When you enter the latest Aga Khan Museum exhibition ― The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route ― you are literally aboard a 1200-year-old Arab trading ship, a dhow. On the floor, marked off in tape, is the outline of this ancient craft, 6.4m (21ft) wide, and 18m (59ft) stem to stern. You immediately feel the cramped quarters of this cargo vessel and you realize, especially after seeing a large model of this boat, how courageous these sailors and their captain were to sail nearly 2000 miles due south across the South China Sea, to the Strait of Malacca (modern day Singapore), thread their way through this pirate-infested bottleneck, or perhaps to sail around Sumatra on its way across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East.
But the dhow sank a few miles off some islands in the west end of the Java Sea, off the usual trade routes. All that separated the crew from the sea were wooden planks, curved by steam, stitched together with rope and wadding, then coated with a caulking compound made from lime. We can only hope the crew was able to swim to the islands.
As you stand on the ‘deck’ of the ship outlined on the floor, you see a series of gauzy fabrics hanging from the ceiling, reminiscent of sails, on which is printed information about the key sections of the exhibition.
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The wreck, discovered by a fisherman in 1998, is the oldest ocean-going vessel ever excavated, dating to the 9th century. The cargo was massive: 57,500 Chinese ceramics, some meant for ordinary everyday use, others highly-prized white ware with splashes of bright green, especially a large ewer, more ornamental than practical, with a dragon-head spout. There were some 300 pieces of white-glazed ware, not porcelain, but close to it in hardness and translucence, a type of ware that only the Chinese knew how to make, and therefore in high demand in the Middle East.
Of especially high value were items made of gold, such as a cup with a handle, decorated with Chinese (Tang Dynasty) human figures. This may have been a gift that was part of a diplomatic mission.
One of the most attractive ceramics is a blue-and-white dish with a palmette design ― the plant is so stylized that it cannot be identified botanically. Such blue-and-white ware was in high demand in the Middle East. These pieces were made to appeal to the tastes of foreign markets and the patterns and shapes changed as tastes changed. This is an example of the constant flow of information and trade between the Abbasid caliphate (750 – 1258) and the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) and successive Chinese dynasties.
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Containerization is commonplace among modern cargo shipments, but it is surprising to learn that its history extends back 1200 years. These ceramics were wrapped in cloth and then packed inside very large pots. This is the same principle of a container. When the ship reached its destination, the large jars, which were strong but cheap, were broken open and the contents unpacked. With this method an astonishing number of ceramics could be stored aboard the ship.
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Although the shipwreck was a disaster, there was one fortunate circumstance, from the archeological point of view, that miraculously preserved the cargo not only intact but also with the designs and colors undamaged. It appears the ship sank in relatively shallow waters where silt from the shore very quickly covered a great deal of the wreck, thus forming a protective cover over the ceramics and other cargo. Those ceramics that were not covered by silt lost their colours and decorations. Once ceramic is fired it is very hard, but still porous. With the addition of a glaze the ceramics are sealed and almost indestructible unless physically smashed.
On such long sea voyages, sailors would be comparatively idle for long periods and to while away the time they turned to gambling with dice. We know this because a die, made of bone and manufactured in China, looks very much like the ones in use today.
Another curiosity is a stoneware flask incised with a double fish design, made in China. This item has inspired much speculation. It may have been made for the Indian market, since the twin fish could symbolize the two great rives, the Ganges and Yamuna. Or alternatively, the fish may be one of the Eight Buddhist Symbols, representing fearlessness in samsara, the world of suffering that we humans live in, being free to travel about like fish in the ocean. Furthermore, it is connected with protection from drowning.
This exhibition in particular, and the Aga Khan Museum in general, teaches us that in the ancient world globalization was already well established. Europe; the Abbasid caliphate (including North Africa, the Middle East and Persia, then later Central Asia); India, or the Indian cultural sphere that extended into Afghanistan (think of the Bamyan Great Buddhas), Tibet, Indonesia and Southeast Asia from Burma to the Southern Philippines; and the Chinese Empire that included not only China proper but also Korea and the northern half of Vietnam, and a good section Central Asia, were all involved in trade, diplomatic relations, the exchange of ideas and art, literature and religion. It is important to stress, as this exhibition does very well, that none of these cultural zones existed isolated from the others, but were indeed in constant contact with each other.
In fact, many of us are familiar with Marco Polo’s accounts of the well-known caravan routes across the deserts and wastes of Central Asia from China to the Middle East. But this exhibition shows us another important trade route, the maritime route that carried goods between these two great empires.
The exhibition raises a number of fascinating questions: How was trade financed? Were payments made through an international banking system? Why was there so much gold and silver on board? Were these gifts from Tang China to the Abbasids? Were the bronze mirrors from China meant for wealthy collectors?
There are hundreds of shipwrecks that are still to be excavated near the coasts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. Perhaps they will help supply more answers, while at the same time raising yet more questions.
The exhibition runs till April 26th, 2015. If you are looking for a ‘time capsule’ that vividly shows the realities of trade and life over a millennium ago, The Lost Dhow is an excellent, and rare, opportunity to explore the past.
– Robert Fisher
Photos by Schuster Gindin and courtesy Aga Kahn Museum
Many thanks to Dr. Ruba Kana’an, Head of Education and Scholarly Programs, for her patience and very informative explanations of many details of the exhibition. Any errors are solely mine.
Thank you for this piece with its beautiful photos! I’m currently reading M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo, a memoir of East Africa and this article complements it in interesting ways.
Pat Saul, Toronto