Oman’s Maritime and Shipbuilding Heritage

Oman’s Maritime and Shipbuilding Heritage

12/01/2022 by Jonathan Bentham


The Sultanate of Oman has a notable maritime tradition. Situated at the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, it is isolated terrestrially from the rest of the Asian continent. Despite this, its advantageous location at a maritime crossroads has influenced its development significantly. Its access to the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the wider Indian Ocean has shaped it and its people for centuries.

Historical Maritime Activity

There is evidence of maritime travel between Egypt and the Dhofar region of Oman in the southern part of the country that stretches as far back as 3000 B.C. Omani sailors and merchants also navigated the old Maritime Silk Road between the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East, reaching as far as China. While it is understood that interactions between these two regions flourished around the 14th century, there are indications that Omani ships have been transporting Chinese goods ever since 400 A.D. Omani ships also transported Asian goods to Africa, sailing to places such as Zanzibar in modern day Tanzania. As such, Omani ports

such as Sur, Muscat and Sohar became maritime hubs for trade passing from the Far East to the east coast of Africa. 

Oman’s nautical links and reach allowed for the establishment of a maritime empire across two continents in the 18th and 19th centuries, spanning the Makran Coast from modern day Iran and Pakistan, the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, and much of the east coast of Africa. This regional influence also led to interactions with European colonial powers, such as Portugal and the British Empire. Beyond the commercial ties established with civilisations across the Indian Ocean region, the Omani maritime influence also played an instrumental role in the spread of Islam to lands with which it had contact.  

Present Day Heritage

Oman’s maritime culture can be witnessed extensively along its coastline and in its major cities to this day, particularly in the historical maritime hub ports of Muscat and Sur. Sur is home to the Maritime Museum, founded in 1987, which displays many different types of traditional Omani ships. Amongst its many attractions, of particular note is the Fatah Al Khayr, a traditional type of dhow known as a ghanja located at the entrance of the museum. The Ghanja is the most famous type of ship exported from the Sur province and takes a whole year to build by skilled shipwrights. The Fatah Al Khayr’s situation at the entrance of the Maritime Museum serves as a testament to the maritime heritage of the region. 

Besides the Maritime Museum, Sur is home to a dhow factory where commercial replicas of dhows and ghanjas are made for export around the world. Given the traditional methods and skill level required in construction, the factory only has capacity to produce two or three large dhows at once. These are mainly made from teak, and the shipbuilding process still involves many methods and materials that were used hundreds of years ago, such as using shark liver oil as sealant, or using logs to roll planks. Incredibly, much of the shipbuilding process is done from memory, and does not involve the use of detailed plans or blueprints.

Dhow construction, @Digital Aesthetica/Flickr

Naturally, these ships no longer serve as trading vessels but are rather more often the exclusive pleasures of wealthy individuals, including nobility and royalty. For instance, King Abdullah II of Jordan commissioned his own dhow from the shipyards of Sur. Another two dhows under construction are to be used as restaurants for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar.

Perhaps most famously in recent years, Omani shipwrights constructed a replica of a 9th century trading ship, otherwise known as the Belitung shipwreck. The replica 

is known as the Jewel of Muscat and is remarkable in that it is made purely from traditional methods and materials. In 2010, the Jewel of Muscat sailed to Singapore on a voyage reminiscent of the trading routes taken over a thousand years ago. This was a symbolic journey, as the ancient ceramics found onboard the Belitung wreck had been destined for Singapore at the time of the ship’s demise.

Similarly, in 1980, the British explorer Tim Severin undertook an expedition from Sur to China, in an attempt to recreate a voyage detailed in One Thousand and One Nights featuring the legendary sailor, Sindbad. The ship was an 87-foot vessel names Sohar. Both Sohar and Jewel of Muscat were built with wooden planks, hand-sewn together with rope made from coconut palm fibre. The relative success of both voyages is testament to the skill and craftsmanship of the Omani shipwrights. 

