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The MARES team conducted its first programme of fieldwork in Yemen in February 2009. The three-week programme aimed to assess the state of wooden boat building traditions in the country, focusing in particular on the larger ‘dhows’ to be found in the country. The objective of the work was to discover the distribution of surviving vessels, to establish a typology of the vessels to be found, and to interview local people about the construction and use of these vessels.
Aden’s former dhow harbour was centred around the district of Ma‘alla, an area of the Aden peninsula that had been developed during the British occupation, and that had until recent years been the hub of dhow-based trade in the region – serving the southern Red Sea and east African coast in particular, as well as destinations further afield such as the Gulf and India. Today, boat-building work has ceased, and much of the intertidal area that had been used for hauling up dhows has been reclaimed [Fig 2].
The small village of al-Ghureira lies on a lagoon that is just five kilometres inside the Red Sea after the turn through the Bab al-Mandab. The southern side of the lagoon was a veritable graveyard of abandoned dhows [Fig 3], including nowadays rare zārūq- and za‘īma-type cargo boats, up to 24m long, as well as the large ‘winged’ hūrīs that are today Yemen’s most common large wooden vessel. Adapted to take outboard motors, these vessels are used for fishing and to transport livestock. On the north side of the lagoon, the village contained a single boatyard. A zārūq cargo vessel had been completed there two years earlier, but the yard had been idle since.
Further north, the former coffee port of Mocha showed little evidence of wooden boats. Like towns all around the Yemeni coast, and especially on the Red Sea, local fishing people had shifted over to using fibreglass fishing boats. The remains of wooden vessels were found discarded on the foreshore.
The town of Khokha has an ongoing reputation throughout Yemen as a major centre of wooden boatbuilding and sailing. Indeed, the team recorded more wooden vessels – overwhelmingly large ‘winged’ hūrīs – in Khokha than anywhere else in Yemen. However, the signs of a recent and sudden transition from wooden boatbuilding to fibreglass construction were everywhere: a new fibreglass boatyard was working busily on new craft, employing young men in their twenties, while older men, former master builders in wood, say idly by. Along the waterfront area, numerous unfinished wooden vessels were stood abandoned [Fig 4].
In Hodeida, Yemen’s largest Red Sea commercial port, the fishing harbour was again dominated by fibreglass vessels, although a small number of wooden ‘obrīs remained in use. A boatyard within the fishing harbour was busy repairing the planking on a wooden vessel, but the master boatbuilder of the reported that there was no demand for new wooden vessels, and the only work to be had these days was on repairs [Fig 5]. A large section of the fish market was taken up by wooden vessels that had been hauled up and abandoned.
At al-Salīf, the team’s most northerly destination, large numbers of wooden‘obrīs made up the local prawn-fishing fleet. However, the local boatyard was idle, and contained three unfinished vessels, including a zārūq whose hull was close to completion. The family that owned the yard reported that they had not built a new vessel in several years. Again, the town was moving over to building in fibreglass, with some vessels being built in the form of wooden vessels such as the obrī [Fig 6].
With much of the material culture represented by these vessels destined to be lost within the coming years, the primary objective of the research has been to document it in all its aspects before it is lost, mainly through photography, drawing and interview. Although the building of new boats has ceased, the presence on the foreshore of unfinished vessels in several states of completion, as well as the kind assistance of retired boat-builders, has enabled the team to establish the sequence of construction for the main vessel types. This has revealed some remarkable aspects of the construction process, such as the practice of attaching the keel last to the completed hulls of the large ‘winged’ hūrīs. Scholars of traditional and ancient boat construction normally regard the keel as the very foundation on which the boat is built [Fig 7].
‘Obrī – a double-ended fishing boat [Fig 8].
In addition, there are large numbers of small fibreglass fishing boats called galbas or hūrīs, depending on the region.
The MARES team will be formally reporting on its Yemen fieldwork in due course.
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