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Ancient Middle Eastern and Asian Naval History

Though the chronology of this museum begins primarily in the European Age of Exploration, sailors of the Middle East and Asia took to the seas centuries before their European counterparts. Ancient Egyptians developed simple sail designs and the Egyptian explorer Hannu is said to be the earliest explorer recorded after his voyages along the Red Sea to what is now Ethiopia and Somalia as early as 2750 BC. Phoenician traders reached the height of their influence on the Mediterranean around 1200 BC and the historian Herodotus records a Phoenician expedition that sailed from the Red Sea around the southern tip of Africa to the mouth of the Nile River in roughly 600 BC. The Phoenicians relied on galleys, or man-powered vessels, which they improved by adding a second row of oarsmen to create a bireme. The Greeks took this one step further to create the trireme galley, which became the most commonly used oar-driven warship in the ancient Mediterranean. Sailors of this time and region developed lighthouses and simple maps and charts of major ports and coastal landmarks to assist with both merchant and military expeditions. The maritime environment played a significant role in the development of this region as nations engaged in large pitched battles at sea, launched amphibious assaults on enemy shores, and developed extensive trade routes across the seas.

As mariners expanded their areas of exploration, new technologies and cultures were introduced throughout Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia. During and soon after the 2nd century BC, Arabic traders developed the lateen or triangular sail and the kamal, a navigation tool that allowed them to determine their latitude based on the height of celestial objects over the horizon. Sailors of this region also later developed the dhow, a simple dugout shell with teak planks sewn to the sides to form a hull. As these ships developed, they became larger and incorporated different and more complex designs for added strength, durability, and maneuverability though even the largest only required a crew of thirty. Dhows were characterized by their lateen sails and sewn hull, but many also featured long prominent bows, raised cabins, and elaborate carvings. By at least the fourteenth century, these ships were in use throughout the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, and even the China Sea.

During the last millennium BC, Chinese Emperors had taken to the water and quickly brought China to the forefront in naval and navigation technology. The earliest vessels were large river and lake-based ships that navigated the extensive waterways of China, but during the Han Dynasty (220BC – 200AD), the junk was developed and used as an ocean-going vessel. The junk’s flexible sails designed with horizontal supports to provide strength allowed sailors to have a great deal of maneuverability and its design introduced the earliest forms of internal compartments to limit flooding and strengthen the ship. Ultimately China was responsible for the introduction of the compass, anchors, and rudders as well. The Chinese continued to use variations of the junk for centuries, and according to records, these ships reached sizes that weren’t approached in the West until much later. Ships of the fourteenth century were said to carry one thousand men and the ships of the Zheng He Expeditions to the Indian Ocean in 1405 were said to be nine-masted junks that were 420 feet long and 180 feet wide. Though this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt they were large for their time and could weigh as much as 2,000 tons.