The image of oil tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz, into the Indian Ocean, and so to the rest of the world seems quite modern, dating back only some fifty years or so. It is surprising to realize, then, that it is actually just the latest aspect of a tradition of maritime trade in the region which stretches back some 7,000 years. "In fact, the South and Southwest Asian regions, and the Gulf area in particular, have perhaps the richest and longest running seafaring tradition of any world region."1
The Arabian Gulf, or al-Khaleej al-Arabi in Arabic, lies between the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia. It is connected by the Straits of Hormuz to the Arabian Sea, the northwest part of the Indian Ocean. The Gulf is some 615 miles long and has a maximum width of 210 miles, with an area of about 93,000 square miles. It is a shallow body of water, with a maximum depth of 360 feet, and due to hydrological conditions does not develop high waves. Despite high temperatures and humidity, the Gulf rarely sees storms and gale-force winds, and therefore is an easily navigable body of water, unlike its neighbour, the Red Sea. For several millennia these two bodies of water served as primary routes of interaction between the great civilizations of the East and the Mediterranean.
Mesopotamia is the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers at the northwest end of the Arabian Gulf. It is likely that in prehistoric times the waters of the Gulf were higher. As they receded, the land was left covered in rich, highly fertile sediment which attracted settlers to the region. This region formed one end of the Fertile Crescent, an area of fertile land stretching from the northern end of the Arabian Gulf in a semi-circle northwest to the Nile River delta. As one writer describes it, the "Fertile Crescent was to be for most of historic times a great crucible of cultures, a zone not only of settlement but of transit, through which poured an ebb and flow of people and ideas. In the end this produced a fertile interchange of institutions, language and belief from which stems much of human thought and custom even today."2
The first known urban civilizations arose in Mesopotamia. There is archaeological evidence of urban centres around 5,000 BCE at sites such as 'Ubaid, Uruk and Kish. In the United Arab Emirates and Oman, archaeological surveys have also revealed settlements as old as 7,000 years. In these settlements, distinctive black pottery from 'Ubaid has been discovered; indicating that trade throughout the Gulf had been established by that time.
It is difficult to know why the Mesopotamians and their neighbours took to the sea to trade. Some suggest that despite its agricultural fertility, Mesopotamia lacked other resources such as metal, wood and stone. If they had been unable to obtain these by trade overland, it may have driven them to sail their boats down the rivers and out into the Gulf in search of other sources. Written records from Sumer dated around 3,000 BCE mention a place called Magan, from where copper was obtained; possibly this was a culture in the southeastern Arabian Peninsula. Later trade records from the Akkadian period, around 2000 BCE, mention Dilmun (perhaps modern Bahrain) as an entrepôt between Mesopotamia, Magan and Meluhha (the Akkadian name for the Indus valley region). Dilmun itself may be a much older civilization, as archaeological evidence from Bahrain suggests that it dates back to the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE. Thus, there is plenty of archaeological evidence of trade between Mesopotamia, the Gulf and the Indus valley, including findings of special seals from each region, which would have been attached to bundles of trade goods, in the other regions.
|A TRADITIONAL BOAT|
One question that has been raised, and answered in a unique way, is whether the ancient Mesopotamians would have had the maritime technology to reach the Indus valley and other places in the Indian Ocean. In 1977, the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that this was indeed possible. Using the oldest Sumerian depictions of their sailing craft, he built a replica from local reeds found in the Tigris-Euphrates delta. In this ship, named Tigris, he and eleven others sailed out into the Gulf, to Bahrain. From there they sailed to Oman, then Pakistan, then finally back to Aden. They had hoped to be able to sail up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, but a regional conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia ended their voyage at Djibouti. They had travelled for five months and 4,200 miles, and had shown that a ship constructed along the lines of ancient Sumerian design could certainly travel the distances involved to trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
However, it is believed by some that it was the sailors of Magan who came to dominate the trade between Mesopotamia and India some time in the 3rd millennium BCE, acting as middlemen in the shipment of trade goods. Situated at the mouth of the Gulf, they would have been able to intercept other ships, particularly those attempting to sail to the Red Sea and up to Egypt. It was this control, perhaps, which gave Magan its power and wealth, wealth that was shared by Dilmun and other cities on the coastline of the Gulf, such as those found at Umm an-Nar and Dalma off the coast of Abu Dhabi, and at Failaka in Kuwait. It is not clear when the power of Magan finally declined, but it must have been well before the time of the Greeks, as it is not mentioned in their writings.
Another factor that facilitated trade in the Gulf was the construction of roads by the Mesopotamian civilizations northwards to connect the Gulf to the Mediterranean. The first long-distance road came into existence in about 3,500 BCE, running 1,500 miles between the Gulf and the Mediterranean. From 1,200 BCE on, the Assyrians used this road to connect the trading centre of Susa, in present-day Iran, with the Mediterranean ports of Smyrna and Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. They may have traded with the Minoans, a civilization based on the island of Crete. Certainly they carried on extensive trade with the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, who were themselves an advanced seafaring culture with colonies throughout the Mediterranean. There were also roads between Mesopotamia and Egypt, running across the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, with connections to the trade centres of the interior.
What was being traded through the Gulf in those ancient times? Ancient clay tablets record such goods as herbs and spices, frankincense and myrrh, textiles, gems and jewellery, and ceramics. There is evidence of teak and cedar coming from India. Minerals and metals such as copper from Magan are also noted. The Gulf was also renowned as a source of high quality
pearls, one of the most highly prized jewels of that time. Diving for pearls in the calm waters and shallow depths of the Gulf was an ancient pursuit. In the U.A.E., archaeological sites dating back to the 5th millennium BCE have been found to contain pearls.
By the middle of the 6th century BCE the Achaemenians had established an empire which, at its height, stretched throughout the Near East from the Indus valley to Libya, and north to Macedonia. Thus it controlled all the trade routes to the Mediterranean, both by land and by sea. The Achaemenian kings rebuilt the road from Susa to Sardis, near Ephesus and Smyrna. Our first extended accounts of Arabia and the Gulf come from this time.
Herodotus was a Greek writer who travelled throughout much of the Achaemenid Empire, and described Arabia in his Histories. "Arabia is the last of inhabited lands towards the south, and it is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and laudanum. Concerning the spices of Arabia let no more be said. The whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet."3 It is not clear whether Herodotus actually visited the Arabian Peninsula himself. Some of the stories he recounts suggest that he is only reporting what others had to say.
1- C. Kostman, "In Search of Ancient Seafarers in the Arabian Gulf", Archaeological Research Facility Newsletter, Spring 1995
Vol. 2 No. 2, University of California Berkeley
2- J.M. Roberts, The Pelican History of the World, Penguin Books Ltd., 1981, pg. 62.
3- Herodotus, The Histories, Book III
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