Transportation by Water

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Transportation by Water


River Travel. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the canals that connected them did more than just nourish the crops in the fields. They also provided an efficient means of transportation for individuals, military troops, and cargo, as well as for kings and statues of gods in religious ceremonies. Because the prevailing winds blow in the same direction as the river currents, sailboats were not widely used on the rivers and canals of Mesopotamia. Moving upstream could be accomplished only by paddling, rowing, punting, or towing the vessel. Such a journey might take four times as long as the comparable trip downstream. In some cases, it was actually preferable to transport goods via donkey caravan rather than by water.

An Early Model Boat. A terra-cotta model of a boat, approximately 26 centimeters (10 inches) long, was found in a burial at the site of ancient Eridu, near the ancient shoreline of the Persian Gulf. Eridu was the home of Enki, the Sumerian god of the freshwaters that lay beneath the surface of the earth.

Dating to the end of the Ubaid period, circa 4000 b.c.e., the model boat has a socket for a mast that presumably supported a sail and holes in the rim of its hull for rigging lines. The presence of late Ubaid-style pottery—which appears to have originated in southern Mesopotamia—at sites across northern Mesopotamia and north Syria, as well as at sites as far as 700 kilometers (450 miles) south of Eridu along the western shore of the Persian Gulf, suggests that the traders of Ubaid ware and its contents had some competency in sailing during the fifth millennium b.c.e.

Sumerian River Craft. A distinctive vessel with a high arched prow and stern is seen on cylinder seals of the Late Uruk period at the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e. One man aft, who kneels facing forward, propels the boat with a paddle while another man stands near the bow using a long punting pole with a bifurcated tip. A silver model of an elongated crescent-shaped boat, resembling a long canoe, was found at Ur in a royal grave, perhaps belonging to king Meskalamdug (circa 2500 b.c.e.). Inside the model, which is 64 centimeters (25 inches) long, but just 8 centimeters (5 inches) wide, are preserved five thwarts for the paddlers as well as their paddles with leaf-shaped blades. The fragment of a stone relief carving from Fara (ancient Shuruppak) shows two Sumerian men seated facing forward in the back of just such a boat, stroking their paddles in unison.

A Divine Riverboat. On cylinder seals of the Early Dynastic II and III periods (circa 2750 - circa 2340 b.c.e.), the man standing at the prow of the boat holding the punting pole is fused to the prow, creating a single bearded, anthropomorphic boat deity. Seated on a stool amidship is another divine figure wielding a long paddle with a leaf-shaped blade. This motif became the principal mythological subject on cylinder seals of the Early Dynastic II and III periods. A cylinder seal from the succeeding Akkadian period (circa 2340 - circa 2200 b.c.e.) depicts the seated god with rays emanating from his shoulders, thus identifying him as the sun god Shamash; presumably, the deity in the Early Dynastic seals is his Sumerian equivalent, Utu.

Other River Craft. Heavy loads—up to thirty-six tons—were transported downstream on rectangular rafts (kalakku)

supported by inflated skins numbering from a few to many hundreds; they were then unloaded, dismantled, and returned upstream by donkey. People sat on individual inflated skins (mashkaru) for fishing or clutched them to the chest as an aid in swimming. Lighter traffic was carried out in small rowboats or coracles with wicker frames (quppu) made watertight by covering them with pitch or with skins. In the marshes, long bundles of reeds were lashed together to form boat-like rafts that were propelled by punting.

Regulating River Traffic. Rehearsing his credentials as a just king in the prologue to the Laws of Ur-Namma (circa 2112 - circa 2095 b.c.e.), the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur claimed to have regulated the riverboat traffic on the banks of all rivers in the land. Although the specifics of Ur-Namma’s code are lost, other late third millennium and early second millennium b.c.e. law codes are concerned with the loss of a boat by a renter who took it along a route other than one to which the owner agreed, as well as rental rates and establishing the right of way:

If a boat under the command of a master of an upstream-boat collides with a boat under the command of a downstream-boat and thus sinks it, the owner of the sunken boat shall establish before god the property that is lost from the boat, and the master of the upstream-boat who sinks the boat of the master of the downstream-boat shall replace to him his boat and his lost property. (LH §240; Roth)

The potential volume of river traffic may be gauged by a letter sent by Ishbi-Erra to king Ibbi-Sin of Ur (circa 2028 - circa 2004 b.c.e.) requesting transport for some fifteen thousand tons of barley:

You ordered me to travel (north) to Isin and Kazallu to purchase grain. … 72,000 gur of grain was brought—the entire amount of grain—inside Isin. … Because of the Martu (Amorites), I am unable to hand over this grain for threshing. They are stronger than me, while I am condemned to sitting around. Let my lord repair 600 barges of 120 gur draught each; 72 solid boats, 20 …, 30 …, placing (?) 50 … and 60 (?) boat doors on the boats (?), may he also … all the boats. Let them bring it up by water, along the Kura and the Palishtum watercourses, to the grain heaps (?) that are spread out. And I myself intend to go and meet them (?). The place there where the boats moor will be under my responsibility. Let them load up huge amounts of grain (?), the entire amount of grain; it should reach (?) you. … I have at my disposal enough grain to meet the needs of your palace and of all your cities for 15 years. (Black et al.)

Ishbi-Erra was a vassal of Ibbi-Sin, the last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur during its period of greatest political turmoil. By stockpiling such an enormous quantity of grain at Isin, where he knew Ibbi-Sin would be unable to retrieve it, Ishbi-Erra was laying the foundation for his own rise to power. From Isin, where he established a new dynasty in southern Mesopotamia, Ishbi-Erra (circa 2017 - circa 1985 b.c.e.) went on to control the cities of Ur, Uruk, and Nippur, as well as the all-important roads leading to the Persian Gulf coast.


George F. Bass, “Sea and River Craft in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), III: 1421-1431.

Jeremy Black, Graham Cunningham, Jarle Ebeling, Esther Flückiger-Hawker, Eleanor Robson, Jon Taylor, and Gábor Zólyomi, The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, 1998-

Dominique Collon, First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East(London: British Museum, 1987).

Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (New York: Facts on File, 1966).

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

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Transportation by Water

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