Before Europe's Industrial Revolution, seagoing vessels were the world's grandest and most complex machines, carrying people and ideas, as well as precious cargo, between countries, continents and cultures. In the 1760's, at about the time Carsten Niebuhr was drawing the first European chart of the Red Sea, an immense ship of more than 900 tons' burden slammed into a coral reef in that sea and sank beneath 30 meters (90') of water. In cooperation with Egyptian authorities and institutions and under my direction, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) in College Station, Texas has meticulously excavated the 50-meter (164') vessel and recovered a wealth of clues about the ship's last voyage. Those clues open windows on a time and place about which scholars know relatively little. Egypt's first shipwreck excavation in the Red Sea has provided a unique and wide-ranging look at international trade relationships in the middle and late 18th century.
International travel began early in the Red Sea. More than 5000 years ago, rafts or simple boats dared its waters to bring obsidian—a black volcanic glass that yields sharp blades—from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt, where it has been found in pre-dynastic archeological sites. More than 3500 years ago, Egypt's pharaohs sent fleets into the Red Sea to visit copper and turquoise mines in the Sinai and to sail much farther south, probably through the Bab al-Mandab and into the Gulf of Aden, to the fabled land of Punt, where dancing dwarves, giraffe tails, huge gold rings and incense could be obtained for mere trinkets.
Millennia later, Roman ships regularly left Egyptian Red Sea ports such as Berenike bound for Indian cities, sailing with cargoes of gold, and with the secret of monsoon winds closely held by their navigators. Those ships returned with heady cargoes of aromatic resins and spices, elephant ivory, and silks from the Far East. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries of our era, Mamluk merchants landed Chinese and Iranian ceramics in medieval Quseir, on the Red Sea, which became virtually an Ottoman lake after the Turks took Cairo in 1517.
The Turks began sailing the western Indian Ocean in the 16th century, and the Ottoman lands were the largest market for goods imported through the Red Sea. At Jiddah, luxury goods from the East were traded for silver from Spain's American colonies that had passed into the hands of Ottoman merchants. (See Aratnco World, May/June 1992.) Pilgrims returning to their home countries took with them not only water from the Zamzam spring at Makkah—and burial shrouds that had been dipped in its blessed water— but also exotic products of Red Sea trade—Chinese porcelain, metal wares, spices from India and the Moluccas, and scents from Taif—and spread them throughout the Muslim world. As the global economy strengthened, Yemeni merchants flouted Ottoman prohibitions on trade and exchanged precious coffee for imported Chinese porcelain, fabrics and spices brought by Dutch, English and Indian ships to Mocha.
A British sea captain, writing in 1723, gives us a hint of the sights and smells of this busy harbor, full of "English Free Merchants, Portugueze, Banyans and Moors, and by Vessels from Bossorah, Persia and Muskat in Arabia petrea," all trading in coffee and "some Drugs, such as Myrrh, Olibanum or Frankincense from Cassin, and Aloes Soccatrina from Socotra, liquid Storax, white and yellow Arsenick, some Gum Arabick and Mummy; with some Balm of Gilead, that comes from the Red Sea."
The coffee trade from Yemen up the Red Sea was so important that it made up two-thirds of the value of Egypt's foreign imports in the second half of the 18th century. At Suez, the fastest camels awaited the news of the coffee fleet's arrival in September or October, so as to race the 145 kilometers (90 mi) to Cairo with news that could make—or cost—fortunes on the coffee futures exchange. Re-exported through Alexandria, half of Egypt's imported coffee eventually reached Ottoman and European markets.
Indeed, the Red Sea served as the gateway to Europe for many oriental products, and trade on the Red Sea, despite the notorious risks of navigation in its reef-studded, coral-lined waters, proved to be much cheaper and safer than using land caravans. Although European ships had been sailing to Suez since the 16th century, Ottoman restrictions—including a customs monopoly granted to a Jiddawi family—generally prevented them from operating north of Jiddah during the mid-18th century. European ships brought Chinese export porcelain, designed for the Middle Eastern market, to Mocha and Jiddah to trade for coffee, and Muslim ships took the goods along the next leg north in the Red Sea. Southbound, their cargoes included iron and Ottoman-subsidized supplies of wheat, oil, lentils and beans for Jiddah.
