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Locating Ophir - The Search for El Dorado

Search for "Ophir," the gold rush source (or 'El dorado') of the Biblical times continues. This is an endeavor to locate Ophir conclusively.

Locating 'Ophir', a place renowned as a source of much gold of the finest quality, during the Biblical days, continues. The search for gold began during the early days of the First millennium BC, but is still not concluded. Even today, this yellowish lustrous metal known chemically as AU metal continues to retain its attraction as unit of exchange and value. Countries in their monetary system adopted gold standard to specify certain weight of gold to equal the value of its' currency unit.

Earlier, the ancient city of Ur, a prominent Sumerian city in Mesopotamia, dominated the trade in gold and remained an important marketing center in the region. Ur received its large supply of gold, from an unknown location below South India, a landmass, considered the holy-land, according to the beliefs of the Sumerians

After the fall of Ur, during the early Biblical days, Lebanon emerged as a leading gold market in the region. Lebanon received its supply of gold from a region only known as 'Ophir'. Did Ur too receive its gold supply from Ophir? Where is the place Ophir located?

Locating Ophir, well known for its abundance of gold, during the early Biblical days, remains a matter for speculation and continues to draw the attention of scholars, biblical scientists and even laymen alike. This "El Dorado'- the fabled city in South America, supposedly rich in treasures, attracts considerable interest. Unfortunately, Ophir, to date, remains elusive and mysterious to all.

According to the Bible, the world witnessed great efforts taken to obtain gold, during the reign of King Solomon that continued into the reign of his successors and others, in the ancient Middle East. During the reign of Jehoshaphat, one hundred years after the demise of King Solomon, attempts were made frantically to reach Ophir for gold, but the efforts failed to succeed. Numerous lengthy negotiations took place between Jehoshaphat and Ahaziah, the King of Israel, to prepare journey to Ophir.

Even though, those negotiations failed, his ships too were wrecked at Eziongebar, the seaport, at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. "King Jehoshaphat built great freighters to sail to Ophir for gold; but they never arrived, for they were wrecked at Eziongebar'-
1 King 22 (48). Those events testified that, the region called Ophir; lied far away from Israel and the hazardous voyages, involved intense preparations. In addition, the voyage demanded special expertise, technical and professional knowledge and training in navigation.

Biblical scientists, and historians, attempted to locate the place exactly, except for their fanciful speculations; they failed to arrive at any conclusion, regarding the exact location of Ophir. According to the Biblical information, Eziongebar, the seaport in the Red-Sea, served as the point of departure for ships that undertook sedulous voyages in search of Ophir and gold. However, up to date, Ophir almost eluded its location to historians and scientists.

The present voyage of discovery is undertaken, to put to rest conclusively, the controversy regarding the location of Ophir.

Jews and Israel

For many people, the humankind's history, before the coming of Christianity, was the history of Jews. The Jews are the descendants of Abraham, who was born in Ur, one of the oldest Sumerian cities in the old kingdom of Mesopotamia. He left Ur to Haran and finally migrated to Canaan, in the shores of the Dead Sea. The descendants of Abraham, spoke one of the Semitic languages, called 'Hebrew,' and grouped round the cult of 'Yahweh'. The Hebrew means 'wanderers'. The Bible began to distinguish Abraham's people from their days in Canaan. The history of the Jews and other people is available in the 'Old Testament,' the sacred writings of the Jewish people. Those documents provide interesting and valuable information, about the gradual development of human civilization.

Jews are a new kind of people, belonging to ancient tribe of 'Judah'. The first one to
use the name 'Jew' was Jeremiah, the writer of the book of Kings. Jews were people without a King, a City and a Temple. Persians invaded them in 587 BC, destroyed their first Temple built by King Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar took the Jews into captivity in Babylonia. This was considered the beginning if the Diaspora (Dispersion) of the Jews and finally they lost everything in 70 AD. Jews continued to maintain their religious, and ethnic identity and their exclusivity. They managed to hold together, for more than 2000 years and consolidated out of heterogeneous elements only by the power of the written words of the Old Testament (The Bible).

