Tag Archives: gems

Biblical significance of Sri Lanka

SLSri Lanka, the island known as “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of it’s natural beauty and it’s rich biodiversity, is truly a country of many wonders that scores of tourists can attest to. Formerly known as Taprobane, Serendib and Ceylon, this little island has been a base point in ancient trade routes and have been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch & the British as well as been entangled in a civil war for two decades in the recent past. With all of the things that have happened in this little island nation, Sri Lankans (at least the ones living in the rural areas) are still known for their warm smiles and hospitality.

Since of late, with corruption running rampant, there has been a trend where Sri Lankans have started looking out into the world. Most people see no place for themselves in Sri Lanka. Others dream of migrating to other countries in search of better living standards.

I would not dismiss the fact that there are lots of reasons for a person to think this way. But there could be an equal amount of reasons to stay. I believe God has placed us in our own individual countries for a reason. However bad it is, or can get, I still believe we have been placed there for a reason. This belief of mine has got strengthened in the last few months by some interesting facts I learned both through Historical documents and God’s Word about our little island nation, Sri Lanka.

Cinnamon and its use in the Old Testament
In Exo 30:22-29, God Almighty instructs Moses on the productions of the Anointing Oil to be used in the Tabernacle, specifying the use of Cinnamon. While most Cinnamon variants are known as “Cassia”, True Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. It is very interesting to note that both Cassia and Cinnamon are specified in Exo 30:23,24; Leading us to believe that there had to be trade of Cinnamon happening at the time of Moses (1500BC approx). Furthermore, both the Book of Proverbs and the Songs of Solomon record “Cinnamon”(Pro 7:17, Son 4:14) leading us to believe that King Solomon also would have engaged in the purchase of Cinnamon, using his trade ships.

Why would God create one of the most aromatic Spices in the world, in this small island and then specify it’s usage in the Anointing Oil used inside the Tabernacle?

Could the “Tharshish” in the Old Testament be “Sri Lanka”?
The Scriptures inform us of King Solomon engaging in trade with a distant country called “Tharshish”(1Kin 10:22). The city of Galle, which is a historical site (with UNESCO World Heritage listing) occupied by the Dutch in the 1700’s is also the place identified as the “Tharshish” in the Old Testament according to folklore. There are several reasons to believe that Sri Lanka could be the Biblical Tharshish.

  • “Tharshish” was a Grandson of Japheth, son of Noah(Gen 10:2,4). And he and his descendants are said to have inhabited “the isles of the Gentiles”.
  • “Tharshish” is mentioned to be an island (Isa 23:6, Psa 72:10)
  • “Tharshish” could not have been an island near the land of Israel, as it took 3 years for the return journey (1Kin 10:22, 2Chr 9:21)
  • Gold, Silver, Ivory, Apes & Peacocks which were brought from “Tharshish” (1Kin 10:22) were all available in Sri Lanka.
  • James Emerson Tennant, appointed colonial secretary of Ceylon in 1845, identified Sri Lanka to have traded with the ships of Hiram and King Solomon [a].
  • Samuel Bochart was one of the first to suggest “Cape Comorin” in Tamil Nadu – India as “Ophir” and Kudremalee in Ceylon for “Tarshish”.[b]
  • Jon 1:3, 4:2 records how Jonah decides to flee to Tharshish from the presence of God. If Tarshish was in fact “Sri Lanka”, it would have made sense for him to flee to this country far away from the land of Israel, where trade used to happen.

Could King Solomon have had strong relationships with Sri Lanka through trade?

  • Vama Vamadevan argues based on early manuscripts that Solomon’s ships sailed to the land of Ophir, the land of the Nagas, early descendants of the Island of Sri Lanka[c]. Tennant supports this claim by providing an extensive review of Hebrew and Persian literature[d].
  • In his study of 6th century Greek writer Cosmas Indicopleustes known as the “Indian Navigator”, eminent classical studies scholar D.P.M. Weerakkody argues points, to the existence of Sri Lanka being an important site of international commerce in the eastern trade route.[e]
  • Sir Thomas Herbert, who visited the island in 1640, says it “was famous in some old conjectures as a place where King Solomon had his Gold of Ophir”.[f]
  • It has also been suggested that “there were two places called Tharshish to which the Pheonecians traded, one in the north where they brought tin, iron and lead, and one in the east which supplied ivory and gold, an island governed by a king, and having a large foreign trade”[g]
  • It is also a well known fact that Sri Lanka has always been a trading point for “precious stones” such as sapphires and rubies which were used in King Solomon’s time. (1Kin 5:17)

Did Sri Lanka contain a strong Jewish presence?
Please keep in mind that by the 5th Century BC, the people left in the land of Israel were only of the House of Judah. This is where the word “Jew” originates from. From that time, all of Israel has been called “Jews”, even though this is not the case. (Please read this article for more information on the subject).

