Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Arabs at sea

A current Paris exhibition is examining the sometimes misunderstood relationship between the Arabs and the sea

The Arabs at sea
The Arabs at sea

Aventuriers des mers, or Adventurers of the Seas, is the main temporary exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris at present, and for some weeks now the Nizwa, a magnificent 24-metre Arab dhow from the Sultanate of Oman, has been installed on the plaza in front of the Institut, testifying, if testimony were needed, to the long maritime history of the Arabs and their formidable sea-faring skills.

A dhow is a traditional wooden-framed sail boat typically used in the countries of the Arabian Gulf including the Sultanate of Oman, and the Nizwa was one of the last ever built using the traditional materials and skills. It was made in Oman in 1992 and is an exact replica of these traditional fishing boats and pearl-fishing vessels whose design goes back to the 9th century CE. After its decommissioning in 2004, it was taken to the Port-musée de Douarnenez in France, where it joined a display of vessels from other regions of the world. 

From Douarnenez it has been brought to Paris for the present exhibition, and it makes a wonderful introduction to the show, suggesting important themes such as the at least one thousand years of savoir-faire that made Arab sea-faring possible and the perennial fascination and danger of the seas. Though it looks sturdy enough on the plaza of the Institut, to those sailing in it the Nizwa must have sometimes felt immensely fragile on the roaring waves of the high seas.

The exhibition continues in Paris until the end of February, before moving to the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM) in Marseille for a further run until September. It makes the point that the long and fascinating history of the Arabs and the sea, though more familiar than it once was, is still sometimes little-known and poorly understood. Visitors used to thinking only about the Arab presence in the Mediterranean may have the most to learn from the exhibition, even if it has sometimes been argued that even there the Arabs, originally from the desert interior of the Arabian Peninsula, did not take to seafaring in the way that other Mediterranean peoples did.

The camel, not the sail boat, has often been thought of as the quintessential Arab form of transport, and it is true that the Arab conquests of the eastern and southern Mediterranean and southwest Asia from the mid-seventh century CE took place by land and not by sea. Even after Arab civilisation had established itself across the formerly Roman and Byzantine Mediterranean world, the Arabs were slow to set up colonies on commercial sea routes like the ancient Greeks or Phoenicians did, or seek naval superiority like the Romans or Byzantines. 

However, this story of Arab reluctance to travel long distances by sea or seek maritime commercial or naval domination does not really hold true for the Mediterranean. It is positively misleading when applied to the Arabian Gulf or further afield. 

Even were the story of Arab reluctance to seek maritime domination of the Mediterranean to be true, the mediaeval Arab desire to stay securely on land and not to trust lives or fortunes to the waves is contradicted by the long history of maritime exploration and seafaring undertaken by the peoples of the Arabian Gulf. From perhaps the 8th century CE onwards, they undertook short and long-range sea voyages from ports on the Arabian Sea, trading not only with their neighbours, but also with India, East Africa and China. 

The character of Sinbad the Sailor from the Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights) is after all a famous maritime traveller and a Baghdad merchant at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate who takes part in a series of lengthy sea-voyages. He is described as venturing east to India and China in search of trading opportunities, linking him to the commercial motivations of the early seafarers from the Gulf. So strong were these motivations, the exhibition says, that a kind of maritime Silk Road, the nautical equivalent of the Asian land route that once joined China to the Mediterranean, developed with its western starting point in Gulf ports. 

It turns out that Sinbad is only one of the Arab “adventurers of the seas” referred to in the present exhibition. Other less well-known, but non-fictional and therefore probably more important, Arab seafarers are also commemorated, among them the 12th-century Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr who recorded his sea voyages around the Mediterranean, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Battuta who visited most of the then known world during his 25 years of travelling, including by sea to India and China, and the 15th-century Omani navigator Ibn Majid. 

