- Though they possessed little in the way of seacoasts, the ancient Mesopotamians built a great many boats and ships. This was because the flat plains on which they farmed and fought were crisscrossed by numerous rivers and irrigation canals that were used as highways for travelers of all types. The first-known ships in the region were small models found by modern excavators in tombs and gravesites. Notable are a baked-clay sailboat from Eridu, dating to the late sixth millennium b.c., and a clay rowboat unearthed at Ur, dating from the early 2000s b.c. The sailboat depicts holes for a mast and rigging, and the rowboat features seven rowing benches, each of which would, in a full-size version, support a separate oarsman. These model boats may have been meant to be used by the dead in the afterlife, as was the case with miniature ships in many ancient Egyptian tombs. Or the Mesopotamian models might just as easily have been the work of hobbyists and/or people fascinated by boats.In fact, real full-size boats were common and familiar artifacts across Mesopotamia. In Sealand, near the shores of the Persian Gulf, and other marshy areas, poor folk built canoes out of tough river reeds, the same materials they used to erect their homes. These narrow boats were used for both hunting fish and water foul and for playing water sports. On the large rivers, meanwhile, small boats were employed as ferries for both people and supplies. Some of these craft moved on their own power, via sails or oars, but others were hauled along by ropes in the hands of people walking along the riverbanks. One common boat, the coracle, or "turnip," a ver-sionof whichisstillusedinlraqtoday, consisted of a round reed basket that was waterproofed on the bottom with a coating of bitumen, or tar. The law code of the eighteenth-century B.C. Babylonian ruler Hammurabi featured statutes demanding the proper calking of boats as well as penalties for boat builders who failed to provide proper calking.The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Mesopotamia in the fifth century B.C., describes another common small craft, the kelek, essentially a wooden frame with animal hides stretched over it:The thing which surprised me the most of all in this country, after Babylon itself [the sheer size of which astounded him] were the boats which ply down the Euphrates to the city. These boats are circular in shape and made of [animal] hides. They build them in Armenia, to the northward of Assyria, where they cut tree branches to make the frames and then stretch skins taut on the underside for the body of the craft. . . . The men fill them with straw, put the cargo on board - mostly wine in palm-wood casks - and let the current take them downstream. They are controlled by twomen. Eachhasapaddlewhichhe works standing up. (Histories 1.194)One advantage of keleks was their portability. Most were dismantled after being used for one downstream trip, and the hides were saved to make a new boat later upstream. Keleks and other kinds of boats were also sometimes made of inflatable goatskins, which helped them float.For trade in the Persian Gulf and larger waterways beyond, people needed bigger boats. The trade route from that gulf to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean was in use at least by 3000 b.c., although the extent of the trade is unclear. Also uncertain is the design of the ships that made these daring voyages. Some apparently had rudders for steering, but others used one big oar to steer. And such larger boats were also sometimes lashed together and connected by wooden or reed gangways to make artificial pontoon bridges across bays and channels.On the opposite flank of Mesopotamia - along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea - Mesopotamian rulers long had no need of navies made up of full-size warships. In fact, evidence suggests that the first Assyrian ruler who built such a fleet was Sennacherib, in the early 600s b.c.; it was launched in the Persian Gulf to disrupt Elamite trade and military strategies. The kings of Achaemenid Persia were the first Mesopotamian rulers who required large Mediterranean fleets. And for a long time they made do by requisitioning the seagoing ships of their Phoenician, Canaanite, and Greek subjects in the region. The warships that fought for King Darius and his son, King Xerxes, in their invasions of Greeceinthe earlyfifthcentury B.c.were almost all Phoenician and Greek. The manner in which Phoenician vessels - traders and warships alike - predominated in eastern Mediterranean shipping for centuries is captured well in the biblical book of Ezekiel:The inhabitants of [the Phoenician cities of] Sidon and Arvad were your rowers; skilled men of Zemer were within you, they were your pilots. The elders of Gebal and its artisans were within you, caulking your seams; all the ships of the sea with their mariners were within you, to barter for your wares. . . . Your mighty warriors; they hung shield and helmet in you; they gave you splendor. . . . Tarshish [Spain?] did business with you out of the abundance of your great wealth; silver, iron, tin, and lead they exchanged for your wares. Javan [Greece], [and] Tubal [in Anatolia] traded with you. . . . Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; Damascus [in Syria] traded with you for your abundant goods. . . . Arabia and all the princes of Kedar were your favored dealers in lambs, rams, and goats. . . . These traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored material. . . . So you were filled and heavily laden in the heart of the seas. Your rowers have brought you into the high seas. . . . Your riches, your wares, your merchandise, your mariners and your pilots, your caulkers, your dealers in merchandise, and all your warriors within you . . . all the company that is with you. . . . At the sound of the cry of your pilots the countryside shakes, and down from their ships come all that handle the oar. (Ezekiel 27.8-29)
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.