Sep 26, 2016

The Tigris Expedition

by Thor Heyerdahl

Once again Heyerdahl set out to prove that ancient peoples could have used reed ships to travel the seas. This time, he started on the Tigris river and built a boat from the local reeds (different from the Egyptian papyrus). The book has the same pattern as the other two I've read: an explanation of his theories about contact between ancient cultures (in this case Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley), his efforts to research and find people who could built him a ship of local materials, the building process, and the journey. It was interesting to read about how the reeds were used and tested, how locals reacted to seeing the reed ship built, and how it was launched across the Persian Gulf. A large part of the journey is about navigational difficulties- they had to avoid a lot of shipping traffic until got free of the Gulf, and it was not easy to steer the ship in tight quarters. Reeds under sail (which float excellently- he kept describing it as riding high on the water like a rubber duck) respond differently to wind and maneuvers than wood hulls powered by engine. So a lot of the narrative is about narrow misses with other boats, tricky maneuvering and encounters with locals along the way- in many places they were told certain areas were hostile- they did run into extortioners- and so could not always land when needed. The boat rode out storms with ease- although it could not always be steered in bad weather, there was no fear of sinking or capsizing.

The part where they cross the Arabian Sea was more to my taste- the going became easy and the writing was more about oceanic life they encountered- particularly the movements of fish that sheltered near their hull and small creatures that lived off the sea grass and shellfish that started to grow there. I really liked reading about that micro-environment that developed under their boat and the various fishes and sharks they observed. More distressing is to read about the pollution encountered. By the time they reached the tip of Africa- making final port in Djubouti- the waters on all sides were banned from travel due to warfare and hostilities, so although they had been five months at sea and the boat was still in great condition, they ended the expedition, setting fire to their reed boat in protest against the war.

Throughout the narrative there is a lot of history interspersed, in particular about ancient Sumerians. And about ancient building sites they visited, and stonework Heyerdahl was interested in. These parts weren't as engaging, and I started skimming quite a lot before I got to the end where the marine life is described when they finally cross the ocean. I'm sure I would have learned a lot from it, but my mind wandered when the history got more and more detailed, so I actually skipped reading about a third of the book.

You can read a little more about the expedition here.

Rating: 2/5      349 pages, 1984

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