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RHAPTA (τὰ Ῥαπτά, Ptol. 1.9.1, 14.4; Peripl. Mar. Erythr. p. 10), was, according to the author of the Periplus, the most distant station of the Arabian trade with Aegypt, Aethiopia, and the ports of the Red Sea. Its correct lat. is 15′ 5″. The name is derived from the peculiar boats in use there. These are termed by the natives dows (dáú), and, like the modern boats of Pata on the Mozambique coast, were frequently of 100 or 150 tons burden. But whether vessels of this size or merely canoes, all the craft at this part of the E. coast of Africa were formed of the hollowed trunks of trees and joined together by cords made of the fibres of the cocoa instead of iron or wooden pins, and hence the Greeks gave them, and the harbour which they principally frequented, the name of “the sewed” (τὰ ῥαπτά). Ptolemy speaks (1.17.7, 4.7.28, 7.3.6, 1.17.12, &c.) of a promontory RHAPTUM, a river RHAPTUS, and a tribe of Aethiopians named RHAPSII. All these may probably be referred to the immediate neighbourhood of the town Rhapta, since the emporium was doubtless the most striking object to the caravans trading there and to the Greek merchants accompanying the caravans. The promontory was one of the numerous bluffs or headlands that give to this portion of the E. coast of Africa the appearance of a saw, the shore-line being everywhere indented with sharp and short projections. The river was one of the many streams which are broad inland, but whose mouths, being barred with sand or coral reefs, are narrow and difficult to be discovered. This portion of the coast, indeed, from lat. 2° S. to the mouth of the Govind, the modern appellation of the Rhaptus of Ptolemy and the Periplus, is bordered by coral reefs and islands,--e. g. the Dundas and Jubah islands,--generally a league or even less from the mainland. Some of these islands are of considerable height; and through several of them are arched apertures large enough to admit the passage of a boat. As the shore itself also is formed of a coral conglomerate, containing shells, madrepore, and sand, it is evident that there has been a gradual rising of the land and corresponding subsidence of the sea. The reefs also which have been formed on the main shore have affected materially the course of the rivers,--barring the mouths of many, among them the Rhaptus, and compelling others, e. g. the Webbé, to run obliquely in a direction parallel to the coast. Another result of the reefs has been that many rivers having no or insufficient outlets into the sea, have become marshes or shallow lakes; and, consequently, streams that in Ptolemy's age were correctly described as running into the ocean, are now meres severed from it by sand and ridges of coral.

Rhapta seems, from the account in the Periplus, to have been, not so much the name of a single town, as a generic term for numerous villages inhabited by the builders of the “seamed boats.” These were probably situated nearly opposite the modern island of Pata; and whether it implies one or many places, Rhapta certainly was on the coast of Azania. The Rhapsii Aethiopes are described in the Periplus as men of lofty stature; and in fact the natives of E. Africa, at the present day, are generally taller than the Arabs. Each village had its chief, but there was a principal shiekh or chief to whom all were subject. This division into petty communities under a general head also still subsists. In the first century B.C. the Rhapsii were held in subjection by the shiekh and people of Muza, whence came ships with Arab masters, and pilots who understood the language of the Rhapsii and were connected with them by intermarriage. The Arabs brought to Rhapta spear-heads, axes, knives, buttons, and beads; sometimes also wine and wheaten bread, not so much indeed for barter, as for presents to the [p. 2.703]Rhapsian chiefs. From Rhapta they exported ivory (inferior to that of Adulis), tortoise-shell (the next best in quality to that of India), rhinoceros-horn, and nauplius (a shell probably used in dyeing). These commercial features are nearly repeated at the present day in this region. The African still builds and mans the ship; the Arab is the navigator and supercargo. The ivory is still of inferior quality, being for the most part found in the woods, damaged by rain, or collected from animals drowned by the overflow of the rivers at the equinoxes. The hawksbill turtle is still captured in the neighbourhood of the river Govind, and on the shore opposite the island of Pata. (See Vincent, Voyage of Nearchus, vol. ii. pp. 169--183 ; Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and the Nile, pp. 68--72.)


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  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 1.14
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 1.9
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