Where the edge of the city of Samarra, 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, lay close to the waters of the Tigris, the boy Dejem sat motionless, looking at an object in the river. An idea had just come to him. His eyes, wide with inner imagery, burned with the red reflection of that winter afternoon's sunset in the Middle East of 4,000 B.C.
In the past few minutes a light wind had sprung up to ruffle the surface of the water and raise a little sand dust. But it did something else, something the wind had done for thousands of years—it propelled a floating palm leaf against the river's flow.
No doubt this action had been witnessed by many, many people through the vast span of the ages, but Dejem was thinking actively as he watched. He got up and went to the foot of the date palm nearby and picked up a fallen frond. It was big and shiny and strong, with its edges curled in a little toward the spine.
Dejem went over to the edge of the water, loaded the palm with three small stones and set it free on the water's face. The wind still pushed the freight-laden leaf against the current's flow.
The boy looked up and scanned the wide expanse before him. Down the river there traveled a variety of boats and rafts made of wood and goat skins, most of them in search of fish, some taking cargoes to markets downriver. The little vessels would have to be carried by animals and men back upstream after their journeys were over. Dejem thought that a spread area of palm matting or animal skin attached somehow to the boats would enable the sailors to employ the power of the wind to their great advantage. He began to run to his home, aflame with excitement. He wanted to tell his father about it and let that very wise man decide upon its practicality.
Although the story of Dejem is speculation, it is built upon a basis of high probability.
The two Middle Eastern countries of the great rivers—Egypt and Mesopotamia—are generally credited with pioneering in the principles of shipbuilding. Recent evidence tends to give Mesopotamia the lead in this technology.
The progress of the two lands, begun with different ideas, continued along separate lines, no doubt primarily with a view to fishing.
Because papyrus reeds grew in profusion along the banks of the Nile, the early Egyptians began to make boats by tying together three bundles of reeds lengthwise, using one bundle as a keel and the other two as sides.
With no similar wealth of reeds available to the Mesopotamian fisherman, his inventiveness was prompted by other objects that floated down the great river. He observed that drowned goats and other animals floated high in the water because of gas inflation. With strips of palm leaf as thread, he took goat skins, sewed them together to form airtight bags, and inflated them by blowing air into them. This principle of employing air that pushes aside water, enabling man to float at ease, is, of course, the same basic principle in use in today's wooden racing yachts, steel-hulled passenger ships, and nuclear-powered submarines.
While the Egyptian boatbuilder eventually began to employ wood in his craft, his wooden vessels were, for a long time, based on the early reed design. Mesopotamian progress consisted of forming a framework of local woods and strap ping underneath it a number of inflated skins. These rafts became capable of carrying extremely heavy loads.
The framework of wood, rather than a complete flooring of planks, was probably dictated by the scarcity of trees, and it was a short step from such a raft to the idea of the framework of the first coracle.
All the evidence points to Mesopotamia as the originator of the coracle, developed there well ahead of any other land. It was a logical progression from the simple skin float to form a skeleton "basket" of pliable wooden staves and over this to stretch an animal hide. The flooring of the coracle—the forerunner of the quffa which is still used today on the Tigris—was originally two staves crossed at right angles and bent upward to form the sides of the coracle. These two staves soon multiplied in the design to give a vessel of great strength and carrying power. Eventually, the skins were discarded, and the interstices of the wooden staves were caulked with pitch.
The heavily-staved coracle was probably the prototype of the planked boat. Though both countries eventually began to build with planks, Egyptian boatbuilding in wood does riot appear earlier than about 2,600 B.C., while excavations at Ur produced a silver model of a plank boat in common use in Mesopotamia about 3,500 B.C. Judging from the model, the boat itself was 25 feet long and wide enough to accommodate three persons sitting side-by-side on each of the six board seats placed across the vessel exactly as in a modern rowboat.
The bottom of this boat was a flat plank tapered at the ends. Thwarts, or cross-pieces, were then nailed to the bottom with copper nails or wooden pegs, and planks then nailed to the thwarts to form sides. The wood was probably acacia or mulberry.
Although many scholars believe that the idea of a keel could only have originated from the early dug-out canoes of richly wooded countries, it is reasonable to presume that the notion of a keel as the backbone of a boat may have been derived from the wooden spine of the coracle. If such is the case, then Mesopotamia has prior claim to having originated this principle of shipbuilding, as well as that of water-displacement by contained volumes of air.
As for the first use of sails, Egypt had been given this honor until the discovery at Eridu, a few miles south of Ur, of a small clay model of a sailboat dating from about 3,500 B.C., and therefore pre-dating any previous evidence of Egyptian sails. Although there is no sail on this clay model, there is a socket in the center of the flooring, forward of amidships, for the purpose of holding a mast. Also, holes had been made in the gunwales on either side of the socket, obviously so that the mast could be supported by stays.
Today the site of Eridu is well inland from the head of the sea, but the city was on the shores of the Persian Gulf in 3,500 B.C. Its waterfront was undoubtedly busy at that time with a multitude of rivercraft, including many with sails. To build such planked sailing vessels the Mesopotamians also must have developed accompanying technologies such as tool-making, nail manufacture, rope and mat weaving.
Tools such as adzes, axes, chisels, and hammers were made out of native copper in that land as early as 4,500 B.C., and copper nails were also made, as were drills with copper bits. The working of wood included the cutting of mortises, sockets, and dovetail joints. The weaving of high-quality matting was a mastered skill in Mesopotamia by 5,000 B.C., and excellent ropes of various diameters were available by 4,000 B.C.
No doubt all the necessary skills were ready in the Middle East when the principles of the planked sailboat were discovered, whether they were discovered by keen observers such as Dejem, or otherwise. And, however speculation may roam upon the actual evidence, the fact remains that the Mesopotamians, using these early discoveries, progressed in shipbuilding until, in the third millenium B.C., they had established a great merchant fleet that spread international trade to Arabia, Africa, and India.