King Solomon (970 BC- 931 BC)

In the first Book of Kings, which begins with the reign of King Solomon, (970 BC - 931 BC) (date is to be confirmed), who was the first King of Israel, where reference of Ophir too emerged. He succeeded his father David (1003 BC - 970 BC). He was outstandingly incredible, both for his strength and weakness.

Although, no archeological evidences are available that King David existed, he still lives in the Bible, as one of the greatest figures and a model king. He placed himself under the protection of Hiram, Phoenician King of Sidon. This Phoenician alliance, sustained him, considered an essential element in the greatness of King Solomon.

Solomon decided to recast the religion of his people. He continued the alliance with Hiram, who used Solomon's kingdom as a highroad to reach and build shipping-lanes through the Red Sea, on the coast of the Hebrew hill country. Normally, Phoenician trading lanes went to Red Sea, through Egypt, but during that period, the country was in a state of disorder. Therefore, Hiram established a close relationship with both, King David and later with his son King Solomon.

King Solomon informed Hiram that his father King David was unable to build a Temple to Jehovah, due to numerous wars that were going on during his time. He conveyed his intention to build a Temple to Lord Jehovah, as instructed by God to his father King David. He appealed to Hiram to assist him with his project. Solomon requested him to send his men to Lebanon, to cut cedar timber for him. Accordingly, he agreed to supply both Cedar and Cypress logs, from Lebanon's mountains, to the Mediterranean Sea and float them along the coast, wherever Solomon needed them.

Solomon laid the foundation for the Temple in May 966 B.C., during the fourth year of his reign, and completed his building in November 959 B.C., in the eleventh year of his reign. Solomon's Temple was designed more to Canaanite standard than Jewish. He also built his own palace that took thirteen year to complete.

King Solomon leaves behind a great literary reputation, centering on "Wisdom." Ascribed to him are the biblical Proverbs, Ecclesiastics, the Song of Solomon and Psalms 72 and 127. When King Solomon died, the combined kingdom of Israel and Judah began to disintegrate. His son Rehoboam succeeded him (931 BC - 913 BC).

The Bible-1 King

Following excerpts are recorded in the Bible, regarding Ophir, the building of the Temple and the Palace: "So, Hiram produced to Solomon cedar and cypress timber as he desired." 1King: 5 (10)

"(And when king Hiram's ships brought gold to Solomon's from Ophir, they also brought along a great supply of 2algum trees and gems.1King: 10 (11)

Solomon used the algum wood to make pillars for the Temple and palace, and for harps and harpsichords for his choirs. Never before or since has there been such a supply of beautiful woods.)" 1King: 10(12)

"King Solomon had a shipyard in Eizorngeber, near Eloth, on the Red Sea, in the land of Edom, where he build a fleet of ship." 1 King: 9 (26)

"King Hiram supplied experienced sailors to accompany Solomon's crew. They use to sail back and forth from Ophir, bringing gold to King Solomon, the total value of which was several million dollars each trip." 1King: 9 (27,28)

"King Solomon's merchant fleet was in partnership with king Hiram, and once in every three year, a great load of gold, ivory, apes and peacock arrive at the Israel port."


The gold, algum trees, gems, ivory, apes, spices, sandalwood and peacocks, came to Israel from Ophir. The name of the place, spelt in the English translation, as Ophir, but this word must have been the product of the translation in the earlier years from Hebrew into Greek and later into Latin and English. This essentially contributed to the basic confusion in locating the place. The word Ophir is derived from the Greek word "Ophis," meaning a serpent and the word for serpent in Hebrew is also supposed to be the same. However, the Hebrew word for serpent is "Nachash" or "Saraph" (the Tamil word is Sarpam) and has no phonetic similarity to Ophir. It was the Hebrews and not the Greeks, who called the place Ophir and to resort to the Greek term "Ophis" for elucidation would be an error.

