The Principles of Arab Navigation edited by Anthony R. Constable and William Facey (Eds) with 5 Contributors 160 pp., colour throughout, 11 maps Arabian Publishing Ltd, 4 Bloomsbury Place, Holborn, London WC1A 2QA, 2013, £35 (hbk), ISBN 978-0957106017
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 224–225, March 2014
How to Cite
Whitewright, J. (2014), The Principles of Arab Navigation edited by Anthony R. Constable and William Facey (Eds) with 5 Contributors 160 pp., colour throughout, 11 maps Arabian Publishing Ltd, 4 Bloomsbury Place, Holborn, London WC1A 2QA, 2013, £35 (hbk), ISBN 978-0957106017 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 224–225. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_15
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
The various maritime worlds of the Indian Ocean remain an enticing, intriguing and highly fertile area of study within maritime archaeology and history. Although direct shipwreck remains are extremely rare, the wealth of indirect evidence for trade, coupled with rich literary source material has allowed the cultures, trade routes and goods of trade to be studied and reconstructed from a variety of different perspectives. Integral to the success of the long-distance routes of connectivity that operated across this maritime space was the use of the monsoon winds and an effective system of navigation. In particular the use of what scholars have termed ‘non-instrumental navigation’, relying on the observations of the natural environment and the accumulation of knowledge handed down through generations, rather than the scientific instruments that modern mariners are often unavoidably wedded to.
Within this theme, the Arab mariners of the medieval and post-medieval Indian Ocean have captured particular attention. Unlike their classical-era predecessors, who plied similar routes between South-East Asia, India, East Africa and the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, the voyages of Arab mariners have been writ large in the public imagination, in part as a result of experimental archaeology projects such as Tim Severin's Sohar and the more recent Jewel of Muscat. Such experiments were based primarily on the literary sources available from which to reconstruct shipbuilding techniques and navigational practices. In addition the Jewel of Muscat was also able to draw on the archaeological evidence of the 9th-century AD Belitung shipwreck. The success of the original seafarers, whose voyages such experiments sought to understand, was based on a knowledge and mastery of the seasonal monsoon winds, further enhanced by a system of navigation that combined complex observations of the stars with disarmingly simple methods for recording their positions. It is this system of navigation that lay at the heart of Arab Indian Ocean seafaring and which is explained with great success in The Principles of Arab Navigation.
Scholars of the Indian Ocean are already likely to be familiar with the excellent Arabian Publishing reprint of Alan Villiers' classic account of sailing on a Kuwaiti ‘boom’ Sons of Sinbad, as well as the striking collection of his photographs included in a sister volume. Those publications provide us with a view of a maritime world from the early 20th century with a particular emphasis on coasting trade, rather than direct point-to-point open-water voyaging, reliant on stellar navigation. The misapprehensions that this could present about the ‘state of the art’ of modern Arab navigation are dealt with in full in ch. 7 of the volume under review here. In compiling such a volume the editors acknowledge the debt owed by all of the contributors to the pioneering work of Gerald Tibbetts, responsible for translating the treatise of the most famous of all Arab navigators; Aḥmad ibn Mājid. This reviewer would strongly encourage readers to turn to Tibbetts’ 1971 volume Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the coming of the Portuguese, once they have finished enjoying the contents of Constable and Facey's edited volume on the broader subject.
The volume opens with two complementary chapters that set out the basic knowledge required to appreciate the navigational techniques that were practised in the Indian Ocean. These take the reader through the basic concepts with great success, helped in no small part by the excellent and informative diagrams and illustrations. Perhaps inevitably, there is some overlap, leading to repetition between these two chapters; the first, by Anthony Constable, setting out the basic ideas of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the second, by Hasan Salih Shihab, focussing more specifically on the stellar navigational techniques of Arab seafarers. However, this really serves to embed the ideas in the mind of the reader and it is helpful to have them presented in slightly different ways. Following this, in ch. 3 Yacoub Yusuf al-Hijji outlines and explains the techniques used after 1850—that is mid 19th century—that relied more on solar observations than stellar ones. After this, Kuwaiti navigators began using lunar observations instead of older techniques. This provides a further interesting contrast to the techniques described in ch. 2, which itself gives the reader the context against which any later developments must be understood. A number of recorded deep-sea voyages are drawn on to provide the reader with an illustration of the effectiveness of these methods in navigating along lines of latitude as well as on north/south courses.
The highlight of the volume for this reviewer came in ch. 4, by Eric Staples, which presents the navigational experiments undertaken during the voyage of the Jewel of Muscat from Oman to Singapore in 2010. This work had a threefold aim of understanding and experiencing the difficulties in documenting star measurement with traditional techniques, learning the use of the techniques and basic instruments of measurement, and experimenting with different types of measurement in order to better understand their use. From the outset of Staples’ account it is clear that there are considerable challenges and difficulties in taking suitable measurements that are not always discussed in either the original literary sources, or in the modern theoretical discussion of such sources. This chapter will reinforce to all readers of this journal the clear value of conducting such experimental archaeology and it certainly adds further interpretative value to the entire Jewel of Muscat reconstruction project.
Chs 5 and 6 then return to the literary sources with Paul Lunde's discussion of the maritime routes and sailing times that are described in the navigational treatises written by Sulaymān al-Mahrī in the early 16th century. The breadth of maritime space covered by such works is in some ways overwhelming when thought about from our modern perspective and often ever decreasing empathy with our natural surroundings. But Lunde reminds us that such treatises were written for a specialized audience comprising the captains and pilots for whom long-distance voyaging by such means was an everyday occurrence. Despite this it is always impressive to consider the detail, as Lunde does, that is comprised within and can be extracted from such works, in order to illustrate the mechanism by which the people and goods that are archaeologically attested on the land moved across the sea.
As noted, ch. 7 by al-Hijji provides an interesting counterpoint to the impression of modern Arab navigational abilities given by Villier's in his nevertheless enthralling writing. Following this, chs 8 and 9, by al-Hijji and Facey respectively, direct the attention of the reader to the application of Arab navigational techniques on two very different seas; the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The discussion of the former of these is especially interesting given that al-Hijji proposes a shared navigational practice from the Middle Ages onwards that spanned both the Muslim and Christian mariners, despite the other differences that might have been held. Given that at other, earlier periods of history, there are demonstrable pan-Mediterranean, cross-cultural maritime traditions revolving around shipbuilding and rigging, this is maybe less surprising than it initially seems. We are again reminded that oceans and seas connect, rather than divide, those ranged around their shores. Finally, in ch. 9, Facey's account of Arab approaches to navigating the relatively confined waters of the Red Sea, beset by the most prevailing of prevailing winds from the north allows some of the flexibility of the overall tradition to be demonstrated. The treatises of Aḥmad ibn Mājid or Sulaymān al-Mahrī represented a long-held tradition of navigators who were equally at home in the wide open spaces of the Indian Ocean, using the convenient, regular winds of the monsoon, as they were dodging the reef-lined hazards and confinement to be found in the southern Red Sea on the route to Jeddah.
It will be clear from this review that The Principles of Arab Navigation is a fascinating, informative and highly valuable publication on the subject. Its value is enhanced by high publication standards. This includes appendices of sailing times, a clear system of notes, an index, and a wealth of lucid, well-produced and thought-out illustrations. In many cases, the illustrations are a pleasure in their own right, and many are sure to be re-used to explain key principles to future scholars of the subject. The book is well worth its cover price and represents a highly scholarly work that will undoubtedly be of great interest to all those who wish to understand further the nuances of human movement across and around the Indian Ocean. It should become a classic in its field.