Preserving an Omani Tradition
By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer
April 30th of 1840, marks a monumental moment, where an Omani vessel by the name of Sultana makes a grand appearance into the NY harbor, stunning New Yorkers by its magnificence and beauty. It was an historical event that enticed the interest of the American public as it was the visit of the first Arab ambassador to America.
He had arrived after a 3 month voyage from the port of Muscat Oman, in a traditional boat called a dhow, bearing gifts such as a cargo of omani dates, Persian wool carpets, mohka coffee, as well as “articles from Zanzibar.” The boat was sent by Sayyid Sa’id bin Sultan, who at the time was the ruler of Oman.
Often referred to as the “The Jewel of Musat,” the dhow in its grandeur, is a testimony of Oman’s beauty, richness of history, culture, and ancient traditions. It is an idyllic scene, the traditional Omani ship drifting aimlessly, basking under the hot sun, alongside the alluring Muscat coastline, surrounded by the glistening waters of the Gulf of Oman. The dhow is a hand-strewn boat with a long history that is intertwined with the geographic location of Oman. Oman is surrounded by 3 waters, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea, making it the perfect location for trade routes.
Omanis receiving the title of greatest shipbuilders isn’t much of a shock. Shipbuilding has been apart of Oman’s tradition for centuries. Its maritime history traces back to the time of Vikings.
This maritime tradition has a long-lived and gallant nautical history that has connected many civilizations around the world. In Ras Al- Jinz, “remains” of the Reed Boat were found, it dates back to over 4,500 years ago and was commonly used in trade with India. It has been linked to the Silk Road, spice route, and the maritime silk route.
The capital of Oman, Muscat, is a famous city for shipbuilding and is known for its sea port. It is where the Arab world meets the Indian Ocean. The port became a cultural hotbed, and many African and Indian influences can be seen in Omani culture today. Men adorned in Kumma caps, influenced by east Africa, Iranian style mosques, as well as Indian style dresses adorned by Omani women. Besides being a cultural exchange, it was an exchange of education, culinary cuisine, religion, and knowledge. The influence of many cultures is celebrated in contemporary Omani life and their skills in shipbuilding has earned them the title of greatest shipbuilders.
Muscat was discovered by the ancient Greeks in the 1st century BCE, Cryptus Portus or the “Hidden Port.” It was named a hidden port because of its Rocky Mountains. It made the harbor easier to defend as well as providing a perfect hideout for pirates.
Muscat Port was a popular mid-point for all trading shipping traveling to India, China and East Africa. In the 19th century, the port had brought in goods like cloves, ivory, spices, wood, fruits, and slaves from places stretching as far as Sudan, Mozambique, Indonesia, Kerala, Iraq, Baluchistan, and Sudan. Wood is especially important, and to this day a special wood called teak, imported from India is used in shipbuilding.
Another port of Oman, Dhofar, was known for its Frankincense. Omani vessels had travelled along trade routes to deliver this fragrant gum resin to parts of Egypt, Rome, China, and India.
Omanis are now reviving this tradition of ship-building, using traditional methods and materials to create the dhow. The dhow is made by hand, often times without nails, and is sealed with a sealant made of goat fat or shark liver oil.
There is pressure for shipbuilders to ensure the boat is waterproof, can it sustain the harshest of waves, the relentless sun? It usually measures 18 meters and the planks are stitched together with rope made of coconut palm fiber. The constant stitching of fiber in each hole is a means of added security in preventing the boat from sinking in the bottomless pit that is the ocean.
Dhow building is a languorous effort that requires extensive time and energy to ensure the boat is resilient and waterproof since everything is made by hand. A traditional dhow takes about 6 months to build and it is usually built by memory. Omanis have a long tradition of memorizing this craft by heart and passing it down to generations to come. The method is as profound as the ship itself.
There is as much augustness in the end result as there is in the process of making it. The handcrafting of the dhow is a venerated tradition and breathtaking art. Omanis have memorized shipbuilding craft to heart, and in hopes of preserving and reviving a piece of history have a created the Junior Shipwright Program, which attempts to draw in more interest and encourage young Omanis to learn this seafaring craft.
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