The Jewel of Muscat, @ Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

While Oman is not the maritime power today that it once was in terms of military or trade, its sophistication and expertise in traditional shipbuilding remains second to none. The ports of Oman have been known to travellers and merchants for hundreds of years as maritime hubs on the way to Africa and Asia. Today however, Oman’s artistry in shipbuilding is what really puts it on the map.


References:

1 https://travelersofworld.com/port-city-sur-oman.

2 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Silk Roads Programme, Did you know?: Oman region, a Hub on the Maritime Trade Routes, accessed October 18, 2021. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/did-you-know-oman-region-hub-maritime-trade-routes.

3 Ibid.

4 Sultanate of Oman, The National Maritime Museum, Maritime History Gallery, accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.nm.gov.om/en/maritime-gallery?action=ground.

5 Times of Oman, “Oman’s maritime tradition has helped the spread of Islam,” accessed October 18, 2021. https://timesofoman.com/article/68021.

6 Sultanate of Oman, Virtual Reality Library, Al Ghanja Ship, accessed October 18, 2021. https://ict.moe.gov.om/virlib/al_ghanja_ship_place.html.

7 Atlas Obscura, Sur, Oman, “Where artisans use centuries-old techniques to build traditional Arabian ships,” accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/dhow-factory-of-sur

Also, see Gehad Medhat, Culture Trip, “Here’s Why Omanis Are One of the Greatest Shipbuilders in the World,” accessed October 18, 2021. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/articles/heres-why-omanis-are-one-of-the-greatest-shipbuilders-in-the-world/.

And, Peter Kenyon, National Public Radio (NPR), “With Hand-Sewn Ships, Oman Revives A Glorious Maritime Past,” accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/11/19/365215257/with-hand-sewn-ships-oman-revives-a-glorious-maritime-past?t=1634478242976.

8 https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/articles/heres-why-omanis-are-one-of-the-greatest-shipbuilders-in-the-world/.

9 Atlas Obscura.

10 Sonal Shah, National Geographic Traveller, India, “Oman, the Land Where Sinbad Sailed His Dhow,” accessed October 18, 2021. https://natgeotraveller.in/oman-the-land-where-sinbad-sailed-his-dhow/.

11 Peter Kenyon, National Public Radio (NPR).

12 Atlas Obscura.

13 https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/11/19/365215257/with-hand-sewn-ships-oman-revives-a-glorious-maritime-past?t=1634478242976.


Atlas Obscura. Sur, Oman. “Where artisans use centuries-old techniques to build traditional Arabian ships.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/dhow-factory-of-sur.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica.com. Oman. Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/place/Oman/The-early-period.

Gehad Medhat. Culture Trip. “Here’s Why Omanis Are One of the Greatest Shipbuilders in the World.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/articles/heres-why-omanis-are-one-of-the-greatest-shipbuilders-in-the-world/.

Peter Kenyon. National Public Radio (NPR).“With Hand-Sewn Ships, Oman Revives A Glorious Maritime Past.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/11/19/365215257/with-hand-sewn-ships-oman-revives-a-glorious-maritime-past?t=1634478242976.

Sonal Shah. National Geographic Traveller, India. “Oman, the Land Where Sinbad Sailed His Dhow.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://natgeotraveller.in/oman-the-land-where-sinbad-sailed-his-dhow/.

Sultanate of Oman. The National Maritime Museum. Maritime History Gallery. Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.nm.gov.om/en/maritime-gallery?action=ground.

Sultanate of Oman. Virtual Reality Library. Al Ghanja Ship. Accessed October 18, 2021. https://ict.moe.gov.om/virlib/al_ghanja_ship_place.html.

Times of Oman. “Oman’s maritime tradition has helped the spread of Islam.” Accessed October 18, 2021. https://timesofoman.com/article/68021.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Silk Roads Programme. Did you know?: Oman region, a Hub on the Maritime Trade Routes. Accessed October 18, 2021. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/did-you-know-oman-region-hub-maritime-trade-routes.

World Culture Encyclopaedia. Countries and their Cultures. Oman. Accessed October 18, 2021. https://www.everyculture.com/No-Sa/Oman.html.

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