Sailing with the Mu’allim: The Technical Practiceof Red Sea Sailing during the Medieval Period

Sailing with the Mu’allim: The Technical Practice of Red Sea Sailing during the Medieval Period

Whitewright,  Julian

Navigated Spaces,Connected Places: Proceedings of Red Sea Project Vheld at the University of Exeter, 16–19, September (2010)


The Red Sea has acted over time as a conduit for communication, trade and exchange for a range of cultures in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and along the shores of the Red Sea itself. This is particularly true in the medieval period when sailing vessels from across the Indian Ocean plied the waters of the Red Sea. To fully appreciate thehuman endeavour of this complex exchange system, an attempt must be made to investigate and understand the technical practices utilised by medieval mariners when sailing on the Red Sea. Direct archaeological evidence for such practices remain frustratingly absent from the archaeological record. However, a rich corpus of historical sources survive that can greatly inform our understanding of this subject. The writings and treatises of mu’allims(Indian Ocean navigators), such as Ibn Mājid and Sulaymān al-Mahrī,provide clear evidence for the nature of sailing rigs, the practices used under sail, and the probable performance of medieval sailing vessels in the western Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Addressing these texts purely from the perspec-tive of sailing and voyaging allows a detailed layer of technical information to be added to the extant knowledge of Red Sea sailing and navigation during the medieval period.


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