  • Islamic geographic Abdullah el Idris (sometimes known as Edrisi) in Scriptorum Arabum de Rebus Indicis Loci notes that in the ninth century, the Sinhala King [likely to be Kasyapa IV ruled 858 – 891] who advocated an integrated society built around religious tolerance established a council of sixteen officials to advise him: “… four were Buddhists, four Mussulums [sic], four Christians and four Jews”[h].
  • A Ninth Century scholar repeats the above account observed by Abou-Zeyd-Hassan in The Two Mahometans, Part II (written around 911) drawing on the accounts of Ibn Wahab, who mentions “Jews and Manicheans in the service of the king who was tolerant to all religions”, [i]
  • A Captain in the Portugese Company named  Joao Riberiro, In his travel writings describes a trade and food fair where Jews participated that ran for fifty days. He writes:
    Half a league to windward on the same shore all the businessmen who come there assemble and a free Fair is held, laid out like some gallant city with streets and rows of shops; where they collect every kind of merchandise which our discoveries trade in with the nations of Europe and the whole of Asia. For this purpose they bring their gold, silver in bars and wrought, all kinds of precious stones, amber, perfumes, carpets, meleques, money with the rarities of all provinces of the world, in such a fashion that if there is anything anywhere of which one can spend time and money seeing it, it is this great Fair. From the surroundings is brought every variety of food, and though the people are numerous and of various races and religions – Christians, Jews, Moors and gentiles – they can all obtain the food to which they are accustomed. [j]
  • During the Portuguese era, traders from the Red Sea region frequently visited the ports of Colombo and Galle to ply their trade[k]
  • In a piece on trade, using materials found in sealed storage unit in a synagogue in Old Cairo, Goiten refers to a number of Indo- Hebraic trade letters and notes that during the eleventh/twelfth centuries the ‘Indian’ merchants who originated from North Africa and Spain were expected to “…read Hebrew as well as Arabic but not everybody was fluent in writing”. (In these writings India is not confined to the nation state of today, but extends to include the Island of Sri Lanka and beyond) [l]

If you are a Sri Lankan, as well as a believer in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus’ true name), these facts should give you a fresh perspective on the importance of the place of your birth. Each of us have been placed in our respective countries for a reason and a specific purpose. We are here to do His will, who has planned the end from the beginning. We should embrace the Countries of our birth rather than reject them and run away from them. God’s people are scattered around the globe, and it is our duty to take His Word to all who would give ear to Him, wherever we live.


Special thanks to Dr F. K. Campbell for her excellent research paper “A Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka” which some of the above historical information was extracted from.
[a] According to Tennant the Hebrew terms for Ivory, Apes, and Peacocks, c.f. 1 King, 10:22, is identical with the Tamil names for these objects. The errors in the work of Tennant have been corrected to the extent to which they have been identified. Tennent, James Emerson. 1859. Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical with Notices of its Natural History, Antiquities and Productions, Vol II, London: Longman, Green & Roberts (Reprinted 1999, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi).
[b] Bochart, Geo. Sacra, iii. 27.
[c] Vama Vamadevan. (2000). Were There Jews in Medieval Ceylon?” The Ceylankan, Vol 11, I, No. 2, May, pp 19 -20.
[d] Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island vol II, Chap I. p.100 – 103.
[e] Weerakkody, DPM, 1981, Ancient Sri Lanka as Described by Cosmas, in Sri Lankan Journal of Humanities, Vol VII, No. 1 & 2, pp, 107 – 127, 112; Weerakkody, DPM. 1997. Indicopleustoi Archaelogies of the Indian Ocean, Taprobanê: Ancient Sri Lanka as known to Greeks and Romans, Brespols, Turnhourt. Bopearachchi, Codrington’s Studies, does acknowledge that in the fifth century Sri Lanka became a main centre of trade (p.53), which incorporates the period of the late Roman empire.
[f] Sir T. Herbert’s Trav. p. 306.
[g] Tennent, Ceylon, ii, pp.99,100, ed 1859.
[h] Scriptorum Arabum de Rebus Indicis Loci, 1838. (Translated by Johannes Gildemesister), p. 53, I Climate, section 6, quoted Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Vol 1 , pp561 – 562, footnote 2..
[i] (Weerakkody, DPM, 1981, Ancient Sri Lanka as Described by Cosmas, in Sri Lankan Journal of Humanities, Vol VII, No. 1 & 2, pp, 107 – 127, 112.)
[j] Quoted in H.A.J. Hulugalle. (2000). Ceylon of the early Traveller, 5th edition, Arjuna Hulugalle Dictionaries, Colombo, p. 110 – 111. Original source: Ribeirom J. (1909). Ceilao, trans Paul. E. Pieris, Colombo.
[k] Tennant, Ceylon: An Account of the Island, Vol II, Chap. 1, p.27.
[l] Goitein, S. D. (1954). From the Mediterranean to India: Documents on the Trade to India, South Arabia, and East Africa from the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, Speculum, Vol. 29, No. 2, Part 1: 181-197.