Many Biblical scientists seemed confused over the location and no one confirmed the location with authority. Some suggested the place to be in the South-eastern Arabia, the Ethiopian coast of the Red Sea, a place known to the Egyptians as Punt. This suggested that, Ophir and Punt were located in the same region and third suggestion was that, Ophir was in Mashonaland, the ruins of Zimbabwe, between the Zabezi and Limpo rivers. All those suggestions, fell wayside, when a single voyage to Ophir and back took nearly three years to accomplish.

Therefore, the location of the place ought to lie very far, several thousand nautical miles away from the port Eziongerber. Any ship that set-off from the Eziongerber, passed through the Arabian-sea and sailed into the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the location ought to be in the midst of the Indian Ocean.

There were further suggestions that, Ophir located in India, in the regions between the tributaries of the river Indus and China. In addition, few identified the old seaport of Supara or Sopara, located 40 miles north of Bombay (Mumbai). The British archeologist Earnest Mackay, first to discover India's earliest civilization, believed that, the inhabitants of the cities in the Indus valley sailed to Sumer and other countries in the Mediterranean regions, using sea route. Thanks to the archeological discoveries, in the eastern section of Lothal, the world's oldest seaport of Bombay (Mumbai), a canal of seven meters in wide was constructed, to connect this shipyard, with the river, flowing into the Arabian sea. It is a noteworthy fact that, Lothal, a city founded 4,000 years ago, far south to the Indus valley, just as old as Mohenjo-Daro. A few Indian historians made vain attempts to connect Ophir with Supra and Lothal.

The first excavations of the proto-Indian cities in Mohenjo-Daro revealed, pictures of ships with masts and this proved that, large ships were available in those early days for long and protracted sea journeys by way of Arabian Sea. While, Ur seemed to be the key entre port into Mesopotamia, between 2350 BC and 1700 BC, archeologists found thousands of cylindrical seals in Mesopotamia, which belonged to the period between 2300 BC and 2000BC. Many of those cylindrical seals, bore inscriptions in Dravidian language- the earliest form of Tamil written letters, which confirms that, sea trade to Ur existed from a Tamil area, located below the Indian sub-continent. According to available reports, Ur imported various commodities like gold, silver, copper, lapis, lazuli, carnelian, beads, exotic woods and inlay from a location far away from the old city of Mohenjo-Daro.

Dravidian language-Tamil

The determination of the sea trade routes with the West, during historical times, has been greatly facilitated by references in the remarkable 'Periplus of the Erythraen Sea,' of the First century AD. When going through Periplus, one may note that, several places, cities and ports are recorded in the Dravidian language - Tamil.

"A number of South Dravidian words almost all of them geographic and dynasties names, occur in such Greco-Roman sources as, Periplaus maris Erythrael (circumnavigation of the Erythraen sea) of 89 AD, and in the writing of Ptolemaeus of Naukratis of the 2nd century AD; it is probable that, Western language term for Rice. (Compare Italian riso, Latin oryza, Greek oryza) and ginger (compare Italian Zen zero, German ingwer, Greek zingiberis) are cultural loans from Old Tamil, in which they are arici and inciver, respectively." (The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 4, 15th Edition, page 699). Early Mesopotamians, used Tamil words to name places, during ancient days such as, 'Ur' means settlement, town or community and words with Ur in the root, such as, 'Uruk', 'Nimrud', etc.

Further more, in the Hebrew version "ivory, apes, ahalim and peacocks arrived at the Israeli port. 1 King: 10 (22). In the old Hebrew version, it is referred as: Ivory- shen; apes- kapi; ahalim- aghil, peacocks- tuki. These four are Tamil words.

