The Lost Dhow exhibition, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

Friday, December 19th, 2014. Filed under: Architecture Art Toronto

“…for I was a merchant and a man of money and substance and had a ship of my own, laden with great stores of goods and merchandise; but it foundered at sea and all were drowned except me who saved myself on a piece of plank which Allah vouchsafed to me of His favour.” – One Thousand and One Nights

Lost Dhow Exhibition

The Lost Dhow exhibition is on at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, until April 26, 2015.

On now at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, an exhibition to inspire imagination and wonder. The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route contains the cargo of a 9th-century Arab sailing vessel shipwrecked off the coast of Indonesia 1200 years ago.

Ancient Gaming Die

Sailing the Indian Ocean in the 9th century was a gamble. Bone die, China, 825-50 AD. Photo credit: Aga Khan Museum

The story of the dhow, its cargo and crew is one of adventure, trade and the exchange of ideas and technology along an ancient maritime route that once stretched from the east coast of Africa to China.

Maritime Silk Route

China celebrates the Silk Route in 2015. Did you know there was a Maritime Silk Route? The Maritime Silk Route (blue line) connected the Abbasid Empire (the third Islamic Caliphate) of North Africa and West Asia with China’s Tang Empire.

In 1998, a fisherman diving for sea cucumbers off Belitung Island in the west Java Sea found a few shards of pottery that would lead to one of the earliest and most important marine archaeological discoveries of all time. Carbon-dated to the 9th-century AD, the Belitung shipwreck is the earliest Arab ship to be found with a complete cargo. The cargo was in extraordinary condition, containing beautiful objects of silver and gold, bronze mirrors, thousands of ceramic bowls, even spice jars containing star anise over a millennium old.

Floor, Lost Dhow exhibition

A diagram on the exhibition floor indicates the size of the Lost Dhow: 21 feet wide, 58 feet long.

The Indonesian government authorized a salvage company to recover the cargo and document the archaeological site. The cargo is now in the care of the National Heritage Board, Singapore, who organized the Lost Dhow exhibition jointly with the Singapore Tourism Board and the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto.

Model of a Dhow

Model of a 9th-century dhow. Made of steam-shaped wood hull planks stitched together with rope and waterproofed with a lime-like sealing compound, dhows were used for millennia in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

While the discovery answered a lot of questions about commerce, technology and culture along the Maritime Silk Route, it raised many others. Where was the Lost Dhow headed? Who were the crew and what happened to them?


The Lost Dhow was carrying cargo from China’s Tang Empire to ports west.


Great condition for 1200 years old:  monumental ceramic Ewer, 825-50 AD, Gongxing kilns, Henan Province, China. Photo: Aga Khan Museum.

 Gold Cup

Luxury items in the dhow’s cargo included this large Gold Cup, 825-50 AD, China.

The dhow needed 25 tonnes of cargo to ride at an appropriate level in the water. Cargo and ballast would have been adjusted at each port of call. Much of the cargo recovered from the shipwreck were 57,500 handpainted bowls, attesting to China’s capacity even then for mass production and foreign demand for its goods.


Thousands of pottery bowls were packed into larger urns in an early form of container shipping.

Bird Bowls

Stoneware bowls with bird-in-flight patterns, Changsha kilns, Hunan Province, China, 825-50 AD.

Even more fascinating to me were the items — gambling dice, oil lamps, cookware — that hinted at shipboard life experienced by the dhow’s crew.

Vat and Basin

The vat with spout probably held water for the crew. The basin below could have been hung out of the way with rope when not in use.


A grindstone, mortar and pestle, set of weights and a wooden rolling pin – amazing!

Judging from personal objects found, it is likely that the dhow’s crew were multicultural and spoke Malay as a common language of trade. No human remains were found on the dhow, so the crew may have been able to swim to the nearby island when the ship was wrecked. The Lost Dhow exhibition tells a truly spellbinding tale.

Gaming Die

The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route is on at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, until April 26, 2015.

Opened in September, 2014, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto was founded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, cultural arm of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). It is North America’s first museum dedicated to presenting the artistic, intellectual and scientific contributions Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Cross-cultural exchange is celebrated and explored in the museum’s collection and programming.

The museum is located at 77 Wynford Drive, the nearest major intersection being Don Mills and Eglinton Ave E. Get there by TTC by taking the 100 Flemingdon Park bus from either Broadview subway station or Eglinton subway station. Plan half a day to see the museum’s exquisite permanent collection, current exhibits, explore the garden.

The museum has a lovely shop, a coffee kiosk as well as fine-dining lunch and dinner menus inspired by the great cuisines of Turkey, Iran, North Africa, Central Asia and India at Diwan restaurant. For more information, including admission tickets, cultural programming, museum and restaurant hours, see Aga Khan Museum.


The Aga Khan Museum is a stunning addition to Toronto’s cultural landscape.

Exterior, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

The architect of the Aga Khan Museum was Fumihiko Maki, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Light Pattern

Light and pattern play in the museum’s courtyard, where 13-metre-tall glass walls are etched with mashrabiya patterns.

View From Patrons Lounge

The museum is part of a larger complex that includes the Ismaili Centre Toronto and gardens featuring five granite-lined reflecting pools.

The museum’s angled exterior walls reminded me of Saracen architecture I’ve seen in Sicily, medieval Muslim fortresses later converted to other uses:

Saracen Tower Bonagia

Saracen Tower, 16th century, at Bonagia, Sicily

Church San Vito

Saracen fortress at San Vito lo Capo, Sicily, now a church.

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