MARITIME SILK ROAD
Ocean-going dhow More silk and Silk Road goods are believed to have reached the West via sea routes than by overland routes.
Much of the trade on the Maritime Silk Road was carried out by Arab, Persian and Indian ships not Chinese ones.
The trip was dangerous. Many ships disappeared and no one has any idea where they went down. A few went down in well-known dangerous places like the Gelasa Straight, a funnel-shaped passage between the small Indonesian islands of Bangka and Belitung, where the warm tropical waters are freckled with treacherous ship-sinking shallow reefs and submerged rocks.
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu
Silk Road Sea Routes
Lighthouse at Mocha More silk and Silk Road goods are believed to have reached the West via sea routes than by overland routes. The main Silk Road sea routes were between Indian ports like Barbaricon, Barygaza and Muziris and Middle Eastern ports such as Muscat, Sur, Kane and Aden on the Arabian Sea and Muza and Berenike on the Red Sea. From the Middle East goods were transported overland to the Mediterranean Sea and then Europe. From India goods flowed to anf from Southeast Asia, the East Indies and China.
Small boats hugged the shore. Large boats sailed the seasonal monsoon winds, which carried boats eastward to India in July, August and September and westward from India to the Middle East in December, January and February. The largest teak-hull ships that plied these routes may have been 180 feet long and capable of carrying cargos of 1,000 tons.
One of the greatest ancient Middle East ports was Bernelike on the Red Sea. In the 1990s archaeologists discovered this ancient city under the sands about 600 miles south of modern-day Suez, near the border of Egypt and Sudan. They found evidence of trade with Thailand and Java, and inscriptions in 11 languages including Greek, Hebrew Coptic and Sanskrit. It was surmised that the ships and crews mostly came from India based on the presence of lots teak, a wood native to India and Southeast Asia.
Berenlike was founded in the 3rd century B.C., rose in importance in the 1st century B.C. and was at its peak in the A.D. 1st century. It was abandoned in the 3rd and 4th centuries and was reborn in the 5th century and thrived until it silted over in the 6th century. It was located far south of the Mediterranean because of unfavorable winds in the Red Sea.
Advantages of Silk Road Sea Route
Around the A.D. 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, 500 years before Marco Polo arrived in China, Silk Road land routes fell into decline as sea routes opened up between China and the Middle East. An extensive trade network between China, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East was established by Arab traders. Chinese coastal cities blossomed. Guangzhou in China had 200,000 foreign residents, including Arabs, Persians, Indians, Africans and Turks.
It is not difficult to see why the caravan routes were abandoned. They were treacherous and time consuming. Merchants had to worry about bandits and pay bribes and commissions to middlemen and officials. Those that traversed western China passed through some of the most barren and inhospitable deserts on earth. When the going was easier thieves and bandits were a constant threat.
Sea routes by contrast were faster and easier and there were fewer transactions and officials. A trader who purchased goods in the East could have control over the goods until they reached ports in the West and make greater profits by eliminating middlemen. The biggest risks with sea travel were storms, disease and pirates.
Land routes began opening up again when the sea routes became dangerous as a result of pirates and the Mogols eliminated petty states and local officials by creating a huge unified empire that stretched across Asia and Europe. Marco Polo traveled by both land and sea but reported more trouble when he traveled by sea.
Dhows in a port
Discovery of Silk Road Ships
In the 1998 sea cumcumber divers working in the Gelesa Straight found some coral-encrusted ceramics, and further scraping away revealed a 9th century Arab dhow laden with 60,000 handmade ceramics and some pieces of gold and silver. Much of the cargo was made of up cheap, mass-produced, Chinese-made bowls, known as Changsa bowls, placed n large storage jars. There was also ink pots, spices jars of various sizes and ewers. [Source: Simon Worrall, National Geographic, June 2009]
The destination of the ship appeared to be Middle East, meaning that ship was traveling the maritime Silk Road. Many of the bowls were decorated with geometric decorations and Koranic motifs that were clearly intended for Middle Eastern market. This implied she objects were made to order for Middle Eastern customers.
