May 3, 2012

Boats and Boatmen on the Nile | Walking Through Egypt

Ancient Boats, c. 450 B.C.
Herodotus

Ancient Boats
The Nile boats used for carrying freight are built of acacia wood the acacia resembles in form the lotus of Cyrene, and exudes gum. They cut short planks, about three feet long, from this tree, and the method of construction is to lay them together like bricks and through-fasten them with long spikes set close together, and then, when the hull is complete, to lay the deck beams across on top. The boats have no ribs and are caulked from inside with papyrus. They are given a single steering-oar, which is driven down through the keel; the masts are of acacia wood, the sails of papyrus. These vessels cannot sail up the river without a good leading wind, but have to be towed from the banks; and dropping downstream with the current they are handled as follows: each vessel is equipped with a mast made of tamarisk wood, with a rush mat fastened on top of it, and a stone with a hole through it weighing some four hundredweight; the raft and the stone are made fast to the vessel with ropes, fore and aft respectively, so that the raft is carried rapidly forward by the current and pulls the ‘baris’ (as these boats are called) after it, while the stone, dragging along the bottom astern, acts as a check and gives her steerage-way. There are a great many of these vessels on the Nile, some of them of enormous carrying capacity.

Boats and Boatmen on the Nile, 1844
Edward Lane
The navigation of the Nile employs a great number of the natives of Egypt. The boatmen of the Nile are mostly strong, muscular men. They undergo severe labour in rowing, poling, and towing; but are very cheerful; and often the most so when they are most occupied; for then they frequently amuse themselves by singing. In consequence of the continual changes which take place in the bed of the Nile, the most experienced pilot is liable frequently to run his vessel aground: on such an occurrence, it is often necessary for the crew to descend into the water, to shove off the boat with their backs and shoulders. On account of their being so liable to run aground, the boats of the Nile are generally made to draw rather more water at the head than at the stem; and hence the rudder is necessarily very wide. The better kind of boats used on the Nile, which are very numerous, are of a simple but elegant form; mostly between thirty and forty feet in length; with two masts, two large triangular sails, and a cabin, next the stem, generally about four feet high (but of late made higher to suit the requirements of European travellers), and occupying about a fourth or third of the length of the boat. In most of these boats the cabin is divided into two or more apartments. Sudden whirlwinds and squalls being very frequent on the Nile, a boatman is usually employed to hold the main-sheet in his hand, that he may be able to let it fly at a moment’s notice. The traveller should be especially careful with respect to this precaution, however light the wind.

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