Connecting Mesopotamia with Indus Valley and Egypt: The Tigris Expedition

Section 1

1: The deepwater reed ship

2: Harvesting berdi reed in the marshes of southern Iraq

Section 2

1: From Iraq to Oman: On the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway

2: Bahrain, Dilmun, and the Persian Gulf

Section 3

1: Across the Indian Ocean: To the center of Indus Valley civilization

2: From Indus Valley to the outskirts of ancient Egyptian civilization





Route of the reed ship Tigris through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean (after Johanssen, 1999).
































































The reed ship Tigris (photo courtesy ).



Section 1: Thor Heyerdahl and the Mesopotamian reed ship


1:  The deepwater reed ship


In the years following the Ra expeditions, Thor Heyerdahl continued to study the reed boat construction methods of traditional peoples.  His focus shifted from Egypt to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  In the British Museum, he saw a wall relief removed from the famous archaeological site and ancient city of Nineveh, across the Tigris River from present-day Mosul in Iraq.  The relief apparently depicted a sea battle between two reed ships thousands of years ago.  Yet modern scholarship barely mentioned reed ships in ancient Mesopotamia.  Heyerdahl noticed a jar in the museum as well, one that seemed to indicate that ancient reed boats were fitted with keels or centerboards.  If true, it was an apparent indication that this vital technological artifact was not exclusive to Asia and Ecuador as scholars had long presumed.

Heyerdahl recognized at once that if Sumerian or Assyrian cultures in fact used reed ships for naval battles, and for more than river travel, they must have known how to sail them, not simply drift on board them.  If Heyerdahl wanted to retrace an ancient sea route down the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, then beyond the Persian Gulf and into the Indian Ocean, he would not have ocean currents at his disposal.  For the first time in his career as history’s foremost archaeological experimenter, he would have to reinvent a way of sailing that had not been used in thousands of year.



2: Harvesting berdi reed in the marshes of southern Iraq


In Iraq, Heyerdahl gathered evidence for the ancient use of maritime vessels made from a tall freshwater reed called berdi.  There was more information, as well, on coatings the ancients may have used to protect these reeds against water absorption.  Asphalt in some kind of mixture with pitch and oil was mentioned.  Much more importantly, Heyerdahl learned from the marsh Arabs of Iraq a vital piece of data on the performance of berdi that would influence the entire outcome of his planned experiment.  Berdi, they said, must be cut in August, and only in August, or it absorbs water quickly and sinks.  The berdi cut in August was dried for two or three weeks and then used for the reed houses in which the Arabs dwelled.  Estimations of the buoyancy of properly harvested berdi ranged to upwards of a year.  This was a new, seasonal aspect of reed boat construction that no one had considered before.

As with Ra II, Heyerdahl brought Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca to construct his new reed ship in Iraq in September 1977.  When American navigator Norman Baker arrived to join the expedition, he was impressed with model tests of the raft.  Unlike the previous reed boat expeditions, the Tigris would be subjected to severe tests of both river and coastwise navigation.  But the crew was supremely confident as the construction progressed.  As Norman Baker recalled, by the time of the Tigris expedition, Heyerdahl had unlocked the secret to reed boat construction that he had been searching for for fifteen years.


“These boats could be made indefinitely buoyant if the reeds were harvested at the right time, in the month of August, when the sap was in the entire stalk—a stalk which grows more than fifteen feet high.  It’s only when the blossom blooms at the top of the reed, that it is filled with sap.  After that bloom is over, the sap retreats back down the reed stalk to the roots.  We had harvested these reeds with their capillary tubes completely empty, in December, on Ra I and Ra II.  The reeds for Tigris were not only harvested at the right time of year, the boat itself was fitted with a centerboard, as Thor had seen on the jar in the British Museum” (Norman Baker, personal interview, July 8, 2000). 


These two improvements led to the most seaworthy reed ship ever constructed in the modern age.  When completed, this new reed ship, christened Tigris, was sixty-feet long, nearly twice the length of Ra II.  To handle the bigger craft there were eleven crewmembers instead of the previous eight. 


Section 2: From Iraq to Oman


1:  On the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway


On November 11th, the Tigris was ready to slide into the waters of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, the gateway to the Persian Gulf.  But when the massive reed ship was maneuvered toward the river, the bow tilted into the water as the stern stuck in the mud.  It was a near-disaster, especially since Heyerdahl’s Aymaras had already returned to South American, and if the ship were badly damaged there were no expert reed boat builders on hand to repair the vessel.  A passing Russian truck later supplied the necessary shove to get the Tigris afloat, and the next day snorkelers reported to Heyerdahl that no serious damage had been done.

