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Preserving Culture in Sur: The Dhow

5 February 2016

Centuries of time and effort have gone into perfecting the ideal ocean-going rig in Oman, and in one part of the country, the pursuit is still very much alive and well. Take a trip to Sur, where boat building is more than just a task, but a way of culture, tradition, and life.

Just 150 kilometres south of Muscat, and nestled quietly along the Gulf of Oman, the sound of hammering echoes over the still tidal creek of Sur – Oman’s rustic nautical headquarters that remind travellers of a time passed. Home to the lineage of expert craftsmen that have long constructed the iconic dhow boat of Oman’s rich seafaring past, Sur still offers a glimpse of those brandishing awls, bows, hammers and iron nails in the pursuit of perfecting the ancient craft which helped Oman establish itself as one of the oldest and most influential sultanates in the Gulf region. Though largely less commonplace than in centuries prior, dhow-building is still very much alive and well in Sur, and has become not only an attraction for tourists, but also for the likes of the ultra-wealthy who are keen to get their hands on some of the most storied hand-crafted ships in the world.

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Dhow-building is still carried out using traditional methods and materials. Taking up to a year to construct, the dhows are made primarily from teak and cedar wood using hand tools.

And while iron nails have come to replace the rope which held these floating vessels together in centuries past, and brass propellers and engines now help mobilisation, the approximately year-long process of finishing a dhow has remained tried and true not only as a commercial enterprise, but as an Omani expression of art, craftsmanship, tradition and culture.

Stroll into the dhow-building grounds in Sur and you’ll be more inundated with wood than you would be had you accidentally found yourself in a hardware store. With heaps of locally grown cedar and long precisely cut ribbons of teak, the shipyard gives off a fully arboraceous aroma that is sure to overwhelm and entice. But the wood here isn’t just for show, and that’s because each dhow being built here is constructed entirely from wood. The piles of locally grown cedar and various other timbers that welcome you when you arrive are those which make up the skeletons or interiors of the dhows, and the thick strips of teak that lie scattered about in an organised disarray are those which will be soaked and shaped to fit the outside of this locally forged interior. Here, everything has a purpose.

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Dhows are most prominently used in the modern era for Omani fishermen, though many are also constructed on request from wealthy and high-ranking families across the Gulf countries because of their storied history.

But what is perhaps more intriguing is not the fact that the boats are shaped entirely from wood, but the way in which they are constructed. Built from the keel up, dhow-building dates back centuries, and the process has largely remained the same over the years. And while iron nails have come to replace the rope which held these floating vessels together in centuries past, and brass propellers and engines now help mobilisation, the approximately year-long process of finishing a dhow has remained tried and true not only as a commercial enterprise, but as an Omani expression of art, craftsmanship, tradition and culture. Wooden beams are cut, manipulated and shaped with saws, hammers, bows, awls, and a lion’s share of the woodwork is done manually by hammer and chisel, and what one understands when visiting this shipping sanctuary, is that these labourious undertakings aren’t so much a task to complete, rather than a culture to preserve. Manual tools are used more often than electric, manuals don’t exist, and the best way to figure something out is to sit down over a cup of coffee or tea with any of the decades-long veterans of this seaside workshop.

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Teak bodies are supported by locally harvested cedar frames, and give the dhow a uniquely Omani charm. While windows and other features are used more now since European influence in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dhows made in Sur are the epitome of Omani craftsmanship and expression.

Sadly, the dhow-building harbours have increasingly dwindled along the Omani coast in recent years, and with few left, it is Sur that reminds visitors most ardently of Oman’s rich naval past which saw it expand its sultanate from Zanzibar to India – largely thanks to the dhow. Located on three bodies of water, Oman began flourishing, and continued to flourish through the centuries as one of the most strategically based coastal countries in the region. With direct access to India, Africa and Southeast Asia, it’s no wonder that boat building became a serious source of pride and well-being in the Jewel of Arabia.

It has been said that Sinbad the Sailor from the eponymous ancient Arabian story chose as his boat, a dhow crafted in Sur. Whether or not that is true is left up to speculation and light-hearted debate, but with the craftsmanship that goes into these sturdy ocean-goers, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Though with the opening of the Strait of Hormuz, Oman saw its sultanate retract once more, and its dominance of the sea face steeper competition amongst other nations in the region, as such the globalisation and navalisation of the rest of the region forced the seafaring folks of Oman to seek refuge in other professions. Oman certainly hasn’t been short of other professions since this change, with a healthy breadth of natural minerals and oils, but there was, for a time, a worry that the traditional crafting of these seafaring vessels could be forgotten in the race towards modernisation. That is, until Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said pushed the craft and the traditional methodologies so they weren’t laid to rest for good. An advocate for the tradition and culture of a country he helped advance by leaps and bounds, Sultan Qaboos was able to keep it so that Sur could focus on the construction of these ancient Omani boats – and lucky are we for such a push.

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The lighthouse at Sur has long been a trademark of this prominent Omani harbour. As dhow-building is becoming less and less common, Sur is the city in which the craft has continued to thrive.

It has been said that Sinbad the Sailor from the eponymous ancient Arabian story chose as his boat, a dhow crafted in Sur. Whether or not it is true is left up to speculation and light-hearted debate, but with the craftsmanship that goes into these sturdy ocean-goers, it wouldn’t surprise me. Nowadays, visitors to Oman, and Sur specifically, will see not only dhows abound, but also the steadfast craftsmanship that so piqued the maritime maverick that was Sinbad the Sailor. The preferred boats of Omani fisherman and those who run cruise and tour services, the dhow has, even until now, long been entrenched in Omani history and culture, but it’s not only in Oman that people might find these Omani specialties. Builders in Sur say that there have been numerous projects contracted out for a number of high-ranking and wealthy families scattered across the Gulf region, so whether you are in Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or anywhere else around the gulf, be sure to keep your eyes open for history on the high seas in the form of these Sur beauties.

Note: Sur is reachable from Muscat in two hours by car and transportation to Sur as well as a guided tour of the dhow-building yards can be arranged by the concierge team at The Chedi Muscat (concierge@chedimuscat.com).

(Featured article: Sur as viewed from the ocean that lines this historic and coastal city. Renowned for dhow-building, Sur has long been one of the most important maritime cities in Oman.)

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Preserving Culture in Sur: The Dhow
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Centuries of time and effort have gone into perfecting the ideal ocean-going rig in Oman, and in one part of the country, the pursuit is still very much alive and well. Take a trip to Sur, where boat building is more than just a task, but a way of culture, tradition, and life.
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