The Brief History of Shipbuilding and Navigation in Armenia

by Karen Balayan

Armenia lies in the middle of the Prehistoric World and was a crossroad of ways, which have connected Ancient  Cuntries from Prehistoric times.

The region which we interested is lies between Mediterranean, Black and Caspian seas, there are three big lakes – Sevan, Van and Urmia and number of navigable rivers, two of them are Euphrates and Tigris – well known navigable rivers from the ancient times.

Our sources are archaeological artifacts from excavations, as well as found during underwater research on the Sevan Like, inscriptions from historical monuments, manuscripts, miniatures, bas-relieves, descriptions of ancient historians, old pictures and photographs.

The most ancient archaeological find, which  have  relation  to boats in Armenia is the Neolithic obsidian  boat  model  found  in 1992 from Neolithic man  stand  not  far  from  Talin  village  in Armenia. Its length is 265 mm, middle width is 173 mm. It is made of black obsidian.

The archaeologists are of the opinion that a model they found referred to the pre-ceramic Neolithic period.

The ancient boats found in Armenia come from the Lake Sevan and from the North of Armenia.

The Lake Sevan is a mountainous lake situated at 1900m above sea level.

In forties a logboat has been elevated from the bottom of the Lake by fishermen. The length of the logboat is 4 m., beam is 0.6m. This type of vessels is well known all around the World and together with raft represented the first steps of shipbuilding. The artifact are kept in the State Museum of the History of Armenia .

In seventies another similar logboat has been found from tomb during excavations in Jujevan village, North Armenia, by archaeologist Dr. S. Chilingarian. The vessel was preserved fragmentary. The bow had figurehead. The lines of this logboat are more modern, more navigable than the lines of the previous one. The logboat from tomb dated 9 century BC. It could be tomb of a fisherman: fish bones in the neighbor tomb have been found, which indicate the presence of fishery in this village or near by. It’s very interesting, that a track of paddle or stick, which had been, probably, made from less hard wood and wasn’t preserved so good as oak hull, left only shadow near the logboat.

The logboat of Jujevan could, probably, have cult character.

The logboat of the Lake Sevan has been used for fishing and cargo.

There are stone and ceramic sinkers for fishing-nets, which were found during underwater surveys as well as from excavation of ancient tombs, which give a possibility to date them: most ancient sinkers come from second millennium BC.

The three main types of sinkers found are:

1. stone or ceramic plate with places on the edge for a rope, some of them decorated,

2. stone sphere with furrow for a rope,

3. stone or ceramic ring.

This type of sinkers, mostly stone, are in use till today. Now sometimes the stone and ceramic sinkers are replaced by iron or copper rings.

Anchor is a very important part of ship equipment. It’s already long time that it is a symbol of vessel. Very often only anchor is kept from disappeared ship. Different type and size anchors, which were found from the Lake, look like famous anchors found in other regions of the World. The most ancient anchors of the Like Sevan had furrow for a rope (anchor cable). Then a hole was made in the anchor stone for a more reliable tie.

Very important information about level of shipbuilding is giving  by ship models, which were found all around the World, as well as in Armenia. In one of the tombs in Vardenis (East coast of the Lake) ceramic boat model was found. She was dated 6 century BC. Dimension of the model: length is 126 mm, beam is 65 mm. The lines of the vessel speak about collected construction (not from one piece). Proportion between length and beam is 2:1 approximately, which is usual for constructed vessels in contrary to long logboats. So, for comparison, the proportion between length and beam of the logboat of the Lake Sevan is 6.67:1. The vehicles, which have been excavated from Ltchashen village tombs and dated earlier than our vessel and in construction of which curved wood had been used speak about high level of carpenter skills. Well expressed keel speaks of sail rigging possibility. Fine lines of the boat testify that it is not a first step in constructing of that kind of vessels. This is a good boat which went far from logboat, her ancestor, and which evidently had good seagoing possibilities.

Logically  a logboat  came much earlier than constructed vessel, and the process of passing from the first one to the second is long enough. So, this process for the Sevan Lake completed before the beginning of I millennium BC.

It is important and helpful if we can to compare archaeological materials with written sources, which is very seldom for prehistoric times. We have a number of medieval authors who have described vessels of the Lake Sevan. Using this descriptions we can make clear the ways of development of vessels of the Lake.

Hovhannes Draskhanakertci (IX-Xc. AD.), Armenian historian, in his book “The History Of Armenia” writes about speedy boats of the Lake Sevan.

We can make conclusion concerning the size of the boats from this description. So we can conclude, that the size of the boat was 10 m as a minimum.

We can see sails on the XIX century paintings of Terlemezian, Bashinjagian, on old photos, where narrow long sailing boats with sharp bow are shown. Till today we can meet the last one or two traditional boat, adapted for engine. When one looks at this boat, involuntarily remembers Hovhannes Draskhanakertsi and Stepanos Orbelian historians’ descriptions of swift boats. Long narrow lines speak about good velocity.