When reflecting on the need to adapt the Tamil words in Hebrew version of the Bible, then it becomes necessary to turn the focus on the word 'Ophir.' The Tamil word 'Ovar' means, painters, artists, sculptors, engineering technicians, artisans, and skilled workers in the construction trade. The country of the Ovar was also called "Oviyar Nadu," the ancient land of Oviyar. Artisans or skilled craftsmen were called Ovar, which was also the adapted name of the seaport in the Northwestern coast of Ilanka (Lanka), by the foreign sailors.

Now, it is appropriate to venture and suggest that the word Ovar was corrupted by foreign sailors due to the proclivity of their tongues and came to be called Ophir as the country of the Oviyar. In this Oviyar land was mainly populated with the tribe of the Nagas, who lived in and around Mantai (Mathottam, the greatest emporium), a port city in the North-Western part of Lanka, as will be seen in Cirupanarrupadai, one of the ten idylls of the old Tamil Academy (Sangam) period.

Oviyar were a tribe of Nagas, inhabiting the sea coast of Lanka. Aghil (incense) and sandalwood being washed against the bodies of damsels, shows that the place was a port and that those articles, had dropped out of the ships. - Cirupan, 11: 161.221: -

The Nagas were of Tibeto-Burman origin and by about 4000 BC, driven by some political disturbances from Central Asia into India, through the North- east frontier. Nagas were a prominent non- Aryan race in India and their names are still preserved in various parts of India.

Ptolemy in his "Geography," written in the middle of the 2nd century named Mantai as Modouttou, and was the entre port for sea trade in the Indian Ocean. In addition, in the pre-historic days, it was a famous international emporium. The phonetic similarity between Ophir and Oviyar is certainly striking and Ophir must have been borrowed in the same manner, as the Hebrew words for ivory, apes, aghil and peacocks-ibha, kapi, ahalim and tukeyium, respectively, which are identical with their Tamil words- ipam, kapi, aghil, and tokai. The Hebrew mariners, no doubt, borrowed the words from the Tamil inhabitants of the port area.

Srilanka, from the pre-historic period and from the days of Iramayanam (Ramayana), is known as 'Ilanka', meaning the 'resplendent' land but it also received several other names by different nationalities. The Arabs called Ilanka as Serendib', the Portuguese 'Ceilao', the Sinhalese 'Sinhala Dwipa, the Tamils with the original name of 'Illam,' 'Elam,' 'Eelam,' of 'Eelanadu,' and Thas added the honorific Tewa, calling the land Island of 'Tewa Lanka' (divine Ilanka) and the Greeks as 'Taprobane.' Ptolemy thought that 'Simondou' was the old name of Ilanka, but according to Periplus, Ilanka was then not known as 'Palaisimoundon.' (Paliya Seela Mandalam- Old virtuous region) 'Telmun,' or Dilmun,' was the name given by the Sumerian of Ur. In 1972, the country's name was changed officially from Ceylon to Srilanka.

The ancient Hindu epic 'Iramayanam', "represent Ceylon (Ilanka) as a huge continent, a tradition not unsupported by science.

The description in Iramayanam about Irama (Rama) crossing the peninsula and conquering Ilanka is a clear representation of Aryans- mean outsiders, penetration into the Indian peninsula, down south. According to the Sri Lankan Buddhist chronologies, such as, The Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Rajavaliya etc., Ilanka had been the abode of Asuras- demons and Yakkhas- the devils. (Ausras means in Tamil, A+Sura- Sura means those alcoholic who drink toddy. Asura means the teetotaler). Buddhist chronicles refer, as Asuras and Yakkhas, the aboriginal people of the ancient country, the descendants of the devout Hindu and the descendant of Iravanan (Ravana), the Tamil King of Ilanka. Earlier, the Aryan poet, a mystical waif, as well a robber turned ascetic, Valmiki, who wrote Iramayanam in Sanskrit, described the indomitable aborigines of Ilanka, the Tamils, Rakshasas- monsters, demons and cannibals, - with contempt, which has marked all the civilized conquerors in all ages. Rakshasas, according to popular Indian belief, are malignant beings, demons of many shapes, terrible and cruel, which disturb the sacrifices and the religious rites of the Brahmans. It appears indubitable that the poet of Iramayanam, vociferous with his vitriol and applied the hated name of Rakshasas, to an abhorred and hostile people and that the denomination found in Dipawamsa, Mahavamsa and Rajavaliya are expression of hatred and horror, rather than a very historical name for a sect of people. Pali and Sinhalese writers of the ancient Buddhists chronicles, used derogatory terms, whenever referring to the original descendants of the country- the Tamils. Earlier days, the Aryan ascetics, not necessarily Brahmans, served as pioneers and spies against non-Aryans- the Dravidian, whose forest they occupied without permission, and helped in a great deal towards the Aryans Southward thrust.

