Over the horizon, three lateen sails rise against the bronzing of the morning sun. They beat a course across the westerly breeze for al amara, the shipyard, where these trade ships will unload their cargo of silks, porcelain, timber, and spices and receive much-needed repair work. The year is 812 AD. The three-month voyage has brought the fully laden dhows from Guangzhou in southern China along the Maritime Silk Route with stops in Ceylon, India, and Persia, and hugging the western Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf on to their destination, the rich green island of Tylos. This thriving island settlement lies just 25 km off the Arabian Peninsula and is built upon the remains of the Dilmun civilization, which preceded it by over 1500 years.
The galafa or master shipbuilder oversees his domain while he awaits the boats’ arrival. The shipyard is positioned along the muddy banks of a well-protected shallow water cove edged by a crescent of date palms. As the muezzin calls the faithful to morning prayer, the master shipbuilder rousts the last of his local workman from their coir hammocks and orders them to make ready for the arrival of what will be the next six months’ labors–reconditioning the three dhows belonging to the merchant.
Porters gather amidst shouts, chants and gestures at the weathered dock that reaches into the cove. The crews luff the large white sails to slow the boats, easing their speed as they enter the port. In minutes, the sails are furled, dhows moored. Bundles of cargo are unloaded and transferred to various carts and camels for deliveries to the distant cities of Damascus, Alexandria, and Carthage.
For the craftsmen, the time has come to begin their work. Before they can raise a chisel and mallet, the first task is to lash together wooden scaffolding that will surround the dhow and afford easy access to every part of the teak vessel.
Fast-forward 1200 years.
Haroun, the galafa, climbs up the lashed scaffolding, power drill in hand. Peering over the edge of the beached dhow, he surveys his Bangladeshi crew laboring within the ribs of the hull resting half-in, half-out of the Persian Gulf shallows. Rhythmic thuds of rubber mallets on chisels and chops of an adze slicing across the grain of raw teak limbs beat percussion for the uneven half-mumbled singing of the latest Bollywood show tune. Raising his gaze, he looks across the expanse of water from this untidy shipyard workplace on Muharraq Island, across the full scope of the gleaming panorama of Manama, the capital city.
Technology infuses nearly every aspect of modern Bahraini life. Today’s Bahrain, the former Tylos, buzzes with the hyperactivity of high-rise cranes and clogged highways. Reclaimed land filled with the glass towers of hotels and apartments and the fast food restaurants that inevitably surround them. It struggles with the cross-currents of modernity and tradition.
In contrast, Muharraq Island harbor rests serene. Within the hull of an aging dhow, the same patient craftsmanship that has been used for centuries, since the age of Silk Road traders and camel caravans predating Marco Polo by over five hundred years, survives. Some methods have changed; electric chain saws and drills ease the intensity of the heaviest labors. But the fine work is still done by countless, well-practiced hammer swings and chisel cuts. Eye-balling a large timber for proper alignment and using crude templates to ensure a beam’s snug fit to the curvature of the hull are techniques that have been in use in boat building since craftsmen built the first dhows that sailed along the world’s oldest continuous sea trading route, from China to the Red Sea.
Even today, there are no written architectural plans for these vessels and workers rely upon the expertise and mental acuity of a master designer whose memory guides them throughout the project. It seems there remains but a single such knowledgeable Bahraini gentleman and he is in his 70’s. Building a boat from scratch takes around a year for a crew of eight men and a price tag of around 150,000 Bahraini dinars, or about $400,000 U.S. The one-piece keel, made of a single length of teak imported from Southeast Asia can cost up to 5,000 dinars. Today’s boats typically use large diesel engines for power rather than relying on the vagaries of the winds.
At the beginning of the 20th century Bahrain was home to more than 30 active shipyards that built vessels for the pearling and fishing industries, employing 17,500 divers and their helpers in a fleet of over 500 dhows. Now, only one yard is still engaged in the building and refurbishing of traditional wooden dhows and only one crew of craftsmen carries on the boat building tradition that has changed little in over a millennium. And, like the teak wood they are using to rebuild this dhow, the craftsmen are not local, but are imported from the Indian Sub-continent.
Haroun daydreams of a time before flight when the trip home to Bangladesh aboard a fine sailing craft, would take many months and precise sailing and navigational skills. And within his dream sequence, he scrambles below deck to make repairs to keep the boat seaworthy with the same tools and skills of the 9th century craftsman. How long will the thousand-year lineage of these dhow craftsmen continue and the chisel be passed down? How many more years until the last Bahraini dhow builders are making model ships, instead of sea-worthy traditional boats? How many generations until the last Haroun, the last galafa?
more from Mollie Carey and Bo Wixted at usaksarsa.smugmug.com