Here is the measures of one of those fishing boat: Length over all is 8.5 m, Beam is 2.1 m. Fishers used engine or oars. In our opinion, taking into consideration the conservatism, which routed in shipbuilding, just these boats were built for centuries and just this type of boats were described by historians.

Evidently the same vessels with more expressed keel have been used as sailing boats. They have rigged with one trapezium sail and, sometimes, one triangle sail.

On the Sevan bigger vessels were built. On the one of the paintings a vessel with 22 persons on board is shown. The length of this boat must be 15 m approximately.

Rafts also have been used on the Lake.

On inland closed basin of the Sevan Lake the development of the vessels, from the ancient times, passed consistent and correlative stages from logboats, made of one piece of wood, up to multipiece constructed sailing boats, and this transition of quality have been finished by the beginning of the First millennium BC.

Vishaps (dragons) as symbol of water were established. They had a fish form and had been established near water sources, channels, lakes. A lot of them have been found on  mountain around the lake Sevan . The biggest Vishap was over 5 meters long.

The rock paintings – pictography is also spread in the mountains of the Sevan basin. We have few example of  boat presence on this branch of art. The most interesting one is Sun Boat pictured in Geghama range, which speaks not only about boats but about a cult character of them also.

Constellations were carved on the rocks and stones on the passes of the mountain ranges around the lake to help travelers and merchants to orient themselves.

So Armenia was a cross road for trade ways  during very long time and the Lake Sevan, as a part of this knot, played an important role in the trade development both as coastal way, and as inland water trade way.

Of course trade had influenced the cultural development of the region, as well as the development of the construction of vessels.

Concerning other regions of Armenia we have a written.

The first written evidence about vessels in our region was the Hittite inscription (13c. BC.), which  is testify  about  different size vessels – at list two – for  transport people and   cargo   on   the   Upper Euphrates.

The Assyrian cuneiform writing (8c BC.) told about raft and floating on Upper Tigris by Urartians  (inhabitants  of  Van’s  Kingdom  = Urartu = Ararat).

Herodotes tell about shield type wood framework leather boats (Kur in Armenian,  =  Curragh,  Coracle  on  British  Islands, Kouffa, Gufa in Arabian). This boats built on Upper Euphrates – in Armenia. The merchants went down by the river till Babylon by this leather  boats,  sold  cargo   and   framework   in   non-forest Mesopotamia and came back to Armenia by coast  took  leathers  by donkeys. Then cycle repeated.

Very interesting means of communication is raft, which  consist from deck, fastened on inflated animals skins – Tkalast. This rafts used  on Euphrates, Tigris, Aratsany, Kur rivers from prehistoric times until now.

We have more information about vessels from Middle Ages  thanks to Medieval Armenian Manuscripts and Miniatures – big cultural shelf with own specifics and traditions.

A few vessels restored from medieval manuscript miniatures. This is  boats of river Arax. They had one mast, one sail, with body boarding with short boards, with round-outlines  and  pointed stem and stern ( lake canoe).

Based on miniatures and bas-relief from wall of Surb Khach (St. Cross) monastery on Aghtamar Island on Lake Van had restored a few sailing and rowing vessels for merchant, cargo, fishing and walk.

One knot of construction of vessel on some miniatures is attracted attention: the top end of mast is forked and yard with sail put in this space. This simple knot, apparently, had come from ancient times, kept thanks to it simplicity and used on small boats side by side with well known block system, which used on big ships, as shown on the wall of the Surb Khach monastery bas-relief.

The King Gagik’s artificial harbor on Akhtamar Island had a possibility to hold a big quantity of ship, as noted X century historian Thovma Artsrouni. By the way, according the historian, stones for the Palace of the King and other buildings on the island had been brought by vessels.

Armenian Great Medieval philosopher and poet Grigor  Narekatsi (951-1003) in his “The Book Of Sorrow” in  chapter  25  had  given detailed description of shipwreck on Lake Van in storm  time. It is clear, that he not only had seen and sailed by those ships, and also well known construction of those.    Proceed from description, from presence of some details in construction of ship, may concluded, that described ship is big enough, approximately 20-25m, with deck, two steering oars (rudders), oars for rowing, one mast with big sail, covered place fitted up for guests, ship owner or captain.

This description started our work for creation of dictionary of ancient Armenian sea terms.

There are at list five different kinds of ships that have been used in Armenian Cilician Kingdom (XII-XV c. c.), which situated on the North-East coast of Mediterranean. In the lines and details of small boats we can see influence from the boats of the Van Lake. Sometimes there are the same boats, which was in use on the Lake. Explanation of it is easy enough. The big wave of migration of population from the historical Armenia in X-XI centuries created conditions to appear Armenian Principalities, which then united as Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia. Approximately 100 000 habitants of the Van Lake region had immigrated to Armenian Cilicia from the Lake. The Kingdom was a part of Mediterranean maritime culture and had active sea merchant connections with close and far neighbors. So the Kingdom’s types of ships, of course, must been influenced by other types of Mediterranean ships. The lines and details of middle type of ships give us examples of mixed types of Mediterranean and the Van Lake ships. The biggest type of ships was ordinary for Mediterranean. For example in case of warship it was a well known Galleys. The main attention during restoration was directed to middle types of ships as a representative of developed vessel. The most important sources of information are medieval manuscripts and miniatures from Cilician Armenian Kingdom. Distortions, which took place in miniatures, created difficulties for process of restoration. For example, as a rule, distortion in vertical direction had been less than in horizontal direction. We can make conclusion about size of vessels taking into account a quantity of sailors (or other peoples) on a board. An accuracy of restoration can increase if compare a miniatures of different authors.