The dhow was almost 20 meters long. It resembled a kind of sailing dhow still used in Oman called a baitl qarib. Built of African and Indian wood, it had a raked prow and stern and was fitted with square sails and made of planks sewn together with coconut husks fiber.
In December 2007, an 800-year-old, 30-meter-long merchant vessel, filled with porcelain and other antiquities, was raised from the bottom of the ocean with a crane in waters off the south China coast near Yangjiang, Guangdong Province. Discovered in 1987, the vessel has yielded 4,000 containers made of gold, silver and porcelain as well as 6,000 Song dynasty copper coins. The boat is expected ti provide insight into maritime trade during the Song dynasty.(960-1279), when the vessel was built.
Significance of the Tang-Era Arab Shipwreck
Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop wrote in the New York Times, “For more than a decade, archaeologists and historians have been studying the contents of a ninth-century Arab dhow that was discovered in 1998 off Indonesia’s Belitung Island. The sea-cucumber divers who found the wreck had no idea it eventually would be considered one of the most important maritime discoveries of the late 20th century. The dhow was carrying a rich cargo — 60,000 ceramic pieces and an array of gold and silver works — and its discovery has confirmed how significant trade was along a maritime silk road between Tang Dynasty China and Abbasid Iraq. It also has revealed how China was mass-producing trade goods even then and customizing them to suit the tastes of clients in West Asia. [Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, March 7, 2011]
“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” an exhibition that opened at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore in 2011 and was put together by the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, featured amny artifacts from the belitung shipwreck. “This exhibition tells us a story about an extraordinary moment in globalization,” Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, told the New York Times. “It brings to life the tale of Sinbad sailing to China to make his fortune. It shows us that the world in the ninth century was not as fragmented as we assumed. There were two great export powers: the Tang in the east and the Abbasid based in Baghdad.”
Until the Belitung find, historians had thought that Tang China traded primarily through the land routes of Central Asia, mainly on the Silk Road. Ancient records told of Persian fleets sailing the Southeast Asian seas but no wrecks had been found, until the Belitung dhow. Its cargo confirmed that a huge volume of trade was taking place along a maritime route, said Heidi Tan, a curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum and a co-curator of the exhibition.
Mr. Raby said: “The size of the find gives us a sense of two things: a sense of China as a country already producing things on an industrialized scale and also a China that is no longer producing ceramics to bury.” He was referring to the production of burial pottery like camels and horses, which was banned in the late eighth century. “Instead, kilns looked for other markets and they started producing tableware and they built an export market.”
Artifacts from the Tang-Era Arab Shipwreck
“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” featured only 450 of the 60,000 objects found in the shipwreck but the rows of similar bowls that were displayed underscored the importance and size of the find. Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop wrote in the New York Times, “Stacked in the dhow, hundreds of tall stoneware jars each held more than a hundred nested Changsha bowls — named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Of the thousands of hand-painted pieces, almost all carry one of a few set patterns, but these were copied by many hands, resulting in an impression of huge variety.
Not all of the ceramics were mass-produced. Among the most interesting pieces in the exhibition is an extremely rare dish, one of three found in the wreck, with floral lozenge motifs surrounded by sprigs of foliage. They are believed to be the earliest known complete Chinese blue-and-white ceramics.
Ms. Tan, the curator, said: “It demonstrates that the Chinese potters were already experimenting with imported cobalt blue from Iraq, which they applied as underglaze painted decoration, some 500 years earlier than the famous blue and white porcelain of the 14th century.” At the time of the dhow’s discovery, cobalt-blue pigments had been found only in the Middle East, not yet in China, said Alan Chong, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
Aside from the rare ceramics, the haul also contained gold and silver objects, some of which Mr. Raby of the Smithsonian described as “of the very best quality you can see, clearly of imperial quality,” adding, “so we believe these were possible diplomatic gifts.” The form and decorative motifs of an octagonal gold cup — musicians and dancers with long hair and billowing robes — suggest Central Asian metal wares. Mr. Raby said it was believed to be the largest known such gold cup from Tang China, even upstaging, he added, one of the great treasures of Tang gold and silver work: the so-called Hejiacun Hoard, found in what had been one of the southern suburbs of the Tang capital of Xi’an.
