The Lost Dhow exhibition, Aga Khan Museum, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Even more fascinating to me were the items — gambling dice, oil lamps, cookware — that hinted at shipboard life experienced by the dhow’s crew.
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.
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 museum’s angled exterior walls reminded me of Saracen architecture I’ve seen in Sicily, medieval Muslim fortresses later converted to other uses: