2800 years ago, in 800BCE, Homer had just written his great poem Iliad which gave us all those great movies about Greek Heroes and monsters. Ancient Greece was in its infancy. Forget Alexander the Great. The “Great” conqueror was about 500 years in the future.
The FIRST Olympic games ever was about to be held in Greece. You know, the ones where all the competitors had to be naked? Borobodur and the great Khmer Empire which created Angkor Wat was still over 1,600 years (no, not an extra zero in the future and already, we had the beginning of an Iron Age culture up in Kedah capable of making and trading iron ingots with the ancient world. You get the picture. Yes, Old Kedah was around a very long time ago.
About 50 minutes from Georgetown, Penang, and short a 15-minute drive from the best curry mee (McDotas) in Sungai Petani, is one of Malaysia’s best kept secrets; the Sungai Batu Archaeological Complex in Merbok, Kedah. It dates back to Malaysian prehistory and reminds us that Malaysia and its peoples were traders who welcomed all manner of people from around the world.
The Sungai Batu Complex, part of the larger Lembah Bujang (which actually in this context means “serpent” in reference to the river nearby) was known as the “Kadaram” civilisation and placed at almost the centre of a meeting point between Western India and Eastern China was part of the Old Kedah Kingdom.
Traders from both continents came, traded and worshipped in Sungai Batu. The shapes of the candis, both round and square, indicate that there existed an earlier shamanistic/animistic culture which gave way to Hindu/Buddhist ones similar to those found in Angkor Wat and Borobudur.
How do we know this?
The complex housed a complete civilisation with administration buildings, living quarters and a smelting site for the high quality iron ore which they speculated travelled as far as possibly Rome, a worship site which predates Angkor Wat, and a jetty which used to sit right on the edge of Sungai Batu – a once mighty river measuring 100m across and 30m deep. More than enough for sailing ships of the era to sail up and dock.
A tour guide with University Sains Malaysia’s Archaeological department will take you on a walkabout of the complex beginning with furnaces that incorporated what was the cutting-edge technology of the time to raise temperatures. Then, there’s the showcase of the discovery of limestone in the form of shells from shellfish and produced high grade iron ore which was then exported to as far as Yemen and possibly the ancient Etruscan empire, the precursor to what we know as the Roman Empire. Imagine, Old Kedah iron being used in battles during the time of Myths and Heroes.
As you walk around the complex, it’s hard not to think about those ancient traders/ adventurers walking about, worshipping here and wolf-whistling at maidens who worked here. There’s even a really deep pond in which a ship’s mast from the period was discovered.
Prices for a tour begin at RM10 for locals but we opted for the RM40 as we were also taught how to make bricks from the period and participate in a mock archaeological dig. Highly recommended!