Ship sails to tell of ancient trade

The Jewel of Muscat will stop in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia before arriving in Singapore. (OMAN DAILY)

More than 15 Omani sailors will set sail from the port of Muscat next month, heading for Singapore aboard a wooden vessel modelled on the famous Tang Treasure ship that sank in the Indian Ocean while laden with gold and other precious items belonging to the old Chinese Tang dynasty.

The 18-metre long Jewel of Muscat, a reconstructed ninth century sewn-plank ship, has started sailing in the Sea of Oman on the first sea trial ahead of its formal voyage to Singapore towards the end of February.

The wind-powered vessel is scheduled to start its journey across the Indian Ocean with transit stops along the western coast of India and other south Asian countries. It will keep to ancient trade routes and stop in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia before arriving in Singapore five months later, where it will be given as a gift from Oman to the people of Singapore.

"Singapore is one of Oman's oldest trading partners. Jewel of Muscat will be displayed in Singapore to highlight the awareness of the old trade routes between the two countries," Badr bin Hamoud Al Busaeedi, Director-General of the Omani Foreign Ministry, said at a launch ceremony this week.

He said Jewel of Muscat was modelled on the wreckage of the ninth-century Tang Treasure ship that was carrying more than 60,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics, silver and gold artefacts, spices and other commodities. "The idea of this was inspired from the Tang Treasure that was discovered in 1998 in Indonesian waters… it took us about 12 months to construct this vessel, which represents an important Omani cultural and heritage initiative," he said. To reconstruct the vessel, a 1,200-year-old method of sewing the hull planks together with handmade coconut-fibre rope was used to make the vessel extremely resilient. No nail or screw was used during the process of shaping the first plank for hoisting the palm-leaf sails that were woven in Qantab.

Captain Saleh Al Jabri, who will co-head the mission, will soon begin the sailing process by testing the two steering systems. He is a former instructor with Oman Sail and second in command of the training ship, Shabab Oman.

"I will then hoist one of the sails to see how she handles under sail. If all goes well I will hoist the second sail to measure the speed she can make. I will also be testing how the square-rigged ship performs as it sails closer to the wind. This will show how well the ship can move," he said.

"All our efforts have paid off; Jewel of Muscat is a magnificent initiative and an authentic symbol of Oman's heritage. She is now all set for her sea trial and as her captain I am really looking forward to steering her along the old trade routes from Muscat to Singapore via India and Malaysia, just as our forefathers did." According to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), the Tang Treasure shipwreck which was discovered in 1998 contained rare and well-preserved pieces of stoneware, and centuries-old gold and silver pieces including the largest Tang dynasty gold cup and an exquisitely decorated silver flask.

Later uncovered by professional salvage divers, the 22-metre long traditional vessel provides strong evidence to suggest that the early Chinese seafarers were trading in items that suited the global market more than 1,000 years ago. The treasure was purchased by the Sentosa Leisure Group in 2005 and is on loan to the STB.

"The Tang Shipwreck Treasure is a priceless find that provides firm archaeological evidence of the existence of a maritime Silk Route between the East and the West via Southeast Asia centuries ago," the Board said in a statement.

"Behind the artefacts is a story that needs to be told – one of how people lived and traded in the early days, how they interacted with people of other lands. It also has a special meaning for Singapore, which has a long and distinguished maritime history being strategically located at the cross-roads of maritime trade routes and home to the treasure."


Jewel notes

- The project involves the reconstruction of a ninth century sailing ship in Oman.

- The 18 metre ship has been built without nails. The planks were sewn together with coconut fibre, and had to fit perfectly so as to ensure that the ship is watertight. The wood is protected by a layer of goat fat mixed with lime.

- The planking on the ship is made from Afzelia africana timber from Ghana.

- The Jewel of Muscat was built in a specially constructed ship yard at a beach in Qantab, Oman.

- Once built, the ship is expected to embark on a voyage from Oman to Singapore, retracing part of the maritime trade route between Arabia and the Far East.

- During its voyage, the team will use 9th-century navigation techniques.

- The voyage is expected to begin in February, with the Jewel of Muscat reaching Singapore by June 2010.

- The project is being funded by the Governments of Oman and Singapore.

 

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