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Arab Seafaring In The Indian Ocean In Ancient And Early Medieval Times

Seafaring isn’t something one that isn’t familiar with port culture would know anything about, besides the fact that it’s just what those who frequently go out to sea are called. They’re all mariners and navigators who either fish independently, or consist of captain or crew in all cases. Here are some of the basics that are covered in Hourani’s classic book by the same name.


It’s said that Arabs had two types of ships in two different ports. For instance in the Mediterranean they had galleys which were war ships and in the Indian ocean they had Dromons. Another type of ship that was common at the time were Dhows, which the origins of are still debated to this day. No one can say if this is an Arabic or Indian invention of that of the Chinese.

It’s also said that Arab sailing ships were already well-established by the 5th century and they had two different styles of bows which either served for war vessels or trade. They were elaborately painted much like the viking ships to scare off supernatural entities.

Ship Design

As with any port around the world, in ancient times the ports in the Indian ocean were very busy with the trade industry and house a culture of trade companies and masters of the sea. There were also plenty of shipbuilders that goes back as far as the 13th century. It was said that their ship design came from the infamous Noah who had built an ark.

Over time until the 5th century the art of shipbuilding evolved where nails were introduced and to replace the seam design along with other masterful engineering techniques. When the Portuguese arrived with canons, eventually the Arabs would have to design their ships to withstand the weight.


Currently Western scholars have contributed a lot to this history but one needs to only probe further to find that the competitiveness of seafaring was not always on the side of the Arabs before the Romans were able to overpower them. As far as the designing of ships were concerned that is. In all cases the Arab seafaring culture made great advances for businesses in the region.


The book of the same title Arab Seafaring In The Indian Ocean In Ancient And Early Medieval Times by George Hourani is perhaps the best book on the subject, covering ages of innovation from all the popular Arab ports and a long lost art.