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The Kingdom of Aksum is known for its trading prowess, with trade partners as far away as India. Do we know what kinds of ships they built and used? Ethiopian freshwater tankwas are made of papyrus, but this sounds too flimsy for the open ocean, and I've never seen one big enough to use as a cargo vessel.


Edit: I removed "open" and added a note about size, as I was really trying to compare tankwa use today, on Lake Tana, to the size and stability of a ship that could travel from Adulis to India.

Personally, I'd prefer if they used technology similar to the a baghlah dhow, but can't tell if they (or a sufficiently large precursor ship) were available that far back. Copying Roman designs would fit the classic Eurocentric model of history, and I kind of hope it isn't true. I'm also uncertain whether Aksum would have had access to enough trees near the coast to support any substantial number of wooden vessels.

Edit 2: This discussion is bringing up a lot of useful ideas for me, and I'd like to upvote comments (especially the note about lateen sails), but apparently I still lack the reputation to make it happen.

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    I would imagine that the ships followed the coast lines as much as possible, avoiding the "open ocean" – CGCampbell Jul 27 '16 at 14:18
  • Thank you for the note on sewn ships. I find the claim that Aksum lacked access to iron for its ships ironic, since the Afropedia article indicates that they used iron for their spearheads, and the Nubians were producing it ca. 500 BCE. In any event, I care more about what they did than why. – papidave Jul 30 '16 at 19:41
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Presumably the ships of Axum were similar to the earlier ships of Egypt on the Red Sea. The ships were made of wood, and the ropes woven of papyrus.

You can find more here; the ships were dismantled and stored in the caves. These ships were constructed of red cedar which had been imported from Lebanon.

It is possible to use papyrus boats at sea: Thor Heyerdal managed to do this on his second try, keeping a papyrus raft at sea for two months.

The Afropedia site on Axum ends with some comments on their shipping:

Aksum had a fleet of ships that guarded the Red Sea ports. Aksumite ships were put together by rope fibers. It did not use iron nails to bind wood. Ships sailed as far away as India and possibly China.

enter image description here

  • That rig looks like it will struggle even on a beam reach - much like modern spinnakers. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 28 '16 at 3:40
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The Kingdom of Aksum is dated from 100–940 CE. The sailing technology of this time frame is way beyond Egyptian papyrus rafts. This begins almost 200 years after the battle of Actium ,one of the great naval battles of the time, and in fact one of the trade partners mentioned is the Roman, and later Byzantine empire.

From wiki page on Indo-Roman trade relations Roman-Indu Trde routes

In the book 'Foundations of an African Civilisation: Aksum and the Northern Horn, 1000 BC ... By David W. Phillipson, on page 200 he discusses that many have assumed the ships were of Roman, or later Byzantine origin. You are looking at a very large time span, after all.

One of the most common Roman merchant ships was the Corbita. These could carry 70-350 tons of cargo! (I cant find a good public domain image, sorry). The ships probably varied along this trade route however, with different type ships operating in the gulf than in the open ocean.

Update: (ignore Roman ships). Finally found some documentation!

"all the boats which are found in India and on this sea (the Red Sea) are not made in the same manner as are other ships. For neither are they smeared with pitch, nor with any other substance, nor indeed are the planks fastened together by iron nails going through and through, but they are bound together by a kind of cording. The reason is not as most persons suppose, that there are certain rocks there which draw the iron to themselves (for witness the fact that when the Roman vessels sail from Aelas into this sea, although they are fitted with much iron, no such thing has ever happened to them), but rather because the Indians and the Aethiopians possess neither iron nor any other thing suitable for such purposes. Furthermore they are not even able to buy any of these things from the Romans since this is explicitly forbidden to all by law" (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183-4).

This from the book Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Stuart Munro-Hay

This technique of boat construction is called 'sewn boats', and indicates the Aksumites were using boats of Indian design or style for their own vessels.

The best known boats built with sewn construction are the various forms of Dhow native to the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean for over two thousand years.

So, look into Dhow, and Mtepe for ships of the 'sewn' type.

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    Very useful context; doesn't actually answer the question, but very useful context. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 27 '16 at 19:24
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    Still looking...Didn't want the questioner to think the tech was 3600BC papyrus though. More likely different ships on different legs of the journey. – justCal Jul 27 '16 at 19:30
  • The lateen rig was developed in this area, the basis of the sloop-rigging still used on modern racing yachts due to its superb up-wind performance. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 27 '16 at 21:20
  • I agree they probably saw a lot of dhow type ships on the Indian side of the route, but couldn't find reference supporting that. Some Byzantine merchant ships looked to be rigged this way as well. – justCal Jul 27 '16 at 21:37

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