Book Review: Arab Seafaring by George F. Hourani

George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring. Expanded Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.Pp. Vii, 189.

  For a time, the Arab Seafarers ranged from Spain to India at their peak, however in western history, their contribution is often overlooked. Dr. George F. Hourani, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, provides a survey of Arab seafaring primarily in the Indian Ocean and its tributaries.  Broken into three broad chapters between thirty to fifty pages, Hourani discusses the pre-Islamic trade routes, trade under the Caliphate and the technical features of the Ships involved.  In the expanded version are thirty-five pages of notes and index, helpful for providing context and cross reference for the unfamiliar terms of the subject. The author has over three hundred bibliography entries from ancient and modern Western and Arab sources.  At one hundred eighty-nine pages from stem to stern, the book serves as a dense historical digest of Arab sailing from antiquity to the end of the Caliphate.  

The first chapter is broken into six smaller sections. They act as a primer working from prehistory to the rise of Alexander. Next are the Greek and Roman eras of the Persian Gulf followed by those eras in the Red Sea. He ends the pre-Islamic era with the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires and an appendix of trade with China before the Caliphate. Within these sections, he highlights the uses of all waterways for Arab trade from the Oceans to rivers and canals.  A unique feature of Arab Sea trade is that it was not merely coastal like the Mediterranean peoples’ but penetrated deep within the countryside of Mesopotamia and India using the great rivers and associated canals (Hourani 11).

Chapter two engages the Caliphate with the general consequences of Islamic expansion followed by the Arabs on the Mediterranean. The second half of the chapter discusses trade with the Far East and East African coasts. Finally, it concludes with the end of Arab eminence and the rise of the Portuguese in Vasco da Gama (Hourani 83)  Of particular interest, was the Arab record of the rhythm of travelling to the port of Canton in 851 AD.  With stated timeframes for each voyage and an eighteen-month round trip cycle, it was apparent that the shipment cycle happened on an industrialized level between “al-Iraq and… China” (Hourani 76).

In his final chapter, the author uses five sections to detail the Hulls and their equipment, masts, and sails, and finally navigation and sea life.  He finishes the effort with four sea stories from the era detailing the experience of life at sea.  This is immensely illuminating because it provides the reader with the “how” of Arab sea travel.  Whether it is how the older ships were sewn together, wood selection, techniques for sailing into the wind or tales of shipwrecks and heroes, this section piques human-interest beyond the typical historical events and dates.

The book lacks an engaging narrative feel, and for the uninitiated many of the terms and events are unfamiliar and reading becomes cumbersome and dry.  However, with a second pass it comes proves to be an excellent resource or desk reference for anyone to build a catalog of knowledge on Near Eastern maritime trade.    

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