Sailing into past: ZNM, ZU and NYUAD make waves as Magan boat set afloat - GulfToday

Sailing into past: ZNM, ZU and NYUAD make waves as Magan boat set afloat


The Magan boat with the Abu Dhabi skyline in the background.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

An 18-metre long reproduction of a Magan boat has successfully sailed off the coast of Abu Dhabi, marking a major milestone for Zayed National Museum’s (ZNM) research programme. The project is a collaborative initiative with Zayed University (ZU) and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), which seeks to shed light on the UAE’s rich maritime heritage and Bronze Age trade. The vessel, called a Magan boat in ancient times, was built with raw materials described on an ancient clay tablet and using techniques dating back to 2100 BCE. It passed several rigorous tests and covered 50 nautical miles (92.6 kms) in the Arabian Gulf.

Captained by UAE national sailors with a team of shipwrights from the broader region and accompanied by the UAE coastguard, the vessel passed two days of sea trials, reaching speeds of up to 5.6 knots under a sail made of goat hair. Shipwrights specialising in historical replicas worked closely with researchers to build the boat, using raw materials and traditional hand tools. The outer hull of the boat was made from 15 tons of locally sourced reeds that were soaked, stripped of their leaves, crushed and tied into long bundles using date palm fibre rope.

The reed bundles were lashed to an internal structure of wood frames and coated in bitumen — a waterproofing technique used by ancient ship makers in the Gulf region. Archaeologists have recently discovered similar examples of bitumen on the island of Umm an-Nar, which match sources from Mesopotamia.The Magan boat project, an experimental archaeology initiative, was launched in 2021; it aims to deepen understanding of how people in the region lived over 4,000 years ago, as well as preserve the UAE’s maritime heritage and traditional crafts and foster pride in the ancient boat building prowess and craftsmanship of the Emirates.

Specialists from several disciplines — including archaeology, anthropology, digital humanities, engineering, and science — came together to design and construct the boat. Hundreds of experiments were undertaken in its construction, including testing the bitumen mixture and the strength of the reed bundles. Students from partner universities were offered the opportunity to develop research skills and dive into the region’s rich maritime heritage by applying knowledge gained in the classroom to a real-world, hands-on creation.

Building the Magan boat.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, said: “From ancient shipbuilders to today’s archaeologists, the launch of the impressive Magan boat reconstruction, represents thousands of years of Emirati innovation and exploration, and a long legacy of forging regional and international connections.” This is the largest reconstruction of its kind ever attempted, serving to deepen understanding of how Bronze Age societies lived. It unlocks secrets of traditional craftsmanship, which helped create connections between the UAE and the rest of the world.

Ancient texts called these boats “Magan” boats, the historical name for the UAE and parts of Oman. The use of the term reflected that the UAE was famous for its role in maritime trade over 4,000 years ago itself. Sailing vessels of this size and strength allowed people living in the UAE to trade with communities as far away as Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and South Asia. The boat was designed by a team of over 20 specialists, including engineers and archaeologists, who seek to uncover knowledge about the past by experimenting with ancient technology using traditional techniques. The shape of the vessel was based on ancient illustrations of boats and the reconstruction was based on a capacity of 120 Gur, equivalent to 36 tonnes.

The length, width, and depth were determined by a naval engineer using hydrostatic analysis to provide dimensions that would enable the boat to float once the estimated weight of cargo, boat and crew were added. A crew of more than 20 people was needed to lift the sail and rigging, as pulleys did not exist in the Bronze Age. Dr. Peter Magee, Director of Zayed National Museum, said: “It has been a long and exciting journey from discovering ancient fragments of Magan boats on Umm an-Nar to the iconic moment the boat’s goat hair sail was raised and she set sail from Khor Laffan towards the open sea.”

Students working on the Magan boat reconstruction project.

Marwan Abdullah Al-Marzouqi, an Emirati sailor who comes from a family whose links with the maritime heritage of the UAE go back generations, was one of two captains who skippered the Magan boat. “I was very aware it was made from only reeds, ropes and wood — there are no nails, no screws, no metal at all — and I was afraid of damaging her,” he said. “But as we got under way, I soon realised this was a strong boat. I was surprised by how this big boat, weighed down with a heavy ballast, moved so smoothly on the sea”.

Visitors will see the Magan boat on display when ZNM opens on Saadiyat Island. The Museum celebrates UAE’s history and culture from the ancient past to the modern day. As a research institution, it is a driving force for developing, promoting and coordinating archaeological and heritage research in the UAE. Umm an-Nar Island, located off the coast of Abu Dhabi city, was once one of the region’s largest ancient ports. Many pottery vessels discovered there were found to have been imported from as far away as ancient Mesopotamia and South Asia, emphasising its pivotal role in long-distance trade.



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