Pre-Islamic Arabs at Sea

There is very little known about Arab seafaring and exploration before Alexander the Great. However, there are many records of other peoples traveling the seas around the Arabian Peninsula and their writings tell us something about Arab maritime activities. For example, there are Egyptian records as early as 2400 BCE telling of journeys made up the whole length of the Red Sea, in ships constructed at the Gulf of Suez. There are also Phoenician records showing expertise in navigating the Red Sea, and possibly as far as India. The Persians recognized the necessity of sea power as well. When the Persians united the region, several maritime projects were undertaken to connect Persia with Egypt and India to aid in the lucrative trading.

Alexander the Great recognized the potential of the Arabian Peninsula. He sent many Phoenicians to explore and colonize the region. An Alexandrian servant named Agatharchides, in 110 BCE, wrote a book about the Red Sea and explorers of the time, including stories about a man called Ariston who explored the west coast of Africa. From the available evidence, it seems that many different peoples, including Egyptians and Greeks, were very familiar with the seas around Arabia, but there is little evidence of the manner in which the Arabs themselves were traveling by sea. Later, under Rome, there is more evidence that the Arabs themselves were involved in seafaring. A quote from a Roman writer of the period shows that they did indeed have their own ships and businesses: “…And the whole place is crowded with Arab ship-owners and seafaring men, and is busy with the affairs of commerce; for they carry on a trade with the far-side coast and with Barygyza, sending their own ships there.” Arab merchant ships from Muza and Cane were conducting regular commerce with Barygaza.

On the east coast of Africa, Arab merchants and seamen were found quite commonly. There were even Arab princes ruling over Arab colonies in Africa. Of the region of Rhapta the Periplus says, “The Mophartic chief governs it under some ancient right that subjects it to the sovereignty of the town that you come to first on the coast of Arabia (Muza). The people of Muza now hold it under his authority, and send thither merchant ships, on most of them employing Arab captains and agents, who are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the coast and the language.” Beyond Rhapta, writes Hanno, “the ocean is unexplored and bends round to the west.”

Later, the Sassanids, the ruling dynasty of Persian, encouraged native Persian seafaring, which had never flourished before. The first Sassanid emperor established several sea and river ports. Emperor Narseh had connection by sea with the king of the Zang nation of Eastern Somaliland. In the fourth century, the Arabs of al-Bahrayn and the coast behind it crossed the Persian Gulf to raid the Persian Empire. A few years later the Sassanid emperor Shapor II got his revenge, killing many of the people of al-Bahrayn and settling Persians there. Later in the same century the Roman Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that there was much navigation on the Persian Gulf. The neighboring Arabs possessed several ports, and were able to use the waterways. A Chinese writing from CE 386-556 reported, “…from the western country of Parthia (Persia), following the crooked shape of the sea-coast, you can also go to Ta-ts'in (Syria), bending around over 10,000 li.” In the fifth century, another Chinese writing mentions sea trade between China and India, East Africa and Syria; the Chinese likely rendezvoused with their western trading partners in the ports of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). The Persians were the connection between China and the west for the silk trade.