Apparently, the sea link between Jiddah and Suez was considerably more important than historians had realized before the search for shipwrecks began in the Red Sea in 1994. We have explored from Quseir up to Hurgada and across to Sharm al-Sheikh, and in those few areas we already know of four massive ships wrecked while carrying cargoes of porcelain and other wares.
One of these four is at Yanbu' in Saudi Arabia. A second, at Sharm el Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, had been either salvaged or emptied of much of its cargo after it burned to the waterline and sank. Two other wrecks that we scouted had been so heavily looted by casual visitors that they were archeologically useless. Though the fourth, off Sadana Island south of Hurgada, had also been looted, it had not been as badly disturbed by SCUBA divers, so it represented an opportunity that might not come again: the chance to gain an understanding of these ships and the people who sailed in them.
We assembled an international team of archeologists and, over the next three seasons, made nearly 5000 dives between 28 and 40 meters (92-130') beneath the sea to conduct the first scientific excavation of such a cargo in Egypt's Red Sea waters. The porcelain we found, along with Indian pepper and coconuts, black-lipped pearl-oyster shells, spices from islands in the Indian Ocean, and earthenware vessels, incense, and coffee from the Hadhramaut, tells us that the ship sank on a northbound journey.
Curiously, the wreck site included no cannon, and we found only a handful of lead musket balls. Although survivors of the wreck could have carried off muskets, if any had been aboard, and cannon might have been salvaged at a later time, we would have expected to find quantities of shot remaining in the wreck as proof of their presence. Because so little was in fact found, we believe the Sadana ship voyaged solely in the Red Sea, within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. There, it had no need to defend itself either from pirates or from European merchant ships, which also had few compunctions about appropriating goods from other vessels in the western Indian Ocean and south of the Red Sea.
The ship itself is the largest artifact on the Sadana Island site. Contrary to expectations, its interior details bear little resemblance to Arab dhows or even to Chinese, Mediterranean, European, or American craft. So far, the ship is a unique example of a shipbuilding tradition that seems to have strong links to the western Indian Ocean. Iron fastenings four or five centimeters in diameter (1 ½"-2") held the massive, meter-thick (3') hull together, but we found no trace of either sewing or wooden pegs, fastening methods which would be typical of the region's local vessels. (See Aratnco World, May/June 1999.) From a 1762 Danish scientific expedition chronicled by Carsten Niebuhr, we learn that the exorbitant freight charges of the Red Sea ships meant that even the largest ones—50 meters (165') and longer—earned back their construction costs in only three voyages. Niebuhr also provides an intimate portrait of life aboard one of these gigantic vessels, which he said might carry 75 crewmen, with their wives and children, in addition to 500 or 600 pilgrims.
The ship's owners and crew were probably Muslim. However, we found very few personal items—about two dozen Turkish-style pipe bowls, an embossed brass box with tobacco still inside, incense burners, a delicate cut-glass flask, an ivory finial and an ivory game piece—a pawn, perhaps—and inscribed cooking pots. And near gigantic grapnel anchors in the ship's bow was a copper basin inscribed Sahibi Ra'is Musa Mahmoud. In Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, sahibi means "its owner"; ra'is may have several meanings, but it is the most common term for "ship's captain"—so we may have Captain Musa Mahmoud's personal stew pot. Even more interesting for archeologists and historians was the hijri date 1178 scratched beside the name, equivalent to 1764, a time of increased economic activity in the northern Red Sea.
The international aspects of this investigation constantly remind me that the global economy is nothing new, and that foreign trade, and the tastes of foreign markets, were as important centuries ago as they are today. Richard Kilburn's research in the archives of the British East India Company has turned up a letter of instruction addressed to the person in Canton, China responsible for purchasing porcelain for the cargo of the British ship Princess Amalia. The ship was bound for Mocha, Yemen.
Islamic religious and cultural injunctions against the representation of living creatures meant that most porcelain imported into the Middle East featured floral designs. The letter from London succinctly describes the task of tailoring the selection of goods to the requirements of the intended market:
CHINAWARE 300 to 350 chests.... One General Rule must always be observed, and that is, never to pack a peice [sic] of Ware that hath the figure of Humane Species, or any Animal whatsoever, and as formerly the Color'd ware prevailed, so it is more than probable that it still doth, the red and gold used to be most in esteems, & three quarters of the colour'd Sortments with one quarter of blew & white was the customary package of the whole parcel.
