Arab Seafaring by George Hourani

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Book Review

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Arab Seafaring is a classic of its kind. It was first published in 1951. It was initially submitted as a dissertation to that university and has withheld the test of scholarly criticism ever since. The late Professor Hourani investigated deep into history largely to show the historical background and environment of Arab efforts. This is certainly a remarkable work, packed with solid information resulting from faultless sources, both Arab and non-Arab alike. As the author has put it, “It is a history of Arab navigation, but it is not a nautical manual; although it deals only with the period until A.D. 1000, it draws judiciously on later Arab and European texts when they can illuminate the past. Above all it welds together a mass of material; as Hourani says, it is a history written both in space and time” (p. xii).

The book is a history of trade routes in the Indian Ocean and of the ships that sailed on them. It is not an economic history. Hence, the products carried as cargoes are referred to only parenthetically. In the first chapter, Hourani traces trade routes in the Pre-Islamic era, “when the first Arabs erected a mast and a sail and trusted to the winds on the open sea, and to the mercy of their gods” (p. 4). Geography helped Arab seafaring, the Arabian peninsula was bounded by water, and the coral islands of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf protected piracy, to which the hungry nomads on both sides were all too prone, concerning it as a simple extension of their desert raids. The narrative picks up with some historical steadiness only after the Hellenic conquest of Alexander the Great, although earlier efforts on the author’s part takes into effect the seafaring experiences of the Phoenicians on basis that tracing efforts in the Indian Ocean need not bar those of the Mediterranean. The subject treated in the first chapter include the period before Alexander, the Persian Gulf in Hellenistic and Roman times, the Red Sea during the same era, the Byzantine and Sassanid, and accounts of direct sailing between the Persian Gulf and China in pre-Islamic times with resource material obtain from Chinese, Arab, and Western accounts.

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