After the successful fieldwork conducted in Yemen in February 2009, part of the MARES team, including Dionisius A. Agius, John P. Cooper and Chiara Zazzaro, conducted three further weeks of ethnographic fieldwork in Djibouti in October 2009 The aim was to record past and contemporary maritime activities related to the use of traditional wooden boats.
Again, the team’s approach was to use still and video photography to record the boats and boatbuilding activity, to make detailed and lines drawings of representative craft, and to conduct ethnographic interviews with boat-builders, sailors and fishermen about their use of the vessels.
Professor Agius interviewed twenty-eight people involved in maritime activities including sailors, navigators, and boat builders as well as historians, researcher and folklorists. Interviewees were asked about navigation under sail, sailing directions, trade contacts in the southern Red Sea, songs and prayers related to the sea.
Meanwhile, Drs. Cooper and Zazzaro conducted a systematic photographic survey of traditional wooden boats, ranging in length from 10-25 metres long, that are used for fishing, trade and transporting passengers. In total, twenty-five wooden vessels were recorded. Plan views, cross sections and profiles of four different types of boat, including the detailed drawing of a small huri, were also drawn.
According to historical sources and ethnographical interviews Djibouti town, Tadjoura and Obock were major maritime centres involved in seafaring trade routes, connecting the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula since the 19th century and before. Traditional wooden boats sailed from these towns to Zeila and Berbera in modern-day Somalia, Assab in Eritrea, and the Bab al-Mandeb, Mocha, Aden and Mukalla in Yemen. These contacts involved the trade of slaves, sheep and goats, pearls and conch shells.
Maritime activities in Djibouti were carried out mainly by Arabs, in particular by the tribes of Hakmi from Sheikh Said and Mashlihi from Mocha, in Yemen, which moved on the African coast at the end of the 19th century. This is also reflected in the maritime terminology in use in Djibouti: wooden boats are generically called boutres in French – equivalent to dhows in English – and doni (or doniki) in Afari. However the terminology related to specific types of boats and maritime terms is consistent with terms used in Yemen.
The team visited the main maritime centres of Djibouti: Djibouti Town, Tadjioura and Obock, and conducted a brief archaeological survey along the north coast (Figure 1).
In general, the building of new traditional boats in Djibouti has ceased. The last surviving examples of traditional wooden boats in Djibouti Town are still to be seen in the harbours of Port de Pêche and Escale. Local people also mentioned past fishing activities carried out at the city’s Ancienne Pêcherie. Wooden boats used to be anchored at Heron, now a modern port area. At Ras ‘Ali, near Tadjura two fine examples of a za‘īma and a zārūq were under maintenance, and still in use.
Port de Pêche is a harbour area for fishing and cargo boats (Figure 2). All fishing boats see there were fibreglass, some of them moulded into the same shape of traditional transom-sterned wooden boats of the hūrī-type. Wooden cargo boats are still in use; among them we recorded two double-ended vessels, a za‘īma (Figure 3), which is characterised by a rounded curvature of the stempost, and a zārūq (Figure 4), which is distinguishable by its short stem. These vessels are employed in carrying food provisions from Djibouti Town to Tadjoura and Obock: the cargo includes barley, rice flour, juices and soft drinks.
In Port de Pêche the team also observed maintenance activities, in particular the caulking of the hull, including the procedures of making shaham, a mixture of animal lard or rang (modern paint) and gypsum, employed as external coating, and the making of nūra, a substance made with shark oil and employed as internal coating (Figure 5).
Escale is a harbour area in Djibouti Town use for small fibreglass cargo and passenger boats called vedettes, as well as larger cargo boats (Figure 2 and 6). The team also observed some ‘obrīs and zārūqs anchored in the harbour area.
The old Ancienne Pêcherie fishing harbour was until recently a place where fishermen fished from dugout canoes called hūrī.
Despite the disappearing of traditional boats and related boatbuilding activities, Djibouti still maintains links with past maritime traditions through iconographic official representations and monuments, such as an ‘obrī placed in the centre of a roundabout in Ambouli, a suburb of Djibouti Town (Figure 7), and the representation of boutres associated with modern vessels on the background on the 20-cent coin. The team also noticed that informants interviewed during the fieldwork were very keen in promoting the maritime character of their country and very interested in preserving their past maritime history.
Tadjoura is the former capital of an ancient Afari sultanate on the northern shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura (Figure 2 and 8).
Evidence of past maritime activities in this small town was scarce. A great deal of fishing was seen to be carried out on windsurf boards. Only one dugout hūrī was found, abandoned on the town beach. It had been encased in fibreglass.
North of Tadjoura, in the bay of Ras ‘Ali, the team recorded the lines of a zārūq (Figure 9) and a za‘īma (Figure 10). The master builder working on these two vessels was also interviewed (Figure 11).
Obock, today a small harbour village, was the first place in Djibouti in which the French established a colony, in 1862. On the beach, the team recorded in detail the last example of a wooden plank-built hūrī, complete with its sailing equipment (Figure 12). The complete terminology of the different parts of the boat was also recorded. This vessel was of particular interest because its type had clearly been used by fishing communities in Yemen and Djibouti as the mould for the ubiquitous fibreglass hūrīs found in both countries today.
A wrecked passenger boat was also recorded in the port of Obock. With its box-shaped cross section, transom stern, stern wings and large prow, the vessel was clearly identifiable as a Gulf-style shū ‘i (Figure 13). Local people reported that this vessel had been brought from Dubai.
In the town itself, the team found evidence of the reuse of ships’ timbers in architecture, including planks reused in a house roof (Figure 14), and a rudder reused as bench at the entrance of a coffee shop (Figure 15).
The coastal lagoon at Godoria, north of Obock, is dominated by a large mangrove wood. The area was used an anchorage until recent times, and today is now used to embark Ethiopian refugees trying to reach Yemen, who hide themselves in the mangrove wood during the day. Three wooden wrecks were recorded on the beach (Figure 16).
The archaeological survey
The north coast of Djibouti has a great potential for investigation of ancient harbour areas since it is a strategic position for trade contacts between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
In the 1970s a French team conducted a preliminary coastal survey aimed to locate ancient harbour and ports mentioned in Latin and Greek sources (Desanges 1978). The survey revealed the existence of at least three ancient anchorages most likely dating to the early phase of Islamic navigation in the Red Sea. Archaeological evidence collected on the surface at Ras Siyan includes Islamic and Chinese pottery.
Unfortunately, due to tension at the border between Eritrea and Djibouti, the team could go no further north than Godoria. The archaeological survey was therefore limited to locating a cistern found in the 1970s by Jules Bartheaux (2007: 75-77). The wadi has now silted the cistern, but fragmentary remains of its coating were still visible on the surface (Figure 17). The coating consists in a thick layer of mortar covered with plaster, a technique recorded on other pre-medieval and medieval cisterns along the Red Sea coast (Figure 18).
Barthoux, J. 2007. Recherches en mer Rouge méridionale (1961-1962) : ports ptolémaïques et terrains de chasse. In Pount 1 : 47-87.
Desanges, H. 1978. Enquêtes and Découvertes d’Obok à Doumeira. In Annales d’Ethiopie 11: 75-82.
Figure 1. Map of the Republic of Djibouti.
Figure 2. Map of Djibouti town.
Figure 3. The loading of a za‘īma in Port de Pêche (Djibouti town).
Figure 4. A zārūq in Port de Pêche (Djibouti town).
Figure 5. The making of nūra, a substance made with shark oil employed as internal coating for wooden boat Port de Pêche (Djibouti town).
Figure 6. Small and large cargo boats (vedette) at Escale (Djibouti town).
Figure 7. ‘Obri-type boat in the centre of the Ambouli roundabout (Djibouti town).
Figure 8. Tadjioura.
Figure 9. A zārūq in the bay of Rassali (north of Tadjioura).
Figure 10. A zaima in the bay of Rassali (north of Tadjioura).
Figure 11. Coating of the hull with shaham, Rassali (north of Tadjioura).
Figure 12. Small wooden hūrī, Obock.
Figure 13. shū ‘i from Dubai, Obock.
Figure 14. Ship planks reused as roof of a house, Obock.
Figure 15. Rudder reused as bench at the entrance of a coffee shop, Obock.
Figure 16. A boat wrecked on the beach at Godoria.
Figure 17. Ancient cistern silted by the wadi, Godoria.
Figure 18. Detail of the mortar used for coating the cistern, Godoria.