Ming-Era Pirate Ship Found in the Marine Silk Road
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: Just off the coast of the southern Chinese island of Nan'ao, Chinese archeologists are excavating the underwater wreck of a Ming-era ship. Named the Nan'ao Number One, the wreck lies along a stretch of ocean that Chinese historians regard as the country's "Marine Silk Road." During China's heyday as a maritime power during and shortly after the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), the route was popular with traders but prone to dangerous storms, resulting in a trail of sunken ships. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
In this litter of wrecks the Nan'ao Number One is unique. It is the only known wreck from the late Ming Dynasty. Archaeologists estimate the ship sailed between 1573 and 1620, a period when China had turned inward, banned maritime commerce, and begun to dismantle its once-great fleets. In another time, the vessel would have been a merchant ship, following a busy trade route. But when China closed its shores and docks, maritime trade and commerce became piracy and smuggling. Officially, the Nan'ao ship never should have been in the water—it was likely moving along the coast illegally.
The Nan'ao ship is a rare find, but its fate is a familiar one in this part of the ocean. "This is a dangerous passage," Chinese archaeologist Cui Yong told Archaeology. As the boat snuck along the coast, something, whether bad weather or hidden rocks, caused it to sink and deposit its load of contraband—ceramics, copper coins, and ironware—onto the sea floor.
The wreck, which contains more than 10,000 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain, much of it still stacked for transport, was discovered in 2007 bylocal fishermen who pulled Ming Dynasty porcelain out of the ocean with their catch. When Cui arrived at the island and made his first dive, the Nan'ao site proved better than he had imagined. The wreck was unusually well preserved and the conditions were good for excavating. It was deep, but the water was clear and the mud at the bottom of the ocean soft and manageable. "I got lucky," he says.
The Nan'ao sank at the mouth of a particularly dangerous stretch of water. It sits at the northern edge of present-day Guangdong Province, near the entrance to the strait between the coasts of China and Taiwan. Typhoons frequent this passage and could blow shipsinto hidden rocks or smash them along the coast.
Underwater Excavations of the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: Excavations at the site move painstakingly slowly. Because of the depth of the site, around 90 feet down, a diver is only allowed 25 minutes at the bottom and only one dive a day. If a storm hits, or if the wind is simply too high, no one dives. This, says Cui, generally rules out fieldwork nine months of the year. And even on good days, he is concerned for the safety of his divers. They descend in pairs and keep close tabs on bottom time. Cui is quick to point out one of the key features on his boat is a decompression chamber. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Cui's excavation team was given permission to begin digging in 2009. Since then he has spent as much time as weather permits floating above Nan'ao Number One. After one excavation season, nearly half the wreck is exposed. The top decks have been worn away, but its belly lies undisturbed, oriented along a northnsouth line. Two curves of wood are exposed toward the stern, hemming in rows of porcelain bowls, platters, and cups, many still stacked neatly. On excavation maps, archaeologists have filled in where they speculate the sides of the boat continue, and they estimate the Nan'ao runs around 90 feet from bow to stern.
The excavation of the Nan'ao and tales of a Ming Dynasty pirate ship attracted a fair amount of attention. Wrecks like the Nan'ao, Cui said, help attract media and increase government funding. But the increased exposure also attracts looters and adds pressure. It is a delicate balancing act involving journalists sharing deck space on his boat with border patrol officers in fatigues and orange life jackets. The border guards help retrieve and clean pieces of porcelain as they come up from the wreck and remain on guard even beyond the excavation season because the risk of looting by local fishermen is high.