However, it is clear that ancient writers from Pali, Sanskiritic and Sinhala languages, used vituperative epithets such as, Asuras, Rakshas and Yakshas.

(Yaksha's means Devil, who can transmigrate and transform themselves to any shapes or size,) to denote the Dravidian - the Tamils, who were the enemies of the Aryans and for a long time resisted the progress of the pale-skinned race, into the Indian sub-continent. They were contemptuously called Asuras (teetotalers) Rakshas (Protectors of the Dravidian race and faith, or Iyakkhas - the archers) and Yakkhas (devils in the Sinhala language) because of their physical strength, courage and valor, and super natural powers ascribed to them by the early Aryans. Dravidians established a powerful kingdom in Ilanka and asserted their authority even over the Dekkan plateau and other parts of South India.

Southward movement

However, according to the historical evidences, judging from the southward movement of the Aryans, generally dated around 1100 BC to 900 BC, one has to conclude that, the original Iramayanam must have been composed, at least fifty or hundred years later. Therefore, it is historically correct to assume that, the Irama- Iravanan war occurred in the ancient Ilanka, around the period of Aryans' southward movement.

Iramayanam depicts the details of the Aryans southward movement. However, Iramayanam relates the story of the abduction of Sita- the spouse of Irama, by the South Ilanka king Iravanan. When Iravanan was the ruler of the Southern Ilanka, the Naga tribe who were 'Ovar' or artisans of the highest order ruled the Northwestern portion of Ilanka. The artisans tribe originated from their chief, Viswakarma, the divine architect. The five classes of artisans, namely - Manu-Black-Smiths, Maya- carpenters, Tuvashta Kannar- brass- founders, Silpa Sirpi- masons, Stone-cutters, sculptors, architects, image makers and painters, Visvanna - gold-smiths, said to be born out of the five faces of Viswakarma.

Though, their country known as Mathottam, and the capital called Mantai- the port city, the whole country was popularly known as "Ovar" or "Oviyar Nadu" - means the land of the divine craftsmen. Ravana's spouse Mandotari was the daughter of Mayan the king of this country. Several thousands' years ago, a temple for Lord Shiva, was constructed in this region, Tirukethiswaram (Tashis) by one great Lord Shiva devotee. The lord of the temple, was called, 'Obanna.'

Artisans of Oviyar Nadu also possessed the skill even to build aircraft. King Iravanan used an aircraft (dirigible) called 'Puspakavimanam,' to abduct Sita, and that too was built by the craftsmen of Ovar. At the entre port at Ovar, a busiest one on the region, ships from various countries, used to call for gold, silver, copper, exotic woods, pearls, spices, and other luxurious items grown, manufactured and mined in and around Ovar. Similarly, King Solomon's ship called at the seaport of Ovar, for exotic cargoes required for the building of the Jews' temple and his palace.

The availability of Gold and silver in Ilanka is another important aspect that needs confirmation in our effort to locate Ophir.

