Thursday, March 26, 2009

ISLAMIC SHIPS AND SHIPBUILDING





A felucca is a traditional wooden sailing boat used in protected waters of the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean including Malta, and particularly along the Nile in Egypt. Its rig consists of one or two lateen sails

The ship occupies a unique position in the Islamic tradition. The Qur’an counts it among the ayat (miracles) of God and devotes twenty-eight verses enumerating its benefits to mankind. The generic Arabic words for ‘‘ship’’ that appear invariably in the classical Arabic sources are markab (lit., a conveyance or riding vessel), safýna, and law (lit., a board or plank of wood); fulk (Ark), which is another term to denote a ship, is Qur’anic. It may be surmised that some of the variations are more linguistic than physical and that professional sailors and experienced sea travelers could appreciate the actual sailing characteristics of each type of vessel. A typical seagoing merchant vessel had to carry on board many anchors, appropriate hawsers and ropes, canvas and/or cotton sails, masts, oars, rudders, and draw bridges (for greater ease in embarking and debarking), in addition to nautical instruments, pilot books, and charts. Oversized vessels had to have service boats on board for the transport of goods to the quayside. Identical rules applied to ship sales and purchase contracts. Both parties to the contract had to specify the vessel’s tackle and navigational instruments in the bill of sale. When signing a contract to lease a specific vessel for the conveyance of cargo, shippers were most concerned with the seaworthiness of the ship, besides other considerations such as the freight tariff. Seaworthiness of a ship was associated with the equipment and amount and proficiency of the crew it was required to carry. The design, structure, condition, and equipment of the ship had to be suitable for carrying goods of a particular kind and bringing them safely to their destination. Meaning, it had to be technically able to encounter the ordinary perils of the voyage. Concerning the crew, bringing the carriage into completion required a lessor to recruit a competent master and professional complement to navigate the vessel under various circumstances; a ship that was powered by unskilled mariners could certainly be regarded as unseaworthy.
The office of Islamic muhtasib (market superintendent) supervised, among other duties, the construction of ships at the shipyard and carriage by sea. The muhtasib was helped by assistants called ‘urafa’ al-sina‘a (arsenals’ inspectors), whose main task was to insure the shipwrights’ observance of technical standards and prevent them from using inferior and inadequate raw materials. Exacting and thorough inspections were carried out to avoid human and financial losses. Whoever violated these regulations was punished. While the ship was still in the yard, a comprehensive technical inspection had to be carried out by the muhtasib (see Markets), the captain, and the ship’s scribe. Islamic law entitled sailors and lessees to not honor a leasing contract if a technical defect was discovered in the ship. The working hours of carpenters, including shipwrights, began late in the morning and ended before evening. Thus the inspection of commercial ships took place between sunrise and sunset, but not in the evening and prior to the loading processes. The amount of cargo the ship could properly carry was determined by the muhtasib. When the cargo was stowed and placed appropriately and the ship was ready to depart, an official examination to prevent overloading was requested by the muhtasib, or his representative, and the captain. The hisba manuals plainly state that ‘‘a ship can be freighted with cargo as long as the waterline (plimsoll) alongside the outer hull is visible.’’ Islamic law requires that each ship be marked with a load line to indicate how deeply the ship could legally be submerged. The waterline mark along the outer hull could not lie more than a certain depth below the surface of the water. The provision against overloading was intended to prevent not only sinking but also the overexertion of the rowers.
Types, dimensions, and technical constructions of ships varied in accordance with their purposes and bodies of waters they plied. Nukhayli counts more than 150 nautical crafts, including river crafts, coasters, and oceangoing and seagoing vessels that differed in their structures. Recent underwater archaeological excavations off the Palestinian, Turkish, and French coasts have shed further light on the Islamic technology of shipbuilding from the seventh century CE onward. Material and written evidence show that the length-to-beam ratios of a typical size of commercial vessel were usually 3:1 or 4:1, with a shallow keel and rounded hull; the wide beam relative to the length aimed to provide maximum storage for cargo. Shipwrights in the Islamic Mediterranean employed the skeletal-building method in all stages of the hull’s construction. All the frames were in place before the wales and upper side planks were added. At some point after side planking began, the open area between the bottom and sides was covered with an odd configuration of strakes, at least three of which did not run the full length of the hull. When planking was completed, they were caulked with a mixture of pitch or tar. After all the floor timbers were in place, the keelson was bolted between the frames and through the keel at irregular intervals with two-centimeterdiameter forelock bolts. Then stringers were added to the floor of the hold, on which a removable transverse ceiling was placed. Next came the side ceiling, clamps, and deck beams. The major difference in the construction techniques and methods between the Islamic Mediterranean and the eastern part of the empire is in reference to planking. The ship’s planks in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean were sewn together with ropes, while in the Mediterranean, iron nails were used. The lateen sail was a distinctive feature of the rig of Islamic ships in the Mediterranean.
The materials needed for shipbuilding were found within the Islamic domain. For instance, Egyptian shipwrights used different types of timber—lebek, acacia, fig, palm, and lotus, which were abundantly found in Egypt—in their arsenals. Later. and due to deforestation processes, cedar, pine, and other timbers were imported from Palestine, Lebanon, Asia Minor, and Europe. Furthermore, a closer look at the arsenals’ locations prove that beyond strategic considerations, they were situated near forests and areas rich in mining.
Further Reading
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Christides, Vassilios. ‘‘Byzantine Dromon and Arab Shini: The Development of the Average Byzantine and Arab Warships and the Problem of the Number and Function of the Oarsmen.’’ Tropis 3 (1995): 111–122.
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Delgado, Jorge L. El poder naval de Al-Andalus en la e´poca del Califato Omeya. Granada: Universidad de Granada, 1993.
Dickson, H.R.P. The Arab of the Desert. London, 1959.
Fahmy, Aly M. Muslim Naval Organisation in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Seventh to the Tenth Century A.D. Cairo: National Publication & Printing House, 1966.
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Ibn ‘Abdun, Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Tujibi (12th century CE). Seville Musulmane au debut du XIIe Sie`cle. Traduit avec une introduction et des notes par: E. Le´vi- Provenc¸al. Paris, 1947.
Ibn Bassam al-Muhtasib, Muhammad Ibn Ahmad (d. 884/ 1479). Nihayat al-Rutba fý Talab al-Hisba. Baghdad: Matba‘at al-Ma‘arif, 1968.
Ibn al-Ukhuwwa, Muhammad Ibn Muhammad (648–729/ 1250–1329). Ma’alim al-Qurba fi Ahkam al-Hisba. Cairo: Al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-‘Amma lil-Kitab, 1976.
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Nukhayli, Darwýsh. Al-Sufun al-Islamiyya ‘ala Huruf al-Mu‘jam. Alexandria: Alexandria University Press, 1974.
Pryor, John H. ‘‘From Dromon to Galea: Mediterranean Bireme Galleys A.D. 500–1300.’’ In The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels since pre-Classical Times, edited by Robert Gardiner, 101–116. London: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
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Van Doornick, Frederick. ‘‘The Medieval Shipwreck at Serc¸e Limani: An Early 11th Century Fatimid-Byzantine Commercial Voyage.’’ Graeco-Arabica 4 (1991): 45–52.
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Yajima, Hikoichi. The Arab Dhow Trade in the Indian Ocean. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1976.
Zayyat, Habib. ‘‘Mu‘jam al-Marakib wal-Sufun fi al-Islam.’’ Al-Mashriq 43 (1949): 321–364.

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