Piracy in the Time of the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The fact that the Nan'ao wreck has any artifacts at all is testament to the determination of Ming Dynasty businessmen. Boats caught defying the ban on maritime trade could be scuttled and their crews thrown in jail. These deterrents did not keep the Nan'ao merchants down—they simply became smugglers. "The ban was regularly ignored in southern China," says Wu Chongming, a colleague of Cui's who teaches at the Maritime Archaeology Research Center at Xiamen University in Fujian. Some historians theorize that the ban on international trade was originally intended to starve increasingly bold Japanese pirates. Rather than give up the business, Chinese merchants turned to piracy themselves—both smuggling and raiding. The Chinese still called smugglers and raiders wokou, a derogatory term for Japanese pirates, but just a few years into the ban, Chinese pirates had taken over the South China Sea. "There is a saying in Chinese," says Wu. "When the market closes, all the businessmen become smugglers." [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Items Found on the Ming-Era Pirate Ship
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The pieces Cui's team are bringing up were likely not the most valuable items onboard, explains Cui. They were probably, in fact, an afterthought for the Ming Dynasty smugglers. "It was probably ballast," says Cui. Other cargo, such as tea or the strings of copper coins that have been found on the wreck, would have been the ship's real treasure. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
Chen Huasha, a researcher from the Beijing Palace Museum, who has spent time on the Nan Tianshun for two years running, believes the bulk of the porcelain uncovered comes from kilns that were operating in China's Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. When asked how she can tell, Chen says, "There are characteristics." Chen selects a large dish that shows a woman plucking a flower. The round dish, she explains, represents the moon, and the woman standing at its center is Chang'e, the moon goddess in Chinese folklore. The flower, she says, could have to do with success at an imperial examination, a process that was called "picking flowers" at the time. Later, Chen pulls out a dish decorated with the figure of a woman with a bouffant hairdo. "Her hair looks like a flower," Chen says. "This was fashionable among royal women during the late Ming Dynasty." The subjects on the porcelain are so characteristically Chinese that Chen suspects they were intended for other Asian markets, such as Japan or the Philippines.
In addition to its porcelain, Nan'ao Number One stands out for its weaponry, bronze cannons. Xiamen University's Wu told Archaeology, "This is the first boat found with cannons on board," he says. They could have been used to protect the smugglers from imperial forces. "They would confiscate your goods, put you in jail, and sink your ship—the stakes were high." The cannons could also have served to protect the boat against other pirates or raiders. The sailors might also have feared becoming entangled in the intermittent battles that occurred between the Dutch and Portuguese through the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth.
Other Chinese Shipwrecks
Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine: The English treasure hunter Michael Hatcher was a key figure in getting Chinese underwater archeology going. His biggest find, which came to be known as the Nanking Cargo, came in the 1980s. It was the wreck of a Dutch ship that had run afoul of a coral reef near Indonesia in 1752, dropping a load of tea, gold, and more than 150,000 pieces of Ming Dynasty porcelain. "The porcelain was all from Jingdezhen, near Nanjing," says Wu. "That boat wasn't Chinese, but all that porcelain originated from China." China's government did its best to stop the sale of what it saw as national cultural heritage, but Hatcher was still able to auction off the bulk of his find in 1986, reportedly earning more than $20 million. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology, September/October 2011]
In 2001, Cui was sent to head excavations at Nanhai Number One, the wreck of a Song Dynasty boat that sailed well before the dismantling of China's fleet during the Ming Dynasty. "[The Song Dynasty] was a time when China's sailing fleet was well developed," Cui says. "Chinese boats were making it all the way to India and Africa." The boat was discovered by accident in 1987 by a team of English and Chinese researchers who were searching for an English boat thought to have gone down in the area. The Chinese archaeologists, however, weren't prepared to take on the large and complicated excavation.
"The Nanhai was in shallower water than the Nan'ao, but the visibility was terrible," Cui says. "We would have had to conduct excavations by feeling our way along the bottom of the sea floor." In 2001, archaeologists revisited the wreck with a bigger budget—$20.3 million—which was used to build a custom saltwater tank on Hailing Island in Guangdong, part of a new Maritime Silk Road Museum, which opened in 2009. Archaeologists actually lifted the boat—along with the silt in which it was buried—out of the ocean and into the tank for study. The spectacle of a 3,000-ton steel cage being pulled out of the water earned shipwrecks a place in China's popular consciousness.
Dhows are sailing vessels with lateen sails that have been used by Arab sailors in the the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for over 2000 years, on what may be the world’s oldest continually run commercial sailing route. The following information is mostly about modern dhows but much of also applies to dhows used centuries ago. [Source: Marion Kaplan, National Geographic, September 1973]
Utilizing the monsoons they have carried goods from the Middle East to India in the winter and from India to the Middle East in the summer. Dhows also brought slaves and ivory from ports in East Africa, such as Mogadishu, Mombasa, Lamu, Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam to Kuwait and Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf. Dhows carried slaves until the 19th century.
The dhows used today are not all that different from the ones said to have been used by Sinbad the Sailor in The Thousand and One Nights . Allen Villiers wrote in his book Sons of Sinbad: “As a pure sailing craft carrying on in their unspoiled ways, only the Arab dhow remained. Only the Arab remained making voyages as he always had, in a wind-driven vessel sailing without the benefit of engines. Only the Arab still sailed his wind ships over the free sea, keeping steadfastly to the quieter ways of a kinder past...the Arab dhow was the proud last remnant of the romantic East.”
Dhows usually have one or two masts. Most large dhow have two masts, the largest of which is as wide as the ship is long, supporting a scimitar-shaped linen sail. Some have elaborately caved sterns, reminiscent of Spanish galleons, and for a time rocket ships were popular bow ornaments.
The large lantern sails are still used in the monsoon winds, but most modern dhows rely on diesel motors. A dhow with a 165 horsepower engine can cover about 200 miles in a day.
Types of Dhows
The first dhows were simple dugouts with teak planks sewn to their sides. Over time larger vessels were developed that employed a keel on which the planks were sewn.
There five major kind of dhows are: 1) the Sambuk, used for pearling, fishing and transporting pilgrims to Mecca; 2) the boom, a vessel built in Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, and considered the most seaworthy vessel; 3) the baggala , the largest dhow, once used to transport slaves and ivory but rarely seen anymore; 4) the badan, a small craft with a shallow draft; and 5) the ghandaj, a large vessel with a curved stern used on the Arabian Sea for transporting dates, Persian Gulf pearls, timber and smuggled silver.
The boom is a double-ended craft with a hull shape that predates the 16th century. It is believed the designs for these ships originated in Bahrain and spread to place like Oman where they were used for trade with India and Africa. The largest of the traditional Arabian vessels, the boom can carry up to 40 tons and reached lengths of a 40 meters. The key feature of the design is a long straight planked bow-sprit, angled at about 45 degrees.
The sambouk is one of the most graceful and evocative ships. It possesses a low finely tapered bow and a high transom stern. In the past it was the favored pearling vessel. Now it is use mainly for fishing and trading.
Dhow Materials and Features
Large seaworthy dhows have a teak hull with ribs of timber for reinforcement and strength and are held together with cement paste and plugged with cotton strips soaked in fish oil and caulked with whale or shark oil.
The preferred wood for the ribs and keel has been teak or a similar wood. The hand-hewn keel usually have come from a giant log from a single tree. Teak and coconut-palm wood have been favored for masts and spars. Teak has been prized in shipbuilding because it was strong and resistant to sea worms. In the old days It was harvested in forests in India and Southeast Asia.
Dhows were sewed together. The timbers were lashed together with ropes made of coconut fibers rolled and twisted by hand. No nails were used. There was a belief that the oceans floor was a giant magnet that would suck out nails. The art of sewing a ship together remains alive on Agatti Island in Lakshadweep off the southwest coast of India.
Coconut ropes are made from the husk sof coconuts rotted in sea water (not fresh water), pounded with wooden mallets (not iron hammers which weaken the fiber), and spun by hand (rope made machines is not strong enough). Some ships had metal fasteners. Metal is more durable than coconut rope and was better on fighting ships for securing guns.
Lavatories were often “balconies” slung over the stern “like theater boxes” or a hole in the deck in the back of the vessel. Showers consisted seawater drawn with a bucket and dumped over oneself.
The triangular lateen sails on dhows have traditionally been made from woven palm leaves, coconut fiber, reeds or cotton. Vessels with lateen sails are faster and more maneuverable than than ships with square-rigged sails. Lateen sails copied from dhows were used on European explorer ships.
Large dhows include a keelson, a reinforcing timber fastened directly to the top of the keel to hold the edges of the garboards (the planks next to keel) in place.
Dhows are made using the shell-building method in which vessels are created one plank at a time. Modifications can be made in the middle of construction by altering the shape of the planks or the angles of attachment. By contrast, European ships have traditionally been built using the frame-first method which allows much less alteration once construction has begun.
Some large dhows are still made almost completely by hand. Arabs making the hull prefer working with razor-sharp adzes. Indians prefer soft-iron chisels which allow them cut the curves of the planks and make the complicated joints for the great beams.
Dhow building passed has traditionally been passed down father to son and ships have been made with no blueprints. Timbers are shaped with hand tools. Experienced shipbuilders construct the vessel with no plan except for what is in their head and no way of making sure the pieces are plumb and level except for what they measure with their eyes and ancient plumb lines.
During construction, dhows are temporarily held together with wooden cleats nailed across the seams, and often supported by frames bolted to the keel. After construction is finished, the vessel is allowed to sit for a couple weeks to allow the timbers to settle.
Sealing and Preserving a Dhow Hull
Large ships have 20,000 holes for the coconut rope fasteners bored in them by hand with a bow drill. The rope is threaded by special craftsmen and the holes are plugged on the inside with coconut husks or dowels and the outside is sealed a waterproof mix of lime and tree gum. The coconut rope is swabbed with vegetable oil to preserve it. These days nail fastenings are often used and shark oil is rubbed over all the metal parts to preserve them.
Below waterline the hull is rubbed with goat fat and lime to discourage worms and barnacles. Above waterline shark oil or fish oil is used as a preservative. If a ship is regularly oiled it will last 60 to 100 years. By contrast nailed ship will go for only ten years before the nails have to be replaced.
praying towards Mecca Traditionally a dhow was captained by a ship master with a crew of ten shipmates, most of whom dressed in turbans or head clothes, sarongs and robes. Most were Muslims who dutifully bowed and direct their prayers towards Mecca five times a day.
Dhow crews have traditionally had little sense of time and spent much of their time lying around chatting, dozing, smoking tobacco or hashish through a hookah, listening to or making Arabesque music, chewing qat, making and drinking sweet tea and making baskets. Passengers were traditionally asked to pay a goat for each voyage.
If there was work to do the crew would suddenly jump and do it. The crew followed orders of the ship master instantly and often chanted and sang as they did their chores.
Some captains who have been sailing for decades still can’t read a map. Many captains make sure their crews are from different villages so they don’t gang up on him.
Describing Omani sailors, Time Sevrin wrote in National Geographic, “They settled easily into the rhythm of shipboard life. They chatted, sang traditional songs, rigged fishing lines in our wake, and dozed. They could sleep anywhere, stretched out on deck with their turbans unwound and draped over their faces for shade. Yet whenever there was work to be done, they laid into the job with zest.”
When asked what he does if his dhow appears to be going down, one captain told the New York Times: “We strap planks to the plastic barrels and wait to get picked up.
Dhows have traditionally carried only a pair of compasses and a sextant for navigation tools. In the old days, dhows carried a kamal, a navigation devise that could determine latitude based on the height of the North Star above the horizon.
Food included unleavened bread, rice, goat stew, and ghee (clarified butter). Fresh fish were caught with a half dozen or so lines that hung off the boat. Dhows have traditionally carried surprisingly little drinking even though they sailed in areas with stifling heat and humidity.
Inventories were recorded on leather strings with knots denoting units of 20. The crew often slept out on the deck, wrapping themselves with blankets if it rained. Some have coconut matting on the rails to keep the crew from being splashed by waves.
During the Silk Road era dhows made it as far as China and Indonesia and traded linen, cotton, woolen clothes, metalwork and iron ore from the Middle East for silks, camphor, musk and spices from Asia. Today the are often used to transport tourists, ferry people short distances and smuggle stuff.
When a dhow brings goods to a town or village without a harbor surfboats are used to transport the goods to the beach. Some of these boats are fashioned from planks sewn together with fiber.
Dhows are disappearing as merchant vessels. They are still used in Africa and the Persian Gulf to ferry small quantities of goods, but as far large commercial loads of raw materials like sugar, tea, and coffee they are no match for large steel ships.
Image Sources: Marion Kaplan, Nabataea.com
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2012