The Phoenician, 'History of Sanchoniathon,' is the earliest record available regarding the kingdom in North Ilanka. Sanchoniathon lived before the Trojan War. According to him, "Four kings governed the Island (Ilanka), all subordinate to paramount sovereign, to whom they pay tributes, cassia, ivory, gems, and pearls, for the king, has gold in abundance." Further more, Ptolemy in his great work of 'Geography of the World,' complied in 150 AD, writes as follow, in Bk. Vii, Chap. IV -

"Sect.1, Opposite Cape Cory, which is in India, is the projecting point of the Island Taprobane, which was called formerly Simoundou and now Salike. The inhabitants are now called Salai. Their heads are quite encircled with luxuriant locks, like those of women. The country produces rice, honey, ginger, beryl, and hyacinth and has mines of every sort of gold, silver and other metals. It breeds at the same time elephants and tigers." Hope that, the above two descriptions, clarifies the availability of gold and silver in Lanka (Ilanka), during those days. Ptolemy went a step further to testify that, gold and silver were mined in Ilanka.

Even Pliny The Elder, in his "Natural History" while referring about Taprobane writes, "Megasthenes says that Taprobane is divided by a river and that the natives are called Aborigines (Palegoni-born long ago) and produce more gold and larger pearls than the Indians." (Megasthenes was an envoy of Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Syrian monarchy. Megasthenes wrote his work on India (Indika, - as a result of his experience while being ambassador to the king of Prasii.)

Voyage for gold

Available historical information reveals that, only once, King Solomon and King Hiram's sailors jointly sailed successfully to Ophir. This voyage for gold must have happened during or just after lifetime of Iravanan. According to the historical information, the great part of Ilanka submerged under the sea, after Iravanan's debacles, in the war with Irama. Rajavaliya describes the aftermath of the war as follows: "Be it known that, by his (Iravanan's) wickedness, his fortress, 25 palaces and 400,000 streets were overwhelmed by sea." This deluge took place in the Southern and Northwestern part of Ilanka.

Subsequently, during the Second century BC, again according to Rajavaliya, when Kelanitissa was the King of South Ilanka, 100,000 seaport towns, 970 fishers' villages, 470 villages of pearl-fishers, making altogether eleven-twelfth of Ilanka submerged by the sea. According to Eratosthenes, the dimension of the Island was 804 miles in length and 575 miles in breadth, in the 2nd century BC. Therefore, the Ilanka today is one-twelfth of the Ilanka of ancient days, minus the gold prospecting region of Ophir. The actual measurements of the present island of Sri Lanka are 271X137 miles.

After Solomon and Hiram's demise, no other successful expedition to Ophir took place. Unfortunately, King Hiram and his own talented sailors were the only group of mariners, who were able to locate Ophir in North-west of Ilanka. When they were no more, and even when the Ophir mentioned in the Bible submerged under the sea, firstly after the Iravanan's debacle and later during the reign of Kelanitissa, people continued to speculate about and try to locate the place, that was no more.

Subsequently, the sea trade along the coast of Ilanka and in the Indian Ocean, few centuries before the Buddhists and Christian eras, remained in the hands of the Arabs, who jealously guarded against the encroachment by other nations, by their sedulous dissemination of fabulous and blood curdling stories, of the dangers of navigation.

The monopoly of the Arabs in the Indian Ocean shattered in the latter part of fifteen century AD. European colonialists set their sails to conquer the countries in Asia, after Vasco da Gama discovered India in 1498.The Baobab trees that form a special feature in the landscape of the Gulf of Mannar and the present Mathottam areas, testify to the Arab's ancient settlements during those periods.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to finalize that, the exact location of Ophir was in the North-west of Sri Lanka, the place called Mathottam and it had disappeared from the map of the world, due to seawater flooding twice and now, a submerged city, lying below the Indian Ocean.

Therefore, now the world, based on the above final location of Ophir, could put to rest conclusively any further search, but, could consider to initiate geological surveys for prospecting Gold and other precious metals in and around and off the coast of North-west region of Srilanka.

Weekend Express - 06 -07 February 1999