Marco Polo bear witness that  the  King  of Armenia Levon III had presented to Marco Polo, his  father and uncle a galley, which special had built  for  they.

The Kingdom had navy.

Armenian historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi had described the battle between Armenian King Levon II`s fleet and pirates  fleet  between Cyprus Island and Cilicia. The flagship of pirates  was  sank  and others fled.

Arab historian Ibn Al Vardi told about siege of port  Ayas by Mamelukes and noted, that Armenians had 3 big military ships in this port; “Ayas”, “Atlas” and “Shama”.

The Kingdom had merchant fleet.

Very important for development of sea trade was law about coast right, passed by the Kingdom as State law in 1184 year. This law obliged to return ships and cargo to owners and  help  in case shipwreck near the Kingdom’s coast, and did not  appropriated it, as was usually in Mediterranean in those times.

In 1201 had passed of treaty between  the  Kingdom,  Genoa  and Venice concerning return shipwrecked ships and cargo.

In 1285 the same treaty had passed with Egyptian Sultanate.

Even after the Kingdoms fallen (1375) maritime trade  continued use as bases Armenian colonies all around the World.

Most  important  maritime  colonies  were  in   India,   Holland (Amsterdam), Crimea (Kafa).  By the way during a long time in  the Middle Ages (post Cilician  period)  Latins  called  Crimea  as Armenia Maritima.

Armenian inscription and graffiti of the ships on San Marco Cathedral in Venice and number of merchant agreements are an evidence of  maritime activity of Armenian merchants.

Anton Sourian, Armenian, famous shipbuilder in Venice Arsenal in 17 century, had a few inventions in this field.

The  history  kept  the  names  of  some  ships  (from  India’s Armenian    colonies):    “Haykakan Vatcharakan”, “Sebastio Vatcharakan”, “Oxent”,  “Houis”,  “Arshak”,  “Surb  Khach”,  “Surb Yerusalem”, “Khedakh Vatcharakan”. The last one connected with the name of pirate William Kidd. The seizure  of  this  ship  by  Kidd was the last action of famous  pirate  and  passed  for  in  trial (1701)  as  one  point  of  the  accusation.  It  was  taken   into consideration, because Armenian merchants had influence in  Indian Ocean trade in those times.

The history kept Captains names as:  Margar  Avanchetsi,  Khoja Minas, Hayrapet Makrtum, Petros Hovhannesian, Harutun Gazar (all 17 century), Captain Manuk, (18-19century), Captain Nerses  (early 20 Century).

We remember names of admirals Serebryakov, Lazarev and Isakov.

The Mapping has developed also. The first Armenian printed map had issued in 1695 in Amsterdam  –  The  Map  of  The  World  (two hemispheres). It was exact enough for  those  times. Then followed another, issued navigation manuals.

Concerning   navigation   tools.   In   Matenadaran    (Ancient Manuscripts Institute) are keeping ancient  descriptions  for  use and drawings of gnomons, quadrants, astrolabes.

One of the most remarkable instruments used in the ancient times was astrolabe.

The astrolabes had been spread both in the East and in the West, in Europe.

The Armenians also used and made astrolabes.

There are five Armenian astrolabes, that we know. Two of them are Arab-Armenian, bilingual.

The first is one of the most ancient of that type of the instruments, that has reached us. It belongs to the late IX century. The astrolabe has been made by the Arab craftsman Khafif. The Armenian inscriptions have been added by Armenian user later.

There is only Rete – the Star Map – remained from the second Astrolabe. It had been made approximately in early of X century by Arab craftsman. The Armenian inscriptions also have been added later. Unlike the first one the Armenian inscription of this Astrolabe is more detailed. There were given the names of 12 Zodiacal constellations. Also given the names of 17 brightest stars of the Northern part of the Sky – Arabic names by Armenian letters.

There are interesting, that the stars names are given as parts of the constellations, which they belong: Lion’s Hearth, Magician’s Head.

Judging by the orthography, spelling of the names of the stars and constellations, the Armenian inscriptions had been made in Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.

The third Armenian astrolabe from 15 century made by famous Armenian medicine and scientist Amirdovlat Amasiatsi, is in the private collection now (Near East).

The fourth and fifth Armenian astrolabes from 17 century made by Ghukas Vanandetsi (both). The first one is in private collection as well (location uknown), and the second one is in the State Museum of History of Armenia.