The Arabs at Sea

The earliest water-going activities of Arab peoples probably evolved out of necessity, as it did for other peoples around the world. Early Arabs, before history was recorded, were fishing out on the water. We know little of their earliest vessels and navigation, but undoubtedly it was from this start that Arabs were later able to control the seas.

It's no wonder the Arabs had a seafaring tradition. The Arabian Peninsula is surrounded on three sides by extensive coastlines. The most productive areas of the Arabian Peninsula lay along the coastlines, and the desert and mountains separating them made sea travel between them simpler than land travel. From early times, Arabs were trading with Africa, Iran, and Mesopotamia. The Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, in combination with the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, connected the Mediterranean lands with East Asia. This put the Arabs squarely on top of some of the world's most important trade routes.

There were some problems, however. Although the Arabian Peninsula was perfectly situated to control sea trade, it did not contain the natural resources necessary to get a solid shipping industry started. It lacked strong enough wood to build ships, and it lacked iron that provides the necessary fasteners for holding ships together. Although it is a peninsula, there are no rivers large enough for ships to travel within the peninsula. The Red Sea was also difficult to traverse; there were many reefs and few good harbors. This made Arabs turn to land travel on camels rather than sea travel.