The next challenge was to get the cumbersome craft downriver to the sea.  But the river currents waffled the ship from shore to shore, as a chase boat scurried along behind.  The massive steering oars dug into the river bottom, threatening to snap.  Then the river smoothed out, and the crew began to gain in their ability to control the vessel’s movements.  They spent their first night on board more confident in both the Tigris and themselves.

During the days that followed, the Tigris moved slowly down the heavily polluted Shatt-al-Arab waterway, with cakes of white chemical broth seeping along the edges of the berdi reeds.  From the air, it looked like the reed ship was sailing through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean.  Extracting the reed ship from the Gulf turned into an even greater challenge.  Contrary winds and currents, looming oil platforms and supertankers, and a lack of knowledge of how to turn the great ship into the wind, forced Tigris into dangerous shallows, from where Heyerdahl was forced to pay ransom for a tow by a pirate dhow.  Later, a Russian ship towed Tigris toward safer waters near Bahrain, but not before ripping large chunks of the berdi reeds from the bow of the ship.



2:  Bahrain, Dilmun, and the Persian Gulf


Landing at Bahrain, Heyerdahl searched for the legendary site of Dilmun.  It was this legendary ‘place in the east’ from which Sumerian mariners claimed their origins, and to which they apparently returned to gather raw materials from local mines.  Heyerdahl and Norman Baker studied dock areas where ancient mariners loaded blocks of stone onto shallow draft vessels more than 4,000 years ago, and speculated how this could have been accomplished with a reed boat like the Tigris.

Once safely outside the Straits of Hormuz, Baker and the crew began to gain control of Tigris.  The reed ship now responded well to the tiller and, following the curve of the Arabian peninsula, the whole of the Indian Ocean lay before the crew.  First, Tigris called at Oman, where a Mesopotamian ziggurat-style pyramid—the first located outside the Tigris-Euphrates valley itself—had just been discovered.  Here, Heyerdahl once again searched for the fabled site of Dilmun.


Section 3: Across the Indian Ocean


1:  To the center of Indus Valley civilization


As 1977 turned to 1978, Heyerdahl set course for Pakistan, and the ancient culture center of the Indus valley.  On January 26th, 1978, the crew of Tigris picked up the island of Astola off Pakistan.  Heyerdahl had demonstrated that a primitive reed boat could link Mesopotamia with the Asian sub-continent civilization of the Indus Valley.  If the experiment had ended here it would have been considered an enormous success, but Heyerdahl wanted to go even farther.  As he wrote: “We were learning from people with centuries of experience, and were at any rate doing far better than during the first fumbling experiment with Ra” (Heyerdahl 1980, 261). 



2:  From Indus Valley to the outskirts of ancient Egyptian civilization


With the reeds floating higher after three months than Ra II did after three weeks, the crew agreed to cross the Indian Ocean once again, and try to reach the edge of the Egyptian realm near present-day Somalia.  Heyerdahl thought they might even sail down the coast of Africa and cross the Atlantic to the Western Hemisphere, and demonstrate the global reach of the reed ship.  With finances dwindling, the crew instead set sail for Somalia, in an attempt to link the three great culture areas of the Old World.

Two months later, on March 28th, the Tigris raised the African coast.  But there was nowhere to land safely.  All of the small nations around Djibouti seemed to be at war with each other.  Baker and several of the crew were in favor of sailing Tigris up into the Red Sea, but neither nation on its shores responded to Heyerdahl’s request.  Military operations filled the waters and the skies.  It was easy to conclude that humanity had made little progress since the last reed boat arrived from Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago.  Frustrated, Heyerdahl called the crew together, where they drafted an appeal to the United Nations, protesting “against the inhuman elements in the world of 1978 to which we have come back as we reach land from the open sea” (ibid, 336).  The crew decided to burn Tigris rather than leave it to rot.

Miserably, they watched their primitive home of five months go up in flames.  Yet Heyerdahl and the three of his Tigris crew who had also been with him on Ra I and Ra II had little reason for remorse.  They had now sailed more than 10,000 miles on board reed boats, a total that put together would amount to a drift halfway around the world.  These three ships—two of papyrus and one of berdi—had been constructed from materials which, only a decade before, every expert had felt certain could not last more than two weeks on the open ocean.  Like a dramatic maritime funeral of a Viking chief, the burning of Tigris was a fitting conclusion to Thor Heyerdahl’s career as the greatest transoceanic raft expedition leader in history.