Later on, the exhibition says, these doughty Arab sea-travellers gave way to European ones such as Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sea-captain credited with rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 on his way to India, and, at much the same time, the Italian-Spanish sea-captain Christopher Columbus who first made landfall in the Americas in 1492. 

Before these things happened, however, the Mediterranean was at least for a time an Arab sea, and the Arabian Gulf, Indian Ocean and further afield were criss-crossed by Arab traders.



HE LURE OF THE SEA: The exhibition begins by reviewing the place of the sea in traditional Arab cultures, noting that at least at first Arab seafaring in the Mediterranean tended to be short range, the coast never being very far away, and Gulf-based sea-voyaging was also at first restricted to coastal waters and parochial trade. 

For the Arab world, facing westwards to the Mediterranean and eastwards to the Indian Ocean, the sea represented both a promise and a threat, the exhibition says. It promised wealth, adventure, mystery, even wonder – qualities found in the sea-faring stories of the Thousand and One Nights – but also the threat of leaving the known world behind and becoming lost at sea. 

While the Arabs inherited astronomy and cartography from the ancient Greeks, as well as navigational instruments like the astrolabe, enabling them eventually to undertake truly epic voyages across the Indian Ocean, down the eastern coast of Africa and as far east at the South China Sea, these voyages required the development of new navigational techniques, better ship-building practices, and considerable human endurance. Maritime routes had to be mapped out and sophisticated navigational skills and ship-building methods developed.

The exhibition’s second room focuses on the Arabs’ eastern voyages, it being apparently understood that after the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods when Arab control of the eastern Mediterranean had often frustrated the plans of the European Crusaders, most long-range trading ambitions in the Mediterranean were surrendered to the Venetians and naval ones were surrendered to the Ottomans in the later Mamluke period.

However, earlier, and perhaps particularly during the rule of the Egyptian Fatimid Dynasty from the 10th to the 12th centuries CE, the Mediterranean had been a virtual Arab sea, with the Fatimids controlling the Mediterranean’s southern coasts from Egypt in the east to what is now Algeria in the west, using them to build a powerful maritime empire. 

 From the Gulf, maritime trade routes to India, East Africa, Southeast Asia and China were mapped out from the 9th century onwards and sophisticated boat-building methods and navigational skills developed. Different types of boat were used for different purposes, with the smaller badan sayad and badan safar, versions of the Arab dhow and having sewn hulls, were used for fishing and local commerce, while the larger baggala or baghla, built on a wooden frame, were used for longer sea voyages. 

The exhibition contains models of such boats, along with details of other designs that include the bhum, ghanjah and zaroogah, apparently also used for lengthier voyages. It also includes details of the navigational instruments and skills that the Arab seafarers developed in piloting them, along with details of developments in cartography.

Among the exhibits in this part of the exhibition are the Arabic text of the story of Sinbad the Sailor from the Thousand and One Nights that was used by the earliest European translator of the story, the 18th-century Frenchman Antoine Galland, now in the French National Library, and an 11th-century Arabic translation of the ancient Greek writer Ptolemy’s Geography, originally written in 150 CE in Alexandria, and now in the Strasbourg University Library. 

There are navigational aids such as astrolabes and copies of early Arab maps, including a recreation of the famous world map that the 12th-century Arab geographer al-Idrisi created for king Roger II of Sicily in 1154 and included in his Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (Book of Diversions for the Man Longing to Travel to Far-Off Places). There is also an early Arab map of the Indian Ocean taken from a copy of the Kitab gharaib al-funun wa-mulah al-uyun (Book of Curiosities) made in Egypt in the late 12th century from a work compiled in the first half of the 11th and kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. 



XPANSION AND DECLINE: The earliest Arab seafarers did not used astrolabes for navigation, preferring instead to use an instrument called a khashaba.

This was a piece of wood with a piece of knotted string threaded through it which could be used to measure the altitude of a star above the horizon and thus work out the latitude of the observer. From the 14th century onwards magnetic compasses were also used to take navigational bearings, and the exhibition includes examples of these instruments. 

