Scylax of Caryanda

Scylax of Caryanda: Carian sailor in Persian service, made a reconnaissance expedition along the shores of the Indian Ocean (c.515 BCE).

Map of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean
Map of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean

Scylax is known from a passage in the Histories of the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus. It can be found in a large topographical discourse in book 4, section 44.

The greater part of Asia the greater part was explored by [the Persian king] Darius, who desired to know more about the river Indus, which is one of the two rivers in the world to produce crocodiles. He wanted to know where this river runs out into the sea, and sent with his ships [...] Scylax, a man of Caryanda.
They started from the city of Caspatyrus in the land of Pactyïke, sailed down the river towards the east and to the sea. Sailing westwards over the sea, they came in the thirtieth month to the place from whence the king of the Egyptians had sent out the Phoenicians of whom I spoke before [text], to sail round Africa.

Pactyïke was a part of ancient Gandara (eastern Afghanistan) and Caspatyrus, which is not mentioned in other sources, has to be somewhere along the river Kabul. Since Herodotus tells us in the next line that Scylax' expedition was a preliminary to Darius' conquest of the Indus valley, we can date this voyage after 519 -when Darius' rule was secure- and before 512, when India seems to have been part of the Persian empire.

Scylax' voyage led him along the Indus, along the shores of the Indian ocean and those of the Persian gulf. We do not know the details of this expedition, but we have a later source, the Indikê by Arrian of Nicomedia, which contains an excerpt of the story of Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander the Great. He made the same voyage and mentions the tides, whales and the hard living conditions along the Gedrosian coast.

When Scylax reached Harmozeia (modern Mînâb) in Carmania, one of the largest ports in the Persian Gulf, he may have paused. Here he could repair his ships and prepare himself for the expedition to the west. He passed Maka (modern Oman) and circumnavigated the Arabian Peninsula. We may assume that he had a special interest for the Arab towns in Yemen, which were famous for the production of incense. After this, he sailed to the north, through the Red Sea, until he reached Suez.

In the ancient world, Scylax' fame was great. A naval handbook from the fourth century BCE was published under his name.

This page was created in 2001; last modified on 21 April 2020.