Abandoned dhows rot away in a lagoon in Yemen , February 2009 (John P Cooper).

Indian Ocean exhibition sets sail in Exeter

The maritime traditions of people living and travelling on the major sea routes of the western Indian Ocean are being explored in an exhibition at the University of Exeter, from 16 September to 17 December.

In the past wooden boats particular to the Red Sea, Arabian-Persian Gulf and western Indian Ocean played a significant role along its busy waterways.

The boats are known in English as dhows, though it is not a term used by the people of the region.  Dhows carried people as passengers, slaves and pilgrims, as well as transporting cargoes, from timber and goats to pepper and incense. They were used in fishing the Ocean’s rich waters and in diving for its legendary pearls.

These distinctive and graceful boats are the focus of the exhibition and an academic conference which takes place at the same time. This is the first time that an exhibition dedicated to the history and significance of the dhow has been held in this country.

It brings together a wealth of material culture and images relating to shows and the dhow trade, including full size vessels, as well as a range of hitherto unseen dhow models, photographs and artefacts related to dhow construction and life aboard.

Soaring over the exhibition will be four model dhows suspended from the ceiling in all their majestic glory at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

Two full size dhows, originally part of the now closed Exeter Maritime Museum, will form the centrepiece of the exhibit. This is apt because dhows still form an intrinsic part of Middle Eastern identity and cultural heritage, where the dhow is used on stamps, coins and government crests.

The design of the boats is not merely functional, it also tells much about the, identify of the people who built, own and sail in them according to researcher, Dr John Cooper.  He is part of the Maritime Culture of Arabian–Persian Gulf and Red Sea Project at the University of Exeter involved in a three year research programme to investigate the maritime past of the region.

Dr Cooper said: ‘Dhows remind us of how people even in the very recent past have lived within the great cycles of nature. Navigators had to know their environment inside out. It wasn't just a case of knowing the seasonal wind patterns, they read the stars, the behaviour of animals at sea, wave patterns, the shapes of headlands and mountains, all to find their way from place to place. There was no Sat Nav for them.’

He added: ‘And it's not just the navigators who had this phenomenal technical ability. The builders, even of the biggest and most complex dhows, built these vessels without relying on a single drawing. Their mental agility and planning skills were phenomenal.’

Ibn Majid was one such dhow captain, a famous navigator in the 15th century whose incredible knowledge was translated onto the page when he wrote a guide explaining how to navigate the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, when best to depart and other invaluable information.

A workshop on the River Dart rather than in the sunnier climes of the Red Sea provides the setting for the creation of several model dhows, being carefully constructed by retired architect Anthony Harrison and professional artist Paul Riley for the exhibition.

The model dhows were based on scale drawings of real dhows drawn in Yemen and Djibouti by University of Exeter researchers Dr Cooper and his colleague Dr Chiara Zazzaro.  The measurements and discussions with traditional boat builders and fishermen were gleamed during a field trip to the region.  This type of documentation forms a major part of the research project as many of the skills for building and sailing the wooden dhows are dying out as the faster moving fibreglass boats take over from their wooden relatives.

The MARES Project is building on Professor Dionisius Agius’s previous ethnographic work in the Arabian-Persian Gulf and Oman.  His research focused on the history and origin of traditional wooden vessels and their construction, the crew, folklore history, resources, and trade in the Western Indian Ocean.

The University of Exeter will be hosting a four day conference ‘Red Sea V- Navigated Spaces, Connected Places’ led by Professor Agius from the University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.  It is attracting international expertise from universities around the world involved in this specialised area of maritime research.

‘The Dhow Mastery of the Monsoon’ exhibition is free of charge and open to members of the public weekdays from 9am until 5pm from 16 September to 17 December at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.

Date: 15 September 2010

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