However, such measuring instruments were not the only aids the Arab seafarers used when crossing the Indian Ocean or moving southwards along the east coast of Africa. Just as important seems to have been observation, such as the presence or absence of fish or different kinds of seaweed that could indicate location. 

The early Omani seafarers in particular do not appear to have used maps, and when making long-distance journeys, such as those between Muscat in Oman and Southeast Asia or southern China, they depended upon their navigational skills and their knowledge of the monsoons, the seasonal winds that blew in the Indian Ocean. 

An elaborate literature of navigation grew up, with navigators memorising long poems to instruct them on the signs they should look out for when crossing the oceans and to aid them in navigation. The best-known of these were written by the 15th-century Omani navigator Ibn Majid, one of the exhibition’s adventurers, and they include works which deal with the sea-routes to India, Sumatra and China and with routes along the coast of East Africa. 

An earlier exhibition in Paris on a similar theme, Oman et la mer (Oman and the Sea) at the French Musée national de la marine in 2014, had included readings of extracts from Ibn Majid’s poems together with French translations. In 2010, the present exhibition says, a traditional Omani dhow, the Jewel of Muscat, built using traditional ship-building techniques and navigated perhaps at least in part using Ibn Majid’s works and traditional navigational instruments such as the khashaba, was successfully piloted across the Indian Ocean to Singapore in Southeast Asia.

After its heyday between the eighth and 15th centuries, Arab shipping in the Indian Ocean went into decline in the face of growing European competition. The Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century and began to develop trading posts along the coasts of East Africa and in India and Southeast Asia. 

Ibn Majid himself may even have played a part in this European penetration, since in addition to the references in his work of growing Portuguese competition in India and East Africa, various Portuguese sources also say that a certain “Malemo Canaqua” (mu’allim kanaka, or master of navigation) guided the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama on his initial voyage across the Indian Ocean from Africa. 

According to one account, the successful entry of the Portuguese into the region had only come about because Ibn Majid had helped them in their search for the sea-route to India.

With the Portuguese came the other European powers and, eventually, growing competition among them. The Portuguese occupied Muscat in Oman between 1507 and 1650 before being driven out by the Ottomans and local forces, and in the 19th century the Gulf fell under British influence. However, before this happened Arab merchants had successfully developed the sea-routes between the Gulf and East Africa, and the Omanis established a secondary capital in Zanzibar off the East African coast after ejecting the Portuguese at the beginning of the 18th century. 

This history, when added to the development of a maritime Silk Road between the Gulf and Southeast Asia, contributed to the Islamisation by trade of coastal East Africa, parts of southern India and much of insular Southeast Asia, including what are today Malaysia and Indonesia.

European hegemony: The exhibition emphasises the earlier periods of Arab sea-faring in the Mediterranean and the Gulf before the development of European hegemony in these regions starting in the 16th century.

With European expansion, the discovery of a sea-route around the southern tip of Africa to India, and the development of the Americas across the Atlantic, came ever increasing amounts of trade, and with it the swift economic development of particularly the Atlantic-facing European powers. 

The Mediterranean began to lose the importance it had had since antiquity, eventually leading to the marginalisation of even formerly important commercial powers such as Venice and the Italian city-states, and though the Arabs managed to retain a foothold in East Africa they were slowly excluded from India and Southeast Asia by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and later the English and the French.

It is with this new European world that the exhibition ends, noting that in the Mediterranean Ottoman naval power, the inheritor of Arab, ended with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the victory of a coalition of European powers. 

In the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had shown the way to ever-greater profits. In 1602, the Dutch East Indian Company was founded, the greatest of the European trading companies, said to have been the world’s first multinational corporation and the most valuable company in history. This quickly eclipsed all its rivals in the trade between Asia and Europe. 

Aventuriers des mers, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 26 February.

add comment

  • follow us on