A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For thousands of years Omanis have plied a sea-trading thoroughfare stretching north to Mesopotamia, east to India, and southwest to Africa. Taking advantage of seasonal winds, they sailed to foreign ports during the winter, returning home in the summer. In addition, the Arabs developed a highly effective triangular sail, called a lateen, and the kamal, a navigating device that enabled them to determine latitude by gauging the height of the Pole Star above the horizon. They eventually established colonies along the African coast, in Mogadishu, Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar, where they operated lucrative clove plantations.
Indigenous to the coasts of the Arabian peninsula, India, and East Africa, the earliest dhows were shell built--simple dugouts with teak planks sewn to their sides to form a hull. Gradually, larger vessels evolved, employing a keel to which planking was sewn. Shell-built construction differed from the European frame-first method, in which planking was attached to ribbing. Shell-building allowed shipwrights to create a vessel one plank at a time. If changes were requested, one could simply alter the shape of a plank or its angle of attachment.
Most dhows are known by names referring to their hull shape. The ghanjah is a large vessel with curved stem (the boat's foremost timber) and a sloping, ornately carved transom, the ship's flat back end. The baghlah, no longer built, was the traditional deep-sea dhow; it had a transom with five windows and a poop deck reminiscent of European galleons. Double-ended dhows, like the boom, have both stem and stern posts. The battil, also no longer built, featured long stems topped by large, club-shaped stem heads and stern posts decorated with cowrie shells and leather. The badan was a smaller vessel requiring a shallow draught.
Without archaeological evidence--no ancient wreck of a vessel indigenous to the western Indian Ocean has ever been found--it is difficult to discern foreign influences on dhow design. We do know that iron nail fastenings began to supplant sewn planks after Portuguese and other European ships entered the region in the early sixtennth century. Many feel the majestic baghlahs and ghanjahs, with their ornate transom decoration and grand size, were the apogee of dhow building. In terms of pure design, however, the smaller, double-ended battils and badans were the finest expression of the tradition.