This letter, dated 1723, amounts almost to a cargo manifest for the Sadana Island ship. Monochrome, enameled (also called "colored" or "Chinese Imari"), and blue-and-white glazed wares let us glimpse the variety of Chinese porcelain known and used in the Ottoman world. The enameled pieces, whose bright colors are painted on top of the glaze after firing, are particularly challenging and interesting to study. Because of the greater labor involved in producing it, and the more intricate designs, this type sold for several times the cost of pieces decorated only before firing. But the enamel colors were rarely found on pieces that we brought up from the sea; typically, only the underglaze blue decoration remained of a pattern once bright with red, yellow, green or gold.
With patience and a raking light, however, our artist, Netia Piercy, reconstructed the original appearance of these porcelains from the mute testimony of "ghost" patterns. Apparently, the enamels lasted long enough underwater to partially protect the glazed surface from the effects of salt water, leaving a faint tracing of the pattern etched in the glaze. Although the stunning collection of Chinese porcelain in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul includes many of the same types of objects, a number of the porcelain designs from the Sadana Island wreck are unique.
We also discovered the remains of at least three dozen "case" bottles, typically used for transporting liquor, as well as standard European wine-bottle bases and the neck of a large glass demijohn of the type used for wine in Ottoman Turkey. The contents have long since disappeared, but it is possible the bottles once held arak, a date-based liquor that European sources tell us the Jewish community at Sana' in Yemen supplied to other northbound ships.
More than 3000 artifacts that we brought up from the ship are now in the Alexandria Conservation Laboratory for Submerged Antiquities, a joint project of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the INA. Because the ship was looted before archeologists arrived on the site, thousands of objects are shattered or missing, but the looting is not enough to account for the fact that the ship itself was largely empty when we began work. Even several thousand clay water jars made up less than a fifth of the cargo that the ship must have been carrying.
In fact, the ship's main cargo was organic. Intensive recovery of shreds and scraps of waterlogged bioarchaeological remains suggests several identifications for the missing tonnage. An aromatic yellow resin, identified as frankincense and found by the kilo, had probably been carried in bark or leather bags, and the ship's primary cargo—unroasted coffee—would have added its own scent to the heady mix aboard this vessel. Customs records in Suez suggest Chinese silks and cheap Indian cotton may also have been aboard, but we found no proof of that.
Excavators did uncover more than a hundred coconuts packed in the stern between frames of the hull. In addition to providing refreshing treats for those on the ship, coconuts were sold as curiosities to Europeans in the markets of Egypt. Both the coconut water and the flesh could be consumed raw or used as ingredients in a richly flavored cuisine: We found pepper, coriander, cardamom and nutmeg from India and, from the Mediterranean, hazelnuts, grapes, figs and olives as well as cereals, squash, and beans. Bones of sheep, goat, birds and fish were also recovered.
Two of the most fascinating and critical questions that any excavation of an ancient shipwreck hopes to answer is the origin of the ship and its crew. The inscription on the captain's pot and other inscriptions yielded the names of some of the Sadana Island ship's officers, perhaps, but we know little about where the ship was built. Historical evidence suggests that we should look eastward.
We know that Indian ships periodically carried goods north to Suez for French and other merchants during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1670, one Ra'is Ahmed owned two Indian ships at Suez, customs records show, and in 1682, port chronicles mention a markab hindi, an Indian sailing ship, anchored in the harbor there. Less than a hundred years later, however, a foreign visitor noted that most of the 14 ships then sailing between Suez and Jiddah had been built in Suez. By the later 18th century, again, a French traveler commented that most Arab ships in the Red Sea had been built in India.
For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, strong commercial ties existed between Egypt and India, so it would not be surprising to find Indian shipbuilding techniques adopted by Egyptian builders. Could the Sadana Island ship be Indian? Or could it be of Egyptian construction? No one has yet found an Indian ship we could compare it to, but as exploration and research into archeological and historical sources continues, we will unravel the secrets of this gigantic ship, a participant in the multinational trading networks of the past.
Dr. Cheryl Ward found the Sadana Island wreck and headed its excavation from 1995 to 1998. She is now teaching anthropology at Florida State University, and plans to investigate ships in the Egyptian Desert and the Black Sea region. She is the author of Sacred and Secular: Ancient Egyptian Ships and Boats (American Institute of Archaeology, 2000).