Jewel sets sail on a tide of history

A dhow built using 1,000-year-old techniques is to trace an ancient trade route in a perilous five-month trip from Oman to Singapore.

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MUSCAT // When fishermen stumbled across the wreck of a ninth-century sailing dhow off the coast of an Indonesian island more than a decade ago, archaeologists found it laden with 60,000 pieces of rare Chinese porcelain.

The spectacular discovery threw light on an era when the Arab world's trade ships fanned out across the world, bringing goods from the far corners of Asia and Africa. Today, that rich maritime heritage will be brought back to life when a reconstruction of a 1,000-year-old ship will set sail from Oman destined for Singapore. The Jewel of Muscat, an 18-metre dhow weighing 50 tonnes, will trace a famous ancient trade route in a five-month voyage from Oman to the far east.

The vessel has been painstakingly built by Omani ship builders using traditional techniques from the ninth century. No nails were used and planks were sewed together watertight with coconut fibre. The wood is protected by a layer of goat fat mixed with lime, according to the Jewel's Omani captain, Saleh Said al Jabri. "We have to follow the local tradition in building the vessel otherwise the whole voyage will have no meaning. Most of the timber those days was imported by Omani sailors from abroad and brought here for construction," Capt al Jabri said.

The men in charge of finding the right materials were the archaeologists Luca Belfioretti, from Italy, and Tom Vosmer, from Australia. They made trips to Pune in India in search of wood and also to Ghana for the Afzelia Africana timber. Both woods are known for their ability to withstand a battering by rough seas and bad weather, they said. "The West African and India connection of timber used for the construction of a boat in Oman those days is based on archaeological evidence," Mr Belfioretti said.

The vessel will depart from the yard where it was built in Qantab, a fishing village near Muscat that is part of Oman's rich maritime tradition of seafarers setting off across the world on trade missions. "The overall distance is roughly about 3,000 nautical miles, depending on the wind direction. The vessel will be on the mercy of the wind and will not sail in a straight line," Capt al Jabri said.

The voyage, sponsored by Oman's ministry of foreign affairs, came from an idea proposed by Singapore and is being funded by both countries. The journey was inspired by the ship that went down in the ninth century off Belitung, an island on the east coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, according to Mr Vosmer. The wreck was accidentally discovered by fishermen in 1998 and the Indonesian government gave a German company permission to excavate the wreck. The rich cargo that it was carrying became known as the Tang Treasures.

The German excavators found 60,000 pieces of rare Chinese porcelain when they lifted the ship. International experts who identified the Tang Treasures said they were produced from kilns in what is now the Chinese province of Hunan. Indonesian authorities in published reports said that the treasures include rare blue and white porcelain, tricoloured glazed pottery from the Tang dynasty and three early Qinghua plates, the best preserved of their kind ever found.

They also said the Arabic inscriptions found on some of the pieces suggested the pottery was produced and transported in the early ninth century, and carbon dating has confirmed this. The Arabic inscription is a strong indication that the treasures were being exported to Arab countries. The shipwreck itself also revealed much about Arab shipbuilding and navigation from the period. Well-preserved fragments of the ship showed that stitching was used by Arab craftsmen to bind the timber of the hull, the Indonesian authorities said.

Mr Vosmer, a maritime archaeologist based in Muscat, believes the sunken ship was built in Oman and carried the treasure from China for export destined to one of the Arab countries. Mr Vosmer hopes the Jewel of Muscat will not only publicise Oman's former maritime greatness but also shed some light on the sunken ship. "We are looking to discover more about how the original ship was built, how it handled and how it sailed. As well as this, we are hoping to find out what life on board was like and even perhaps why it sank," Mr Vosmer said.

The Jewel of Muscat's crew will employ ninth century navigational methods including a technique called Al Kamal, which determines the latitude of the celestial bodies to calculate the distance to a given destination. Capt al Jabri will have 17 other people on-board, including nine Omani sailors helped by four trainee crew, a couple of technical support personnel, a journalist from the National Geographic magazine, a video cameramen and a photographer.

Capt al Jabri was born in Haramel in Muscat, in his parents' house just metres away from the beach. He has 23-years of sailing experience, the majority of it working for the Royal Navy of Oman onboard its tall ship, the Shabab Oman. He holds a position of a training officer on the ship, which has sailed around the world several times for international regattas and historic voyages. "It is not going to be a smooth sailing to Singapore. We expect very rough weather in the Bay of Bengal. It is the one of the most hostile patches of water in the world. It is a journey of perseverance where everybody on-board will live on minimum and basic surroundings during the course of the journey," Capt al Jabri said.

The vessel will have only a radio for emergency calls and will have no other ships to escort it. Everybody onboard will sleep on bunks and use the same galley and toilet facilities used by ancient Omani mariners. The diet will be primarily dates, dried fish, rice and plenty of coffee served in traditional cups. The first port of call from Muscat will be India's Cochin after a month at sea. The crew will break for two to four weeks to carry out maintenance. The trainee crew of different nationalities will be replaced by a new team.

The ship will then sail on the monsoon wind towards Sri Lanka to dock at the south-western port of Galle for another two-week maintenance break. Depending on the monsoon, the journey will take 10 to 14 days. "Then we will start our sternest challenge of the journey," Capt al Jabri said, "across the Bay of Bengal. It is not the easiest route and one of the busiest in the world and notorious for its bad weather."

If all goes well, Capt al Jabri will guide the vessel to Penang in northern Malaysia. "Depending on south-westerly wind and how rough the sailing will be, we expect to reach Penang in three to four weeks. But we are going to stop for only a few days, mostly a week, because we don't want to miss the monsoon wind blowing towards our next stop in Malacca," he explained. The trip to Malacca is expected to last a week and the crew will rest a few days before embarking for their final destination in Singapore. They expect to arrive there in early July.

"The voyage's schedule will depend on the weather conditions because the ship has no engine and will entirely rely on the monsoon's winds," Chris Beggins, the voyage's project manager said. The Jewel of Muscat will be placed in a museum in the city state, its final resting place, in accordance with an agreement between Oman and Singapore.