Remember the Belitung Shipwreck, whose finds were controversially recovered by commercial salvage operators and then sold to the Singapore Tourism Board? Whose planned exhibition at the Smithsonian was cancelled after an uproar over the circumstances the finds were recovered? The finds are now on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada. As a museum showcasing the Islamic arts, the exhibition is packaged as the ‘Lost Dhow’, while previous exhibitions have been marketed as treasures from the Tang Dynasty.
The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route
Living Toronto, 21 January 2015
When you enter the latest Aga Khan Museum exhibition ― The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route ― you are literally aboard a 1200-year-old Arab trading ship, a dhow. On the floor, marked off in tape, is the outline of this ancient craft, 6.4m (21ft) wide, and 18m (59ft) stem to stern. You immediately feel the cramped quarters of this cargo vessel and you realize, especially after seeing a large model of this boat, how courageous these sailors and their captain were to sail nearly 2000 miles due south across the South China Sea, to the Strait of Malacca (modern day Singapore), thread their way through this pirate-infested bottleneck, or perhaps to sail around Sumatra on its way across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East.
But the dhow sank a few miles off some islands in the west end of the Java Sea, off the usual trade routes. All that separated the crew from the sea were wooden planks, curved by steam, stitched together with rope and wadding, then coated with a caulking compound made from lime. We can only hope the crew was able to swim to the islands.