Oc Eo, 2,000-Year-Old Port City in Vietnam

The Economic Heart of the Funan Empire of Vietnam

Ruins of Nam Linh Son Pagoda, Oc Eo Culture
Nam Linh Son is the brick foundation pf a temple located within the ruins of Oc Eo, Vietnam. Sgnpkd

Oc Eo, sometimes spelled Oc-Eo or Oc-èo, was a large and thriving port city located in the Mekong Delta on the Gulf of Siam in what is today Vietnam. Established in the first century CE, Oc Eo was a critical node on the international trade system between Malay and China. The Romans knew of Oc Eo, and the geographer Claudius Ptolemy included it on his world map in 150 CE as the Kattigara Emporium.

Funan Culture

Oc Eo was part of the Funan culture, or Funan empire, a pre-Angkor society based on international trade and sophisticated agriculture built on an extensive network of canals. Trade goods flowing through Oc Eo came from Rome, India, and China.

Surviving historical records about Funan and Oc Eo include the Funan culture's own records written in Sanskrit and those of a pair of 3rd century Wu Dynasty Chinese visitors. Kang Dai (K'ang T'ai) and Zhu Ying (Chu Ying) visited Funan about 245–250 AD, and in the Wou li ("Annals of the Wu Kingdom") can be found their report. They described Funan as a sophisticated country of people living in houses raised on stilts and ruled by a king in a walled palace, who controlled trade and managed a successful taxation system.

Origin Myth

According to a myth reported in Funan and Angkor archives in several different versions, Funan was formed after a female ruler named Liu-ye led a raid against a visiting merchant ship. The attack was beaten off by the ship's travelers, one of whom as a man named Kaundinya, from a country "beyond the sea." Kaundinya is thought to have been a Brahman from India, and he married the local ruler and together, the two forged a new trading empire.

Scholars say that at the time of its founding, the Mekong Delta had several settlements, each of which was independently run by a local chief. Oc Eo's excavator, French archaeologist Louis Malleret, reported that in the early first century CE, the Funan coast was occupied by Malay fishing and hunting groups. Those groups were already building their own ships, and they would come to form a new international route focused on the Kra Isthmus. That route would enable them to control the transmission of Indian and Chinese goods back and forth across the region.

Funan culture researchers debate how much the establishment of the Funan trade empire was indigenous to the Kra Isthmus or the Indian emigres, but there is no doubt that both elements were important.

Importance of the Port of Oc Eo

While Oc Eo was never a capital city—the Funan capitals were at Vyadhapura (now Ba Phnom) and Naravaranagara (Angkor Borei)—it served as the primary vital economic engine for the rulers.

Between the 2nd and 7th century CE, Oc Eo was the stopover on the trade route between Malaya and China. It was a key manufacturing center for the southeast Asian market, trading in metals, pearls, and perfumes, as well as the cherished Indo-Pacific bead market. Agrarian success followed the establishment of trade, in order to create a surplus of rice for visiting sailors and merchants. Revenues from Oc Eo in the form of user fees for the port's facilities made their way to the royal treasury, and much of that was spent to upgrade the city and build the extensive canal system, making the land more fit for cultivation.

The End of Oc Eo

Oc Eo thrived for three centuries, but between 480 and 520 CE, there is documented inner conflict accompanying the establishment of an Indic religion. Most damaging, in the 6th century, the Chinese were in control of the maritime trade routes and they shifted that trade away from the Kra peninsula to the Malacca Straits, bypassing the Mekong. Within a short time, the Funan culture lost its main source of economic stability.

Funan continued for a while, but the Khmers overran Oc-Eo in the late sixth or early 7th century, and the Angkor civilization was established in the region shortly thereafter.

Archaeological Studies

Archaeological investigations at Oc Eo have identified a city including an area of some 1,100 acres (450 hectares). The excavations revealed brick temple foundations and the wooden pilings built to raise the houses above the Mekong's frequent flooding.

Inscriptions in Sanskrit found at Oc Eo detail Funan kings, including a reference to King Jayavarman who fought a great battle against an unnamed rival king and founded many sanctuaries dedicated to Vishnu.

Excavations also have identified workshops for the production of jewelry, particularly Indo-Pacific beads, as well as workshops for casting metals. Seals bearing brief Sanskrit texts in the Indian Brahmi script, and trade items from Rome, India, and China attest to the economic basis of the city. Brick vaults have been found containing cremated human remains with rich grave goods, such as gold leaves bearing inscriptions and images of women, gold discs and rings, and a golden flower.

Archaeological History

Oc Eo's existence was first noted by the pioneering French photographer/archaeologist Pierre Paris, who took aerial photographs of the region in the 1930s. Paris, one of the earliest of archaeologists inventing the science of remote sensing, noted ancient canals crisscrossing the Mekong Delta, and the outline of a large rectangular city, later recognized as the ruins of Oc Eo.

French archaeologist Louis Malleret excavated at Oc Eo in the 1940s, identifying the extensive water control system, monumental architecture, and a wide variety of international trade goods. In the 1970s, after a long hiatus forced by World War II and the Vietnam War, Vietnamese archaeologists based at the Social Science Institute at Ho Chi Minh city began new research in the Mekong Delta region.

The recent investigation into the canals at Oc Eo suggest that they once connected the city with the agrarian capital of Angkor Borei, and may well have facilitated the remarkable trade network spoken of by the Wu emperor's agents.

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