23)—did not. Thanks to Nearchus, the lands of the Near East and Europe gained contact with India, from whence they would import numerous valuable goods and—more important—ideas. Not least among these were the Hindu-Arabic numerals, which began making their way westward in the early years of the Middle Ages.


Further Reading


Cary, M. and E. H. Warmington. The Ancient Explorers. London: Methuen, 1929.

Hyde, Walter Woodburn. Ancient Greek Mariners. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Kagan, Donald, ed. Studies in the Greek Historians: In Memory of Adam Parry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Vincent, William. The Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi, India: Asian Educational Services, 1998.

Internet Sites

Arian: Anabasis Alexandri: Book VIII (Indica), Tr. E. Iliff Robson (1933) Ancient History Sourcebook.

"Names of Rivers of NW India According to Greek Sources."

Strabo: Geography: Book XV: On India Ancient History Sourcebook.